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

Mar 18, 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.

Tom - this COVID crisis must be so strange and disruptive for you! Have you considered still using your WaPo budget to support local restaurants and possibly do an article evaluating their carryout service/offerings? How are you handling being cooped up and eating at home so much? By the way, I just love your chats.

Thanks for your kind thoughts. This crisis is definitely strange and disruptive, most of all to the industry I cover. I’m very concerned for restaurants of all stripes, but especially the smaller operations, some of which I fear won’t be able to reopen if the situation continues for much longer. My colleagues in Weekend have compiled a list of establishments that are offering take out and/or delivery and I encourage consumers to support them that way, or by purchasing gift certificates for later use. 


If today was a normal Wednesday, you’d be seeing in the Food section a preview of the new Albi in Navy Yard, which was held from the print edition when we learned the restaurant, like others in Washington, was shuttering for the near term.  However, Michael Rafidi's debut establishment is offering carry-out, Tuesday through Sunday from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.


Since we work a couple weeks ahead in the Magazine, you’ll see star-rated reviews this Sunday (of Napoli Pasta Bar in the District) and March 29 (Everest Kitchen in Ashburn). Thereafter, I’ll be offering reviews of both take out and delivered restaurant meals. Then, who knows? We will pivot/adjust as necessary. 


I can only imagine what’s on your mind today. Share away. Who’s still going to the office and who’s working from home? How are you feeding/entertaining yourselves? I want to know.  

Years ago I thought a fun party would be to ask guests to each bring their favorite carry out... Pop Eyes, Chez Roger, pizza... just enough to offer some to all... now that we are limited to parties of 10, that still seems a reasonable and fun idea... all prepared under clean criteria, by professionals, and we get to try new “stuff”. What would your offering be?

I hate to be the party pooper, but I don't think the idea of bringing together even 10 people who aren't already living together is a safe idea right now.

 

If I were to play along, however -- maybe on a long picnic table outside with just a few attendees -- I'd definitely bring spicy Popeyes chicken if the theme were fast food carryout and Dorothy Sietsema's World's Fair Cake if guests were to bring something home-made. Actually, I'd probably feel compelled to show up with one of my favorite snacks, too: blue cheese straws, a recipe I got from my friend, cookbook author  John Taylor. They are the bomb.

We are buying carryout to help our local places.

Good for you. Time to show love to the restaurants that have fed us so well over time. 

While no one knows how long this will go one, I saw Dr. Fauci said the peak may be around May 1. I have always heard restaurant finances are tenuous, so what do you think the impact will be on restaurants? How many will end up closing?

I'm not privy to the finances of individual restaurants, but one well-known restaurant operator guesses 35 percent of local establishments might be lost.

 

"I'm scared, for everybody," says Robert Wiedmaier, who owns Marcel's and Brasserie Beck . He shared that 20 people applied for jobs at the latter establishment as other restaurants began to close days ago, laying off staff.

 

Whether or not places survive, he says, depends on the relationships they have with their landlords and banks. Will they forgive late payments, or no payments for awhile? 

What would you make with just a 1/4 cup of buttermilk, left over after making Ina Garten's delicious Irish soda bread? Usually I leave it in the fridge 'til it goes bad & I throw it out.

Don't throw it out! Buttermilk adds richness to mashed potatoes and a brightness to soups. A quarter cup isn't enough to make ranch dressing -- unless, of course, you're thinking of a salad for one. 

Hi Tom! As an optimist I'm always looking for silver linings during hard times and was wondering if the increasingly strict measures to slow the disease spread could be a nice opportunity for you to take a break from the constant eating out for, well, your own sake. I'm guessing you truly enjoy the constant dining out, otherwise why would you work as you do, but was wondering if this could turn into a natural time to cook at home, eat a bit healthier, reset the professional palate, look forward to eating out again, etc, etc. Thanks for everything you do, I really enjoy these chats/reviews every week!

I'm still eating restaurant food, just not in someone else's dining room. Last night, for example, I ordered Ethiopian from Rohobot in Silver Spring (via Uber Eats). And yesterday for lunch, I had kimchi -- leftovers from one of my last sit-down restaurant meals at Elle in Mt. Pleasant. 

 

Life has definitely changed, though. I'm getting more exercise, taking my dog out for two, two-mile strolls a day. And I'm glad my SO picked up some free weights just before all the gyms closed this week. 

 

No need to dress up for the time being. And I stopped shaving, just to see what it would look like. 

 

You know what I miss most right now? Seeing my friends and colleagues. But I'm definitely getting some good vibes from you all today, and that's swell. 

Thank you for supporting helping restaurants by using their carry-out and delivery options. And especially for mentioning gift certificates. We here in Colorado are also supporting this effort. I fear that we may have many fewer restaurants to patronize after this is over. Any help we can give them, we should gladly do so. I so love your chats --- lived in DC ages ago but still keep up.

Go, Colorado! And thank you. Factoid: About 10 percent of my chat audience is from outside the area, mostly in NY and CA, I'm told. And for some reason, a lot of folks who work at the Pentagon are reading this. Go figure. 

Mr. S As I mentioned last week, my wife and I benefitted greatly from your advice on Paris restaurants. We returned just before things got really crazy, although we learned that going to the local Giant expecting to restock our food cupboard was not a good idea. We've got enough in the freezer to keep going awhile, and , who knows, a harvest of backyard squirrels may be in the future. Avoiding panic is most important.

I've only been to the store once since the madness began, and it wasn't pretty. Panic brings out the beast in some people. 

My only outside activity this week so far has been to do my regular shift at the local Food Bank, figuring that it's an essential servic. We take precautions routinely so no new hygienic activities for us and we spent yesterday putting prepackaged food into boxes for distribution. And as far as home goes, we're looking at it as an opportunity to get all the extra stuff out of the freezer and pantry - which provides some great opportunities to expand our palates.

Good for you, volunteering at a food bank. And for using up stuff you've been sitting on. This really is a blizzard with no snow, isn't it? 

Hi Tom - I wrote in a few weeks ago to ask for D.C. restaurant recommendations for me and a few gal pals who had a rare night off from husbands and kids. On your advice, we tried Cafe Riggs. It was a nice setting, but the food was only fair, even the arctic char that you praised in your review. The craft cocktails looked great on paper but those that we tried tasted like cough syrup. Our server knew we were disappointed and said that he'd comp the drinks, but when the bill came, we found that that was not the case. We didn't make a fuss about it because we had, after all, drank them. I look forward to your full review of the place. Our review can be summed up as "meh."

Thanks for the feedback. Sorry to hear about your "meh" experience. I do hope the restaurant survives the closure, though. It's a beaut. 

When the restaurants reopen, the bulletin will go out "Watch for a scruffy bearded guy who orders an Aviator." At the least, your picture posted above the pass will be out of date.

EXACTLY. But I think the drink you mean is an Aviation: gin, creme de violet, lemon juice and maraschino liqueur. 

Buttermilk freezes! I put it in the ice cube tray in measured amounts, then thaw the amount I need when I want to make something.

But of course buttermilk freezes. Thanks for the prompt.

Farmers who raise goods for local farmer's markets are particularly hard hit. See whether you can drive out into the country to buy from them. I'm getting all the meat, eggs, dairy, and produce I can from ours.

Great idea (and consistent with social distancing)

I'd be interested in supporting some local restaurants (and enjoying some great food) with delivery. But I have to admit that I'm leery of taking in food prepared by someone else right now. Is there anything you've seen that talks about why the virus would *not* potentially be spread this way? Sure, you've got to take some risk if you're going to eat. Even a grocery delivery was touched. But I'd love some reassurance for the occasional delivery. If not, we may look into the gift certificate route, which is a good one. Thanks to the chatter who is working at the food bank. Yes, an essential service indeed.

Coronavirus cannot be spread through food, fortunately. As far as deliveries go, I've been opting to have couriers leave the packaged meals at my door. I guess there's always some risk, but smart steps including using your own plates, etc. and washing your hands for at least 20 seconds after discarding the packaging. 

Fortunately we kept some after we bought refrigerators with frost-free freezers. I measure out my ghee in them (trying to chip out ghee from a larger container is an exercise in futility), as well as soured milk, cream, etc.

I've used ice cube trays to freeze leftover citrus juices. The easiest margarita is two ounces of your favorite tequila or mezcal poured over a couple cubes of frozen lime juice. 

Thanks to the people volunteering at the food bank. Remember that people without the financial means/living in food deserts can't participate in the buying frenzy we are seeing. Since we can't buy a case of soup or peanut butter to donate (limits at most stores), please consider going online and making a financial donation to your local Food Bank or pantry. Thank you.

Great idea. Thanks for sharing. 

I use them for pesto. But I also bought some silicone muffin tins (with cookie sheets for rigidity) to freeze 1/3-ish cup quantities of homemade stock.

This is quickly become Free Range -- not that there's anything wrong with that! 

Maybe us farmers, truck drivets and stockers will finally get the respect of the public now that some are seeing empty shelves

You've always had my/our respect. But the current crisis makes me/us appreciate you all the more. 

You said that the virus can't be transmitted by food. But a Harvard Health website says that while cooking probably kills the virus it is unclear whether it can be transmitted by food, particularly cold or raw items. The website recommends avoiding takeout. Personally I opt for better safe than sorry.

My colleagues Tim Carman and Emily Heil addressed this in their helpful story on dining in the age of coronavirus: "There’s no indication, health officials say, that the coronavirus can be transmitted on food. ... Rather, it is a respiratory illness spread through droplets — from a person’s sneeze, for example — that are then transmitted through the nostrils or eyes of someone else." 

Tom—Danny Meyer restaurants here in NYC are asking patrons to buy gift cards. All the money from the cards will go immediately to their staff but the gift cards will be redeemable to the purchasers for future use. He’s clearly in better financial shape than many smaller places but it’s great for his employees.

You bet. 

On what turned out to be our last night out before self-imposed exile, we had an amazing first experience at Tiger Fork in Blagden Alley. The cumin lamb Dan Dan noodles, in particular, were worth writing home about, but it was the service by our waiter, Chris, and the general manager, Glenn, that assured we’ll be back after the current crisis. Another testament to how service makes the difference: As Maya Angelou said, “ They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

That's simply lovely. Thanks for sharing. We need more posts like this today.

 

My last restaurant meal was Sunday lunch at Q by Peter Chang: kung pao chicken and garlicky pea shoots in a dining room occupied by a mere eight of us -- the different parties thoughtfully placed far apart from one another. 

Hoping that some restaurants are still seeing this chat even with the chaos - I would love to be able to support local businesses and get carryout/delivery etc. But so many of them seem to be offering things that wouldn't reheat well and would certainly need it after being made, collected etc. Please please consider that part if possible when recreating your (absolutely wonderful!) menus as carry out options Especially as one of the many people without a car I'm left walking home with piping hot food that is....less hot... after a mile or so. I could take an uber/lyft etc but that defeats the purpose of being distant!

I suppose it's a bit of a trade-off, but I'd rather come home from  say, Annabelle, with tepid roast chicken from Frank Ruta than no Frank Ruta roast chicken at all. (The new restaurant is offering take-out, by the way; orders can be placed from noon to 8 p.m.) If you're concerned with just the right temperature, you might want to consider things that reheat quickly and easily (soups) or don't need adjusting (salads, etc.)

Hi, Tom. On my telework lunch break in Alexandria I randomly stopped by a new place in Old Town that sells pizza by the slice, Michael’s Little Italy. Very friendly husband and wife (both from New Jersey) shop. Oh my goodness, I finally found a New York-style slice that rivals The Italian Store. Totally recommend it for all the Yankees (I am also from Jersey) craving that very hard-to-perfect taste. Now, onto a quest to find a decent bagel!

Michael's Little Italy is at 305 S Washington St. Thanks for the tip. A city can never have too many by-the-slicers.

 

Thats a wrap for today, gang. Let's meet again next Wednesday, same time. Stay safe, stay sane, be nice and eat well. I'm grateful for this community. 

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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