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

Oct 02, 2019

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.

I was intrigued by these sentences from today's article: "If a meal at a starred restaurant is off, another inspector will go in for a visit. Likewise, he says, if an inspector has a meal at an unstarred restaurant that suggests it is star-worthy, another inspector visits to weigh in." I read that as meaning that a restaurant gets one visit from one inspector, unless something seems different from the previous year, in which case it gets one visit from a second inspector. By contrast, I think you go in at least three times when you do a review. Comment? Does Michelin do enough?

I believe inspectors dine alone and add or subtract a star only after another inspector has gone in and had an experience similar to the original reviewer.  (Here's the link to Emily Heil's story on the new Michelin-anointed restaurants in DC.)

 

You're right: I visit restaurants I tend to review at least three times, sometimes more, depending on the establishment. I also tend to invite two or three people to join me on those outings, in part to eat as wide a range of the chef's work as possible. One person can only try so much of a menu without it looking suspicious, you know? The Post commits a considerable amount to the dining budget. Restaurant coverage is a priority for my employer, I'm lucky to say. 

 

Thoughts on the guide's announcememnt yesterday?

 

 

OPENINGS AND CLOSINGS: At last, the third Sfoglina opens in Rosslyn for dinner on Saturday, at 1100 Wilson Boulevard.  The 130-seat dining room will feature a mozzarella bar and a pasta-making room, where diners can watch the process of dough becoming noodles. Smartly, chef-owner Fabio Trabocchi is offering a 10-percent discount on food for the first two weeks.

 

In Washington, Alfredo Solis says he's closing his Cuban restaurant, Little Havana, after Saturday and rebranding it as Anafre, a Mexican experience. The name of the replacement translates to "portable oven" in Spanish and plays up the style of cooking he’ll be promoting: mostly fish and seafood grilled over charcoal. 

 

“I love Cuban food and I put my heart into it” at Little Havana, says the chef, who considered closing the storefront back in September. Solis thinks the prices might have been too high for the neighborhood — but not for another part of the city. Yes, he hopes to relocate the Cuban concept elsewhere, down the road. 


Anafre is expected to roll out early in November, with the same number of seats (50) and a menu that will mine the whole of Mexico for inspiration. Look for deep-fried lobster, finished on the grill, and mole-glazed ribs. But “no burritos,” says Solis, who wants to distinguish Anafre from the other Mexican outposts on the block, including his own Mezcalero, a celebration of street food. 

 

MY 20TH FALL DINING GUIDE is available in print Oct. 12-13, and online Oct. 10.  On Friday, Oct. 11, I'll be doing a livestream Q & A with my friend and colleague Mary Beth Albright, based on questions submitted by whoever wants to tune in. Sign up now, and send her your pressing restaurant questions. The show starts at 11:30 and I can't wait to see what kind of disguise I'll be in, since this is live and on video. 

 

Lots to chew over this morning. Bring on the questions and comments. 

Your thoughts on yesterday’s Michelin DC awards? Do they really reflect the best in DC dining? Are there particular instances where Michelin’s assessment dramatically differs from your experience?

Kudos to those restaurants that have retained their stars, and to the new one-star additions to the roster. But if the inspectors are going to retain Plume in the Jefferson hotel, they really need to admit Marcel's (a superior experience, IMHO) to the collection. Where's Charleston in Baltimore? It's closer than the revered Inn at little Washington. And what's up with the freeze-out of Rasika and/or Rasika West End, both of which have been lavished with praise from a lot of critics besides myself?  As for Little Serow, I'm unsure how one of the country's best Thai expressions avoided a shout out. And on. I don't think Michelin has the money or the labor to do the scene justice. 

Hi Tom. I'm very interested to hear your thoughts/opinion on whether you think formal training is necessary to elevate a young cook to the highest levels in the industry. Specifically, if a cook has several years of professional experience and has made his way to sous chef at one of your Fall top ten would you say, "take the year & go to France (Ducasse) or the CIA" OR..."you're doing well on your own path, see where you go"? BTW...my scenario is a true story :)

Everyone is different. While I do think formal education is important  -- learning how to use a knife, make stocks and sauces, understand accounting, etc. -- a lot of learning comes from simply watching and practicing, too, which one can do in a working restaurant kitchen under the guidance of a mentor. Look, Alice Waters never went to cooking school, and look where that got her!  

 

But the most important piece of advice I'd give to new chefs (and budding food writers) is to eat broadly and travel as much as your life and budget allow. There's nothing like seeing where food is grown, inhaling the markets and eating dishes on their home turf. 

Hi Tom, I don't eat meat much anymore, but once a month I get a craving for steak, or something along those lines. Right now, I'm craving steak frites. Where is the best place to get it in the DC area? Is it still Primrose? Been there many times and really enjoy it but open to travel anywhere. My wife and I have a 3 month old but can easily get a grandparent to babysit for the evening. Also, we rarely get out these days so any price range is acceptable. Thanks! Love your work!

Primrose does indeed do a good job with steak frites, but if you want a change of venues, consider Le Diplomate near Logan Circle, St. Anselm near Union Market and La Piquette near National Cathedral. Among many others. 

With garlic and wine, no red sauce. Where would you go? I have my eye on Modena at the moment - for that, and for the Roman artichokes.

The last best bowl of pasta and clams I enjoyed hereabouts was at the fledgling Via Sophia on the corner of 14th and K St. Chef Colin Clark sprinkles some chile flakes into the dish, which adds a nice punch to the eating. 

So glad to hear this! There are too few Cuban restaurants around.

I agree!

Hey Tom, from 2013 to 2016 I lived and worked down the street from Central MR. We went a lot, especially since my employer often held events there. Flash forward a few years -- we live in Bethesda with a 4 y/o and I work in Georgetown. To the extent we make it to the core city, we tend to prioritize the new hot places. Anyway, to cut to the chase, we were at the Warner Theatre this weekend to take the 4 y/o to Peppa Pig Live and remembered Central was right there. It remains great. That chicken may be my favorite dish in DC! Anyway, that's all, wanted to give an older place some love that doesn't get as much press these days but remains a DC treasure.

Glad to hear you continue to enjoy the French-American bistro. And I'm more than happy to sing the praises of places that have some age on them, but continue to perform at a high level. See my recent reviews of Bombay Club, Evening Star Cafe, Market Lunch and other veterans in and around the District. 

Hi Tom - Here's one for you. Our daughter who is turning sixteen wanted to celebrate by having us arrange to take her and 6 or 7 of her friends out for a nice dinner in the D.C. area. She wanted somewhere where it would be fun for the kids to get all dressed up (more formally than usual but not over the top) and where there might be a private space for the dinner. Any thoughts on what might be appropriate that won't completely break the bank? Thanks! Marco (Bethesda, MD)

The new Modena (formerly Bibiana) has a lovely, semi-private area, behind some beaded curtains. Other spots to check out include the upstairs garden room at Anju for Korean -- which is one of my top favorite restaurants right now -- and the private "pasta room" at the original Sfoglina on Van Ness. 

If you were to have a dinner for 10, anywhere in the metro area, and price were no object, where would you host it?

I'm curious to see how dinner unfolds in the sumptuous, mirror-lined private dining room at the opulent  Punjab Grill downtown. Same for one of the private rooms facing the waterfront at Del Mar at the Wharf. 

Hi Tom, Weekends, it's a cinch with plenty of wonderful options. However, I need to have a breakfast meeting with a dear friend in the coming weeks. I am coming from Arlington while my dining partner will be coming from Silver Spring. Parking and metro accessibility needed. Hoping for a nice brunch that can be had and finished by approximately 11am. From years of visiting my daughter in NYC and enjoying great early meals in that city, I seem to have a relatively harder time finding such an option in the DC area. Thank you for your wonderful discussion each week, all the best to you!

I've got the ideal spot for you: Unconventional Diner on 9th St. NW. The restaurant offers brunch daily, beginning at 9 a.m. Better yet, there's a wide selection of dishes from which to choose: blueberry pancakes and French toast for the sweet tooth and Lebanese fried rice and red pork pozole for whoever likes a more savory start to the day. 

Tom, I am coming into town for a soccer tournament and looking for restaurants that can handle a party of 40 without paying $3000 minimum in Northern VA or DC. Our team is 14-15 year olds and their parents. Trying for a great team dinner!

Start with Carmine's in Penn Quarter: Italian food in titanic portions with plenty of space for your size group. 

I have been routinely taking my surprisingly compliant six-month-old to lunches and dinners at reasonably nice, but appropriately loud, restaurants (like Zaytinya) during my parental leave. This has given rise to a question: how to account for baby in his stroller? I hate making the reservation for three and thus causing them to needlessly set a place for him, but I got some side eye earlier today because they had apparently planned to put me and my adult companion at a two-top that wouldn't have room for baby. Is it sufficient to mention in the reservation notes that I will be bringing baby in a stroller? Thanks!

Yes! The more information a restaurant has up front, the better it can accommodate a party And just to be sure you've been heard, it wouldn't hurt to call and re-confirm your reservation with a live person ahead of showing up. I've been seated at some REALLY TINY tables for two of late and can see where you and your baby (and whoever else) might need extra space. 

Hi Tom, I am picking up my sister (Nevada) from IAD on Friday late afternoon and want to avoid the traffic back to Baltimore. I'm not familiar with the area, but she'd like to sample some good east coast seafood for dinner. Any suggestions? Price is no object. Thanks!

I haven't been recently, but Ford's Fish ShackPassion Fish and Bonefish Grill all offer seafood near Dulles. Maybe a fellow chatter can chime in on a restaurant experience (or offer another option)? 

So other than some 20 seat restaurant out near I81 any other restaurants in VA outside the beltway on your list??? The place in Sperryville is difficult if not impossible to get into and beyond pretentious. Locals hate the place and the owners.

Sounds like someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed! The locals I've talked to *love* what the owners have done with their destination restaurant. There's nothing stuffy about Three Blacksmiths. (You can't judge unless you've been there, right?) And yes, there's another Virginia restaurant on my Top 10 list. If you were a subscriber, with early access to the list, you'd know. ;)

Hi Tom, Our small team of co-workers (5-7) goes out once a month for lunch near Gallery Place. We've done Carmines, Circa, Tony Chengs - any others that you would suggest?

Ever consider an upgrade? Zaytinya, Oyamel and Jaleo -- small plates sources from Jose Andres -- await your next gathering. 

Maybe if isn't full, but we went last New Year's Eve and it was so loud I said we're never going back. On the other hand, the food was excellent. Why can't restaurant designers pay attention when they draw up the designs? Passion Fish is an open two story building with nothing the absorb the noise.

The trick to sound proofing is to tackle the issue BEFORE the restaurant opens. Afterwards, it's harder and costlier to address the problem. Sound-proofing is often skipped because, unlike a piece of art or an extra line cook, the detail isn't something customers can see. 

Hi Tom! I'd like to gift a friend of mine a special night out as a wedding present. I'm thinking $200 to a nice restaurant in Seattle (where they live). My friend doesn't drink and his husband will have a glass or two of wine, so most of the budget will be allocated towards food expense. He's a big fan of yours and misses the variety of the DC food scene. Any insights would be appreciated!

That's a generous gift you're sending. Without knowing your friends' food tastes, I think dinner at the refreshed Cafe Juanita in Kirkland; the family-owned Canlis (those views!); Spinasse for Italian; or the casual Matt's in the Market -- as in Pike Place Market -- would all make for memorable meals. 

Hi Tom, hoping for your advice to make the most of my annual brief stop in DC: aiming to do lunch and dinner on a Friday in a few weeks. Me: dining alone, fairly adventurous eater, but allergic to mango, so I need a place willing to accommodate that. Only there for one day, so I want a place I can reserve at. I live part time in the south (so no need to pursue, say, great BBQ) and part time in NYC. Have followed your rec’s in past to Palena and Rasika (thumbs up to both) and Jaleo (meh). Staying off of Logan Circle, but anyplace reachable by Metro is fine. Not a fan of ordering pasta dishes when out; also prefer making my meal from several smaller plates vs. getting an entrée. Budget flexible but I’d like to be roughly around $100-ish for myself for dinner (assume one drink in that mix). And needn't even be a finer-type dining place, either! Currently thinking Oval Room for lunch – maybe Tail Up Goat or Rooster and Owl for dinner - ? Thoughts, redirection to DC-special places - ?

It sounds as if you haven't been to the Wharf yet, which is accessible from L'Enfant Plaza Metro station. Do yourself a favor and lunch at Del Mar (Spanish) or Kaliwa (Thai/Filipino/Korean), both facing the waterfront.

 

As for dinner, either of your ideas sound terrific, but good luck securing a table! Both TUG and Rooster & Owl are tough tickets. 

Hey Tom - Celebrating my spouse's birthday soon (early 30s) and looking for a bit of a splurge spot. I was debating Joe's Seafood, Steak and Stone Crab or Mastro's - both seem to have a classic steakhouse vibe and get bonus points since we've never been before (as opposed to somewhere like St. Anselm which we have already visited and liked, but has a more casual vibe than I want). White tablecloths aren't required, just somewhere that feels special and serves great steaks. Thoughts on choosing between the two, or another option altogether?

I'm leaning toward Mastro's. The Houston import has all sorts of details in its favor: dim lighting, plush seating, live music, cocktails the size of kiddie pools, steaks that benefit from a rub of garlic and onion and a white-hot grill, amazing shoestring fries, tangy Key lime pie .... need I say more? 

I am a "local" & your odd info about the restaurant and it's owners is wrong. You can certainly get in...and today they open reservations for Wednesdays. Shame on you for your attempt to speak of a matter you clearly know nothing about. They are just about the nicest family ever & give back to our community ten fold. If I didn't know better, I'd think you were a competitor. Call your mom...she forgot to teach you manners.

(Smiling here.)

Blue Ridge Seafood Restaurant has the best seafood near or around Dulles. Get there early on a Fri if you dont want to wait. Its like the old orginal Flagship went west.

Thank you for growing the list. 

Can't you just make the reservation for three people, since you need enough space for three?

That's my recommendation. No one likes surprises at high noon or prime dinner time, right?

"The Post should fire you! You didn't name my favorite restaurant in your diner's guide! You never cover SE DC! You never cover Maryland! You never cover Virginia!" There. Now can we let Tom do his job in peace?

I can handle this, Mom.

So "you never cover Virginia! Except for the place in Virginia that I hate!" I'm laughing.

There's no such thing as a perfect guide, right? I'd have to read everyone's mind. 

For the person looking for a private room for a sweet 16 dinner, Black Market in Garrett Park is cute, tasty and has small dining rooms you can use for events.

I haven't dropped by in forever. Thanks for the idea.

Hi Tom, I’ve been tasked with finding a restaurant for dinner for our board members for the night before a meeting. Size of the group is 12 and we would want a quiet place or or private/semi-private room. Sophisticated but not super pricey, around $60-70 per person. Also would like somewhere in the downtown area. Any suggestions? Thanks!

I've been impressed by recent meals at the Oval Room near the White House, which has pretty much what you're looking for -- the ability to hear one another, good food, moderate prices -- and the sedate Tosca, a long-time favorite with the city's lobbyists and other power brokers.  Start with those places. 

Hi Tom - I'm looking for a luxurious feeling (leather seating, low lighting, business casual, etc) happy hour recommendations in NW. Somewhere near Farragut or a short metro ride would be ideal. An interesting bites or sides menu would be a plus!

I turned to Mr. Happy Hour himself, my Weekend colleague Fritz Hahn, for a response. Here's what he suggests:

 

"Joe’s is usually top of my upscale happy hour lists, as much for the swank setting as the half-price oysters and classic cocktails. A $7 daiquiri or Ricky is great, and who can say “no” to $4.95 Alaskan king crab rolls?  A couple of other close-to-Farragut options might include BLT Steak, where beer-battered avocado tacos feature among the happy hour snacks; the clubby, low-lights-and-Sinatra vibe at P.J. Clarke’s; and the Doyle Bar at the Dupont Circle Hotel, which got a very glamorous makeover earlier this year, and now has leather benches and velvet couches where I could quite happily linger with a gin cocktail."

Not a question, just wanted to share that after months of attempts I finally got a reservation at Three Blacksmiths!! Granted, it's one of their new Wednesday night dinners, but I'm going to use it as a great excuse for a mid-week mini-vacation to Virginia:)

Good for you -- and LUCKY you. For once, I'd love to extend the dream and stay overnight in Sperryville after such a special dinner. That drive home is kind of a buzz kill. 

Hi Tom - one of my college roommates will be in town for the long weekend coming up. We're getting dinner together on Sunday the 13th, and would appreciate some recommendations for something to impress in the vicinity of Dupont, Adams Morgan or Shaw. We're both adventurous eaters, and the hope is to find a place where we can go nearby for a drink after. Thanks for the help!

I'm sending you to Johnny's Half Shell in Adams Morgan for dinner. It has a lovely vibe, and Ann Cashion's southern-influenced cooking can't be beat. For drinks, consider the Line hotel nearby (the upstairs bar within A Rake's Progress is cool) or the Punch Garden within Columbia Room in Blagden Alley.  The latter feels tucked away -- because it is -- and always delivers on the drinks and service. 

Last minute trip up to Philly to be tourists for the weekend. Any suggestions of places to nosh?

For noshing? Reading Terminal Market is an eye-popping  smorgasbord. John's Roast Pork is an American Classic in South Philly and remember you can BYOB at many of the neighborhood spots. For dining, consider Villa di Roma for old-school Italian or Vernick Food & Drink for something more contemporary and American. Safe (delicious) travels!

I've had a *lot* of hostesses thank me for including our baby in the reservation number so that they can seat us appropriately. It definitely helps with their planning, and we either order an extra dish or tip higher to make up for the lost space.

You are my kind of diners. 

Hi Tom! Just moved to Shaw. Besides Unconventional Diner, can you recommend any other must tries, maybe for a date night? Enjoy your work! Thanks!

I'm a huge fan of All-Purpose Pizzeria for drinks, pies and awesome salads. 

I live there, and I don't want you recommending subpar restaurants just to appease us.

Roger that!

I also would add Kith/Kin. Recent meal there knocked our socks off, including those of my jaded NYC visitor. Cod, musshroom forest, grilled brassicas, crab jollof....oh my.

I add goat roti and braised oxtails to the list of things to praise there. 

Hi Tom, does the Post publish a list of cooking classes in the area? I thought I saw it one year. Love to cook! Love to eat, thanks for all your fabulous columns and insight.

There are no plans to publish a cooking class guide that I know of. Sorry!

Honey you know what happens when you assume dearest! Not a competitor but you sound like the mother of the owner. I have dined there twice and once with clients. Almost lost a multi billion dollar deal cause of the owners. Have you been in last couple weeks? And Tom wont post this! There are other places out that way with better food etc.

Ah, but I *will* post this! I have no problem with a chatter criticizing a place I like, but come on, give us some supportive details at least. Also, which restaurant out that way has better food? (Ten, nine, eight, seven ...)

Hi, Tom, we're fortunate to be planning a trip to France next year, when our son will be 13. He's a somewhat adventurous eater (has had and liked escargot, for example), but we thought it would be good to get him used to what he'll encounter there. Ideas in DC and NoVa? We love Marcel's for a special occasion but aren't taking our kid there.

I'm not sure what types of restaurants you'll be dining at overseas, but here in DC, you might consider easing your son into the world of snails and pates and long braises at the aforementioned Le Diplomate in Logan Circle, the best all-around French experience in the city. 

I would include Patsy's American in Tysons. Absolutely my favorite steak all-time, and I'm usually a ribeye guy. Their steak is leaner than ribeye but just as flavorful.

The list grows longer. Merci!

I must repeat: call your mother. Billion? Shoulda bought it.

Six, five, four .... is the original poster still with us?

… is irrelevant when you have folks like you reviewing restaurants thoroughly in their respective cities. An internet search turns up the better researched reviews, not to mention good TripAdvisor and Yelp recommendations. Michelin is so 1950s and dated - their omission of Rasika just screams old white people with no imagination.

Food for thought (for next week, perhaps?)

Hi Tom, Can you recommend a casual lunch spot within easy walking distance of Broadway? A friend and I will be attending a Saturday matinee. Thanks for all you do.

And just as I'm about to sign off, I'll suggest Esca, the beloved fish house within walking distance of Broadway.

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. let's do it again next Wednesday, same time. Thanks for keeping me company. 

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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