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

Apr 02, 2014

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

With all the new restaurants you haven't reviewed, you thought it was vital to revisit Range, excuse me Aggio, so soon? Voltaggio's PR folks earned their money with how they advised him to roll out this gimmick.

Aggio is a completely different dining concept. The Italian ristorante came together very quickly and enjoyed lots of early buzz.  I wouldn't be doing my job if I ignored the newcomer within Range.


P.S. Stay tuned. I'm probably eating at most of the fresh places you think I'm ignoring.


Happy Wednesday, everyone. Lots of restaurant news this week, much of it reported by my colleague Tim Carman:  The troubled Tabard Inn lost its very good chef, Paul Pelt, and the talented John Critchley is leaving Bourbon Steak


Talk to me.

What's the best way to complain at a restaurant? My mother and I went to eat at a mid-level diner, she requested her burger "Well done, no Pink" when it came still pink, she sent it back. It returned on the same soggy bun and the same (now cold) fries, still slightly pink. The waiter never returned to check on us and overall we were very disappointed (I was embarrassed as I suggested the place!) We still paid and tipped full price. Should I have alerted management? Wrote a letter to the owner later? Done a bad Yelp review?

The time to complain is when a problem arises. If a server doesn't check back, try flagging down another employee.


Waiting to complain after the fact doesn't remedy the error or give the restaurant a chance to respond.  It's really unfair to post a bad Yelp review if a diner hasn't made a business aware of a problem.

Hi Tom! We've got reservations for the tasting room at the Iron Gate Inn. In your review, you mention that you left stuffed every time you ate there. Did you get the 4 course or 6 course tasting menu?

I was sated after four courses at Iron Gate, mostly because the first course, called Taste, is a parade of dishes -- pickles, cheese, focaccia, etc.  -- and they're all very good. And, well, I have no willpower .

Dear Tom, My Dad is in town this weekend from San Francisco and I'm out of ideas of where to take him. In the past, he's enjoyed Komi, Little Serow, Jaleo, and 1789. One night we are going to Rose's for sure, but I'm stumped on where to go on Saturday? Thanks!

Your dad has eaten in some winning restaurants!


Consider continuing the trend at a place that doesn't exist in San Francisco, maybe Ethiopic for a meal eaten without utensils, Rasika West End for Indian or Old Angler's Inn in Potomac for something along the lines of 1789.

Have you been down to Occoquan lately? Haven't seen any mention of the Bistro in several years.

Gosh, I haven't dined there in five years. Has anyone been more recently than that? If so, thoughts?

Hi Tom, I always feel that you should let a restaurant know when they are doing a great job so I thought I would tell you about a recent experience I had at Coastal Flats in Tysons. I was to meet a friend there on a recent busy Friday night. My friend got confused and thought we were going to Sweetwater Tavern in Merrifield. My cell reception was spotty so I only got the her texts when I was sitting down and then I had a moment of panic when she texted and said she was heading over to the branch in Fairfax. I immediately called and told her the correct location. I decided to order an appetizer while I waited. My server had overheard my stress and when she brought me the appetizer, she informed me that it was on the house because it seemed like I was having a bad night and they wanted to make it better. I told them that they didn't need to do that because it was our fault that we would have the table for so long. They insisted and gave us superlative service the rest of the night. The food was very good (I had the crabcake) but the service really made it special. I told the manager when we were leaving that the servers and the food were excellent.

I love posting mash notes such as yours. Take a bow, Coastal Flats, for going above and beyond the call of duty. And kudos to the poster for showing appreciation for jobs well done. 

My mother and I tried Carmine's a couple of weeks ago. "Sietsema liked it!" she said, so I reserved judgement. Service was awful. We were ignored for 15 minutes at least; not even any water. The fawning attention that you received was not what we found. But here's my main gripe: the portions. Yes, I know this is their "thing." But my mother and I were discouraged (rightly, I think) from ordering either a salad or a dessert because of the size. The entree (veal saltimbocca) was fine, but of course we had to eat the same thing again because of the size. Why do they even *have* tables for two, since none of their menu items are appropriate for that? Even three means you all have to share the same thing because of the portions. I left there irritated and puffy from all the salt in the dinner. Seriously, how could we have had such disparate experiences? It's perception, I know, but this is one of the only times I've really disagreed with you. Which admittedly are some good odds. :)

My critique of Carmine's dates to 2010. If I've said it once, I've said it 100 times:  Restaurants change. Reviews should carry freshness dates.


That stated, I agree. The portions at Carmine's border on the obscene and violate the Miss Piggy rule: "Never eat anything bigger than your head."  The restaurant is best used by groups of diners (four or more).

Dear Tom, I would like to respond to the two comments on last week's chat about vegetarian options on our menu. Chef Busch and I go to the Fresh Farmers Market in Dupont Circle every Sunday and use local farmers on daily basis to procure for our Restaurant. Although we do have some vegetarian dishes on our menu, we also accommodate anyone with vegetarian or vegan dietary needs per request, with or without prior notice. Now that Spring is on our door finally, we will have a wider variety of vegetables and dishes to choose for our upcoming Spring Menu which is about to launch in ten days or less. Best regards. Aykan Demiroglu

Thanks for sharing this with readers, sir.

I wanted to get your thoughts on going to restaurant shortly before closing. I had an interesting conversation last night with my brother, who has worked in numerous roles in the restaurant industry (fine dining) for many, many years. I have always felt uncomfortable if I end up going to a restaurant and discover they are closing soon; I feel as though we are keeping staff late and therefore would feel somewhat rushed and not enjoy my meal as much. I have even been in a few places where, although we did not arrive very late, we felt rushed by the staff towards the end of our meal because the restaurant was closing and there were few diners in the restaurant. However, I was surprised to hear my brother say that if a restaurant is open until, say, 11, then that means as a customer you can come in and be seated for a meal until that time. He did mention that although some restaurant employees may be frustrated by this, it is their job to still treat those guests the same way they treated their first guests of the evening, and the kitchen should not be closing stations early anyway. He felt this way when he was a server, a bartender, a sommelier, and even now as a GM. Is that the norm? If a restaurant indicates it is open until a certain time, should a diner feel comfortable walking in close to that time (say, anywhere from 5-15 minutes before closing)? Thanks in advance!

Sounds as if your bro worked for some good outfits.


While I'd like to think restaurants honor stated closing times, the reality is, a lot of them start closing their kitchens early, especially on slow nights. I wouldn't risk showing up at a place 5 minutes before closing. Always safer to call first.

Hey Tom! I need your help finding a restaurant for a group of picky eaters. Here are the deets: group of 6 this Saturday on the early side about 5:30 in Georgetown. Picky means pretty basic eaters - burgers, chicken, ceasar salads, basic italian etc. Challenging (and boring), I know! To make it a little more difficult, we're doing the tourist thing so we'll be dressed casually. So far the best I've got is the Daily Grill or maybe Pizza Paradiso. Anything else interesting I should consider? Thanks!

Newer than either is Rialto, a fetching Italian restaurant on M St.  The food is on the hearty side; pastas start at $14.

It honestly floors me how people get such pleasure from being downright mean! If you have an issue with Tom’s columns, articles or discussions just don’t read them, or take it to the publisher with tangible reasons/arguments to back up your criticisms. I know that Tom is a big boy and can take it, but it’s just so sad that you would derive pleasure from trying to ruin his day… P.S. – I live near Baltimore, but grew up in the DC suburbs. Hardly ever get back, but love your discussions and never miss one!

All I have to say is this: It's easy to be critical when you can remain anonymous.

(not sure if this went through the first time). The husband and I finally have a babysitter for Saturday night! We are going to a party at Vinoteca and wanted to go somewhere else first for dinner. We are meeting another couple and we want to watch some basketball, be close to the bar, and eat a delicious reasonably priced dinner. Thanks so much for your help!! Love the chats!

Head to the amusingly titled Fainting Goat, where James Barton, the former chef de cuisine at the Oval Room, mans the kitchen. Some of my favorite dishes are the meat pie, shrimp roll and roast chicken.

Back in the day,(way back) Tiberio's and Mr. K's (with the gold utensils). I was young in my 20's and going to these restaurants was so glamours and special. I am sure this was in Phyllis Richman's day, I doubt you ever ate there!

Actually, I ate at both restaurants in my younger days.  Tiberio's was terrific, I recall, and Mr. K's was mostly just flashy, lots of faux gold and dusty-rose accents.  If you ordered coffee there, it was percolated at the table.  But what I always wanted were better shrimp toast and pork dumplings.

Tom, the "four critics" piece in the Sunday Magazine was great! It also caused me to reflect on the fact that your reviews so often hit on each of these angles even within the limited space you have -- we'll get a sketch focused on taste, but also on sound, design, and fashion. Making us think of some food trends in the context of other movements in art, music, and fashion was one of the major contributions of this collaboration, but perhaps the most important was its reminder that "dining out" is about a lot more -- a LOT more -- than the food. Thanks to the four of you!

Ah, so kind of you to say that. It was fun dining with my clever Style colleagues at Daikaya and reading about their thoughts.

I remember a seafood restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue (not O'Donnell's) that used to have great crab imperial. They also had crab Norfolk. I don't know where you can get either of those dishes nowadays. Red Lobster has fish, lobster, shrimp, but no crab dishes (as opposed to crab legs). I'd really love some good crab imperial in Montgomery County or Northern VA.

The new Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab lists the classic on its menu, but it's not one I tried in my several visits there. Chatters?

I recently read an online article from a fairly reputable blog that listed a number of things restaurants do to get customers to spend more money. Most were benign such as encouraging people to order appetizers, more drinks, desserts, etc. But one thing jumped out at me; it said that when one is ordering a bottle of somewhat expensive wine, some places bring a cheaper vintage of the same wine but, if the customer doesn’t notice, charge for the more expensive one originally ordered. I have never encountered anything like this and found it to be rather cynical. Have you ever heard of or experienced anything like this?

I've received the incorrect vintage a few times, but I don't think the restaurants were trying to fool me. In most cases, the wine server announced the vintage switch before opening the bottle. In a few cases, where I noticed a different year, the staff has been apologetic.


Do some restaurants try to upsell? Sure. But stories like the one you mention irritate me a bit.  They make the whole industry come across as con artists, when in fact, profit margins are pretty low and there are a lot of conscientious people behind the meals.

Bucks Camping and Fishing for our date night last weekend! Thank you so much for the recommendation. After getting there when the place was packed I was nervous we'd never get seated, even with our reservation, but after only a few minutes we were seated at a table side by side so that we could hear each other, which was nice. My husband had some trouble seeing the menu in the dim lights, and after me teasing him as he held his cell phone up to the menu, pointed out that the people at the table next to us were doing the same thing, but we managed. :) The food was excellent! Nothing was left on any of our plates. And the service was efficient and relaxed. Our cocktails were a bit strong, next time we'll go for the wine. We will definitely be back! And I'm actually looking forward to going down your list of recs, Thally, Mourayo, and Old Angler's Inn (it's on my bulletin board at the home office!)

I appreciate the field report -- and I agree about the dim lighting at Buck's.  But doesn't everyone look better in its soft amber glow?

Hi Tom, we moved from DC about two years ago and we are coming back for our one year anniversary. Looking to try something new, but would like to make a reservation/not wait forever. Some favorites-Rasika, Cava, Bourbon Steak, Birch and Barley. Any ideas? I was thinking of some new 14th Street places,but am overwhelmed! Thanks!

Overwhelmed by the changes on 14th? That makes two of us. ( I am never, ever bored in this job.)


A lot of good place have sprung up while you've been away. Try booking at Del Campo for South American,  the Red Hen for Italian or Kapnos for modern Greek, just for starters.



Hi Tom. I loved the 4 Critics 1 Restaurant article in the Sunday mag, despite the writing of that cranky Kennicott. I couldn't tell though--did you four all dine together or on the same night at different tables? We miss Robin Givhan in the Post!

I miss Robin's regular reporting, too (she still writes for the WP, just not on a steady basis).


It was *tough* coordinating the dinner, which had to be postponed twice. On the last try, Chris called in sick, so I ended up dining with Phil and Robin on one night, Chris a week or so later. But both visits were cold, snowy and mid-week.

I find Yelp very helpful to find restaurant locations, hours, and menus. I find it pretty useless for reviews unless there is an overwhelming consensus from a large number of reviewers. Although I don't always agree with your reviews after trying a place myself, I appreciate that you always provide enough detail to help me decide whether a place is worth trying.

Yelp is the new Zagat.

I appreciate the response from the restaurant regarding vegetarian dishes. However, having eaten one too many "vegetable plates," I really do want to know what dishes I will be able to eat. So if a restaurant says it will "accomodate" vegetarians, I want to know exactly what that accomodation will consist of. Too often it is a collection of starchy side dishes, with no protein.

Which is why you should call ahead, state your request and ask if the chef can do something more interesting than put some grilled vegetables on your plate.

Heading to Le Diplomate for the first time on Friday after the baseball game. My wife and I can't order everything on the menu; do you have any can't miss items?

Here's my review.

Yesterday I was at a sushi restaurant - I had a miso soup, a seaweed salad and a sushi combo. I told the waiter "No wasabi" and he repeated it to me. When I got the sushi, there was no wasabi on the plate, but my first bite showed it definitely was on the sushi itself. I spit it out immediately, and the waiter immediately removed the plate, and fairly quickly brought me a new order. I did point out that if I had been allergic, rather than simply a person who thinks horseradish is the taste of evil, this would have been a real problem. He agreed, apologized many times, and gave me two slightly differing stories about what he said and what the sushi chef did and what plate he grabbed, etc. My question is - was acknowledgment of error and prompt replacement sufficient? I didn't get anything taken off the check, nor did I ask for it, but I'm still vaguely dissatisfied. (I seriously, seriously despise horseradish.)

While the differing stories are irritating, the server acknowledged and solved the problem.  Cased closed.

I miss David Greggory, which used to be at 21st and M. The weekly whole roasted pig nights, specialty bacon dinners, and the incredible deviled eggs... my mouth still waters. The service was always friendly and low-key. My husband and I were regulars and I'll never forget how welcome we felt there.

I miss the restaurant, co-owned by my pal David Hagedorn, too.  But aren't we all lucky he's morphed into a food writer?

Tom, Do you drink miso soup straight from the bowl or do you use a spoon?

I bring the bowl to my lips and sip it from there.


P.S. Your question is addressed this Sunday, in my Magazine article on how to be a savvy diner. 

I had a reservation this weekend at a place in Baltimore. We were lucky to get in at 5:00 and showed up right on time. We were informed when we sat down that the serving is "family style" and the dishes would arrive whenever they were ready from the kitchen. We ordered appetizers and main courses to share and one diner ordered an appetizer of her own for a meal. First, the food was incredible - however, it all arrived at once, crowded the table and the mains were cold by the time we'd finished the appetizers (which they asked to take away three times to make room as the mains arrived). For a meal that was pricey ($35/person without any alcohol and sharing dishes) and that was for a special occasion, we were absurdly rushed. We arrived at 5:00 and were in our car leaving before 6:00. It felt a little off - am I wrong? or did I just pick the wrong restaurant?

More and more, restaurants are serving dishes at a pace that's more convenient for cooks than for diners. I, for one, am not amused.  Die, trend, die!

Sure, I could call Bistro Vivant and ask how they might "accommodate" me that evening. But when there are many other restaurants out there that have creative vegetarian choices already on their menus, I'm more likely to save myself the bother and go to one of those establishments. That's the point -- if your menu advertises that you haven't given vegetarians much thought, vegetarians will go elsewhere, and take their dining companions with them.

Fair enough. But the owner is implying that the market dictates what his chef will be making and the choices can vary, especially this year, with The Winter That Would Not Go.

Looking for a fun, interesting place with great food and service for our anniversary. We don't get out much, and haven't been to either Iron Gate or Rasika--which to choose? It would be nice to hear each other, which has made me wonder about Rasika...but we love Indian food and you always rave about it.

I adore both restaurants, but Iron Gate is the quieter of the two.

I'm the original poster who wrote about the lack of vegetarian options at Bistro Vivant, and I appreciate you taking the time to write about your upcoming plans. I do want to point out that your web page and your posted menu create the public face of the restaurant. Nowhere is there any sense that you have anything to offer but a couple of salads. I'm glad to know that as a vegetarian I would be accommodated (although the phrase suggests a slapped-together vegetable plate), but you should put something on the menu about that...or maybe even make it a menu item. When there's a creative-sounding vegetarian entrée on the menu, that tells me the chef likes creating vegetarian choices; when I have to ask, and it's not publicized (like it's a shameful secret), that tells me I might not get anything interesting. And, as my original post illustrated, I will most likely pass over your restaurant for one where I'm more certain to have a good meal.

Thanks for responding to Bistro Vivant's statement.  I concur, a line or two about a meatless offering would be welcome.

Since another poster re-opened this subject: I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Domenique, with its unusual offerings. I had a memorable birthday dinner that featured rattlesnake and hippopotamus. (The server, when asked if the hippo were fresh, replied that it was raised on a farm outside Chicago.)

Ha! I used to take my college girlfriend there for special occasions. We always ordered the Liz Taylor dessert -- chocolate truffles in a bowl of whipped cream or some such.  Dominique's was *the* place to go for people-watching and it threw an amazing Bastille Day lunch to which the Food section was always invited (and at which I aways got a little buzzed).

You haven't mentioned it lately.

Because I miss what is was. But I'll get back ...

It has been published online. I asked about your practice because the article did not state you did so. I was just curious. I have never seen another person in a Japanese restaurant do so. I need to go to better restaurants.

Hi Tom, I'm putting together a birthday dinner for a close friend of mine turning 31. He wants to get a group of guys (8-12) together for a nice dinner in the city. Any suggestions? Thanks, Ned

Budget? Appetite? Need a private room?

For the love of Pete, people. Chefs and owners draw up and plan menus based on many factors, one of MANY is customer's taste. I'm a bit tired of vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free sargents demanding that chefs and owners run their business based on their taste-of-the-month. Enough! You want to eat superb quality food in a restaurant everyone else eats? You don't find stuff you like? Deal with it, go somewhere else. I'm sorry, if you want a vegan-cage-free-kosher restaurant, open your own. I think that Jose Andres said something like that once. I run my own business the way i know how, the way I make it work and the way i like it. You don't like it? Open your own restaurant.

Whew! Feeling better now?

Hi Tom, I'm the same person who posted about first world problems two weeks ago and I read a few of your readers' responses last week and I think maybe I didn't make my point clearly enough. I think it's reasonable for people to be unhappy when their food takes too long, or someone spills something on them, or a restaurant won't accomodate a simple request such as moving a table or whatnot. What I think is unreasonable is problems that aren't really problems. An example from last week's chat stuck out like a sore thumb: Three diferent posters took time out of their days to complain about the SHAPE of a glass at Iron Gate, one of whom swore they would never go to the restaurant based solely on the fact that they don't like the martini glass there. I'm sorry, but that's just plain ridiculous.

One man's hangnail is another's heart attack.


Tom, love your chats and follow them religiously. Thank you for all you do for us. Just wanted to share my experience this past Saturday night at Villa Mozart out in Fairfax. My husband and I arrived for our reservation and were seated promptly at a beautiful quiet table as we had requested. The service was very pleasant, efficient, and professional. The atmosphere very elegant and jovial with many happy diners on that busy night. The food was absolutely amazing. We shared a platter of salumi with their herb breadsticks (I could eat those all day long). My husband had their gnocchi special that night - squid ink gnocchi with octopus. It was to die for. We have had octopus in many places around the world but the octopus that night was really really good. My halibut special was like a symphony in the mouth with flavors that meshed so well together and so beautifully presented. For dessert we ordered a fennel creme brulee with orange compote or gelee and malted ice cream it came with complementary moscato d'asti to congratulate us. That was the icing on the cake, the dessert was so good I am still thinking about it and could not wait to write and tell you. We had such a nice experience all around we plan on returning soon.

Boy, did you make me hungry with this post. Not to mention eager to return to the oh-so-civilized Villa Mozart in Fairfax City.

There are certainly many trendy and highly specific dietary restrictions out there, but vegetarianism is quite mainstream and well-established. Just check out the recipes in the Post's Food section these days. Restaurants operating as if it's 1958 are only cutting off business for themselves.

Uh huh.

Tom, thanks for all the great reviews. I used to live in the DMV and I'm being sent back for work! Yay! I want to hit up a late-ish dinner with a friend who is new to town. She's in Capitol Hill and I'll be in Dupont. Complication: it's a Monday night. Thanks

Open on Mondays, located downtown-ish and good (or better)?


  Try Bibiana for Italian, Bombay Club for Indian, Corduroy for modern American, Siroc for Mediterranean or Zentan for pan-Asian.

It will always be my favorite spot to miss. My husband and I met there on Bastille Day in 1990. He was a permanent staffer at that time, and I was a one day temp waitress for the big lunch. This month, we'll be married 20 years :)

Love it!

Thank you for your comments. We usually have, upon availability from the farmers market, interesting dishes on our 'Blackboard Specials' that change every day. I promise you, we will have interesting vegetarian plates that are not boring. Stay tuned for our upcoming Spring Menu. Aykan Demiroglu


Tom, I mean it. I think that if a particular customer has a very particular demand/taste, s/he shouldn't expect the world to fine tune to them. There are things I do not eat (fish, allergic) so i stay away from restaurants and dishes that may be tainted with the stuff. Including fish sauce... I hear vegetarians demanding to know if chicken broth was used for the sauce. DEMANDING. What is the difference between them and picky eaters?

Sometimes, it's a matter of faith. Or health.

How to be a better diner comes up with a reminiscence of Dominiques.

Now corrected.

No budget constraints or restrictions on appetites per se. It will be a group of young proffessionals who go out to eat in DC fairly regularly (i.e. everyone has been to Le Diplomate). A private room would be a great option, especially if it provides an intimate atmosphere while retaining some masculinity. The greatest weight would be given to quality of food and a fun atmosphere.

The new Joe's is fun (if you avoid the signature stone crabs, that is). So is the aforementioned  Aggio, which counts a handsome glassed-in private space. Also: Osteria Morini, near the ball park.


That's a wrap for today, folks. See you here next Wednesday, I hope. Til then, dine well.

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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: