Ask Tom: Fresh ideas for meatless dining

Jan 29, 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.

Last week, you talked about restaurants with the best service. I'd like to suggest you include Fiola in that list. We had our 50th Wedding Anniversary dinner there recently, and everything was perfect - not just the food, which was outstanding! A written greeting from the chef on our table, service that was attentive but not intrusive, a surprise treat of black truffles with our appetizers - it was a coordinated effort on the part of all the staff to make our dinner special and memorable. Absolutely lovely!

Perfect timing. My Sunday review, now online, takes a look at two ways to approach one of the most gracious restaurants in Washington. Fiola is in the midst of big makeover -- the restaurant will close in June and reopen as something even more luxe in October -- and my review includes a few wishes for whatever Fabio Trabocchi plans next. 

 

Last week's discussion about solo dining led a bunch of you to send me your names and email addresses, in the hope of connecting with other single food enthusiasts. I collected about 20 names and I understand a small group already broke bread, at Thamee. A member of the tribe graciously agreed to take over and I'll share her contact info with any stragglers out there who send me their details: tom.sietsema@washpost.com

 

 In other developments, Annabelle recently opened, with former Mirabelle chef Frank Ruta at the helm of what used to be Restaurant Nora in Dupont Circle. Here's my preview

 

Happy Wednesday, everyone. What's on your mind today? Talk to me.

Picture it: 80th birthday, dinner for two, one for the books. What are your all-time favorite special occasion restaurants in DC, where food and service are most memorable? Thanks!

I'm picturing it. And I see two people, tickled to be eating French-inspired tasting menus of their own design, at the plush Marcel's. Or pretending to be in Spain, tucking into crab-stuffed piquillo peppers and the best paella in town, at the glamorous Del Mar at the Wharf.  Then again, Pineapple and Pearls on the Hill is about the most fun you'll have in a fine-dining venue, anywhere on the East Coast at least. 

Dino's Grotto on 9th Street NW was my favorite restaurant in Washington by a country mile. Everything seemed fresh, they had a huge menu of options, ranging from traditional Italian dishes or more creative ways of serving specialties, and it was incredibly unpretentious that always just seemed like a neighborhood place. Is there somewhere you would recommend in DC that might check any of those boxes?

Count me a big fan of Tortino on 11th St. NW, where the portions are generous, the pastas are made from scratch, the servers wear ties --- veal saltimbocca with a dash of style -- and the vibe is warm and friendly.

Heading out to the RRV area the end of February and was looking for vineyard recommendations and any restaurants to eat out that way?

Chatters? I haven't been there in eons.

My adult daughter is vegan and her girlfriend is vegetarian. For special occasions we focus on restaurants that offer more than just a single plant based entree. We’ve enjoyed Fancy Radish, Equinox, Jaleo and Zaytinya. We’re looking for fresh ideas for an upcoming birthday dinner. Any cuisines or locations in the DMV area work.

With an eye on festive interiors as well as meatless choices, I can vouch for the handsome Aracosia (Afghan in McLean);  the lively Ambar (Balkan in Arlington); the romantic Bombay Club near the White House; the freshly-minted Pom Pom (fusion in Petworth) and Unconventional Diner (creative American near the convention center).

Hi Tom! In such a high-profile, crowded restaurant scene, how do you get tipped off to smaller neighborhood eateries to review? For instance, as a Takoma Park resident, I was surprised to see The Girl and the Vine 1, reviewed at all, and 2, reviewed so highly. (Good for them though- at first glance their menu didn't seem that exciting, but it's definitely on my list to try now.) Thanks for adding these smaller under-the-radar places!

It's my job to be out in the field, scouting other than the obvious restaurants to review. But I also get plenty of tips from friends, strangers and others (not all of which pan out. I can't tell you how many pleas I get from readers, hoping I'll save one of their pet restaurants by reviewing the place. But what if it's bad?)

 

I'm glad you're enjoying my monthly round-up of favorite places to eat, which is where most of my under-the-radar takes appear.

Hi Tom, We are going to Poca Madre before a concert next month (first night out since the baby was born) and are wondering what are the can't miss dishes to order?

As I flagged them in my most recent review (ahem), the hits include the "everything" infladitas, mango ceviche and  fried chicken with black mole.

Hi Tom - Absolutely love your chats and your reviews, even though as the parents of three small kids we don’t get out too terribly often anymore. We have an event for which we are getting a sitter in Arlington this weekend, and so we decided to take advantage and go out for dinner for a full-blown date night. We’d like to stay in NOVA to reduce travel time, and Clarity is booked. Our next thought was Elephant Jumps, but that’s a favorite of our four-year-old, so we’d rather just take the kids when we aren’t paying a sitter. Anyplace else you’d recommend? Any budget or cuisine welcome, just want something tasty! Thanks in advance!

Thompson Italian in Falls Church is more than tasty -- the dining room is a looker as well -- but I'm afraid weekend reservations at this late date are going to be impossible. Worth a call, though, or checking out the first come, first serve bar.  

 

What about sangria and tapas at SER, the dashing Spanish eatery in Arlington? 

I know there was a little snafu with Vintage 78, but I’m wondering if you have dimes there, because I went on Christmas Eve and the food was so wonderful There are a lot of vegetarian items and they were happy to remove the feta or yogurt from all of the vegetarian items to make them vegan for me, which meant I had eight vegan items to chose from!!! Really great food and the owner and chef both separately stopped by to ask how we enjoyed the meal. They genuinely wanted to hear our input. Also, I think Le Diplomate has really gone down hill. After William Washington left a few years ago, and the other manager left to go to Kinship when it first opened, and then the wine sommelier Erik left last year, the rest of managers are awful. The managers and staff are now so rude and the food has gone down hill. Have you been recently? Hopefully, you wear a good disguise!

Thanks for your feedback. The only interest I have in Vintage 78 is the hope for better cooking than I had, twice, after it opened in August. Even people I know from Iran haven't been digging the restaurant.

 

As for Le Diplomat, I have to agree: the service isn't as sharp or dedicated as it once was. But it doesn't seem to affect the French draw, always packed whenever I stroll by. 

Hi, Tom! Do you or any of the chatters have any recommendations for Amsterdam? I think I'm remembering you talking about it awhile ago, but I suppose that's years ago, now, and I'm not finding anything.

Three places I know you'll love, and I've been to multiple visits: De Kas on the outskirts of the city for farm-to-table cooking; decades-old  Toscanini -- trust me on this -- for fabulous Italian; and Greetje for delicious traditional Dutch cooking in a cozy dining room.

Hi Tom - long time reader of your chat sending in my first question! My husband and I have a kid free night this coming Saturday. We will be out in McLean/Tyson’s and I’m much less familiar with the dining options out that way. Any recommendations for a meal on the earlier side (5pm)? No dietary restrictions and open to all cuisines. Would like to keep the bill under $100, inclusive of tax and maybe a cocktail. Thanks for all you do!

In addition to the aforementioned Aracosia for Afghan food in McLean, I recommend the handsome Nostos in Tysons for very good Greek fare: taramasalta, whole fish, orange cake, etc.

Also Punjab Grill - I can't get enough of the jackfruit biryani

Yes! Thank you for the prompt.

Tom, thanks for hosting these chats each week. I'd love to hear a little about your holiday in Switzerland. Did you get a chance to eat any authentic raclette? Were you impressed or disappointed in the food scene over there? We all eat with you vicariously, now I'd like to have travel tales, too!

Geneva was beautiful, expensive -- but not all that delicious, to be honest. Our best meals were when we crossed the border into France, where I enjoyed a lovely raclette in Annecy, at a cozy restaurant called Le Chalet.

 

Keep in mind, I was there just four days for an early Christmas with my family. But even people who have lived  in Geneva for awhile say the food scene is meh.

Are you often approached by fans/readers while dining out and if so, is it bothersome? I'm pretty sure I sat next to your party of 4 at Annabelle (back corner table, you tried several desserts?) I wanted to say something but thought it uncouth.

I always like to meet readers. But some meals are more convenient to do that than others. It just depends.

 

I prefer to meet strangers near the end of the meal, or outside, mostly because I don't want a server eaves-dropping on our conversation.

 

As for the frequency of that happening, I'd say people -- friends of friends, people I've met at parties, neighbors I know only in passing -- come up to me three or so times a month

Does it bother you that there appears to be some rather large disparities in assessments of Washington restaurants when you compare your dining guide, the Michelin stars and now the new Washingtonian’s Top 100 list? How do you account for the variations? Different standards? Different approaches to these lists? Personal preferences? Other factors? Thanks.

Do any differences bother me? Not at all.  And I understand them, partly because restaurants are living, breathing businesses prone to change over time.

 

If you look, there's a lot of overlap between my guide and the Washingtonian's. And yes, some surprises -- clearly I liked Seven Reasons more than my competitors did, for instance. (I  ranked it No. 1 in the fall guide; the Washington had it at 87.) But I chalk that up to critics eating at different times of the year and at different stages of a restaurant's life (freshly-minted versus having some age on it).

 

As for Michelin .... I have lots of problems with the French guide. Among other things, I don't believe it has the resources I know I am lucky to have to do my work. And the range isn't there, either.

"the restaurant will close in June and reopen as something even more luxe in October..." No! Fiola is the perfect balance of price and quality. Making it more "luxe" is a really, really disappointing idea.

By "luxe," I meant the place was also going to get a much-needed design makeover.

Tom - I have a group of 6-8 meeting downtown, pretty flexible on location, but would like a table big enough, rather than a bunch of 2 tops lined up. Mostly a sandwich and burger crowd. Woodward table, sadly closed, was great. Any ideas?

Downtown, try the big bar area at Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab on 15th St. NW for fish & chips, ribeye sandwiches and the like. Obviously, you'll want to call ahead and spell out what you want so there's no confusion when your group shows up.

Why does Frank Ruta names his places ___Belle?

The chef didn't name Annabelle. Ashok Bajaj did. And Bajaj has been hoping to use that name ever since his younger days in London.

Tom, I loved your review of Fiola. I have not been there in months and want to dine there before the renovation. Did they keep the bar? I always received outstanding service from all the bar staff? Thanks!

Fiola still has its bar, and you can sup there. From 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, it also hosts an aperitivo hour, with $13 drinks -- hey, it's Fiola! -- and $12 snacks.

Fiola is my absolute favorite restaurant in Washington, D.C. It is one of the few places where customers dress up (suits, ties, skirts, dresses, etc.) with food and service at the highest levels. I really, really hope they do not change the formality of the dining room. We have far too many high-end concrete, industrial-looking restaurants in this area. The beauty of Fiola is terrific Italian food in a formal setting. Our version of New York's DelPost. Please don't mess this up, Fabio!

Mr. Trabocchi isn't the kind of talent known for messing things up. I'm looking forward to next fall.

It happened again. Halfway through dinner at a not terribly busy neighborhood place, our server disappeared. No check-in to see if we needed drink refills, no “are you done? Can I get you anything else?”, I had to flag down someone to find him for the check, and then he disappeared again befire I could pay. We weren’t in a great hurry, but getting the check and paying probably took fifteen minutes. Where do they go when they disappear like that? I can understand when there are a lot of other tables demanding attention, but that wasn’t the case this night.

You and I must have been at the same place! This has happened to me multiple times, typically on slow nights (like yesterday,  where I waited and waited to be served and had my appetizer and entree show up at exactly the same time.) Grrrrr.

My mother says that you recently mentioned a place in College Park that had good Maryland food. I think she must be thinking of Old Maryland Grill, which you praised about two years ago, but you recently said is not so good anymore. She insists that there was something more recent. Was there?

You're right, sadly.

Hi Tom! My fiancé and I are on "wedding-saving-mode" but I want to do something nice-ish for his birthday in 2 weeks. I'm thinking either staycation, Baltimore or somewhere we can drive less than 2 hrs. away. I'm a very adventurous eater, he is no friend of seafood but other than that, he'll try most things. I'm hoping to spend around $200ish including a moderately priced bottle of wine. For greater context, we already have reservations this week at Anabelle's based on your review and were recently at Centrolina (plus make it a point to visit at least one of your 8 fav. places every month). Big fans of your recommendations!!!

Flattery gets you everywhere -- or at least a solid suggestion for where to toast one another without breaking the bank. The place I'd love to steer you to in Baltimore fits your budget but is almost impossible to get into on short notice. Here in the District, I'd shoot for Mediterranean fare at Green Almond Pantry, a salad and pizza at the waterfront branch of All-Purpose, "angel" eggs and interesting wines at the beguiling Little Pearl on the Hill, or oysters and crab cakes at Rappahannock Oyster Bar at the Wharf. Good luck. 

Hi Tom! Completely trust you. Do you have any recommendations in the city for pre-dinner drinks on Valentine's Day, that takes reservations? For example, considering Barcelona on 14th - doesn't have to be wine, but similar price range preferred. Didn't want to miss something I might be overlooking, but also don't want to end up stranded in places not accepting reservations that are slammed. Thanks!

I sought some advice from bar ace Fritz Hahn, who messages the following: 

 

Valentine’s Day on a Friday means restaurants, bars and restaurant bars are going to be more crowded than usual.
There are two ways to look at it: If my valentine and I can get out of work early (before 5), I’d want to try to go somewhere romantic: Seats in front of the fire at Chez Billy’s Bar a Vin, the candlelit Dabney Wine Cellar, the sweet bar at Primrose. And if we were going somewhere in prime time, the goal would be to go somewhere where VDay might be an afterthought, such as Last Call, Gina Chersevani’s divey bar near Union Market, McClellan’s Retreat in Dupont, or the basement Kingfisher bar on 14th Street, where I won’t be fighting for space with happy couples with high expectations.


I ate at the Sfoglina in Arlington several weeks ago and found the meal so salty that I had to wash my lips off afterwards. For lots of reasons, it was not possible to complain in the moment (we were on an extremely tight schedule for lunch and waited for our dishes long enough that I had to eat and run). That afternoon I sent a calm, detailed, polite email regarding the issue and have yet to hear back. Too bad. I will not be going back. And the meal WAS absurdly salty. Why do so many restaurants essentially ruin the dish with sodium?

Because 1) chefs aren't tasting their work or 2) cooks have developed a high tolerance for salt. Those are my best guesses.

We've had several lovely anniversary meals at Marcel's, but if we wanted to try something different, would Fiola Mare be a good option? We love seafood.

Then you're going to swoon over the menu at Fabio Trabocchi's ode to the ocean in Georgetown.

Would you consider removing words that are not part of your cultural lived experience (examples include "tribe" and "posse") from your lexicon?

Um, why? "Posse" just means people who have something in common. And "tribe" is similar: communities bound by blood or friendship or society.

there's always a lot of chatter about brunch and dinner but what is your favorite location for lunch? i am celebrating a big birthday and my coworkers want to take me to lunch and i am at a loss! pls help and thanks.

Are you looking for something casual or fancy? In the District or outside? And what kind of food do you like? (Help me help you!)

You reviewed this place not too long ago. I was just curious if you ever heard from anyone in Congress (or in charge of the food there) about your critique.

Zip.

The comments about Le Diplomate raise a question about the impact of staff turnover on the DC dining scene. It appears that chefs and servers moving from one restaurant to another or to an opportunity in another city is at a very high point, perhaps an indication of the growth of the industry. Do you think that these changes have a dramatic impact on food and service? Is it something you monitor? And how does it affect the frequency you might visit? And as a side question coupling this with the your comments about why restaurant rankings often vary, how long do you now think a restaurant review should be viewed as current? Thank you.

I think restaurant reviews should carry freshness dates: "Best used by (fill-in-the-blank). I write my fall dining guide with that in mind.

 

Hopefully, my annual list is useful/accurate until the next one, but stuff happens: places close, chefs leave, dining rooms get made over, concepts get rethought. It's tricky!

 

 

Time is up! Let's meet again next week, same time. Thanks for keeping me company on the last chat day of the month.

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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