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

Oct 07, 2015

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.

You haven't yet announced your #1 favorite for this year's dining guide, but there's a huge turnover from last year. Mintwood, Rose's, Red Hen, Fiola Mare, The Partisan, Le Diplomate, and Boss Shepherd's: 7 of your 10 favorites from last year are gone! Have all of those restaurants gone seriously downhill? Or are the newcomers just that good? Or do you just tend to be fickle?

By the time this is posted, my No. 1 favorite -- Rose's Luxury -- should be published. As I explain in my forthcoming introduction to the complete dining guide -- out tomorrow online and Sunday in print -- the scene has changed a lot since last year: We've seen lots of noteworthy arrivals (Garrison, Masseria, Riggsby) along with chef changes at previous favorites (Ashby Inn, Vidalia, etc.)  

 

Just because a previous favorite didn't make the list doesn't *necessarily* mean it's no longer good, just that the fresh competition makes me partial to some newcomers.  One thing is certain: The bar is higher than before. So are expectations.

 

Good morning, everyone. I'm pleased to be hosting this chat from Los Angeles, where I'm spending the week eating around for my next Best Food Cities survey.  I'm still full from last night -- dinners at Animal, Jon & Vinny's and the extraordinary Petit Trois --but I've got a "Pipe Cleaner" made from lemon juice, ginger and apple to power me through the next hour. 

 

Tell me what's on your mind today. 

Hi Tom--Love the chats. Our firm is currently exploring places to hold our annual holiday party, which we usually do as a (boozy) lunch. The food is of utmost importance, but we also like to have a formal/festive vibe (in the past we've done 1789, Bourbon Steak). Any thoughts on places to explore for this year? (We were considering the Ritz in Georgetown but are thinking the food won't be up to snuff. Looked into Plume at the Jefferson but they say we can't be in the dining room; we'd be in a depressing conference room.) Thanks in advance!

Have you considered two of my favorite destinations in Georgetown, Fiola Mare and the Grill Room? One is a celebration of Italian seafood with a view of the Potomac; the other counts a former White House chef in the kitchen and a handsome dining room hugging the C&O Canal. 

First of all, I love your chats. Thank you so much for taking the time to listen to us and answer our restaurant and dining out questions. I have seen a number of questions/comments from diners who are not happy with service or with wait-staff in a particular experience or in general. Do you know if waiters have a list of pet peeves with regard to diners? I would be interested to know if there are things I may be doing that irritate servers. I try to be polite and respectful but I know I can be picky, especially with regard to my table (I like cozy tables away from the middle of the room). Thanks!

I'll throw your question out to the crowd, which invariably includes restaurant professionals, some in real time.  

 

From having *been* a waiter, years ago, I remember being grateful for customers who showed up on time, didn't ask for multiple checks and didn't try to "help" me by say, taking glasses off my tray.  

I agree with your review about the quality of the food and fresh takes on vegetable dishes at Garrison but I had a couple issues arise on a recent visit that make me hesitant to recommend the place. I had the same burrata and grilled peach dish that you mentioned but my burrata was topped with an anchovy sauce?! that was not mentioned in the menu and gave the entire dish an unwelcome fishy flavor. Secondly, a duck terrine special was very tasty but at $17 came with two small pieces of bread. When the waiter delivered the dish, he said many diners find that they need more bread. I can get you another order but it will be $2.50 or we can do parkerhouse rolls for $7. They know that they're not including enough bread so the real price of the terrine is closer to $20. Maybe not a huge deal but still struck me as chintzy.

Anchovies are one of those strong flavors that really need to be spelled out on a menu, I agree. Also, if a waiter is acknowledging not enough of something on a dish, shouldn't the kitchen listen? 

Hi Tom! I'm looking for a fancy restaurant to celebrate my mom's 80th birthday. There will be 14 of us. We live in Alexandria, VA. Willing to travel anywhere in the Metro area. Thank you!

That's it? You don't need a view or a vegan option or a room of your own or a buffet?

 

I can think of lots of "fancy" places to toast an octogenarian, including Mastro's (for steak, suave service and live music); Fiola (for haute Italian in a handsome dining room);  and the Source (for modern Asian in a contemporary environment).  All are in the District. 

Love your chats, Tom! Just wanted to ask restaurants to please stock paper towels in the bathrooms!! Look, I appreciate you being environmentally friendly and making us use the blowers. But, there is no way I can use a Dyson's hand blower if I get my face wet, or get some food on my clothes that I would like to wash off in the bathroom. And I dont want to use toilet paper for that purpose. How about just having both in there and letting the customer make the choice. (I'm looking at you, Farmers Fishers Bakers.)

From my keyboard to restaurateurs' eyes: Your wish is my command. Here's to ... options!

Tom, My mom and I are planning an early spring vacation in Europe - and eating well is at the top of our list of requirements. We went to Paris last spring and Barcelona over the summer, so don't want to repeat either of those destinations just yet. Where would you send us? The only requirement is that it's a Euro zone destination - we want to take advantage of the favorable exchange rate while we're dining our way through this vacation. Thanks - love your work!

One of the best trips I took last year combined time in Madrid, one of the best places to eat in Europe right now, and San Sebastian. If you can rationalize another trip to Spain, and you should, that's where I'd go. 

Hi, Tom We are spending next week in New England - Bar Harbor. Any places not to miss for excellent meal memories? As always, thanks for the great tips!

Bar Harbor, anyone?

Hi Tom, thanks for doing these chats, definitely a bright spot on my Wednesdays! This morning I was browsing the Washington DC subreddit and found this post bemoaning the lack of "luxury" restaurants on the DC food scene. What is your take on this writer's complaints? Reading through it, this person seems like a bit of a snob...wanted to see if you disagreed with their assessment. Link.

It's hard to compare relatively small Washington, DC to markets like San Francisco, New York and Chicago, but I think we have a fair number of first-rate luxury restaurants in our favor, including the Inn at little Washington and Marcel's. No other city has a restaurant quite like the modern Indian Rasika, the avant garde Minibar or the contemporary Greek Komi.  As I discovered during my tour of New York last month, a few of the big deal luxury spots -- notably Eleven Madison and Masa -- aren't all that they're cracked up to be. 

I follow your chats and read all of your reviews. I was particularly excited about your review of Parts and Labor. their in house butchery of whole carcasses appealed to me. So my wife and I took off work one day and went there for lunch. Before I went, I checked their website. They had no menus posted and I sort accepted that because they would be using up all the parts of the carcass. I had read your review and was looking forward to the sausages, the pimento cheese and crackers, as well as the potato salad. However, Parts and Labor's lunch menu included only 6 sandwhiches, a hamburger and a salad. The only side we could order were commercial potato chips. You did your readers a grave disservice by not noting how different the lunch menu was from the dinner menu. My wife and I wasted a day of leave each and drove 40 minutes to get there.

 Sorry to hear that, but I visited Parts & Labor only for dinner three times. Lunch and dinner menus can vary considerably. Did you consider calling the restaurant and asking if the selections were different from afternoon or evening? 

Tom, Just a comment that I really enjoyed the way you counted down the top 10 restaurants in the dining guide. It helped confirm a few of my personal favorites (Little Serow, Rasika, Rose's -ignoring the hair that was in one dish during a recent visit, because **** happens) and remind me of several places I have yet to visit (Garrison, the Riggsby). I also appreciated that there's a MIX of price-points and cuisine in the top 10. Nobody wants to read that the best restaurants in Washington can only be accessed by people with an expense account. So, thanks!

Thanks for the kind words. There *could* have been even less expensive restaurants on the Top 10 list had not one previous restaurant bombed on my return visit and the chef at another establishment tell me he was about to part ways with his boss -- only to change his mind just as we were about to go to press. (Maybe next year?)

Hello Tom - Have you tired the restaurant Due South? My buddies and I went there for some bar snacks and drinks to try it out. We were somewhat mixed at best on what we saw, so we opted to go around to Morini for one delicious meal. Great meat, pasta was unusually good, and the bread was so nice. Some had been before to experience "good food", and not so great interactions from servers. But it's like a whole new place now on that front. Great across the board. Crowning jewels were the desserts recommended - one in particular with maple pecan gelato, apples and vanilla mousse was to die for. I'm glad to see that the area by the waterfront is growing in terms of what's there and also ripening in terms of what was there. What do you think?

Due South? Been there, eaten that (and for the most part, enjoyed my meals there).

The chat is bleeding into the margins and half the words are covered by the ads running down the right side. Not sure if this is just on my end or for the whole chat. I've tried refreshing several times.

Producer Becky here -- sorry about that! Should be fixed by the time you see this. Happened when a reader pasted in a url. All better now.

Hi Tom! I have truly enjoyed your top 10 and it has inspired me to revisit some places I haven't been in some time. I imagine you had a pretty good idea of most of your top 10 from the beginning, but I was wondering how many restaurants you considered? Were there any surprises to you? I will say I am surprised Rasika came in at 2, because nothing makes my mouth water more than the taste of Vikram's scrumptious duck vindaloo. Thanks again for all you do!

My Top 10 list changed over time, as I went back to previous favorites and found some wanting: Le Diplomate, for instance, has lost a bit -- but not all -- of its luster. Newcomers made the strongest  impression on me this year, evinced by the cooking and the settings at places including Garrison and Masseria. I estimate I went to about 80 restaurants for the guide this year, a process that started in late spring.

Hi Tom, random observation but more and more lately I've noticed women's restrooms do not have a hook for our purse/bag. Do restaurants really think we want to try to balance holding our purse and go to the bathroom at the same time? To me, this seems like a no-brainer that contractors, managers, designers, etc. would think of. Again, totally random but curious if the chatters have this same issue.

I wonder if that's because so may men own restaurants? Just a thought. Anyway, here's to more restroom stall hooks in your future!

Follow-up from you NYC piece: do you (or chatters) know of any local places that are at all similar to the retail store part of Russ & Daughters? This former New Yorker is having trouble finding freshly sliced smoked salmon!

How about the fish display at BlackSalt in the Palisades? 

You give 4 stars and talk so highly about a dish of canned lychees, coconut milk put into an isi gun, and sausage they don't even make. I hear you get MorningStar if you want your lychee salad vegetarian. What happened to rewarding chefs like Frank Ruta who take the time to make everything from scratch and source everything sustainably? Perhaps you should do a little more research like your buddy Tim Carman.

I'll let my work speak for itself, sir, but at least we agree on The Grill Room in Georgetown, my No. 10 favorite. Frank Ruta is a genius. 

Hi Tom, My husband and I are celebrating our 10 year anniversary with a night on the town. Currently I have a reservation at Riggsby and Casa Luca. Do you an opinion one way or the other? We'd like to get a drink before or after (or both!). There doesn't seem to be many bars/restaurants around Casa Luca, unless you know of anything I don't. I am open to other options as well. We are coming from Silver Spring and would rather not go to VA. Thanks!!

I'd have a drink at the hot, hot, hot Masseria (on the early side) then move over to Riggsby for dinner. Casa Luca is a good restaurant, but there's not much else around it. 

Unless there's a tie, it seems either Rose's Luxury or Mintwood Place took a big fall in the rankings. Care to hint?

All will be explained with the release of the fall guide tomorrow. Mintwood remains a great place to eat.

Hi Tom, We are looking for decent sandwiches to feed 100+ people on the go. What are your favorites for a quick lunch? We are thinking about Roti, Taylor Gourmet, Potbelly. Anything else we should consider? We'll supplement with fruit and chips from Costco but would at least like to feed our guests (from Japan) a decent sandwich. It is a fundraiser so our budget is fairly small.

G by Mike Isabella is my favorite sandwich source in town, but unless you negotiate, the cost might be out of your budget. I wish I liked Taylor better than I did; Potbelly might best fit your needs. 

Hey Tom-- I've avoided Rose's Luxury because I'm a bit intimidated by the reputedly long lines, but now that the place has been your No. 1 two years in a row I think I'll have to make a trip. What time should I be there, and how do I get a seat quickly?

It all depends on the time and the day and the weather. If cost isn't an object, you should consider a line-sitter from  TaskRabbit, a great service that I've used twice this year --- after having waited in LOTS of lines over the years, I should point out. In both cases, the clock was ticking and I was on deadline. 

 

True story: The night I reviewed Rose's for the fall guide, I was among the first group of diners to get a table. About 10 minutes in, two women were seated next to me and I asked, as a lot of Rose's customers probably do, "So, how long did you have to wait?" One of the women smiled and replied, "We just walked by and decided to ask and landed here!" 

 

The lesson about Rose's: Just do it. 

Tom, I'm headed to Reykjavik, Iceland early next month for 5 days and was wondering if you have some recommendations for quality food. Always appreciate your suggestions!

Iceland, anyone? 

I'm having trouble submitting, so apologies if you've gotten multiple versions of the same question this morning. I had the most disappointing experience at Fig & Olive on Monday, and would really appreciate your perspective. I ordered a mozzarella and prosciutto panini which was exactly what I wanted on a blustery fall day. I asked if it could be made without olives, and our waiter told me that the chef could not accommodate those sorts of special requests. I asked to talk to the manager, who told me that the sandwiches are made earlier in the day "for consistency," and that if the chefs accommodated one special request, they would have to accommodate all of them. He acknowledged that this position is not at all consistent with the notion of hospitality, but he held firm on not making a sandwich especially for me. He ultimately comped my (entirely average) pasta, which made me feel a little better, frankly I'm still irritated. I realize it's not the most apt comparison, but even Burger King will let me "have it my way." Is the chef's creation really so sacrosanct that he or she can't make a minor adjustment to make a customer happy? If I'm paying $15 for a sandwich, should I be able to expect those sorts of minor changes? (And I don't want to make this post about food poisoning, but it seems like F&O should be going the extra mile to make diners happy these days, especially given how empty the restaurant was.) What do you think?

Like you, I think Fig & Olive should be going the extra mile to make diners happy these days AND I question a restaurant that can't leave olives out of a simple sandwich. Olives! A missed opportunity for the restaurant, for sure. 

We are a party of 6 looking for a restaurant in Alexandria or Arlington where a vegan, a vegetarian, a dairy-free and 3 global eaters can enjoy a meal on a Saturday evening. These folks are from Charleston so they know their way around the foodie world. Help me impress them, please!! We already have lunch reservations at Zaytinya and the Rasikas are booked.

The neighborly Water & Wall might be able to help you. I'd give the restaurant a call and check. Also: Kapnos Taverna. Both are in Arlington.

You can forego the fermented shark and puffin tastes pretty much like chicken. That being said, I had a really good meal at Le Cheteau Des Dix Gouttes on Laugaveger in downtown Reykjavik. Nice salad and a decent piece of fish. The one thing about Iceland is that it's cheap to get their but can be pricey on the ground. Like $10 for a draft beer,I think the pretty simple meal was close to $50 for one. Hotel Breakfasts were typically pretty solid array of fresh fruit, skyr, meats, cheese and hearty bread so, opt for that route.

Reader to the rescue!

first off, get at least one hot dog (the "traditional" Icelandic snack food) during yor stay from one of the many vendors around the city. I'm sure there are ratings somewhere on Yelp or TripAdvisor for the "best". We were there last summer (2014) and had a nice steak dinner at The Steakhouse (http://steik.is/vefur/), which is a few blocks west of the Harpa on Hwy 41.

Thanks for chiming in, too. 

For what you expect to pay at Fig & Olive, I'd expect the sandwiches to be made when they're ordered. "Consistency"? That's nonsense. "Consistency" is what you get at McDonald's. I don't want a sandwich that's soggy from sitting for a couple of hours already made up. Same reason I don't buy already-made wraps -- the tortilla is inevitably wet.

No argument from this customer!

Nudluskalin for noodle soup if you need to warm up, Kryddlegin hjortu has a soup buffet and some fish dishes that were really delicious, MicroBar is a hotel bar with great beer selection, Reykjavik Roasters is a nice hipster coffee shop, Glo is a good vegetarian place to grab lunch. Enjoy! Pack long underwear!

Sounds like I need to book a trip to Reykjavik!

Menu looks good, but again, no prices. For the love of dog, restaurants, put prices on the menus, or I'm not trying you out. I don't like expensive surprises.

The tasting menus are $62 and $84.

Would a single diner have to wait for a spot at the bar behind parties who got there before me but are having a drink at the bar while waiting for their table? And I'm A-Okay with standing in line on a cold, rainy Monday.

The larger the size of the group, the harder to land a table. Go, and go solo! I've always wanted to sit at that kitchen bar. Looks like a fun spot to me.

Yesterday I had District Taco cater a staff training. The food was yummy and everyone appreciated a change in pace from sandwiches. The tacos come without toppings so no worries about things being soggy. All the toppings come on the side. I worked with Daniel Pierce at the headquarters to coordinate. May be fun for your Japanese visitors to make their own tacos!

Sounds like a plan. Thanks for the idea. 

We went there last week for our anniversary (as we did last year). I wanted to commend the service. My husband usually asks if a chicken dish has white meat, this time he forgot. They handled it with grace, immediately taking a different order and bringing fresh naan and rice with his dish. They were no eyerolls or anything! There's a reason Rasika is know for customer service as well as its food.

Indeed, and the staff performs as well at lunch as at dinner. Not too many four-star restaurants offer both meals. 

Dill is an incredible experience. The food is incredible as is the service and the ambiance. Be sure to make reservations well in advance - it is a very small and intimate place.

And another idea for the Iceland-bound poster.

Burning Tree restaurant in Otter Creek (try the seafood fritters) and Red Sky in Southwest Harbor.

There you go, Bar Harbor poster. Another chatter has this to add:

 

Not a restaurant recommendation per se, but if you like lobster, make sure to take advantage of the numerous roadside stands selling steamed lobsters, lobster rolls, etc. They cost about 1/3 of what they would here and since they are local it will be one of the best lobster experiences you ever have. I live on lobster when I am there which is about every 3 years.

 

 

I spent a week in Iceland with friends not two months ago - what a beautiful country! That said, don't expect a food paradise. Much of the local/traditional food is quite bland, and I don't recall seeing a salt shaker once. Perhaps the best meal we had was at a hotel in Austurland, where the chef prepared some fish we'd caught about an hour earlier. But in Reykjavik proper, I had a delicious curried ginger fish soup at the Reykjavik Restaurant, a yummy sandwich at The Laundromat, and some stellar Indian food at place whose name escapes me at the moment (it's near The Laundromat, though). Enjoy your trip! P.S. Hit the blue lagoon at least once, and spring for the comfort package or higher - totally worth it.

I love what a resource you all are. 

I think the real surprise about the previous poster's Fig and Olive story is that they server pre-made sandwiches not that they wouldn't leave off the olives. $15 for a pre-made sandwich? Seriously?

Sounds like the airline sandwich I passed up on the way out to Los Angeles ...

Hi Tom. We had brunch at Garrison this weekend, and there were enough hiccups that left us disappointed, despite our excitement about the brunch menu and it making your list. First, we arrived 10-15 minutes early to a very empty restaurant, but were still required to sit at the bar to "wait until it was closer to (our reservation time)". Meanwhile, I had changed the reservation the evening before by a half hour because I didn't want to be late. We were hungry and did not intend to get a drink since it was early, and it felt like a push to order drinks when all we wanted was to eat and continue on with our day's plans (especially when we made the trip to Capitol Hill just for brunch). We sat (rather awkwardly) at the bar, and I requested again to be seated after a few minutes, but was (again) told to wait another five minutes while they readied the table. We couldn't see anything being done to the empty tables, but a few moments later, we were guided to a table across from the kitchen. Once we were seated, we ordered an appetizer of gougeres, which were lovely. We mentioned that we intended to share our entrees with each other (Dutch pancake and Eggs Hussarde), but did not realize how that would diminish our meal. What was apparently a mix-up (it was never confirmed), I received my pancake but my fiance was offered the wrong dish, so he sent it back. We noticed the server checking on the computer and I can only assume the wrong entree was entered, because we did not receive the Eggs until well after we finished the pancake. Had we not have been sharing, it would have been a major issue, and I think they took liberties with our plan to share and did not provide any sort of real reason as to what happened. The pancake was good (albeit, quite small compared to other Dutch Pancakes I have had and I had to request the stonefruit jam it was supposed to arrive with) but the Eggs Hussarde reminded me of a TGIFriday's potato skin with a dash of hollandaise, a chunk of tomato and an almost-too runny egg on top-perhaps from it being on-the-fly. I will say the two pieces of bacon on top were delicious, though it was not worth the $23 price tag. (Side suggestion for the piece of tomato not listed on the menu. Can restaurants please include all major ingredients in the description?) When we received our check, our server apologized for not receiving our meals at the same time, but it felt like an afterthought. It was blamed on this being the third week of brunch. We would have a hard time returning, especially since I'm fairly sure the managers were the ones who seated us. The general malaise of our visit left us lacking (and hungry).

Is there more to this story? I hope that's an aberration and not the current MO at a restaurant that just got a three-star rave in this paper. I hate it when tables are free and customers have to wait at the bar for no good reason and it's lame to blame the snafus on expanded hours of operation. 

Hello Tom, I really miss CityZen. It was our favorite place to go for a really special occasion for several reasons: - food that was wonderful and creative - impeccable service and attention to detail - it was possible to get a reservation! - a suit was appropriate attire - close to downtown DC, where I live The last point is negotiable, but we haven't found anything that obviously can take its place. Fiola meets all the criteria except for the novelty of the cuisine. You can't get a reservation at Komi. Etc. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you!

Don't you think Marcel's is in the same league? Out of town, I think Volt in Frederick continues to do great work, too. 

Tom, Sorry if you have seen this, but I'm having trouble submitting a question. Anyhow, I'm getting married in July and we are looking for a venue for the rehearsal dinner for up to 50 people within a reasonable cab/uber distance of the St. Regis. We would prefer a good restaurant as the quality of the food is important to us. Nothing too exotic but we are open to any and all suggestions.

Try Fiola in Penn Quarter or the Grill Room in Georgetown. 

How about Paul's or Pret?

Also good options. Thanks.

for renovation and will reopen this fall. The fish market sooner than the restaurant.

I should have remembered that. Thanks for the catch.

What are your favorite sandwiches?

Honestly, I like them all, including the model stuffed with cauliflower. 

Tom: I had the pleasure of being in Charleston during the great deluge and still managed to eat my way through the city. My impressions. Day 1 - Went to Jestine's since it was shorting walking distance from my hotel in the rain. Great service and food, especially under the circumstances. Day 2 - Husk. Everything you wrote was spot on. Ended the day at Gin Joint when it started to rain really hard. Day 3 - The worst of the weather but Halls Chophouse was open. Two bartenders and three servers and some kitchen staff. Welcomed by the owner. Only opened the bar area and associated tables. Warm and inviting. Food was great but the people there were awesome! Place was packed by the time I left. Day 4 - Went to the wedding I flew down for. Day 5 - Back into the city for Hominy Grill for lunch on the way to the airport. The shrimp and grits were a perfect tonic for a gray day. Biggest impression? The service everywhere I went was friendly, accommodating, and spot on. Can't wait to return when the sun is shining.

What a great field report. Sounds as if Charleston, one of my 10 Best American Food Cities, came through for folks despite a storm of biblical proportions.  

 

That's a wrap for today, gang. Thanks for a lively hour and let's do this again next Wednesday, when I'm back in DC (for a bit). 


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 sidewalk.com 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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