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

Dec 12, 2012

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Hey Tom: Read your review of MiniBar and this question came to mind. Would one get better value and elevated dishes at Rogue 24 and has Rogue 24 surpassed MiniBar as the best Molecular Gastronomy establishment in Washington DC?

Right now, I'd rather eat at Rogue 24 than the relocated Minibar by Jose Andres.  I say that, having dined recently at both avant garde specialists; what I especially appreciate at Rogue 24 is its  abbreviated four-course menu for $75, which gives diners an enticing taste of what chef-owner R.J. Cooper can do but doesn't require an all-night commitment.  Too much at the "new"-but-not-so-new Minibar feels like innovation for the sake of innovation. There's very little on its opening epic menu that I'd want to try again.


Good morning, gang. Thanks for joining me for another hour of dining discussion. Let's begin.

So, pretty much everyone I know will be out of town for my birthday on the 22nd. My brother has agreed to take me out to celebrate, but has requested that we not go someplace too heavy, since, we will have a few days of that ahead of us when we finally make it home. Where to go? He will eat anything and I do mostly vegetarian and poultry. Oh - and nothing that tops your most romantic lists, please. I get confused for my father's wife enough, it doesn't need to start happening with my younger brother too! Thanks!!!



The cozy Chez Billy in Petworth serves a pleasing roast chicken, which it serves with potatoes Anna and Swiss chard. Central Michel Richard off Pennsylvania Ave. NW makes a beautiful goat cheese Caesar salad that looks like art you can eat and would make a festive start to a birthday dinner. Boqueria in Dupont Circle is good for Spanish small plates and cocktails and Ethiopic on H St. NE continues to be my go-to place for Ethiopian cooking, including a top-notch vegetarian sampler.

I was eager to try dim sum at Ping Pong (Dupont) but had a bad experience that I'm not sure if I should have handled differently. I ordered a hot tea with dinner, which for some unknown reason comes in a tall water glass. As the waitress poured the tea at the table, the glass broke (likely from the heat) and scalding hot water went all over our table including on my lap, Blackberry, and into my purse. She did her best to clean it up and apologized but seemed irritated when we asked to move to another table since there was a huge pool of water under ours still (and my seat was still wet). The rest of the meal was fine (good, not great), but the replaced tea glass was still too hot to hold for most of the meal (not insulated). I considered talking to the manager to suggest they use a different type of glass for hot tea, but decided it must have been a specific choice since I saw other diners with the same. Should I have said something? I wasn't looking for a freebie, but it seems like an odd choice of glassware and a problem that could recur.

Hot liquids in tall glasses without handles sound like disasters waiting to happen. But wait, a mess DID occur!


Sorry to hear about the dampener on your night, but yes, of course you should have said something to a manager at the time the glass broke. Who knows how many future disasters you could have prevented by speaking up?

I had a frustrating experience at Central Michel Richard on Monday, and it has tainted my view of a restaurant which I once held in high regard. We had a reservation for 3 people, and my husband and I arrived about 5 minutes early. We checked in with the hostess in order to be seated, since I preferred the idea of waiting for our third companion while seated and looking over the drink menu rather than standing in the cramped area by the hostess station. In my opinion, this scenario could have played out one of two ways: 1) The hostess could have seated us at our reserved table, where my we could have looked over the menu and ordered a drink as we waited for our third (he showed up about 5 minutes later). Then we would have enjoyed a pleasant meal, possibly bellying up to the bar afterward to watch the football game. 2) Or, the hostess could refuse to seat us since our whole party was not present, stating that the reason was "well, your guest may not show up for 20 or 30 minutes" (making this assertion without actually asking when our third guest was expected to arrive, which was momentarily). She could then spend the next 5 minutes arguing why it is not advantageous for the restaurant to waste a table on us (even though we had a reservation) until our third person showed. This would result in us being so disgruntled that we ordered no alcohol, ate dinner quickly, and left. I, meanwhile, would be so rankled by the situation that I would take time out of my life to write about it to the WaPo food critic. As you may have surmised, the latter is what occurred. I was completely shocked by the money-grubbing attitude displayed at what I had always thought was a high-class establishment. It was clear that they do not care about their customers as individuals, only as interchangeable open wallets. From my perspective, their hostile enforcement of their "full parties only" policy succeeded only in insulting - and permanently losing - a customer. There were several empty tables in the restaurant when we left, so I'm not sure what the advantage for the restaurant to be so strict. Tell me Tom, what benefit does a restaurant which takes reservations get by enforcing such a policy?

I'm afraid a few bad apples who show up late  have spoiled it for those diners who are punctual. Restaurants don't like to seat incomplete parties because all too often,  the early or punctual arrivals just sit and sit and wait and wait -- without ordering any food or drink -- in anticipation of  the rest of the group. Which creates a drag.


It's not that I don't sympathize! Because I hate having to wait to be seated for the entire party to assemble as well, particularly if said stragglers are minutes away.


Could we get some industry perspective on this, please?

Hi there Tom, I'm arranging my own birthday dinner on Dec 14th and want to try a new place. We love ethnic food and saw your review of Mio. I'd like an engaging, interesting atmosphere, not just good food. 2 questions: Is Mio worth the special-affair status in terms of both food and atmosphere (small group of us) and second, is there a funky beer- or wine-bar we should pre-game at (we love Churchkey but its not nearby), and then walk over to Mio? Birthday Boy greatly appreciates your input! - Thanks.

I'll be honest. A few food friends disagreed with my inclusion of Mio in my fall dining guide. I like the restaurant most on Friday night, when the kitchen shines a light on Puerto Rican cooking and the menu includes a whole suckling pig.  Dec. 14 happens to fall on a Friday, so -- go


As for "funky" wine or beer bars nearby, I'm at a loss, although the after-work scene at the new Woodward Table on H St. NW is pretty buzzy.

You asked last week why people might want their meat well done. My husband has an anxiety disorder (well-managed, but that doesn't mean eliminated) that inclines him to germophobia. He enjoys a steak on occasion, but if it's at all pink, it makes him worry and destroys his enjoyment of the meal. No, it's not logical, but the choice is about emotion, not logic. He'll fight the anxiety when it's an important issue, especially one that impinges on someone else. In this case, he'd prefer not to fight a battle with himself over dinner, even if it means the chef sneering at him. Seems like a sensible choice to me.

Thanks for sharing.

Hi Tom: I work near where MInibar is allegedly located, but there is no sign. Is that part of the exclusivity? All I see are drawn shades. Does it awaken and identify itself in the afternoon?

One reason I was late to my meal at the recently reviewed Minibar by Jose Andres was ... lack of signage. I do think the omission is an attempt to be a little mysterious. But it's not very practical.

Have friends from CA coming in next week and are staying in Logan Circle so I suggested we go out along 14th Street. Out of Estadio, Rice, Masa 14, Drafting Table or Cork what would your pick be? Wasnt sure if Rice and Cork would be good picks for Californians who I know get prime asian as well as wine, but thought the fusion nature of Masa might be a fun twist. Or would you scrap those suggestions and go with something else? Thanks for your guidance!

Estadio would be good for your pals from California. Same for Cork. But run, run from the goofy Drafting Table and probably also Masa 14.

Last week I asked your advice on how best to convey negative feedback following a disappointing evening at Fuego. As a result, I received a responsive e/m from one of the principals and an offer to be his guest for a return visit. So, I wanted to report back that Fuego was very attentive to the complaints I had raised here.

I was also contacted by the new Mexican restaurant and know this to be true. Thanks for writing in. 

Hi Tom, As a native NoVAn, this is an embarassing question, but I'm at my wits' end, so I'm willing to embarass myself. My parents' 50th wedding anniversary is at the end of the month. We will have a party of 10, looking for a reservation on the 29th of Dec. They are looking to have this celebratory dinner at a restaurant with a lovely view of DC. They checked out Ruth Chris in Crystal City, but the tables with a view are for parties of two. We're looking for standard American fare, Italian, French, or Belgian. The budget per person will be comparable to Ruth Chris' pricing, including wine expenses. The restaurant will need to be handicap accessible, due to one in the party not doing stairs (which is why 1789 is out). Do you have anything that meets this? It can be in DC (as long as parking isn't a huge issue) or VA. If you have any other thoughts on a restaurant that would make the dinner special without a view, I'd welcome that as well. Much obliged!!

I've mentioned this restaurant so many times now, I worry readers will think I'm on its payroll, but J & G Steakhouse in the W hotel has much of what you're looking for -- provided you plan ahead. I know of at least one table there that captures the Washington monument; the menu has delicious range;  and valet parking is an option.  Plus, it's comparable in price to the other restaurants you mentioned.


Good views and good food rarely mix. I'm at a loss for where to send you in NoVa. Chatters?

Hello Tom - First, love reading your blog and keeping up with the DC area food scene (which is improving in leaps and bounds!) My mother in-law's birthday is Christmas Eve and we are always looking for a fun way to celebrate. I see a few restaurants doing special menus that night (Bibiana and Fiola opting for the Italian "Feast of the Seven Fishes"). Any ideas or recommendations on where to head for an excellent dinner that evening? Thanks!

Thanks for the kind words. Based on my non-holiday meals there, I think you'd be in good hands at Bourbon Steak, Oval Room, the Source, Vidalia or Westend Bistro for Christmas Eve.

Hi Tom, I'm hoping that you can help me. I'm planning a special date on Friday the 14th -- surprising my girlfriend with theater tickets. I had reservations at CoCo Sala after the show for romantic drinks and dessert, but I recently got a call from them that the restaurant is booked for a private party. I'm scrambling to find somewhere similar -- great dessert, intimate and special. I'd love to be somewhere walking distance from the National Theater, but I'm happy to cab to the perfect spot. Any ideas you have would be great. Thanks, Tom!

My kind of romancer! The nearby Central Michel Richard serves a show-stopping Celebration Cake, which comes with a big flare, but the restaurant is more bustling than intimate. 


How about something sweet near the hearth at the Tabard Inn in Dupont Circle, or a souffle at Marcel's in the West End, or an apple tart at Blue Duck Tavern, or lemon chess pie in the softly lighted lounge at Vidalia?

Any idea where the restaurant gets them? They are baked on the premises but prepared elsewhere. Our waiter did not know. Thank you.

The woman who answered the phone at Cafe Bonaparte earlier this morning said the pastry is baked there.  (When I said a reader was told otherwise, she said, "I'm here when we open." )

I'm way late on this, but a couple of months ago I asked for restaurant recommendations in Fort Lauderdale. Of the suggestions, we did make it to Casablanca, and had a great meal. Tom's chatters to the rescue!

Awesome. Thanks for the feedback.

Thanks for the blurb on The Lakehouse in our neighborhood. Who knew?? Cool vibe and free parking with D.C. level menu.

The chatter is referring to my recent preview of Bungalow Lakehouse in Sterling.

I had an interesting experience probably 3 months ago at Station 4. We had a reservation for 8. Four 2 top tables were all placed together to form our big table. We had 6 people present and wanted to get started on our bottomless mimosas right away. They sat us. But as we were sipping away and waiting for our other 2 to get there (theyd been pulled over for speeding to try and get there) the hostess and our waitress came over on two occassions to ask if our other 2 were coming, we told them yes. Then the hostess came over to say they had to take one of the 2 tops away becuase our party wasnt there and they needed the space and literally moved it behind us to set up for a 2 seater. There were 2 other large groups (probably 6 ppl each) and no one else in sight. When our other 2 did show up, thankfully sans a ticket. They had to be squeezed onto the end. The whole time until we left the 2 seater theyd taken back and set up was never occupied! We were all a little aghast at the whole situation. Thankfully the ever flowing bottomless mimosas kept our spirits high regardless.

Crazy, in light of the reality the extra two-top was never occupied by another party.

Hi Tom! 2 unrelated questions.... 1. Headed to Old Town this Friday night, just decided last minute so our first choice for dinner (Virtue) is already booked. Any ideas for a fun/delicious place to go that is equal or less to Virtue in price? We don't make it there often so I don't want to miss anywhere great! 2. I was chatting with a friend recently and realized that after we moved to DC neither of us had really gone out for Italian food (and I love Italian food!) you think there is a lack of good Italian in the city or I'm just missing all the spots? Where do you like to go? Thanks!

As an alternative to Virtue, try either its sister restaurant, Majestic, or the excellent Vermilion, both on King St.


Good, even great, Italian food can be found at Obelisk Fiola and Elisir, but I'm wondering if you mean old-school Italian?  That's harder to find. Al Tiramisu turns out some nice pastas and fresh seafood, but other than that, I'm hard-pressed to come up with a restaurant that is consistently good in the mid-range.

I've never understood this either, especially when you have a reservation. You'll be taking up that table anyways so as the OP said, the downside is leaving a bad taste in the customer's mouth and the upside is...? Somewhat related pet peeve #2 -- when a restaurant has a slew of empty tables and then seat you at the worst possible one: right next to the bathroom/front door/waitstaff stand. I always ask to be moved and usually the place does NOT fill up so "maybe all of the other tables were reserved" doesn't fly.

In defense of restaurants, one man's "trash" table is another man's "treasure. "  It's not always easy to guess which perches will be viewed as good or bad by diners, or so restaurateurs tell me.

Little surprised you keep recommending Bourbon steak. Went there a week ago and our whole party had a very average meal, certainly not one deserving of the praise or price. Best thing we ordered were a couple of sides. Still have not found a great steakhouse in DC..

What specifically didn't you like?

Hi Tom - We're planning on listening to Christmas music at the National Cathedral this weekend and were wondering if you'd have a suggestion for dinner afterward in the vicinity. Something a bit fancier than pizza/burgers, and nothing particularly spicy. Thank you!

Not the most delicious part of town. I like Sushiko for Japanese and Cafe Divan for Turkish in Glover Park, however. And further up, in Bethesda, is the satisfying  Food, Wine & Co.

Tom, have you been to Range yet? A lot of people are awaiting your reaction.

Oh yeah? Range doesn't officially launch until Dec. 18.

I live near Station 4 and have brunch there fairly frequently (it's convenient and the food is pretty tasty). You just have to accept the side order of weird that comes with every meal. Three of the waitresses have virtually identical haircuts, meaning you can never be sure if you're asking the correct person for a glass of water. Tables are moved and unmoved. Waiters disappear as if there's a magic portal behind the kitchen. Though my favorite had to be the time my friend was asked how she wanted her eggs...when she had ordered an omelet. "Um....omelet style?"


The croissant question concerned who make the pastry dough, not who bakes it.

You mean, the name of the baker? The way the woman at the cafe spoke, CB was using its own recipe.

Hi, Tom - Help! I've been tasked for finding a "lively" and "trendy" spot anywhere in the District for three 30-something women to have weekday lunch to celebrate the holidays. We all have the afternoon off, so a great drink menu is a must, but we are flexible as to cuisine. You input would be very, very appreciated!

If I wasn't tasked to keep abreast of the new and keep tabs on the old, I think I could lunch every day at Rasika or its cross-town sibling, Rasika West End.  Both qualify for exciting in my book, and both pour cocktails every bit as impressive as the modern Indian food.  For a more mainstream buzz, try the Source (pan-Asian) or Fiola (Italian).

The LW makes it seem as though the conflict arose from the host's actions, but it seems as though s/he was just enforcing a policy, and the LW is the one who turned it into a conflict. I'm assuming it *is* a policy, and no one is obligated to eat at a restaurant if you don't like the policy. If it's an issue for you, ask when reserving. Some of us don't care. I'm one. (I get bugged by other things, but not this.)

Okay, but it's rare that someone intends to be late and has the foresight to call and ask the restaurant what its seating policy is, and then cancel the reservation because the place only seat complete parties.

Are you related to Robert Sietsema from the Village Voice? I love his reviews, and I love your reviews - there has to be some relation, right? (I guess the name thing played a part in my question too.)

We are distant cousins.

Tom - We dined at Carmello's (and Little Portugal) in Manassas, a charming place featuring Italian and Portuguese - go figure. When one of the entrees was wrong, we deliberated what to do, send it back, and have the other dish get cool, send both back, etc .... Decided to send back and start on the second, which after the first bite, realized it was wrong also. It turned out to be a delicious traditional Portuguese dish, so we kept it. The manager, who I believe is the owner's son, apologized, and when the bill arrived, everything was comped, not just the dishes, but wine and drinks as well. So long intro to the question, what is the best way to handle a server error on one dish in a party? Should the other(s) go ahead, keep other dishes warm? Thanks,

It all depends. Do you have the time? The interest in waiting for a replacement? Some restaurants will send out something (soup, salad) to the diner without any food, so the whole table doesn't have to stop and wait for the replacement dish.

Tom: Headed to San Francisco. I've heard rave reviews about Flour + Water and The Slanted Door and we plan to try to get in to those restaurants. Any other places that we should put on our not-to-miss list? The latest postcard is from a few years ago. Thanks, as always!

I've flagged Zuni Cafe on Market St. a million times in this discussion, but honestly, I never visit SF that I don't find time to visit Judy Rodger's blissful Mediterranean restaurant. It's a crossroads of grand dames, Bohemians, neighborbors, VIPs and tourists; the roast chicken and Caesar salad are models of their kind.

What about Indigo Landing. They have an amazing view. Its usually quiet so you can actually have a converstation, I think they might even have a private area where you could sit. And the food is always top notch!

I didn't mention Indigo Landing because I recently sent a food spy there to check it out and he gave the food a thumbs down.

I doubt the hostess has any control over how parties are seated, and honestly it sounds to me like the OP harangued some poor soul who was just trying to do her job, and then sulked through a meal. (I'm a receptionist, and you wouldn't believe the number of people who take out their aggro on me when they can't get what they want right away, so I'm very sympathetic. It's frustrating to be barked at for things you can't control.) A better course would have been, "If I speak to a manager, would it be possible to adjust your policy? My friend is parking the car and will be here momentarily."

Honey beats vinegar every time, no?

As a longtime loyal reader I trust your answers but it's hard to imagine who would want to be deal with the noise, traffic, and elbows in your face from sitting directly next to the server's station! :)

I know, I know. Short answer to what could be a longer response. 

That reminds me of the first time I went to Toki Underground. I passed the sign by several times as it's cryptic and I was not expecting to go up stairs to go Underground!

That makes two of us!

Dry porkchop and New York strip was not as flavorful as it should be. Appetizers were very mediocore, especially for the price.

Did you say anything? Did you give Bourbon Steak a chance to remedy the dry chop at least?

Sorry, but I agree with the restaurant here. If it's a policy, then it's a policy. If your friend really is arriving "momentarily," does it really bother you to wait for five minutes? I'm sure the restaurant has had a lot of instances where someone is supposedly arriving "momentarily" but doesn't show up for half an hour. And if the policy really bothers you, then just nicely tell them that you have decided to go elsewhere.

As I said, some folks have spoiled the game for the rest of us but being really late, and forcing restaurants to put policies in place. But why would a restaurant turn down a couple who say they will immediately start orderig drinks?

WIth no out of town plans this holiday season I'm taking a few days off from work to just hang out. I want to go to a few places for lunch and wondered where you would go for a good, leisurely lunch in DC? So far I'm planning on The Source then going to the Newseum, Bourbon Steak and shopping/ice skating in G'town, and maybe Graffiato and a movie in Gallery Place. Where else would you suggest?

Can I tag along? I like your strategy.


What about Jaleo followed by the National Portrait Gallery?

Tom - Good response. So, given time and interest, you would start on the correct dishes and wait for the replacements, right? Thanks

I'd probably share tastes of my companions' food while I waited for the replacement dish. But that's the way I operate. No one at my table owns his or her food!

We live in the area, and our new go-to neighborhood restaurant for a solid meal is Bistrot Le Zinc. Better than any other options in the area.

I have not returned since my original review. Need to get back there, given the new chef.

Two reasons (at least). One, if it is their policy, it is better not to make exceptions (next time, someone will say "oh, but you seated my friends early last week!"). Two, let's suppose they say they will order drinks, and take 30 minutes to do so, meanwhile no sign of their friend who was going to arrive momentarily.

Well, there you have it.

I think restaurants are in their rights to enforce this policy. I've been in the uncomfortable situation where friends unexpectedly arrived later at a gastropub in our neighborhood with limited seating, and basically commandeered our table out from under others who were waiting. That's the absolute extreme, but it helps shed light on the policy. To put another spin on the OP's situation, they had a choice of quietly perusing the menu for a few minutes while waiting for their friend; instead, they chose to spend that time arguing with the hostess about a well-established industry practice.

Does the original poster care to weigh in?

Posto? And isn't it funny how hard it can be to define - Italian - food. What some folks really want is Italian-American, with lots of red sauce or Sunday gravy (as they say in ceratin regions of NY!)

I keep having good food and bad food -- at the same meal -- at Posto.  It needs to be more consistently good to win my affection.

Well, I diasgree with the poster! My parents took me there last weekend for a birthday dinner (I'm a lucky girl!) and everything was amazing! Veal cheeks app. which scared me at first but tasted incredible. Not to mention the butternut squash peirogies, "magical mushrooms," truffle mac & cheese, lobster pot pie...I could go on! Only complaint is the waiter carded me, despite mentioning what birthday it was, and my parents being present. Oh well, one day I bet I will be happy to be carded!

Yes you will, dear.



Nope, as the whole meal was average I was starting to see this as a sign.. Maybe it was a bad night, the restaurant was very full. Just wish we had some NYC or Chicago style steakhouses here!

But it's not really fair to vent online, and afterwards, without giving the restaurant a chance to correct problems?

Not on my Fish ' n ' Chips they don't.

This crowd keeps me on my toes, for sure.

I always try to get a dinner in at Bar Agricole when visiting San Francisco. Even if you eschew alcohol, it's worth it for the inventive and delicious food.

Yes, yes, yes! I love that place.

My husband & I are in our early 70's, and we do NOT want to stand and wait for the rest of our party to arrive. We want to be seated at the very least, and it would be nice if we could order a beverage as well. Is there no respect for age?

Your post reminds me why some rules are meant to be bent. 

Whoa! Two stars!? For Big Deal, $250/person, restaurant with national, if not global, aspirations for its reputation. That was seriously brave, Tom. This for a place to which you previously gave 4 stars in a previous incarnation, if I'm not mistaken. Have you heard back from the chef/owners yet? Are the flaws redeemable? Is there more behind the scenes on this review?

Brave? I'm just doing my job, actually, which is to look out for readers. 


The last time I reviewed (the original) Minibar, I gave it 3 1/2 stars.  The "new" version is nowhere near as thrilling, and more expensive.


I did hear back from the restaurant. It was a cordial conversation.If there's more "behind the scenes," I'm unaware.


Are the flaws correctable? Based on my past experience with the place, I believe they are.

BLT Steakhouse or Mintwood?

Excellent baked goods, despite the hype. Worth hanging around while the line gets shorter.

Yes to Tartine, too.

Former lead hostess at a busy local restaurant group here: incomplete parties are an issue because they mess up the time-to-dollars spent ratio. A party that waits for their missing member(s) without ordering is not only decreasing revenue generated at that moment, but their table turn time will increase, making subsequent diners wait longer for a table. This is mostly true for large parties (5 or more), as those tables are generally scarcer and wait times longer...and people who are waiting for a large table hate to see small (incomplete) groups seated at them! Personally, I would have sat the two waiting on their third, as the impact to table availability is minimal. But you would not believe the number of people who lie about the closeness of their missing guests! You are correct that a few bad apples spoil the bunch. Relatedly, I am always very grateful for hosts or managers who seat me while I wait for a friend or two, and I try to reflect that gratitude by order drinks/apps right away and leaving a nice tip!

Terrific. Thanks for offering some perspective.


Time to slip on my fat suit and false teeth and head to lunch!  See you here next Wednesday at 11 a.m., I hope. Ciao for now.

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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: