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

Oct 09, 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.

Tom - Love your chat and have managed to make it to quite a few of the restaurants in over the last few years. However, we haven't always agreed with your review (appreciate and read them all though). With some many good and new places in DC, for us to go back to a restaurant, requires a transcendent dish. Something that you have to have, can't get anywhere else, and would tell someone coming in from out of town that they haven't "experienced" DC's food scene until they've had that dish. Bad Saint for example: everything was good, nothing was bad, but there wasn't anything we had to come back for (which is what I would want in a #1 ranked restaurant). I'm wondering if you could list your top 5 dishes in DC. For the record, the lomo soltado especial at El Chalan is my fav dish in the city.

What a great question -- and what good timing, just before my fall dining guide comes out (tomorrow online and this weekend in print). Off the top of my head, I'd say the following rocked my world when I ate them in the past few months:

 

The 100-day aged kimchi at Anju

 

The tomato agedashi tofu at Metier.

 

All the plant-based dishes at Seven Reasons.

 

The shiitake larb at Rooster & Owl

 

The goat roti at Kith/Kin at the Wharf.

 

P.S. Just curious where you've parted ways with me on a restaurant?

 

LOOKING AHEAD: David Deshaies of Unconventional Diner tells me he's opening a second restaurant. The Ardent, from the French word for  "burning" or "passionate," will focus on the flavors of Italy, Spain and southern France and feature a wood-burning oven and grill to execute much of the menu. The location is courtesy of real estate developer Capitol Crossing, on the ground floor of 200 Massachusetts Ave. NW.

 

Hapstak Demetriou is behind the contemporary design, which is expected to play up "deep color contrasts balanced with golden, jewel-toned accents," says Peter Hapstak. Meanwhile, the chef anticipates serving grilled fish, vegetables, house-made pastas and thin-crusted sourdough-based pizza. #cantwait

 

Just be patient. The 180-seat Ardent won't open until the end of 2020.

 

Good morning, everyone. As you might know by now, my No. 1 restaurant in my forthcoming guide is  Seven Reasons, the upscale Latin American dining room from Venezuelan chef Enrique Limardo. Following the reveal of my entire guide tomorrow, I'll be participating in a  live online Q & A with my colleague Mary Beth Albright on Friday, beginning at 11:30 a.m. Here's how you can participate.

 

Lots of questions today. Let's get cracking.

Hi Tom, Have you ever considered adding dress code information to your quick glance info, like you do with noise levels and ADA access? In these times of increasingly blurry distinctions between formal and casual (and as someone who is absolutely driven to fury when people show up to nice restaurants dressed like they just cleaned their garage), I would find it very useful to know how people dress to enjoy a given establishment.

Actually, I haven't thought about adding dress code information, mostly because so few restaurants require suiting up anymore. I'd like to think my description of a place, and perhaps the prices, help readers decide what to wear should they decide to check out a review subject.

Hi Tom. I grew up near New Orleans, and I have fond memories of my grandmother taking us into the city for elaborate meals at fancy old-world style restaurants like The Palace Cafe and Galatoires, where you had a separate server just for your bread! Does DC have any comparable food establishments? All the restaurants here feel new and trendy, no European style charm to be found!

New Orleans pretty much owns that genre. Even in New York, San Francisco and Chicago -- cities with a history of grand restaurants -- you won't find much old-world glam anymore. Probably the closest thing to what you want in the area is L'Auberge Chez Francois, the French dowager in Great Falls, Va. (Has anyone been there recently? Thoughts?)

We went to Punjab Grill and it was everything you said it was. The food was great. The atmosphere was great. The tables were beautiful. We were talking about how the owner should open other restaurants. It was bliss--until we started trying to get the check and pay. It took so long. We had to ask so many people so many times. When we finally got the check one of my dining companions almost missed their meeting because they hadn't wanted to be rude and leave. Why do restaurants always forget about their customers trying to pay a check? I'm sure it doesn't help a server's tip and it leaves a bad taste in the customer's mouth. Please servers pay attention to the very end!

I hope your complaint is addressed at restaurant staff meetings everywhere today. I, too, hate to wait endlessly for the bill. When I want to go, I wanna go! Waiters should be vigilant about that aspect of the meal.

Last week you mentioned that Michelin had neglected Marcel's and Rasika. They also neglected Centrolina and failed to find any female chef worthy of a star. It makes you wonder where they have been. In their Bib Gourmand category, why is there Bidwell and Ivy City Smokehouse when there is the far better Ris and Smoked and Stacked? If eveyone in the food community does not find it their priority to support and promote female and minority chefs, treatment for women and minorities in the industry will not change. I am referring to you, too, Tom.

I was typing on the fly a bit last week. By all means, Centrolina (among other restaurants) merited attention from Michelin. I'd like to think I've been pretty supportive of women and minorities over the years. Maybe you've missed my repeated references (here and in print) to Amy Brandwein, Erik Bruner-Yang, Marjorie Meek-Bradley, Vikram Sunderam and other talents? 

Hoping you can help me with a quandry. I'm having some last minute guests this weekend and looking for an option for something interesting for dinner. I need a place that takes reservations, is metro accessible, is not part of TFG and where three of us can do dinner for aprx $125 with no alcohol. Past favs include Maydan, Compass Rose, Sababa, Supra, Bindaas, and the Dabney - none of which are available this weekend on short notice. Any suggestions for where we could head?

Get online, stat, and see if you can get a table for the mexican-themed Poca Madre -- No. 6 on my new Top 10 list -- or either Chloe near Nationals Park for international small plates or Punjab Grill downtown for contemporary India in gilded environs. I like all of them for different reasons. 

Where can I go to find a real and really delicious chocolate soufflé?

The confection at the recently reviewed Cut by Wolfgang Puck in Georgetown is appropriately decadent, and it's finished tables-side with coconut-pecan ice cream and whipped creme fraiche. 

"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." Okay but let's not throw the designers under the bus here either. This is often the first thing to go when Owner's see the how expensive design and construction is. "$10,000 for soundproofing? We'll just have soft seating instead, that'll work just fine." The owners are often the ones advocating for bad design...

I can totally understand that (and have typed as much in the past). Designers don't get the last word. Owners do, because they're signing the checks.

Tom, I have no idea in God's earth what those dishes are. I want good familiar food that is well done. And I don't want to pay an arm and a leg for it. We love the Great Americans; that's our comfort level

I love the family-owned Great American Restaurants, too! In fact, I recently devoted a First Bite column to one of the company's latest, Randy's in Vienna, and have other shout outs for the Norton crew in my dining guide.

Hi Tom, What's the best Indian restaurant these days in DuPont or surrounding areas? Just moved to the neighborhood and am on the lookout. Thanks! Best, ML

Is 10 minutes from Dupont Circle close enough? If so, Pappe is where you want to head. I'm a big fan of the lunch-only sampler platters. Ask for the Maharaja thali: 10 tastes for $21.

Hi Tom -- We were just at L'Auberge about a month ago for weekend brunch. It was actually pretty nice -- lots of old world dining elegance / service, and the food was great and surprisingly affordable (prix fixe). I was concerned it might be a little stuffy -- it was the restaurant of choice for our dining partners, so we weren't sure what to expect -- but it was very charming and cozy.

Reader to the rescue! Thank you so much for chiming in.

Tom - We recently returned to Punjab Grill for the third time. We have a consistent observation. The food is fantastic - chef Bindra knows his stuff. BUT the wait staff is downright rude. On our last two occasions our server was just inattentive/slow. On our most recent visit our waiter messed up our order 3 times, each time we politely told him. Rather than be apologetic or make amends, our server placed blame on us, and then went to get what we actually ordered. I appreciate all the PR Punjab grill gets but at the rate they are proceeding, their hospitality will drive diners away really quickly. We don't plan to return anytime soon. (And before you ask - we did not have an opportunity to talk to the owner Karan, he was busy walking around and talking to other tables. We wanted to eat and leave, the service soured us that much.)

Let's hope the owner sees your complaint and service turns around. I value feedback from readers. As much as I eat out (more than 9,000 meals since I started this job), I still rely on the extra ears and eyes!

just saying hello, letting you know I love your chats and think you are simply awesome. Thank you for being you!

Well, you just made my day. Back at you.

Hi Tom, Any recommendations for reasonably priced gems in Richmond? We've tried (and thoroughly enjoyed!) ZZQ, and are curious what else we should try. Bonus points if it has a patio where we can take our dog. Thanks!

I was just down there for the Travel issue of the Magazine, where I wrote about Longoven and Alewife. But I also had good meals at the Laotian Temple and the Basque-themed Adarra. Brenner Pass has a patio, as I recall. Could be dog-friendly. 

You didn't say "Thanks mom!"

Because Dorothy Sietsema's computer got ruined when a mini tornado rammed a cottonwood tree through her house this summer, destroying the home office. (True story.) She currently has no Internet. She misses talking to Alexa. TMI, I know.

9,000 meals in 19 years! That’s over 450 meals a year! Don’t you ever get tired of it? (or even just full????)

Do I get tired of eating? Sometimes. The funny thing is, I always get hungry the next day. The challenging part of the job is less the chewing than the talking. I almost always take companions with me, to help eat the range of the menu, and invariably, I feel the need to be an entertaining host.

Not the OP, but I have over the years never understood your love of The Source. I have eaten there multiple times (mainly for business lunches) and always had terrible service. It was so weird because it was never the same server. And, once I had a dish that if it wasn’t a business situation, I would have sent back to the kitchen.

Uh, when's the last time you heard me raving about the restaurant next to the soon-to-close (sniff) Newseum?

Sorry, don't mean to pry, but we know and love her, thanks to you.

Aw, that's so sweet. One of the great things about living in a small town is the support system. Seemingly, the whole of Worthington, Minnesota -- construction crews, insurance guys, her house cleaners and painters, neighbors, people from across the lake -- came to her rescue that Saturday morning. Her house is pretty much back in order and she's looking forward to visiting my brother in Geneva (he's State Department) next month. The lady has energy in spades!

 

For new readers, here's a bit more about my mom, who I've written about a bit over the years.

So do we. I'd been panting to get to Punjab Grill (we don't get to that area much) but am crossing it off my list until I hear that the service has improved.

Stay tuned. I typically don't get complaints about the restaurant, though.

I just booked a room in Georgetown for Sunday night and am looking forward to an in town overnight with my love. I splurged on the hotel room so why stop now? Where should we head for a romantic dinner in the neighborhood that's not Fiola Mare? Drinks? Breakfast/hangover cure in the morning? Thank you!!!

Chez Billy Sud is romantic, in a low-key bistro way, and has the advantage of a nice patio in good weather. For drinks, I'd wander over to the aforementioned Cut by Wolfgang Puck and for breakfast, Chaia on tiny Grave St. does delicious things with tacos and Kafe Leopold offers an Austrian twist

For me, definitely Le Diplomate. You've always sung its praises, even though I've written in with a different experience, I've seen other people write in with a different experience, I've talked to other people who've had a different experience, and Washingtonian even wrote an article about how Le Diplomate recognizes you and provides you better service. The Diplomate go to is a different one then the rest of us plebes, unfortunately.

That's fair. But I still think the restaurant does a good job of serving hundreds of people a day a pretty good French experience. (This is coming in part from friends who go on a regular basis.)

Jaleo is one that I just can't quite get behind. I know it's incredibly well regarded, and you recommend it to people frequently, but with the exception of the bacon wrapped dates (which were sublime), we were somewhat unimpressed with the dishes we had at Jaleo. Nothing was less than good, but it just wasn't GREAT, which is how I've always read your reviews of it. That said, may just be personal preference, because most everyone else seems to be a huge fan.

Honestly, I rarely hear anything bad about the Spanish tapas draw in Penn Quarter. I revisit at least three times a year and always marvel at how consistent the restaurant is.

Not looking for fine dining - my mom is hosting her two grandsons (5 and 6) at a hotel in Georgetown for the weekend at the end of the month. We are all going out to eat on Friday (we're coming from Arlington and Silver Spring). It will be a group of 9 or 10 with kids. Where should we go?

I've got the perfect spot for you: America Eats Tavern, with something for everyone on the menu and cool rooftop seating to boot.

Hey Tom! Please help! (Faithful reader here) Single mom taking my well behaved 12 year old son to Baltimore for the weekend. Looking for some suggestions (lunch and dinner) that won't break the bank (so, sadly, Charleston is out) We both love seafood but don't want to just end up at a tourist trap. This is a casual mother/son getaway, so nothing too dressy either. Thanks for all you do!

Haven't been yet, but I hear good things about Water for Chocolate for comfort food and Orto for pasta and brick chicken. For a real Baltimore experience, try   Faidley Seafood in Lexington Market for gigantic crab cakes, oysters on the half shell, etc. Da bomb!

 

I hear a lunch bell ringing. Or maybe it's my stomach. Time's up, gang.

 

Please join me on Friday for my live Q & A and let's talk about the fall dining guide next Wednesday at 11 a.m. 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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