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

Oct 23, 2013

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Did you revisit all of the places in the Fall Dining Guide to make sure the experience was the same as before? If not, how long will you let a place go before you say that you need to revisit it again.

I visited every restaurant in the dining guide at least once, often twice, pre-publication. The process starts in June and ends in late September. Typically, I visit 100 or more places to get to my favorite 40. Throughout the year, I keep tabs on about 60 or so major restaurants -- I re-visit them, in other words, in part to keep this chat fresh.  I've already begun the process of investigating previously reviewed restaurants for consideration in my spring guide, which usually features a dozen or more updates.


News Du Jour: Fans of chef Jose Andres now have more ways than Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to keep up with the Spanish star's comings and goings, restaurant plans and recipes. Check out the just-launched site,, for  information on his background, gift cards for his many dining rooms, You Tube posts and humanitarian work.



Good morning, gang. Thanks for joining me for another hour of  restaurant chat.


Tom, I need help finding a restaurant for my rehearsal dinner in January. It will be a relatively small group (10 adults) and the two most important criteria are (1) it can accommodate diners with an upper Midwestern palate (nothing too spicy/trendy/"adventurous"), and (2) we'll be able to hear each other talk. Upper NW is preferred, but we're willing to travel a bit for the right place. Thank you!!

I'd book the communal table at Buck's Fishing & Camping, which I'm re-reviewing Nov. 3 on the occasion of the arty American restaurant's 10th anniversary.  My second choice would be Blue Duck Tavern in the Park Hyatt in the West End.

I agree Jaleo downtown is better than the one in Crystal City, which has a heavy hand with the salt shaker.

A lot of restaurants are guilty of over-seasoning their food. Chefs needs to remember to taste, taste, taste as they cook. 

Greetings, Tom. I'm taking a new job in Laurel, MD, and haven't found much in terms of culinary choice - but perhaps I'm looking in the wrong place. I'm currently working in Rockville where choices abound and am wondering if you have any recommendations for me once I make the move to Laurel next month. Thanks for the help!

My current favorite in Laurel is Curry Leaf, a tidy and friendly Indian outpost that offers a terrific buffet for $10.99 weekdays. The highlights include better-than-usual butter chicken, tender goat stew and steamed rice cakes.

Hi Tom -- Any inisght on when Derek Brown's Eat The Rich will open? I had early fall, but that hasn't happened yet. Thanks!

Here's the scoop.

I chuckled when I opened my paper this morning and read the quote from your latest restaurant review at the top of page one of the food section. It says " . . . peppery tuna tartare veined with avocado . . . " In a previous chat, a reader exhorted you to stop overusing the phrase "lashed with". Kudos on the new phrase "veined with." :-) Seriously, it must be challenging to keep your writing fresh when reporting regularly for many years on the same topic. And you succeed! I always enjoy reading your reviews as much for the style as the content.

Ha! Thanks for the kind words.  I've written  "veined with" in the past, but it's one of those phrases I need to use sparingly.

My parents are coming into town for the Marine Corps Marathon. Since I'm running on Sunday, any suggestions for a good Saturday brunch in the city? Thanks!

I recently had a memorable brunch at Ardeo + Bardeo in Cleveland Park, where chef  Matt Kuhn, late of DC Coast, recently took over the kitchen. His salad of farro and black-eyed peas dressed with country ham is one of several savory dishes I plan to eat more of in weekends to come.

Hello Tom, I read and enjoyed your last online chat. One note: I strongly disagree with the DGS backlash. I've eaten there several times, and each time my dining companions and I all found it to be excellent and well worth the repeat trips. This place definitely earned its spot in your rankings.

I appreciate the show of support. I visited the delicatessen twice before deciding to include it in my list of 40 favorites.

Since it was my idea to spend Thanksgiving in Vegas, it is up to me to find a restaurant that will satisfy the picky eater, meat lover and a fan of seafood. The three of us are not interested in buffets so I looked up your postcard from 2011 but nothing jumped out at me that would satisfy everyone. I can also hear my mother saying “it would have been nice to have some turkey and a side of dressing”. I know there is something out there besides the long buffet line, please assist !!! Thanks!

I'd try Bouchon in the Venetian, Thomas Keller's French bistro. 

Ian Boden is leaving the Glass Haus Kitchen, and the restaurant is effectively shuttering its doors this weekend: I'm glad I got the chance to go there once, but wow, this seems rather sudden!

I was really disappointed to learn the news about Glass Haus Kitchen last night, and I hope to eat his food again in the near future.

See, this is like the clear-the-plates/don't-clear-the-plates divide. My spouse & I and most of our dining-out friends prefer to pour our own wine.

Then you tell the server or sommelier that from the get-go, correct?  (This is a response to my recent re-review of Range in the Chevy Chase Pavilion, where as an anonymous diner I poured my own wine throughout the night.)


Chatters, what say you? Do you like staff to pour for you, or do you prefer to fill glasses on your own?

Hi Tom - Love the chats! For some unknown reason I've lately been craving spaghetti and meatballs. I'm talking mile-high pasta, huge, homemade, well-seasoned meatballs, and a thick sauce that doesn't pool on the plate in wimpy little lakes. You know, the kind of dinner you eat 3/4 of and then think, 'what on earth was I thinking?!' I'm not in D.C. very often any more, but I will be this weekend, and I figure this is as good a chance as any to get some good Italian grub (which is, sadly, subpar in my small hometown). Can you point me someplace that will stuff me stupid for less than $15 (okay, $20), preferably mom-and-pop inclined (I'm not a fan of Buca di Beppo), anywhere in D.C. proper? I'm staying in Arlington, but will have both a car and Metro at my disposal. Thank you!

It's not the spaghetti and meatballs of my dreams, but the heaping platter at Luigi's Famous Pizza on 19th St. NW is certainly satisfying, and fits into your budget.

Just moved to the land of enchantment. Do you or the chatters know of any good places to eat in Albuquerque/Santa Fe?

Here's my last memory of dining in Santa Fe.

Speaking of Bouchon - go there for brunch and get the roast chicken with waffles - it will change your life.


Hi Tom - I really liked your fall dining guide and agreed with the choices you made with respect to the places I've already visited. I decided to try and visit all within the next year. I often dine alone - would you say any of the places you mentioned stand out as being especially solo diner friendly? Or looking at it from the other side, are there any you think would be better experienced when I do go out with friends?

Off the top of my head, and for sometimes different reasons,  I'd definitely want to savor Barmini, Little Serow, Garden District and Le Diplomate with pals; by myself, I've had a great time at restaurants as diverse as CityZen, Oval Room and Jaleo (where for a while, I made a habit of lunch at the bar).

For the poster asking about eating in Laurel, here's a couple more places: Pho Saigon 54 (not as good as the ones down in Beltsville or up in Columbia but will do in a pinch), Pasta Plus on Rt 1, and RG's BBQ Cafe. HowChow blog also has a list of other places in Laurel:

Thanks for the additions.

It depends on the situation. If I'm with my wife, I'm happy to do it myself. When I'm in a larger group or a business function, I want the staff to do it. When the staff pours, the wine is more likely to be evenly distributed. I have some friends who tend to over pour for themselves, so having the staff pour addresses that issue.

Thanks for sharing. I hear you on the pouring for a group!

Tom, Would you have a suggestion for anniversary dinner in Old Town Alexandria - other than Eve? Thanks, Tony

Vermilion!  The new chef there, William Morris, is a worthy successor to Tony Chittum, who's preparing to relaunch Iron Gate Inn in Dupont Circle.

Tom, I had a bad experience here in September...the service was good and the decor was fine. But ALL the food was incredibly bland! I had a pan fried monkfish and the wife had bouillabaisse. I can't figure out if they were just trying to "let the quality ingredients speak for themselves" or what, but nothing had any flavor whatsoever. I'm wondering if this is just a result of their impending transition to a new concept. For the price points we paid, I was expecting much better.

Was this in the bistro or the tasting room?

I prefer to have wine poured for me, but if the place is hopping I don't get bent out of shape pouring myself. A different story if the tumbleweeds are drifting by and the sommelier is chatting up the bartender.

Or you've paid a lot for the vino.

Since it's been mentioned again, here's why I haven't gone back. I went a few times, the last was probably three years ago at least. Every time, and I mean EVERY time, I went, the service was horrid. Food came out haphazardly, and some things never came at all, and then I had to tell them it was still on the bill after I told them to forget about it because it was too late. I get it - it's a busy place, especially pre-game or pre-show, but that's not an excuse.

Well, we're talking tapas here.  Spanish small plates are not meant to come out in any particular order. Three years is a long time to stay mad at a restaurant based on one unfortunate experience. And since then, you should know, the room has been recast and the menu has grown.

Went last night. The place is hopping. Like the new bright interior. Noticed they already changed the pita and hummus to flat bread and harissa. Benaim said it was his Tel-Aviv cafe harissa. Awesome.

This poster is referencing the subject of my First Bite column today, the former Bezu.

Otello just south of Dupont Circle is better quality. Definitely needs updating, but the food is some of the better, basic Italian (not necessarily Italian-American) in the area. We need more/better Italian!

Funny, I strolled by Otello  just the other night. Haven't eaten there for at least a decade or longer. Does it do spag and meatballs?

We are definitely in the camp of wanting to pour our own wine; I hate the overpouring that goes on in many restaurants. But I am not shy about letting the servers know this, and am also not shy about getting an ice bucket for the reds that are too warm. Given how much wine is marked up, you ought to get it served the way you want it. We did let the sommelier pour at Range a couple of times just to keep him coming back to chat, though. It was probably the best part of the evening.

A good restaurant "reads" a table, or tries to, and can pour just the right amount if the sommelier is being attentive. I love it when I'm with a larger group -- say, six diners -- and the wine attendant manages to pour some for everybody with a bit left in the bottle. Classy.

I prefer we pour especially if it is a good red - servers tend to pour too much for we who swirl to gently oxidize and relish the bouquet....

Thanks for sharing.

I would much rather that we pour the wine ourselves especially when I'm treating. So often a server who is only trying to be helpful pours wine for our guests and I can't help but notice that much of the wine is not drunken when we depart and that is money down the drain. If someone was not able to finish their lobster entree then normally they would pack it up but this is not the case. But leftover wine in the glasses goes to waste and this stings especially when you order a nice wine.

Remember, you can always bring home leftover wine (well, whatever's left  in the bottle) in the District, Va. and Md. now.

Yes. Need to be sure we each get equal amounts!

As an earlier poster noted, though, not everyone at the table drinks at the same speed.

My wife and I are considering going to the Inn at Little Washington for our 15 year anniversary. How long in advance would a weekday evening reservation need to be scheduled? We wanted to know when we would need to make a decision.

Weekday nights are probably easier than weekends. I'd say three weeks out?

I had a similar experience to the previous poster. Some dishes were never delivered, pacing was absolutely terrible. They took two dishes back to the kitchen because too many were delivered at once and there was no more room on the table. Had to get a manager to take non-delivered dishes off the check at the end of the night.

Gotcha. Was this recent?

The thing I don't like is "topping off" a glass. I have to know how much I drank so I can drive home. Making it impossible for me to tell strikes me a unbelievably dangerous.

I guess the best strategy is to tell the sommelier from the start how you want your pours?  Because they're not mind-readers?

Why don't restaurants understand diners' preferences re: accepting reservations? Your review of MIX in Potomac is great but the fact that they don't take reservations makes it challenging for parents with babysitters (probably a high percentage in the burbs) to visit. (And yes, I recognize there are bigger problems in the world...)

I hate it when restaurants don't take reservations! I mean, this is a market full of *planners,* right?  If enough folks complain, I bet Mix will start accepting bookings, at least for certain time periods. 

Tad dramatic don't you think? You should have the judgement to know if you feel tipsy or not regardless of tracking the exact number of ounces you've had.

Well ... we experience the effects of alcohol differently.

I think it must be one of the most difficult challenges of a restaurant reviewer to stretch our imagination by using words and expressions that match the sight, taste, smell, and texture of specific dishes. I, for one, welcome every time I read in one of your reviews a new way of expressing how a chef has attempted to appeal to the senses. A limited vocabulary and common expressions might fit reporting of the Dow Jones Industrial average or a baseball game, but food requires a more inventive range of vocabulary, and I admire the critic's ability to turn a phrase to make the impression I read on the page more meaningful

You are a breath of fresh air. Thanks for writing. The challenge of restaurant reviewing -- well, one of the challenges -- is making a good story out of stuff I'm putting in my mouth. Week after week. Year after year. Decade after ...

Headed to my hometown for the weekend, curious if you have any recommendations for Worthington, MN! Looking to take my parents out for a meal there or Sioux Falls. Thanks for your thoughts - keep up the good work!

The best restaurant in Worthington these days is my mom's house, on South Shore Drive. If only Michael's Steakhouse were still around!

Hi, Tom. Big fan of yours here, and not a Jaleo-hater by any means. But your response to the former Jaleo patron who explained why he/she doesn't go there any more was disappointingly tone-deaf. First of all, the reader said the service was terrible every time, not just the last visit Second, your point about tapas is a non sequitur--the reader wasn't complaining about the order, but the fact that some dishes never showed up at all. I know you are inundated with questions and comments each week, Tom, but your apparent unwillingness to countenance ANY criticism of Jaleo is just inexplicable. I like the food, but I was there this summer and the service is still every bit as bad as the reader said.

Sorry, I didn't mean to ignore the poster's issues. Not getting dishes you've ordered  is a problem. So is bad service.

I was in Tyson's Corner mall yesterday and decided to have a quick lunch at Seasons 52. Although there was a bit of a corporate, Cheesecake-Factory-ish vibe to the place, my food (a vegetarian sampler plate) was really good and the service was attentive. Have you been lately? I found myself wishing some of the trendier restaurants I've dined in recently would take a few pages from Seasons 52's book.

I had similar positive experiences at the mindful chain, too.

I'm joining the chat late, but I want to second the suggestion of dining at the bar at Jaleo. I've never done it alone, but the bartenders really take care of you amazingly well there (probably my best of many exceptional dining experiences at the restaurant). Start up a conversation with them and you won't be disappointed.

Another tip of the hat to Jaleo.

Hi Tom! After dining at Rasika a couple of weeks ago, I dreamt about Ashok and his tender touch with the spices and presentation a few nights later. After waking and catching my breath, I realized it made me think even more highly of my experience than I had before. Do you ever have dreams about your meals between the time you visit a restaurant and the time you write your review? Do any other non-dining experiences and reactions ever enter your mind that cause you to alter your opinions? Love your work! Ciao.

My *dreams* haven't altered my opinions about places, but certainly the company can do that. Years ago, I broke up with somebody in a restaurant  -- hey, I spend most of my life at a table! -- and back then, I couldn't imagine going back there, because the name alone was tainted by what transpired. Fortunately, it wasn't a Big Deal Establishment that required my returning and these days, I wouldn't let a detail like that interfer with being as fair as possible to a restaurant.


I hear a lunch bell. (In my dreams.) See you all next week. Thanks for joining me.


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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