Ask Tom: Rants, raves and questions on the DC dining scene

Oct 10, 2012

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema entertains your dining questions, rants and raves.

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

I too, was surprised at the big jump in price for the new minibar menu. You are right that it is not out of the realm of other lauded restaurants multi-course tasting menus. And if there was any place in DC that was going to charge that amount and have it be worth it, it would be minibar. Those chefs work really hard and put a lot of research into each dish. I have no doubt that minibar will fill up regularly. What worries me though are the 'other' multi-course tasting menus (looking at you Rogue 24 and Table 21 at Volt) that don't deliver nearly the caliber of thought and execution as minibar thinking that $225 is now the acceptable going rate for a meal in that 'style.' Do you see this as a possibility/unintended consequence?

I have no doubt minibar will remain a hot ticket, despite the price hike. Even the expanded version of the concept is only a dozen seats. 


As for Rogue 24 and Volt, both restaurants now offer trimmed-down tasting menus -- as few as four courses. So while there's the option to eat at length, a diner doesn't have to commit to a dozen or more dishes anymore.


I like having the options made available to me. And I  really  like some of the cooking I experienced recently at both Rogue 24 and Volt (one meal better than the other, which you'll see in my forthcoming dining guide, but neither dinner boring).


Good morning, gang. Glad to see so many early questions and comments today.


The subject of brunch comes up a lot here.  Always a good place to start the weekend, Cashion's Eat Place is about to get more interesting.  Or, as chef John Manolatos put it in an email to me, "No more Starbucks pastries for Adams Morgan on Sunday mornings." 


Lauren Bonfiglio, his pastry chef, will be offering warm doughnuts, sticky buns, bear claws and sweet corn bread.


There are about a dozen new additions to Cashion's brunch menu. The savory dishes include scrapple with a vegetable cake, a pork burger, fish & chips, huevos rancheros and fried oyster po boy, "which will cure any night of drinking you might have walked into the previous night," promises Manolatos. (The line starts with me.)



Let's begin.


Hey Tom, About a month ago, I attended a dinnertime work event at which no dinner was served. Afterwards, I was very hungry, and I wanted something quick and inexpensive, but not fast food. Since I was near Cleveland Park, the Palena bar came to mind. I thought the well-reputed burger there was about $10. I got there, checked the paper menu posted outside the front door, and the burger was listed at $12. OK, a bit more than I planned, but doable. So I sat at the bar, got the menu, and the burger was listed there as $14. I brought this to the bartender's attention, and he said that the menu outside hadn't been updated in weeks or months, and that the price listed on the indoor menu is what I'd pay. I told him I didn't want to make a big stink, but that I'd like to talk to a manager about the discrepancy. The manager came over, I explained the situation, and said I'd like the burger at the price on the outdoor menu. She said no, and asked if I'd like to order something instead. I again explained that the restaurant had made an understandable and easily corrected error, and that the wise customer service move would be to honor the $12 outdoor price. She said that Palena constantly updates its menu, and that's why the menu was possibly out of date. I reiterated what the bartender said, that the menu was updated only every few weeks or months, and that frankly, if the menu was updated as often as she suggested, there would actually be less and not more chance of an error like what I'd stumbled on. Proving the definition of insanity (repeating the same action but expecting a different result), I just kept saying "Your outdoor menu is the face you show the outside world. Doesn't it make sense to honor that advertised price, and generate a positive customer service experience, than to stick to your guns over $2!" After disbelievingly repeating this argument a couple more times, I said in passing that I couldn't believe that a restaurant with such excellent reputation would have such sh*tty customer service." The manager then lost it, saying that we'd been having a civil discussion until I let loose and brought profanity into the picture. She said that she'd be leaning towards making a one-time exception for me, but after my profanity, she just didn't know. Eventually, she relented, and I got the $12 burger. So, my questions: 1.) Shouldn't they immediately have just honored the $12 price? 2. ) What is their responsibility to keep that outdoor menu (printed on paper, not calligraphied 2.) Really, I can't say "sh*tty" to an urban restaurant manager during a disagreement??? 3.) Finally, how does one tip after this kind of incident? The bartender was emotionless but not rude. The manager was inexcusable. But I hated to tip 0% or 5% instead of my usual 20% because it would only confirm their assumption that I am a cheapskate angling for what they thought I didn't deserve. Hopefully, before this story is published in the chat, maybe you, a friend, or a colleague can go by Palena and re-create my experience: check the outside menu (computer printed on easy-to-fix plain paper, in a glass box, facing Connecticut Avenue), check the indoor menu, raise the discrepancy with management, and see what happens? Thanks for the help! Josh

First, THANK YOU for such a richly detailed email, Josh. It makes responding to such problems infinitely easier. (Are you a lawyer? Just asking!)


Now, to your questions:


1) Palena should have honored the price of the burger posted outdoors, because, as you said, that's the information you're basing your dining decision on.


2) There is no excuse for a restaurant in 2012 not to update its menu: throughout the restaurant, outside and online.  The owner or manager should appoint one person to be responsible for doing such every shift/day.


3) Remember that wisdom about using honey rather than vinegar in an arguement? You shouldn't have sworn. It obviously didn't help your cause.


4) I would have tipped at least 15 percent, possibly your standard 20 percent, just to send a signal to the staff that you could be a valued customer if given the chance.



Hi Tom! I have been desperately trying to find a restaurant in the DC area that serves a real bananas foster. Not a milkshake or french toast or cocktail or cake, I want the real deal. A friend's birthday is coming up, and it is her favorite dessert by far. I have contacted every cajun restaurant I can think/Yelp can find, and none of them have it. Do you know any place that serves it? Thanks!

Anyone spotted a real bananas foster around here?

Hi Tom, I'm coming into town for the marathon at the end of the month. Currently, I have dinner reservations on Thursday at Blue Duck Tavern and lunch reservations at The Source (going to the Newseum afterwards). Anything I shouldn't miss at either restaurant? I'm definitely getting a slice of the carrot cake at The Source, but that's my only decision so far. Thanks!

Terrific choices (and for what it's worth, both Obama-approved). At Blue Duck Tavern, my go-to dishes are the crisp sweetbreads and the fat apple tart; at the Source, I head for anything made with dumplings and the zesty duck curry, a new fall dish served with a cone of rice draped with coconut sauce. 

My boyfriend is getting home from a deployment to Afghanistan on 12/11 (it's a Tuesday) at about 7am. He'll be tired and absolutely starving. Any ideas on where we could go for something a little celebratory and brunchy? Btw, we had a nice dinner out at Vermilion right before he left - thanks for the suggestion, it was a wonderful night!

For a festive breakfast on a Tuesday, I'd probably head to Art & Soul on the Hill, Poste in Penn Quarter or the Greenhouse downtown, all in hotels and the last the most sumptuous of the bunch. It's in the skylit Jefferson.


Good morning Tom In the past month or so three Bethesda restaurants have closed and I wondered if this is indicative of a larger trend or just a coincidence. Our absolute favorite Chinese delivery place, Foon Ling, lost its lease. This is the place we relied on during our remodeling and after the birth of a child, so it's like we lost a memory. Mongolian BBQ, one of our teenage son's favorite dining places, is also shuttered. And then the site of one of our first Valentine's Day outings, Persimmon, is closed. What's the deal? I also wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your reviews and your chats. Very helpful! Thanks!

I don't have any info on the Asian restaurants, but according to Bethesda Magazine, Persimmon temporarily closed for renovations this summer and is expected to re-open as a more casual bistro yet this month.

My office is moving to Shaw, right at the Howard University-Shaw Metro station, on Monday. On Thursday, old friends are coming to town and we're having lunch. What can you recommend that's nearby, nice but affordable, with "nearby" being defined as right around there, a subway stop or so away, or an easy cab ride away? And not so noisy that old friends can't chat and catch up.

Two spots come to mind: Beau Thai, near the Shaw Metro, for steamed dumplings, shrimp cakes and red curry with tofu, and the new Bistro Bohem on Florida Ave. for excellent chicken schnitzel and East European fare.

Back in June, my fellow (chowhound is it now?) had the audacity to bet me that the Orioles would not make the playoffs. The bet – dinner at the place of winner’s choosing. I’ve been in DC for about two years now and based off your recommendations have enjoyed wonderful meals at Little Serrow, Rasika and Zaytinya. As the winner of said bet, I’m having trouble picking a spot with so many good restaurants left to try! What restaurants are “peaking” right now that you would choose for a free meal?

I'd be eager to return to any of the restaurants you mentioned, but given the swelling ranks of good places to graze, you should try something new: Izakaya Seki off U St. NW for intriguing Japanese small plates, for instance, or Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan, to taste the chef's French riffs on American classics.  There are also a number of restaurants with promising new chefs. West End Bistro by Eric Ripert just landed Devin Bozkaya, a former sous chef at the Inn at Little Washington.

Hello Tom! Thanks so much for answering my question last week about where a solo eater could go near Dupont Circle. I was lucky enough to make a friend at my workshop who wanted to try your recommendations with me. We went to Tabard Inn for a lovely lunch, the shrimp and grits was divine. My friend had crab cakes with fried green tomatoes, which she said was amazing. Loved the atmosphere, I wanted to stay there all afternoon. We went to Al Tiramisu for a blissful dinner. I had the pappardelle with mushroom ragu and my friend had the ricotta gnocchi with cherry tomato sauce. Of course we had tiramisu per your advice. I savored each delicious bite, but the best part of Al Tiramisu was the charming staff who made us feel like regulars. I had the best time and can't thank you enough for your great advice--it was the highlight of my visit.

Your feedback made my day. I'm glad the Tabard Inn and Al Tiramisu both lived up to expectations. And I'm doubly pleased you enjoyed them with company.

Hi Tom! One of my colleagues is celebrating a decade with the company in early November. We're a small, informal group but would still like to have an "official" party. Ideally, we'd like a private room for about 15 people with appetizers and plunk down for an open bar. Do you know of any places in Tyson's or Reston that have fantastic food and could accomodate this kind of request? Our budget isn't set, but we'd like it to be no more than $30 per person. Thanks in advance for your help!

In Reston, try Jackson's Mighty Fine Food, which is owned by Great American Restaurants; in Tysons, Harth or the festive La Sandia might be good for your group.

Forgive my ignorance, but what is/are tapas?

Tapas are Spanish small plates. They include dishes as simple as grilled bread slathered with fresh tomato or as complex as rabbit confit with fruit puree.

What is a Bananas Foster? I've never heard of it. Signed, Just Curious.

Bananas cooked in butter and sugar, flambeed with rum and served with ice cream. Brennan's in New Orleans has made a signature of the dessert, served table-side.

Hi Tom, thanks in advance for taking my very pedestrian question. I recently moved to DC and live near Dupont Circle at 17th and Q. Can you suggest a place nearby that sells a good slice of pizza? I've found some good options for wood-fired whole pies, but when I just want a slice...where should I go? (WIthin walking distance.) Thank you.

I haven't tried a lot of the by-the-slice purveyors, but of those I'm familiar with, the Metro-friendly Vace in Cleveland Park does a respectable job.


Chatters, feel free to weigh in with your recommendations.

Hi Tom - You've never steered me wrong, and I'm hoping you can assist with this request. A client will be in town next week and we plan to have dinner to discuss some business (four of us total). They are staying over in Crystal City and so will be on the metro, and I'm downtown, so I'd like to find a place near Metro Center/Gallery Place that is easy for them logistically, but doesn't bust either our eardrums or the budget of a public-sector client. Type of cuisine is very flexible. Does such a place exist? Thank you!

Quiet and moderate and Metro-friendly and good are kind of hard to find.  But try 701. It's right next to the Metro, you can hear one another if you sit away from the front bar, and the restaurant offers a three-course $32 pre-theater menu before 6:45.

Hi Tom - I had an awkward situation last week and am wondering if I handled it correctly. Moments after placing our dinner orders, my friend rushed to the emergency room for her injured child (now recovered). I explained the situation to the waiter, asked if the food had already been made, and since it had been, asked for it to be brought boxed and with the check. I tipped 10%, and that's where I'm wondering if I went wrong. My logic was that we were only in the restaurant 15 minutes, and had barely received our wine. In retrospect, perhaps boxing the food (which he did promptly) evened out the effort and I was inappropriately stingy. The total was about $50 before tip, and the restaurant formality level is similar to Clyde's. What do you think? I'm hoping this is a one-time event, so guess that I'm mostly looking for dining sinner absolution (fwiw, my husband thinks I should have paid only for the drinks since we hadn't received our food).

Glad the outcome for your friend was a happy one.


Now about your tip ...


I think you should have left 20 percent on the bill, because 1) you got the food you ordered after occupying the table for a quarter hour and 2) an effort was made to quickly package everything, or so it sounds.


Chatters, feel free to support or reject my advice.



Great food still, but the service fell down. What a shame.

Liberty Tavern isn't part of GAR  (and I had fab service there a few months ago).

Okay, I'll ask. What is "food?" I've heard about it, but am not sure.

Be nice!

Sorry, anytime a rant about poor service takes up my entire computer screen it's too long. No offense to Josh, I hope he gets taken care of, but I just skipped to the next question.

And that is your right as a citizen of this chat (but you might miss something juicy. Just saying!)

Dear Tom, I have a question for you: What are napkins? Signed, Extremely Messy Eater.

Stop it. Now.


But while we're on the subject, if I see one more adult licking all five digits in a restaurant, I'm going to walk over and hand her a "moist towelette." Gross.

Tom, The only desserts that tempt me to are coffee-flavored, but they are rarely on the menu. Why is that? In most of my recent restaurant experiences, choices featured chocolate, fruit, custards, ice creams and sorbets, but no coffee desserts. How can we coffee lovers get the message out to chefs not to forget us?

By posting a wish list in a forum such as this (and then patronizing restaurants that follow up). 


Anyone notice coffee-fueled desserts anywhere? I'm drawing a blank.



I know you frequently praise the GARs for their food and service. I am a Marylander who has not been to any of the restaurants, but I have a gift card and would like to use it to celebrate my birthday. Would you recommend one GAR restaurant over another for a first-timer?

I haven't been to a Great American Restaurant branch in some time. Chatters?  Artie's was not up to par on my last visit, admittedly more than a year ago.

I was trapped for about 15 minutes behind a Sysco truck making a delivery to a local establishment. I alerted the kitchen staff and asked the driver to move. (There was no other means of exiting the alley.) I eventually called the police and that motivated the driver to move. I called and asked to speak to the manager of the dining establishment in question. I still have not received a call back. Is that acceptable behavior?

Where did this take place?


I'm thinking a number of things could be preventing someone from calling you back: disinterest, interest but off duty, a misplaced memo ... it doesn't hurt to follow up.

In my experience of visiting your recommended places on my out-of-town boss's tab, many noisy places aren't bad before the places fill up around 6:30 or 7 p.m. If the business people arrive shortly after opening, they might have a broader range to choose from, and shorter work day.

Good advice.  FYI: I tend to record my sound checks during the middle of my meals, when restaurants are busiest.  My thinking is, I'd rather have diners go into a place they have read will be noisy, and find relative calm, than vice versa.

Is actually pretty easy to DIY. Just be sure to move your face back before igniting the liquor.

Unless you don't care about your eyebrows.

Profanity is not acceptable in any condition in a public place, period. I am a woman in her 30s who eats out often, and I cannot tell you how many times I have walked out of places because of the language of (mostly the guys) patrons at the bar. I am also surprised that this is tolerated by management. I run a small business, and do not allow patrons to talk like that in my shop, at least I will remind them that that kind of language is not acceptable.

Uh huh.

You should have tipped 20% to show your appreciation for the service you did receive and the waiter's willingness to accommodate your needs. Or more, considering that he was doing you & your friend an unusual favor. Waitstaff lives on their tips, remember.

Thanks for chiming in.

Hey Tom, What a fabulous place (and space) - the smoked foods we tasted were by far and away our best bites of the day. Unfortunately, looks like we both had a gritty experience at Union Market. The oysters tasted great but with every bite I was picking out pieces of the shell...I desperately wanted to slurp away but it was a slow slurp for fear of sucking down more shell...or breaking a tooth. Is this the way fresh oysters are supposed to be served? Like your experience, is this because of a dirty knife? I wanted to blame it on the freshness of the oysters and maybe even the shell being softer than usual but unfortunately I think it's because of the shucker...I want to love this place!

I want to love Rappahannock Oyster Bar more, too!  It has soooo much going for it: Awesome crab cakes, friendly cook-servers, fun cocktails (who are all these people drinking such strong stuff on a Sunday morning?)


But if you have "oyster" in your name, you have to present the seafood in the best possible way: free of stuff that isn't oyster, in other words.

Hi Tom, that diner deserves kudos for his/her detailed post. But I can't condone the use of profanity to the staff there. I mean, come on! Civility (or honey, as you said) should win the day. Also, did you check with Kellie at Palena before posting the diner's screed? Give Palena a chance to give their side of the story. And finally, to play devil's advocate, after this diner threw a profane tantrum over two bucks, I wonder how thrilled the staff at Palena will be to see him/her again (assuming he/she darkens Palena's threshhold again).

You know, I broke my own rule by publishing this complaint without hearing the restaurant's side of the story. Bad, Tom, bad, bad, bad.


But I have to say, I'm inclined to believe it unfolded as our fellow chatter Josh relates. I've lost track of the number of complaints I've been getting about Palena, a long-time favorite of mine. The gripes are mostly about service but include mention of inconsistent cooking. Sad. 

Dear Tom, It's my third anniversary today, but my husband and I have been swamped and haven't planned a thing. If we were to walk into a restaurant tonight (or to ask for a late reservation now), where would you suggest? We're like Jack Sprat and his wife: he eats only meat, I'm a vegetarian, and neither of us drink alcohol. Thank you, on behalf of all of us procrastinators!

Since it's a big day, and you've been busy, I won't tsk-tsk you for not planning ahead. What about a seat at the bar of either Rasika or Rasika West End, which pour excellent non-alcoholic drinks? Zaytinya and Jaleo are also great places for carnivores and vegetarians to sup together.

Don't argue, walk. If he'd explained that he was leaving because they weren't honoring their advertised prices rather than trying to staying until he convinced them to change their policy, quite likely the price would have come down by the time he got to the door. By cajoling, he showed that he wanted that burger, giving them room to insist that he pay the requested rate. There's a McDonalds down the street, I believe, and their prices are well-established.

True, but that burger down the street is nothing like the role model at Palena ... We're talking apples and kumquats there.

Tom: I've enjoyed eating at Jackson's in Reston Town Center, but the person who would be eating with a group should know it can get VERY NOISY when Jackson's has a goodly number of customers.

Useful information. Thanks.

I'd think that by posting and answering the "what is food, please?" snark, even to scold, you've driven away someone who would truly benefit from your chats.

Aw, that wasn't exactly nasty, was it? I think we can use some levity here now and then.

We would like to have an Indian lunch buffet somewhere in or near D.C. , please suggest us. We are really fond of Indian food.

The one I like best in DC is the buffet staged ever Sunday at Bombay Club near the White House.

Um, in most cases, it's illegal to park in alleys in DC. They exist for emergency access and facilitating deliveries. So OP was inconveniencing the restaurant and delivery van, not the other way around.

I just re-read the post. Sounds to me as if the car driver was not trying to park in the alley, but pass through it.

Obviously the restaurant doesnt care since your arent a customer. I have had happen a few times and only recourse was 911 and my trusty Swiss Army knife. My firm actually owns the the alley and the 3 star restaurant loves to use it for deliveries and the owner and manager to park. I dont slash tires but have let the air with pebbles and my Swiss Army knife and it escalated to pulling valve stems. Then I just had the vehicles towed but I had time remembering what towing firm. My facilities manager figured out the delivery schedule and has tow trucks waiting

I opt for calling tow trucks rather than resorting to a Swiss Army knife -- please.

The best in town is made at home. Not that difficult to carmelize brown suger and butter with a little cinnamon in a skillet, add ripe bananas. Warm rum and triple sec in small sauce pan, light with match and pour over bananas. Have ice cream ready in bowls. Serve before ice cream melts. Simple, no restaurant required.

Can I come over after dinner tonight?

Call SYSCO to complain, not the restaurant. It is their driver/employee.

Better advice than mine. Thanks.

Dropping the f bomb is profanity. OP using the s word isnt. Too many businesses are using so called profanity as an excuse to not do anything. Navy Federal Credit Union upper level management got upset with me because I called their staff incompetent morons and claimed I was using profanity to the govt agency I complained too. I pointed out that in George Carlin's famous bit incomepetent and moron wasnt one of the seven words.

I'm smiling.

I was exiting a legal garage that I had paid to park in. The establishment in question is Hot and Juicy Crawfish on Connecticut Avenue.

Hot & Juicy, you've been warned.

I was there recently and not impressed. A few overpriced items in a very empty space. What is the long term plan for this? Do you think it will last?

It's thin right now, but I think it has potential to become something really special. Did Union Market open pre-maturely? Maybe. I'm eager to go back and watch it grow, though.

Cafe Renaissance in Vienna does an amazing Bananas Foster for two tableside (as well as Crepe Suzette for two and Berries Jubilee).

Three classics under one roof!

It's not too late to go back to the restaurant and leave a note and additional tip for that gracious server. I bet it would be greatly appreciated.

I like the way you think.

The S-word, like the F-word, is profanity. The F-word also constitutes obscenity. And George Carlin's list was the seven words you can't say on TV, not the only seven words that are profanity. Don't resort to bad language to make your point. It only loses you the high ground.

So true!

Opting to get a McDonald's cheeseburger over Palena's would be like deciding that a child's pull wagon would be a better choice than an SUV.


"There was no other means of exiting the alley." If he'd been driving through, he could have backed out the way he came. He either had a private parking place or he shouldn't have been there. For that matter, in a commercial area, tolerating the inconvenience of deliveries blocking the entrance is part of the deal for private spaces back there. Do you want the trucks to be blocking the street to make their deliveries?

Fair point. But I think going in reverse was not an option.

Restaurants and other business that find their customers using profanity should examine WHY those customers are driven to use that language. Some poeple are just jerks looking for an excuse to blow up, but most people don't start cursing in public unless they have a good reason--and restaurants and other business refusing to take ownership of their mistakes tends to be a fairly common reason.

You chatters are so smart and so ... civil.

The sh---- word is crude but not profanity. And I agree that Palena would have been better off to honor their outside sign & then send someone to take it down immediately! If a grocery store has not taken down the shelf signs on time, they are required to honor that price (unless it has an expiration date which has passed clearly printed on it!)

Thanks for writing.

to the person asking if pieces of shell in a raw oyster 'come standard' - even the diviest oyster bars in New Orleans have shuckers who crank out flawless bivalves to order

I should have caught that. You are right.  Grit is not part of a standard-issue platter of raw oysters.

any intel on timing for its opening?

Last month, the owner of Lincoln, Alan Popovsky, told me he expected Teddy & the Bully Bar to set sail in early March.

I would vote for Carlyle. I can always count on great service, good-great food. Something for everyone. I love it when the weather is nice & I can grab a table outside.

Carlyle probably gets my nod, too.

I spent six months in Kabul and I've eaten more Afghani cuisine in Northern Virginia than I did during my deployment :)


Lotta people bending over backwards to excuse Palena here for out of date information. Makes me want to let out some choice foodie

And on that inconclusive note, I bid you all a serene rest of the week.


Thanks for the lively conversation. See you here at 11 a.m. next Wednesday.

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Weaned on a beige buffet a la "Fargo" in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. In thinner days, he was a critic for Microsoft Corp.'s and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and a food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the '80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section's recipes. That's how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns; keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom column and contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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