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

Dec 11, 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.

Dear Tom, First of all, thank you for a great year of reviews, chats, and updates! This past weekend, I had an excellent 32nd birthday dinner at a top DC restaurant, except for one subtle, yet major service mishap. After I ordered the food and wine for the entire table, the waitress reluctantly asked for my ID. I look young and it happens enough that it's only a minor annoyance. But, she then did not ask my wife for her ID (we're the same age). I think the waitress understood after checking my ID that we were both well over 21, although that was never communicated. My wife took it well, but it put a damper on things for me. For any restuaurants reading, please train your servers to ID all people in a group of the same age range. Otherwise, you're implying however unintentionally that the individuals left out look signicantly older. What's your ideal ID policy and etiquette? I mentioned it to the hostess, who apologized, and also left a note on the feedback form. Haven't heard back yet but will update you with any response from the restaurant. Thank you!

It’s all about the details, right? I dislike the random ID check (yes, it still happens to me on occasion), but I understand why a restaurant asks for proof of age. Better a little verification up front than a big fine for not following the rules. I suppose in the interest of being fair, and avoiding slights, everyone at the table should have to produce proof of age. The good thing about your situation, however, was your wife’s attitude. Let us know if you hear from the restaurant.

 

Happy Wednesday, everyone. I leave tomorrow for an early Christmas in Geneva with my family (my brother is posted there) and won't be here to host a chat next week. And the following Wednesdays are Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, which means I won't be taking questions in this forum until Jan. 8. Please get your pressing dining questions in before the hour is up. 

 

BRRRRRR: My Sunday column, which published online earlier today, offers some cold-weather comforts in the form of five area places to eat and drink in winter. What are some of your go-to spots for warming up? Share away. 

Do you have any suggestions for a first time visit to Brussels or Luxembourg?

Lots of travel-related questions this morning. Readers are also asking where to dine in Boston (where the wonderful Devra First is food critic at the Globe) San DiegoRome, Bologna and Philly, which was one of my Top 10 food cities four years ago.

 

Chatters, forward suggestions if you can, soon. 

Can we look forward to more? :)

Thank you!

 

The Food section celebrated the staff's   favorite cookbooks of the year. Mine was "The Food of Sichuan" by Fuchsia Dunlop, whose

green beans in ginger sauce are first-rate (and easy).

I need to pick a place for my book club to meet. We try to theme food with the book, and our next book is about Nixon. Any ideas? I was thinking Old Ebbitt, but couldn't find much availability for a group of 6 or 7. We generally do Sunday brunch, but could be flexible; pricing around $30-$40/person, with one vegetarian.

I've got you covered: the Occidental was around during the Nixon era, it serves brunch (including a squash salad for the vegetarian) and the entree average is $22. Bonus: the restaurant isn't far from the White House. 

Hi, Tom. I live in Shaw and my husband and I wanted to try the new Korean restaurant, Gogi Yogi. The restaurant does take reservations, but only for parties of 4 or more; parties of two only as walk-ins. When we tried a walk-in, there was a wait of over an hour, mostly parties of two. I asked why we couldn't make a reservation and was told they want the tables full as it is a small restaurant and they sell more with a full table. What do you think of this policy? My instinct is to never return, regardless of the size of my group.

I assume the tables for four aren't actually combined two-tops, meaning they could be separated and booked as tables for two. I can see where you'd be upset by the policy, but the owners make the rules and they would  probably change them if they weren't working out. But to actually tell guests the reasoning is to sell more food seems a little gauche. 

Hello Tom, I was asked by a friend where to bring a group of people for a very good Chinese meal. My first thought was New York City. We had hope for Peter Chang's restaurants. However one time we go and the food is good and other times the food is so not good that it is difficult to believe we are in the same restaurant. The holiday season is coming, and as a many good Jews do, I am looking for a good restaurant to eat Chinese food on Christmas. Joe's Noodles in Rockville has lost it's way. Eat First is not first on the list. Any suggestions? Thanks, and Happy Hanukkah!

Which Peter Chang restaurant are you talking about? Because they vary in consistency. Recent meals at  Q by Peter Chang in Bethesda and Mama Chang in Fairfax have been very good-to-excellent. If you want to steer clear of the brand, check out Shanghai Taste in Rockville, best-known for it's soup dumplings. 

I have seen several comments over the years about children's behavior in restaurants. My mom did not give me much advice when I had my two children (I know, I was lucky) but she did give me two pieces that I took to heart. 1. Never buy them the first piece of candy in the candy aisle at the grocery store or they will ask you for it every single time. 2. Eat dinner together as a family at the table at home and teach them table etiquette. If you don't teach your children how to behave at the table at home, don't expect them to suddenly know how to behave at a restaurant. My boys both were the easiest kids at a restaurant. We were able to go to a lot of nice places over the years because restaurant behavior was not a problem. I thought I'd pass along my mom's words of wisdom to any parents of little ones that enjoy eating out with their family.

Smart mom! (Both of you, actually.) Personally, I love seeing well-behaved kids in restaurants. Why exclude children from one of life's greatest pleasures, eating as a tribe? But you're right. It's in everyone's best interest if kids are taught to sit up straight; chew with their mouths closed; speak in their "indoor" voice; and say "please" and "thanks" before going public.  

Got any suggestions for a restaurant that does a nice job with festive decorations for the holidays?

Looking for something over the top? No restaurant gets more dressed up for the holidays than the long-running Filomena in Georgetown. Come December, every inch of space seems devoted to red garlands, silver tinsel and life-size plastic reindeer. 

Tom, would love to know your thoughts on Ris’ approach to their upcoming renovation. I’m on their email list and have just received a third solicitation to help crowdfund their planned $150k reno, of which they’ve already raised $40+k. Is this the new trend among restaurants? I don’t recall seeing it before and assume restaurant owners would work with bankers and/or landlords on financing these kinds of upgrades. Here's a link to the GoFundMe page. https://www.gofundme.com/f/be-a-part-of-the-new-ris

Challenging times call for different ways of thinking. Restaurants are expensive to run and maintain. I have no problem with a chef or owner asking for assistance, although repeated solicitations might become wearisome after awhile. I'm impressed Ris Lacoste, chef-owner of Ris in the West End, has raised $40,000 already. That's no small feat. 

My husband and I finally get to use a gift certificate to Ambar this week (after 3 times cancelling last minute to the kids getting sick). We are going there for lunch next week. Do you have any recommendations on which dishes or drinks to try?

My most recent review of the Balkan establishment praised the stuffed cabbage, pork sausage and rainbow trout — but not the deafening sound level.

I go to Ris a few times a year, and like it a lot. I just looked at the link, and wow...how totally off putting. Not only will I not give, but I'd think twice about going back.

Ouch. Definitely not the owner's intention!

aw, someone got his feewings hurt. What an outrage!

Well, he was looking out for his wife, so I get it. On the other hand, she wasn't the one complaining.

 

Onto the next question!

Thanks for doing these chats - always informative and entertaining! Any suggestions for Charlottesville these days? We'll be there for two nights (in about two weeks) and have one dinner (The Alley Light) and one lunch (Brazos Tacos) figured out, but looking for ideas for a second dinner and lunch. We're three adventurous eaters, so just about anything goes. And for the dinner, looking for something mid-range as our dinner at The Alley Light will be our big splurge for the trip. Thanks!

A trusted local source (thanks, Will!) tells me Little Star, a Mexican-Spanish hybrid, is a must for dinner. A good call for lunch is Lampo for Neapolitan pizza and multiple specials from the wood-burning oven. Safe - and delicious - travels. 

I have a young (30) friend who moved to Dupont Circle and is feeling like it's not a cool as other neighborhoods in DC. I would like to get him a gift certificate (up to $150) for a restaurant in his new neighborhood that is cool or coolish. Any suggestions?

Bar Charley isn't new, but it definitely qualifies as cool in my book. Plus, it offers some great bargains throughout the week, including an all-night happy hour on Monday.

I had my first experience (since regularly reading your chat) where a dish we'd ordered was terrible and for whatever reason, it just didn't occur to me to bring it up. Everything else was great but this one dish was a huge dud. So now I understand all the chatters who complain here instead of in the moment! And for the curious, we ordered hummus at a Turkish restaurant downtown and it was one of the worst hummuses I've ever tasted. Bland, thick, dry, and so cold it had obviously been prestaged and stored in a fridge until we came along.

Speaking of inferior hummus, have you checked out Emily Heil's taste test of the store-bought varieties?

We love to eat and drink but with the holidays around the corner, we are hoping to keep a dinner for two between $150-$200. Capitol Hill area would be a bonus, but we have been to most of the hot spots around Eastern Market and Waterfront, and love them! Just wanting to venture out a bit. Double bonus if it’s particularly pescatarian friendly

Away from the Hill and the Wharf and priced to please are Thamee for a taste of Myanmar on H St NE; Pappe for very good Indian on 14th St. NW; and Et Voila! in the Palisades, where the plump steamed mussels are accompanied by possibly the best fries in town.

Hi Tom, I love this Wednesday chat! Thank you for taking the time to conduct it. I am looking for a list of restaurants that will be open on Christmas Day. Where could I find a reliable local set of options in northern Virginia? Thanks!

You don't mention if you're looking for something traditional, but a quick check online finds a world of flavors being served on Dec. 25: Ambar and Mexican Diner TTT in Clarendon, Agora in Tysons, Legal Sea Food in Crystal City and Chef Gua in Alexandria. 

Hi Tom, Last year you recommended The Dutch in NYC for Christmas Eve. It was a perfect, cozy spot for dinner for my husband, daughter (now 6 yo) and me. It was so good, we've thought about going back again, but I'm wondering if there are any other restaurants you'd recommend for us this year? Thanks so much!

I just sent friends to the Dutch and the text feedback was "awesome." But if you want to mix it up this year, another sure bet is Il Buco for Old World charm (the restaurant used to be an antique store)  and Italian cooking on Bond Street.

Hi Tom! I have my in-laws joining us in town this year for Christmas. Are you able to share any restaurants that are reasonably priced that will be serving brunch on Christmas Day? We live in Arlington but are willing to travel into DC.

A number of restaurants still have midday availability on Christmas. The mixed bag includes Teddy & the Bully Bar in Dupont Circle, Le Piquette in Cleveland Park, Kingbird at the Watergate hotel and Sequoia in Georgetown. 

Any ideas for a last minute fun dinner spot for 3 for this Saturday? One is vegetarian, and in the past has enjoyed Roses, Elle, Fancy Radish, and Maketto.

That's a nice list there!  The Imperial, which I previewed today in Food, is terrific, but my sense is, already booked for Saturday. (The place was hopping even before critics got their first bite.)  Of the newer spots, you might enjoy Emilie's on the Hill or Anju for Korean in Dupont Circle.

My daughter and I will be traveling on the train from Richmond to DC one day next week to visit Georgetown Law School. Can you suggest any restaurants in the vicinity for lunch?

I've yet to check it out, but the new Cafe Fili on Second St. NE looks promising. The midday menu revolves around Mediterranean salads and panini.

Tom - is there an easy way to search your "Ask Tom" columns for specific recommendations. (Headed to Charleston and wanted to find restaurants you've recommended there.) Thanks! Appreciate you eating for all of us!

Is there an easy way? Alas, no. My apologies. Something we can try to fix in 2020!  Charleston questions pop up a lot here, however, I can recommend Fig, The Ordinary (for seafood) and Leon's Fine Poultry & Oysters, all of which I featured in my valentine to the city in 2015. 

.......the Watergate??

Hahahaha. Sure, but the Kingbird restaurant there is a modern concept, not a dining room that evokes the 1970s.

Not a question -- I just wanted to thank you and your mother for that fantastic three-bean salad recipe! I made it for Thanksgiving and it was the zingy, addictive anecdote to all of the savory/heavier dishes! Safe to say this recipe will continue to be in the Thanksgiving (and just dinner in general) rotation.

I'll see my mom later this week in Switzerland and let her know. Thanks for the feedback. That simple recipe reminds me very much of my youth in Minnesota. And it keeps well for days after you make it -- if it lasts that long.

My mom has developed a craving for sacher torte. Can you recommend any restaurant or bakery who offers this Viennese delight?

As I suspected when I called just now, the Heidelberg Pastry Shoppe in Arlington carries the chocolate dessert, flavored with almonds, apricot jam and marzipan filling, in several sizes; a six-inch cake costs $25.95.

It is hard to go wrong dining in Bologna, well known for the finest food in all of Italy. Two of my favorites are Da Pietro and Da Gianni in the center of the historic district. Da Pietro has some of the finest roast boar we have tasted, and a delicious rolled and stuffed saddle of rabbit. Da Gianni is in the old market area and specializes in handmade pasta that is delicious. Both are moderate in price.

Reader to the rescue! (Grazie.)

Some terrific writing, Tom, on the half star review of the House Members dining room. I worked on the Hill for seven years and was never given the opportunity to enter, so now I know to only have the bean soup. BUT, if you are working on the House side of Capitol Hill, it is pretty much a food desert. To that end, what would you recommend in walking distance, after one has already overdosed on We The Pizza?

I *so* wanted the House Members' Dining Room, newly open to the general public when Congress in in recess, to be better than, well, bean soup. Such a disappointment.

 

What's your land speed? I ask, because my favorite place to eat near the Capitol is the always-sunny, consistently pleasing Joselito for Spanish cooking. A bit of a hike, but worth it.

Our anniversary is Monday, and I’d like to take my spouse out for a nice meal. So far, there are two strikes against this: practically every restaurant I’d like to go to is closed, and is has to be lunch (we can take the infant and the toddler will be in daycare). Any suggestions for a nice Monday anniversary lunch?

There are more good restaurants open on Monday than you think. Off the top of my head, I know Punjab Grill, Modena, Oval Room, Pembroke, CentrolinaSfoglina and the new Brasserie Liberte in Georgetown keep the hours you're seeking. 

Our daughter and fiancé will be marry at the courthouse this month. We are looking for a lovely and hip DC restaurant to celebrate afterwards. They are having a traditional ceremony next year, so not looking at the most expensive. Fish options okay, but not main focus. Hoping for delicious food, ambiance and easy conversation. Thanks, Dee

Are we talking lunch? Nearby awaits the possibility of a flight of dumplings and chile-oil poached fish in the airy lounge of  The Source by Wolfgang Puck

Your recent review of Tiger Fork mentioned a secret menu. Why do restaurants do this? As a customer, I don't know why I have to be put in the awkward position of asking about dishes not on the menu.

Not to worry. The "secret" menu there is more or less a list of specials.

Tom, I was so glad to see your glowing first bite of the Imperial recently. I ate there the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and this was my review: "Get yourselves to the new imperial restaurant and bar on 18th and Florida: from the same team as the awesome Jack Rose its a great space with an awesome vibe, awesome food, a fantastic drink list ( including the wine list), and a not bad price point!" The onion tart in particular was fantastic and the whole space just felt alive and bright. I'm so glad for this addition to the neighborhood

Me, too. "Alive and bright" is a nice way to sum up the place.

Happy holidays, and happy travels, Tom! What treats are in store while you are in Geneva? Special Christmas Eve or Christmas Day dinners?

All I know is that it's crazy-expensive there and my mom is complaining about the cost of food: "$2.50 for a can of kidney beans," she told me yesterday.  Clearly, no three-bean salad for US while we're there!

 

I'm leaving it to my brother to make all the plans. I'm sure he'll surprise us with some good meals.

I was wondering if you have any favorite chef counter experiences in DC? I enjoyed CHIKO very much, and would like to try others that are worthwhile! Thanks

There are lots of spots around town where a diner can sit facing the kitchen crew. Mentally surveying the landscape, I can point you to Emilie's on Capitol Hill, Kaliwa and Officina at the Wharf, Pom Pom in Petworth, Masseria near Union Market and the aforementioned Le Piquette near National Cathedral. For starters.

Hi Tom, My parents live out in the suburbs of Richmond. I thought it would be nice this year to gift them a meal out to a nice restaurant in the city. They are moderately adventurous eaters. Do you know of a place that has a nice and moderately quiet atmosphere would they could enjoy a meal for around $100? Thank you!

On the cozy side, there's Metzger Bar & Butchery for very good German fare, including chicken schnitzel and apple strudel. Shagbark, featuring a Virginia lilt,  is a little swankier. Both restaurants were featured in my survey of Richmond from several years ago.

I would also still like an answer to the question in a more general sense. Why do some restaurants do secret menus? What is the point?

Sometimes, a kitchen makes a limited number of something special and when it runs out, that's it.  I'm thinking now of the off-the-menu 100-day kimchi at Anju and the catfish sliders at the Dabney.  Both dishes let recipients feel like an insider. Part of the allure, no doubt.

I understand why restaurants would want to maximize the number of seated guests. Keep wondering why they don't offer to combine parties to fill a table. I would have no problem with it.

I think it depends on the size of the table, and who your companions might be. I've been at some tiny four-tops before!

What restaurant gift cards would you suggest to give to a non-American who likes Italian as well as steak? While they live in Virginia, they also work in DC and Maryland. I'd like it to be a special place and she adores going out and good food.

In Falls Church, I'm a fan of Thompson Italian, from former New York chefs (and husband and wife) Gabe and Katherine Thompson.  He makes a mean fritto misto and ricotta gnocchi with lamb ragu;  she excels at desserts, including olive oil cake and the area's best cannoli.

 

In the District, consider the veteran I Ricchi for a civilized Tuscan experience;  St. Anselm for its fresh take on the steak house genre; and Centrolina for excellent pastas and fish and meat cooked over a wood fire.

We're an older couple, off to San Francisco for a pre-holiday weekend and looking for the kind of restaurants we used to love in that great food city. Not hyper- trendy, moderately clamor-free, tablecloths a plus. As for price -- we could be willing to blow the budget on a meal worth crossing the continent for, but it would be nice to have a variety of choices. Thank you for your help.

Three decades old, La Folie has what you're after: rack of lamb, cheese souffle, linens on the table and an amber glow in the dining room. The chef is from Lyon, the French capital of gastronomy.

Hi Tom! Sorry if this is sent twice- it reloaded in the middle! 1. I just wanted to tell you I LOVE the chats and often cite you as though I'm referring to a friend... "Oh, Tom says we MUST try this place." 2. Going to a special dinner at Marcel's next week. Two questions- do you think we should do the tasting menu or order a la carte? Also, any items we should not miss? Thanks!

Marcel's lets you compose your own tasting menu, by ordering as few as four courses ($110) or as many as six ($160). Among the French-Belgian restaurant's signatures are the plump boudin blanc and mussels in tomato fondue. Don't miss 'em.

 

Thank you for the kind words, by the way.

Going to a Saturday matinee and wanted to have an early dinner afterwards near the Atlas Performing Arts Center. We are a family of four with two 20-somethings, three of us are vegetarian. We are not fans of small plates. Thanks for any suggestions!

Among my favorite restaurants in the area are the Swiss-themed Stable, Ethiopic for Ethiopian, the aforementioned Thamee, Maketto for Cambodian-Taiwanese in a mod setting and Cane for the flavors of Trinidad. A few of those spots have small plates, but also larger portions. 

Looking to go to dinner in Petworth any suggestions other than Timber and Pom?

Up the street, there's the neighborly Hitching Post, for pork chops, fried whiting and great tunes. 

As a fellow senior, we enjoyed Fringale, in the Mission Bay district, tremendously. Intimate, quiet, personal, and deliciously executed Basque cuisine. Can't wait to go back.

Great recommendation. Another poster suggests Tadich Grill, for lunch. (My go to lunch there includes sand dabs.)

Tom, I know you're a busy man, but here's hoping third ask is the charm. We recently subscribed to Woolly Mammoth Theatre and would like recommendations of restaurants in Penn Quarter for dinner before our shows. Anything within a 10 minute walk would be great. Cuisine not an issue and budget not a big consideration. What do you suggest? Thanks.

Your wish is my command. Penn Quarter brims with possibilities: Zaytinya for terrific mezze, Olivia for Mediterranean, Jaleo for Spanish tapas, Rasika for modern Indian (eat at the bar if there's no table) ... and on and on. 

I lived in Brussels for a couple of months so I can offer some recommendations: Try at least one fritkot (a french fries place, two of the most well-known are La Maison Antoine and the one at the Place Flagey); have a belgian waffle at Vitalgauffre (they are amazing!), if you are into desserts, you can try Wittamer or Marcolini. Avoid the restaurants around the Grand Place, they are really expensive and mostly tourist trap (especially in the rue des bouchers). I'm not getting into beers 'cause it's a never ending story. Have a fantastic trip!

And this just came in as well:

 

Brussels Recommendation

Hi Tom - long time lurker and fan with my first suggestion. I'd recommend going to Fin de Siecle in Brussels, where I had a transformative bone-in ham with mustard sauce. If the weather is nice in Luxembourg City, they'll likely have outdoor-ish restaurants in the city center that are fun, locally popular, and serve 100% fried foods.

Options for Brussels

If you want to see the Grand Place, a gothic feast for the eyes, you can have classic, warming Belgian favorites at t'Kelderke (the little cellar) right off that monumental space. Best to make a reservation if you're there at peak dinner hour (~7 PM). Not far away is Fin de Siecle, where you can choose from a full-wall chalkboard of options. No reservations possible, and the communal tables do fill up with noisy folks, but the food is very reasonable and tasty! There are good options for all the cuisines of the European Union, too, if you're looking beyond Belgian specialties.

Advice for Brussels poster

No offense to any locals but as someone who has lived there, get out of Brussels. Antwerp is a much better, more interesting food town. Bruges is also full of great and very romantic restaurants. If you can get a res and don't mind going out of the way, go to Hof Van Cleve.

Has Himitsu fallen off??

Himitsu is history. It's now called Pom Pom.

We really enjoyed the modern creative fare at Retrobottega Via della Stelletta, 4, 00186 Roma RM, Italy I enjoyed my first serving of Donkey Tartare! Yep! Delish!

And just in the nick of time!

I hope your brother takes you for fondue at Bain des Paquis!

I've been told there's melted cheese in my future ...

The Filomena post brought back such a nice memory! Probably 20 years (!!) ago I was in Micheals in Aspen Hill and this very nice lady was struggling with 2-3 HUGE carts overfilled with all kinds of decorations. We had a great chat while waiting in line, and she tried to let me go in front of her, but I refused. And then I helped her and all her stuff to her car. Turns out it was Filomena herself, and she invited me to bring my family and come enjoy their hospitality. Sadly, my beloved Mom was in a wheelchair so I never actually went through with it (due to the inaccessibility of their space). I remember that she was lovely to talk to, though. And I can only imagine the over-the-top decorations in the restaurant!!!

LOVE THIS. The owner is, indeed, a doll.

ask you to give your mom a hug from me. Thanks for introducing her to us. It's wonderful that she's making trips abroad!

Aw, that's so sweet of you. Dorothy Sietsema is pretty amazing, I have to say. Consider the hug passed along!

 

I'm off -- for the rest of the year. Please join me again, Jan. 8, for another 60 minutes of restaurant talk. Thank you all for keeping me company here throughout the year.  I wish you all a safe and delicious holiday season.

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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