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

Nov 21, 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. I am writing to lament the sudden and unexpected closure of Petworth Latin wine bar Ruta de Vino. My wife and I went there last night to meet a friend with whom we had agreed to hold a monthly catch up dinner there. The sight of the cold and dark restaurant with an abrupt sign on the door indicating that it was permanently closed was so sad. So I’m reflecting today on how cruel the restaurant business is. In two short years Ruta del Vino went from hot new thing to struggling small business to closing. We were loyal throughout, including holding a wonderful rehearsal dinner for our son and his fiancée there. Contrary to your comment in one chat, we never saw any drop off in food quality, and the staff and atmosphere were always great. I find it tough to accept a DC food scene that can’t support a Ripple or a Ruta del Vino, while embracing the next cool thing. Nothing to do about it, I suppose, as the market is the market, but I guess I’d ask you as a critic to try to be sure you’re maintaining space and time for last year’s hot place that still has its act together rather than always hyping the new. Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanks for this. However, I have to disagree with you about the quality of the cooking there. In my experience, recent meals at Ruta del Vino were not on par with what the kitchen produced its first year. Still, I'm sad to see the fledgling business shutter and I'm eager to see which restaurateur snaps up the corner location. That block could use an alternative to the excellent Himitsu and pizza at Timber. 

 

P.S. Look for an update on a not-new restaurant Dec. 9. Hint: It's BIG. 

 

FOR THIS SUNDAY'S luxury issue of the Magazine, I checked out the latest from Thomas Keller, who just opened a Continental restaurant in Miami called  Surf Club. On the menu: relish trays, beef Wellington, live music and ... Chex mix in the Art Deco bar! 

 

LEND ME YOUR EAR: I've been having fun of late chatting with some TV types, including Wendy Rieger at NBC4, who interviewed me about how I got my start as a food critic, and Lauren DeMarco at Fox5, who asked me about ... well, seemingly everything, on her debut podcast last week. 

 

Happy Hump Day, everyone. What's cooking? And more immediately, what pressing dining questions can I address? Bring 'em on!

Hi Tom, I lived in DC for a while but recently moved to Little Rock for what's turning out to likely be a year. My sister came to visit me and we went to brunch Sunday morning at an extremely busy corner diner which has fun southern and slightly modern twists on traditional brunch food. I got apple pancakes (with maple whipped Greek yogurt, apples, fried sage, cheddar - the whole thing was very tasty). The top pancake, however, was totally singed. Black bottom, kind of inedible, honestly. I mentioned it to our server and she offered to bring out another pancake but at that point I was pretty full and didn't want another. I guess I could have taken it home? The problem was the way the restaurant works is you pay ahead of time at the counter and then they deliver the food to the table. So beyond the offer of a replacement pancake (or possibly a cinnamon roll if I'd asked, but I didn't because I truly didn't need it), what could be done? The pancakes were $16 which is NOT cheap. I'm not really at all irritated because the meal was great, the server was great, the whole thing was just a nice brunch and I came away full, but it did get me thinking about how to properly compensate someone who has already paid but who clearly received a not-up-to-standards meal. Is the answer that you offer more food and if they don't want it that's that? Thoughts? (Happy Thanksgiving!!)

It's a single PANCAKE. Which you didn't complain about until you were FULL. Your server offered to bring a FRESH one. You otherwise enjoyed the whole EXPERIENCE.

 

What, exactly, did you want from the restaurant? A couple bucks back?  

Hi Tom, my husband and I have recently moved to DC and love the food scene here. I heard that the city tends to be more empty during Thanksgiving weekend and some of the harder-to-get-into restaurants may be easier to visit. Do you have any recommendations for ones of these restaurants that would have vegan options (I am vegan; my husband is not). Thank you!

You're in luck, but you have to act fast. I see some available tables at Fancy Radish, the city's premiere plant-based restaurant. Don't miss the rutabaga fondue. And be willing to belly up to the bar -- the earlier the better -- if you don't snag a reservation. 

Hi Tom..we had a really lovely dinner at Siren but....it left us with a really bad feeling at the end when we had to pay for parking at the front desk and it was twenty five dollars! I had called the restaurant ahead to ask about parking and they said there was valet parking with the hotel but did not say how much it would cost ( I know I should have asked....) It also is not our their website. By camparison, Boubon Steak in the Four Seasons charges fifteen dollars and it is very clearly marked on their website. As this was our very final impression of this restaurant..we drove home feeling totally ripped off...what do you think?

I think you have every right to be mad at the seafood establishment for 1) not flagging the availability and price of valet parking on its website and 2) not mentioning the cost of the service when you called to inquire. 

Not a question of where to go or what to order but what is your favorite dish to make and/or eat. Doesn't need to be from a restaurant.

Given that I'm out every night, I do precious little cooking at home, and when I do, it tends to be simple stuff, like omelets, for myself.

 

If I'm cooking for a dinner party, on the other hand, I most enjoy making dessert,  even though I don't have much of a sweet tooth. Most recently, I whipped up individual  lemon meringue pots de creme for a group. 

 

My favorite thing to snack on at home originated with a food pal. John Martin Taylor's blue cheese straws are da bomb. 

 

As a thank you to a special client each holiday season, I spring for a catered lunch at the client's office so that the staff -- about 35 people -- enjoy a meal from a restaurant they wouldn't ordinarily experience. Fiola Mare and Maketto have been past highlights. Any ideas for a special restaurant that would cater lunch and whose food would travel well to Bethesda? Grateful Service Provider

If someone delivered bing bread -- or just about anything else --  from Momofuku in CityCenter, I'd be a happy camper. 

My husband and I had a 6:15pm reservation at Kith/Kin last Saturday. Upon arrival (promptly at 6:15pm, I checked!), we were informed by a hostess that our table would not be available for another 15 to 20 minutes. When I asked why the long wait, she said there were several tables still occupied and she could not ask them to leave. Ugh!!! I understand that things happen during the course of the evening, but those tables were the first seating of the evening and it was obvious the restaurant did not allot enough time for those tables. Waiting 5 to 10 minutes, I can deal with. Waiting 15 to 20 minutes, when I made a reservation, and this is supposed to be a restaurant more in the “fine-dining” category, no way. What really got me steamed was the nonchalant reaction of the hostesses, as if they could care less about the wait time or that a diner was not pleased about the wait time. Standing at a crowded bar or sitting in the cramped lounge area hovering over diners at the tasting table in the front of the dining room was not an appealing option. I know you can’t kick out diners, but there has to be a nice way to tell them to move it along so they can seat people with reservations at later times. I am not a difficult person, but after getting a babysitter and hauling myself out to the Wharf (sorry, I live in the burbs), I was not pleased. When we spoke to the manager (who was already dealing with another annoyed diner who also had a 6:15pm reservation and was given a comparable wait time), he claimed that tables were not allotted a less than 2 hour duration (we were doubtful) and that there were no walk in diners to cause additional seating issues (also doubtful since the restaurant is in a hotel). After giving him an earful (nicely…that other diner, not so much), a table miraculously freed up at 6:35pm and we were seated soon thereafter. At this point, we were in a foul mood, but the evening was saved by our waitress Shanta. She sensed we were annoyed by the front of house situation and she had our orders expedited. She quickly lightened the mood and the rest of the meal was quite enjoyable. We received various comps, but most importantly, the food was delicious. We’ll definitely be back, but that wait time situation was so annoying that it may be a while. A couple of things to note, the Wharf and all of the restaurants are jam packed on a Saturday night (so good luck getting a table or a spot at a bar somewhere else on the fly). I’m guessing a lot of the diners at Kith/Kin were headed to a show at the Anthem because the dining room cleared out significantly by 7pm.

I can see where you'd be annoyed, both by the late seating and the host's dismissive attitude. The standard grace period for reservation holders and restaurants alike is roughly 15 minutes. Longer than that and patrons should get a sincere apology and a drink or starter to compensate for the wait. It sounds as if Kith and Kin eventually followed through on that.

I don't think the chatter wanted anything in that specific situation, it was more of a background for the general question of what to do when you pay before you get the food if it's not to your liking.

That's not the way I read the post. The customer definitely mentioned compensation, right? Again, the problem should have been addressed the moment the top pancake was found to be burned, and before the diner was full.

When the server asks, "How is everything here?", this is the time a patron should speak up and say, "Everything's great, but one pancake is burnt. Can you replace it, please?" Not at the end of the meal. Especially since in this instance it was the "top pancake" that was amiss. Harumph. Go sit on someone else's station.

My thinking, too.

I missed the live chat last week, so didn't get a chance to respond to the chatter who asked for recommendations in San Juan. My mother is Puerto Rican, and for many years we've made an annual pilgrimage to San Juan for our winter vacation. Some favourites: Bebos (very casual but very authentically local), Cocina Abierta (trendier takes on Puerto Rican food), Bar Gitano (tapas), Oceano (great seafood with an oceanfront view), Pikayo (fine dining), and 1919 (also fine dining). Unfortunately, it's possible some of these places have not reopened since the hurricane. P.S. to the original chatter -- you'll love the food and the atmosphere in San Juan, but you'll love the people even more. The whole island was devastated by Hurricane Maria, and it needs help getting back on its feet. Bless you for spending your tourist dollars there.

Thank you for adding to my lone suggestion last week. Here's hoping the original poster sees your helpful list. 

 

Another chat participant wrote in with this:

San Juan Restaurants

Tom, Showed up late to last week's chat and didn't get a chance to respond to the reader asking about restaurants in San Juan, but thought I'd send in a couple recommendations just in case they're still reading. First and foremost I must recommend Marmalade in Old San Juan; it's one of the best meals I've ever had, anywhere. Granted, I was in a good mood (had just proposed to my fiancee a few hours before) but the dishes were interesting, the fish in particular was impeccable, the service was excellent, and the setting is very nice, especially for a romantic outing or small group. We were there on Christmas, which is always risky--seems like a lot of places allow more senior staff to avoid working holidays--but had a wonderful experience with the tasting menu. Can't speak to the meat dishes, as we're both pescetarian, but everything we tasted was very good and a few dishes were as close to perfection as I've gotten. It made for a great end to a great day. For a less upscale night out, I'd recommend El Jibarito, which has more of a home cooking meets cafeteria kind of feel. Best mofongo I had in the city, and the red snapper was delicious; I went there a couple times when I still ate meat, and the pork dishes are very good as well. It's also much cheaper, brighter, and louder than Marmalade. Caveat: There's usually a wait, and service is hit-or-miss, so don't go if you have somewhere to be after dinner. But if you want old-school Puerto Rican food it's hard to do better without leaving the old town. Finally, Caficultura on Plaza Colon has superb coffee and tasty breakfast food. I've eaten there at least a couple of times on every visit, and it's my favorite way to wake up.

 

 

Hi Tom - We have a long-awaited date night at Rasika this weekend (I made the reservation 3 months ago!). We plan to do the chef's menu, and we are very excited. We have our babysitter for the whole night, though, and so would love to make it a multi-venue evening. Is there a quiet restaurant bar nearby that you'd recommend? Bonus points if you think they could make a mocktail, as I'm pregnant. Thanks!

Barmini, the sibling and neighbor to Minibar by Jose Andres, would be a whimsical segue from a modern Indian feast. But the cocktail lounge is crazy-popular and reservations aren't easy to come by. Worth a try, though, as walk-ins are sometimes accommodated. My second choice would be the Art Deco-themed Denson Liquor Bar on F St. NW. 

Hi Tom, I’m seeing a 2 pm performance at the Kennedy Center on Sunday. Can you recommend a restaurant nearby for either lunch or an early dinner? Thanks!

In Foggy Bottom, I'm a fool for the colorful Bindaas and its Indian street food script. 

Hi Tom, Always love these chats--thanks for hosting them! I'm looking to plan a special meal for my husband and I but it has to be during the day because of child care. Could you recommend a place that has a celebratory or date-night like vibe during lunch? Can be anywhere in northern Virginia or DC. We're adventurous eaters, though one of us is gluten-free. Would love to keep the bill under about $100 with a drink each. Thanks!

I can't think of a dreamier daytime lunch than Del Mar, my No. 1 favorite restaurant right now. What could top paella and a stroll along the Wharf? 

Hi Tom, my birthday is next Tuesday and my girlfriend are looking for a restaurant to celebrate. We're thinking about going to one of the line-only options. We've been to Bad Saint a few times and Rose's Luxury as well, but was wondering which of the others (Himitsu, Little Serow, etc.) you'd recommend for a special evening?

Both would be a treat, but I have to say, the Thai cooking at the underground Little Serow has never tasted better, and I say that based on two visits there in the past four months. 

It’s one thing to publish complaints from the local area, but from all over the country?

The Post considers itself a national brand. (And this chat gets questions from all over the world.)

My SO and I were thinking a fancy dinner out on Friday or Saturday night sounds nice, but not if we have to fight crowds to do it. Will everyone else be at home eating leftovers, do you think? Or should we be braced for Valentine's Day conditions at restaurants all weekend?

In my experience, the weekend following the Big Feast tends to be quiet on the restaurant front. You shouldn't have a problem getting into some of the harder reservations. Me? I like to stay home and have leftovers of leftovers when possible. 

I think you were frazzled from the schlep and understandably wanted a sit-down. I don't problem was the wait, as standard grace period from both restaurant and patron is 15 minutes. The problem was the blasé attitude - restaurants are crowded, their bar is crowded and there's nowhere to sit down when waiting for your table. This is not something for front of house to take lightly. A smilier situation happened to us for my birthday at Rasika - no room at the bar, the small entry area crammed. The host apologized and offered us a complimentary drink, which was fetched from the bar for us. We didn't wait more that ten minutes past our reservation time, but it was a great way to handle an uncomfortable situation. I'm glad they comped you some things.

Thanks for chiming in. Today's similar posts make me wonder if restaurants are over-booking. It happens.

Really? You got that bent out of shape over a 20 minute wait? Maybe it's because I eat out a lot but I've found that some nights, actually pretty rarely, things in a restaurant just...happen. Maybe the people who had the reservation before you got stuck in traffic on the way there. Maybe the hostess wasn't feeling well. Maybe the manager was thinking "Oh boy, we've had one early delay so this will cascade for the rest of the night." Have a drink, relax, don't take it out on the servers, and let yourself enjoy your meal instead of fuming about it or giving people who get way too many earfuls yet another one over something so minor.

I hear you, but I also sympathize with people who don't eat out so much, who battle traffic to get to a place, and who are shelling out lots of money for babysitters and parking and what-not.

Not a question but a comment about restaurants that close - I've known two restaurant owners and have watched them as they build their businesses. Very often a restaurant owner will either 1) not have business experience and will have trouble managing finances or 2) have very little extra money. In both of these cases they will often fail - tight finances affect so much - the people they can employ, the food they can offer - and as those suffer, quality goes down, and they lose customers. There's often more behind a "decline in food quality" than most people realize.

Oh, I agree. I think too many operators -- new ones in particular -- open without sufficient capital. The business can be brutal. I mean, can you imagine trying to staff a new restaurant if you're not a star? Tough.

In last week's chat someone asked about places to eat in the Big Easy. I wanted to give a shout-out to Herbsaint. I went there earlier in the year based on a recommendation you made, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Some months later we had occasion to go back to New Orleans, so I made a reservation for the night that we were scheduled to arrive. Our flight was delayed substantially, so I called the restaurant from the airport to tell them that we coudn't make it there until 9 PM. They said that they would be happy to accommodate that. When we arrived, the first thing we heard was "We're so glad that you were able to make it, and welcome back!" It was a weeknight and we were the last group there by at least a half hour by the time that we had finished dinner. Bottom line, the food was once again excellent, and the hospitality unparalleled.

Take a bow, Herbsaint I had a similar experience in Chicago, when I was reviewing the nation's most popular restaurants. Gibsons couldn't have been more gracious when I showed up -- two hours past my reservation, thanks to a delayed flight. 

Tom, I'm attempting to make my own microwaved turkey this year and have been given tons of advice - some of it conflicting. Is it better to cube the turkey before microwaving it or is it best to microwave the whole turkey? Is it important to baste throughout the roughly 15 mins/lb of microwaving or can it just be re-moistened once it's cooked through? Should the stuffing be microwaved with the turkey, or separately? Do you have any turkey microwaving tips you live by? Thanks!

Do you really think I didn't read Maura Judkis's story yesterday? #busted

It's one thing when the restaurant is fairly busy, but what if you suspect your table -is- ready, but the restaurant sends you to the bar anyway (I expect in an attempt to sell an extra drink)? On several occasions my party has been sent to the bar while we "wait for the table to clear," only to be eventually lead into a half-empty restaurant.

I suspect most restaurants want to seat guests in a timely fashion. I mean, delayed seating can result in serious traffic jams as the night goes on. Managers don't need self-inflicted headaches.

What's a good place with a seasonal food and drink menu?

Right this nanosecond? Check out what Marjorie Meek-Bradley and company are doing at St. Anselm near Union Market: sherry cocktails dusted with fresh nutmeg, grilled squash salad with hazelnuts, maybe a flat iron steak capped with herb butter, the last dish best eaten with finger-long steak fries.

Tom, We're looking to celebrate our son's 25th birthday in December and are looking for a restaurant that can handle of party of seven or eight and that also serves a good selection of good bourbon. Since my wife and I are wine drinkers ourselves, nothing comes to mind (other than Jack Rose). We're coming from Old Town Alexandria, but most locations in the DC and Virginia area would work. We're big fans of places like Red Hen and Mintwood Place, but are not familiar with their bar stock. Hopefully, you can help guide us.

While there are plenty of places to explore bourbon, not all of them feature the kind of restaurant I believe you're aiming for (something upscale). An exception is Bourbon Steak in Georgetown.

You city folk are crazy!

There had to be more than pancakes on the plate. I'm thinking golf leaf or truffle syrup?

Living in Japan when we made dinner reservations they would tell us at the time of the call we could only stay x amount of time such as 1.5 hours due to other reservations. If we felt that wasn't enough time we could make a reservation for another time. The Japanese were so polite about it it was never rude and it managed our expectations of the evening. We never had to wait for a reservation. either.

It's all about managing expectations. Thanks for writing.

It might be that the restaurant has several open tables, but on that night does not have the staff to serve the tables at an acceptable pace. This is common in DC which has a shortage of restaurant staff.

Another possibility.

No better selection in Northern VA than Clarity in Vienna VA!

Thanks for adding to this list.

Hi Tom...third world problem here I know but....I feel like a Michelin starred restaurant in Europe means so much more than the US in terms of atmosphere, service, and even food quality. Do you have an opinion on this?

I do! I do! In brief, I think the guide works best in France, where it originated and where the restaurants are not as diverse and varied as what we have in the States. (Michelin bombed in Los Angeles, for instance.)

Succotash.

But then you have to *eat* there!

Tom, happy Thanksgiving! Thanks for all of your great reviews and guidance on the food scene in general! I have a friend who still does not want to go to Kapnos Kouzina for even a drink because of Mike Isabella's issues with sexual harassment. It seems to me that he's been punished and has lost several businesses, but his staff (as far as I know) have been equally punished. I'm willing to go there once in a while, at least, since the food is great and the staff is so friendly. What do you think? Is it time to forgive, or is that not an option?

Let me say this: Staff don't have to stay with problematic employers. Washington is a seller's market as far as restaurant workers are concerned. Competitors are jumping through hoops to lure, train and retain employees.

While I think your response was fine to "Left Credit Card" (i.e., cut them a break as long as they kept the card secure), let me share a couple stories: I had dinner at a "higher-end" chain (if there is such a thing) in Asheville, NC, where I left my card before heading to Atlanta for two business meeting days. Called the restaurant from Atlanta, which assured me that it would send the card to my home address. Upon arrival home, I had an overnight registered and insured package from the restaurant containing the credit card inserted between two manually cut-out pieces of cardboard to disguise the contents (the cost of which was about 50% of my restaurant bill, not to mention the personal and careful packaging). When I called the restaurant to thank it and to share payment, it refused my payment offer: we just hope you will come back and eat with us again. In St. Louis, MO, I left my card at a somewhat upscale restaurant - one where i simply had a cocktail and an appetizer because I was unsatisfied with the menu (and let them know why I was leaving early). When I called the next day, they connected me with the manager who breathed a sigh of relief because "I've been calling every hotel in the area trying to locate you and couldn't track you down." Now, while I don't normally expect (or feel entitled to) the extraordinary response I received from these two restaurants, I do feel pretty certain that few, if any, restaurants in DC would have extended the same extraordinary courtesies. But it would be nice if they did - Asheville and St. Louis might have some things to teach us.

I love these stories. More good apples than bad out there. I appreciate yout taking the time to offer a feel-good before the end of the chat.

Um, to the commenter, that was clearly a "First World Problem," not a "Third World Problem."

Yes! Ja! Oui!

No question. Just want to thank you for doing these weekly chats :)

Thank *you* for showing up! I couldn't do this without the help of  the peanut gallery. Among the many things I'm grateful for this year are loyal Washington Post readers.

 

This feels like a great place to bid you adieu until next Wednesday. Have a safe and delicious Thanksgiving, everyone.

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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