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

Nov 27, 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, on this Thanksgiving, I’m grateful to be living in Washington and guided in my dining choices by the best and most active (and interactive) food critic in the country. Thank you for everything you do for us. A question for your reflection: What single dish (you can’t pick the Palena burger) do you miss that was once offered in DC but is no more. Personally, I’d have to go with RJ Cooper’s fried chicken at the long-ago-shuttered Gypsy Soul.

Wow. What a lovely start to my day. Thank you for the kind words and back at you (and others who follow me). People often ask what I like best about my job and I think they're surprised to hear it's the Washington Post audience (versus say, not-really-"free" food).  

 

There are so many things I miss from the past. I don't think I can single out just one dish. Things that leap to mind: the "nostalgia" platters (catfish with hush puppies) at Jackie's in Silver Spring; the Cuban roast pork sandwich at long-gone Breadline; the table side Caesar salad at Majestic Cafe in Old Town; just about anything from the much-missed Michel Richard Citronelle. Really, I could go on and on.

 

Happy Wednesday, everyone. Here's hoping you have fun plans for tomorrow, either of the home-cooked or the restaurant-created variety.

 

In lieu of a restaurant review in the Magazine this Sunday, I address a bunch of   reader questions and comments, including one on why some restaurants ask for credit card numbers to secure reservations. My preview, for Food, looks at the recent changes at decade-old Trummer's in Clifton and in Weekend, I roll out my latest batch of favorite places to eat. The month of November includes an Indian find in Laurel and a meaty Ethiopian draw in Falls Church. 

 

Let's rock and roll. 

For the person asking last week about non-traditional Thanksgiving meals on Thanksgiving Day, Asian restaurants (Chinese, Vietnamese) would be open on Thursday and not serve turkey dinners!

Good idea, and just in the nick of time. Thank you.

My boyfriend is a little obsessed with risotto and I've got no idea who might have some great options. I went looking through old chats, but didn't notice much. Any guidance?

Fiola in Penn Quarter makes a fabulous risotto, decadent with squab and grappa-infused pears, but it's part of a $165 tasting menu in the main dining room.  Less lofty is the saffron risotto at Officina at the Wharf, priced at $23. Anyone had a model version lately?

Love your recommendation of Convivial in DC. I find it’s a really great place for a first date (happy hour) or second/third date (dinner). Could you recommend a couple of similarly good dinner places in NW that give off a good vibe and more important, are similar price point (most entrees <$25)?

You need to add the recently reviewed Bar Charley in Dupont Circle to your rotation. I love the mellow vibe there. And the price is right: Tuesday, for instance, features a deal where you can order three items from the menu for $30 -- cocktails along with food!

Hi Tom! I recently had an issue at a ramen shop that I’d love to learn how to best deal with. My girlfriend and I were seated at an empty four person table. After ordering, the hostess sat a couple of other people at our table. There were some empty tables, but I assume they had a large party coming. No problem there. We all got our food and started eating. I was inhaling this ramen. I remember feeling completely revived. But then the folks next to us started making really negative comments about the food. One said something along the lines of “this tastes like the ramen from the box at Costco.” They were clearly not pleased with what they ordered, which is fine, but it made the meal unpleasant, and worse, I actually started to like the ramen less. It was like the negative comments were infectious. I don’t think anybody is in the wrong here. Anybody can say what they like about food they don’t like. I personally think it’d be rude to switch tables. I’d love to get your thoughts on how to deal with this.

Did you consider negating/balancing their comments by telling your girlfriend (aloud) that you found the ramen restorative? I don't think you necessarily needed to engage the strangers seated next to you, but perhaps they would have overheard your rave and toned down their rant -- or "caught" your positivity. 

Hi, Tom: Some of us are going to the screening of the Nationals World Series documentary on Monday at the Wharf. We will get off work at 5, and the film starts at 7. Can you recommend a place for us to eat at the Wharf? I have never been there.

I think your best bet is a collection of small plates at Kaliwa, the Filipino/Korean/Thai purveyor from veteran chef Cathal Armstrong

Three retired friends and I (I'm retired too) get together monthly for breakfast/brunch. We've tried a lot of places in Montgomery County but would like to expand our horizons. Any suggestions for places in DC? (We've already been to Unconventional Diner.) We like to avoid chain restaurants and prefer neighborhood places.

You can't get more local than Market Lunch in Eastern Market, home to the justifiably famous blueberry-buckwheat pancakes and "The Brick," a bodacious breakfast sandwich fortified with potatoes, a choice of meat, cheese and eggs.

 

This is a kitchen that cares: the rolls are baked fresh daily, the vegetables are cooked without meat and only real butter goes into the food. I love the place. 

I'm hosting my 41 year old niece for 3 nights in January. Staying near the Hilton at DuPont Circle. Thanks to you I have a number of restaurants picked out for dinner but would like to have pre-dinner (or after dinner) drinks someplace lively. Where do 40-somethings go after work for drinks and maybe meeting someone interesting????

I can't guarantee "someone interesting," but I can promise good drinks and attractive bars at Iron Gate and Pembroke in Dupont Circle, Johnny's Half Shell and A Rake's Progress in Adams Morgan and Maydan off Florida Ave. My inclination is A Rake's Progress in the Line hotel, which attracts a mature but interesting clientele. 

Tom, While I am excited for the holidays, it can also be the most stressful time of year. Would love to take my wife out for a romantic evening. If you had one night away from the kids, in-laws, and all the noise, where would you go? Thank you!

You don't mention a cuisine or a budget -- and there are so many ways to interpret "romantic" -- so I'm going to throw out a range of ideas. They include the softly lighted Poca Madre for excellent and inventive Mexican; Chloe, for global small plates (Bavarian sausage with vinegar potatoes, hummus with roasted mushrooms, Vietnamese fried fish); the convivial La Piquette for a cozy bistro experience; the intimate Queen's English for the flavors of Hong Kong; Sababa for Middle Eastern dishes -- I adore the vegetarian bastilla-- under sails of cloth; and Punjab Grill for modern Indian cooking in a sumptuous dining room. 

Well Tom your latest review is accompanied by a picture of my husband dining with a woman who isn't me! Once confronted with photographic evidence, he confessed to having an ongoing affair. Just thought you'd be amused to hear of your part in the drama. This Thanksgiving I'm grateful to you for exposing a cheat!

Please, please, please tell me this is a crank post. I'd hate to learn otherwise. I file two reviews a week, for Food and the Magazine, so I'm not sure which restaurant this is.

Hey, we are flying into a Charleston the weekend of Dec 6. Two couples, will eat anything and everything and can afford most budgets. The internet sites are all over the place. If you had three dinners(one being a late one) and maybe a brunch where would you choose? Love the chats and articles over the years.

It's been four years since I last ate around Charleston, but among the places that impressed me then were Fig, where the cooking nods to Italy and France; the Obstinate Daughter, as much for the name as the frogmore stew and spaghetti with local clams;  the Ordinary for choice seafood in a former bank; and Leon's Fine Poultry & Oysters in a former car shop.

I wasn't able to respond during the chat last week, but I have an "out in the country" lunch suggestion: Lafayette Inn in Standardsville, VA. I went on a Friday, food was delicious and the wait staff was very helpful. Bonus for a beautiful ride in the country (Skyline Drive) in Shennandoah State Park is about 15 minutes away. Full disclosure - cost for the park is $30. I was on my way to go hiking in the park and stumbled on the Lafayette Inn.

Thanks for the idea. The inn turns out to be about 100 miles from downtown Washington. 

Looks like that Cuban sandwich is available on Thursdays at their 1751 Penn. Ave. NW location: http://breadline.com/thursday-menu/

I'm talking about the business when it was watched over by Washington baker Mark Furstenberg. 

My 27 year old son and his girlfriend live near City Center and on his Christmas list he asked for a dinner out for the two of them. They are foodies and have gone to places like The Dabney, Rose's Luxury, Rasika, Bouqueria, and others. No sushi or cilantro, but otherwise they are open. Any place that is new and trendy with really good food? Anywhere in DC is fine. Looking to give them around a $100 gift card (it's ok if it's a bit over that, but in that ballpark).

If someone gave me a gift certificate to Centrolina, in the heart of CityCenter, I'd be thrilled. It's some of the best Italian in Washington. You might also consider some of the new faces on the scene, including the farm-to-table Nina May in Logan Circle and Emilie's on the Hill. 

Tom, I am the original poster from last week's complaint about poor service about Brasserie Liberte. I wanted to clarify a few things. First of all, the entrees were warm and actually tasted pretty good. It was the cinnamon roll to start that was cold, but it didnt feel worth it to send back a $6.95 item. That being said, I know you found it hard to believe that I waited a true hour to get my check. Unbelievable, but it really is true. I was with a friend who I don't get to see often, so we were catching up and chatting, but we did try to signal for help multiple times and got ignored. When we were finally fed up, I did grab another waitress and told her about my excessive wait. She didn't seem to care, and just had our original waiter drop off the check, only to disappear again. Hence, my frustration. I hope this helps clear this up a bit. I agree I could have been more aggressive, but I understood that it was opening weekend and was trying to be patient. I was also enjoying my conversation with my friend, but it was a ridiculous amount of waiting, on top of already feeling very ignored throughout our entire experience.

Thanks for following up. Let's all agree an hour is too long to wait for a check. ;)

I was just in Portland, Ore., earlier this month. Using Tom's recommendations in part, we went to Saint Jack (French bistro) and Renata (Italian), both of which we liked. We had brunch at Mother's (long wait, but good). We'd also recommend the fried chicken at Hat Yai on NE Killingsworth Ave. We encountered a 3% "health and wellness" surcharge once, at the Imperial Restaurant (another good brunch) but that was disclosed on the menu so it was not a surprise.

Thanks for the feedback and additional dining suggestions.

At a local charity fundraiser, I won a door prize: a gift certificate for $50 to a small local Thai restaurant. The certificate clearly stated that it was good for one year, and it was dated last December 15. No problem, right? We went to the restaurant last Saturday and enjoyed a late lunch/early dinner. (We deliberately went at an off hour, as the restaurant is tiny – literally one half of a gas station convenience store.) But when we gave them the gift certificate and a credit card for the overage, the waitress came back and said the certificate was no good because the restaurant had a new owner. When she returned with the credit card and the charge for the whole bill, I asked when the restaurant had changed hands. “Oh, about six months ago, now,” she replied. But wait – there’s more. After we got home my husband googled the restaurant. Lo and behold, there was an article in the local Leesburg newspaper about the restaurant’s owner – and how she was celebrating 15 years in the location. The article was dated less than two weeks ago. So, what do YOU think is going on here? At first, I believed that a business that kept the same name, in the same location, had an obligation to honor its gift certificate. But now, with this latest information, that we were lied to about the ownership, I wonder what fraud they’re attempting to perpetrate. FYI: The restaurant is the Thai Pan in Leesburg, Virginia. The article appeared in the Loudoun Times on November 15. Thanks for whatever advice you can offer.

Ouch. I wish there were time for me to run this by the owner, but there's not. Are you upset enough to return to the restaurant and talk to the server in question, or the owner? If I'm getting the whole story here, I'd be upset as well. No one likes being misled.

 

Last thought before I hit "publish:" Might there have been a language gap?  Another kind of misunderstanding?

Hi Tom- Happy Thanksgiving! Based on your recommendation I went to dinner with friends at Nina Mae this week. We opted for the $39/pp family style meal. We felt like the price was a great value for the amount of food we received, especially given how tasty it all was! We also appreciated their willingness to accommodate our request to limit the meat dishes (as one of in our group was pescatarian). The space felt cozy and comfortable. Where I felt like it could use a few tweaks was the service. For example, we had someone come over and introduce himself as "I'm John and I *won't* be your server tonight," (an awkward script) and then he proceeded to explain the menu. Despite being the first person to greet us (the menu explainer), there was no offer for drinks (a few of us had drinks already from the bar, but not all). It took a few more minutes for our server to arrive, which would have been fine if drink orders were already being handled. I wonder if this is the norm or if our server was busy when we arrived. Sometimes it felt like there was a lag from when the food runners brought the food and when our server arrived to explain the dishes to us (this would not be an issue if we order a la carte and knew what we ordered). Given we had a non-meat eater, we did need to wait to hear what was in each dish. I think this could all be improved (easily!), and it did not detract from a very nice evening! Thanks for the recommendation!

Happy to hear you liked the cooking as much as I did. Sorry to hear about the service lapses. I wonder if John-Not-Your-Server might have made an appearance at your table to help out a busy co-worker?  At the least, the guy should have checked about drinks.

The kids are grown and have their own Christmas mornings at home. So three adults are looking for a place to have a nice Christmas Day brunch before they all come over for the afternoon. Looking for some place in the Tyson's or McLean area.

I was going to suggest J. Gilbert's in McLean, which does brunch (prime rib/omelet bar/the works) for $34 per adult. But I just checked Open Table and the restaurant seems to be closed Dec. 25. Let's hope a reader can help out before the hour is up.

My spouse, who loved/loves Palena and Tavira and Corduroy, wants her birthday dinner at Corduroy. Is it still a good choice? We like good inventive food in a quiet setting. She likes to stick with tried and true rather than explore new things.

My problem with Corduroy is the sameness of the script. I don't think chef Tom Power has changed the list much in *years* now. I'd think the cooks would get bored. (I know I do!)

 

Then again, it's your wife's birthday, not mine, and if she wants carpaccio of lobster with drawn butter or lamb loin with creamed spinach --- Ambien for those of us who have been eating it forever there -- go for it!

Tom, I was quite excited to make reservation to dine at CUT. My older brother raved about the CUT in Beverly Hills. But alas, they are not open anymore! Are they planning on re-opening or have they already moved on? Thank you and have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Andrew Skala, the chef of Cut by Wolfgang Puck, just texted this update: 

 

"Thank you for following up regarding CUT. We are still working through repairs of the affected areas in the kitchen after the mechanical malfunction with the hood system. While we are not quite sure of the reopening date for the full restaurant, we expect to be fully operational in the middle of first quarter 2020.

 

In the meantime, we are operating the bar, and our guests and neighbors are taking full advantage of the bar offering at CUT. The new hours are from 4pm - 11pm Sunday - Thursday and until midnight on Friday and Saturday. As you may know, CUT's cocktail and bar program celebrates the region’s growing distillery scene with spotlighting over 11 local distilleries, including a partnership with Catoctin Creek Distillery in Virginia, for a private label rye whiskey. Guests may also enjoy the specialty Negroni menu with five different offerings and a roving beverage cart serving Old Fashioneds made-to-order."

 

 

Had a great experience at a Neighborhood Group restaurant and wanted to send a compliment. Could not find any means to do so except via Facebook or twitter. I’m not into public statements, so never mind...

Something tells me Michael Babin and the restaurant in question would love your Valentine. The restaurants are all listed on the company's website. Write 'em a note! Or do a direct Tweet.

I certainly understand how frequent diners would hope for menu changes over the years, but shouldn’t a restaurant be judged on the quality of the food it puts out, the hospitality of its service and the atmosphere it provides If I haven’t been to the restaurant before, why should I care about how long a dish has been on the menu?

Well, on top of it all, the restaurant feels a little, uh, sleepy these days. Bottom line:  I have zero problem with any diner who likes things as they always have been. But I think the cooks would get bored, doing the same thing all the time. And boredom can lead to mistakes.

Tom, you said the problem with Corduroy is “the sameness of the script” meaning the menu never changes. But the menu at the Great American Restaurant group’s menus never change and you love them. Why the distinction? That sameness is why I have never understood the love (from you & others) for GAR.

The sameness at Corduroy is a LOT more expensive than the routine at GAR. Maybe that's my issue.

Hello! I am looking for restaurants with"vegan Calamari" in the DMV area. Do you have any suggestions?!?!

I honestly have no idea what that even is.

Thanks so much for your recommendations, Tom! My mom and brother are visiting DC, we went to Tiger Fork last night. Everything we ate was delicious (the cocktails and the "secret menu" bao were standouts) and the customer service was on-point as well.

Take a bow, Tiger Fork. It's one of the seven restaurants I flagged in my November round-up of favorite restaurants, online now and in print Friday.

You criticized Corduroy for not changing its menu and you criticized Clarity for changing its menu too frequently. How can a restaurant ever win?

Corduroy hasn't changed its menu in eons. Clarity changes Every Single Day. (Sounds like you have a vested interest in this...) There's got to be a balance, you know?

...to try and identify the cheater! I truly hope this was a joke post, but it also brought me to some reviews I had missed so I guess that's a good thing!

I have to admit: I was poring over a couple weeks of reviews myself.

Tom, is someone having fun with you today??

I think SEVERAL readers are messing with me this morning.

Tom, I love your articles and reviews, thank you, thank you!! For my birthday, I am going to AET this Saturday. Woo! After going through your starred and previous reviews, I was wondering if you can offer any suggestions: - Where is the best place to sit? - Have you tried the BBQ since your starred review? You could no longer recommend it. - Can you recommend any cocktails? Excited to try something new with my wife and our 6 and 8 year-old kids. Thanks again! -RW

America Eats Tavern is perfect for a tribe. I prefer a booth hugging the wall or the communal table just inside the entrance. Yes, the drinks remain good (punch by the glass!) and no, I'm still not much a fan of the barbecue. But you can't go wrong with just about everything else.

 

That's a wrap, folks.  Feast well and be safe tomorrow. See you here again next Wednesday.

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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: