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

Mar 26, 2014

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema entertains your dining questions, rants and raves.

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

An email exchange with an old colleague now living in Seattle raised this question: What now-shuttered D.C. restaurants do we miss the most? My vote is for Red Sage -- it opened just before I moved to D.C. in 1992, and was named Esquire's Best New Restaurant that year. I probably had somewhere between 60 and 100 meals there, most of them memorable. But I'm having trouble thinking of a second one that I miss.

Interesting timing. The subject of my First Bite column in today's Food section involves John Mooney, a one-time Red Sage chef.

Among the many restaurants I miss are Yanyu in Cleveland Park, which served the finest Peking duck I've experienced in Washington; Wazuri, the fine African outpost on 18th St. NW;  the beloved Sholl's Cafeteria on 19th & K;  209 1/2, one of our first and best modern American kitchens on the Hill; and the Inn at Easton, a lovely tribute to Australian cooking on the Eastern Shore.


Chatters, what restaurants do you miss?


MOVING RIGHT ALONG: In response to a recent snafu at Majestic in Old Town, I received this email from co-owner Todd Thrasher, who is eager to locate the complaintant:


"To the guest that accidentally spilled their drink while dining with at The Majestic, please know that our guests mean everything to us.

Unfortunately, while accidents at times may happen, it is our job to offer courteous service and to care for you in a gracious manner. We at the Majestic sincerely apologize that protocol had not been followed through to the end. Had it been, the drink that had accidentally been spilled would have been accounted for on our house check and not on yours.

Unfortunately, at times errors are simply made. We hope you will see this as an anomaly, not the norm and allow us to welcome you back with cocktails or treats to make amends.

Sincerely, all of us at The Majestic"



Happy Wednesday, everyone. Tell me what's on your mind today.

You frequently rave about Little Serow, Rose's Luxury, and many of the other places on 14th Street that don't take reservations. Considering that you're quite open about the fact that you visit places multiple times before writing them up, how to you manage to get in, especially to secure several sittings in a short enough window to ensure an accurate review? I know I've gotten to many of these places at 5pm, waited in line for a good long time, and still not gotten to eat there. How do you do it? are you waiting in line with the rest of us (or sending an intern to do so) --- or is this one of the instances where you can pull rank, flash your Washington post business card and secure a table that we otherwise can't?

Good question.


I stand in line just like everyone else (and hope I get in). Then I  do it again two or more times after that. I have *never* flashed a business card or identified myself as a critic in an attempt to get a seat in a restaurant, even when I've found myself on serious deadlines.


I'm not just reviewing the cooking, after all, but everything about the restaurant: the service, the ambiance, the design -- the wait, if any.

Hi Tom, I have an out of town guest coming who requested that she wanted to eat at osteria morini. Unfortunately due to scheduling conflicts I can only seem to make it there on a friday evening. We are catholic and practice lent, so no meat on fridays. Would you say its worth it to go? If not can you recommend a great seafood place? Thanks

In a word: go!


While there's a lot of pork on its menu, Osteria Morini offers some very good non-meat dishes, among them bucatini with sea urchin and crab and pasta with wild mushrooms drizzled with rosemary oil. Remember to save room for dessert; pastry chef Alex Levin is doing some pretty creative work there.

I had hoped that Bistro Vivant's newish chef would take up my suggestion, which you included in an earlier chat, to add something vegetarian to the menu. I just looked at the dinner and lunch menus on line, and there's no meatless main course on either menu. So my household -- which lives nearby and would love to find another good restaurant to patronize regularly -- will still not be going to Bistro Vivant. Too bad.

It's 2014. Restaurants ought to offer at least two vegetarian options on their menus. Even those of us who eat meat like a change of pace now and then.

Hi Tom, I recently moved to DC. Do you know of any restaurants in the metro area that serve non-sushi Japanese quality menus such as sukiyaki, tonkatsu, ka-re, nabemono and so on? All the Japanese restaurants seem to be exclusively about the sushi and it can't be so, right?

Head to Daikaya, across from the Verizon Center, for Japanese tavern fare, including skewered meats, rice balls, steamed egg and dashi custard and more. 


Just fyi: Some of my fellow critics and I are looking at the restaurant from four different perspectives in this Sunday's Magazine.  I'm focusing on the chow, Robin Givhan is looking at the fashion, Phil Kennicott is concentrating on the ambiance and Chris Richards is dealing with the music.

You've never led me astray in the past and I'm leaning on you for suggestions again! I've been out of the DC dining scene for about 1.5 years which is an eternity with how many new spots have opened around town. I have family visiting me next month and I want to wow them with a great dinner. There will be two young kids but they're super well-behaved (we had a great time at Rasika a couple of years ago when they were even younger, and always go at the earliest reservation times they have). Everyone is an adventurous eater - yes, including the kids! - so no cuisine is off limits. Do you have a top five list you can offer for the best of what DC has to offer? (Also I followed a great suggestion of yours for my birthday dinner on a trip to Paris last year- Le 6 Paul Bert - everything was insanely delicious)!

In no particular order, you should consider:


Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan


Casa Luca for Italian downtown


Zentan for pan-Asian near Logan Circle


Roofers Union for American small plates in Adams Morgan




Del Campo on I St. NW for its meaty Latin American script.


I'm headed to Casa Luca Sat night and was wondering if there's anywhere nearby you would recommend we go to beforehand for a drink? Thanks!

The Italian restaurant from Fabio Trabocchi has a swell bar, but if you want to start the night at a different watering hole nearby, try the one at its competitor, Bibiana.

Several reviews have said Iron Gate has the worst Martini in DC AND they serve their martinis in champagne glasses. We had reservations but cancelled. We go to DC 4 or 5 times a year stay at the Army and Navy club and eat well (lunch and dinner) for a week. We walk everywhere and try all the best restaurants with many return favs ( Le Diplomate, Bombay Club Oval Room Central Zaytina). One good martini in a proper glass to start is a must. Any chance of Iron Gate rethinking their martini?

I reached out to Jeff Faile, bar and spirits director at the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns Iron Gate. Here's his response:


"Thank you for giving me the chance to respond. I'd first like to offer up any apologies to any guest which has not enjoyed a martini at Iron Gate. I have trained all of our bartenders on how to make a martini in a manner which I hope appeals to everyone. If a guest doesn't specify on how dry they would like their martini, I've always used a 3 ouncers gin or vodka to 1/2 ounce vermouth ratio, and that's what I've instructed my bartenders to adhere to. Our martinis are stirred unless specified otherwise and served in 7.5 ounce coupe glasses. While not the classic "martini" glassware, I find the coupe glasses offer a classic feel and are not as cumbersome as some of the taller martini glasses are today. Iron Gate is not alone in using coupes in DC as you'll find them in any number of restaurants and bars these days. I hope this answers any concerns you or any guest may have, and please have them contact me if any further questions should arise. "

Hi Tom! Methodological question today. When reviewing restaurants, do you ever ask for changes or substitutions based on your personal preferences, or do you avoid that in order to taste dishes as the chef intended?

On rare occasions, I might ask for a sauce or such on the side, but I don't like to do that for the reason you put forth. Part of a critic's job is eating what's offered, as it's offered. 

i was surprised to read that u recommended Ted's Bulletin to a woman inquiring about a nice but inexpensive, n well located brunch place for two people getting to know each other. Ted's is incredibly noisy! you can barelly hear urself talking, much less the person sitting across u, unless u both scream! acoustics r bad!

You can ask for "nice" and "inexpensive," but you can't ask for "nice,' "inexpensive" and "hushed." Most brunch spots are going to be on the lively side.

Hi Tom, Recently at a nice venue on Barracks Row, we partook of an excellent appetizer cheese platter. The only problem was that the restaurant provided an insufficient amount of their tasty bread as an accompaniment. We excitedly asked for more, and were graciously provided another helping. The problem? We didn't discover that there was an additional charge of $1 for the bread until we received the check. While we would have gladly ordered the bread for this nominal amount, the server did not mention that there was an additional charge, and nowhere on the menu is an extra charge mentioned. We said nothing, but debated whether to dock the amount from the tip (we did not). What do you think of this practice? Should we have spoken up? Should we have symbolically docked the tip a dollar?

While I agree that the charge for extra bread should be listed on the menu or mentioned verbally, it was  just a dollar.  Don't sweat it, in other words.  Also, I'm not sure you'd get your message across to the waiter by docking his gratuity by a buck. 

I checked the menu out of curiosity after seeing the post about lack of vegetarian dishes. Wow!! Often you can make a meal of a couple of vegetarian appetizers, but not here! The only vegetarian dishes are green salad and beet salad (yawn). I agree with the previous poster, I would not go here. And even carnivores often have vegetarian partners or friends they eat out with, so this menu may be cutting off more business than they realize.

I concur!

Working from home today but don't feel like cooking. Where would you suggest for a good quick affordable meal in the Logan area? Thanks Tom!

Make a beeline for a hearty sandwich, maybe spicy goat or roasted cauliflower,  at G by Mike Isabella or a good-for-you salad of kale, apple and ginger dressing at Zentan.

Good morning Tom, posting early so I don't forget! Hubby and I are looking for a nice date night spot sans kiddies, something casual but intimate and not too pricey. Somewhere the locals go. Thinking along the lines of Evening Star in Del Ray (but something new) or Rays the Steaks (but not so loud). No real preference on type of food and willing to cross the Potomac to DC or MD (we live in McLean). Any place come to mind? Gracias!!

Lots of places come to mind: the arty Buck's Fishing & Camping next to Politics & Prose in Upper NW, the newish Thally in Shaw, Mourayo in Dupont Circle for good Greek, the cozy Old Angler's Inn in Potomac ... need more?

This is a (very) late thanks for your Valentines recommendations for a vegetarian. We went to Jaleo and had a wonderful dinner, complete with complimentary chocolate truffles served after our meal, a nice surprise.

Awesome. Thanks for the thanks.

Isnt the Wp giving early outs? If so why dont you take one so subscribers and readers can enjoy someone new. Someone who isnt so prissy and pretentious and has a clue about food. Its time for you to start checking out assisted living communities.

Have a nice day!

Have you heard anything about the new chef and menu at L'Auberge Provencal? We are considering dining there for a special occasion.

All I know is, I ate there last year and left seriously unimpressed. Everything about the place was dated. Thanks for the news.

Wouldn't asking for substitutions when ordering give you some insight into how well the staff and kitchen handle that kind of situation? Some places are much more flexible than others. On that note, do you arrange to take people with you for restaurant visits who have special dietary considerations to get a sense of how these things are handled?

I count several dining companions who are vegan/gluten-intolerant/not able to eat all things. So yes, I'm able to see how restaurants handle substitutions and special requests -- which, as I always like to point out to diners, should be made at the time a reservation is made. 

Seems like usually the First Bite columns are posted online on Tuesdays, but nothing so far this week.

I had two columns publish way early -- last week.


Today's First Bite looks at Bidwell in Union Market.

Tom, you published (or The Post) restaurants and bars that had happy hours where Democrats and progressives hung out. You also did the same for Republicans and conservatives. Can you republish the list. Thanks.

Your wish is our command.

Tom .. ate there any unique wine bars for a quick snack to check out in Dc ?

One of the dining pioneers in Logan Circle is a place called Cork Wine Bar, which pours some terrific wines by the glass from all over the globe and serves small plates including grilled makerel, chicken liver bruschetta and roasted eggplant flatbread.

This goes waaaaay back into the last century, but I miss Sans Souci. I had many a fine lunch there (I don't recall going there for dinner though). I even treated my mother to lunch there when she and my father were visiting (both, alas, long gone).

Blast from the past. Do you recall what made it special?

I know you've traveled to Paris many times. I'm headed there the week after Easter, staying in Saint Germain. Any recommendations on can't miss cafes, or dinners that won't completely break the bank? It'll be the first trip for my wife and I and we are hoping to just relax and soak up the city.

I wrote about my most recent discovery, Le 6 Paul Bert, in an end-of-year piece for the Travel section. Plenty of readers, including one up top here, have since told me what good meals they have had there.  You can find additional tips for Paris in the Postcard archives, including these dispatches from 2008 and 2007

Hi Tom - I believe you asked for some suggestions for your next Dining Guide. Please include Patowmack Farms. It's nothing short of amazing, in the humble opinion of this diner. I hope we can get some true spring weather along with your Guide; this winter has gotten old

I was considering Patowmack, but it was featured just a year ago, in the 2013 spring collection, and I prefer to feature some restaurants that haven't had such recent press.

Hey, Tom...One of my pet peeves is when I find a recipe online, then read the reviews by people who don't make the recipe as written -- sometimes, they make ridiculous substitutions that completely alter the recipe. On that same note, I find that certain blogs or cooks always seem to have recipes that I love (e.g. Annie's Eats, Smitten Kitchen, America's Test Kitchen, Ina Garten)...and I always prepare them as written first, before tweaking to my family's tastes. Do you have any favorite recipe-finding sites? Thanks for your fun weekly chats!

I don't do enough cooking to have a favorite site for recipes, but my significant other uses Epicurious a lot, and with pretty good results.

Jean Louis, when you consider the quality of chefs that went through his kitchen and how he put DC on the map as a fine dining destination? I never went there b/c I just moved her and felt $38 dollars (if I remember that right) for three courses was too much.

Oui! Clearly I didn't have enough caffeine this morning. My predeccessor, Phyllis Richman, used to say Jean-Louis Palladin helped put both her and Washington on the food map. 

Good Housekeeping tests their recipes multiple times with common replacements. I've had good luck with them. (And terrible luck with Real Simple. I followed a recipe to the letter and it tasted TERRIBLE.)

Good to know. Thanks.

Tom, We are having a meeting in Dupont Circle area for 15-30 people traveling on government per diem. Could you suggest a few places to send them for dinner? I can't think of many places big enough and not too loud, too chintzy, or too ritzy. Thanks.

If you want to stay around Dupont, Urbana does well with groups as might the Spanish tapas restaurant, Boqueria.  Another possibility is Sette Osteria for casual Italian, which has the bonus of an outdoor patio (if and when winter ever ends, that is).

Can you tell me what you liked about this new K Street offering? I went with a group of friends and found the oysters underwhelming (served on a normal dinner plate with minimal ice--yikes) and they were out of two of the happy hour beers. The rest of the food was okay but nothing special.

Oysters aren't the reason to go to Catch 15.  I think the best stuff is Greek.

I ate at Red Sage a couple of times and liked it well enough, but what I really miss, having worked nearby for 14 of the last 17 years, was their little market around the corner. A great little carryout featuring caesar salad, multiple varieties of chili, amazing cookies, chips and guacamole, sandwiches, and more...all at reasonable prices. One of my favorite spots to grab lunch for many, many years.

I'm nodding my head in agreement. Great spot.

It drives me nuts when I read about people docking a server's tip due to a policy outside of their control. It's petty.

I agree.

I was *much* younger (sigh) then. I think what i liked was the combination of the food, which I recall was good, and the ability to see those young guys carrying telephones (this was so pre-cell phone) with antennae on them, and little buttons in their ears (not for deafness). After all, SS was right around the corner from the White House. As I said, the food was good. I think I'd usually have the sole or some other kind of fish, and I was never disappointed. The biggest disappointment was in discovering that the next tenant in that space was a McDonalds. Oh, dear.

Thanks for sharing.

I wanted to respond to the hospitality professional who wrote in about "first world problems" last week. While I agree that there are much bigger issues in this world than our experience (the good and the bad) of dining at DC-area restaurants, that's what Tom's chat is about. And while it may be great to just share success stories of delicious meals, noting disappointments will help improve the system, especially because hospitality professionals do read it. While I'm sure many people eat out frequently and can brush off a sub-par night, for others it is truly a treat and it's nice when it all works out easily and happily. Sure, it's far from the end of the world to have a rude server or a lousy meal, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't discuss them.

Well put. Thanks for taking the time to write.

Here's another reader on the matter:


First World Questions and Problems

I would appreciate it if we could no longer dismiss comments or discussions as first world problems, hence not worthy of attention - with the possible exception of busboy salaries, nothing in this chat or in the restaurant review columns is outside of the first world, which most of us have the fortune to enjoy. We are reading this as a part of enhancing the quality of life, and doesn't mean that there is no concern for starving people elsewhere - but that gets a lot of attention in other parts of the paper. Carry on, Tom, and tell us what's good for dinner these days - once it does really warm up, what sidewalk cafes and restaurants will you be frequenting?


And another:


"There are children starving in India" poster from last week

I'd really rather you ignored posts like this, which miss the whole point of your chat. If you don't want to read about service problems in restaurants, just skip the chat. You wouldn't walk into a day spa and grumble about how Third World residents don't have these luxuries, would you? Personally I love seeing how restaurateurs respond or Tom explains another point of view.

Hi, Tom---we have an anniversary coming up and would like to have a nice dinner out at a place that isn't too stuffy but where we could hear each other across the table. It needs to take reservations as we'll have to get a babysitter and don't want to use up the evening waiting. We've enjoyed Le Diplomate (but it's too loud), Vidalia, Restuarant Eve, and Proof in the last few years. I do read you regularly, but nothing is ringing a bell as an obvious choice. We're in Arlington, so NoVa or DC would be great.

Want something new and different? Check out Aggio, the restaurant-within-a-restaurant at Range on Wisconsin Ave.  It's the subject of this coming Sunday's review in the Magazine.

I can't remember if I ever wrote to you about our great Bourbon Steak experience. The SO and I always rely on your reviews but couldn't bring ourselves to do this one... a lot of cash, ANOTHER steakhouse? etc. etc. We finally went, and I am sorry we waited so long. The food was great, of course, but honestly, it's not that hard to get a great meal these days. It was everything else, I think, that made this dinner so memorable. My favorite moment was watching the table-side plating of the lobster pot pie, followed closely by the sugar cube with whiskey inside. All in all, it was further confirmation of why put our trust in Tom.

To me, the great thing about Bourbon Steak is that it's about so much more than grilled meat. The restaurant's got everything -- stellar service, drinks, seafood, comfort  -- going for it.

The one I had there tasted only of vermouth. It was awful--and expensive. Also, part of the pleasure of ordering a martini in a restaurant is having it presented in the appropriate glass. Those little coupes remind me of wedding receptions. At least I'll know better than to order a martini at Iron Gate again.

Gosh, you shouldn't avoid the three-star restaurant just because it uses stemware you don't like. Something tells me if you think the drink has too much vermouth, the staff will address the problem.

Going to Santa Fe in mid-May!!. Restaurants we should not miss? Thanks - love your chat!

Restaurant Martin should be at the top of your list.  But if you pick up the Post this Sunday, you'll see my take on three of the scene's newest dining destinations, including a terrific burger joint and a Japanese restaurant alongside Ten Thousand Waves, the amazing spa.

I loved Germaine's in Glover Park back in the day (the 1980s). Wonderful pan-Asian food and a pretty dining room.

It was *particularly* good in the 80's, less so as it got older.

Hi Tom, what does this mean? "Your mileage may vary, but judging from the smiles I observed elsewhere in the room, this is no Potemkin village."

It means 1) I was tagged as a critic at Aggio but 2) judging from how other diners were responding to the service I didn't think 3) the attention was staged, or for my benefit.

I on the other hand often get special attention by announcing that I am you.

For real? Because I would never, ever tell a restaurant who I was.  Well, at least not in the DC area;  I sometimes introduce myself to owners or chefs when I'm abroad, but only after I pay my bill and because I want to establish contact with them in order to interview them at a later date.


That's a wrap for today, folks. Thanks for spending some time with me. Let's do it again next week, same time. Good-bye for now.

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Weaned on a beige buffet a la "Fargo" in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. In thinner days, he was a critic for Microsoft Corp.'s and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and a food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the '80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section's recipes. That's how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns; keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom column and contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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