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

Jan 08, 2020

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.

Happy new year, Tom! I'm wondering about what the closure of the Newseum means for the future of The Source. I made a reservation there recently and was told that the upper level was closed for dinner and that they were serving a truncated (but still really good) menu in the lounge only. I am hoping that The Source will remain around as a valuable "source" of dim sum, roasted duck, and other Asian-fusion delicacies, and will not be shuttered in favor of Wolfgang Puck's new (and not-yet-tried) Cut steakhouse. Details as you know them, please!

What you've been told is correct: The Source is reserving its second-floor dining room for private events and changing over to more of a small plates format on the ground floor, says Jaime Guevara, who started as a line cook at the Asian restaurant nine years ago and takes over the executive chef role from Russell Smith. The new, all-day menu, offered from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, highlights seafood spring rolls, a Thai-style salad, drunken noodles, multiple dumplings but just a few entrees. (Yes, you can still get the roasted duckling for two, the chef assures fans.) And brunch will continue to be offered on Saturdays.

 

WHY, HELLO AGAIN! Has it really been three weeks since we last got together here? It has. Happy 2020, everyone. It feels good to be back in the host seat and take your rants, raves and other comments.

 

THE WEEK IN REVIEWS:  You'll want to order the obvious at the new Butter Chicken Company on 18th St. NW, the subject of my First Bite column in Food today. This Sunday in the Magazine, I look at two hotel restaurants, one in the Mandarin Oriental hotel (Amity & Commerce), the other in the Conrad hotel (Estuary, from Bryan and Michael Voltaggio).

 

DEPARTURES: While I was away last month, two respected members of the Washington food community died. Bob Kinkead, whose eponymous seafood restaurant in Foggy Bottom became the “cafeteria of the Clinton administration,” passed away at 67 on Dec. 15 in South Carolina.  Here’s his obituary in the Washington Post. The day after Christmas, James Trent Conry, perhaps best-known for his cooking at 701 and the Occidental, died at home in Brookland. The chef was 58 and suffered from Crohn’s disease. His wife, Hanife Conry, reached out to me to let his friends and associates know that there will be a memorial on Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to noon at Murphy’s Funeral Home at 4510 Wilson Boulevard in Arlington.

 

Lots of questions today. Let's begin.

I just finished reading Chef Kwame's book. Amazing writing and what a journey he has had. I'm curious though, it seems like you reviewed (and somewhat panned) the Shaw Bijou after one meal on the first night. That seems contrary to your usual practice of letting places settle in and giving them a few visits first. Given their investor issues, which the book describes, that restaurant probably would have failed anyway (and we wouldn't have the delightful Kith/Kin), but why did you do that?

That pan of Shaw Bijou wasn't a star-rated review (involving multiple visits) for the Magazine but rather a preview for the Food section. I went early  -- first night in fact -- because there was so much hype surrounding the venture and I wanted to share my thoughts asap with readers.

Hi Tom. Any updates on when Annabelle will open? Thanks!

Owner Ashok Bajaj tells me he's putting the finishing touches on the place (formerly Restaurant Nora). Food trials have been happening for the past few weeks and service training started Monday. "Hopefully, if all goes well with the liquor license and other formalities," Annabelle will open Jan. 16, says Bajaj. #cantwait

Happy new year, Tom. Thinking of making the drive to Thompson Italian for dinner next month. If I like Carmine's and Filomena -- not necessarily for portion size, but rather for that distinct southern Italian, old school, red sauce style -- will the trip to Falls Church be worth it?

I adore Thompson Italian, but it's hardly old-school Italian in terms of the menu or the decor. The food is cleaner in appearance and flavor. I'm thinking Alta Strada, which has multiple branches around the area and makes a masterful chicken parm, might be more your style.

I purchased a “to go” croissant from Kafe Leopold this morning for $3.25 and gave the server a $10 bill. I was given $6 change. I asked why just $6 and was told “they round up” (not sure what that means). I told them that was an odd concept and although we’re not talking a lot of money here, it’s the principle that bothered me. A waitress reached into her pocket and gave me change, which made me feel shamed to take. The experience was a real turn off and not sure I’ll ever go back now. Is this a new concept?

It's not a new concept. Ever since I started this job, I've heard complaints from diners about not getting all their change back from bills. Servers, just do the right thing and return what's not yours, OK? Diners notice -- and care. 

Tom, you really nailed it when you recommended LaFolie as a senior-friendly San Francisco restaurant with food worth crossing a continent for. Everything you said was there -- the white tablecloths, the cocktails in crystal glasses, the glowing holiday decor, the cheese souffle and rack of lamb. But there was so much more -- a tasting menu that proved that a 30-year old restaurant has learned a lot about innovation and creativity (and how to pick great wine pairings), and even the classics all came with delicious surprises (along with fresh truffles from Perigord). Chef Passot stopped by our table; he remembered you well and was so pleased that you recommended his restaurant. And we're happy to report that the room was full of diners at least 20-30 years younger than we were, all having a good lively time -- and we could still carry on a conversation without having to raise our voices. What a great meal -- we're planning a trip back. Thank you again, Tom.

Your post made my week. Thank you for taking the time to serve up details of your dinner in my old stomping grounds. And I love that Roland Passot still makes the rounds in his dining room on Polk Street. I mean, he's been at it there since 1988!

I just read on WTOP that Fish by Jose Andres at the MGM at National Harbor is closing. Any thoughts on this?

It's tricky, feeding the casino crowd.  Upscale dining might not be what the audience at MGM wants. Fish was very good early on, but the seafood restaurant seemed to coast after the first year or so. I fielded a lot of complaints about service in particular.

Worth it in January? Or better to wait for when it’s light and warmer out and there are actually foods in season?

I don't think I've been to the dining destination in winter. But I did put the question to its chef, Tarver King, who made the following (smart) pitch via email:

 

"In short, absolutely worth the trip out in winter. We spend the whole year preserving, pickling, curing and setting ourselves up for the winter with a frontier mentality. Preserved foods have a night and day difference to their fresh counterpart. Our menu gets more protein driven in the winter for sure, but having things we put up over the past year is an amazing way to tweak flavors and time travel in a sense. Eating a warm pickled baby veggie with local cheese when there's snow outside is transcendent. Dried blueberries from the summer with 17th century wine cake cooked over embers in cast iron is winter eating in it's purest form to us. Meats preserved in fat get crisped over coals with sauce made from a variety of different krauts is eating I live for."

 

(I don't know about you, but I'm sold! The guy's a poet in the kitchen.)

I am asking this question for the 2nd time because you have the best responses usually. Where can 7 long time friends have a fairly quiet dinner where we won't be rushed? Cost is not particularly important. The only request is no Indian food. Most places that I am aware of would be too rushed, noisy or precious (1789). We would want to be able to be seated before 5.Thanks in advance for your help.

The place that springs to mind is La Chaumiere for old-fashioned French cooking in a cozy dining room. Think timbered ceilings and a fireplace.

 

Dinner starts at 5:30, but La Chaumiere might be able to accommodate your party earlier if you call and ask. Bonus: Diners can take advantage of the valet parking across the street, at the Four Seasons. The restaurant validates the $15 charge.

Tom, long time reader, first time writer. We are attempting to get pregnant and my wife wants to eat all the sushi prior to success. Where do you recommend? We are in Alexandria (old town) and frequently dine in DC. Extra points for a place with non-sushi dishes as I don’t eat it. Thank you!!!

Check out the venerable Kaz Sushi Bistro downtown. The quality of the raw fish is excellent, and I think you'll be happy grazing from among the very good small plates on the menu. The best tend to be hot. Clam tempura, gathered in a clam shell, had my friend from Rhode Island sighing (and snatching the last golden bite, made even better with a spritz of lime and a dip in green tea salt). And the cabbage pancake striped with a sweet barbecue sauce and animated with bonito flakes is an okonomiyaki not to be forgotten.

Tom! Every time I see a Cuban on a menu, I order it. And almost every time, I'm disappointed. Granted, I have no self-discipline, but how hard is it? Quality, marinated pork, plenty of dijonaisse, tart pickles. And it should be on a crunchy panini. What am I missing here? And where are the good Cuban sandwiches??

The last best example I've had was at El Sapo Cuban Social Club in Silver Spring, where a tiny Cuban flag announces El Cubano, split so that its many layers of ham, cheese and pork are visible. The bread, pressed so that it’s crisp and black in spots, can barely contain the filling, which acquires a nice boost from some smoked chile mayonnaise. Flag or no, your taste buds will stand at attention.

I understand that you have a different approach to your First Bite appraisals than your Star-Rated reviews and that you see them quite differently...but do you really believe readers feel or appreciate that distinction? A review is a review...and I would think that a First Bite column might actually have more impact on both diners and restaurant than a much later assessment. (That said, from my experience your First Bite review of Shaw Bijou was right on!)

You're probably right: plenty of readers see my early snapshots as full-fledged critiques. Not sure what I can do about that other than point out the difference over and over in this forum and elsewhere, but .... what do you suggest?

Need to branch out to spots other than Chop't

What about the aforementioned Butter Chicken Company? The caveat being you like butter chicken, rice and mango lassi, of course.

I haven't read the book, but I did eat at Shaw Bijou. It may have been a good concept, but it definitely did NOT meet expectations for the price level for the food or the wine. The one thing I remember vividly is how each one of the staff (and there were many) reverentially referred to "Chef" in the same breathless sort of way regarding every description of every morsel of food. Sort of culty in a way. Overall the whole atmosphere was curious and overpriced.

Yep. I remember being led from the upstairs bar and being stopped in the ground-floor kitchen, en route to my table, for a photo opportunity with the chef -- the chef who's food I had yet to even eat! Crazy. But I think Kwame Onwuachi learned a lot of lessons there and has gone on to do some really exciting things. I'm a big fan of his cooking at Kith/Kin on the waterfront.

Mi Cuba, on Park Rd in Columbia Heights makes a very good Cuban Sandwich. And the Cuban sandwich from Little Havana remains on the menu at Anafre.

Gracias. It's been awhile since I've sampled them, but I'll take your word.

How often do you actually finish a meal/entree from a restaurant? My assumption is you have to taste so many different dishes that only when something is amazing will you finish it.

Bingo! Or at least that's my aim when I'm eating out for work (typically 10 meals a week at the moment, more before my spring and fall dining guides). But I'm human, so I also find myself occasionally eating too many French fries off someone's plate, or mindlessly erasing even a fair dessert. 

Hi Tom! Heading to Emilie's this weekend and wondering what your thoughts are now that it's had a couple months. Any must have or must avoid items?

I haven't been back since my preview in October, but at the time, I really enjoyed the fermented snacks, scallop crudo and caramelized pork steak, among other dishes. 

Don't do First Bites? If a restaurant is that important, get your 3 visits in and review it a week later. If you need more content, I would rather have a feature on specific dishes you recommend.

Do you realize how challenging it is to get into some of the hot new places?  And how unfair it would be to review a place in its first week? Not only that, I like to mix up my eating so restaurants stay "fresh," and by that I mean, I don't get bored by them.

I like the First Bites and think it's clear enough that it's a first impression. This is a city with a lot of new openings now, and it's helpful to have guidance around the buzz.

Bless you! I'd buy you a drink if you were closer.

I know you're a fan of Thamee so wanted to share this story with you. My wife and I made plans to have dinner there this last week with her sister and her husband while they were in town for the holidays, however our plans got derailed on account of my wife going into labor almost two months early and our expected Valentines Day baby becoming a Christmas baby. While we obviously could no longer go, we changed the reservation so our in-laws could still enjoy a date night while in town. After they finished their dinner, they let us know they were swinging by. They arrived with a bag of takeout that the restaurant gave them to give to us after they told them our story, free of charge. The food was delicious, but the thoughtful gesture meant much more. Whenever my wife and I are to the point of being able to dine out again we'll certainly make it a point to go there.

Talk about hospitality (and going above and beyond)! Love your story. It doesn't surprise me. Co-owners Jocelyn Law-Yone and Simone Jacobson, the chef's daughter, are some of the warmest people in the business. Their restaurant, featuring the flavors of Myanmar,  on H St. NE is a gem. 

At the end of the day, I think people just wanted him to remember his place. And boy did he.

I wasn't one of those people. I tried my best to keep an open mind. But when a young chef is charging $500 a diner for a meal based on his life story (interesting as it is) ... well, expectations run high.

I am really sympathetic to the way people nitpick what servers say, but please, please do not make comments on the fact that people finished their meals. "I guess you didn't like that at all" or whatever variation makes people feel self-conscious about whether they've been a glutton. Not the vibe you're going for.

Hear, hear!

One of the greatest delights of being a grown-up is not cleaning up my plate. Signed, nagged-to-clean-upthrough-my-picky-eating-childhood who now loves food.

(Heart emoji) For years -- DECADES even -- I hated squash because a babysitter wouldn't let me leave the table until I had eaten the orange mound on my plate.

It's literally clear in the first 2 sentences or less. This person just needs to read more carefully

(Nodding, gratefully.)

Happy New Year Tom! My husband and I are big winos and often enjoy a bottle of wine while dining out. While it used to only happen once in a while, lately every time we're out when the wine is poured for the two of us my husband is given a significantly bigger pour than I am. What gives? I could see later in the meal if he's drinking more, but I would at least think we'd receive an equal first pour.

"Big winos," huh? Makes me think you're having a little too much fun there and the server is trying to cut you off. But maybe not. I think I'd have to be there to see just how different the pours are. In any case, a server shouldn't pour uneven amounts based on someone's sex.

 

MY RANT OF THE WEEKIs anyone else tired of letting restaurants dictate how we eat? The manager at brunch on Sunday was emphatic about how our meal would come out: “As it’s ready.”  Okay, but why was our bread order the very last dish to show up, and just as we were thinking of asking for the check?

Will The Source still host their 3 for $21 Happy Hour menu? This was one of the best values in town because the dishes were so superior to the usual deep fried junk or gooey messes typically on offer with these deals.

The new happy hour (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays) flags $6 dumplings, $5 beers and $10 cocktails.

Best reason in the world to use credit cards only, even at a McDonald's. That's either lazy or greedy, neither of which is a good look. Sheesh.

Clearly, this has hit a nerve with today's audience.

 

This just came in, too:

 

rounding up

I had that happen to me at TGIFriday on Sunday. I almost didn't leave her any more tip than the 94 cents she kept. OTOH, I've had waiters round up the other way, giving me the full dollar bill instead of 94 cents change. Those people get a better tip.

 

"Oh, that's good, because 'un-ready' pork would be very bad for me."

You little jokester, you.

So, if my omelette is ready before my companion's French toast is, my companion is supposed to sit there with no food while I eat my eggs lest they get cold? This is ridiculous.

It WAS ridiculous. We were all expected to share and the first thing out was a small dish of scrambled eggs. We each had two tablespoons.

Goodness, Tom, what a rude response! The writer said it happens on the first pour, not hours into a public drinking binge. I think someone who refers to themself as a "wino" means they enjoy wine (hence caring about what they are being served), not that they're an out of control alcoholic.

Not trying to be rude, but I *am* typing on the fly here. Sorry if that response came across snarky.

Is there still in existence a small restaurant that was popular for its lobster rolls? This place was located next to a hotel near a circle (Logan Circle???)

Might you be thinking of Luke's Lobster, with several branches around town?

I had plans to visit Minibar for the first time in mid February, but their head chef, Jorge Hernández, just left on January 1st. Do you think they will be able to maintain his standards so soon after his departure or should I give Minibar time to replace him and visit Pineapples & Pearls instead?

Stick with your original plans. While Jorge Hernandez will be missed here (he's returning to his native San Antonio), he was part of an excellent team of chefs at Minibar by Jose Andres

 

By sheer coincidence, I received the following in my in-box: A reader hoping to find someone to unload a reservation next month. (Could the poster identify himself, should I be able to make a connection? I'm at tom.sietsema@washpost.com.)

 

Minibar tickets

After over a year of anticipation, yesterday my girlfriend and I decided to splurge on minibar tickets (w/ Bespoke pairing!) for 8:15p on 2/29. Unfortunately it turns out she’s going to be out of the country— any chat readers interested in taking them off our hands?

The problems with Shaw Bijou were far deeper than just it not living up to the hype. The restaurant design was flawed (whose idea was it to have diners carry their own cocktails down narrow stairs into the kitchen?); the service was pretentious yet lacked basic culinary knowledge let alone any familiarity with the dishes on the menu (not to mention the staff's lack of discretion (we got to hear all about your meal and table conversation, Tom, when we dined there the next evening!); the food was mediocre; and the portions were so small that your party was not alone in thinking about where to have an after-dinner dinner! Given what we have since heard about the underlying financial challenges, I doubt that anything could have saved it. But Kwame is a good example of how people learn from their experiences...and quite frankly, Kith/Kin is much better now that when it first opened. Hopefully, First Bite review help this process. The fear is that they can create too much of a perception barrier for the restaurant to overcome.

Thanks for the thoughtful post. Much obliged.

 

I do like to think that a restaurant can overcome an initial poor preview and present a better version of itself in any later critique based on multiple visits.

So the kitchen has no obligation to serve a meal to paying customers that ensures an appropriate pacing? I'd vote with my feet and my Yelp review.

"We'll course it out for you," say so many servers. Sometimes that's the case, and you get your food in a logical order. Sometimes it's not, and you get your bread basket last, as I did.

Would be much riskier. The restaurant could be having a particularly good week, or a particularly bad one. Reviews over a longer stretch present a fuller picture.

Right you are.

 

Gang, I have a lunch to attend. Thanks for the lively back and forth and I hope to see you here again next week, same time.

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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