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

Mar 11, 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.

Will Covid-19 force restaurants to finally place diners' tables at least three feet apart?

I'm going to continue to eat out for the immediate future and I hope to note any changes, small or large, in this and other forums. I had brunch at Mintwood Place on Sunday and noticed several diners whipping out Purell from their hand bags and putting bottles on their tables -- little reminders, no doubt, to sanitize hands after greeting companions or touching any tables (door handles, etc)

 

SPEAKING OF MINTWOOD PLACE, the Adams Morgan restaurant has tapped a new chef, Harper McClure. A familiar name to local diners, he was briefly at Pembroke in Dupont Circle (“not the right fit”) but better-known for his time at Le Diplomate, where he served as chef de cuisine, and before that, Brabo in Old Town and the late Vidalia in Washington.

 

McClure, 38, says he was impressed by the “overwhelming sense of community and hospitality” espoused by owner Saied Azali and general manager Gene Alexeyev. “At the end of the day,” says the chef, “it’s about the guest experience.” McClure is currently consulting for Kimpton in Charlotte, N.C. and intends to return to DC and start at Mintwood Place toward the end of the month.

 

Down the line, customers can look forward to more seafood and, given the change of seasons, some lighter dishes, although McClure plans to retain his new employer’s French-American outlook. The chef follows Matthew Cockrell, who recently went to work for Brasserie Liberte in Georgetown.

 

THE WEEK IN REVIEWS: Today's preview in Food looks at the hybrid Japanese-Italian restaurant Tonari, from the trio behind some of the city's most popular ramen joints. And the travel issue of this coming Sunday's Magazine explores the beguiling Le Comptoir du Vin in Baltimore.  Because of its size abnd its goodness, the French boite is one of the hardest reservations in the area.

 

I'm hosting this chat from home today, which is where most Post employees will be working at least til the end of the month out of an abundance of caution. And yes, I'm in my bathrobe, armed with a pot of Peet's.

 

Let's begin. I can imagine what's on your minds today.

I learned many years ago that the dirtiest item in most kitchens (and bars) is the citrus fruit, and I stopped asking for lemon or lime in my drinks as a result. With the current coronavirus scare, are there any restaurants in the DC area where we can be certain that the citrus has been scrubbed squeaky clean?

I know of no such list, but I'm happy to throw the question to any restaurant operators on the chat this morning: How are you handling citrus destined for drinks?

In your chats, restaurants often invite diners back for a meal on them to make up for a service mistake. Logistically, *how* does someone actually use that offer? Do the restaurant managers expect they’ll be taken up on their offer within a month? 3 months? A year? And how would a diner inform the restaurant that they’ll be returning? It seems rude (to me) to call/email a place, and say “hey, you promised me a free meal, and now I’m coming to collect.”

In the cases I've been involved in, a representative from the restaurant (owner, chef, manager, etc) shares the best way to contact them and the customer follows up on their own, presumably shortly after the incident that prompted the a complaint in this forum.

 

If anyone out there has been involved in an attempt to turn a dining wrong into a right, I'd welcome hearing from them to see how the follow-up played out.

Tom: Your response a few weeks back to my question about dining in Paris was right on. So far, my wife and I have only visited Le Bon Georges. It was fantastic, and with a bill under 160 euros for two full meals, including a shared dessert, three glasses of wine, plus coffee, it was a comparative bargain. (have the pear crumble). We'll probably try for La Scene tomorrow. I also recommend Bofinger for great French/Alsatian food. And, if you're ready to spend, as in SPEND, Tour d'Argent offers great food and service, plus a fantastic view of Paris. Thanks again. For those worried about travel, all I can say is the only major change I noted, since a visit a couple of years back, is the cancellation of any events with crowds over 1,000. (No concert at the Opera Bastille this time around).

I'm pleased to hear about your success at Le Bon Georges, which is where the Paris-based critic Alec Lobrano and I broke bread in easier times (around Christmas). Thanks for the field report as well. Sounds like business as usual as far as restaurants go?

please don't say your chat is ending too

I'm here for you! Just a few minutes late. My apologies.

Has something happened to Del Mar? We went there for our wedding anniversary last night and have been there 10 or so times prior to tonight since they opened. Prior visits were outstanding, including a visit earlier this year on a Saturday. Last night we were surprised at the poor service---extremely uneven timing, having to beg for water and cocktails, etc. First three courses when they eventually came out were great (over a 2 hour time span), but the fourth course lobster paella was just okay and tasted like it had been reheated. It took forever for them to bus the table between courses and refresh cocktails, and the bottle of wine came out so late it had to be sent back. We took your advice, Tom, to raise service issues early, but it had no effect. Am curious what other readers have experienced. Is this just a Tuesday night experience? We usually go on the weekend. This is so strange because our visit a month and a half ago was lovely.

I'm sorry to get this feedback. It doesn't sound like the Del Mar I know and have visited at least 10 times since it set sail on the Wharf. Has anyone else encountered off service at Fabio Trabocchi's Spanish restaurant?

 

UPDATE: The following came in post-chat and I thought I should include a follow-up from Del Mar:

 

Responding to "Del Mar"

Tom, and to the guest who dined at Del Mar last night: We are disheartened to read about this experience, even more so as the guest chose to celebrate such a special occasion with us. Our team takes great pride in delivering the highest level of hospitality and cuisine. We apologize for the food and service not meeting previously set expectations, especially on such a special occasion. We are addressing the guest concerns as a management team, and would like to invite the guest back give us an opportunity to improve upon this most recent experience. They can reach out to me directly at adrian.cane@fabiotrabocchi.com Kind regards, Adrian Cane, General Manager, Del Mar

I mindlessly used a touch screen payment device at Bread Furst yesterday. Any idea if they are actually required to get your (finger-signed) signature to pay?

Good question. At Compass Coffee, I've noticed the touch screen isn't swiveling in my direction anymore. (No signature, but also no tip.)

Snagged a reservation for Annabelle next week. Any must have dishes?

Consomme!

Roast chicken!

Pavlova!

Did you read my initial preview?)

Hi Tom - I wanted to share a frustration, in the hopes that any restaurateurs reading this take it to heart. Right now I'm on a restricted diet requiring bland food (nothing acidic, spicy, greasy, fried, creamy). I had a business lunch scheduled at a steakhouse, and in looking at the menu there was nothing I could eat as-is, but likely plenty of things that could be modified. Taking to heart your suggestion, the day before I called the restaurant and spoke to the manager. I explained the issue, he spoke with the sous chef, and captured my needs within the reservation notes. Great! Day of, however, this didn't go as smoothly as planned. I thought we were in good shape because the server did have the notes about my needs. But then there were several additional conversations about exactly what I could and could not eat in front of the whole table. Then our food took over an hour to arrive because of "communication issues" (I assume the kitchen screwed up my meal, but I'm not sure), with nothing brought out to ease the hunger, not even another loaf of bread. All of this meant that I had to explain my dietary needs in front of clients, and then the meal dragged on much longer than expected because of me, so I spent a lot of time apologizing -- when this was precisely what I wanted to avoid! Thus, a plea: when a patron does her part to call in advance, please be sure to ask all the questions needed at the time so that the meal itself runs smoothly. It would be much appreciated!

Your post makes me so angry. I'm sorry you had to go through that, after doing due diligence. It might be helpful, going forward, to carry copies of the names of dishes/ingredients you're unable to eat and provide them to the server or manager upon arrival. Just to be 100 percent clear.

Hi Tom -- here is how to do it right (from the restaurant side). Back in the 90s, my now-wife and I were planning a dinner for our small wedding and settled on the now-departed Kinkead's. I exchanged various communications with the restaurant but it was handled poorly and gave up. (We ended up at Two Quail, to give you an idea of how long ago this was). I then send a long detailed note (might have been email or maybe a fax) to the restaurant laying out in detail what went wrong on their end. I got an almost immediate response containing a full apology and offer of a dinner for four on them. (up to $250 I think). We took them up on it within a month or two and the dinner was handled superbly and was excellent of course. We tipped on what the bill would have been even though they told us it was not necessary. Just a great experience.

That sounds like a Kinkead's response (may the chef-owner #RIP)

I just wanted to say that I appreciate how you weave in information about the restaurant in your answers. Your response to the disappointed Del Mar diner is a great example. You gave us location, owner, and type of cuisine in an elegant and succinct way. Thank you!

You're welcome!

You mentioned that you noticed an uptick in sanitizer use. Just a reminder that hand sanitizer is only to be used in a pinch, and that you should wash your hands if hand washing facilities are available. Norovirus, a nasty stomach bug, is resilient to hand sanitizer. I'll skip the chemistry lesson, but most viruses have a fatty layer that protects them. Fat doesn't do a good job bonding to water (that's why oil and water separate). The soap helps that bonding process and helps destroy that fatty layer. If you want to do a cool experiment with your kids, mix some oil and water in a mason jar. Then drop in some dawn soap and shake; et voila, the oil and water mix. Really, I'm curious how the restaurant staff are handling new hygiene guidelines. Will we stop seeing waiters bus a table and then bring us drinks or food with unwashed hands? I'd really like to see there be a buffer from people that touch used table settings (even to refill water cups) and process payments, and the people that bring us our food and drinks.

Thanks for the public service reminder: sanitizers are no substitute for soap, water and vigorous washing.

I hope the current situation sees the end of servers collecting water and other glasses by their tops rather than their bases. #nasty

Hey Tom - Heading to your old stomping grounds of Minneapolis in a week or so and am hoping to get your thoughts on restaurants and bars not to miss. I've searched your old chats for recommendations but most look like from early last year. Any updates? Thanks!

If you've never been to the Twin Cities, find time for Alma for Italian, the relaxed Ha Hai for Vietnamese, Bachelor Farmer for upscale Midwestern fare (and a good bar below it, Marvel) and Spoon and Stable.

Hi Tom, My mom will be in town (from Minnesota! Nobles County represent!) and I think she would LOVE tableside guacamole - plus a strong margarita with lots of salt. Where can I take her that can deliver, but is not so spendy that she will open the menu and refuse to order anything? (I’m in Northern VA, with easy access to DC)

Guacamole is made tableside at Rosa Mexicano in Gallery Place but it's not the best Mexican restaurant overall. Try instead Oyamel in Penn Quarter or Mi Vida at the Wharf, whose menus better show off the cuisine.

Hi Tom! I'm sure you've gotten this before, but we'd like to host a group of 20 (including little ones) for dinner and cocktails after our courthouse wedding on a Saturday. Do you know of any lists of places that have a private room that you can reserve for 3 hours? Ideally it would be in NOVA, but DC is good too. Thank you!

Off the top of my head, the creative American 2941 in Falls Church and Clarity and the Greek-themed Nostos, both in Vienna, offer private dining areas.

Can you call the restaurant beforehand to ask for what used to be called "a ladies' menu" with no prices listed?

I know of no restaurant that currently offers that, but given how easily it is to print individualized menus, I'm sure an advance request could get you what you want.

Oyamel will generally let you stand at the cart and watch them make the guac even though it isn't tableside. (It's a great distraction with little kids who can be trusted not to touch) Obviously don't stop the flow of traffic & things may be different with the current situation but the poster's mom will still be able to watch for a few moments.

Gracias for the idea.

I’ll be meeting with a visiting colleague from NY for lunch on Wednesday. Can you suggest a venue in DC? Good food, middling price range — I was thinking along the lines of Succotash (if the recent reviews were better) or America Eats (if it were open for lunch). Preferably on the quiet side (so we can talk comfortably) and not terribly crowded. Thanks!

I haven't returned to Succotash since my last review and America Eats Tavern doesn't serve lunch on Wednesday. I can't predict how busy (read:  loud) a dining room might be today, but I think you'll enjoy the cooking and other comforts of  Modena downtown for Italian, Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown for French or Convivial in Shaw for French-American.

Just a comment. Decided to book this place on your recommendation for our upcoming trip to Holland/Belgium (Avalon river cruise, and yes we are still going!). Will give a report!

I expect nothing less! Greetje is one of my fondest memories of multiple trips to Amsterdam. Have fun, eat well, and remember to sing the Happy Birthday song while you wash your hands with hot sudsy water throughout the trip.

How is Nina May in Shaw? I've been seeing many of the DC food Instagramers eating there and wanted to hear your thoughts

Uh .... I reviewed it last week, dear reader.

Tom, We are headed to Hershey, PA next weekend. Any suggestions on restaurants to try? Thanks.

Hershey, anyone?

Hi Tom! So, I was a total ingrate and ignored all of your suggestions. I checked out the menu at Et Voila! and wasn't charmed by their veg options (to be fair, I'm a tough vegetarian to please - I hate anything that tastes of meat, don't like bitter much, and abhor omelets). I was intrigued by Punjab Grill, but wasn't feeling an Indian vibe for the day, and though I loved the fare at Unconventional Diner the one time I ate there before (at your suggestion, thanks!), the space is just so cacophonous I didn't feel like it would adequately cocoon me from the world before I had to experience reentry with my foursome. So. I suppose I did indirectly follow your advice, though, as I enjoyed two restaurants you've recommended in the past. In the morning I met some friends for breakfast at Brothers & Sisters, and it was amazing. The space itself is stunning, of course, but the meal was all sorts of delectable - Tiger style salad, fries with bearnaise, mushroom oatmeal, bread basket (onion ricotta toast, oh my word!) - we split everything and couldn't have been more happily sated. From there I took a lovely stroll to Georgetown and ensconced myself at Fiola Mare, with paper in hand and a view of the water. Wow is the service wonderful there! Not to mention the opulence of the champagne brunch. The winter pesto burrata and the liquid cacio a pepe were novel - and delicious - ways to delight my palate for my second breakfast. I finished off the meal with the decadent chocolate dessert, the sweet staff packed my untouched pastries from the complimentary bread basket (such an attentive touch!), and I winged home to my four tykes having spent virtually the entirety of my seven hours away eating. Couldn't have been a better day.

You didn't take my advice, but at least you submitted a report afterwards. Fair enough! Bottom line: you had the day to yourself and you enjoyed every minute -- and crumb, so it sounds. If it worked for you, it works for me.

Hi Tom, I'm a diner who avoids pork and shellfish for kosher reasons, though I still dine in non-kosher restaurants. Recently I learned from a Mexican restaurant owner that the Mole sauce in their establishment, included pork in a very subtle way - pork juice poured from a pan in which pork was cooked. This restaurant owner thought the practice of adding pork juice to Mole sauce is fairly widespread, so I thought I'd ask you and/or your readers if that's indeed the case. It would be a shame if most/all Mexican restaurants do this, as I love a good Mole sauce, but not if it has pork in it. Thank you!

I've not heard of pork "juice" being added to mole, but plenty of recipes call for adding lard to the mix. It pays to ask ahead of time.

Hi Tom, I'm wondering if you/the readers have ideas for eating in Santa Barbara. My husband and I would love to know where to find any type of food people have enjoyed (wine, dinner, cocktails, brunches, coffee, seriously whatever). Across any price range (although we don't need to spend a ton at EVERY meal), and neither of us eat meat (fish is fine though). Thanks for all you do! I always take a mid-day pause in work to read the Wednesday chat

Because you submitted early, I was able to track down some (hopefully) choice tables. They include Bell's for bistro cooking, including coq au vin and cheese souffle; Convivio in the Santa Barbara Inn for Italian, including local fish cooked in a pizza oven; Tyger Tyger for Southeasst Asian street food (and counter service); plus Oliver's for vegan and the chance to dine on an outside patio. Bon appetit!

Hi Tom, I'm turning 38 this weekend and my dad and his gf will be in town. I would like to go out to dinner with them + husband/son (age 5). I'd love a recommendation for seafood/lobster in northern VA...doesn't matter what kind - lobster ravioli, baked lobster...whatever. Thanks!

The $38 Maine lobster at the new Annabelle in Dupont Circle has your name on it. The entree swims to the table with Duchess potatoes and a swipe of bisque.

In my experiences, the person extending the offer gives the diner a gift certificate.

I like that: a set amount and (typically) a time period in which it can be used.

If you call and ask for this, please call it a "guest menu" - even if you have to specify that this means a menu without prices, it's way less insulting to every adult in the room. #modernize

I should have caught that. #mybad

You know, we do have newspapers in Minnesota, some very good ones! The poster heading to Minneapolis might want to check out the Star Tribune's restaurant reviews.

You betcha. The byline you want to follow belongs to critic Rick Nelson.

London Curry House in Alexandria has a very nice private room at no extra charge. I have been to a social event and a few business gatherings there. Plus, great food. https://www.londoncurryhouse.com/

Thanks for the idea.

Thank you! Original recommender here, and glad to learn that the term has been updated.

We all learn from each other, right?

Tom you are the best in the DC dining biz and your time is too valuable to answer questions from chatters who don't take the time to read your reviews! Save your energy and avoid the "what should I order at XXX restaurant you reviewed three months ago" questions.

I'm tempted to do that sometimes, but I realize chatters are busy and can't hunt down everything. But! It would be nice if they first looked up my most recent review before posting a question here. It's easy: Google TOM SIETSEMA and REVIEW OF (INSERT RESTAURANT NAME)

Hi, Tom! My hubs turns 50 next month and I'm facing the canceling of travel plans. So, now I am looking at this as an opportunity to take him out for a truly memorable (and splurgy) dinner! Where would you go? Maybe a chef's table? There are so many amazing places these days it's hard to choose so I'd love your advice!

Budget? Preferred location? What are his tastes? How many people are we talking about?

My husband has been on the hunt for fried clam bellies lately, with no luck at his usual sources. Any place in DC or close-in MD or NOVA that currently has them on the menu?

Near Nationals Park, Salt Line offers Ipswich fried clam bellies for $16 and Hank's Oyster Bar (multiple branches) sells a plate for $25. I couldn't track down a market price there, but Legal Sea Foods on 7th St. NW. also serves what your husband craves.

I was invited to an apology meal after a seriously painful billing debacle. We went in planning on ordering conservatively (while the billing error was substantial, in the end everything worked out well), but the chef/owner came out, apologized again, and talked us into a tasting menu with wine pairings. Because this happened during a business trip, and I wasn't traveling there for some time, the apology meal was a good 6 months after the original meal. And wow, it was good. I didn't expect anything except an apology... this went so far above and beyond. Yes, we've been back.

Which is the whole point of an "apology" meal: getting diners back on the restaurant's side, seeing customers returning on their own -- and singing the establishment's praises on social media and elsewhere.

 

Everyone makes mistakes. It's how they're handled that can make things better or worse.

Just two of us, happy to spend big (since we are saving on travel now), prefer within driving distance of DC and not requiring an overnight, and we eat everything!

The aforementioned Le Comptoir du Vin in Baltimore is pretty wonderful, but a tough ticket. Try instead the civilized Metier near the convention center or the blissful Pineapple and Pearls on the Hill.

You must get to the Hershey Pantry and Chocolate Avenue Grill. Note, they are closed on Sunday. If you have a beer drinker in your group, you definitely want to get to Troegs. The snack bar makes a great grilled cheese and tomato!

And another submission:

In Hershey try the delightful What If Cafe for dinner, and the Hershey Pantry next door for lunch (on their sun porch if it's a nice day)!

Hi Tom, what are your favorite Middle Eastern (or Turkish) restaurants in DC? I'm most interested in a restaurant where I can try dishes that are not typically found in Middle Eastern/Turkish restaurants in the US and have plenty of vegetarian options for my vegetarian partner.

Surely you know about Zaytinya in Penn Quarter, which was featured in a recent round-up of my favorite places to eat and showcases everything from Persian yogurt soup to Turkish chicken salad with walnut sauce and includes 20 or more vegetable dishes.  I could graze there for weeks and not repeat a dish.

 

Of the newer sources, there's the freshly minted Albi from chef Michael Rafidi. The chef's selections include mushroom grapeleaf dolmas, excellent spreads with even better pita and lamb sweetened with dates. The hot spot has been packed every time I've dropped in.

 

That's a wrap for today. Let's regroup next week, same time, for another hour of dining talk. Meantime, be safe out there!

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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