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

Dec 19, 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! We're going out to dinner with another couple next month so have time to make a reservation. It's a Friday night and we want something new, takes reservations, and lively atmosphere and am having a hard time coming up with a place! we're open to all cuisines but would prefer to avoid small plates, are willing to spend if its a good meal. What would you recommend? St Anselm is currently top of the list. Thanks!

St. Anselm should stay at the top. I gave it a rare three-star ("excellent") this past Sunday in the Magazine. It fulfills your request for something new and lively.  But in case you can't get in -- the place is hot, hot, hot --  check out the breezy Officina at the Wharf for Italian or Scotts downtown for British fare.

 

Good morning, everyone. I'm still recovering from jet lag following a trip to Cambodia, where they eat *everything,* but I'm happy to be back in the host seat after being away for the past two Wednesdays.

 

What's on your mind and how can I help? And what's everyone doing for the forthcoming holidays? Share away.

 

Where's the best classic hotel bar in the District to have eggnog spiked with a little holiday cheer?

Eggnog, anyone? I'm not much of a fan of the holiday staple, I have to confess. Eggnog makes me feel like I'm drinking dessert.

I have a special birthday coming up in January, and would appreciate your suggestions for a restaurant in or near DC where my family can celebrate (including my 84-year old father who doesn't hear conversation well in noisy places). Beyond Pineapple and Pearls, what would you suggest? Thank you!

It sounds as if you're up for a splurge. In that case, Marcel's would lead my list. I love everything about the West End hall of famer: the French-influenced food, the pampering service, the golden lighting and the peace and quiet. Another option is the private "pasta" room at the original Sfoglina, if Italian is more your style.

Hi Tom, I love reading the chat and your restaurant reviews - and today I find myself a little stumped on ideas. I'm getting married at the courthouse Friday afternoon and want to celebrate at happy hour somewhere afterward. There'll be 6 people total in our party. Our first date was at Compass Rose Bar a few years ago and it would be fun to go back there, but I think a group of 6 is too big for that space. We love the happy hour at Chloe, but do you have ideas on other places in the District that might be fun for a 5pm Friday celebration? Thanks much!

Let me steer you to a column by my Weekend colleague Fritz Hahn, in which he lists the merits of Oyamel for Mexican-inspired happy hour ($7 margaritas!) and Joe's Stone Crab, awash in marble, for $6 cocktails and other enticements. Congrats, by the way, on your forthcoming nuptials. 

Hi, What happened to the Old Maryland Grill? My family and I went there in October of this year and had a lovely experience. I went last night for my birthday and was extremely disappointed. The menu changed—there are no vegetarian options (except for sides) and many of the items we enjoyed in October have been removed. (The menu also makes one reference to a local item — cucumbers... in December?) We asked the waitress about the change and she said that it was to improve flow in the kitchen. It hasn’t helped. By the end of the night we were so tired of waiting that we asked the waitress how long it would take for the dessert to arrive. She told us it would take 10 minutes; we asked for the dessert (the Smith Island Cake you recommended in your review) and the check. We got our check 15 minutes later, but the waitress never came back to process payment. I finally asked a different waitress to take care of it. We left 30 minutes after asking for the dessert and the check. (In addition—we were provided bread plates and butter knives but never received any bread and the fish and chips were heavily battered and heavily fried.) I am so disappointed.

That makes two of us. The state-themed restaurant, a past favorite of mine, lost both its original chef and owner earlier this year and has morphed into a place I no longer recognize or recommend. 

What’s the best restaurant in the area that serves lunch? Or, alternately, what’s the best place for lunch in DC? My wife and I don’t frequently get a chance to go out in the evenings, but we do sometimes get a chance to slip away for a lunch date. We’d love to try some of the best places open during the day.

Can you be a little more specific? Do you have a budget, a cuisine preference or neighborhood in mind?  Off the top of my head, some of my go to lunch spots include Woodward Table for creative American, Momofuku for creative Asian, Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown for a French bistro experience and Fiola in Penn Quarter for haute Italian.

Hey, Tom! Does it ever get easier to (gently) let managers/servers/restaurants know their food or the experience was awful? I feel like I kicked a puppy. Last week, my husband and I popped in to a steakhouse for a last-minute dinner. All we wanted were a couple of steaks and some solid wines. The steaks took a while, but they eventually came out, and our waiter had me cut into mine to check that it was cooked how I had ordered it —medium rare—and, it looked right in the low light, so the waiter disappeared to let us eat. When I actually ate it, however, it was instantly identifiable as a terrible steak. Mostly burnt outside and had the unpleasant texture of generic gummy vitamins inside. My husband’s steak was similarly bad, so we stopped eating and were hoping to point it out to the waiter when he passed by. More than 20 minutes passed, and our waiter was MIA, our wine was gone, our water was empty and we were generally over-ready to get a check and go. I finally caught the eye of a manager, and he asked how things were. I stuck to talking about the steak’s mystery texture, and at no point bashed our server’s disappearing act. I also asked for the check and said we’d prefer to head out than wait for new steaks. But when the waiter brought our check, he did so with full lower-lip protruding, repeating over and over that he didn’t know what he had done wrong. And, Tom, he didn’t cook the steak! (OR DID HE???? That would actually explain a few things, maybe?) He wasn’t a good server by any stretch of the imagination, but WHAT DID THIS MANAGER SAY TO HIM and is it normal to feel absolutely worse for complaining about The Worst Steak Ever Served to Me?

The server probably didn't cook your steak, but he failed to check in with you shortly after you had a few bites, at which point you could have explained the texture problem and would have likely received a replacement in short order -- along with more water, etc.

 

Twenty minutes is epic when you're having a problem and there's no one in sight to address an issue. I imagine the manager immediately said something to upset the server, and the server let it show. A better supervisor might have waited until after you left to discuss the problem or discipline the staff member.

 

All of which is to say: No need for you to feel guilty. The restaurant goofed -- several times.

I'm staying in National Harbor in a couple of weeks for a convention, and I'm not very familiar with the area. Any good recommendations for lunches and dinners down there? I pretty much eat everything.

Dining-wise, the pickings at National Harbor are slim. Do yourself a favor and stroll over to the nearby MGM casino, where you'll find some satisfying Italian fare at the fledgling Osteria Costa. I'm particularly fond of the veal Milanese and lemon ricotta cheesecake.

My husband an I decided that instead of exchanging gifts for Christmas, we would each pick a fancy (highly-rated, special occasion) restaurant anywhere in the DMV to make a reservation at and exchange the info on Christmas. The hitch is we need the resturaunt to be open for lunch on Fridays. I’m going through the Washingtonian best list & Michelin star guide and am finding many are only open for dinner. Do you have any recommendations?

You should have started with the Washington Post first, but I digress.  One of the most seductive restaurants around right now is Del Mar, the glamorous ode to Spanish cooking set in the ever-expanding Wharf. Not only is the dining room beautiful, the service is some of the best in town and the paella, among other dishes, is first-tier.  Try it out and you'll see why I named it my No. 1 restaurant in the fall dining guide

This story sounds like a textbook example of Anthony Bourdain's how to ruin a popular long-lasting neighborhood restaurant.

But the server comment is just ludicrous. They dumbed-down the food to make it easier on the cooks? Whatever!

Just wanted to give a shout out to Marcel's for a truly memorable dinner last weekend. My roommates and I splurged on a holiday treat-yo-self meal and while we were a little bit different (read: younger/not on a proposal worthy date) than most other customers, we were treated super well with friendly and extraordinarily attentive service, a wonderful atmosphere, and literally the best food I've had in the district. I was struck by the flexibility of their 7-course salute to french cuisine to fit our particular tastes, and the hilarity of receiving a happy anniversary! written in a delicious sauce on our dessert plates (we told our server at the beginning that it was our "friendaversary"). Thank you for calling this place out as it really is a phenomenal experience from first to final course.

I appreciate the (detailed) show of support!

I thought you were fond of Bond 45 -- has it slipped?

I haven't been in years, so can't recommend the place.

Growing up in a Jewish family in Philly we engaged in the traditional practice of eating at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas. What Chinese or other Asian restaurants in DC do you recommend for us on Christmas?

I'd be inclined to book a table at the upscale Q by Peter Chang in Bethesda. The namesake chef cooked at the Chinese embassy before opening a string of restaurants in the region and beyond.

After hearing quite a bit about DC's Ethiopian food scene, and Zenebech in particular my wife and I plan on going there this week. What dishes would you recommend for two adventurous eaters who are unfamiliar with Ethiopian cuisine?

I'd probably ease in with an order of doro wat, Ethiopia's classic chicken dish, and a vegetable sampler including lentils, garlicky collards and yellow cabbage.  If you like heat and raw meat, throw in some kitfo, which is made with minced beef and spiced  butter. Zenebech is a great place to start your adventure, by the way. The food is consistent, and the dining room has a family feel.

I've always wanted to try Iron Gate so we went last night for a special occasion. I have to say, I was not impressed by the food or the service. Right off the bat, things went south as we were ordering and were told that we were given a seriously outdated menu -- and it was almost as if it was our fault, not theirs! We had decided on items that were not on the new menu. The food was so-so, including the lobster and squid ink pasta for two -- the pasta was hard, not al dente and the sauce tasted mostly of onions. The tussling with the lobster and breadcrumbs left a bit of a mess on the table and the server came, took the plates, and simply plopped the dessert menus on the mess. I had to ask him to please wipe down the table. The carrot cake sundae we ordered for dessert was sent back -- the flavors were just off. I've lived over half a century and I have n.e.v.e.r. sent a dessert back. It was a real disappointment, especially given how lovely the setting is. We were seated right in front of a roaring fire. I hope they can step up their game on the food and service to match the warm elegance of the surroundings.

I'm sorry to read your report. But thanks for the feedback. If only the food matched the setting, right?

No question here, just wanted to welcome you back. I know my Wednesday lunches are very boring without you. Looking forward to hearing about your trip - your Facebook posts looked incredible (minus the spiders).

Ha! Those were fried tarantulas we ate in Phnom Penh.

 

As much fun as I had, I'm glad to be back. I'm a creature of habit and love my routines, which includes this weekly chat. Thanks for the thanks.

I miss Bistro D'Oc, a warm, comfortable French restaurant that used to be on 10th Street NW; I remember several meals there that made me and my family feel relaxed and well-fed, as though we had stopped for dinner in a small town in the countryside of southern France. As one gets older, there are two cities here: the present one and the one that is recollected as one walks past changed storefronts. It would be interesting to have some restaurant obituaries -- photos and recollections of fondly remembered restaurants of the past -- so these memories are not entirely lost. Are you aware of any resource like that? Also, can you recommend anyplace like Bistro D'Oc? Many thanks for all your great work.

All I have are the archives, but I hear you!  Bistro D'Oc near Ford's Theater was good early on, less delicious as time went on. If you're looking for something cozy and pleasing, a good place to start would be La Piquette near National Cathedral, whose chef used to cook at the French embassy here.

Tom, did you manage to visit Siem Reap while in Cambodia? Foreign Service officer here, and I was pleasantly surprised how great the food scene was there last year. One place in particular, Cuisine Wat Damnak, offered one of the best meals I've had anywhere in Asia, for about $30

I loved my dinner there! And because my hosts knew the French-born chef, he invited me to accompany him the next morning as he shopped the market. Fascinating. Cuisine Wat Damnak was in fact a highlight of the trip.

On your advice, took the family to Empellon Midtown (Alex Stupak’s Mexican outpost) as our last meal over a three-day visit to NYC. It was everything you said it was, and more. From the guacamole with seven (!) salsas to our kids’ tacos (hash brown tacos and BLT tacos) to my bride’s short rib to my crispy pork belly with chicharones to the corn ice cream tacos that our excellent waiter comped us at the end of the meal, everything was amazing and creative and delicious. And the service was first-rate, too! (On that last point, I note that we tried to dine there the last time our family was in NYC, almost a year prior, but the restaurant had been bought out that evening for a private party. I still recall the friendly, apologetic email from their staff and their invitation to come back the next time we were in NYC, which just goes to prove a point your chats return to repeatedly — it is the service, and how it makes you feel, that defines the success of a restaurant. Empellon was a winner on all counts, and I thank you for ferreting it out for us.)

I'm thrilled you enjoyed your time at Empellon, which I wrote about for a round-up of New York dining destinations last year. I keep getting raves from other diners who've been to the colorful Mexican restaurant , indicating your happy experience is the norm there. 

Have a family with 4 young children and we are going to make a simple ham for Christmas dinner. $0.99 a pound spiral cut from the grocery store. Legos will be the focus of the day, not the meal. Would love a few EASY suggestions to make it tasty.

As in side dishes? The Food section chat follows mine. You might post your question there. But ham sounds good -- and Legos sound like fun.

I was recently having a lunch at a very nice restaurant with a co-worker near my office. This restaurant very much caters to the executive lunch crowd, so we were both surprised when our male waiter continuously referred to us as "girls". The first time he called us girls, I figured it was a slip up. But, instead, he referred to us as girls every time he interacted with us. We are professional women (early thirties) and, ironically, were there to talk about how to advance as women in the business world and the #Metoo era. His repeated use of girls was patronizing and we cringed each time he left the table. I doubt this waiter would call a group of men in their 30's wearing suits at lunch 'boys.' We didn't say anything to him (how could we without coming off sounding like we are uptight?) but days later it is still bothering me. Should I have brought this up with the management?

What's wrong with looking him in the eye and telling him, or any such future server, "Actually, we're women, and prefer to be addressed as such?"

What would you recommend for a cozy holiday date night with great pasta? Have you been to Napoli? Prefer something with a neighborhoody feel in NW or NE DC. Thanks!

I'm a fool for the friendly Tortino on 11th St. NW, which I included in my fall dining guide. The chef-owner does a nice job with veal saltimbocca and (hand-made)  pastas.

My daughter is preparing to go for her junior year abroad to Switzerland in January (Geneva, first stop). Coming from Baltimore, I was hoping you could direct me to any worthy restaurants featuring Swiss dining for us to try as a family during winter break. It’s been challenging to find!

I've got JUST the right place for you: Stable, on H St. NE. This change in the weather calls for melted cheese, Swiss wine and veal in cream sauce.

Not one recommendation for a restaurnt for NOVA in your chat. Really impressive Tom. Lets see if you can go the whole chat adn maybe into the New Year w/o recommending any place on the correct side of the river.

Most of the questions I'm getting today are DC-related. Sorry! How can I help YOU this morning?

The area and in NOVA???

As far as I know, there are no Cambodian restaurants in the DMV (alas).

You wouldn't sound uptight -- or if you did, it would only be to the offending waiter. And you'd have taught him a salutary lesson. Part of being a professional woman is standing up for yourself in the face of patronizing comments. Signed, Been There.

Thanks for weighing in.

My husband, my 5 year old daughter and I are headed to the big city to the north this Christmas. We've already got our mandatory Christmas Day Chinese food picked out. Wondering if you have any recommendations for a cozy dinner in Manhattan on Christmas Eve? Preferably upscale American food, but we're fairly adventurous. Budget is mid-range, child is well behaved (we think!). Happy Holidays to you.

I don't have time to research this minute, but try the Dutch, a favorite of mine and cozy as can be. I see it's open Dec. 24, too.

Sorry if the server is being a pretentious jerk than he or she needs to be called out. Oh and I am a woman and the managing partner of one DC top law firms. If I have had a reallly good day and the server referred to myself and my friends as girls I would have made a scene and the male server would have been crying for his mommie.

Okey doke, you tough cookie!

First, puhleeze stop stop stop saying "the DMV". Maketto.

Hey, I'm doing this on the fly, OK? And jet-lagged beyond belief to boot. But you are RIGHT: I left out a great example in the D (as in "District").  

 

Maketto it is for Cambodian, and Taiwanese!

we're off to the Inn for our annual Christmas present to each other. Been there lately? Anything to look for on the menu that I shouldn't pass up?

Look, the DC Metro area is very large with hundreds of restaurants. And Tom has to answer the questions he's asked, not write a column for the benefit of those who think he should be a mind-reader. If you want to know about a restaurant in NoVa, why don't you post a question instead of being nasty?

There you go! (Thanks.)

My mom (78) and I will be alone between Christmas and New Year's. She's agreed to forgo presents this year in exchange for some fun lunches or dinners out. What are some of the most unique or beautiful dining rooms in the city with great interesting food. She eats just about everything (aren't I lucky) and neither of us have allergies. thanks!

I like the way you think, giving the gift of experiences rather than material things. I'd definitely hit up Rasika West End and Kaliwa for lunches and (early-because-they're-popular) Centrolina, Little Pearl and  All-Purpose Pizzeria on the waterfront for dinners.

 

And on that note, I bid you all a delicious rest of the week and four-star holidays coming up. I'll be back again Dec. 26 for another hour of restaurant talk. Hope to see you then.

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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