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

Oct 25, 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.

Hi Tom, thanks as usual for a stunning dining guide. My husband and I will be in town next week, and on a whim, I put our names in for a table anywhere at Pineapple and Pearls. Lo and behold, I got an email with availability, and we snagged seats at the chefs counter. What can we expect sitting there, as opposed to somewhere else in the dining room? How should we dress? Are dark, dressy jeans and sweaters ok, or is the place more formal? I'm so excited! Thanks for your help.

Lucky you! Congrats. The advantage of a seat overlooking the kitchen at Pineapple and Pearls is the extra attention you get from the cooks, plus the up-close view of your food being made. There's probably a bit more comfort and privacy when you're in the dining room proper, but you should have a good time nonetheless. Dress for a special night out; others will be, although nice jeans and a white short wouldn't be out of place.  

 

Regarding what to wear to good restaurants in particular, I love this quote from Ruth Reichl: 

 

 

“What I learned is that how we present ourselves to the world is really how we get treated. So if you want to be treated really well in a restaurant, you really have to dress up. You cannot just show up."

Happy Hump Day, everyone. Thanks for joining me for another hour of restaurant talk. What's on your mind today?

 

Tom, what's your process once you've finished the meals at a restaurant you're reviewing but before the review is published? Obviously you reach out to the restaurant at that point and get more info for the review, but do you give them more detailed criticism of your visits? Do you go through the dishes you ate and provide a thorough critique of the good and the bad? Does the restaurant know what their rating will be before publication? Any other info you provide them? And as always, thanks for your work.

After I make multiple visits (typically three, sometimes more), I file a photo request and generally call the restaurant and interview the owner and GM as well as the chef. I let them know I'm reviewing their establishment, and I share the publication date, but not whether the review is good, bad or indifferent. (Though they almost always ask!)  And yes, I go over the dishes I ate with the chefs, in part to confirm their make-up but also for any stories behind them.

Tom - any suggestions? We have a group of six, probably half interested in tradiational fare and others willing to be more adventurous. Hard to tell from web sites whether restaurants are doing something special, or even if they are open, and reservations those who are open are filling up. We have reservations at Oval Room now. Any other ideas? Thanks

You should be fine with your first choice, but other restaurants that still have openings Nov. 23, along with good track records, include 701 in Penn Quarter, Casa Luca on New York Ave. NW and DBGB at CityCenterDC.

Tom, any thoughts about the John Besh scandal in New Orleans? Something tells me it's just the tip of the iceberg in the industry...

My pal Brett Anderson of the Times-Picayune (formerly of the Washington City Paper) broke the explosive story this weekend. Over the years, I've heard of similar stuff going on in DC kitchens, but nothing to the degree of what transpired at the JB properties in New Orleans. Sad, huh? And just wrong. Following the Harvey Weinstein scandal in Hollywood, we're going to hear a lot more about sexual harassment in other industries, including the hospitality business. The whole #metoo thing applies not just to women, but to a lot of groups that have been marginalized over the years. 

Tom: My husband and I had lunch at the bar of Courthaus Social, a restaurant in Arlington, on Saturday. My entrée included "smashed" potatoes, which were not served with any sort of condiment. I requested some mustard to go with them, and it was brought out from the kitchen in a small dish. When we got the check, it included a charge of $.50 for the mustard. I raised this with the bartender, and he said that there was nothing he could do about it. According to him, any food item that came out of the kitchen had to have a charge associated with it. I realize that a $.50 charge is not a major issue in the grand scheme of things, but it struck me as cheap and sleazy on the restaurant's part, as if they are looking for ways to nickel and dime customers. Your thoughts?

I wonder if you would have been charged extra had the ramekin contained catsup instead of mustard. At any rate, your request for a basic flavor enhancement was not out of line. Shame on the restaurant for being so cheap, and losing a customer in the process. 

Hello! Maybe 3rd times a charm to know if you have any new/current recommendations for London and/or Paris next month. All cuisines and price ranges welcome. Thanks so much!

Just fyi: Sometimes I don't address a travel post because I haven't been to the destination in question in a few years. I'll throw your question out to today's audience and hope you can get some suggestions before you hit the road/skies.

Dear Tom, Thanks for reaching out to Mike Franklin at OMG regarding the issue I had with the UMD dinner for 13 (last question on 10/18 chat). Both Mr. Franklin and his event manager have responded to my feedback in a very positive way. One good outcome is some changes they're implementing to help minimize chances of misunderstandings like this happening again. Bottom line -- OMG deserves serious consideration for private events. The service and food were excellent. Plus, it was quiet enough for normal conversation but also had just about right levels of background sound. Thanks for the help!

Thanks for the feedback. I'll be reviewing Old Maryland Grill, part of a little uptick in restaurants in College Park, November 5. 

Hi Tom, My fiance and I are introducing our parents to each other over dinner next week. Can you recommend a spot in DC proper? For this group, a good dining experience will go a long way to make the meeting go well! Our group will consist of 7 people with adventurous palettes, we need to be able to hear each other, it has to be delicious, and a price point that's not totally through the roof would be best. We've previously taken our parents (separately) to Red Hen (a hit), Maketto (a BIG hit), and Iron Gate (OK). Thanks!!!!!!!!!

Convivial, the imaginative French-American treat from Cedric Maupillier, has an alcove table that would be perfect for your size group. Other restaurants to consider are Johnny's Half Shell in Adams Morgan, Joselito Casa De Comidas on the Hill for Spanish fare and Kyirisan in Shaw for creative pan-Asian small plates.

Was curious on your take on another dining out Pet Peeve. My friend and I eat out several times a month at a wide range of restaurants, including high-end places. We always order coffee when we order dessert, with the expectation that they will arrive together. All too often the dessert comes first and that little scoop of ice cream melts while we wait for our coffee. Are we wrong to expect the 2 to arrive at the same time (or even the coffee first would be good, especially if it is too hot to drink right away)? It can be a very frustrating way to end an otherwise wonderful meal.

If you like something a certain way, let your server know. Coffee with dessert, or slightly ahead of it, is the norm, I think, but some diners like coffee to come last. (Speak up, in other words.)

Just wanted to thank you for hyping up Sfoglina so much recently. My fiance and I went with my parents this past weekend, and everything we ate was incredible. The octopus small plate was far and away the most tender, flavorful, and delicious iteration I have ever had, and the squid ink pasta was truly decadent. We also really appreciated that they had some very good wines by the bottle for reasonable prices, a significant departure from the norm these days. Great recommendation!

Glad to see we are on the same page about Fabio Trabocchi's luxe pasta "shop," as he refers to the lofty pleasure. 

Hi! In the discussions about this year's round of Michelin stars, plenty of commenters have been like "Plume? Because of the fine dining, white tablecloths thing? Is that all it takes?" In the interest of candor, I admit that I have a habit of assuming that fine dining is fusty, unnecessarily formal, and cool/distant. (But that's just me and to each their own!!) Anyway, I walk home on 16th St. past the Jefferson, and it jogged my memory... A little while ago a father wrote in about his Batman-adoring son who really wanted to try his hero's favorite food, Lobster Thermidor, which could not be found on a menu anywhere. You put the word out, and if I recall correctly, it was Plume that came through with a super-gracious response (that you posted to the chat), offering to make the dish especially for Bat-Dad and Bat-Kid. I gotta say, that is not an offer that a fusty, nor overly formal, nor cold/distant establishment would make. And if they're willing to go above and beyond for a random internet stranger and his kid, I have to imagine they're regularly providing guest experiences that earned them that star. Really serendipitous combination of events that made me realize that my anti-snobbery was actually making me a bit of a snob myself. Thanks for being part of it, Tom!

You're right, Plume deserves a round of applause for stepping up to the plate for a complete stranger. 

Why so stingy with menus for drinks, specials, and happy hour?

This is a subject I've covered before, and an easy rant for restaurants to avoid, simply by printing and offering enough lists for everyone at the table. If a business is going to charge me say, $15 for a drink, I want to read about it from my own menu. 

Take a bow. Finally went there last weekend, completely looking forward to the eggplant appetizer. It wasn't on the menu. We asked the manager, and he said that as a seasonal item, it had come off the menu right around the time your guide came out. But... he could make it for us. I guess they're trying to keep enough eggplant around as long as they can for when people like us ask for it. It was so worth it. The place isn't exactly on my beaten path, but I definitely will be back.

Of all the Michael Schlow venues in DC, Alta Strada is my pet. A close second is the small plates Tico on 14th St. NW, which just began serving lunch. 

Tom, I am heading to Philly on Friday for a business trip and was wondering if you can recommend some cheap eats worth checking out? Something along the lines of 'Taco Bamba'-like places? Additionally, any places you would recommend that have a great scene and are good for dining at the bar? Maybe similar to a Jack Rose. I like whiskey too! Any help is appreciated! General recommendations are welcome too! -Jason

My most recent round-up of restaurants in Philly is from last year; the bar seating at  the beguiling W. Mulherin's Sons and Sate Kampar ranks as some of the best. 

Your advice to specify when you want the coffee is spot on. My wife is French and her norm is to have the coffee after the dessert. So we will just order dessert and then when it comes, ask for a coffee so that it comes after.

To each her own. 

"The whole #metoo thing applies not just to women, but to a lot of groups that have been marginalized over the years." Sorry Tom, but nope. This is like arguing for "All Lives Matter" instead of Black Lives Matter. Sometimes a specific movement is actually for a specific, wronged group. Expanding it to everyone doesn't address the harms.

Can-Of-Worms-Alert! Bottom line: Everyone should be treated with respect and dignity at their place of employment -- and feel safe to complain when that's not the case. 

Hi, Tom. My husband and I were out a few weeks ago for our anniversary, and for both of us, the pre-theater menu at this restaurant contained everything we wanted, except for one dessert. Normally, I would not expect the restaurant to make a swap, but in this case, all desserts were the same price, so I didn't think it was a big deal and asked if I could sub in a different dessert. They said no, it couldn't be done. Can you think of a good reason why they wouldn't accommodate this request? It wasn't like I was trying to substitute chicken for a porterhouse. If there's a good reason restaurants can't do this, it would be good to know. I've made similar requests elsewhere with no problem. (And the dessert I ended up with was pretty disappointing.)

That's a head-scratcher. Can you tell me what the dessert choices were? 

If I was heading to London I would be sure to check out any of Yotam Ottolenghi's restaurants: Nopi, or his places in the Notting Hill, Belgravia and North London. The food is lovely, fresh, seasonal, ideal for vegetarians and fab desserts!

Yes!

Are there any quintessential “DC” places for someone who prefers Asian flavors? Thinking ahead to a rare night out without the kids. Call the budget $50 or less/plate.

Maketto (Cambodian-Taiwanese) fits the bill, as does Tiger Fork (Hong Kong-inspired), both of which were featured in my fall dining guide

Hi, we will be in LA over Thanksgiving and are looking for a good vegetarian or veg-friendly restaurant for dinner that day. Crossroads appears to be closed, unfortunately. Any suggestions where we will not be served tofurky or only side dishes? Thanks.

if it's open for the holiday, PYT downtown, featured in my story on LA's vegetable-friendly menus, would be my No. 1 choice. 

Tom - hope you can answer this - you may (or likely may not recall) an email from me about a restaurant at Washington Harbor - for my wife's birthday - short story everything that could go wrong did. Yet it was her birthday so we dealt with it. Later the manager contacted me and I explained it all, he said the corporate office would send me a voucher/card for all the inconvenience. Well it arrived and it was for $50, we spent about $300+ including drinks - for 3 people. Should I contact them and ask what gives? Or, do I accept that and move on - it's a principle thing (for me).

Well, the restaurant DID follow up and DID offer compensation, albeit not the amount you expected. I'd use the gift certificate and be done with the place, unless your second visit is markedly different from your first.

I walked a long way last week to have lunch at a sushi on Capitol Hill. The sushi bar was full but they had two small unoccupied tables. I asked for a table, even saying "I would really appreciate it, and will be quick". The hostess talked to the manager, who evidently turned me down. She said there would be a 15-20 minute wait. I left, pretty angry. I can't imagine going back. Am I wrong in thinking that if I were not an older woman I may have gotten a table?

I hate to think you were turned away because of your age and sex. Given that you said you'd be quick and two tables were vacant, I see no good reason for the restaurant to have asked you to wait. Boo. 

You were pretty hard on Nobu's attitude last week, and I am curious if the restaurant has responded to you, and if so, what that response was.

No word from the Japanese restaurant. But I *did* hear from New York restaurateur Drew Nieporent, who has a stake in the Manhattan and London locations. He wanted me to know he had no interest in the DC branch. 

 

Hi Tom, Looking for a great spot for my wife's 60th birthday celebration in January. We would have about 20 guests. All we're looking for is a place with wonderful food, great atmosphere and fantastic service - easy right? As far as price goes, I'm not looking for a bargain, but I can't quite afford to buy out Minibar for the night either. Help me Obi Tom Kenobi - you're my only hope!

(The pressure! The pressure!) Based on the meals and the spaces I've experienced at Arroz, Fiola Mare and Rasika West End, as well as the soon-to-be-reviewed Ana in the District Winery in the Navy Yard, any of the four should be at the top of your list.

Tom, I'm headed to Annapolis to celebrate a milestone birthday in 2 weeks. We're looking for seafood - good crabcakes, but good basic dishes, too. Do you or any clicksters have a recommendation for such a place? Good view is a bonus.

Hate to break out my sad trombone, but Annapolis is not a great food destination. There are exceptions to the rule, however, and they include Preserve and Flamant, although neither comes with a view and the only crab on their menus comes in the form of a pierogi or fried roll, respectively

Restaurant managers, take a look at the font on your receipts. If you want the lights down low, please pick a font where the 6's and 8's don't look alike. And don't get a font with a big dot in the middle of the 0, that looks like an 8 as well in low lighting.

Catch that, restaurateurs?

Hi Tom, I'm a young professional on a tight budget, but I've been inspired by your fall dining guide. With $60 a month to spend, including tax and tip, where could I begin on your list? I'd like to aim for one new restaurant a month. Or do I save and splurge every other month? Where can one get the most bang for the buck? Weekday lunches are out due to my work schedule, but weekend lunches are possible, as are all nights. Alcohol not necessary.

Your budget can go a nice way if you don't drink. I'd probably start with Ambar, the convivial Balkan restaurant in Arlington, and move on to Bindaas for Indian street food in Cleveland Park, ChiKo for Chinese-Korean on the Hill and Espita Mezcaleria for tacos. 

I took out of town visitors to G by Mike Isabella Sunday evening for the Sunday Gravy menu. They had been driving all day, and knew it would be great food and the low-key environment perfect after a day on the road. While the food was exactly what I was expecting (and as good as previous visits), I was disappointed in the overall dinner service. The service lapses were noticeable from the beginning of the meal - not receiving water after being seated, having to request multiple times our glasses of wine, not receiving our food coursed correctly (i.e., being surprised that we wanted all of the second course - pasta and accompaniments - at the same time). What made the service issues even more noticeable was the fact that they were not consistent throughout the restaurant. While we were having issues (and having trouble even getting our waitresses attention at times), she was more than attentive to other tables who were seated at similar times. While I rarely notice issues dining out as a group of females around DC, I had to wonder if that might have been the case as we were a group of 3 females and the other tables were a couple or a group of males. We did speak to the manager about some of the issues we noticed, but he didn't seem overly interested in our comments. Additionally, there was an issue with how the leftovers were package that we didn't realize until we returned home. I sent an email the next day, but have yet to receive a response back. While I have enjoyed multiple meals at Mike Isabella's restaurants (including recently at Arroz), this experience, and the lack of a simple "We're sorry for the experience and we'll look into it/use it as a training example" makes me reconsider spending money with the restaurant group again in the near future.

Because you submitted this early (hint, hint), I was able to reach out to the restaurant this morning. Here's G's response:

 

“Service is very important at all of our restaurants from the most casual to the most upscale. We appreciate that this guest took time to raise her concerns to us, and we make every effort to correct missteps as quickly as possible. The e-mail was sent at 9pm on Monday evening and I am following up with the guest today.” - Javier Baquero, General Manager, Kapnos & G

 

 

I was in a lovely Italian restaurant a while back and had a pasta dish. To save the sauce from splattering on me, I asked our waiter for a tablespoon to swirl the pasta and hold it. He actually looked at me quizzically and said...."You must come from peasant stock to want a spoon." I was in shock and embarrassed that he said this in front of everyone at the table. A co-worker sitting at the table wanted me to say something, but I did not.....should I have?

That rings so ... wrong. and yes, you should have called for a manager to express your displeasure. I can only imagine what this guy is saying to other guests. 

Isn't that a pre fixe menu - I can understand the restaurant sticking to it Once you've allowed one swap ... . The point of pre fixe menus, too, is that they create less wastage and overhead - you can stock less variety of ingredients. That's why they're cheaper.

Good point. Thanks for weighing in.

I would imagine that the restaurant orders/cooks/bakes very closely to the line for the pre-theater expectations. The goal is to get in and out quickly so you can get to your show, correct? So if they have 30 chicken dishes and 30 chocolate cakes ... then 45 steaks and 45 creme brulees (because they know more people order steak) ... well, if you sub the creme brulee for the chocolate cake, they're gonna be one (or five, or ten) short by the end of the evening.

So smart, this crowd.

Hi Tom - I usually don't remember to check in on a chat until it's over. I submitted a questions weeks ago probably on a Wednesday afternoon, perhaps a Thursday, thinking you would address it the following week, especially since you've said a few times that helps in your response. But I haven't seen it. Do you decide some questions aren't worth answering (and I don't mean that in a mean way - I can certainly see that!). My question was about a pet peeve of serving utensils not being brought when courses are obviously being shared...

I remember that question! And yes, when large dishes are put down at the table, the proper utensils for serving them should be alongside. (Early worms tend to get the worms in this forum, as do topical rants and questions other than "Where should I go on a date with my vegetarian girlfriend?" or some such.)

I was too delayed to submit this to the last chat, but in general I agree with your opinion of the Michelin guide and ratings. I've been lucky enough to eat at several starred restaurants, and been wowed at some points and disappointed at others. My dinner at 3-star Grace in Chicago was downright bad - not just "not worth the money," but bad. I'd take a meal at Himitsu 7 days a week and twice on Sundays over many 2- and 3-star US places. The Michelin guide is much more reliable in Europe.

You are preaching to the choir with your misgivings about the French guide.

When dining, you must taste as many items as possible. How can you possibly remember everything unless you take notes? Do you ever pull out a camera phone to take photos? Do you ever have to rush to the phone booth (!) to scribble notes about a particular dish?

Let's just say I try to blend into the crowd as much as possible and not draw attention to myself.  That said, I rarely take notes on paper anymore, having been burned a couple of times by servers running after me outside the restaurant. "Sir, sir! You left this paper behind!" 

Any recommendations in NW DC for my family to get drinks after a family dinner? We are in our 20s, 30s, 50s, and 70s. So, somewhere lower key, maybe a mix of seating/standing options, not too crowded/loud. Thanks!

NW DC covers a lot of territory! I dig the arty bar at Buck's Fishing & Camping near Politics & Prose, as well as the baronial entrance at Iron Gate in Dupont Circle. Also, Two Birds, One Stone on 14th St. is terrific, softly-lighted and with awesome drinks. 

Was there not too long ago: Septime and Clown Bar both lived up to the hype, Ledoyen was a meal that redefined perfection, and Le Dauphin, Au Passage, and Clamato were delightful on the more affordable end.

And just as the lunch bell is ringing! Merci.

I've been wanting this topic to show up and it never seems to until now when you brushed it, Tom. Single female diners are ABSOLUTELY not given priority. I love eating alone, people watching, reading the menu, decompressing from the day and even observing how the wait staff interacts with two-tops, four-tops and ... ME! Many times they do not even bother with reciting the specials to me, but do so with a couple or larger groups. The restaurant staff need to be educated about this -- I'm not even sure they are aware of it. It's tiresome ...

Judging from reader email, your story is not an isolated one.

Hi Tom, I love your chat! My company is taking part in a conference in November, and we're thinking about hosting a cocktail reception with heavy hors-d'oeuvres to give attendees a chance to leave the hotel and enjoy the neighborhood (Woodley Park). Does anything spring to mind? I'd love to introduce out-of-towners to something independent - right now my boss is leaning towards Lebanese Taverna, which I always enjoy but is technically a chain (albeit a local one). Thanks in advance!

Can we talk? Woodley Park is a pretty lame place to dine. You're better off heading north to Cleveland Park (think Ardeo or Indique) or south to Dupont Circle (Iron Gate or even La Tomate).

Do you have any recommendations for a festive lunch or dinner for my coworkers (7 people) in the month of December? Somewhere preferably not a long drive from Dupont that will feel special but not break the bank?

If you opt for dinner, make it somewhere in the just-opened District Wharf in SW. I can vouch for Del Mare (Spanish) and Kith & Kin (with Caribbean influences). 

Hi Tom! I want to start by saying that I always read your reviews and chats, and very frequently take your advice when trying a new (well, new-to-me) place. Thanks for all you do! I'm writing today because I had my first experience at The Inn at Little Washington a few days ago. My husband surprised me with an anniversary dinner. I just got around to reading your dining guide yesterday, and wow--those four stars are well-deserved. We split the Here and Now and the Good Earth menus, and although the food was spectacular, the service was out of this world. It's one of the few experiences that really does live up to the hype. I know some of your readers have expressed fatigue with hearing about this place, but...man. It's really something special. Plus, those cocktails (I had the Smoke and Mirrors and the Manhattan Noire; my husband had two glasses of wine) were absolutely phenomenal. If someone who views dining as an experience (rather than food = fuel) is on the fence about going--go. It's worth the money.

Thanks for the feedback and the confirmation. The Inn is a crown jewel, and not just for the memorable cooking. 

 

That's a wrap for today. See you next week, same time. Thanks for your time and attention.

 

 

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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