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

Oct 18, 2017

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've read your opinion and many others about Michelin's decision not to award any D.C. restaurants (or the Inn) three stars this year. The general consensus seems to be that Michelin is hung up on certain European formalities and traditions that simply don't translate to many American restaurants. This seems a reasonable hypothesis, but Michelin explicitly states ambiance and service are not a factor when awarding stars. This means they are either lying or truly believe D.C. food is inferior to other major dining destinations. Do you believe Michelin is full of it, may be correct about our dining options relative to the very best (le Bernardin, Daniel, Steirereck), or may be unintentionally allowing areas they are not supposed to weigh to affect their decision (my food admittedly tastes a little better when the experience impresses)?

One of my biggest beefs with the Michelin Guide for DC, released yesterday, is explained by a lack of support, both financial and human. Michael Ellis, the international director for the publication, told the Post yesterday, "We did not have the resources to go beyond the areas we covered last year," when the Washington list made its debut. "We only have so many boots on the ground in terms of the inspection team."

 

  But to your question: Michelin does seem to favor fancier spots that accept reservations (see: Plume, a curious inclusion) over places with crazy-good cooking that don't (i.e., Little Serow and Bad Saint).

 

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to another 60 minutes of restaurant chat. Tell me what's on your mind today. (Me? I'm curious if any of you have been to the city's most obnoxious restaurant, the 38th branch of Nobu, the contemporary Japanese chain made famous by Tokyo-born Nobu Matsuhisa.

 

Let's begin.

 

Tom, what do restaurateurs think of Open Table? A necessary evil? I eat out a lot, and use it all the time, but I would hate to think it's cutting too deeply into already narrow profit margins of establishments that I like, and care about.

Let's ask the restaurants, shall we? Here's hoping someone from the industry can respond within the hour. 

We went out for a family dinner last week. About 20 minutes after we ordered, the server came over and said that they just ran out of the entree my daughter ordered. They said the other entrees were coming up, and the would expedite her new order. Our entrees came a couple minutes later and my daughter's came about 10 minutes after that. First, shouldn't they know they are out of something when the kitchen gets the order and they try to cook it? Why would it take until the other entrees are ready to figure out that they haven't cooked one? Second, I know this is a contentious issue here, they didn't offer anything for compensation. They asked my daughter if she wanted a salad or soup while she was waiting, which she declined (no mention if it would have been comped), but I expected an offer of a free dessert or something. A lot of what you are paying for at a restaurant is the experience, and the experience took a big hit because of this. The manager came over and apologized, but that didn't make up for my daughter sitting there for 10 minutes watching everyone else eat.

Without information from the restaurant, I can't explain the unfortunate time gaps you experienced. While the server was right in asking your daughter if she wanted a bridge to her entree, and the manager was correct to apologize for the snafu, the restaurant failed when 1) the whole order didn't come out at once and 2) your daughter's entree wasn't comped.

 

P.S. Not everyone wants a gratis dessert when things go south. Most times, people just want their food served at the proper temperature and in timely fashion. 

 

 

I'm behind in reading your chats, so this is in response to the post a couple weeks ago from the person who couldn't use her reservation because of a medical emergency and it was too late to cancel and get a refund. When I bought theater tickets recently, at checkout they pointed out that the tickets were non-refundable but they also offered me the chance to buy insurance. The insurance would refund the ticket cost if I was unable to go to the show due to medical emergency, traffic accident, etc. Perhaps restaurants could have something like this. Most people would probably not buy it, but they'd know that they have the option and can decide whether or not it's worth it.

What a great idea! Insurance would protect both the restaurant and the customer. 

Is it that Michelin is stuck in the past, where white tablecloths and fusty service (e.g., Plume) count for more than brilliant food (e.g., Rasika)?

I think Michelin retains a dated European sensibility that's at odds with the way so many Americans are dining these days.  Even in some of our more formal restaurants, we expect to have fun, for instance.

Tom, I see you took advantage of the recent Kitchen Table promotion during your stay at the Inn at Little Washington, and wanted to get your further perspective on the experience. Specifically, I know that there are two Kitchen Tables available, across the hearth from each other. I also know each table will seat up to a part of six (I think that number's right.) I've always been a little concerned that, if I booked a table for the two of us, there's more than a slight possibility we could be sitting across from a party of four, five or six. And maybe they'd be in a festive (boisterous) mood (hey, it's the Inn!) This has always caused me to hesitate booking it. How did your evening play out?

The kitchen tables are spaced apart in such a way that both parties enjoy some privacy.  Not that one group can't overhear the other at times, but this is a restaurant, not a mausoleum. A cry or a sigh is part of the four-star experience at the Inn, in other words. Book it! 

Any suggestions for a place to have a special occasion lunch for two? Unfortunately, dinner is not an option.

In ... Washington? I have a national audience, so I assume you're referencing the District. The first place that comes to mind is Sfoglina, the lovely "pasta shop" from chef Fabio Trabocchi and No. 10 on my fall list of favorite restaurants. I'm also enamored of Rasika West End, where (if you ask in advance) you can enjoy modern Indian food in a carriage-shaped booth next to the picture window. 

Hi Tom, my husband and I visit Rasika or Rasika West End several times a year for special occasions -- it is our favorite! We have great service from the waiters whenever we go, which is a big reason we return. But the past couple of times we have been seated in not-great locations -- squished next to the handicapped lift, at a tiny table in the middle of the room, etc. My question is, how do I request a "good" table without seeming high maintenance? Is this something the hosts actually look at? I'm not a VIP, and I don't go every week, but I'm a loyal customer and would like to feel a bit more appreciated.

The best way to get what you want is to 1) dine early if you can, when the dining room offers more seating options and 2) just ask if you can avoid places that are less than comfortable. 

Wow. This alone is reason enough to dismiss Michelin's opinion of American restaurants entirely. Ambiance & service are as important as the food.

But wouldn't you rather eat great food in a dive than middling fare among golf-framed mirrors and coffered ceilings? 

I got out of work a little early on Friday, so decided to take my chance and try Himitsu. We ended up not getting there till 5:15, so I was totally prepared for a long wait or the chance of not getting in, but was pleasantly surprised to find plenty of seats still available at the bar (and two 4-top tables left - for all the haters of no reservation restaurants, you never know if you'll get in without a wait if you don't try). My husband and I sat at the bar and ordered 3 fish dishes to share, a salad mainly for my pescetarian self, and the kobe beef for my meat-loving husband. The waiter told us to order everything at once so the kitchen could pace it for us, but it hadn't crossed my mind until dishes came out one at a time that we should have shared our dietary issues. The kobe was last and as the bartender went to place fresh plates in front of us, I let him know I wouldn't need one. When the kobe came out, he sent out an eggplant dish on the house so I wouldn't have to watch my husband eat. It was completely unnecessary, but delicious, and made the evening end on an even higher note. Great food, service, and so fun to watch the chefs at work!

Take a bow, Himitsu, my No. 3 favorite place to eat right now. Your post underscores the thoughtfulness of the Japanese-leaning restaurant in Petworth. 

DC is a great restaurant town. Too bad Michelin doesn't get out more.

You and I are in full agreement. 

Hi Tom, love your work! I'm losing my patience to go to restaurants as a single woman. I'm always seated at the least desirable table, no matter the time or day, neighborhood hangout or upscale. It doesn't have to be Sat at 8. Tuesday at 5, no one in the place? I get the table w the view of the runners scurrying out of the kitchen. It's pretty blatant. Some places seem to have designated single-woman zones close to the hubbub of the kitchen. Are my only options asking to move or sitting at the bar?

If this is happening to you all the time (annoying!), you might start doing some investigative work and report back here. The next time you're led to an undesirable table, simply ask," I'm curious why you've brought me here?"  You could expand on the question by adding "And not there?" while nodding to what you consider to be a more comfortable zone in the restaurant.

I moved away from DC a while back, but still read your chats (it's the highlight of my work week!). I'll be visiting in a couple weeks, and was hoping you had a suggestion for a Friday night small group dinner. It needs to be vegetarian friendly, and preferable not too spendy (dinner and drinks for less than $40/person or so). I only have one night to eat in the city, where should I go?? Bonus points if it isn't a place I have to stand outside for hours to get in to... Thanks for all your work! And as a former server, I really appreciate all your tips re: being kind to wait staff. Their job is tough.

Thanks for the kind words. You don't say how long ago you moved away from one of the best dining scenes in the country, or if you want to try something new (to you), so I'll offer an "old" suggestion -- Zaytinya in Penn Quarter for Middle Eastern small plates -- and a new one: Espita Mezcaleria in Shaw for modern Mexican fare, including some exciting meatless tacos from chef  Robert Aikens. 

A friend and I are looking for someplace new for lunch this Saturday--she's flying in from Salt Lake and she's spent lots of time in D.C. We've done Michel Richard Central, Wolfgang Puck's restaurant, and the like and I'd like to show her something new. She'll be staying near the Capital, although we don't necessarily need to stay in the area (or near a Metro line) since I'll be driving down to visit. Any ideas for a fun new place for two foodies who will eat just about anything? Thanks!

If you want to stay on the Hill, check out  Joselito for Spanish food in a gracious environment; if you don't mind another location, head to the Navy Yard for seafood with a view at the Salt Line, another restaurant on my Top 10 list at the moment.

Tom, A girlfriend and I are traveling to San Francisco in February for a few days of R&R. Any recommendations for great meals? We're not picky, enjoy everything from hole-in-the-wall noodle shops to high-end fare, and are willing to travel around the Bay Area (we're crafting our itinerary around the food!) If we do one "splurge" night, is Chez Panisse still a safe bet?

Let me share my survey of the city from two years ago, part of my year-long series on America's best food cities. 

Even nice restaurants serve sweeteners in paper packets and paper-wrapped straws. So what do you do with that? Just leave it on the table? Ball it up and put it in your purse or pocket? Why can't there be nice little containers on tables for this?

In the old days, we'd all put stuff like that in ash trays, right? I tend to leave paper , used limes, etc.on a bread plate, if there is one. 

I'm curious, since you didn't mention it in your (spot on) column today about the Michelin rankings - do you think Little Serow deserves a star? I know I'm biased, because it's still my favorite meal in the city, but I certainly do.

Ab-so-lute-ly. Little Serow is one of the best Thai expressions on the East Coast. 

I went with my parents to Mirabelle for my birthday. While expensive, it was a flawless meal and a couple of points stood out. The service was some of the best I have had in years, including the paring of cocktails (Hat Tip to the bartender EJ) with my main course. Also my parents, who have a harder time at the louder restaurants were able to hear everything. Its not an everyday place, but it was great for a special occasion.

Pleased to get your feedback on the recetly-reviewed restaurant -- and I'm not surprised about the good service and drinks. 

Looking for a recommendation to take my boyfriends 95-year old grandmother in December. She has not been to DC since she was a child, would love to take her somewhere very special, but it needs to have an approachable menu and be wheelchair accessible. Help, please!

Give 701 in Penn Quarter a call to verify wheelchair accessibility. It has some nice views from its windows and a modern American menu to satisfy both conservative and more adventurous palates. 

Tom, my husband and I recently had dinner at Kapnos Taverna to celebrate our 20th anniversary. After our caloric dinner, we received the bill - along with a coupon for Gold's Gym!!! Is this now a THING and how can it be stopped? Seriously, I just rather the wait staff just call me fatty and be done with it.

If this isn't a joke, I'm sure the Greek restaurant wasn't singling you out, but cooperating with a neighboring business. 

I am using one hand to hold onto my tinfoil hat, and the other to type this question, so here goes: is it plausible to suspect that the Michelin people didn't even set foot in DC this year? Think about it: not a single restaurant gained or lost a star, all of last year's Bib Gourmands kept that status, and the newly-starred places (Komi and Metier), well...anyone who has done even the least bit of research into DC's food scene knows that those are 2 worthy establishments. So what do you think? Did they phone it in this year, or was the proper amount of legwork done, and the end result was one big holding pattern?

I can't speak to that. I certainly *hope* the inspectors revisited  all the previously starred establishments. (I know I do, sometimes multiple times, for my annual guides.)

I've asked this a couple of times but never had it answered. Why does the Post's style guide specify the fruit as "litchi"? I can find no mention of it in the AP or Chicago guides, so for some reason this is a Post-exclusive thing it seems. I understand it's an alternative spelling of the fruit, but it comes up in every Rose's Luxury review (like your 10 that didn't make the Fall Guide) and strikes me as odd since the restaurant's menu itself specifies "lychee."

I reached out to deputy Food editor and recipe maestro Bonnie Benwick for a reply earlier today. She writes:

 

We typically choose our style guide over what is on a menu. It's been spelled litchi since i came to the section in 2004. If it's the preferred sp in Merriam-Webster, that could be the reason why.

 

Hi Tom: FWIW, although I have not eaten at Bad Saint or Himitsu, I have eaten at both Rasikas, have had Eric Ziebold's food (when he was at CityZen), and have eaten at the Inn at Little Washington, and frankly, there's no way either Rasika matches up with either Ziebold's food or O'Connell's food (and overall experience). I usually roll my eyes at readers who discern a bias in your writing, but in this case, I have to say, your love for Rasika far outshines its capabilities. Yes, there are good dishes, but no, it's definitely not Michelin star-worthy. (And yes, I have had some bad dishes at both Raskias and, more disappointing, dishes that should have been good, but weren't executed properly.)

Thanks for the feedback. There's a lot of love -- and not -- for the Indian restaurants in the comments section of my critique of the new Michelin Guide today. I'll keep me eyes/mind/taste buds open. 

I am not the OP from last week (or the week before), but it got me curious, what is the biggest surprise and disappointment of the dining guide?

The most pleasant surprise was a general one: DC's fine dining restaurants are better than ever, and among some of the best in the U.S. in terms of imagination and sheer deliciousness. The biggest disappointment was probably not being able to include even more restaurants in the package, which is why I did a shout-out to 10 places that could easily have been part of the collection of 53. 

My fiancee and I dined at Metier recently, and while the food and service was impeccable, the first impression was a disaster. We arrived 15 minutes before our 9pm reservation and checked in with the hostess at the front of the restaurant. She invited us to grab a drink at the Kinship bar - cool with us, particularly since there was an open bar table. We sat down...and waited. And then waited some more. I flagged down a server to ask for a drink menu. Never came. I asked the couple sitting next to us for theirs, which they graciously shared. 5 more minutes passed as did several servers - no acknowledgement. I asked for a manager. She comped the drinks but it was a very sloppy beginning to what was a fantastic experience downstairs and somewhat tainted the "magic" of a $600+ night dor two (tasting menu + wine pairings). I hope Metier fixes the introduction procedures for guests. It was poor form.

Interesting. Whenever I've dined at Metier, the hostess has always whisked my party straight to the underground salon for drinks. That's part of Metier's magic act. 

Hi Tom, I have family coming to DC who wants to go to the hot, new restaurant in DC. The restaurant will need to take reservations, be close to the downtown area and the food not be too adventurous. I was thinking The Dabney, Kinship or Centrolina. Any recommendations? Thanks!

All of the above, inclusions in my recent guide, would be good, and I'll add to your list and throw in the newest of all: the southern-accented Succotash on F and 9th streets. 

We need to at least recognize D.C. has been taking a very casual approach to ambiance in recent years. I cannot blame outsiders for looking at our top-notch restaurants and questioning how a place that makes you wait in line for hours, then seats you in a warehouse with waiters wearing jeans, is somehow worthy of top honors. Food matters most, but D.C. has been taking ambiance to a casual extreme lately. I for one am not paying $500 to wait in line and be seated in a place that looks no different than Popeyes.

Understand. But you should know that relaxed dining is a trend not just here, but in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and other major markets. 

How heavy is the weight of noise level when it comes to rating a restaurant, can a three star restaurant be held back from the notorious four stars because of noise?

I don't recall ever withholding a star from a restaurant because of noise pollution, although more than a few readers have asked/begged/pleaded/demanded I do so. 

Hello - Not a question! Rather, a Thank You for your prompt response to my question, regarding whether or not to notify a restaurant ASAP if the original number for a reservation of a party changes from, say, 4 to 3. You were in the nick of time! Next day, when 4 of us went to Greens, San Francisco, I noticed that the restaurant had 6 or so tables for 3. Letting them know in advance a change in the party's number certainly could be helpful for them (and appreciated by hungry diners). Thank you for your prompt response. That said, apropos to an issue raised almost weekly in your Chat, here's an FYI: At the top of Green's daily luncheon menu (fresh paper with the date) is the phrase: "All tables are reserved for 1 1/2 hours If you need additional time or would like to request a longer reservation, please make arrangements with a manager or the hostess". One way of handling an on-going dilemma: in black and white, top of menu! Can't argue with that! We did notice that the time restriction was generally ignored for second sittings but it gave Greens leverage if needed. Thank you for your weekly chat. I eagerly look forward to it and the questions/ answers it offers. Bon Appetit! Barbara Witte/

Thanks for the feedback.  Greens is one of the most popular (vegetarian) restaurants in the City by the Bay, with an incredible view that might tempt some diners to linger longer than they might otherwise. I applaud the way management addresses the issue: honestly and graciously. 

Simple. Look for a similarly-sized table and ask "Could I sit there instead?" It works a vast majority of times. And then let it go.

That works!

Any recommendations for an anniversary dinner with great cocktails in the dupont/farragut area, with cost ideally $$-$$$?

Dupont Circle is tough (not what it used to be, restaurant-wise). Maybe Obelisk for Italian? 

I see you are again recommending The Salt Line to someone who wants a special lunch or dinner. My party of 6 intrepid eaters was totally unimpressed with the food. The prices were high, the fish was so-so, and the french fries were soggy. Why do you keep listing this place as one of the best in Washington? Whaley's is nearby and tasted much better to this group of diners.

Well, I'm basing the suggestion on the fact I ate there at least six times with at least 10 other people. 

I too have dined at several well-known institutions (The Inn, the late Citronelle) as well as Rasika West End. I concur with Tom's opinion. In the event that one disagrees with a critic, accept that you disagree rather than the critic is biased or has a soft spot. I suspect that some have a bias towards Western cuisine for whom innovative modern Indian (such as Rasika) cannot impress.

Bless you. (Mom, is that you?)

I have been searching for years for a lovely, crisp eggplant parm. Where can I find it? Thanks

All togethet now: All-Purpose Pizzeria!

This is an unusual lapse on your part, Tom. How about a little advice other than "well, that never happens to ME"?

Come on, this is a live chat! What I meant to say is, the experience generally starts in the salon within Metier for EVERYONE. Not at the bar at Kinship, at least not when you announce yourself at the podium. 

I've been single for 60 years, and while I prefer to eat out for lunch, I have never been refused a better table simply by asking for it. I'm polite but firm and I am always accommodated. It helps to have grey hair...

I like your attitude. 

I guess I'm hopelessly middle class, but in good conscience I could never spend that much for one dinner for two. Yes, I believe that people who work hard (done my share of 12 hour days) can spend their money how they want, but the equivalent of a month's worth of groceries for a family?

Well, some people spend thousands of dollars for a pair of tickets to "Hamilton" .... we all have our thesholds for pleasure, I guess. 

I'm not sucking up on purpose I swear.... but thank you for always making me look good to family and friends when they visit! My restaurant choices are always based on your recommendations and never fail :)

Ah, shucks. Just doing my job. But thank you. I love this weekly back and forth with readers. Highlight of my week. 

I don't know about cocktails, but Iron Gate is a wonderful cozy/ romantic dinner, especially in the back building!

I used to be a big fan, but the cooking has slipped of late. The drinks are still good, though!

Re the diner who was given less than desirable seating @ Rasika / Rasika West End: We are OpenTable "VIPs" (12 or more reservations a year.) Both Rasika / Rasika West are on Opentable. 1. Make your reservation via the OpenTable system 2. Put your preferences in the special notes (Pls. provide a quiet table away from the kitchen; OR Pls. no tables next to the disabled elevator/lift; OR Pls. provide a table where we will be able to enjoy a quiet conversation; etc.) 3. Remind the host/front of house of your preference when you check in. 4. And for heaven's sake, don't sit and suffer in silence. (We were recently shown to a table that was on top of the passage to both the kitchen and bathroom hallway --- we would have been forced to watch every single diner traipse back and forth to the men's and women's bathrooms plus watch every waiter, busboy and runner go into and out of the kitchen. Before we were even seated I turned to the staff person, smiled, and simply said "I'm sorry; this table is unacceptable. Can you please help us find another? Within 60 seconds we were sitting in a pleasant corner far away from the restaurant's maddening high traffic area.) You will never receive what you do not politely ask for.

I bet servers enjoy waiting on you. Great advice.

Tom, I have a trip coming up to New Orleans. So far I have reservations at Commander's Palace (which I adore) and GW Fins. Are there any can't miss spots I should try and check out? Either high end or simple fare are fine...a good po' boy never disappoints!

What you should know before you go. 

Still a solid place for a happy hour drink w/ dinner afterwards?

It's so LOUD. And there are so MANY good new places. And ... no. 

Hi Tom, enjoy your sage & evenhanded advice so reaching out for your perspective on less than satisfactory experience recently at Old Maryland Grill. I hosted a dinner for a group of 13 who were part of a small conference at UMaryland. OMG was very responsive in providing a set menu that came in under our budget. We also had a limited budget for alcohol. On their advice, opted for wine by the glass instead of purchasing a set number of bottles. That was a mistake--I thought they'd serve a glass of wine to guests who wanted one, and when that glass was consumed, if ordered, another would be provided. Instead servers refilled glasses whenever about 1/4 of it had been consumed. This put me in the awkward position of gatekeeping alcohol consumption or spending more than budgeted. I went with the 2nd not good option. I could chalk it up to inexperience in hosting this type of function (although my admin person didn't flag this as a potential problem either) and not going over details of the wine servce. But, I emailed OMG to express my concerns and how I'd have 2nd thoughts about hosting a future dinner at OMG. Have received no response -- wasn't expecting anything other than return email acknowledging they'd heard my concerns. Is it reasonable to expect some type of reply?

I reached out to the owner and here's his response:

 

Yes, it is very reasonable to expect a response. We talked about this party the next day at our daily meetings to improve food and service. Clearly communicating with parties in advance is vital. Our intent was to save the party money by not having them buy bottles that would not be consumed. We clearly missed the mark. I am very disappointed to hear that we did not respond to your e-mail and I promise a full response tomorrow after another meeting with managers about clear party policies./Mike Franklin

 

That's a wrap for today, gang. Let's continue these threads next week, same time, same station. 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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