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

Oct 03, 2018

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at washingtonpost.com/tomsietsema.

I just sent this note off to Fiola: Dear Fabio, Maria, and all of our friends at Fiola, I was in your dining room last Monday, when the protesters arrived to express their objections to Senator Cruz and his wife. In fact, I was entertaining a friend and fellow board member at the table that gave us a ringside seat to the events. I was impressed with the way that your staff gently handled both the protesters and the Cruzes. My own guest, a fellow member of a nonprofit board with me who is also a restaurant-industry executive, and who was here on business from Florida, was likewise nonplussed; if anything, the event gave us something to tell our spouses about other than the usual “We had a fantastic, transformative meal at Fiola.” In fact, we’re referring to this event as “Dinner and a Show,” and our fellow board members are jealous that they weren’t with us for the affair. These things will happen in Washington. That is why I live in the National Capital Area, and why I choose to raise my family here: The people here are interested and interesting, political and passionate. I would have it no other way. And while the protesters were loud, to be sure, they were not loud for long, and they were nonviolent. They certainly have something to protest, and I am glad they were given a brief opportunity to express themselves. In short, it was a positive and memorable night for us at Fiola, and I know that I’ll be at least a little disappointed if there isn’t another protest the next time I am in. Your friend,

I think you just made the Trabocchis' day. Here's more on the unfortunate situation, from my colleague Tim Carman.

 

FOOD FLASHES: Manuel Iguina, the former owner of the late Mio restaurant downtown, is returning to his professional roots with the roll-out of High Street Cafe in Georgetown later this month. “I was a waiter at Mr. Smith’s in the early 80s,” says Iguina, who also worked in both the kitchen and the front of the house at Filomena.

 

The forthcoming brasserie replaces Paolo’s (1303 Wisconsin Ave. NW) and installs chef Vincent Torres in the kitchen. Designed to be casual, the restaurant takes its name from what Wisconsin Ave. was called up to 1895  — High Street — and will serve hits from Mio (whole fried snapper, whole roast pig on weekends) as well as pizza, pasta and daily specials. “Georgetown will never be out of fashion.” 

 

 

SPEAKING OF WHICH: Once the roost of former White House chef Frank Ruta, the Grill Room in the boutique Rosewood hotel in Georgetown is closing after breakfast service Oct. 17 in anticipation of a major relaunch next spring.  

 

Look for Cut, and a steak theme, in a made-over dining  room, and Andrew Skala, an Ohio native who last served as chef de cuisine at Cut New York, in the kitchen. The chef, 38, has worked for Wolfgang Puck for 13 years, including at Spago in Las Vegas. Cut’s menu has yet to be written, but Skala promises local beef and seafood, much of it cooked on an open wood fire. The original Cut opened in 2006 in Beverley Hills. The concept has expanded to seven restaurants world-wide.

 

 

Good morning, everyone. Lots to chew over this morning. Ahead of the fall dining guide Oct. 14, I'm introducing my Top 10 favorite restaurants this week.  No. 5  is the seductive Maydan.

 

Let's rock & roll. What's on your mind?

I'd love to get your advice on how I should have handled this situation. I recently showed up for a 5:45 reservation with two guests. We had dined there just a week earlier and really enjoyed the service and food. This time, the hostess immediately informed us that our table had a reservation after ours. She refused to seat us until I agreed that we would vacate the table in time to seat that next group. (When I said "we would try," she did not respond.) We almost walked out the door, but decided to do our best to enjoy our meal. Now, our positive memories of this new favorite restaurant are clouded with unpleasant ones. What do you think we should have done?

Good grief! That's hardly the greeting you expect at a restaurant. Like you, I would have been tempted to turn on my heels, too. Regular readers know what I'm going to say next: Did you share your problem with a manager? 

Where in DC serves up your favorite steak frites? My mind immediately jumps to Le Diplomate, but curious if there are any other spots that do the classic justice.

Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown, a favorite of former first lady Michelle Obama, and Primrose, which serves steak frites with béarnaise and a salad, are also good sources. 

Hi Tom. I'd love to get your opinion on which Jose Andres staple restaurants are your favorite, and which may not strike your fancy: -Jaleo -Zaytinya -Oyamel -China Chilcano I'll leave Minibar off this list as it's not quite in the same categories as the restaurants above. Thanks Tom! Love tuning in to your chats.

The restaurant of his that I frequent most often is Jaleo, the oldest in the chef's collection. It's consistently delicious, and I always find new dishes to like, so there's no getting bored. Zaytinya needs some touching up. Oyamel has more competition than it did when it opened. China Chilcano is best for its Asian creations (dumplings, etc.)

So I've been following your countdown to the #1 restaurant & I was wondering if we can expect restaurants that are older than a year or two? BTW, love the list so far!

Glad you're enjoying the countdown. This was a fun guide to put together. So many new favorites! That said, yes, you can expect at least one restaurant older than a year or two on the list.

One of my pet peeves is people posting photos of whatever they ordered to eat or worse when theyr'e part way through. Although your articles have photos of dishes you discuss they are professionally photographed and without bites taken out. So a shoutout to your photographers and/or food stylists.

I'm lucky to work with some of the best (and nicest!) in the business, including Deb Lindsey, Scott Suchman and Dixie  Vereen

Tom, I reached out to you a few weeks ago asking for Dallas recommendations and you advised I reach out to Michalene Busico. I ended up sending her an email because my fiance and I have decided to elope and we want to have a special wedding night dinner just the two of us. Michalene went above and beyond in her email with restaurant recommendations - she is fabulous! Thanks for recommending I reach out to her!

Food critics to the rescue! Glad she helped you out. And congrats. Where are you toasting one another?

Hi Tom--Last year my husband and I had a disastrous first anniversary dinner. I wrote in to you about the restaurant in question not notifying us (reservation holders) that the restaurant was closing that day, and then reporting us as no shows to Open Table, who then attempted to suspend my account for no showing. You had offered to give us options for a do-over, and I never wrote back in. I'm hoping you'd be able to help us this year. My husband is a very picky eater (think plain American food, pizza, and little else). I am a lot more adventurous, and enjoy a good cocktail. We will be in the Capital Hill neighborhood doing a scavenger hunt, and I was wondering if you had any recommendations for a short notice table.

I'm a big fan of the dashing Joselito on the Hill. The food is Spanish, with sufficient options for picky eaters.  

Will you be reviewing Reverie in Georgetown after it opens?

Talk about a softball question!

So my mom is coming into town and her favorite food in the world is CrabCakes, I was wondering if you’ve come across any stellar examples in the district or the surrounding areas ? I was thinking of finding the best here or possibly doing one of the ‘crab shacks’ close to Annapolis ( despite the fact that I usually hear so-so impressions about them ). I always enjoy your chants ( a weekly highlight ) and am always appreciative of the time you put into these . Thanks !

In the District, I'm a fool for the (broiled or fried) crab cake at Johnny's Half Shell in Adams Morgan. The entree costs $29 and comes with peerless fries and coleslaw. My go to in Baltimore -- in the Mid-Atlantic, really -- is at the scruffier Faidley's in Lexington Market, which also ships it's excellent, jumbo lump crab cakes. 

Tom - since so many restaurants follow this chat religiously, I wanted to put in my 2 cents of how frustrating it is when a restaurant does not put its wine list on their webpage. For a lot of diners, it is as important as the menu and, by not putting it up (or only listing wines by the glass next to the cocktails), it makes it less likely that a potential customer will actually visit the restaurant. I looked at one page today that listed four different menus but no wine list. I didn't chose that restaurant. Thank you!

Catch that restaurants? Diners want to see ALL that you're offering -- desserts, too, which seem to get short shrift online, I've noticed. 

Missed your live chat - Alexandria Pastry Shop also does great cakes; we ordered our wedding cake from them, and are pleased to be able to go back each year on our anniversary for a 6" version of the same flavors (white chocolate raspberry mousse). We've also ordered smaller cakes for more intimate gatherings and been pleased every time.

Yet another choice to add to our list of good bakeries in the DMV. Thanks for submitting.

Any recommendations on items we must order for our party of 10? We're looking forward to trying the new Asian hot spot on the Warf.

Please don't make me spoon-feed you. (Google the review!)

Hi Tom--Thanks for the chats! My husband and I are trying to decide where to go to dinner for our second anniversary. We did Metier last year which was fabulous, but don't need something quite so extravagant this year. We're thinking Fiola or Centrolina--but are open to other options. We like all food, especially French and Italian, and want a special vibe. In the city is preferred; not the Wharf or National Harbor.

Go with you gut. I like both your ideas a lot.  For what it's worth, Centrolina is where I've been taking friends and family from out of town the past few years. I love the relaxed vibe, the serious food and the great service. Plus, it's fun to walk around and window shop in CityCenter before or after a meal there. 

Hey Tom! Love these chats so much! I've always wanted to try omakase and I really want to treat myself for my birthday this year. Which restaurant do you recommend for this experience?

The most memorable "chef's choice" in the District unfolds at a six-seat counter on the second floor of the venerable Sushi Taro in Dupont Circle. It costs between  $150 and $180 for about 10 courses and feels like a trip to Tokyo.

Hi Tom. Here's a question about how to handle a restaurant that seems in decline. Cafe Deluxe used to be a go-to for us in Bethesda but it just is not what it used to be. A number of dishes we liked have been "improved" into dishes we don't like, the servers sound scripted, the menu (which is not something I usually think about at all) is visually odd. I spoke to the manager during one of our visits a while ago (saying I was just looking to give feedback; I did not want anything comped) and he was friendly and receptive, but nothing has really changed. Is there anything more I should/can do as a fan of this restaurant and local chains in general? I was there last week and it was almost empty at dinner time...

Sounds like diners are voting with their feet -- and walking to the competition.  I've never been a fan of Cafe Deluxe. The place in the West End is lackluster. 

Hi Tom, My husband and I spend about half the year in Europe and half in the US, living in Alexandria. When dining out we have a hard time adjusting to the lack of table cloths or any kind of covering on the tables when we are back in the US. It seems so unhygienic to us, and we can’t believe it is even allowed by health departments. On the other hand, almost every restaurant in Europe, no matter how humble, covers the tables with either cloth or paper or, at a minimum, gives you a paper placemat. I think US restaurants don’t want to use paper placemats because it appears lowbrow but geez— we would welcome any kind of table covering so our eating utensils are not sitting on the bare table. We have witnessed most restaurants clean the table top with a damp rag that is used multiple times and no kind of detergent at all. And we have seen guests with obvious colds or allergies pile up their kleenex on the table as they eat. It is just disgusting to us this lack of a table covering provided in most area restaurants unless it is a seriously fine dining (expensive) establishment... what do you think and is there any way you can give some encouragement to our area restaurants to do something?

While I think table cloths and/or place mats are a nice detail in a restaurant, providing both a (little) sound buffer and a place to rest silverware, I'm not bothered by establishments that don't use them. Linens are a line item some businesses would rather not deal with, and I can think of plenty of high-end restaurants that eschew them -- the fabled Noma in Copenhagen, for instance. 

For my husband's birthday, I'm looking for a fun steakhouse that won't break the bank. Ray's the Steaks would be perfect in feeling and cost, except he wants a baked potato with his beef, and Ray's only serves mashed. Ideas?

I do! Even better is the swank (but moderately-priced) Tavern below Rare Steak and Seafood downtown. While baked potatoes aren't listed among the sides, chef Marc Hennessy says his kitchen can accommodate the request. The chef says it's best to note the fact when booking a table. 

Dear Tom, Friends are coming into town and would like to sample authentic ethnic food - nothing fancy, but good. Most such restaurants are in the suburbs - what can you recommend in DC? Any cuisine is fine... Thanks! Glover Park fan

You're looking for good, non-American cooking? The District is full of possibilities. Consider Zenebech in Adams Morgan for the chance to eat Ethiopian stews and salads with injera, the tangy bread that doubles as your utensil; Maketto on H St. NE for terrific Taiwanese and Cambodian flavors in a modern, indoor-outdoor setting; and the family-run Bistro Aracosia in the Palisades for Afghan cooking and abundant hospitality. I could write forever here, but those places came to mind just now.

Good morning, Tom - we have friends that are getting married next week. We were thinking of getting them a gift certificate to a local restaurant. Can you recommend a place that could provide a nice special engagement meal for them - around $200 - $250 booze included. I would hate to give them a gift that required them to then self-fund some of the experience. They live in the H Street corridor but dine out all around town and I have never seen them to be picky eaters. (How I wish Table were still around, which would have been perfect for what I'm going for.) Thank you in advanced!

What a lovely idea: a dining experience. I'd send your adventurous friends to Bresca on 14th St. NW, Chloe near the Navy Yard or better-than-ever Dabney in Blagden Alley.

We were lucky enough to get a reservation at Three Blacksmiths in a couple of weeks due to a cancellation. I haven't been able to find any information on the wine and liquor pairings. Is it worth getting them? Alternatively we could plan to just order drinks and wine a la carte or bring a bottle and pay the corkage. What do you recommend? Thanks in advance.

I've done both: order the wine pairings ($70 for five or so) and brought my own wine (for $25 corkage per bottle). And I've enjoyed both. Keep in mind, Three Blacksmiths doesn't have a bar per se, although the owners can whip up basic cocktails if they're asked. 

I was just about to book a reservation at Del Campo only to find that it is closed. What's the story?

The story is, Del Campo closed in March, and re-opened as an upscale Mexican restaurant, Poca Madre in June. The good news: Victor Albisu continues to preside over the kitchen.

As a non-native Annapolitan, I have found that if you ask five people for the name of the best crab cake (or the best crab house), you will end up with at least seven recommendations.

Yep. Just like when I ask Ethiopian cab drivers the question about where they go for a taste of home.

Fabric absorbs and carries many germs and dirt until washed, so unless they're replacing them with every diner OP is wrong here. Hard surfaces are easier to disinfect and keep clean.

True. But the water on the bare table ought to be hot and soapy, right?

At least according to the writer, the hostess didn't handle the situation gracefully, but I'm curious as to when the next reservation was. If it was 8 pm, for example, then they'd have 2 1/4 hours, which seems reasonable.

Knowing when the next party was expected would have been a good detail to know.

Tom, I had a dream that you died and I was very sad because I love these chats (and you!). Nevertheless, I awoke very glad that it's chat day and you're alive! Good morning :)

Uh, cool. (I think?) I'm glad to be breathing and chatting today, too.

I used to work in hospitality (catering) and lemme tell ya, table cloths add A LOT of time to turning over a table, even without ironing/steaming them between closet and table (which you have to do if you want them to look *really* good).

Linens add time -- and expense -- which is why so many restaurateurs have done away with them in recent years.

For the poster looking for this dish, Medium Rare is another good option with several outposts in DC. The downside is it's all they serve.

It's been awhile since I've been to a Medium Rare. Has the concept, which includes seconds on fries, improved?

Hey, Tom, we all appreciate the time you give us with all your thoughtful reviews and these chats, but were you just a teeny bit harsh with the birthday group of 10 wanting menu recommendations at Kaliwa, telling them to google the reviews. I mean, how is that really different from somebody asking you where to go in a certain part of town or who has the best fries? I guess I feel bad for the questioner because I suspect he or she feels a little bad/foolish right now for just asking a question in a live chat. Thanks for the consideration.

I didn't mean to be snarky there, but if I were on a live chat with someone, I'd do a *little* homework before posing a question. Sounded to me like the OP hadn't checked the most recent review, but I could be wrong.

After hearing about Little Havana and seeing it coming in at No. 9 on your fall top 10 list, my husband and I decided to try it out this past weekend. Overall, we were very underwhelmed. There were no glaring issues, just small, nagging details. We were prepared for a wait and planned to grab a cocktail at the bar, but we were happily surprised to be seated at one of the last two tops available. We really enjoyed the colorful murals and were fine with the noisy ambiance. We started out with cocktails. They were delicious but took a while to get to our table-- we didn't get them until after we'd ordered appetizers and the tasty bread basket and dip was served. The service seemed inexperienced, but they were nice enough. For appetizers, we order the octopus (husband said they were very good) and the fried chicken thighs with a garlic aioli. The chicken and breading were so bland that even the garlic sauce wasn't enough to add flavor. Our entrees were also disappointing. Our first impression of the coconut shrimp curry looked like it was a frozen entree that was reheated. There was only a hint of coconut and the curry itself had no real flavor. The red snapper dish was also lacking. The fish was on the smaller side, and the flavor just wasn't there. In short, there was nothing that really necessitated talking to the manager-- we ate everything, but the food was just meh/okay. We were expecting to experience fun and interesting flavors but there were none. Did we just choose the wrong dishes or was it an off night? At this point, we might go back for a cocktail before dinner some place else.

Hmmm. Did we eat at the same restaurant? I didn't have the two entrees you describe, but I thought both the octopus and the chicken appetizer were delicious the night I tried them. My servers  -- I went twice, and had different ones -- were warm and helpful. If you go again, try the stellar black bean soup and the seafood stew (since it sounds like you're fish-inclined). 

My spouse and I were recently in Vegas. We'd had a couple of potent cocktails at the Golden Tiki and were walking that strip shopping center to find some dinner. We were just about to turn back and go for all-you-can-eat-sushi when I saw the sign for Partage ... something in my head went **ding** and I insisted we had to try it. We went. We loved it. Thank you!!! We had the 5-course tasting menu and were just completely delighted. We ate at the bar since we were walk-ins and the service was superb. One of the co-owners spoke with us on the way out and was pleased to hear we were from DC and had chosen his restaurant in part due to your review.

So happy to hear you liked the modern French restaurant, one of three, off-the-Strip dining destinations featured in the travel issue of the Magazine recently.

I was diagnosed with Celiac's this week. Farewell, khachapuri and fried chicken. I was wondering if you or any Celiac's readers out there could recommend any restaurants that have mostly gluten free menus where I wouldn't have to ask for major modifications. I need a fun meal out to cheer myself up and start off this whole GF dining thing on the right foot!

So sorry about your changed circumstances. A dear friend with the same issue salutes Little Serow, the Partisan, Centrolina, Peking Gourmet, Blacksalt and the Dabney as places she can eat well, and safely. 

I asked my new GP, a Punjabi, what his favorite local Indian restaurant was, and he laughed, then sighed, and said wistfully, "My mother-in-law's."

Sounds about right!

My family has long been loyal to a steak frites restaurant in Paris since my grandparents lived there in the 60s and although they now have locations in New York and London, they are not yet in DC (despite our pleas). My mom and I went to Medium Rare in Arlington a few weeks ago hoping it would be a good alternative to our favorite, that we are convinced they pulled their concept from, and were disappointed by the service and quality of the food.

Ah, you must be referencing the beloved Au Relais de l’Entrecôte!

Tom provided a link to the review, which was more than I think he was obliged to do. If you can get to live.washingtonpost.com, you can get to washingtonpost.com/sietsema.

;)))) (That's me -- and my recently acquired double chins.)

How does one befriend a chef? As Netflix's Chef's Table series highlights, they are very interesting and talented people!

Eat in their restaurants a lot? Being a regular sure has its perks.

My husband and I have birthdays coming up, and my mother- and sister-in-law have offered to treat us to dinner and babysitting. We've been out some since we had a baby a year ago, but mostly to places in our neighborhood (Adams Morgan). I'm torn about whether we should try a place like Fiola Mare or Elle, or take advantage of the familial nature of the babysitter and use this as an opportunity to try a place without reservations Little Serow (a favorite pre-baby) or Himitsu. What is your recommendation or alternative suggestion? Thanks for the years of chats! I've been leaning on your insights for a decade now (gulp)!

I pick Door No. 2: Go to a place you wouldn't typically have the time to stand in line for. Both Himitsu (modern Japanese) and Little Serow (no-holds-barred Thai) are hitting lots of home runs these days, and I say that, having been to both places twice in recent months. 

I have found that I can eat at almost every restaurant in DC without an issue. I may not be able to eat every dish, but can always find something tasty. For cheap eats, Wendy's, Roti, Chipotle, and Panera. Around town: Busboy's and Poets, Medium Rare, most Thai places, Ledo and Lost Dog for pizza. For fancier dinners 1789, Ambar, Oyamel, and Zatynia have been wonderful.

Thank you for sharing your tried and true restaurants.

I'm back in DC for a visit without the wife and kids. Is there one or two places where the atmosphere is conducive to a single diner? I just want a good meal and I don't mind sitting at a bar or table, but want good service even if I'm by myself. Thanks for all you do.

For something casual but good, I like the convivial Buck's Fishing & Camping in Upper NW, or the new America Eats Tavern in Georgetown. If you want something more more upscale, consider the bars at Fiola in Penn Quarter or Rasika West End

I had brunch at Mi Vida at the wharf restaurant recently. We asked the waiter if the corn bread was gluten free. He said everything on the menu is gluten free unless there is a little "G" next to the dish (like the french toast). My friend was very happy. She said she had never seen a menu like that.

Restaurants are getting so much better, dealing with allergies and such. A friend who eschews pork was handed a menu at Elle marked up with items he could eat, and I saw something similar take place at Momofuku over the weekend.

Went for a special event earlier this year. OH MY GAWD! I didn't know what to expect and I was truly blown away. I am so happy they got their 3rd Michelin star and I wish people put as much energy into everything they do as the chef there. The service was like a Shakespearian play. Could this be the best restaurant in the world? I would love your thoughts.

My thoughts, albeit from last year. (Fresh thoughts will be available in the forthcoming dining guide.)

Taking a babymoon to Paris in Dec. and really looking forward to some very fine dining. Any recommendations or suggested critics to look to for recommendations?

The brands I reach out to include Patricia Wells, Alexander Lobrano and pastry chef David Lebovitz.

As someone with Celiac - it would really great if restaurants would indicate on their website that they offer gluten free options or can accommodate gluten free needs. I would never have thought that I could eat at any of the places in your list, because their websites say nothing about food accommodations.

From this chat to their eyes.

I eat out on my own frequently and have been to a number of restaurants around the city where I have had great service. Nothing specific to offer here, other than that I feel like this city is actually pretty good to single diners like me who still want to eat good food! I really like sitting at the bar and asking the bartender for their recommendations or thoughts, I feel like it sets up a good relationship for the meal's service.

True, that.

What do you think the pre-reqs are for a city to have an excellent food scene? DC made a major transition, Atlanta seems to be on the start of one, some little cities have always had great restaurants and some major cities seem to still be lacking. Do you think its how diverse the city is, how wealthy it is, where it is geographically, or other things entirely that trigger the transition?

My conclusion, after spending much of 2015 on the road, in search of America's best food cities: it helps to be near a large body of water, offer a classic dish or three and have a population that likes to imbibe.

 

That's a wrap for today. Let's do this again next Wednesday, when I'll have a little treat for all of you (well, a new dining guide feature).  Thanks for joining me.

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Tom Sietsema has been the Washington Post food critic since 2000. In leaner years, he worked for the Microsoft Corporation, where he launched sidewalk.com; the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; the San Francisco Chronicle; and the Milwaukee Journal. A graduate of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, he has also written for Food & Wine, Gourmet, GQ, Travel & Leisure and other national publications. In 2016, he received an award from the James Beard Foundation for his series identifying and rating the "10 Best Food Cities in America" the previous year.
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