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

Oct 09, 2013

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

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Tom - Because of the furlough my wife and I are doing fun things like creating our will and we have a meeting with a lawyer in McLean/Tysons. We'll be done at lunch time and we're thinking of going out somewhere either in the area or in DC proper. We know almost nothing of the Tysons area foodwise so we're looking to you. But really, any great lunch place in the DC area is on the table. Thanks! PS - we already did the "lickity split' lunch at Eve.

McLean is meh for lunch. Venture into the city and check out Mourayo in Dupont Circle for good Greek, Oval Room near the White House for modern American, Del Campo -- which (NEWS FLASH!) was just picked as one of Esquire's top new restaurants in the country -- for South American or Et Voila! in the Palisades for winning French-Belgian cooking.


Good morning, gang. Bring on your furlough stories if you have 'em. I'm all eyes. And ears. 


The gas-fired stone oven at Urbana was down last night, much to the disappointment of the hotel restaurant's happy hour crowd. But the ace bar tender cracked us up when he told my posse, "Our pizza is on furlough." 


This just in: The restaurant is picking up a replacement part for the oven in Springfield; with luck, Urbana's acclaimed pies will be on tonight's menu.




Ready? Set? Go!

When you're at a lackluster restaurant, where do you wish you really were? It's been a long time since you doted on a restaurant (like Rasika, Palena, or The Source). What are a few of the dishes you dream about nowadays?

I'll be doting a *lot* this weekend, when my fall dining guide makes its print appearance.


Stuff that sweetens my dreams of late: the $7 happy hour Manhattan at Urbana in Dupont Circle ...  the Thai-flavored salad of crumbled pork and lychees at the just-opened Rose's Luxury on the Hill ... the snow-white onion rings at Buck's Fishing & Camping in Upper NW ...  the Asian-flavored beef short ribs with rosemary bread crumbs at the made-over J & G Steakhouse in the W hotel ... the shrimp sumai at the newish Bob's Shanghai 66 in Rockville ... the pork- and peanut-stuffed tamale at La Limena in Rockville ... well, you get the point.

Hi Tom - if you were at National Harbor and needed to eat dinner...where would you make reservations? Have to eat somewhere there, can't go elsewhere. Thanks!! Hoping you like something there to recommend!

I have to be honest and tell you I haven't eaten at National Harbor this year, but when Bond 45 set sail, I had some good meals there.  For something more casual, there's also Nando's Peri-Peri (fast-casual rotisserie chicken with great sides) on American Way.

This week's First Bite on Barcelona Wine Bar left me a bit stumped. It seems as though you like the decor, scoff at the food, and note that its crowded. But you also seem to think it will stay crowded. Are you taking a swipe at 14th Street restaurant-goers or is there reason to spend one's hard-earned money there?

The design is terrific, proof that food isn't the only thing diners look for when they go out. Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurant offers both a front patio and a fire pit. Who else on 14th St. can say that? 


However, the food I tried (six or so tapas) at the newcomer was  just OK.  I'd go for a drink, check out the crowd -- and head elsewhere for dinner.

Yes, Barcelona is a scene. But I will say, I think the food is much better than Jaleo. I find Jaleo horribly overrated and have never had a meal (tried it four times) where I left satisfied. I remain confused by your love for the place because it's appallingly weak to me. Barcelona has a lot of problems, but at least the food was better.

I couldn't disagree with you more. Tell me what you ate at Jaleo that you didn't like -- and what small plates at Barcelona you preferred?

I'm a federal worker who remains at work. So many places are offering discounts if you show an ID. Is it wrong to take advantage of the discount even though I'm still at work and still being paid? Alternatively should I try and patronize places that are hurting? Do I decline the discount? It's awful quiet around here...

Be a mensch (it sounds as if you are already) and don't take advantage of an offer that hasn't been extended to you. Let the folks who are without work enjoy the perk and pay your fair share, a strategy that will also benefit the restaurants that could really use your support right now.

The last I read (in Bethesda Magazine in July), Pedro Matamoros was supposed to be buying the restaurant from its longtime owner, closing it briefly in September, and reopening it with his own concept. We went there before an AFI screening a couple of weeks ago, and it seemed as though Matamoros was not even cooking there. The menu seemed like a relic of the '50s and, although the food was passable, it was nothing like what we have come to expect from chef Matamoros. Do you have any information about what's going on with him or the G.F. project?

Funny you should ask. The peripatetic chef recently opened the new Mix Bar and Grill (formerly Bezu) in Potomac. He's doing Casesar salads, pan-fried fish, flatbreads and creme brulee in a mod, white-and-blue space. Pssst: I'm previewing the restaurant in the Food section Oct. 23. 

I found myself nodding in agreement with your review of Baby Wale, but felt that your review had a key omission: the service. I've gone twice and had great meals, but each time had to wait at least 40 minutes for a sandwhich. My companion's theory is that the kitchen was proportionally too small for the number of tables/seats at the restaurant. What's your take?

My service at Baby Wale was somewhat shy, a little quirky, but not slow. That may have been because the restaurant was not very busy during my several stops.

I spent two weeks traveling in Scandinavia this summer - Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland - and fell in love with the food. Any idea where I can find anything similar (wonderful fish soups, lingonberries, swedish meatballs, etc.) in the area?

The closest DC has to what you want is Domku Bar & Cafe in Petworth, which offers a Slavic-Swedish script.  Picture voka-cured salmon, cod fillets with warm potato salad, meatballs seasoned with allspice and Swedish almond cake for dessert.

It's been way too long since I had Tony Chittum's cooking at Vermillion. Is there any chance we'll ever see the Iron Gate Inn open? I'm jonesin here, dude.

It sounds  like his project might open at the end of this month.


"Anything can happen, but things are looking great," Chittum told me earlier this morning. "Construction is doing well and staff is coming in next week for training and orientation."


Chittum has hired two sous chefs from Vermilion. His menu will be broken into categories including "breads and savory pies"  and feature such dishes as black pepper rigatoni with lamb pancetta, grilled octopus with peanuts and shell beans and "whole animal" rotisserie. 


Hurry, Tony, hurry!

Tom, I'm dying for a real lobster roll. My standards may be impossibly high for this area as the last lobster roll I had was at an amazing seafront lobster shack in Maine in August. All the ones I've seen around here have been wimpy in size and devoid of much flavor. Please help with a recommendation that will help me deal with this craving! Thanks.

The Red Hook Lobster Truck made a roll impressive enough to land in my 2010 fall dining guide. Other admirable sandwiches can be found at  Hank's Oyster Bar -- the Hill branch is my fave -- and the tonier  Bourbon Steak in Georgetown.

You're quoted in Tim Carman's article today as saying that John Mariani's choice of Del Campo makes perfect sense. But neither you nor Mr. Carman make mention of the widely reported habit of Mariani accepting free meals, hotel rooms, and having travel paid for by PR firms that represent restaurants. Not to take anything away from his choices for Esquire, but doesn't it seem important to point out the difference when someone is hosted in a city or at a restaurant vs. actually reviewing places? Lets all remember that last year Mariani picked Roberto Donna as "Chef of the Year"

The question Tim asked me was what I thought of Mr. Mariani's DC choice. 

Please, Tom, I beg you - stop describing food as being "lashed" with some sort of sauce. It's in so many of your reviews and it's driving me crazy! Find a new word!!

Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Thirty lashes -- er, SMACKS with a wet noodle for me!

I'm headed to Casa Luca for dinner this weekend. Is there anything that you consider "can't miss" on the menu? Thanks!

The menu changes, obviously, but one of my favorite starters at Casa Luca is a pan of meat balls brightened with lemon zest. Beyond, I go for the monkfish Milanese (breaded sauteed fish) and whatever risotto is being offered.

Unexpectedly we have a babysitter for Saturday night = no reservations. Were should the wife and I look for a seat at the bar for a good meal.

Got a pen handy?


Rose's Luxury on the Hill

Doi Moi on 14th St. NW

Daikaya across from the Verizon Center

DGS Delicatessen (yes, it has a bar, and a good one!) in Dupont Circle

Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan


That help?

A lot of places are offering specials to all federal workers (or even everyone), not just furloughed ones. It's permitted me to sample some nice wines at The Curious Grape in Shirlington (which, curiously, is off your radar).

If all federal workers are being treated to a deal, our original poster doesn't have a problem. Eat, or drink, away!

Laved. Awash in. Napped. or just...sauced.

I'm trying really, really hard not to use "napped." If I don't use a word in conversation, I typically don't use it in print.

Hi Tom - Any idea when your fall dining guide will be online? We're dining at one of your favorites from last year this weekend, and can't wait to see if it makes the cut again! Thanks!

The new guide *might* be up yet later this afternoon, but definitely by Thursday.


P.S. Only 15 of my favorites from last year crossed over to this year's collection.

Do you use "lashed" in conversation? If so, are you talking about sauce, or something, uh, saucier?

Hahahahahaha. I'm not going to go there, no I'm not.

I'm the opposite of the earlier poster. I've had to report to work since the shutdown began (I work for the National Weather Service, so have to work due to protection of life and property), but like everyone sitting at home, I'm not collecting a paycheck until after the shutdown is over. Kosher for me to take advantage of furlough offers at restaurants?

My gut says "yes."

Taco Bamba is just down the road from Tyson's. Kazan in McLean is open for lunch, IIRC. Rocco's is good pizza. Amoo Kabob in Chesterbrook is great.

My impression was that this couple wanted something  a bit dressier, but I could be wrong. Thanks for the options.

We are planning a special dinner with friends. My friend is thinking Range; however, I feel like Volt is more appealing. Tom, can you be our referee? I don't think we will lose either way, right? Also, I was at Le Diplomate last night, second time. It was just as great as my first time. They have the "magic formula." Tom, take care!

Le Diplomate does indeed have fairy dust sprinkled all over it. Some might call that  hard work  on the part of the talented staff.  But the place has delivered on all fronts -- food, service, decor -- since Day 1. For a restaurant of its size, I get very few complaints.


As for Range vs. Volt ... you might want to make that decision after you read my review of the former in the fall guide.

Well, I beg of you not to post buffoons who take offense at particular words. Talk about first-world problems. Foodie, foodie, foodie. Lashed, lashed, lashed.


I want to take my gentleman friend for a nice dinner to celebrate his birthday, but we've hit a snag: he can't decide! So, in a toss-up between Kapnos and Del Campo, what's the way to go? Or is there a dark horse candidate to upset the competition?

Two very good options there! If it matters to you, Kapnos is really loud.  And Del Campo just got a nice stamp of approval from a national publication, which almost always sees a rush of business.


Maybe you should show some love to a good place that doesn't come up as much. The Dining Room at Palena, say, or Corduroy, or Obelisk even.

Tom, gotta say thanks for all your guidance through the years. Rarely been disappointed. Silly question...would you ever consider a paid dinner party gig? My wife likes to host dinner parties once or twice a year, and pretty much everyone is a...well, I won't say the dreaded "F" word, but it rhymes with Rudie. We'd hang on your every word!

Is this an invitation to dinner or a request to speak or ....?


I'm always flattered to be asked to attend dinner parties or whatever, but I have to be careful about them, too. Maybe I've watched "Misery" too many times!  And the reality is, I don't have many free nights.  When I'm off, I truly want to be unplugged.

Not to pile on, but I notice you often call steakhouses "meat markets" and refer to wine as "grape juice."

Duly noted!

Veggie! Veggie! Veggie!

Now *that* is a word I absolutely loathe and will never, ever type. It always sounds like baby talk, or a home economics instructor, to my ears.

Take the water taxi to Old Town and go to Restaurant Eve.

We love Toki Underground. But there's always a 2 hour wait-- what bar should we NOT miss on H st while we have time to kill. To us, the drinking before is part of the fun, but we never know which places to try.

This is not addressed to those establishments serving REAL discounts to furloughed federal employees - instead, this is to restaurants using the furlough as an excuse to try to bring in business. I saw one offering their premium drink list at 10 percent off - not all drinks, mind you, the premium drinks. I so wish I could remember which place that was - but at the time I thought that was a sick outlier. Since then, though, I've seen other top-of-the-line places doing similar promotions - and they are just that, because people involuntary unemployed don't really need ten dollars off their hundred-dollar dinner bill. I'm offended establishments are using this painful time just like they would use Groundhog Day or New Years Eve: to offer minimal "sales" that barely cut into their profits. Shame on them.

Makes me want to give a big shout out to the new Bar Charley (yet) again. Great cocktails under $10, including a first-rate mai tai, with excellent rums, for $8.

Tom: I stumbled into Rose's Luxury for its soft opening and the staff could not have been nicer and more accommodating. I thought the food was good too. I'm wondering what besides the lychee salad you've tried there and what you thought?

Stay tuned! My preview runs Oct. 16.

Tom, in your home, what's the one seasoning you cannot do without? (thinking dry powder)

Espelette, which is red chili pepper from SW France.  The spice wakes up scrambled eggs, grilled cheese -- any dish it touches, really.

Tom, I've decided to give Ethiopian food another try. Tried it several years ago and it did nothing for me despite my friends' singing its praises. Any recommendation in SS for Ethiopian food -- I know there are many and that is part of my confusion! Help!

One of my recent favorites there is the unfortunately named, but very good, LacoMelza on Georgia Ave.

Tom, I'm a restaurant professional taking a beating right now also. Maybe everyone else should allow me discounts too!!!

There you go!

Given a recent interview statement that you wished you'd spent more time studying design/architecture, and the creeping Dwell magazine-ish attentiveness to new restaurants' (increasingly expensive and yet someone less interesting) interior spaces in your reviews, I can only assume that you are gunning, Bruni-like, to get out of the restaurant criticism game and land a more broadly-focused aesthetic analysis gig. It seemed as though almost half your space last Sunday had been swallowed up in space-crit and back-story before you actually wrote a word about the food. Are we to assume that Baby Wale is yet another establishment where the custom-cocktail-fueled "experience" is more -- or as -- important as what respected chef Tom Powers puts on the plate? If we had but world enough and time, I'd love to hear all the reasons that a serpentine bar was preferable to the traditional rectilinear version, but we don't. Food, please. The DC restaurant scene is descending into a swamp of media hype (Le Diplomate) glossy surfaces (Teddy's and many others) and celebrity chefs (Mike Isabella). We need you to force attention away from the walls and the press clippings, and back to the plate. Also, while I'm being a crank, I think you needed to use "a while" rather than "awhile" in final paragraph of the Baby Wale review. Hey -- I only kvetch because I love.

I can take it. Thanks for writing in. I'm always learning from you guys and gals.


Off to lunch (for reals). See you next week, when I'll be fielding your reaction and questions about the forthcoming dining guide. Until then, eat well.

Boundary Road is on H Street, not Boundary Stone. Also, don't forget The Pug, which is very comfortable and feels like it has been around for decades and is conveniently right below Toki.

Oops, my error. Apologies.


Over 'n out.

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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