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

Nov 13, 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.

The corner of Florida and R St NW is on one of my regular routes around town, and every time I go by I have been saddened by the sight of this historic restaurant empty and run down. But now there is work being done! Will it be a new restaurant? Carrying on Nora Pouillon's pioneering work?

Cheer up, dear reader. Veteran restaurateur Ashok Bajaj has assumed the corner space and is busy renovating it for a possible mid-December launch. Former Mirabelle chef Frank Ruta is expected to helm the kitchen of the forthcoming Annabelle.

 

Ruta's menu will include (yes!) a few hits from the late Palena in Cleveland Park, where the chef cooked before Mirabelle. I, for one, can't wait to sink my teeth into his exemplary roast chicken and hamburger, the latter of which will be available at the bar only. 

 

LOOKING FOR A SPECIAL GETAWAY for up to 20 people?  The owners of the esteemed Three Blacksmiths in Sperryville, one of my Top 10 favorite restaurants, are going to be available for private parties -- buy-outs of the cozy dining room -- starting in June 2020. Interested parties can write to co-owner Diane MacPherson at diane@threeblacksmiths.com

 

THE REVIEWS: My preview in today's Food section looks at the newish Taim, a winning falafel shop by way of New York in Georgetown. This Sunday in the Magazine, I revisit the cozy Bar Charley in Dupont Circle, now as good for its food as its drinks.

 

Good chilly Wednesday morning, everyone. What's on your mind today and how can I be of (food) help?

Any thoughts or remembrances of Buzz Beler, the long-time owner of the Prime Rib, who passed away recently? I always enjoyed the D.C. Prime Rib, which seemed to stay relevant and classy over the decades, weathering fads and trends that turned some away from the great classic steakhouses.

I was sorry to hear the news. Beler died at 90 in Charlottesville last month. His Prime Rib on K St. was my debut review as food critic for the Post 20 years ago.

 

I think he'll be remembered as someone who appreciated a Hollywood-style atmosphere -- steak dinners were always accompanied by live music in his Art Deco dining rooms -- and a sense of decorum. The Prime Rib is among the last restaurants with a dress code. While recent meals weren't up to his high standards, over the decades diners could rely on the restaurant for basic dishes done well.

Hi Tom, dedicated reader. With Thanksgiving around the corner, I’m looking to get it catered this time around. Do you know of any restaurant/caterer that would have deep-fried Whole turkeys? Thanks!

Not a clue, alas. But I'll throw your request out to the peanuts and see what comes back before the hour is up.

Do you know of any restaurants in DC or MD that plan to offer goose as a dinner choice at Christmastime?

Hey, restaurants and chefs! Raise your hand if you're serving goose this Christmas. 

Just wanted to give a shoutout to Charleston for an amazing dinner. We had a bit of a time-crunch (completely my fault), which we let them know about at the beginning of dinner. We asked if we had enough time for three courses and they said we did if we were willing to work with them, which of course we were. We never for a second felt rushed, the dinner was perfectly paced for our time and absolutely delicious. We can’t wait to return sometime when we have as much time as we want to enjoy a more leisurely, but I’m sure equally delicious, meal.

Your treatment at Charleston sounds like the service I've come to admire at the Baltimore institution, which has earned a spot on my Hall of Fame

I'm looking for a suggestion for Xmas eve dinner for a family of 5 with three, twenty something boys who enjoy good food and have fairly adventurous palates. Something special, but not too formal would fit the bill.

I just did a quick search on Open Table and see openings for your size group at a diverse selection of restaurants. You might act fast to secure a table at the new Modena downtown, the original Sfoglina, Et Voila! in the Palisades, Le Piquette for French and Ambar on the Hill for Dec. 24. 

I’ve noticed something happening more often to me in the past year or so: arrive at a restaurant, ask for a table. The hostess replied, do you have a reservation? If you say no, they reply, that’s Ok, and proceed to seat you. If I have a reservation, I’ll always say that up front (doesn’t everyone?) Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but the question seems to imply a suggestion of failure on my part. It happened to me this past Sunday evening in NYC, at a huge casual restaurant that had plenty of open tables and no wait to check in. What gives?

Unless someone from the industry says otherwise, I think the question is asked simply to keep things square with whatever reservation system the restaurant uses. 

Tom, my parents are visiting DC for Thanksgiving and I usually like to take them out for a nice dinner (this would be Friday or Saturday evening). My dad wears hearing aids that are very sensitive to noise, which seems to be a big issue at many of the dining destinations I've been looking at. They are not super adventurous eaters - Mexican is a favorite - but are open to trying new things within limits (for example I could not tell my dad what calamari was until after he ate it. And he was 55 and had never heard of calamari). Any suggestions around the Wharf/Navy Yard area that might fit the bill?

You're asking for easy listening in parts of the city with some of the most popular (i.e. hopping) restaurants. I'm thinking your best strategy is an early dinner at Osteria Morini for Italian along the Capitol Riverfront. Once there, request a quiet table (away from speakers, etc.) and ask that the volume on any music be turned down if it bothers you -- advice I'd suggest for any boom box, by the way. 

Hey Tom, My mother and godmother are coming into town for a few days next week and the only day we can do dinner is Monday night. They're staying down town and my wife and I had wanted to take them to Rasika, but were told that Indian was a no go. Any suggestions?

Plenty of good establishments are open on Monday in Washington. They include the hot new Anju for Korean, Poca Madre for modern Mexican, Chloe for global small plates, Centrolina for Italian and Kith/Kin for Afro-Caribbean cooking at the Wharf. 

Where is a great place to go for Brunch in D.C. to celebrate a 65th birthday? The celebrant appreciates good food and drink, but not too much noise. Thanks!

How about ricotta pancakes, cauliflower soup or crispy blue catch fish with fennel salad in the cozy Iron Gate in Dupont Circle? 

I agree. I assume "do you have a reservation?" is short for "what is the name on your reservation so I can look you up and see whether there are any special requests (lactose-intolerance, special occasion) listed for you?"

Better!

Thanks to your fall dining guide, I had an excellent dinner at Sababa after a trip to the National Zoo when I had a free day in DC before a conference last month. I used to live in the DMV area but I only know the general layout of DC, not the placement of streets relative to landmarks. It took a while to research all the options and find one that was feasible from a location/rush-hour perspective. Is there a better way to do this? Perhaps a Google Map with the locations pinned, or an infographic with the locations plotted? I have an online subscription to the Post and didn't get the print version that Sunday, so maybe I missed something that was printed in the magazine but not online. Thanks!

A lot of readers have requested a geographic breakdown for restaurants in the guide, which I'm happy to pass on to the design team and editors.  Thanks for your input.

Our daughter is attending college in Annapolis. We do not live far so find ourselves in Annapolis fairly frequently. There seem to be a lot of restaurants, any tips on which ones are best.

Hands down, the consistently best and most interesting place to eat in Annapolis is Flamant, from chef Frederik De Pue. And I love the bungalow-style dining room.

Hi Tom! My best friend has lived in D.C. for almost two years, but makes <$20k / year so has never been out to eat in the city (she's very very disciplined about spending). Her birthday is this weekend, and I would love to take her out somewhere to celebrate. Where on earth should I take her? I want it to represent DC in some way, feel like something she couldn't make at home, have a fun atmosphere, and preferably be ~$100-$120 for the two of us (we're in our young 20s and I'm also in that nonprofit world). Open to any suggestions!

You know what might be fun? Dinner at Tiger Fork in Blagden Alley. The interior conjurs an Asian night market and the Hong Kong-style menu has some great dishes under $12, including Sichuan pepper tofu and rockfish balls with a honey-chile sauce.

Hi Tom, I was just in Philadelphia for a conference. A young friend and former employee offered to pick the restaurant for three of us. She went to your dining info and found Oyster House on Sansome. It was delicious and the service was great. Thanks.

Happy to get your thanks. Philly is  one of my favorite food cities and there's no excuse for a bad meal there, provided you do even a little homework. 

Tom: Thanks for hosting this chat. It's a highlight of the week... or month, if I fall behind and have to catch up on a backlog! A restaurant that recently received a very positive review in the Post hosted a pop-up at my office's cafeteria. The food was very good, though not great. My impression is that some (perhaps all) of the disappointment was due to the food being prepared either off-site, or on-site in a different kitchen than the chefs are used to working in -- for example, the flavors were wonderful, but some items seemed to have been a bit over-cooked, as though the chefs were working with equipment to which they're not accustomed. This got me wondering: How can (or should?) diners evaluate restaurants based on performance at pop-up locations, street festivals, or other settings that are not the normal environment in which the chefs prepare meals? Are there certain things that we should expect a chef to control regardless of the location? Are there issues that diners should be extra forgiving toward if not executed to the standard you would expect in the main restaurant? Any advice or insight you can offer is appreciated.

Up top, I have to say I haven't experienced many pop ups, mostly because 1) they are temporary by nature and 2) there are already too many permanent restaurants begging for my attention. Time is short! However, I've made exceptions this year, mostly out of curiosity (Happy Gyro) and once because a friend gave up his seats at a preview (Thamee).

 

In a best-case scenario, the folks behind a pop up are using ingredients and equipment similar to what they'll be using at any future bricks and mortar location.

Hi, Tom! My husband and I haven't had a date night in ages. I'd love to surprise him with a fun night out where we can dress up a bit. We're not too old yet to hit someplace hip, but we'd also like to be able to hear each other talk across the table. We'd be coming in from Centreville, VA, so anything on the 66 corridor (Fairfax, Arlington, NW) would be perfect. We're not unadventurous eaters, but husband doesn't love spicy or too exotic. Any thoughts?

If you want something romantic, you'll have the best luck in the District. In the West End, there's the chic -- and hushed -- Marcel's for very good French fare.

Hi Tom! Big fan. My friend and I, both avid readers of your reviews and chats, want to go out to dinner this Friday. Without a reservation, where would you recommend we try our luck at? We both live in Arlington and would eat in DC, are not opposed to saddling up to the bar, and prefer to keep the price/person around $50. Only limitation is I don't eat red meat!

Do you eat cheese? I ask, because the fondue at Stable on H St. NE is just what this weather calls for. I love a seat in the back of the restaurant, dressed as if it were a Swiss chalet.

I'm so impressed with Shillings. Their food was delicious. Over the course of two visits with four people, I'm pretty sure I've now tried most of their menu. Everything was delicious. Not just good. Delicious. The service was spectacular. Even the noise level was good.

I have a friend visiting DC who is looking for some farm-to-table suggestions. What would you recommend? I have already warned her off Founding Farmers lol

I'm excited about the new Nina May in Logan Circle, which I'm previewing for First Bite next week. Chef and co-owner Colin McClimans is trying to buy as much as he can from farmers and producers within a 150-mile radius of his restaurant. Not as easy as you might expect!

Hi Tom! I know Rose's is already on the map, but I experienced service there last night that deserves a shout-out. Our waitress was so good that she read my horrible poker face better than my boyfriend and brought out a peanut-free lychee salad on the house after noticing that I was not as excited about the prospect of brisket as my company was. I really appreciated the gesture and it made an already lovely evening even more special.

Take a bow, Rose's Luxury, whose boss empowers his servers to treat guests to dishes if they see fit (which they do, a lot). 

You can order a whole meal or just parts from Whole Foods! They use organic, free range and/or local turkeys. They also have some really good vegan dishes this year--they were giving out samples recently, and the mushroom etouffee was super.

The original poster was inquiring about fried whole turkeys. Not sure if Whole Paycheck offers such?

I've had the opposite concern sometimes checking in where I've made a reservation with Open Table and being welcomed and ushered to a table before I can get the words "we have a reservation for [time] under [name]" out of my mouth, and then having to try to awkwardly get the information across afterwards to be sure I don't get dinged as a no-show in the app.

Me (and all my aliases) too!

I make maps for a living and this is an easy project. There is no excuse for not having one! :)

Yes, sir! Or ma'am! Duly noted!

Probably cursing myself by even asking in this forum, but my babycakes and I have Black Cat tickets on Friday night and ... if we show up right at 5:30 and willing to eat at the bar (we honestly prefer to) what is the over/under that we can get a couple seats? Is this a place people wait long hours to get a spot? Neither of us can bounce early from work so 5:30 is doable Barely. If we can’t get in, can you suggest a backup in the surrounding blocks.

Seven Reasons has received a lot of love of late, from critics and civilians alike. I can't predict what even an early Friday night is going to look like at the bar. But it never hurts to try! Your back-up plan is the bar at the nearby Bresca, which I recently featured in my monthly round-up of favorite restaurants.

Industry person here - you would be surprised how often the answer to this question is "I don't know" or "I don't remember" or, just as common, two different people in a party took the initiative to make a reservation. AND, given that Open Table has a carrot and stick approach to reservations, fixing things on Monday morning is a pain. I am sure the original poster is a decent sort, but no offense is meant from the question.

Thanks for enlightening us, Industry Person.

HI Tom! I wanted to ask if you had a restaurant that you would recommend that can seat 20 on a friday night that splits checks? Thanks!

Just to be clear: you're asking a restaurant to split a check 20 ways? (My eyes are bulging at the thought.) A lot of places limit the number of splits, just so you know.

I've been to Shilling Canning 3 times, and it's always been great. Just my .02

Ive been twice, for the record.

Hi Tom, I'm meeting colleagues for lunch around downtown DC/Capitol Hill. The catch is that we only have an hour before they have to catch a flight. Any recommendations for restaurants that offer an express lunch or a nicer fast casual option? Thanks!

I'm a fan of the $20 "dish"-and-dessert menu served in the bar at the Oval Room near the White House. The four options are subject to change, but currently include truffled spaghetti and pork belly Lyonnaise. 

Hi, Any ideas what restaurants are serving Thanksgiving Dinner for 2? Looking for the traditional Thanksgiving dinner at a reasonable price. Last Thanksgiving I went to Old Ebbit Grill. The food was good but really tight seating and a little noisy. I don't know where to search on the internet for this answer.

"Tight seating and a little noisy" at one of the country's busiest restaurants? You don't say.

 

The going rate at the restaurants that still have seats available -- a roster that includes Sfoglina on Van Ness, Firefly in Dupont Circle, Osteria Morini in Navy Yard, Succotash in Penn Quarter -- is about $60 a person, you should know. But I've also seen price tags over $100 at some establishments. The takeaway: Don't dawdle. 

Hi Tom, Popeye's has a cajun style turkey that you can pre-order. They marinate them, slow roast them, then flash fry them. You'll pick it up and warm it up in your oven for 1.5-2 hours.

Thank you for sharing the news. Signed, Big Popeye's Fan

Members of a group outing may not be aware of whether other members made a reservation or not. I've answered "I don't know" for that exact reason several times. When you are invited to dinner, you aren't always told if someone made a reservation or not, or whose name it might be under.

Well .... that's just not good planning. A *good* host let's his or her guests know date/time/name. Easier for all concerned.

Hi Tom, In your opinion, what restaurants offer the best fries in the city?

I'd be hard-pressed to name a single restaurant. There are lots of kitchens that excel at frying potatoes: Et Voila!, Le Diplomate and Primrose included.

Hi Tom, After talking it up for months, I went with my boyfriend to Le Diplomate on Saturday and it turned out to be a total dud. We were seated at the worst table in the restaurant, which normally wouldn't have been a big deal (except for the fact that I've gotten stuck there 3 out of the 4 times I've eaten at a table there), but it just kind of spelled doom for the rest of the evening. Our server was fine during the meal, but was inattentive at the two most important times - taking our order and giving us the check. It felt like the service was more focused on performance than on giving us what we wanted: for example, our server gave us a speech about the menu and immediately ran off instead of taking our orders. Also, because of our lousy table, we noticed things like employees chatting by the host stand for 65% of our meal while finished plates languished at our table. Another highlight was when I asked our drink runner to clear our plates and got a total "deer in headlights" reaction. The food was also mediocre: the bread and drinks were outstanding, but our entrees were disappointing. I know I broke your cardinal rule of not saying something in the moment, but my boyfriend just wanted to leave and I wasn't holding my breath about actually being able to get a manager to pay attention to us. I'm only writing to you about this experience because they've ignored my email. I'm wondering if you've noticed a downturn in the quality of their food or service or if this was truly an off night. The biggest thing that bothered me about the experience was that they made us feel like we were doing them a favor - that we should feel grateful to be seated at a lousy table, to wait eons for a drink, to never have our server return to ask us if we wanted more (we would've ended up spending a LOT more money there had the service been good), etc. I also want to emphasize that I'm a regular reader of your column and regularly dine out in DC: I don't expect every restaurant to be Fiola, but it's not my first rodeo. Have you heard or noticed anything about them?

Whoa. There's a lot to ponder in your detailed rant. Thanks for the feedback, but I have to ask: Why did you accept what you consider to be a bad table -- the same supposedly bad table -- for what sounds like the fourth time? Bad on Le Diplomate for not responding to your email.

Please tell me this is a punk question. If it isn't (ON A FRIDAY NIGHT) the host of this event has many options (Venmo, Square) to remove the burden from the poor, unsuspecting server.

Yep.

The truffle fries at Dirty Habit in Chinatown are also fantastic!

Worst name for a restaurant in recent memory.

My well-behaved nine-year-old son and I have a standing dinner outing one Saturday per month. He gravitates towards Mexican and Italian, but I would love to diversify his palate a bit. I have offered to take him to Jewel of India or to an Ethiopian restaurant, but he has so far declined. Can you recommend some exciting places to try in Silver Spring, Bethesda or DC that could introduce some new dishes? I would like to keep it at about $75 total for the two of us. Thanks!

What a great parent! How about easing into Japanese cooking with clam tempura dipped in green tea salt at Kaz Sushi Bistro? Or exploring West African fare -- monkfish in a zesty red stew with a white ball of fufu -- at Kith/Kin?  Or checking out the flavors of Myanmar at Thamee, which serves a winning pickled ginger salad tossed with peanuts, cabbage and lime juice?

 

Lunch time! Thanks for a lively hour, folks. Let's meet again next week, same time. Chow for now.

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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