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

Nov 28, 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.

I went to a relatively new restaurant that you have recommended this year. I was excited to try it, because it might become one of the few good options for dinners with visitors at my place of employment. I was part of an event that involved about 40 diners, and had a fixed menu with 2 choices of starter and 3 choices of entree. In short, the serving staff were extremely poorly trained, most of the food arrived either tepid or cold, and it wasn't particularly flavorful for the most part. As I was not the host of the event, I did not wish to speak to the manager at the time. When I tried to get an email address for the manager, my browser told me that the restaurant's web site was unsafe. The email address I finally found might or might not have been the right one, but one way or another the restaurant never responded to my constructive criticism about the event. Given this lengthy introduction, my question for you is: what weight I should give this experience in forming an impression of the restaurant? I for sure am not willing to take a valued guest there at this point, but are large dinners so different from dinners for a party of, say, 4, that I should give them another try with a small party before writing them off entirely?

While large parties *can* be more work than small ones, the experience -- the hospitality, the cooking, the attention to detail  -- should not be so different. The brand should be consistent.

 

I can see where the one-two punch of your group meal and the lack of response to your email would dissuade you from trying the restaurant on your own. Let's hope your post serves as a wake-up call for businesses to better monitor outside communication.

 

P.S. I'd love to know which restaurant you're talking about! Please share, privately if you want. I'm at tom.sietsema@washpost.com. 

 

 

In last week's chat, a poster wanted to know how to deal with the issue of paying for a meal upfront, then having a problem with it (a burned pancake). Post-discussion, I heard from the OP, who provided additional details about the experience. Here's the missive: 

 

My pancake situation

AH! I have caused a truly outrageous argument! A few points of clarification: it very honestly was just two (LARGE) pancakes on a plate. They may have been buckwheat? They were very filling. Plus some fancy accouterments - the apples, fried sage, cheddar, greek yogurt whip. Also, I did mention the burnt bottom to the server as absolutely soon as I could but she was very busy, and didn't come to check on us until after I'd eaten a full pancake. She was running around and the place was totally packed and we were one of only a few tables sitting outside so we weren't in her immediate line of sight - I fault her nothing. I only mentioned it because a. the dish was pricey, and b. it was half the meal that was inedible. But truly, I personally wanted no more compensation! She offered me a completely reasonable suggestion, I declined (I WAS full!) and that was that. I genuinely was wondering in a larger sense what kind of compensation (if any!) is reasonable when you have already paid for a meal. Please excuse me if I didn't communicate my question properly, so here it is: should you have already paid for a meal but there is a substantial problem with part of it, and you have done everything you can to communicate the problem, do you just say Alas! Nothing in life is perfect and this was a lovely brunch and call it a day? I know the issue of compensation is a sticking point in this chat, with some thinking diners are too greedy and some thinking restaurants owe their customers a sparkling experience. I was just trying to throw another wrench in the philosophical debate of having already paid. I wanted nothing more from my server, but I guess I was wondering if others felt that way too (and it turns out they do). Apologies for sounding entitled. I really didn't mean that!"

 

 

TOM AGAIN:  Given the new information -- the fact the poster tried to flag down a busy server, etc. -- I might revise my answer to include saying something to a manager and *possibly* inquiring about a discount, although if it were me, I'd just chalk it up to "stuff happens" and call it a day. 

 

COMING THIS SUNDAY: My review of the latest dining attraction at the Wharf, the three-story Officina from chef Nick Stefanelli. The project -- a combination market/bar/trattoria/rooftop lounge -- is ambitious. The pastas are terrific, the calamari in saffron cream is my new favorite way to eat the seafood and the bar in the sky is sweet. But the din is awful and the meat dishes need fine-tuning. Anyone else dropped by? Thoughts? 

 

 

Good morning, everyone. I'll be away the next two Wednesdays, so try to get your pressing restaurant questions to me before the hour is up. I won't be back in the host seat (hot seat?) again until Dec. 19.

 

 

Let's rock & roll.

Hey Tom - suffered through some frozen gnocchi I bought at a local market. Oof. Hoping you and / or chatters can make recommendations for dishes listed in DC. NW preferred. Thanks!

I'm relying on memory here, not Google. Let me throw in another qualifier:  if these versions aren't THE very best, they're at least dishes I'd be more than glad to order again.

 

Gnocchi:  At Sfoglina, $26 buys you ethereal potato gnocchi with porcini cream, mushrooms and Parmesan, along with great service and abundant comfort. 

 

Paella:  Jose Andres might disagree with me here, but the $75 paella with wild mushrooms and morcilla sausage (enough for two or more) at Del Mar at the Wharf is da bomb.

 

French onion soup:  The bowl at Le Diplomate on 14th St. NW -- a favorite of the French ambassador, you should know -- goes for $13. 

Hi Tom! I want to get a restaurant gift certificate for a friend I owe a big thanks to - she lives in Salt Lake City and it would be for her and her significant other. Do you have recommendations - or perhaps chatters do if you haven’t been back recently - for a nice spot in SLC? Thanks very much!

It's been forever since I've eaten in SLC, so I'll throw your question out to the peanut gallery and hope some ideas come our way before noon. Chatters? 

Hi Tom, Not a question, but a big THANK YOU for recommending Kødbyens Fiskebar in a chat recently. I was visiting friends in Copenhagen over Thanksgiving and due to sick children, we had to postpone our plans until weekend, which meant I was solo dining on Thursday. I remembered you mentioned Fiskebar in a chat and it turned out to be around the corner from my hotel, so I treated myself at their counter for Thanksgiving dinner. It was so fab and delicious! (I had the bleak roe w/potato, creme fraiche, and watercress, and seared hake w/jerusalem artichokes, green strawberries, barley, buckwheat, and onion butter). And for all the chatters who worry about solo dining--sitting at the bar/counter is great! I made friends with a Hungarian woman who ended up sitting next to me and we drank wine and chatted about everything while enjoying our food. I can't imagine having a better solo travel holiday dinner, and it was my chance to experience new Nordic cooking. Would never have looked it up had it not been for these chats, so thank you!

Thanks for the thanks. Good for you for bellying up to the bar, one of the best ways to get to know a restaurant (aren't the servers great at Fiskebar?) and making friends of strangers.

Hi Tom, Going to Annapolis on Sunday for a comedy show at Rams Head on Stage. I wanted to check out Flamant per your Fall Dining Guide, but unfortunately they are closed on Sundays. Are Preserve and Vin 909 still your other go to's, or is there another restaurant I should have my eye on? Thanks!

Yep, the pickle and the pizza specialists, respectively, still earn my affection and attention. 

Tom - We are looking for a great place in DC or close-in suburbs with a private or semi-private room to celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary with a group of friends and family. Pineapple and Pearls would be great but the price is a bit steep . . . . Any other recommendations?

Half a century? Bravo. Consider Tosca for Italian downtown, Rasika West End for modern Indian in the neighborhood that's part of its name or Marcel's, one of my 10 hall of famers, for French fare on Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 

Hi Tom! Last week's question made me think of a recent experience at Chopt. I was eating my salad when I realized there was a piece of shrimp in my bowl. I'm severely allergic to shellfish, so I immediately stopped eating. I could have asked them to remake my salad and I'm sure they would have, but I had no desire to keep eating after that. Since I had already paid, I just left and haven't been back since. If I had said something, do you think an offer to remake the salad would have sufficed or would you ever expect a refund?

A pro-active restaurant would have given you an apology and the choice of a refund or a fresh salad, hold the shrimp.

 

I wish you had given the business a chance to make good. By bringing the mistake to a manager, you might have saved a future customer from a similar problem.

reviewed?

I previewed the waterfront restaurant back in July. Here's hoping you like fried food

Hi Tom! I recently ate at a restaurant in another city with a prix fixe menu that included a “meet the chefs” experience in the middle of the meal. I thought that was pretty neat and wondered whether you know of any restaurants in the dc area that offer that sort of experience. If not, is that the sort of thing one could inquire about with a restaurant for a special occasion?

No one offers quite the fanfare of Patrick O'Connell of the Inn at Little Washington. Following dinner, guests are invited to stroll past parted kitchen doors to meet the Great One. Incense is involved. So are Gregorian chants. You owe it to yourself to experience the thrill once.

 

I can't think of anything comparable in the region, but I think most chefs would be happy to meet the people they're feeding, provided they get some advance notice and its not 8 p.m. on a Saturday. You're just looking for a little conversation, right? 

Hi Tom - A two-part question: Part one: a few years ago, I had a fabulous holiday dessert at Central - a little snowman made of meringue and ice cream, lit up with sparkers. I didn't see it on their website this year and was wondering if they were offering it again and if not, where else do you know of that does some kind of fun holiday dessert? Part two: the past few years, I've taken myself out to lunch at a fine dining restaurant in DC while my office is closed around the holidays. I've been to Sushi Taro, Rasika and Rasika West End. Where should I go this year? I was thinking of Fiola Mare, but am open to other suggestions. Thank you!

 Your wish is Central's command; the restaurant will be serving the adorable, edible snowmen starting Dec. 10 (through the end of February, I'm told). The cost of the dessert is $12.

 

As for a holiday lunch idea, what about Centrolina for Italian in an airy dining room; Little Pearl, the adorable wine bar on the Hill; or Pappe, the Indian charmer on 14th St. NW? 

Hi Tom. I work from home and sometimes I like to break up the day by taking my laptop to lunch. I don't go to high end places and I always avoid squatting at a table if a place is busy, but I'm wondering if there are any other points of etiquette around using my laptop at lunch that I should be aware of?

 Do you turn your sound off, or use ear plugs? And avoid sites with lots of flashes or other visual distractions?

 

Those are the complaints I get most from readers: being forced to listen or see whatever a stranger is logged on to on a laptop or other device. 

Recently I was at a moderately-priced sit-down restaurant in DC for lunch around noon. Between when I ordered and when my food came, an exterminator moved through the dining room with a spray can of what I assume were pesticides and sprayed around the base of the bar, booths and tables. He didn't spray where I was sitting, but he was just a few feet away from me and there was a noticeable smell in the air. There were only a few diners in the restaurant at the time. I was completely aghast and just asked for my food to go. I thought about explaining why I was leaving abruptly, but it seems so obvious that I couldn't even figure out how to say it. I don't think I have a question, just...gah?!?

 Everything about the picture you just painted is *so* wrong. What restaurant schedules an exterminator at high noon? And wouldn't it be easier for the varmint remover to come at off hours? I would have said something.

Wow Tom, great timing. I just returned form the sun of Miami to read your review of Surf Club. We had a similar experience. We were in Miami for just 5 days, but just amazed at the options. When did Miami become Vegas? Here's the list of chefs/restaurateurs we ate at in that time: Thomas Keller/Surf Club Jose Andres/Bazaar Gaston Acurio/La Mar Francis Mallmann/Fuego Laurent Tourondel/LT Steak Stephen Starr/Makoto Andrew Carmellini/The Dutch Plus stone crabs at Joe's Did you eat anywhere else while in Miami? I was hopeful for a big round up from you to read before I left but couldn't find anything.

Boy, you ate well on your trip! In addition to Surf Club, the Thomas Keller ode to Continental cooking, which I reviewed for the luxury issue of the Magazine last week, I've also enjoyed recent meals at Ghee (Indian) and Ariete (contemporary and Cuban). 

You frequently mention dining with others. I was wondering whether the opinions of your companions factor into your reviews and, if so, how. Also, do you ever have disagreements with your companions on the overall restaurant evaluation or on particular dishes.

While I listen to my dining companions' evaluations, and sometimes even quote them, ultimately, it's my byline on the review and my assessment. The Post is paying me, not my table mates, for a critique based on multiple visits and informed opinion.

Any suggestions for a weekday book club group that meets in downtown/Dupont after the lunch rush? Would need to accommodate 12, not be too noisy or pricey and be willing to do separate checks. Thanks!

I'd reach out to La Tomate and see if you can use their second-floor dining room for your group.

 

Just fyi: 12 separate checks is asking a lot of a place. Would it be possible for one of you to collect the money from participants? 

If you were on a budget, how would you choose to spend your money dining in DC?

I would take advantage of happy hours, pre-theater menus, fixed-price lists and other deals around town. A little research can pay off in big ways. At the new Officina, for instance, wine by the glass during happy hour is $7, but with it, you get a substantial snack of olives, almonds, mortadella sausage and foccacia. 

Good morning! I'm really hoping that the 5th time will be the charm in getting a response.... Going to see the White House Christmas decorations next week, any recommendations for a casual lunch spot? Old Ebbitt Grill is on our list of potential eateries, but some other options would be nice. We are not fussy, the only restriction might be not super spicy. Thanks!

Woodward Table, from veteran restaurateur Jeff Buben, has what you want: an interesting menu with lots of choices (think pizza, steak frites, a crab cake BLT) and an address that's an easy stroll from the White House. 

Hi Tom, A few weeks ago my significant other was having a last minute celebration at Le Diplomat. While I could not attend, I wanted to honor the occasion by requesting to send a bottle of wine to their table (and paid for). I was told by the manager that the restaurant's policy was a 24-hour notice before doing so, and thus they could not honor the request. While I understand that this may be reasonable, there is no written policy on the restaurant's website, and I noted this discrepancy over the phone. Am I in the wrong here?

Twenty-four hours advance notice to send a bottle of wine to a table? That's nuts. Le Diplomate is crazy-busy, but surely someone could have found time to arrange the sale and the presentation for you. #feelinggrumpynow #aboutlediplomate

My 12 year old daughter has started learning French and would like to experience some of the famous cuisine. She's not picky but won't try escargots. What should we try? We prefer N Arlington/McLean/Falls Church, nothing too stuffy.

Can I be honest? The French food is superior across the Potomac, in the District. For something on the casual side, I'd recommend the charming Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown. The setting is mint-green and cozy and the menu runs to Gallic classics including Bourguignon and mussels with fries. Worth the trip, as they say.

 

If you want to stay in Northern Virginia, the closest reliable spot for French fare is Bistro L'Hermitage -- in Woodbridge. 

 

My daughter and her fiance are looking at wedding venues, and like the "funkiness" of the Tabard Inn, its location, and other aspects. I remember that you reported major problems at the restaurant a while back, and were negative about the place a couple of years ago. Have there been any recent improvements?

None of my meals at the Tabard Inn in recent years have compelled me to sing its praises. Sorry if that's not the answer you want, but the place isn't what it used to be: a favorite. 

Hi Tom- My father recently retired and will be visiting DC in the new year. We’d like to celebrate when he comes to town and would love your suggestions. Ideally, we’d like to find a restaurant that is in DC proper, vegetarian friendly (several of our party keep kosher), fairly quiet, and has mains in the range of $30-$40. Loved the addition of the quiet filter on the fall dining guide, but didn’t find a restaurant that seemed to check these boxes. Thanks!

The Italian-Greek Iron Gate in Dupont Circle should be at the top of your list. The handsome, relatively-quiet dining room comes with a fireplace and a consultation with the chef in advance of your arrival should get you the menu options you require. 

Here's one that hasn't happened to me before: While visiting Seattle for a conference last week, we dined at Rockcreek Seafood and Spirits, highly recommended in multiple forums. I ordered some local oysters, enjoyed a good but not exceptional meal, and when I reviewed the tab, noticed that I'd been slightly overcharged for the oysters. I brought this to attention of our server, who looked it over, said, "Oh...yeah. They did overcharge you on those".....and walked away. She clearly had no intention of correcting the error. In accordance with the Tom Technique, I politely asked for a manager, who voided the first tab, and entered the correct amount on a second bill. She was polite, but offered no apology. My family says I shouldn't have pursued it, since it was only a couple bucks on a $150 tab, but gee....it IS the principle of the thing, I think. And I was astounded that server simply blew me off. Any further guidance?

You did what you could: pointed out the error and spoke with a manager to fix it. (I wonder what the owner would think of the unhelpful exchanges.) Let's hope the restaurant doesn't always operate with such nonchalance, however. 

We all make mistakes. I'm a fan of letting it go unless it's something that matters. If I like the restaurant, I'll let them know there's a problem so that they can fix it - not because I expect them to give me anything.

I like the way you think. Not every slip merits compensation. 

Hi Tom, I've been to Little Serrow once before (about 6 years ago) and struggled to get through the dishes after the 3rd one. I hadn't had many spicy foods prior so I think that's why. But i really enjoyed the food! Since then I've been exposed to more spicy foods. Do you think I should give it another go?

Yes! I've eaten there twice this year and I think the menus are more interesting by the season. (Tip: If the heat gets to you, a bite of rice helps absorb the sting better than water, which simply washes the oils over your tongue.)

You did a real disservice not telling the restaurant that there was shrimp in your salad. Many people have allergies so severe they cannot even have the food near them. Your allergy isn't that severe, but the restuauant should have been put on notice that someone dropped the ball by allowing this contamination to happen. Please look out for others in the world. It's a kindness that could save someones life. I've wiped up peanut butter at play grounds, that other people left behind, just in case a child with an allergy might play there. And it wasn't even my peanut butter!!! I didn't mind practicing an act of kindness.

Lesson of the day: "Please look out for others in the world." 

Is Candid Camera making a comeback?

Right? Because why would any restaurant otherwise allow such a thing?

My nephew is so allergic to shrim that if I touch him after eating one he breaks out in hives. The manager needed to know about this. In any event, an obvious solution for making good on a meal already substantially consumed is to offer a gift certificate for a subsequent meal, particularly at a chain like chopt.

Good idea (especially if you don't care to have the salad remade).

On the Post's Travel Chat, some posters have complained about fellow passengers they were seated next to who were watching *adult* websites, that it was difficult to avoid seeing due to the exceedingly close seating.

Then there's THAT. 

About a dozen years ago, we had an office holiday lunch at a restaurant on 8th St. SE that you had spoken highly of, although the name escapes me now. A former employee with his two or three year old joined us. As we were all chatting and looking at the menu, the chef himself came out and delivered a small plate of pasta to the child to keep him occupied. We chatted briefly with him before he went back to the kitchen. It was a very sweet gesture by the chef!

Lovely. Could the restaurant have been Ambar? The hospitality there is first-rate.

I'm not sure if you're familiar, but the Splitwise App (https://www.splitwise.com/) is great for splitting checks with a recurring group. One person pays the bill and then sends a request out to the rest of the group that they can pay via smartphone. Easy Peasy (but I'm a millennial, so what do I know?).

Young gun to the rescue!  Thanks for chiming in. Since I'm almost always the person paying the restaurant bill, I tend not to seek out the kind of app you reference. Color me informed!

Ever been? I want to try it out.

Indeed I have, and I liked the Caribbean lilt enough to showcase the restaurant in my spring dining guide

What is a restaurant's responsibilities if they lose your credit card after it was handed to them? We were recently at a popular Adam Morgans establishment where we were using a credit card to pay for a drink tab in the 40s. We handed the card to them in the typical black binder and they lost it. They still expected me to pay and luckily I had the cash available. After momentarily considering refusing to pay, I did pay with cash. Would have happened if I did not have the cash? I left my phone number with them with expectation that they would call me with an update after they searched the place later that night. But I have heard nothing. I think they should have handled the situation in a better fashion. What do you think?

  What a hassle! Did you end up calling in the card? But even worse is the restaurant's response. I mean, SOMEONE lost your card and how does that even happen? Then, to add insult to injury, no one bothers to call you back? In this case, I think a comped round of drinks would have been appropriate.

 

 

 

 

My partner’s birthday is on Christmas – do you have a recommendation on where to have a nice celebratory lunch that day? Any cuisine or location is fine!

Among the restaurants that will be open that Tuesday are the dressy, seafood-themed Siren and the neighborly, Belgian-accented Et Voila

Ate there over the weekend, and while I've enjoy all other Jose Andres restaurants I've visited, AE left me feeling that while nothing was wrong, nothing was all that memorable either. Perhaps this is simply because I have been eating American food all my life, while his other offerings are more unusual or novel (to me, at least). I will happily return to Jaleo and Zaytinya-- but have no enthusiasm for AE. But Nobel for Jose, sure, I'll back that! And $36 for a dozen oysters does seem a tad high!

Thanks for weighing in. I like much of what AET does, crab cakes and fried chicken included, but I have to admit, I'm more fond of Jaleo and company, too. 

I never carry cash so it wouldn't necessarily be a lie to say I didn't have another way to pay, but I would definitely refuse to offer another form of payment if a restaurant lost my credit card. Let that motivate them to find it!

Fair point!

I would have 1) walked out without paying; 2) immediately called my bank to cancel the card (explicitly saying, "And take a note that I do not authorize any charge from the merchant that lost it"); 3) named the bar in today's chat!

You are nothing if not diligent and thorough.

You know what I think would be a great lunch? You and Hank from the TV chat. I feel like you both would be great and funny dining companions.

He IS a funny dining companion, which is why we break bread as often as our crazy schedules permit. Did you catch his brilliant profile of Cher this week. Hank is amazing. 

 

Time's up, folks. Remember, I'll be away the next two Wednesdays. Let's meet again on Dec. 19 for more chat. Until then, be safe, stay warm, eat well and play nice. 

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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