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

Dec 31, 2014

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 -- happy new year to you. I've greatly enjoyed reading your reviews and chats over the years, even when I haven't agreed with everything you've written (Rasika, really?), because you always treat your readers with respect and fairness. A great big new year's MWAH to you from me. I'll be spending this new year's eve at home, with a nice bottle of champagne, lucky me. What are your plans? In 2015 I'll be looking forward to seeing Frank Ruta back in action. The Capella is an interesting venue for him, but I hope it will allow him to do what he does best (invent genius dishes and prepare them to aching perfection) and give him a break from what he doesn't do so well (business operations).

What a lovely note. Thanks for taking the time to send it and thanks for sticking with me even when you don't agree with what I've written.  I'm truly grateful for you and others who participate in this forum. 

 

 I'll be heading to a friend's party later tonight. Tomorrow, I'll be starting 2015 as I have in recent years, with a late breakfast/early lunch of beans, greens, ham and biscuits (at home).

 

HELP WANTED: The owner of Bistro Vivant in McLean and his chef,  Katie Busch, have parted ways. Chefs interested in interviewing for the kitchen vacancy should contact  Aykan Demiroglu at 703-356-1700.

 

Good morning, everyone. Tell me what's on your mind today. Where are you ringing in 2015? Anyone making resolutions for the new year?

 

 

Are you going out tonight? (I'll wait until next week to ask "where," if the answer is yes, so as not to encourage hordes of people to wait to unmask you at a named location).

I'm inclined to check out a few scenes before heading to a pal's place, mostly to see how people are celebrating. I wish more restaurants offered their regular menus on Dec. 31. I know of a lot of revelers who would appreciate and patronize such.  I, for one, hate over-indulging.

Hi Tom, my husband and I just moved back to DC after three years out of the country. If you had been away for three years, where would you go first? What's new, what's fun, and what's easy? We are not into waiting for hours or places where the noise is excruciating.

 Welcome back.  I think you'll be amazed at what's transpired  in your absence. My answers to your questions are all off the top of my head, not the result of poring over three years of reviews.

 

NEW:  Ocopa, a Peruvian gem on H St. NE, and Chez Billy Sud, a French charmer in Georgetown

 

FUN:  Daikaya, a Japanese tavern across from the Verizon Center and Tico, an international small plates purveyor on bustling 14th St. NW. 

 

EASY: Pops SeaBar, an urban fish shack in Adams Morgan, and Soi 38, a handsome source for Thai downtown.

Do Chefs ever respond to emails? I have contacted Corduroy twice inquiring about vegetarian meals, never got a response. Is it better to call?

If chefs can't be bothered to check and reply to email with customers, or would-be customers, they should at least appoint someone on staff to handle the chore, which is an important one. (If it's any comfort, *I* have a hard time reaching Tom Power.  He's a very good chef but a challenge to connect with.)

I find that more than a few servers tend to rush over to top off a glass of wine after just a few sips. I don't know if they're trying to get that first bottle empty in the hopes second will be ordered or what. I often tell him/her that we'll refill as needed if the bottle is on the table. What should the strategy be if it's a white in a chiller not on the table?

You next time this happens:  "Can you put the chiller on the table, please? I prefer to pour my own wine."

I'm looking to host a Saturday brunch for 14 people at a restaurant quiet enough that people can actually talk to each other. Do you have any ideas for where we can go, without having to book a private space? (And while I love the decibel ratings in your reviews, I don't think there's any way to search or sort that includes that feature!)

Relatively quiet and good and roomy enough for more than a dozen people?  That's a challenge. In the District, try the Greek-themed Kellari Taverna on K St. NW or  Mandu for a Korean-style brunch in Mount Vernon Triangle. 

 

I'll pass along your request for identifying restaurants by sound level, by the way.

Happy New Year’s Tom! Just wanted to share an anecdote about a funny experience we had at the Inn at Little Washington. First of all, it was my third time there in the last 15 years and each time is better than the last. Recently I have been feeling like restaurant service in general is more rushed and uneven than ever, or maybe I’ve just had a few bad experiences. But the attention to service, not to mention the perfection that is the food, is just beyond at the Inn. And we loved the tasting menus! Anyway.....to the anecdote. We didn’t really care because we were soaking up every detail of our wonderful dinner there, but the table next to us was on their phones the whole time they were there. Like, the entire time. At the Inn at Little Washington. Of all places! Flash pictures, videos, the whole deal. At one point I noticed a flashlight in my face and it was the lady taking a panoramic video of the restaurant. They both took turns standing up and taking flash photos of each other and the food. At one point the man was on the Internet while the waiter was talking to him. My husband looked over and the page he was on was.....Yelp. I am hardly a technophobe, and I even took a couple of very stealth (non-flash) photos of my own food. But for the love of God, isn’t anything sacred? Can’t we just have a peaceful dinner anymore and enjoy each other's offline company? I know I sound old and I am not. But people, please, put down your phones!

You're preaching to the choir. All of us, and I count myself, need to eat more in the moment.

Since you go to lots of restaurants that don't end up getting full or even partial reviews, have you ever thought about just doing very quick/basic 2 or 3 line reviews about the places you visit based on just a single meal there?

I have! Especially on those weeks where, facing a deadline, I've been to several candidates, none of which by themselves merit a full review in the Sunday Magazine.  Those scouting missions rarely go to waste, however, since followers frequently ask about a lot of the places I visit (but might not devote a column to) in forums such as this one.

Hi Tom - my partner and I recently dined at a restaurant and we were very happy with both the meal and service. We paid our bill with a credit card, intending to leave the tip in cash.. As we finished our coffee, the manager approached and asked if we had enjoyed our experience. He wanted to know why we had not left a tip for our server (because we had not charged it to the credit card). Of course we did explain and did leave our tip but this was very embarrassing. What are your thoughts?

While I can see that white space on a tip line might alarm a manager, yours should have been smoother than to inquire about the actual gratuity.

they don't deserve your business. It's as simple as that.

Whew!

Tom, I had a very good po'boy at the Tune Inn recently but would like to find one closer to home in upper NW. Any recommendations or other places worth trekking to? Thank you!

I haven't eaten there recently, but when I last reviewed Bayou in Foggy Bottom, I was impressed by its baguette slathered with remoulade and stuffed with fried oysters, one of eight po boys on the restaurant's menu.

Hi Tom, I'll happen to be in Baltimore with my SO on Valentine's Day, and though we don't feel the need to officially celebrate, we would like to take advantage of the dining scene and try to eat out somewhere. I've already looked into reservations for suggested spots Woodberry Kitchen and Wit&Wisdom, and it appears they're already fully booked. Charleston doesn't accept reservations this far out, and may be out of our price range, anyway. Any other go-to's for dining in Charm City? Doesn't have to be romantic or high end. Too bad it's not crab season, or it would be a non-issue!

You know what's fun? Parts & Labor in Remington, a car shop turned butcher shop and restaurant from the talent behind Woodberry Kitchen. The menu is devoted to meaty pleasures -- house-made sausages, terrific hamburgers and unusual cuts of beef -- and the industrial room is warmed up with a handsome bar and a glowing hearth.

Hi Tom. I went to Nonna's Kitchen not long after your review came out and completely agree with everything you wrote, with one exception: we found the service to be fantastic. Shout out to our server Chad who never made us feel rushed, carefully explained each dish as it was presented, was never intrusive yet very attentive, and managed a graciousness seldom seen even in DC's finer restaurants. My question is what about your experience brought them from 3 stars down to 2.5 stars? Mostly just curious since we had such a lovely evening.

Just to be clear: The servers at Nonna's Kitchen never made me feel rushed. But their delivery was so hurried, my companions and I couldn't understand what they were saying about the food or wine. Every exchange was a blur of words. Honestly, it detracted from the overall positive experience.

 

This was my first review of Nonna's. I gave the new restaurant 2.5 stars -- a good-to-excellent rating -- and have every expectation that it will mature and get even better. (In other words, it didn't fall from three stars. Nonna's started at none.)

 

 

 

Tom, Thanks for a year of informative and entertaining chat sessions. We don't venture out on amateur night, and I will be doing the cooking. The menu isn't final, but it will feature fresh Maine lobster and perhaps steak. What's on your menu this evening? Happy New Year!

My host reports I'll be grazing on a buffet of hummus,  smoked trout spread, spicy pork shoulder, duck confit with sauerkraut, a curry, grits with "lots of cheese and butter" and a chestnut roulade. 

 

Something tells me I should go to the gym instead of a restaurant for lunch ....

Happy New Year Tom....Welcome back, hope you had a great trip. Looking back on 2014 what food/restaurant trends would you like to see come to an end? What do you see as hot for 2015? Me personally I'd like to see a full ban on brussell sprouts on any menu and no restaurant for the foreseeable should be allowed to have a name with an " &" in it. eg "blank & blank" :) Cheers!!

If one more restaurant describes itself as "farm to table," I'm gonna scream. I'm also growing weary of octopus, much of it poorly cooked; servers who have to give me tours of menus; and anyone who asks, "Is everything delicious/amazing/stupendous?"

If I am going to tip in cash I always write CASH on the tip line. It lets the server know to look for cash when I leave the table and prevents any potentially funny business from unethical staff who might try to alter the receipt

But of course! Good strategy.

I know, I know...but I've ended up with tickets to one of those over-priced 4 course 9pm dinners tonight? Any tips for how to make the best of it and still enjoy the evening? At least I know the company will be outstanding even if the food's not.

Take a good long walk before you go out. And leave the party just in time to get home a few minutes before the ball drops. More romantic that way, you know?

Newish server here with an answer and a question. There's been a couple of questions about server changes in the middle of your meal. It's definitely not the guest's job to handle getting a tip for the first server. If he gave up the table, he knows that he is giving up the tip. Not ideal but sometimes it needs to happen. When I tell a table that someone else is taking over, it's just so they don't think their server abandoned them. Secondly, I know that a lot of people hate extra server interruptions and especially the question, "how is everything?" I try to keep an eye for non verbal cues but there are a lot of people who won't speak up about a problem until you prompt them. So assuming that I'm required by management to check in, what question/phrasing would be preferable?

Thanks for chiming in. Good to know about shift changes and tips.

 

I understand some servers are required by their employers to check in with customers.  "I hope you're enjoying your meal" strikes me as a simple way for a server to follow up after the food has been tasted -- and a prompt for diners to give their feedback.

What has happened to Thally? You use to recommend it. My last trip was, "just OK". What do you think of the currant trend to keep the restaurant/bar almost invisible/dark?

I haven't been back to Thally since my last review. Did you initially enjoy it more than you do now? What specifically has changed about the place for you? I kind of like the fact the place feels hidden or secret from the outside.

Hindsight is 20/20, but it seems to me that the easiest way to head off inquiries about the apparent lack of a tip is to write "cash" on the appropriate line of the credit card receipt.

Yep again.

I am planning to host a dinner for 6 at a Virginia restaurant where conversation is easy (60 to 70 decibels) and the food and decor are very good to excellent. I am considering 2941, L'Auberge Chez Francois, and Villa Mozart but have been unable to find up-to-day reviews of them. Are all of these worth considering and are there others you would recommend?.

High on my list, mostly because I dined there recently: the always-reliable Villa Mozart in Fairfax City. I love everything about the place: the refined cooking, the gracious service, the intimacy of the dining room.

We, also, were recent diners at City Perch. Here is what we encountered: The wait staff did not communicate well with the kitchen or wine service. After waiting more than 15 minutes for our wine order, we asked the maitre de to bring the wine. He went and found the wine we requested and told us that it was a great "Pinot GRISS", one of his favorites. The wait staff indicated that the scallop appetizer contained three scallops; only two arrived on the plate. The desserts were indescribable by the wait staff. So much for training and execution. Regards, David Friedman

Thanks for the feedback. City Perch could definitely use more focus.

Looking for a black-owned lunch spot in the U St area. Is there a resource for black-owned businesses in DC?

Um, ever heard of Ben's Chili Bowl?

Hi Tom, What's going on at Cashion's? This used to be my go-to spot for a small meal at the bar. But the place seems empty most times I'm in there now, and the revamped menu (which seems to have gone towards a steakhouse theme of choosing protein and veggies separately) makes me miss thoughtful, composed plates. My friends tell me Cashion's food is as good as ever, and maybe they're right. But the menu changes don't work for me, the food seems lackluster, and it looks like the restaurant is hurting. Their busy neighborhood bar scene appears to have suffered as they made changes to boost dining room traffic. That's my theory, but maybe and I hope I'm wrong. The place has become a dining enigma to me, however, and I'm hoping you can shed some light.

I included Cashion's in my fall dining guide, despite its odd new menu design, because the food quality remains high. Mintwood, its delicious neighbor, probably accounts  for some of the open tables at Cashion's. The many choices on 14th St. NW have probably had an impact, too.

Tom, you rightfully get credit for your reviews, for your food and restaurant knowledge. But I hope people also recognize that there's genuine journalism in what you do. Your research, along with writing that isn't self aggrandizing but paints a mental picture of your experience, make a big difference. Thanks for being the whole package.

You just made my day.

How do you determine how much to tip a waiter for a complimentary dish?

It depends in part on whether the freebie is a scoop of sorbet or a shaving of white truffles. In general, I'd probably add $5 or tip 22 percent for an edible gesture of goodwill.

I love to cook, so we'll stay home, just the two of us. On the the menu - filet with cheese souffle and asparagus hollandaise. I'm a vegetarian so I'll be eating more than my share of the souffle.

Sounds delicious! Save a spoonful of the souffle for moi.

Can high end, pompous pants peacoking chefs please stop having the waiter describe very dish he's just served? Most of the time, it's just a repeat of the menu description anyway. There is this glorious food sitting in front of me and I have to look polite and attentive while the poor waiter spends what is often several minutes describing every dish. All I can think about is - my divine food is there, calling to me and getting cold. Please just let me go ahead and enjoy it already.

Consider your plea passed along.

You sounds like a considerate sever, but to me what is incredibly annoying is when the server just starts talking over the middle of a sentence with an ongoing conversation. Please don't barge into my chat - hover for a moment or come back ... maybe with water. That way you waft it over the table and create a natural a lull ... not in the middle of people talking.

Amen! I can't tell you how many stories have been interrupted, how many punch lines have been squashed, by intrusive waiters over the years.

OTOH, perhaps this will reduce the number of illicit couples dining out ;-)))

At least in one four-star dining destination ...

Just a year-end shout-out from SF that we miss you, and I adore your chats. Next time you're in SF, I'll buy you lunch at Tadich (half a block from my office).

And I miss you, San Francisco! Some of the best years of my life were spent covering the dining scene at the Chronicle back in the 1990s.

A bar I love (not in DC - I am one of your devoted TN readers) just posted its menu for tonight. It includes lobster thermidor and filet mignon, two dishes that I just love to eat while standing up in a crowded bar on New Years! Wish they had just stuck with their usual fare of falafel sliders and fries!

Ha! Hope they're putting out lots of napkins with those classics ...

To the reader who asked if he should call instead of email the chef about vegetarian dishes, the answer is yes. Whoever answers the restaurant's phone should be able to provide an immediate answer about vegetarian options and can even add such requests into the diner's reservation notes. The chef's email should be used for praise or complaints if the chef is also an owner of the establishment. If the chef is not an owner, I would email the General Manager or call. Remember, a chef does not work for TIPS (to insure prompt service), but the front of house staff does.

Fair point. Thanks for writing.

Hi Tom -- how was your Christmas? What was for dinner in (Montenegro, Montevideo, Monrovia)?

Christmas in Macedonia was FILLING. I haven't eaten so much meat and cheese and rakia in my life.

Good Morning Tom, Wishing you a happy and healthy 2015. Reflecting on your career at the WP, what would you say are the two or three most significant changes between now and when you first started?

  Intriguing question to ponder!

 

  For sure, there's more competition, which I see as mostly a good thing.  The WP is one of many players in the food/dining game. (I'd like to think we're a leader in terms of driving news, setting standards, etc.)

 

 Definitely, everyone has a shorter attention span.  Today's big news -- a major restaurant opening, a chef change, the departure of a critic, the release of a dining guide -- is quickly forgotten in the 24/7 news cycle. I joke that if Watergate happened now, the whole thing would likely  be over in a matter of weeks. 

 

 Finally, and personally, I'm about 10 pounds heavier than when I started in 2000. Thank goodness for dark suits, Spanx and Dr. Michael Olding!

 

Gang, here's wishing you all a healthy, happy, delicious and SAFE New Year's Eve. Let's gather again, Jan. 7, for another jam session.

 

 

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 sidewalk.com and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and a food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the '80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section's recipes. That's how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns; keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom column and contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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