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

Oct 24, 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.

Hi Tom, When you try cuisines that are totally new to you (which probably is not often), I'm curious as to how you know whether the dishes are cooked correctly or not? How do you know what things are supposed to taste like? Are there any cuisines from around the world, that you have yet to try? Thank you!

I'm fortunate to live in Washington, a world capital where people from just about everywhere reside. Before visiting a restaurant whose cuisine might be unfamiliar to me, I've been known to enlist the company of someone from a relevant embassy (or a State Department employee  or World Bank representative) who has worked in the country in question. I also do research online, and seek out relevant cookbooks, so I know what to expect. Off hand, I can't think of any cuisine I haven't sampled, save for some regional dishes. There's nothing like eating food on its home turf, that's for sure. 

 

Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining me for another hour of  restaurant talk.  

 

Taking a break from the many new places on the dining scene, I returned recently to Annie's Paramount Steakhouse in Dupont Circle, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary in December.  That's a lot of candles to blow out. While the food could use some work, I appreciate Annie's for the way it's created a home of sorts for gays in particular. My review runs in the Sunday Magazine, but is online today. 

 

I'm away next Wednesday, so get your pressing questions to me by noon today. My next live chat will be Nov. 7. 

 

Ready? Let's begin.

 

We have two exchange students staying with us for two weeks. We're supposed to provide them with "American" experiences. What are the best American restaurants in and around DC? Bonus points for interesting/lively areas so we can walk around before or after. Thanks!

American Eats Tavern, with its menu of crab cakes, fried chicken and more, is your ideal. Even better, the restaurant is in bustling Georgetown. You should also consider a pizzeria, maybe the fledgling All-Purpose near Nationals Park. Pro tip: Ask for the Rockaway pizza, scattered with smoked bacon and clams. 

Hi Tom - your chat is terrific. Hoping that you have the eyes of a bunch of restaurateurs, what do you (and they) think would help attract several good, innovative and motivated chefs/restaurants to my neighborhood (Woodley Park)? We have a couple of vacancies, and feel like we haven't had much new in a while, especially compared to Shaw and 14th Street.

I'm going to throw this out to the peanut gallery for an answer. Any restaurateurs or chefs care to share what keeps them from opening shop in Woodley Park? I'm as perplexed by the lack of deliciousness as anyone. The neighborhood is on a Metro line, surrounded by monied locals and multiple large hotels. 

Hi Tom! The last time I had coq au vin was at Balthazar in NYC around December 2015. It was a memorable and dreamy experience I’d like to try and replicate now that the temperatures are dropping in the district. Have you had the dish locally? Or do you have a personal favorite meal you prefer for colder evenings?

It's not traditional, but the coq au vin as prepared by chef Cedric Maupllier at Convivial is definitely delicious. He fries the chicken instead of braising it, then flavors the entree in classical fashion with mushrooms, carrots and lardons. 

I thought I'd try one of the local Michelin starred places, and then I started looking at their menus. I don't like the texture of foie gras, or the way it's produced. Squab is too fiddly / bony. I object to veal. I guess I'm looking for plain food that is exceptionally well prepared. Where would you go for that? Thanks for all you do!

Well-made food you can relate to? I could point you in dozens of directions, starting with Buck's Fishing & Camping, Johnny's Half Shell in Adams Morgan, Rare Steakhouse & Tavern downtown, Woodward Table downtown, the Unconventional Diner near the convention center ... and on and on. 

Tom, I don't understand why your top 10 and hall of fame lists omit Fiola, which in my experience is certainly one of Washington's top 3 restaurants. The ingredients, techniques, presentation and service are impeccable. What gives?

I agree that Fiola, the most senior of chef Fabio Trabocchi's Italian restaurants, is very good, but it's also a mere seven years old at this point. The majority of brands in my new Hall of Fame are a decade or older.

Headed to the bay area this weekend, any nice spots to check out, anything with views of the GG Bridge?

Greens, the ground-breaking vegetarian restaurant, is one of the few good-to-great establishments that offers a panoramic view of San Francisco with lunch or dinner. 

Hi Tom, A few chats ago, you replied to a reader who asked if it was OK to sit at the bar and have, just, say 1 glass of wine over the course of an hour or more. I believe you suggested that she shouldn't linger that long over just one glass and would need to order more. Here's what I'm wondering. What about in the case where I'm sitting at a (not entirely packed) bar and had, say, 2 or 3 beers over the course of 2 hours. I drove there and want to make sure I'm fine to drive home. And/or maybe I want to watch the last 10 minutes of a football game but don't need another beer. Is it OK to finish my last beer, then sit there with a glass of water for, say, 20 minutes? Or do I need to order, say, a Coke or club soda with lime, so I'm still a paying customer? Again, this is at a bar with some seats available. And no matter what, I tip well! Thanks!

I applaud your mindful consumption. If you're having a few alcoholic beverages over the course of a few hours, and the bar isn't busy, I think you're fine just drinking some water for a bit (less than an hour). If you're tipping generously and seats are available for newcomers, I don't see why a bar tender would get upset.

Hi Tom, Friends want to take their wonderful daughter and 5 of her friends (so 8 total) out for a fun and special dinner to celebrate her 26th birthday. Her birthday is in about three weeks. They would have loved somewhere like Maydan but thought of it too late. No restrictions on type of food, but they'd like reservations, so no waiting in line that day. Any ideas for a restaurant that has great food and also would be fun for a bunch of 20 somethings eating out with their parents? Thanks so much, we love your chats and really appreciate all of your advice!

Happy to help. I'm a fool for the creative Asian food at Momofuko, which has the benefit of a window-wrapped private area (the better to hear friends and family).  On 14th St. NW, the garden room and French cooking at Le Diplomate are also very much to my taste. Coolest of all might be the intimate Little Pearl on the Hill, a sleek wine bar with a terrific small plates script.

Tom, With the proliferation of restaurants that instruct patrons that dishes are meant to be shared, it really bothers me when sharing dishes do not come out with serving utensils. On Saturday, I went with friends to a restaurant where the server made it a point to say that its dishes are meant to be shared and that we should order two or three per person. The dishes all came out without any kind of serving utensils and the servers seemed shocked when I asked for some. The need for serving utensils was particularly important because one friend in my party had a cold, but I don't think it should matter. Do restaurants really expect patrons to use the utensils they are eating with to serve themselves from shared plates? I'm interested to hear your thoughts.

You are preaching to the choir! Twice this week alone, I've struggled to transfer food from a serving dish to my plate without the assistance of anything other than my own fork. Hey, restaurants! It's flu season! Give us some extra utensils, please!

Hi Tom! My boyfriend and I are thinking of doing a winter weekend at the Greenbrier to celebrate our anniversary. I know you reported last spring that just about everything at the resort is lovely, except the food--which makes me nervous! Have you had occasion to revisit, or heard any updates on whether the restaurants have improved? If not, do you have a recommendation for what we should do instead? I'd hate to spend a weekend relaxing and celebrating in between mediocre meals. Thanks!

I haven't been back since my last visit, and I don't have any intel suggesting the food there has improved. (Sorry! ) I'm posting this in the hope readers might either weigh in regarding the Greenbrier or have suggestions for a better getaway. 

Just read your mean spirited comment about the Inn at Little Washington's Cheese Wiz. Your "Enough already" was an unnecessary and unkind thing to say about one of the nicest and most thoughtful human beings we've ever met. Your comment illustrates how much less of a nice human being you are. The Cheese Wiz is always smiling; is a doting, proud parent; is highly trained and recognized in multiple disciplines; adds a wonderful whimsy to one of the most revered restaurants in the world; and knows more about cheese, tea, music, and glass blowing than you will ever know. Enough already indeed.

You sound like you might be a *little* close to the subject of my gentle poke, or what I thought was gentle.

 

The Cheese Wiz at Patrick O'Connell's four-star restaurant is indeed a wonderful and multi-talented young man, but I think his spiel would be better with fewer puns.

 

I'm not the only diner who feels that way. You weren't there to hear the groan or see the eye rolls of some of the other guests around me when the cheese cart moooooved through the dining room.

"Mouth feel"

Unless it's in an academic/technical setting, yes. 

I have tickets for Beetlejuice on a Sunday evening, where would recommend for dinner before the show. Definitely don't want to park twice.

My favorite place to eat before a show in that neck of the woods is Central Michel Richard, across from the Trump International hotel. The French-American restaurant offers a three-course, pre- (and post-) theater menu for $38.50.

Tom, I'm curious if you have dine at some Filipinos restaurants in DC if any? Any recommendations? Thanks!

The most famous of the lot is no-reservations Bad Saint. Easier to access are places like Purple Patch and Kuya Ja's Lechon Belly, a small storefront in Rockville that I included in my Top 10 list of favorite restaurants earlier this month. 

We ran over to Nama on Saturday night and got a table and ordered everything you suggested. What a home run experience. The sushi was as delicious as the photos from the review, and that cheesecake was to die for. We felt so special to receive chocolates as a farewell gift. We can't wait to return!

Happy to get this feedback. Thanks for writing. The Japanese-inspired retreat is a fun addition to Mount Vernon Triangle. 

For the record, I like that the cow moos, but we need like two-thirds less puns. Lets limit maybe to one or two per diner, not one per cheese per each diner ordering?

I second your motion. 

Anxiously awaiting your review of the new Marjorie Meeks-Bradley "steakhouse"...

For the moment, there's my preview, based on a visit shortly after Don't Call It a Steakhouse rolled out near Union Market in mid-September. ("Take a left at the bear." LOL)

Have you had a chance yet to try either of the new dining options in upper Northwest, The Little Beast and I'm Eddie Cano?

I've been to I'm Eddie Cano several times since it opened. Stay tuned for a review of the high-energy, Italian-American newcomer next month. 

A million thanks to you for recommending Partage in Las Vegas. A friend and I went Monday while on a quick trip to Vegas. With no reservations, we sat at the bar - and dined like royalty. Service was superb and the food was some of the best I have ever had. The lobster ravioli in bisque was divine - the squash blossoms delectable - and the Iberico pork seared table-side on lava stone was the stuff dreams are made of. Fantastic cocktails, including a smoked Old Fashioned. Reasonably priced, given the exceptional food and service. We never would have gone to this little French restaurant in Chinatown if you hadn't recommended it. Thanks for one of the highlights of our trip!

Awesome. I love hearing back from readers whose good experiences mirrored mine. I'm enjoying Vegas again -- especially its interesting restaurants off the Strip

Work has just given me orders to spend the coming week in midtown Manhattan. Any can’t miss suggestions for a solo diner without any limitations or dislikes?

I love the counter at Sushi Yasuda for raw fish and vinegared rice, the bar at Empellon for tacos and margaritas and a linen-draped table at Le Bernardin for a seafood splurge. I could go on for the rest of the hour -- Aquavit for a rare taste of Swedish fare! Oyster pan roast at Grand Central! -- but those suggestions should hold you over. 

That could be part of the problem. Convention/meeting attendees might not want to eat at the hotel but can frequent restaurants within walking distance, even if they are mediocre (the restaurants, not the attendees!).

Interesting. Thanks for chiming in.

This drives me crazy! As someone with a seafood allergy, it sucks when my companions order one fish dish but then contaminate their forks with it because there was no serving utensil provided. The rest of the dinner becomes a complex orchestra so there's no major cross contamination.

Yet another reason to call for reinforcements, silver division.

Have you ever been "outed" while dining at a place you're reviewing?

Just last night, in fact. Long story, but an otherwise lovely colleague shouted my name from across the dining room when I walked in .... and the rest was what you think it was.  

Cedric hasn't had the fried chicken coq au vin on the menu for quite awhile now. If diners go there looking for it, they will find themselves disappointed.

I'm surprised he took off a signature dish. Thanks for the update.

Tell them to go to Lewisburg which is about 15 minutes west of the resort. A quaint small town with plenty of good dining.

There's one option.

Also love treating myself to breakfast or lunch at Buvette when I'm solo in NYC- they have a single spot in the front window that's almost always available with no wait.

Cool. Also good for breakfast is ABCV Kitchen, where I saw the chef-owner himself, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, holding court one morning.  

Hello! First time travelling to either of those cities; any can't miss places? Especially any not typically suggested by the usual Google-able travel sites?

Years after I last ate in Amsterdam, I continue to recommend Greetje for echt Dutch cooking -- and people keep returning with raves for the place. That's one restaurant you can bank on. As for Copenhagen, in addition to the almost-impossible reservation called Noma,  I'm a big fan of Barr (schnitzel on the docks!) and Kodbyens Fiskebar, the latter for excellent seafood. Safe travels!

I just started working in Rosslyn and noticed today the space for the new Sfoglina. The signs on the building just said "coming soon" with no date. Do you have any idea when it will open? It will make a nice addition to the current offerings in Rosslyn.

A spokeswoman for the restaurant group tells me spring -- March or April -- is the current target. 

Hi Tom, my brother who hasn't been in town for about a decade is coming to visit and I need a good Friday night spot, which options for an after dinner drink. We are going to do the Wharf/Navy Yard on Saturday, so suggestions for another part of DC? Would love to do a no-reservations place, but he'll get into town too late. And just a personal preference, but not a fan of Convivial, which I know is a fav of yours. Thank you!

I'd probably go to easy-access Johnny's Half Shell in Adams Morgan for dinner, then head over to the new (ish) Line hotel for drinks at Brothers and Sisters near the lobby or A Rake's Progress on the top floor. 

Hi Tom, Any recommendations for where to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner for two in the city? Thanks!

Lots of restaurants will be open on Nov. 22. If I wasn't hosting my own feast next month, I'd be inclined to check out the menus of such reliable establishments as the Oval Room (near the White House), Corduroy (near the convention center), 1789 (near Georgetown University), Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons or Art & Soul on the Hill.  I would be inclined to pick a restaurant that offered not just tradition on a plate, but interesting sites to see before or after the meal. 

My college classmate and I try to get together about twice a year to try a hot new restaurant in DC. Unfortunately, life has gotten in the way and we're about 2 years overdue! Past selections include Little Serow and Rose's Luxury, among others. What do you recommend for us? We are both adventurous eaters and don't mind paying more for a fabulous experience.

If you don't mind standing while you're eating, Spoken English in the hot-hot Line hotel is a trip. And Maydan is great for Middle Eastern/Moroccan/Tunisian food cooked over a live fire. 

Do you think Cedric might return the fried chicken coq au vin to the menu if enough customers phoned inquiring about it -- at least as a special?

You can try! 

Hey Tom, my girlfriend and I are just starting to get into natural wine, and we're wondering if you can recommend a restaurant or bar in town that specializes in it?

A great place to start your adventure is Primrose, the cozy French bistro that buys its wines mostly from small producers.

 

On the menu: French onion soup, steak frites, roast chicken with a green salad. In brief, natural wines are the result of organic farming and not adding processing aids before the wine is drunk. Many consider natural wines "wholesome."

Tom, thanks for the amazing dining guide! However, we live in Alexandria (near OT/Del Ray) and have to stay local for a birthday dinner. Nasime is not getting back to us (bet they are swamped after being in your dining guide). We’ve enjoyed Hummingbird & Vermillion. Any other thoughts in Alexandria or Arlington? We eat all types of food and flexible on price.

Have you considered the very good Royal Nepal, whose fans include Tim Carman and me?  The goat-filled steamed dumplings are terrific, as is the yogurt-marinated lamb chop. 

Can we please just get an actual meal?! While small plates allow the diner to try many different flavors, I'm pretty tired of this trend. It can be awkward when dining with acquaintances or friends who are a little picky. It can also add up to a much higher tab than a more traditional 3 course meal. Do you see an end to this trend?

Alas, no. I, too, am suffering from small plate fatigue. (It's a condition I've had for the past decade, at least.)

Good morning - we're looking at going to either Arena Stage (Anything Goes) or the Kennedy Center (Anastasia) with our kids (6 and 9) within the next month or so and would like a nice meal somewhere that would welcome the kids, too. I feel like a pre-theater menu or a brunch would be a good fit for them because the pre-theater menus tend to be served quickly (they're well-behaved, but can get restless if a meal takes too long) and brunch frequently has more kid-friendly options. What would be your choices for pre-theater meals (brunch or dinner) with kids in the Kennedy Center and Arena Stage areas? Thanks!

For brunch near Arena, check out the dashing Osteria Morini, where the a.m. possibilities run from banana muffins and ricotta pancakes to house-made pastas. Close to the Kennedy Center, there's the comfort food-themed District Commons and the more fanciful Kingbird within the Watergate (neither of which I've been to in the last year, I should point out). 

I read an article by a San Antonio food critic in which he mentioned that he lives in Austin and commutes 5 days a week for his job. I know lots of people commute to work, but for some reason this one surprised me - maybe because restaurants are such an integral part of a community. Would you consider living in a different city while still working as a DC critic? And since you often write about restaurants in other cities, do you find any difference in your approach to the local ones vs the others?

When I was a food critic for Microsoft (anyone remember sidewalk.com?), and based at headquarters in Seattle, I proposed reviewing both there and in San Francisco, a city near and dear to me. My boss at the time talked sense to me: whichever city I was working in would demand my full attention.  So I stayed at the mothership until the Washington site was introduced, which brought me back to the East Coast in 1998 or so. 

 

As to your second question ..... time is up, and I have to get out of Dodge, but if you submit it again for my next chat, Nov. 7, I'll be sure to address it. 

 

Thanks for a lively 60 minutes, everyone. here's wishing you all a delicious remainder of the week. Be well. 

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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