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

Nov 20, 2013

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Tom, I very much appreciate your thoughtful analysis and commentary. I am wondering if you have a suggestion for me: I am increasingly finding that when I go out to eat alone, with book in hand, that the servers want to engage me in conversation. I try to answer their questions briefly without raising my eyes from my book, and eventually some of them take the hint but not all. Recently a breakfast at a chain restaurant was interrupted every 4 or 5 minutes with some kind of question from the server that demanded a response. I don't want to be rude (well, yes I do but I know the ways of an introvert are strange to many) and I need an automatic answer that will make them just give me my food and go away. Ideas?

After you place your order, put on your sweetest smile, look your server in the eye and say, "I'm really into my book right now, and I want to read as much of it as possible here. If I need anything further, I promise I'll let you know."


Please let me know if the above works, and good luck.


HAVE YOU HEARD? Chef Roberto Donna is opening a second restaurant with the owner of Al Dente …  Jeff Black’s restaurant bungalow in Rockville, Addie’s, is shuttering ... Fiola’s ace bar maven Jeff Faile has jumped over to the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which includes the just-opened Iron Gate Inn … the GM from the four-star CityZen is retiring from restaurant lifeEt Voila! has tapped a new sweets maker, Mark Courseille, the former executive pastry chef for Michel Richard … Dino in Cleveland Park is going dark. "We simply are not doing the kind of business necessary to justify keeping our doors open," says  owner Dean Gold in an email. He hopes to surface elsewhere -- likely Shaw -- with a revised strategy, Tim Carman reports ... Chef Ed Hardy has left Bistro Vivant after less than a year. Until he finds another full-time position, he says he plans to help Ian Boden of the recently-shuttered Glas Haus Kitchen in Charlottesville with his pop-ups, as well as Benjamin Lambert at Goodstone Inn in Middleburg. Hardy is also investigating locations for pop-ups of his own, in DC and Clarendon ... the new Osteria Morini -- finally, a fresh choice on the Capitol Riverfront! --  is offering a 20 percent discount on the food portion of diners' bills as the Italian dininig room eases into business. The deal continues until Dec. 2, a spokeswoman says.


Good morning, gang. I'm glad to be back from Seoul (where I ate pretty well but also got food poisoning) and happy to be taking your questions and comments.


Just want to say thanks to Dino, which has informed its email list of its impending closure. "A matter of weeks and not several months" I've had a number of good meals there, but alas not enough to keep the place open through my own expenditures! Boar on pappardelle, yum!

You know which restaurant has really improved in Cleveland Park recent months? Ardeo + Bardeo, under new chef Matt Kuhn, previously with DC Coast.

Tom A friend and I had lunch at Malgudi last week. The restaurant is barely functional. We arrived at 1 pm; only two other tables were occupied. The other diners departed and we were alone with a very disinterested waiter. He gave little guidance on the menu and obviously wanted us to leave soon. The food, when it arrived from upstairs, was of mixed quality. The potatoes in the masala dosa were lumpy with hardly any seasoning. There was no resemblance between the restaurant in your top 40 and what we encountered. Regards, Ron Russell

I'm sorry to hear about your experience at the south Indian specialist. My best meals there have been in the presence, and under the guidance, of co-owner Mitul Tuli. I guess she needs to be cloned.

Tom, I'm dining at Rasika for the first time next week--early dinner before a show at Woolly Mammoth. But I'm dining solo, so what's the best way for me to experience the menu, since I won't have someone to share with? Thanks!

If I'm eating solo at Rasika, I usually do so at the bar, where I ask the stirrer and shaker behind the counter what's new. One of the many things I appreciate about chef Vikram Suderam is how he continually tweaks his menu, so there's never the chance of getting bored with it, even if you're a regular.


Vegetarian dishes have been particularly interesting of late. If I were you, I'd order three appetizers instead of a starter and a main course. And I'd make one of the small plates the floppy rice pancake, meaty with mushrooms and seasoned with mustard seeds and curry leaves.

A friend posted a picture on facebook. He had ordered mozzarella sticks and was given a pre-packaged cup of maranara sauce with a lable much like you might expect to find on a packet of ketchup. When I go to a restaurant, I don't expect to eat frozen dinners or pre-processed foods. Do you know how easy it should be to make some maranara sauce to serve without having to hand out packets? Why do people go into the restaurant business if they don't actually plan to prepare the foods they serve. In my opinion, if you can't make it yourself, don't serve it on the menu.

Where did your friend order mozzarella sticks? A strip club? A bowling alley?


It's become a point of pride for many restaurants to make most of what they serve from scratch, including condiments. Marinara sauce is not that hard to whip up. At the very least, the lazy restaurant in question should have offered the packaged stuff in a ramekin, right?

Hope you had a good trip to S. Korea. Asked this question earlier, we decided to spend Thanksgiving weekend in New Orleans (empty nesters). Dining suggestions for breakfast, lunch and dinner will be much appreciated. Have reservations at La Provence for turkey day itself.

A few of the many places you need to put on your itinerary are Herbsaint, Cochon and Upperline.  Safe travels.

4 sisters are taking our 96 year old mom to lunch on Wednesday. Any suggestions in Silver Spring, Rockville, or Olney area? Not too exotic or too expensive. Thanks.

In Silver Spring, try the venerable Mrs. K's; in Rockville, consider the charming La Limena (Cuban/Peruvian).

Hey Tom - I just made a reservation for the new Iron Gate restaurant. I hear they have two menus - the fancier, tasting menu and the more casual, outdoor menu. Any idea which menu I made a reservation for next week? I'd love to have a casual night at a beautiful restaurant with my boyfriend, but not sure I have the money for the tasting menu. Thanks! Love the chat.

My hunch is you have reserved for one of two tasting menus, four courses for $50 or six courses for $75 (per person, without wine).  If that's not what you're prepared to spend, you should check in with the Iron Gate Inn, which was recently previewed by my colleague Maura Judkis.


Any idea when Richard Sandoval's Toro Toro is supposed to open? I've been looking forward to it for so long, I'm getting impatient! Side note: Went to Rose's Luxury last night - it was amazing and I was surprised by how reasonably priced it was. Your advice and reviews make my DC experience that much better (I might love food/restaurants a little too much)

Originally, the pan-Latin steakhouse across from Franklin Square was supposed to open in September.  A more realistic launch is "the first quarter of 2014," a press rep confirmed this morning.

So was the country-fried steak good? I hope they do something about the noise in the dining room. The waiter had to bend down just to hear our orders. Now, if I can't sit at the bar in the front room, I just go to another restaurant in the area.

The country-fried steak was one of the better dishes I had at the new-since-summer Ted's Bulletin on 14th St. NW, which I previewed in today's First Bite column.  (We don't usually feature shots of dishes we don't like.)


Honestly, I want to like more of the menu there, because the second Ted's is attractive and the service has been pretty good. I was shocked at how bad the hamburger (the HAMBURGER) is. And forget having a conversation beneath those pressed-tin ceilings.

For the person who requested good Charlottesville restaurants on or near the downtown mall over Thanksgiving, I used to live there in the recent past and can recommend the following: C&O and Fleurie are the best around and have a couple of vegetarian options; both are more expensive. Go to Fleurie for the pre-theatre menue if offered ($35 for 3 courses). Ten for sushi is quite good. I would also recommend Bang! (pan-Asian tapas with lots of vegetarian options and good martini list); Mono Loco (Mexican-themed); and Commonwealth Restaurant (upscale local/American). Whiskey Jar is also good. My two favorite places in Charlottesville are off the downtown mall in the Belmont area (a $5 cab ride): Mas Tapas (Spanish tapas, clearly) and Tavola (Italian) (neither take reservations). I'll actually be down in Charlottesville that Friday after Thanksgiving as well and will be at one of those places!

Thanks for the cornucopia of suggestions. I can vouch for both Whiskey Jar and Mas.

Food aside, what restaurant(s) do you believe to have the best, most quality service? Unless, that is, you aren't of the opinion the food and service can be mutually exclusive.

One thing I've learned over my years as a hired mouth is food isn't everything: People are much more forgiving of a place where the food is average and the attention is spot-on than the other way around.


Of the recent crop of restaurants, I think the new Rose's Luxury on the Hill offers memorable service, as do Casa Luca, Kapnos and Le Diplomate.


Curious where chatters have felt especially welcomed and pampered?

So, how'd you like it?

I'm glad I went. Is Seoul the most beautiful city I've been to? It is not. Do I believe neo-Korean is going to become big over here? What I tasted, at dining destinations including Congdu and Poom, suggest that won't be the case.  I much preferred the humbler cooking I experienced, in the tiny mom and pops specializing in just a few dishes.  Hours before I headed home, I ate in a woman's home where she served me a simple but very satisfying steamed chicken served with chili-scallion paste and ground beef dumplings. Hers was a North Korean menu, less than $30 for three of us, beer included.

A big thank you for all your hard work. I'm sure many will ask the same question...what are your plans for Turkey Day, when, where, what, etc?

I'm lucky to have been invited to the home of one of the best cooks I know. My task is to bring the blue cheese straws I wrote about in the Magazine's food issue earlier this year, and a side dish for 20 or so. I'm tempted to make Joe Yonan's tamari-roasted Brussels sprouts or Moroccan-style carrot and beet salad, highlighted in today's Food section.

I don't think this is the kind of post Tom should waste time on. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but without more specific info, what are we to conclude, and learn?

Well, it does raise an interesting question: Does a kitchen need to make everything it serves in-house?

A Thai restaurant near us is in one of those warehouse-construction buildings that house so many eateries these days. but you can hear yourself think and you can converse in there because they have hung those lovely Far Eastern colorful paper umbrellas upside-down from the ceiling. Why don't more places do imaginative things like that?

Because they'd rather spend the money on a bar or a line cook or a piece of art or a ...

Parents of the bride and groom will be going out to dinner in a few weeks to discuss the wedding plans. We've gone to several places in Old Town and would like to branch out. Kids are in Alexandria but we're willing to drive. We'd like some place we don't have to shout. Italian, seafood or good steaks. Bucks? Blue Duck? Range? Other?

Have you been to Vermilion or Majestic in Old Town? If you want to come into the city, try the Oval Room or Corduroy for relative quiet;  Blue Duck Tavern is a favorite, but the restaurant can be loud if you're seated near the open kitchen. Buck's Fishing & Camping, which I recently re-reviewed, is another fine choice. 

Glad to hear the Chef has left. My husband and I are regulars, we noticed the food was always better when the Chef was off. We also wondered why you didn't write anything after came on board. We love your chats!

I wrote about Ed Hardy coming aboard last February, but if you haven't noticed, about a thousand restaurants have opened in the last year, and I've been pretty busy covering them.

Well gee, what do you think pretty much any fast food restaurant is? Most of it is just pre-processed food, and all the "kitchen" does is just heat the stuff up and slap it together.

The problem is, we don't know which restaurant the OP is talking about. Packaged marinara sauce might not be an issue at a chain, for instance, but might come as a surprise if served at a restaurant with any ambition.

go to and check out Brett Anderson's reviews. He's a great writer and my go to source for finding out what is new and good in New Orleans.

Yes! Washingtonians of a certain vintage will recognize his byline from his days at the Washington City Paper. And he was a finalist for Phyllis Richman's job when it opened in 2000 ...

Hi Tom, I recently had lunch at Present. It was the best food I've had in a long time. My father had the roast duck and I had "Fish in Shallow Water" which is fish (catfish, I think) cooked in a clay pot. The beautiful presentation, the knowledgeable wait staff, and the soothing ambiance were all wonderful. I think this place will give Four Sisters a run for its money. I look forward to going back.

I was a big fan of the Vietnamese restaurant when it rolled out, but came to like it less and less over time. The cooking got less careful and the service went south, too.

We never hear much about it other than that the Obamas had dinner there the other night. I'd always wanted to go there but couldn't afford it back when. I see it's gotten very pricey now. Is it worth a visit?

I go back and forth on the place. I checked out Nora for the fall guide this year, but found it very expensive, not so welcoming and with some mixed dishes.  Bottom line: it's organic, but where's the polish?

Dear Pizzeria Orso - What in the world are you thinking, setting your phone to voicemail during business hours!? I will hold for a reasonable amount of time if I get bumped to hold, but I will not leave my order or reservation or even number to voicemail!

Let's hope restaurants everywhere check on their phone systems today, and make sure their outgoing message is up to date ("We will be closed on the Fourth of July") and someone is monitoring incoming calls. 


Phones = first impressions.

I agree with the humbler cooking. I went to a neo-Korean restaurant in NYC, and while good, I missed the standard rice, soup, meat, and sides. The sides are my favorite part of Korean cuisine! However, do you know what may have given you food poisoning? Thousand year old kimchee? Soondae (blood sausage)?

I had some raw oysters at a lunch. My travelling companion did not. I paid the price. He was fine.

If you're willing to drive, I'd also throw Trummer's into that mix for the vibe you're looking for.

Tom, The marinara discussion is interesting in terms of which ingridients or toppings do you expect to be made in house vs out of house. In addition, how much does the restaurant need to alter an ingredient before it seems like it is made in house. I know you almost always mention whether or not the fries are from frozen or cut fresh. Do you see mayonaise and ketchup and marinara sauces as needing to be made in house the same way you see fries as needing to be made in house?

I am kind of picky about my fries, arent I? Because most frozen fries taste like it.


While I love fresh mayo, I don't expect it to be whipped up in other than an upscale restaurant. And just because a ketchup is made from scratch doesn't mean it's always better than Heinz. I've had some pretty ordinary (flat/cloying/runny) restaurant ketchups over the years.


So ... it depends.

If the phone is busy when you call, it is probably set to go to voicemail automatically. I don't see a problem with leaving my phone number in order to make a reservation; usually the staff calls back as soon as they can.

But me? I angst, thinking no one is going to check and call me back. I can't be alone.

Anyone who pretends not to want per-packaged food shouldn't be ordering mozzarella sticks in the first place. They all come from a box. The diner got what they deserved.

One poster's opinion.

First off, love your chat! Thanks for doing this each week. As a Christmas lover, I'm determined to get as much holiday cheer in this year as possible. Are there any restaurants you can think of that do Christmastime particularly well? I'm not looking for a special occasion meal or restaurant open on Christmas Eve, just a restaurant where I can dine with a few friends that will leave us feeling jolly, satisfied, and warm. I'm focused more on ambiance here (though delicious food is of course part of the equation!), so I'm wondering if you can recall in past years any restaurants that are decorated really tastefully/pleasantly for the season?

I haven't seen many holiday decorations up, but if anyone knows of a particularly festive place to eat in the weeks to come (maybe based on previous winter visits), I'm happy to post names.

You know people, read books at home, the library, park bench. Restaurants are for food. Served by people who are trying to make a living.

I can't imagine the OP is reading "War & Peace." I'm thinking he or she is eating and reading at the same time ad probably has somewhere to go but wants to kill two birds with one stone.

When Ed Hardy arrived, I mentioned on this chat that I hoped he'd add something for vegetarians. I live nearby but never go to Bistro Vivant because the menu has almost nothing on it I can eat beyond a salad. He indicated that he planned to address that problem, but I never saw any evidence of that on their online menu. Any chance that Bistro Vivant could include vegetarian options in whatever new direction they take? They might get some new customers...

Let's hope the owner of Bistro Vivant sees this and follows up. Even carnivores like a change of pace, or a meatless option, now and then.



Mrs. K's Tollhouse: Crammed (in a good way) with festive decorations.

That's a start!

I wish restaurants would quit trying to make ketchup from scratch. You aren't going to make anything better than Heinz. Quit trying.

I've had some interesting from-scratch ketchups. So I wouldn't discount trying.

Then you call the restaurant again later on, the way we do when the phone is busy. Remember busy signals?

I know, I know, but hey, I make about 50 to 60 reservations a month!

Tom, that was a great suggestion regarding how to request alone time in a restaurant. As a frequent solo diner, I too find sometimes waitstaff tries to keep me company - even if it's obvious I am reading! I try to be nice, because it's obvious they're trying to be nice - this will be a good line. So here's another "how to communicate" question: I cannot eat highly spiced foods. Because one person's "highly spiced" is another "what? That's what I put on my oatmeal!" - how do I communicate that I can handle a decent amount of heat, but no blasts? I know some restaurants immediately steer you to the mashed potatoes and vanilla pudding the moment any hesitation about spice is introduced... I don't want that, but I also don't want to have to order another meal because the first one dissolves my tongue. Thanks!

I think you need to be as specific as you can about the degree of heat you can tolerate. From your message, it's not clear to me what your threshold is. A drop of hot sauce? Three cranks of a black pepper mill?

It was years ago, but Filomena is Georgetown goes over the top with decorations

I look at all that and I always think: fire hazard!

"You know people, read books at home, the library, park bench. Restaurants are for food." Do we really have to do this again? Look, some of us like to dine alone at times -- because it's relaxing, because we're out of town for business or a solo vacation, because we have the day off and our friends are at work. There's nothing wrong with taking along a book. I'd like to enjoy my food, but I'm not eager to sit there staring at other diners between courses.

That makes two of us. I get five newspapers a day. Sometimes, the only chance I have to make a dent in them is when I'm eating alone.

Yes, but most of us don't do that for a living.

Right. I was trying to clarify why I felt so strongly about prompt pick-ups, etc.

My reading a book doesn't affect your tip or wage.

Well, if you're a "camper" -- someone who stays at a table long after the last sip of wine or coffee has been sipped and the check has been deposited -- it might!

Also, there are two types of heat: the mustard/black-pepper (water-based) kind, that recedes quickly, and the chili-pepper (oil-based) kind that stays with you and builds up. Maybe restaurants need to have Scoville unit charts to present to diners.

There's a good idea!

Almost lunchtime! What are you having?

I'm on deadline today. Might reach for the fruit bowl on my desk instead of going out.

Am I the only diner who won't eat at a restaurant that has Christmas decorations up before Thanksgiving? This seriously annoys me, the more so because Thanksgiving is literally all about food.

You must hate the Hallmark section at CVS, where every holiday comes three months early.

you're more likely to camp if you're on a computer than reading a book, I find.

Fair point.

Please don't LASH us with euphanisms as such!!!

Just trying to have a little fun here ....

1789 always looks great around then, though it isn't cheap, of course.

Yes to 1789! Where's it's always 1969!

For good Christmas dining vibes you usually can't go wrong with the old vintage hotels (i.e. Mayflower, Willard, etc.) In Pittsburgh I'd send you to the William Penn...hard to top classic architecture decked to the nines for the holidays.

Sure, but then you have to eat in those places, some of which are truly awful. Like the Mayflower.

I haven't been back since the recent fracas but have always loved going to the Tabard Inn for lunch during the holidays. It has a very warm and festive feel and on all my previous visits the food matched the setting.

My hunch is the new owners fired the holiday decorations. (That's a JOKE, folks. I'm seriously sad about what has transpired at what used to be a favorite of mine.)


Thanks for a lively hour, gang. Let's do it again next Wednesday, same time. Bye for now.

Hi Tom, Your blue cheese straws look like the perfect thing to bring for pre-Thanksgiving snacks. Can I make them ahead of time?

Yes, and they freeze well.

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 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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