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

Nov 26, 2014

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Hi Tom, I enjoyed your story about caterers. Couple of questions for you; hope these aren't too insider-y: 1. When did you tell the catering companies that you were, in fact, you and that the dinner was a decoy for a news story? 2. How did the caterers react when you told them? 3. Did I recognize a couple of Post reporters in the photos? Like Robin Givhan and J Freedom DuLac (who has the coolest name of any Post reporter). 4. Who was the final arbiter of the cooking? You or your guests? Thanks and keep up the great stories. Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy to answer your questions about my catering package that ran in last Sunday's Magazine.


1) I told the caterers what I was doing after I had all of them into my home. To do so before could have tipped off a competitor. The catering community is a small one.


2) Their reactions ranged from "Can't wait to read it!" and "How'd we do?" to worried silence on the other end of the phone. A couple caterers asked what date I had booked.


3) Good eyes! More than a few colleagues made it to one of the faux engagement parties. Aside from Robin and Josh, I had the Food section staff, former Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, Magazine editor Lynn Medford, her husband Jeff Leen, Magazine production chief Susan Williams and others over. ( Josh, you should know, is as cool as his name.)


4) Guests weighed in with comments, but I was the "Decider" of the final grades.


NEWS AT THE TOP OF THE HOUR:  Italian restaurateur Fabio Trabocchi has hired Brinn Sinnott as his executive chef at Fiola Mare in Georgetown.

Chef Sinnott.

A DC native, Sinnott comes from the Philadelphia-based Starr Restaurant Organization and helped open Le Diplomate on 14th St. NW. Previously, he worked at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse Hotel and Fountain at the Four Seasons under the esteemed Jean-Marie Lacroix.


Sinnott replaces John Melfi, who left the kitchen for personal reasons earlier this fall.


Happy rainy/snowy Wednesday, everyone. Thanks for joining me this morning. Everybody ready for T-Day?

In one of your catering reviews, you wrote, "the stodgy meal looked and tasted as if the chef were cooking in the 1990s." I interpret that to mean that you want to eat the food of the moment, and that cooking in the same style as was done 15 years ago is a flaw. Do you think this is a common feeling? It might just because I don't eat out much, so I haven't had a chance to get bored with foods, but I remember having excellent meals in the 1990s and would be happy to eat the same again.

Please don't misunderstand. I'm not against the cooking of yesteryear. But almost everything about the meal whipped up by Windows suggested it needed a shot of imagination and freshness. Everything looked -- and tasted -- dated.

Going to see Trans Siberian Orchestra at Verizon Center on 12/17. Looking for a place to eat beforehand. Open to most options, but need something that is quick enough to get us in an out without having to be there at 4:00 to eat.

Quick: Spanish tapas at Jaleo.

Quick: Mini-burgers at Matchbox.

Quick: Middle Eastern small plates at Zaytinya

Really quick: a bowl of ramen below Daikaya.

We're taking a coworker out for a retirement party at Rasika. However, some of our group are not big spice eaters, but would like to branch out from the usual Tikka Masala. Any suggestions or things to avoid?

There's plenty on the menu of my favorite Washington restaurant that the heat-averse can fill up on. Have your colleagues try the honey ginger scallops, green pea patties, mango shrimp or chicken biryani. Better yet, Rasika's expert staff can steer your co-workers to some of the tamer recipes on the Indian menu.

We stumbled across City Perch in North Bethesda last weekend and really liked it (especially the cornbread... and brussles sprouts!). We also liked the music, of all things. Not to loud, a bit eclectic, yet pop-ish. Which made me wonder how much you think about music when you report on ambiance.

A little music is a good thing, as Martha would say. Too often, however, in combination with a full house and a room full of hard surfaces, tunes get lost in the mix and just become unwelcome noise.

What's your favorite way to eat thanksgiving turkey as leftovers? Straight, soup, enchiladas ...?

Straight! I'm a *huge* fan of leftovers -- stuffing, dark meat, cranberry sauce in particular -- and I rarely have enough of the feast left over to incorporate into new dishes. 


What's everyone doing tomorrow, by the way? I scored an invite to a late lunch at the home of dear friends who happen to be terrific cooks.

I know raves about Rose's Luxury are neither new nor rare, but I have to share thanks to the staff for treating my (almost) five year-old daughter with such care, warmth and sincerity throughout our father-daughter dinner on Saturday night. I could easily list a dozen examples, but for brevity I'll just share three: 1) The hostess, after sitting with my daughter for a minute while seating us, brought a sign, hand-stamped with roses, that said "Very Important Person! Welcome to Rose's Miss <Daughter>"; 2) We were at the counter watching the action, so my daughter wrote a "thank you note" to Chef Aaron. Without missing a beat, he took it, tore some painter's tape, and put it on the kitchen wall next to a cartoon he had up there; and 3) When my daughter gamely tried the avocado ice cream, and then not-so-gamely expressed that it tasted like avocado, our server, Lauren, appeared a minute later with a small bowl of "cinnamon toast crunch ice cream," with the real cereal sprinkled on top. Since it was not on the menu, I think perhaps the staff was sharing some of their own snack to top her ice cream. I could go on (and on), but won't, other then to say I've heard the raves, and now get them. Every single thing they did was so friendly and heartfelt, how could we not leave there happy? (Oh yeah, the food was the best I've had in town too.)

Wow. Now *that's* customer service! Thanks for sharing your evening with us. You sound like a rock star dad.


Take a bow, Rose's Luxury. And take note, fellow restaurateurs.

Does it really cost that much to hire a catering company for a small group dinner at home? We had a family reunion this past summer and the host hired a catering company to cook the food on her grill. We probably had 50 people at the party and everyone brought side dishes or desserts to share. As far as I could tell, the catering company only had 2 or 3 people there to man the grill and bring the food inside. I would hate to think that she paid thousands of dollars for that service. We didn't have wine, fine china, or other big ticket items. I figured it would be like ordering from the catering menu at a restaurant plus a little extra for the staff.

We're talking two very different events. Mine involved up to three staff, truckloads of coolers and warmers and racks, rental linens --- everything for just eight people. No one was bringing in side dishes to share, either.

I thought you wouldn't chat on the day before Thanksgiving! I am grateful for all of your good advice over the years - thank you, Tom!

Back at you: I'm grateful for *you* and the other chatters who keep this chat lively (and keep me on my toes). It takes a village!

Sadly, Rose's Luxury is closed for Christmas Eve - so I'm looking for a place for dinner close to work in Penn Quarter. Trying to think of somewhere new - places we have already been to include Sei, Zaytinya, Jaleo (though not since the re-model), Rasika, and Central. Was thinking maybe Red Apron, but spouse is a pescetarian and it seems pretty meat-intensive. Any advice appreciated!

You have lots of good choices in Penn Quarter. A quick search on Open Table shows Del Campo, Fiola, 701 and the Source open on Dec. 24. (For what it's worth, I didn't see Partisan, the dining room next to Red Apron, on the roster.)

Some friends and I were at a restaurant last weekend and the first thing the waiter asked us was: "was there a tip on the table?" A very awkward question that I think was interpreted very differently depending on the race of the person sitting at the table. I'm wondering if this is considered 1) a rude question at best, or 2) a common question and one shouldn't necessarily take offense at it? And how can it be discussed in a non-offensive way, to the waiter, and amongst those at the table? Thanks!

I'm confused. Were you seated at a cleared table and asked this question? Do you think the server was implying a tip left by a previous party had been taken?


Regardless, "Was there a tip on the table?" is not an appropriate way to greet diners. Better: "Good evening" or "Nice to have you in tonight."

Tom, Now that you've been to Thailand, I am curious if you have changed your mind about Thai restaurants in DC. I lived in Thailand for 2 years and found Thai Xing and Soi 38 to be so bland and disappointing; I haven't tried Little Serow mainly because I fear crushing disappointment. Now that you've had the real thing, does anything here compare??

I was delighted to discover that my favorite Thai restaurants in Washington compare favorably to much of what I sampled in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, from which I just returned. We are very lucky to have Thai Square and Little Serow, among other sources, in this market.

MyBFF's birthday falls on Monday, Dec 29th. Can you suggest a downtown or Foggy Bottom restaurant that is open for Monday lunch where we can celebrate? Criterion is something nice and celebratory, any cuisine but Ethiopian.

I have lots of options for you and the BFF. They include the made-over Oval Room near the White House, Vidalia for southern comfort, Rural Society (ask for one of the intimate alcoves) and Soi 38 for jazzy Thai fare.

Hi Tom, Where should I eat lunch today? It should be someplace in DC near the Red Line and sorta nice (I am wearing jeans today). I am dining alone and an almost vegetarian (fish is okay). Thank you!

I'm thinking pasta at the cozy Al Tiramisu in Dupont Circle, seviche at the spirited Mio downtown or  something light and Asian at Zentan, which has a new chef and a nice bar.

This place is 99% fantastic, but their Soupe de Poisson looks and tastes just like french onion soup. So much so that i nearly sent it back thinking I had been given the wrong dish.

Please tell me you let the kitchen know. Did the soup come out with a cap of cheese and bread?

Dear Tom, I enjoyed your article on home caterers. My girlfriend used to work for one of the companies in the article and as you mentioned, $1000 is barely worth them getting out of bed. Unless you're ultra-rich, I cannot imagine using a caterer for a home dinner party. For the price of the Inn at Little Washington or Komi, you're getting fried chicken and mixed vegetables?! That said, I would be curious to hear more about the size of each caterer and their focus (e.g. dinner parties, corporate, weddings, galas). I imagine that some specialize in dinner parties, while others generally cater larger events. For the larger ones, I imagine a $1000 dinner party is like a customer at Gucci buying some collar stays--I doubt, right or wrong, the company is going to give the customer the same attention and focus as another customer buying a new wardrobe. The number of DC aristocrats and law firms with no budget is staggering. Unless you're dropping significant change, and able to do so without blinking, it's probably not worth the it to get a caterer for a small dinner.

Thanks for the feedback. It was a fun project to work on.


I would definitely use my top picks again. Yes, $1,000 for a dinner party for eight is expensive, but anyone who has every thrown a "nice" party knows that the occasion usually requires a full weekend of planning, shopping, cleaning, prepping, cooking and cleaning up afterwards.  My point is, time is money, and having watched eight caterers in my home in the past four months, there's value in that. I can't tell you how nice it was to end a night of celebration with a kitchen and dining room that looked exactly as they looked before the caterers showed up.

Still pondering which restaurant to visit for lunch tomorrow! Yes, I live life on the edge...

Have you at least narrowed down your choices -- and checked for available times?

So how was it? Where did you go? What did you eat?

My most memorable meal was at this shanty on the highway outside Chiang Mai, where a woman cooked buffalo and other meat over a charcoal grill and then pounded the hell out of it on a stump. The jerky-like result was served with fresh and dried chilies, bunches of cilantro and cucumber and lettuce leaves. And copious amounts of Singha. There were dogs and cats roaming around, but the place was tidy and safe. My Thai guide was shocked I wanted to go there; she had never even heard of it.

Tom, hope you have a great Thanksgiving. No question, but I wanted to let you know I dined at Inn at Little Washington for the first time last weekend and it was everything you described. The food was incredible and the service was perfect. Even with the mouth watering seared tuna, I think the highlight was the cheese cart. I cant wait to get the chance to go back (need my tax refund!)

That cheese cart at the Inn is a HOOT, isn't it? (Cut to the video, please. )

Tom, I always enjoy your chat sessions, and I'm thankful to have some disposable income to enjoy a number of the spots you mention week to week. A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were able to obtain a last-minute prime-time Friday reservation at Le Diplomate, and we enjoyed our first visit from start to finish. It was a nice touch be shown to a table as soon as we arrived for our reservation, and it was an even nicer touch when our request to move away from the cold entrance was granted. Le Diplomate has really nailed service and hospitality despite a crowded and busy environment. The food was delicious, and even something as simple as a radish appetizer held subtle surprises. (I should have asked how they made the phenomenal butter.) The mushroom tart was magnificent as well. My wife's beef bourguignon was undoubtedly the best I've ever tasted, and while I'm a reasonable cook, it put mine to shame. To be honest, the burger americain lacked flavor, but it was well prepared. For dessert, the creme brulee was remarkable as were the profiteroles. The highlight, however, was our server Karla. Rarely have I enjoyed such great service. We were not in a hurry, as our daughter was at a show in the area, and I made mention of that early on. Karla's suggestions and descriptions were perfect, and she paced our meal perfectly. Her wine suggestions also hit the spot. (I mentioned how great she was to a manager as we left.) As we left, I felt even more fortunate when I noticed several tables occupied in the uncovered portion of the patio. With temperatures in the 30's, I was amazed that people were willing to brave the cold to eat there. Happy Thanksgiving

You put a huge smile on my face just now ....

Hello Tom! Hubby and I are heading to a show at the Kennedy Center. What are some interesting choices nearby? We're open to any cuisine or price range. I appreciate all your hard work!

This may come as a surprise, but I thought the Roof Terrace atop the KC was pretty good the last time I dropped by.  Right now, I'm eager to check out my usual recommendation, the nearby Marcel's, which had a makeover recently.

I want to try LIttle Serow, but my dining companions don't eat pork. At a guess, how likely is it there will be enough for them to eat? They're not asking for substitutions, just trying to gauge whether it is worth trying with them.

Hmmm. There are typically at least two dishes on the menu there that  include pork. An idea: Try visiting Little Serow Dec. 2-6, when the kitchen is featuring a seafood-heavy spread for $55.

Dear Tom...A friend booked a dinner at an upstate NY resort that was over $80 pp prix-fixe, which our friend pre-paid for via credit. The web site said jackets were preferred, so the 3 men in our party wore them, and we lovely wives dressed up a bit, too. We (wrongly, it turns out) assumed that with those parameters (price, dress), we would enjoy a quiet dinner in a nice dining room. Instead, we were seated in the large main dining room, which was loud (Halloween weekend, so lots of adults and kids in costumes), had giant buffet tables in the middle and we looked like old geezers in our attire. While the food was good enough, the atmosphere and price left the proverbial sour taste in our mouths. Our friend inquired if we were in the right dining room, and the host said we were, but no further explanation was given. Needless to say, we paid a lot for a less than stellar experience. Do we have any recourse, or was this just going to have to be a pricey "lesson" learned? I guess we could post a warning to others on Yelp or Trip Advisor..? Thanks1

When in doubt, it never hurts to make a phone call and inquire about dress codes. Restaurants can make suggestions, but they can't predict who's going to show up wearing a tux and who's going to be wearing a fright wig. It sounds as if the buffet tables bothered you as much as the informal attire of your fellow diners?

I did indeed narrow it down - to the Oval Room. Looking forward to it!

Great choice. (Have some sweetbreads with green mango and shaved fennel for me.)

Tom, I've never seen a review of Cedar since your first bite column in 2009. Admittedly I have not been there in over a year, but have always enjoyed it and found the way they were willing to work with me (change some items on a tasting menu, design a tasting menu for the 6 of us to go with the wine we brought, etc) to be refreshing. Have you been back lately, and if so, will we know how you liked it?

Having heard some good things, I was JUST about to go to Cedar. But the chef left! (Or is leaving.)

Hi Tom - We recently roadtripped down South, and always looked for Cracker Barrels and Starbucks for our food/drink stop needs. What restaurants do you look for on the blue "Food" interstate signs when you find yourself on the road for extended periods of time?

In the absence of local treasures and in the interest of time? A sign for Popeye's always grabs my attention.

It is always amusing that when I use google to find the chat (Sietsema chat) the first link is always the same chat from July 2010. The wonders of the internet.

Funny. I just Googled myself (don't do it often) and found photographs of Mike Isabella and Jose Andres.

Illustrates precisely why I am thankful for Tom's knowledge and experience. I'll take my unporkers to Little Serow for the seafood option, which I would not have known enough to find on my own.

Aw. I can't take too much credit, though. Your timing is good: the Thai hot house just this week announced the seafood menu.

I loved the story about caterers and wanted to recommend my go-to caterers for office events in case you ever do a similar story in the future: MK Catering, based in Hyattsville. They have great food and creative menu suggestions, plus wonderful customer service.

Good to know. Thanks for the tip.

Tom! I just moved to the Columbia Heights/U St. area and I have been dying for some good weeknight Italian (or Mediterranean) food that won't murder my bank account. Any suggestions?

New in the 'hood: Alphonse Osteria, at 1212 U St. NW. I have yet to review the place, but it's certainly a fun addition to its block.

I've always left Waffle Houses happy. Waffles and eggs are good for breakfast, lunch, or dinner and are hard to mess up, and the table service is a bit nicer than carrying around plastic trays filled with paper boxes.

I'm nodding, I'm nodding.

Hi Tom, My husband and I decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner out instead of buying Christmas gifts this year. I'm thinking that it might be festive to eat out on New Year's Eve (at a normal dinner time; not looking for a party at midnight). However, I'm sure that's a busy day for restaurants, and maybe service and food quality will suffer as a result. Is eating out on New Year's Eve a terrible idea? And either way, could you suggest someplace fancy & festive? We like Rasika and Le Diplomate, we're open to anyplace in DC or NoVA, and we're willing to spend $150-200 (excluding drinks).

Honestly, New Year's Eve -- one of the busiest nights of the year for restaurants -- is not the ideal time to dine out. Expectations are too high. The staff is taxed.  Plus, you'll likely pay more (a lot more) than you would if you dined out earlier or later in the same time frame.


That's a wrap for today, folks. Thanks for being part of today's show.  Go forth and feast!

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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