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

Feb 27, 2013

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Hello Tom, I'm willing to bet that most diners have heard horror stories of food sabotage at the hands of kitchen or wait staff who either don't like the customer, are having a bad day, or are sadistic. My question is, how often do you think this actually happens? If books, movies, and TV are to be believed, nobody should ever dine out. Ever.

You're right. Watch even a little "Undercover Boss" or some such on the boob tube and you might think twice about making a special request in a restaurant, or asking for your steak well-done. 


Honestly, though? I think most chefs and servers  want to do the right thing and don't mess around with our food and drink -- with the *possible* exception of serving caffeinated coffee when decaf is requested. Most chefs and servers take pride in what they do.


Thoughts from the peanut gallery?


FOOD FLASH: "After one-and-a-half years of doing fine dining, my partners and I have decided to radically change our concept."


That's Enzo Fargione, the chef at Elisir, annnouncing the rebranding of his downtown Italian restaurant, which hasn't been doing the business he wanted.  "There's this urban legend: Restaurants are supposed to turn a profit,"  Fargione joked this morning.


The chef tells me he's closing the expense account establishment, where the check average was $130, on March 4 for 10 or so days of redecorating.  When Osteria Elisir opens its doors, diners will find a setting dressed with wine barrels, lanterns and mirrors ("more of an Italian country feel") and a menu with lower prices and simpler cooking.  Think meatballs, baby chicken, grilled lamb steak and grilled octopus steak.  Main courses will be in the $23 to $29 range.


Pulse check, chef?  "I'm very humble,"  says Fargione.  While "you can break a restaurant concept,"  he philosophizes, "you can't break a chef's spirit."


Good morning, everyone.  Bring on you rants, your raves, your questions and comments.

It really kills me when restaurants I like seem to go out of their way to fail. I was a big fan of Persimmon in Bethesda, which closed a while back to retool...they apparently wanted to go more casual. I heard that they re-opened a few weeks back, but you wouldn't know it from their website, which still has all the old info. They have no social media that I can find, so everything I've heard about them has been secondhand. If I've gone out of my way to find info about them, and have had trouble, I can't imagine how they think they'll get new customers. Why oh why do restaurants self-sabotage like this?

Dunno! I just checked Persimmon's  half-baked site again. Now it reads "under construction."  For real? Not having an up-to-date online presence in 2013 is kind of  like ... not being open.

Regarding the proliferation of people photographing their food: Although I am on a weight-loss plan, and I don't personally photograph my plate, one reason a LOT of people take pictures of their food is to be able to record accurately what they ate in their food journal. I find the posting and tweeting of food photos really tiresome -- I DO NOT CARE what you ate for lunch -- but there DO exist reasons to photograph your plate other than wanting your Wastebook audience to be jealous of your crab cake. Some of us are trying not to get any plumper over here...

Fair enough. If it's for your well-being and you don't plan to publicize them, I can't see how chefs would object to such photographs. (But hold the flash!)

Tom - I'll have an hour or so to kill before a dinner at the Tabard Inn this weekend. Is there any spot near there where we should go for drinks and maybe a small bite? My wife and I are wine drinkers not cocktail drinkers so no fancy chemistry set drinks are required. Thanks!

Let's see.  The Asian-inspired Zentan is nearby. So is Hank's Oyster Bar, although it might be swollen with folks waiting to get into the no-reservations Little Serow around the corner.  And what about Boqueria, the fine tapas purveyor on M St.?

Mama's on the Half Shell in Canton is consistently a great time for well shucked oysters, and very classic mid-atlantic seafood. Maybe not haute cuisine, but lots and lots of fun.

Thanks for the notion. I've not been.

Hi Tom, Headed to Santa Fe for my girlfriend's wedding. She's not getting a bachelorette party so the other maid and I are taking her out for a nice dinner a few days before the wedding. Looking for a place with reasonably priced entrees (say $25 -30 give or take) and a somewhat relaxed atmosphere so we can catch up! We like good food and dining experiences. Thanks so much!

Several years ago, I had some memorable meals at Restaurant Martin and, about 25 miles north of Santa Fe, the sprawling Rancho de Chimayo. Two very different, but totally worthwhile, options in the desert. See my Postcard from Santa Fe for details.

Tom, any suggestions for a birthday dinner next week? I'm looking for a splurge place, and have already hit Bibiana, Rasika, and the like. Thanks as always for your sage advice and wit during these chats!

You know what's good again? 701 in Penn Quarter, thanks in part to the presence of chef Tony Conte of the Oval Room. A recent dinner at Marcel's reminded me what a fine French restaurant it remains. It doesn't take reservations, but Table is a favorite of mine among the new crop of restaurants.

I can honestly say when I was a waitress, I never served anyone anything other than decaf when they asked for it. Because for some people caffeine can be dangerous. However -- "Is this coffee fresh?" "Yes (Totally, when I made it 30 minutes ago.)" Sorry diners.

I like your rationale.

If we ask we're prying, if we don't ask were stiff and standoffish.... No matter what direction a server or bartender goes on any subject, someone is going to have an opinion to state about it. Please just sit back and enjoy your dinner and quit worrying so much about your server!!! FYI, asking is a good way to feel out a vibe at a table or with a guest and can help fine tune a server to the host or party's needs....

We hear you.

Good morning Tom, Meeting some great suburban (more like exurban) friends next week for lunch in DC. Pretty much anything goes, but heavy on scene and wine/cocktails would be best, what do you think? Thanks... want to join us?

Thanks for the invite, but next week I'm "fully committed," as they say in the trade.  But I'm happy to point you and your pals in the direction of  Proof or Oyamel in Penn Quarter, Rasika West End in the West End, Bourbon Steak in G'town or Urbana in Dupont Circle.

Tom there are lots of good places in Baltimore besides Woodbury Kitchen. There is Salt, The Helmand, Peters Inn, City Cafe, Annabel Lee Tavern, Kali's Mezze, Thai Restaurant (OK I admit that one is in a "scary neighborhood" on Greenmount Avenue), For yummy casual (soup & bread) try Atwaters. Lots of good ethnic, Thai, etc. in the Rolling Road area. BTW, The Chameleon is now called Maggie's Farm. Hope this helps those seeking some good B'more eats!

Sounds as if  we need a restaurant bureau in Baltimore.  Thanks for the additional ideas and update on Chameleon Cafe.

Tom, I wrote you awhile ago asking where in DC we should try before he left town. Despite your excellent suggestions, he decided he wanted to go to Rogue 24. It was an excellent choice, the food was wonderful as always but it was the staff that really made the evening. When we mentioned that we were moving and came to Rogue for one last meal since we had enjoyed so much on our previous visits, they went out of their way to make our evening special. They provided us with a drink on the house, the chef came over to talk to us and they provided us with the perfect level of soliticous service without breathing down our necks. So thanks to Rogue 24 and their excellent staff!

Take a bow, Rogue 24.

Help Tom! I just realized that the relaxed dinner we were planning in our home for the evening before my son's bar mitzvah has to be changed because one grandfather cannot negotiate the long flight of stairs to our front door (there are no other options for entry). We need a place in Chevy Chase or Silver Spring that can accommodate party of 25. To give you an idea of the budget and the vibe we were seeking, at home we were going to order in from Surfside, in Friendship Heights we are considering WeiWah, but the bar mitzvah boy objects to Chinese. This would be a multigenerational group -- the youngest 13, the oldest 90. And the place must be handicap accessible. And available in two weeks.

Hmmm. Haven for pizza? Newton's for new American?  Mrs. K's for something old-fashioned? Cubano's for Cuban?  I'm throwing all these out as starting points and because time is of the essence. Good luck.

Hi Tom, a friend posed this question to me and I would love to see your answer. If you had $30 to spend on a meal for 2 (including everything-- tax, tips, drinks, and food), where would you go and what would you get?

Can we make this a lunch date? If so, I'd nominate CF Folks in Dupont Circle.  If not, I'd probably opt for any of multiple branches of Nando's Peri-Peri for wings and sides.


I'd love to see suggestions from chatters.

Tom, I recently ordered a salad to go from a place in south beach. The ingredients listed were items I liked so I got it. However, when I got home, I noticed the salad had red and green peppers in it and this was not on the menu. It also had a sweet chile lime dressing and the menu did not indicate that it was sweet. Had I known these things, I would not have ordered it. So I was not able to eat it. I called the rest. and spoke to the Mgr who said we don't have an exhaustive list of ingred. I was stunned to hear this. So am I as a customer, supposed to tell the waiter all of my dislikes and allergies so he can tell me what items I can order and the Mgr said yes. I was like really? It seems very inefficient to me. I would rather be able to read a menu and know what's in the item and make a decision that way. I have never run into this before. Your thoughts on this? Love the chat

We've hashed over this problem several times in previous chats.  More menu info is typically better than less, especially when it comes to ingredients that tend to raise red flags with some consumers: nuts, stinky cheeses, cilantro  ... but where do we stop?  Diners with allergies or strong dislikes have to take responsibility for asking a few questions, I'm afraid.

If you were to start your career over as a restaurant critic, but went into it knowing everything you know today, after years of doing your job, what would you do differently?

I would have gone to cooking school first.


I would have taken design/architecture/art classes.


I would have worried less about following a legend in the field.


I wish I would have been braver in the early years -- taken more chances with writing styles and meeting industry types I admired.


Great question, by the way.

Hi Tom - when i waited tables and tended bar, we never served caffeinated coffee instead of decaf, but rather the opposite. If the demand for coffee at diinner service was low, we'd make decaf, thinking that it is better to serve that than give caffiene to someone who can't tolerate it.

Makes sense -- and less worrisome for you, knowing that caffeine is a health risk for some.

Head to a dive bar! Half price burgers at Mr. Henry's and a beer. Easy.

Happy hour! Didn't cross my mind at first.

I tried to phone Jack Rose. The message on the phone line: please make reservations via Open Table, if you wish to make special event etc arrangements, email us at the address on our website. I don't want to do either. What I do want to know is if they are open (not closed for a private party) on a specific Saturday night. As it is, even my guest of honor (birthday) agrees that we are unlikely to go there and will go elsewhere.

Among my frustrations with the new Edgar in the Mayflower Hotel, which I previewed in today's Food section, was not having any of my multiple phone calls answered by the restaurant proper. I got the run-around, involving the hotel operator, every time I dialed. Al I needed to know was: Are you open late for lunch?

Industry insider here... I've been in the business for 10 years in all sorts of establishments and I've only seen or heard about it happening once - and that was a personal issue involving a lover's quarrel. The idea that people who complain or are difficult customers might have something happen to their food is pretty unlikely.


Tom, my family and I are going to be watching the Saint Patrick's Day parade in Old Town this Saturday. Any recommendations on a good place for breakfast?

My fave breakfast destination in Old Town is Teaism. Great style, great food.

Legal Seafoods in Montgomery Mall has a private dining room that can probably accommodate that group on short notice. Maybe not Tom's recommendation for food but the atmosphere, price and accessibility would be right where you need it and the service is consistently excellent.

Solid suggestion. Thanks for submitting.

LONGtime server here, Tom. When I worked the breakfast shift, I was so OCD I was the only one allowed to make the coffee lest someone get lazy and accidentally mix the decaf with the regular. So, I concur with previous poster that most servers are pretty conscientious about people getting what they order when it comes to decaf. However, when it comes to dinner and people order coffee with dessert...You should know that anyone ordering regular coffee after say, 8pm, is probably getting decaf. That's because when it gets closer to closing time, servers always try to get a jump on finishing sidework. Also, the coffee at night is usually much older than 30 minutes. Try 2-3 hours old! Lesson: When it comes to dessert, order a latte, cappucino or espresso!

Catch that, coffee lovers?

is called "cooking at home."


Could you please have at least one or two palatable vegetarian dishes? I work in the area and often need to organize lunch for groups of 4-6, and one problem with Elisir is that the only vegetarian dishes were pasta-based, which doesn't provide much choice. I hope that can be improved in the new iteration!

Chef, please remember the vegetarians and vegans among us.

Tom, what is someone who is allergic to fish (and some other odd bits like almonds and carrots) to do if they'd like to eat out at a restaurant where the chef decides the menu and there aren't choices? Can I call ahead and tell them of my allergies? Do I have to avoid these types of restaurants all together? It seems like that would be a misstep on the restaurant's part, considering many folks have dietary restrictions.

Restaurants *SO* appreciate having advance notice with special requests. It allows them to plan better and make a more memorable meal. So - yes! And it never hurts to call the day of the reservation and reconfirm your request.

I read your preview today with interest. I had good service in the bar, and the small plates we ordered (meatballs, artichokes, mac and cheese) were all delicious, but the drinks were TINY for the price. I think I got three or four sips out of each one!

A friend went last night -- and left mid-meal.

Quarry House Tavern in Silver Spring! Burgers, Tater tots, beer and a couple shekels left over for the juke box!

I'm a fan of the joint, too.

Tom, Any suggestions where to find this seasonal delicacy?

Anyone spot shad, that seasonal delicacy, on a local menu?

We are going to see a local one man play (DC Trash) at the Atlas Theater this weekend. What are some good restaurants in 13th and H Sts., NE area?

You have lots of options over there: Ethiopic, Le Grenier, Atlas Room, Toki Underground ...

Recently dined at Ripple and was really impressed with the food and experience. Was disappointed to hear that the chef is leaving. I wish I had made my way to the restaurant earlier! Will he stay local?

Ripple's soon-to-be-former chef, Logan Cox, has plans to head West.

When I told my server at Edgar's that I wanted my salad lightly dressed, he offerred to bring the dressing on the side. I told him I preferred that it be dressed in the kitchen. When he instead brought the dressing separately, he explained that he didn't think the kitchen would do it properly. Based on your review, he was right.

So you got one of the few good servers at Edgar.

If you were having one meal in Annapolis, where would it be?

I look forward to returning to Vin 909 Winecafe: bad name, good cooking (including terrific pizzas).

Isn't it a little early for shad? Even with global warming.

Late Feb-early March is the start of the season, no?

Hi, Tom! I've lurked in your chats for some time, and finally am writing for help! I will be in the DC area for 10 days for training in Bethesda. I work for my state's government, and have to dine within the meal per diem I'm given, which is $38.75/day. Yep, for food, tax and tip, for lunch and dinner (the hotel has breakfast, otherwise I'd have to cover that, too!). I will have access to Metro, no car, and am a fairly adventurous eater. Can you give me a few suggestions for good, fairly cheap eats? Thanks!

In Bethesda, consider Raku for Asian, Jaleo for tapas and Food, Wine & Co. for American fare in nice digs. Elsewhere on the Red Line: Pizza Paradiso in Dupont Circle, Spices in Cleveland Park .... chatters?

I worked for over 20 years in food service, as a cook, waitress, hostess and manager. I have never witnessed or heard of any kind of malicious sabotage of someone's food item. I was shocked to hear that many of the people I work with now actually believe that this is a regular occurrence! I don't think I am naive.(?)

As i said, I don't think sabotage is the norm.

I'd go to: DC: Oyamel: Happey Hour - great tacos and margaritas VA: Tysons Corner - La Sandia Happy Hour (can do a movie afterwards!) MD: Bethesda: Da Marco Pizzeria Happy Hour, which is all night some days, and wine or beer bottles half off on Wednesdays A friend of mine have done this in the past 3 weeks, we' both lost our fathers in the past year, and have been trying to go back to normal life, so this has been our support group :-)

Awesome. (And my sympathy.)

How about Pho Golden Cow in Bailey's XRoad? Maybe not the most romantic, but good Pho and other Vietnamese food at reasonable price.

Pho -- Vietnamese beef noodle soup -- is being suggested by a number of chat participants. Excellent idea.

Um, for the person seeing a show at the Atlas, the 9 blocks to Ethiopic and Le Grenier might be a bit of a hike. Really Tom, you and others should stop lumping the west end of H Street into the "Atlas District" just because it doesn't have its own name yet. There aren't enough cabs up here to shuttle folks back and forth.

Duly noted. But some of us love to walk.

May not be the "vibe" the bar mitzvah parent is looking for, but what about Maggiano's in Friendship Heights?

Oh, no. No. No. No.

If the chatter has a couple of strong men in that party of 25, perhaps grandpa could sit on a chair and carefully be carried up those house stairs instead?? Something to consider....

Great idea. (You chatters are so smart.)

Also " Level" on West St. I like it at least as much as Vin 909

Thanks. Have yet to try it out.

Check out Happy hour at Assaggi, Jaleo, Food and Wine, Mon Ami Gabi, Black's Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda & pizza at 2 Amys on Macomb St.

Lots of great choices therein.

The Peppermill in Lutherville, Maryland (right off the Baltimore Beltway) has both shad and shad roe on the menu. It's not exactly haute cuisine, and most of the patrons receive Social Security checks, but it's a competent restaurant and not at all pricy.

Roe is easy to find in season. The actual fish, on the other hand, is more of a challenge. Here's to the Peppermill, then!

Glad to hear the chef is willing to tone it down. I never understood why and how they came up with that concept with that formal of an ambiance in downtown. To me it was clear that they didn't understand the city. We do have expensive places, but first, you need to do your homework and earn the city's respect. Also, I feel like people looking for an expensive formal place flock to the steakhouses or Inn at Little Washington, generally on expense accounts, for which a no-name place is a risk. Otherwise, the city spends their hard earned dollars in high-check places like Fiola which is more casual, happening, and of course Fabio Trabocci cooking, one of the city's stars. To me, if you are going to go the high-price route and are new to the city you gotta do your work in PR as I believe people are hesitant to try places that have not been approved or written up positively by local sources, preferably couple of times. Italian cuisine is quite attractive and I think there is room for nice, good, simple Italian in the right environment, but lots of us have trouble understanding why pasta costs $25 when we can make it at home. So, my suggestion would be, either give us the classics at a reasonable price, or give us something we can't make at home so we can go out and spend the money. And when we do, give us a reason to choose yours.

I think Mr. Fargione has a good rep and I applaud him for following his own muse for as long as he did at Elisir.  It wasn't his first time at the ol'  food rodeo. I also think there's room for high-end dining in this market., but maybe not as much as in the past.


Lunch looms. Gotta dash. Let's continue this conversation next week, same time. Ciao for now, gang.

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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.
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