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

Dec 26, 2018

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at washingtonpost.com/tomsietsema.

Hi Tom, I just wanted to thank you for your recommendation of Disfrutar in Barcelona. My partner and I were there for a memorable Thanksgiving night dinner and both agreed it was in the top 2 or 3 best meals we’ve ever had (for me it was #1 or 2; can’t decide whether Chez L’Ami Louis in Paris was better). We both dove into the 25-course offering and were completely sated by the time the “stuffed” olives materialized (course #20 or so), but the magicians who run this establishment somehow coaxed us through the remaining delights. We will definitely be making a return trip the next time we are in Barcelona. Disfrutar was spectacular!

No less a chef than Jose Andres calls it, "one of the best restaurants in the world," and it sounds as if all of us agree. Even though I've gone on record stating my dislike of tasting menus, in part because of the hours-long parade of food, I loved Disfrutar. Pure magic. 

 

Good news on the Italian front. Chef Amy Brandwein is expanding her reach. The chef of Centrolina has acquired the RareSweets quarters across from her Italian restaurant in CityCenter, where she plans to open a fast-casual, all-day establishment named Piccolina next summer, possibly July.  No worries  about competing with herself, she says. “We’re busting at the seams” at Centrolina.

 

The future café, with seating for 25 or so patrons, will offer prepared food to go, including “lots of vegetables,” and feature such novelties as wood-oven-fired omelets and crepes. The offshoot, or “little one,” of her popular restaurant will also allow Brandwein to focus more on bread baking. Her bread sticks, focaccia and ciabatta will all be whipped up at Piccolina, she says.

 

   Patrons of Centrolina will still be able to pick up the makings for a meal – pasta, fish, sauces – at its market. But the expansion will allow for more private events there, plus six additional tables.

 

 

Good news on the Indian front, too. Have you heard? Asad Sheikh, best known for his establishments in Northern Virgina, has opened his first restaurant in the District. It's called Bombay Street Food and it serves, among other draws, a mean keema pac (minced lamb shot through with chilies). 

 

In lieu of a restaurant review this week, I reached out to some of the best restaurant hosts in the country, including Danny Meyer in New York and Mark Canlis in Seattle, and asked them to share some of their best practices.  My intention was to get their competitors thinking about how to be kinder and gentler going into the new year.  I also asked the trail blazers to share something that diners could do to make their work easier. (It's a two-way street, after all!)

 

Good morning, everyone. Here's hoping those of you who celebrate the holiday had a four-star Christmas. What's on your mind this morning? Share away. 

 

For the poster in the last chat, here's a great site with lots of photos, menus, and general ephemera on lost DC restaurants. It's a fun site. https://www.facebook.com/HistoricRestaurantsOfWashingtonDC/

Thanks for sharing this! Some of these places I've never heard of before, including the chicken chow main-serving Green Dragon, Wallis Cafe and Treasure Island.  I love that the Parrot Cafe was serving shad roe and Lady Baltimore cake on a long-ago spring menu. 

Tom - when you reviewed Pineapples and Pearls, did you ever go for the early seating? We ate there maybe a year and a half ago with the late seating and had a wonderful time. More recently we went as a party of 4 for the early (5:30) seating and felt very rushed. Drinks were taken before they were finished, the half wine pours seemed geared towards speeding up the courses, and ultimately there seemed to be fewer courses (9 vs the 12 the server mentioned up front.) Our entire party literally left hungry and had several rounds of drinks and appetizers at a restaurant down the street - which is pretty unusual for us. This seemed like a difference between the seatings, with the later seatings simply having more time, but maybe the restaurant has changed?

No one likes to be rushed, especially when a diner is paying hundreds of dollars for dinner. The last time I ate at Pineapple and Pearls was just before my fall dining guide, and on the early side. While I didn't feel hurried along, I did think the wine pours were a tad small.  The quantity of the food works for me, but I've heard from other readers who agree with you about not being sated. 

Hi Tom, Long time reader-- thanks for all you do. We're planning a brunch for 20 people to celebrate a friend's 40th birthday and thought you might have advice on a place in DC with good food (particularly lots of vegetarian/pescetarian options) and a private room that we could rent out for a few hours. Thanks.

Among the places you want to consider are Momofuku in CityCenter, Rasika West End for modern Indian  and the seafood-themed Fiola Mare in Georgetown. While I haven't experienced their private spaces, I can vouch for the variety and quality of their brunch menus. 

Hi Tom, Please accept my very best for 2019. I look forward to lots of dining adventures, based on your most valuable advice. While I very much appreciate these chats, the complaints tend to be those of unhappy patrons of high-end establishments. How about throwing a net out there, asking for stories about some of the industry's more memorable "guests." Some of the things I've seen done in restaurants make me wonder why anyone would want to try to make a living cooking and serving food. With that said, I continue to be pleased that so many talented people do exactly that!

Calling all chefs, servers and restaurateurs! Feel free to share some of your horror stories with us today.

Last week, in response to a reader's questions, you mentioned The Dutch in NYC. Well, just so happens my fiancé and I were going to NYC and needed a restaurant recommendation so we looked it up, made and reservation, and went last Sunday evening. Pure delight. Excellent food and service. We were placed in a nice quiet alcove that was perfect for a romantic dinner. Good thing I read your chats. Looking forward to another year of reading your reviews and answering reader's questions.

Nothing makes me happier than when readers fall in love with the restaurants I recommend to them. Thanks for writing.

Hi Tom, My partner and I are traveling to Oslo for a long weekend in February (Brrrrrrrrrrr). Wondering if you have any must eats or know of any cozy restaurants off the beaten path.

I've never been, but I'll throw your question to the peanut gallery and see what comes back. Oslo, anyone? 

Thanks to a bout of insomnia I was awake and able to get a reservation at Maydan in January! Suggestions for a person going alone to enjoy it? Some of the dishes seem geared to a crowd.

Congrats on snagging one of the hottest tables in town. The menu changes, but I think a good strategy would be to order a spread (red bell peppers with toasted walnuts and pomegranate molasses is superb); a kebab (garlicky ground lamb is a favorite); and a salad (maybe cabbage with chilies and  lime). 

My sister and her husband are moving to McLean soon to near their grandchildren and I wanted to get them a gift certificate for a restaurant they could get lunch in the $75 range. They aren't into spicy food and eat mostly fish and chicken as a proteins, so not a steakhouse. Any suggestions? Thanks.

My Food section colleague Tim Carman is a big fan of the Persian cooking at Amoo's, which is both open for lunch and revered for its kebabs, including saffron-tinted chicken. And food friends sing the praises of Tachibana for Japanese fare, including sushi and hot pots.

Hi Tom! I follow your chats religiously, but rarely have a reason to write in as I'm a grad student living in Charlottesville and can't exactly commute up to DC for dinner! I'm traveling to San Francisco for a week-long internship before school starts up again mid-January, and was wondering if you had any tips on where to go as a young, single traveler post-work? I'll be staying in the Potrero Hill area, but I'm always willing to trek for a good meal. I tend to like contemporary and/or hearty meals, but as long as there's a non-spicy option I'm pretty open! Thanks!

Sounds like a delicious use of one's time! I envy you a week in San Francisco, one of the best food cities in America. At the top of your list of places to visit should be B. Patisserie for first-class croissants, tartines and kouign-amann; Greens for vegetarian fare -- and views of the Golden Gate Bridge; Yank Sing for dim sum;  and Liholiho Yacht Club for a rare taste of Hawaii. Regular followers of my chat know I also love Zuni Cafe for its oysters, lunch-only hamburger, house-made pastas and espresso granita.

Mr. S: Just back from Miami Beach, and found a few places to recommend. Jose Andreas's The Bazaar, although expensive, had a 15 (may be it was 18) piece tasting menu that was outstanding. A Fish Called Avalon, clustered on Ocean Drive with a bunch of "grab the tourists" places, had fine seafood and service. On the less expensive side, Chalan on the Beach (actually one block off) had great Peruvian style food. My wife said the ceviche was at least as good as what she'd eaten in Peru, and I had excellent grilled octopus.

Always good to know where to go in sunny climes in winter. Than you for the field report.

Good morning and happy holidays Tom! I've got some family coming into town just after the new year and they've expressed an interest in grabbing a bite on Cap Hill or around (we live in Northwest and rarely get down that way). Any suggestions for a can't miss brunch spot that takes reservations? Thanks!

I'm a big fan of Joselito on the Hill for Spanish fare (served in three portion sizes). The vibe reminds me very much of my time in Madrid. And the service is terrific.

On the chat last week several people asked for lunch suggestions. We had a very pleasant weekday lunch recently at Et Voila on MacArthur. In addition to the usual mussels and frites, there is a nice variety of regular appetizers and entrees, and also two- and three-course menus. Lunch was quieter and less busy than dinner, so we could actually have a conversation and linger over dessert.

Some of my most memorable Belgian meals — trips to Brussels included — have originated from the kitchen of Claudio Pirollo, whose slip of a dining room in the Palisades routinely packs in neighbors and statesmen alike. (Bon appetit, John Kerry.)

 

I just wanted to take a moment to rave about the experience at Sushi Nakazawa on Christmas Eve. Everything from the time that we walked in the door until we left for the evening was incredible! The attention to detail was suburb. Within two courses (out of 21!) the chefs at the counter noticing that my companion was left handed and subtly rearranged his place setting and began placing his fish in the opposite direction on the plate from mine. Incredibly, Chef Masaaki Uchino recognized me and remembered details about my last visit to Sushi Nakazawa (in NYC) nearly four years ago. Every course was beyond delicious and Nakazawa remains the at the very top of my favorite dining experiences worldwide. I appreciate that reservations are relatively easy to get, but I hope that more people ignore the location and get a chance to try out this seriously top notch restaurant!

Spoken like a true publicist! Your experience outside the Trump hotel sounds wonderful. I liked the Japanese restaurant a lot, too, although 20 courses of raw fish is too much raw fish for me. I'd rather have half the amount, at half the price.

I didn't get to try any fine dining in Oslo, though I do know there is now at least one Michelin 3-star restaurant there. But for something less formal with a fun variety of options, try Mathallen food hall. For global street food, Vippa is a sort of permanent food truck hall with great views of the fjord. (One comment applies to everything: Norway is VERY VERY EXPENSIVE. Be prepared for sticker shock.)

Reader to the rescue!

We and another couple regularly go out together to celebrate various events. We are finding that its harder and harder to find upscale restaurants that are not small plates or prix fixe. Any suggestions (we've been to all the Trabocci restaurants) as well as Marcel's and Le Diplomate?

Small plates are going to be with us for awhile. But when you need a break from them, check out the aforementioned Centrolina for Italian and Corduroy for contemporary American (and a great wine list).

Headed to LA (Venice Beach area specifically) for the weekend/NYE. Any recs? There are 4 of us, including my inlaws (in their 70s). My FIL does not eat fish of any type, but not much else in the way of dietary restrictions. Nothing too upscale, as we aren't packing dressy clothes (mostly college gear as we're going to the Rose Bowl).

Let me point out the survey I did a couple years ago, where I named Los Angeles one of the best food cities in the country, supported by such distinguished restaurants as A.O.C., Bavel, Cassia, Rustic Canyon and Spago (still great after all these decades).

 

Arguably, the city has now become the No. 1 place to eat (shop and drink) in the nation.  You needn't worry about a dress code in Southern California, by the way. Even the richest of stars wears jeans.

For this year's big birthday dinner we'd like to go for sushi. Which places in DC or MD would you recommend? We're ready for a splurge.

For "chef's choice," there's no better place to find yourself than in the hands of chef Nobu Yamazaki at Sushi Taro. Its counter is a mere six seats, and dinner begins at $180. But, oh, what an adventure!

I'm a single woman in my sixties and usually eat alone. Every time I've asked you for a suggestion, you've been spot-on. Thanks for all the help, and especially for having the chat today, when most of my workload is on furlough!

I'm happy to be here for you! Thanks for the kind note.

Cafe Tatti, near the Balducci's, has been serving French food for decades. Not fancy, but good. Kazan is a Turkish restaurant near the Giant that has also been there for decades. Ichiban Sushi on Old Dominion across from Goodyear has excellent sushi and is very non-fancy. Rocco's has the best Pizza in McLean, and the rest of the standard italian-american menu is pretty good, too. If you like italian-american.

Bless you for adding to the list.

Not an industry person, but I remember going out to lunch with a group of coworkers. The file clerk ate everything on her plate, and then when she got down to the last bite pulled the "fly in my soup" thing but with hair. I was appalled, and I never looked at her the same way again. The restaurant comped her meal, they handled it better than I did. I was new to this company, but apparently this was not the first time she pulled this, either. I don't know why they kept inviting her out to lunch with the group. I also recall a classmate of my sister's would go to fast casual places with an empty gift card, select all of her food items, and when she got to the register to pay before seating herself, she would act distraught and tell this story about how she is a broke grad student and her mom loaded the card for her just a few days ago, and she is so hungry...also very gross. This was all in Baton Rouge, LA over 10 years ago.

These stories make me sad. And mad. But I have to ask: No one in your group of co-workers called this woman on her "stuff?"

I received for Christmas a promise of a night out for dinner. It has to be somewhere that takes reservations. It can be pricey, but not Pineapple and Pearls level pricey (maybe topping out at around $100-ish a person including drinks). Thoughts? In the past we have enjoyed Rasika, Sushi Taro, and Fiola Mare. We are not picky eaters at all. Oh, and not in Maryland.

How generous. If someone gave me the gift of $100, I'd probably splurge at Johnny's Half Shell in Adams Morgan, which is very much to my taste, or Chloe, the small plates purveyor near Nationals Park.

 

That's a wrap for today, gang. Thanks for spending some time with me this morning. Let's do it again next year (already!), Jan. 2.  Here's wishing you all a happy new year's. Be safe out there!

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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