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

Nov 14, 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.

Greetings Mr. Sietsema...some of us need respite from this gold rush frenzy that's the DC Restaurant scene lately. Seems ANY positive write-up in the Post immediately causes all the bright-eyed & bushy-tailed to storm the new establishment with tremendous competitive zeal...invariably smothering that place into 'meh'diocrity shortly thereafter. Also, despite your admirable anonymity with regular paying customers, I suspect all "prospectors" in this booming DC food business are on to your reviewing persona & modus operandi...& they surely prep well for that good *first impression* which means everything to their bottom-line. So - starting this Thanksgiving I've decided to steer clear of any buzzy/hot NEW spot that snags a good or rave review in the Post - for at least 6 months following the review! (Tall order indeed but we shall see.) Hopefully you continue to refresh voracious newer consumers with regular revisits to some of the older, established & classic joints that have actually earned & sustained their reputation with denizens over the years ...& aren't just glitzy flavors of the week vying for that all-important make or break first rush from us ALL. Respectfully & Affectionately...Cheers!

While I appreciate your sentiment -- and I can almost hear the clapping from established restaurants that feel unloved  -- I do my best to embrace long-running good work when I can. See my recent update on Annie's Paramount Steak House, still going strong at 70 years.  And note the Hall of Fame I featured in the 2018 fall dining guide, which is a tribute to restaurants a decade or older. Also, not all first impressions are the breathless gushes you think they are.  For example, I have mixed feelings about the new Reverie in Georgetown, the subject of today's First Bite column. 

 

Bear in mind, it's my job to cover news. And the reality is, the restaurant scene is more dynamic than ever and poised to get even more crowded with the arrival of a second campus for a little company based out of Seattle. 

 

AN UPDATE: Following last week's discussion, in which a chat participant complained about sitting near a dog at Brothers and Sisters, I heard from chef Erik Bruner-Yang there. He writes:

 

Dear "Dogs in Restaurants,"

 

First and foremost, I apologize that your first visit to Brothers & Sisters was tainted by the experience that you described.

 

Brothers & Sisters is unique in the fact that we operate within an open space that combines our intimate dining areas with the public lobby of The LINE Hotel. Therefore, we occasionally run into guests who are understandably uncomfortable with the pet-friendly hotel policy. Our standard protocol when someone expresses discomfort with this is to explain the policy and do whatever we can to make sure they have an enjoyable experience. 

 

It is important to us that we respect our regulars who bring in their service pets or hotel guests traveling with their pets, it is equally important to respect the fact that the rest of our guests come to us for a pleasant dining experience that is enjoyable and sanitary. Navigating the pet policy has been somewhat complicated at times but we are constantly working on creating an environment in which all of our guests, whether they bring an animal or not, have a comfortable and memorable experience at Brothers & Sisters.

 

Please email me directly if you want to try  Brothers & Sisters again and I look forward to meeting you. 

 

Sincerely,

Erik Bruner-Yang

 

From Tom: If the original poster is out there, please identify yourself so I can connect you and the restaurant.

 

 

Happy Wednesday, everyone. Bring me your rants, raves and restaurant questions. I'm all eyes. 

sorry if you have answered this question before, but I don't remember seeing it. A few weeks ago at one of the high end steak chains, we had a meal that was easily the worst service from head to toe we have ever had at said restaurant, and quite possibly any restaurant. Problems would take up the entire chat to address. Heeding your advice, I asked for a manager. And to his credit, he took blame, said he would address the issues, and promptly comped about 3/4 of the cost of the meal (not insignificant, there were 6 of us, and we had gone through a few bottles of wine.). Have no problems with that part of the night. So my question here is what to leave as a tip? given the level of service, I was not going to tip the 20% on the original bill (which btw included numerous items we didn't order), but I don't feel like walking out on the whole thing is fair to any of the staff who may not have been involved. Do you tip 20% on the reduced bill? 10% on the original bill? or somewhere in between? any words of wisdom for a situation like this?

What an interesting, and complicated, question. You're right not to tip 20 percent on the whole dinner. And you're thoughtful to keep uninvolved staff in mind.

 

I would have probably tipped somewhere in the middle of the original and the comped bill (as it sounds like you enjoyed at least some of the food and all of the drink).  What sayeth the crowd this morning? I'd love to hear from the hive.

We are looking for a good restaurant in the Woodbridge area , but all we find are chains. Any good places in this part of Prince William County?

Bistro L'Hermitage in Woodbridge has the feel of a place in the French countryside and can be counted on for a good roast chicken and escargots, among other Gallic pleasures.

Tom, Love your chats. We're limited to a very few restaurants in the DC region (we keep kosher). The places are good, but we grow tired of the same menus. Do you have any advice on how to politely bring up to management that we don't go out as often because their menus haven't changed in years, and are becoming boring? We want to be polite and supportive, but at the same time, I don't want to randomly go into their store and say I'm not coming any more because you don't have any new dishes that interest me. As always, thanks for these chats!

 Try saying this (and let me know if it works): "We love coming here, but the menu has become almost too familiar to us. Is there any chance the chef might be able to come up with a few new dishes?  I bet the staff would like a change of pace as much as some of us who come here all the time."

Occoquan has several good non-chain restaurants!

And your recommendations would include ......?

Hi Tom--I just read your review for I'm Eddie Cano, and as someone who has read all of your reviews for the past two or three years religiously, this was one of your kindest reviews for any restaurant. It seems you genuinely loved the place. So why just two stars? Can you explain how you rank a bit? I understand this restaurant is no Fiola, but it certainly isn't Pasta Mia either...right?

I really, really like I'm Eddie Cano. And the name has grown on me since I first saw it. But the menu is short, the place is new, and I'd rather be too conservative with my stars than too liberal.  That said, I can't wait to go back and see how it matures.

I fear that if you had left, say, 10% on the table, it would have been divvied up as per usual, and the impact of your message would have been blunted. I would have asked for the manager again, said that I didn't want the rest of the staff to suffer, and given the manager the 10% (or whatever) and asked that it be divided among the rest of the staff. The manager might still have dropped it in the (metaphorical) big jar, but this way you at least told one person about your wishes.

GREAT IDEA. Reinforce your message, and do it in person with someone who can act on it. 

We recently dined pre Arena Stage at a nearby restaurant that is our go to before performances. Unfortunately, I left my credit card at the venue but was able to trace back and contact the restaurant who had retained it. Given that I made the reservation through a popular online system where both my contact number and email were available to them, should I have expected a 30 second call or brief email saying they had my card? Thanks as usual!

It would have been a nice gesture, sure. But I wouldn't be too hard on the restaurant. Maybe there was a rush after you left? Or some other reason the staff didn't immediately reach out? As long as it was brought to a person in charge and stowed in a secure place -- and you got it back, unused -- I would sweat this one too much. 

Hi Tom, I'm heading to San Francisco in December and have only one night to have dinner. I'm wondering if there is a "can't miss" spot that I should try and get to. I'll be alone, type of cuisine is not important, and my budget is $100 or less for dinner, drinks, tax/tip. I have the same question for New Orleans although I'll be there for 3 nights instead of just one. Thank you!

Whenever I return to San Francisco, no matter how many new restaurants I have on my list, I never fail to make time for Zuni Cafe. It's one of my favorite places to eat, anywhere. In New Orleans, my feel-good (TASTE-good?) dining destination is Upperline, whose owner, the beloved mistress of ceremonies, JoAnn Clevinger, is reason enough to reserve a table. (For other ideas, check out my Valentines to your destinations, here and here.)

Hi Tom - super special wedding anniversary dinner at the end of the month. I'm looking for something cozy and on the quiet side, great food but not formal or stuffy. A dining room with a fireplace would be a huge plus. Pretty much any cuisine and would prefer to keep the total cost under $200 for the two of us, including wine. Suggestions?

The Iron Gate in Dupont Circle is where you want to book. It's one of my favorite destinations when there's a bite in the air. (Be sure to let the reservation-taker know what you want. Fireplaces are in great demand this time of year.) The Italian-Mediterranean menu can be ordered a la carte, family-style or as a tasting menu. 

For our Kosher posters, I might ask for individual meals, if a menu change isn't in the offing. So calling a few days in advance and saying, "we'd love to come in again [Saturday] but have already enjoyed most of the menu in our past visits. Would the chef be interested in a attempting two new dishes, one for my spouse and one for myself, so we can visit you again sooner?" If it goes well, be sure you express your enthusiasm and ask if they are open to doing it again so you can return more often.

Your solution is even smoother than mine. Thanks.

My husband is turning 50 and he is a big foodie. I read in your column about Compass Rose's Bedouin Tent and tried to get a reservation, but someone snagged the reservation on the date I needed. Now I'm out of ideas. The dinner will be for eight people, but I want it to be special. For his 40th birthday I did a lovely tasting menu at another restaurant, which is now closed. I'm looking to do something similar, but want it to be unique. My husband loves all foods, especially Asian, but we're open to anything. Suggestions please!

Presuming your guests are up for it, how about renting out the chair-less dining space at Spoken English, within the Line hotel? You read that right: Guests eat dinner at tall tables, standing up. Another idea is dining in the kitchen at the excellent Rasika West End

based on your review, I'll give it another try. four of us went shortly after it opened and found the service extremely slow and the portions quite small for price and taste and presentation nothing out of the park. but trust you and will try again.

The portions *aren't* huge, you're right about that. But there's quality on every plate, and the entree average is fair for what you're eating.

Hi Tom - my family is traveling to San Juan next month and were hoping to see if you or anyone out there had restaurant recommendations - we are excited to try the local cuisine and are open to small local places or fine dining. We will have access to a car. Thanks in advance!

Hands down, the single best place to find yourself is Jose Enrique, a friendly pink cottage where the menu changes daily (focus on seafood) and the rum is local. When I was last there with a bunch of food pals, we ate there twice, it was so good. 

Hi Tom, My niece will be turning 21 while she is visiting us Thanksgiving week. I'd like to take her out somewhere festive and fun for her first legal drink. Ideally, it would be somewhere in Northern Virginia. Some place that feels a little glam would be fun. Thanks!

I can't think of a better watering hole in Northern Virginia for a debut drink than PX, the cozy, 25-seat cocktail bar in Old Town Alexandria. Yes, you'll want to reserve in advance. Yes, your niece will be pleased as ... punch. 

Tom, are there restaurants that offer private rooms for very small dinners? Mine would be about 12, and needs to be somewhere quiet, preferably in DC. Thank you.

Name your cuisine and there's probably an intimate place to enjoy it with a group. Think Tosca for Italian, Marcel's for French, Nopa Kitchen & Bar for contemporary American, Del Mar for Spanish, Poca Madre for modern Mexican, Rasika for Indian and Peter Chang's in Bethesda for Chinese. For starters. 

Not the original poster, but if a hotel restaurant is dog friendly, this should be much more apparent on the restaurant's website. As someone with a severe dog allergy, I'd be upset if I'd made reservations to a restaurant only to be unable to actually eat there.

Yep. Nowhere online do I see mention of Brothers and Sisters' pet policy.

I suspect that's why your reviews of ten chain restaurants were so successful, because they "never saw you coming" (i.e., didn't expect you to be reviewing them).

That's comparing apples and oranges, I think. Most of the casual chains I rated have been around for years.

As a resident and frequent restaurant diner, I can recommend some spots. Bottle Stop Wine Bar in Occoquan is wonderful. The food ranks right up there with the staff and owner who are very knowledgeable about the wines, of which there is an amazing selection. Taste of Tandoor is a great Indian restaurant about a mile from Potomac Mills. And then in the Wegmans shopping center a different mile away, there is Sushi Jin Next Door, which is very small and noisy but has actual Japanese food and not just sushi (get the grilled avocado), and Not Your Average Joe's is my regular haunt and while it's a small regional chain, the food is consistently excellent as is the service, and the complementary bread and dip could be a meal in itself.

I'm printing your list after this chat. Thank you!

tom, is it ever ok to ask for soup or an entree to be reheated? Thanks!

If it's tepid or cold? For sure!

Have been twice. Like the food but find the spaghetti pasta both times too al dente. Saw others on restaurant review sites stating the same thing. Not too big an issue to not return, just noting it for others. Agree with others that it is nice to have another option in the area. Good for kids too.

I like some resistance with my pasta. But I hear you.

Do you know of any restaurants that play live Christmas music during the holidays?

I don't (yet). Maybe if I post this now, we'll hear from a place that plans to do so - or inspire a restaurant to bring in some bass, guitar or piano players.

Tom: I wanted to follow up on the chatter's post about Reverie last week, since I had a very different experience the week before last. The two of us had three appetizers, two main courses and two desserts and did feel it was enough food. We also may have ordered different dishes than the other chatter and were there on a night when Johnny was present and finishing some of our dishes, so we did feel that most of the dishes were delicious and not as austere experiences as some of the food we had at Suna five years ago - except that the desserts can mix savory and sweet. My only negative note would be that the space reflects sound easily and can be loud, making me wonder how accurate a name Reverie is.

Thanks for your feedback. I really think it depends on how and what you order at Reverie. Yes, it's loud, about 84 decibels at prime time (60 decibels is "normal" conversation). 

Hi Tom, Just wanted to make a shoutout to Maydan. I had originally scheduled my birthday dinner a few weeks ago, but about an hour and a half before the reservation I got a text saying they were having exhaust issues with the hearth and asked if we could reschedule. Obviously I was a bit bummed as it a birthday, but we still wanted to go so happily agreed to reschedule. The staff couldn't have been kinder and more professional! They apologized profusely and even wished me a happy birthday which was super nice and managed to reschedule us for the same time about a week and half later. The food was incredible and we had a great time!!! They even went so far as giving us a complimentary round of sparkling wine and two free deserts. Rose stopped by our table and had a great conversation with us and even apologized for the mishap, which was super sweet, and they had already made up for it tenfold and the staff were some of the nicest and most helpful people we had experienced while dining in DC. The cocktails were great (loved the Mezcal one) and the carrots may have been the star of the show. We desperately want to go back and try all of the other things on the menu. Thanks again to Maydan for the great experience.

Take a bow, Maydan. (That's all great to hear, by the way. Stuff happens. It's how a business corrects an issue is what matters most.)

If cash was an option, I might have handed it to the manager with exactly that explanation: not wanting to be punitive to other staff not involved in the bad service who otherwise would have shared in the tip. I'd have asked that it be distributed only to those others.

Thanks for chiming in.

When I go to a sit-down restaurant, no one realizes I have some disability. However, I have enough of a disability that I could never stand for the length of a meal, so I wonder: what reasonable accommodations does such a restaurant offer to the diner who physically MUST be seated for a meal?

In cases such as yours, dishes from Spoken English have been known to make their way to the nearby Brothers and Sisters (both in the Line hotel).

Hi Tom, I recently took my father and step-mother out to Napoli Pasta Bar on a fairly quite night. While the meal was absolutely delicious I couldn’t help noticing how quickly they were taking our plates. I’m talking less than 30 seconds after putting the fork down. I couldn’t help but feel rushed when there were many open tables around us. Is this just something I should accept in restaurants and become a slow eater or is there another way to cut the fast food vibe? Thanks!

You can always express mild surprise, and say something like, "Whoa! We're not in any rush tonight." Or leave a bit of food on your plate and put your silverware in the "still eating" position. Or both.

Glad to see that Chef Bruner-Yang acknowledged the issue. I was the original poster and will zip you my contact information. Pleasantly surprised at his response. Was more confused by the layout/situation and the fuss being paid to the dog, but it is generous of them to try and remedy the situation. Thanks!

Yay! Crisis averted! I can be reached at tom.sietsema@washpost.com

That line makes it sound like you're supporting the in-restaurant protesters that have been in the news lately, hah. Either that, or it's the best new name for an Italian place looking to cash in on feeding the rally crowds :)

I *knew* I'd get feedback like that ... ;)

Thasta training issue and you should ahve said something to the manager

You're preaching to the choir. I think some restaurants are trying to turn tables quickly, a strategy that typically succeeds in turning *diners* off.

1789 during December, at least, has always had a quartet roaming the restaurant singing Christmas music. It's lovely.

Sweet!

I understand the other diner's frustration at staff who snatch a dinner plate just after the last bite. I've kept one bite on the plate, and I otherwise refuse to allow them to swoop in. If a waiter tries, I always hold out my hand and say, "WE aren't finished, thank you." It works.

A karate chop works, too.

Tom, care to suggest a restaurant with a tasting menu for this solo diner for a midweek celebration (or commiseration, I haven't decided which one yet!)? I used to enjoy the tasting menu at the bar of CityZen, but alas it is no more. I am looking for someplace within the "downtown DC" area and am open to any type of food.

Among the loftiest in town are the $200 tasting script featured at Metier, near the convention center, and Fiola in Penn Quarter, where five courses go for $145 (wine is extra at both establishments). For something less dear, try the tasting dinner at the aforementioned Rasika West End, which goes so far as to offer a vegetarian menu for $50.

Hi Tom! Looking for a great date spot for a long term girlfriend's birthday. Something with great food but a little cozier. Hoping to cap at $150 before tax/tip. Thanks!!

 Time's just about up! I love  a seat at the counter of the beguiling Centrolina in CityCenter or a snug table in the glass-enclosed wine bar at Little Pearl. Hope that helps.

 

Thanks for spending some time with me, folks. I look forward to doing it again next week, same time. Chow for now.

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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