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

Apr 24, 2013

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Hi Tom - What is the most recent postcard for Paris? Going for my first time in May and looking for some suggestions. Thanks in advance.

My most recent dispatch dates to 2008. But I spent three days in Paris last week and among the new spots I plan to write about in the not-too-distant future are Le 6 Paul Bert, a trim bistro serving terrific market-fresh small plates, and Semilla, a breezy addition to Saint Germain from the owners of the inspiration for Cosi in Paris (where the bread is superior). If you're an oyster lover like I am, be sure to knock back a few bivalves at the tiny Opium on the rue Dauphine (bonus: great shopping nearby).


SPRING CLEANING: "It's always a pleasure to promote from within," says Khalid Pitts, co-owner of Cork Wine Bar in Logan Circle.


That's the restaurant operator's way of announcing the departure of chef Robert Weland  after dinner tonight and the promotion of Kristin Hutter, the chef at the nearby Cork Market & Tasting Room since the two-floor business launched in 2009. Hutter will be wearing two hats, since she will continue to oversee the shop as she steps into the restaurant kitchen, where she cooked briefly before Cork Market opened.


Having worked for the company for four years, Hutter figures her expanded role will be an "easy transition."   Plus, she adds,  "it's spring, so we're going to lighten up the menu," in part by adding some vegetarian dishes.


Pitts is billing the news as going  "back to the future."  That's because Ron Tanaka, Cork's opening chef, is returning to the wine bar to assist Hutter on a temporary basis. Tanaka left Cork in 2011 to pursue a restaurant of his own; the concept -- a 70-seater called Thally at 1316 9th St. NW -- is currently in construction phase. He hopes to open its doors in June.  Pitts, his temporary boss, suggests Tanaka might be doing a pop-up to introduce his menu at the Tasting Room in advance.


Hutter knows both sides of the restaurant trade. A former line cook at the currently-shuttered Michel Richard Citronelle, where (small world) she worked with Tanaka, she went on to serve as a captain at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria.


As for Weland, the chef at Cork for the last year and a half  says he plans to travel to Italy, spend time with his family and "then focus" on his next project, which he can't talk about in any detail other than to say it will be a business in Washington and he will have a stake in it. Will the secret open yet this year?  "Gee, I hope so," the chef tells us.


Happy Wednesday, everyone! I missed chatting with you last Wednesday, when I left for Paris for several days of eating around. So much happened while I was away. Let's discuss.


Hi, Tom. A few years ago my husband took me to Present Vietnamese restaurant for my birthday. It was beyond wonderful, but I just wonder if you've been to it lately? Has it started resting on its laurels?

Present was one of the area's most exciting Vietnamese restaurants when it opened. But it tastes awfully ordinary these days, sorry to say. I was last there a year or so ago. Anyone visited more recently?

Have you been to Birch and Barley over near Logan Circle? I'm thinking of making a reservation there, but haven't heard too much about it.

I've probably eaten at the beer-themed restaurant a dozen times since it opened its doors. Here's my most recent review.

Hi Tom, circling back to you on a customer that was on your online chat two weeks ago and had a bad experience with the wine service at Marcel's. After talking to my captains, I discovered the customer was charged the higher price for their wine when they should have been charged for the wine we were out of. It's inexcusable for us to not have known we were out of a particular wine; captains are to notify each other when this happens. If you have the ability to reach out to the customer, please let them know we want to apologize and have them back in as our guests. Thank you for any assistance you can Tom, Robert Wiedmaier

If the original poster sees this, feel free to reach out to me or the French restaurant. And thanks, Chef, for following up on the problem. One of the many things I like about this weekly chat is the chance for diners to connect with the industry and vice versa, no matter the issue.

Tom, I have had issues (mainly service related) with Heritage India since they replaced Germaine's and eventually gave up on it. But I have to say, I hope their new Malgudi portends better things. I've been 7 or 8 times now, and although the service can be both smothering and incompetent at the same time, the food is another story altogether. The rasam is a revelation. The dosas are as good as I've had anywhere. The lentil "doughnuts" with sambar equally so. The cauliflower and stuffed chili appetizers are also very good. I'm less fond of the meat curries and "rice entrees," but not because they are bad -- they're not; they just don't shine as brightly as I believe some other dishes do (small sample size -- I need to try them again). All this and the most expensive item on the menu is $15.95 or so (for shrimp), and many dishes are half that price. An appetizer and a dosa can be had for around $13 not including drinks. That's not a lot to pay for a delicious meal. I encourage folks to check this place out.

I do, too! Malgudi is a terrific and affordable addition to the scene. The food is always good, but the service is best when Mitul Tuli, one of the co-owners and a gracious guide to the menu, is in the house.  Fingers crossed that there's a spinoff in our food future.

Hi Tom, I will be in Provo and Park City Utah the last week of May. I checked your postcards and didn't find any reference to those areas. Any dining recommendations? We'll have our 5 year old with us, so family friendly is a plus. Thanks!

Never been to either place. Maybe a chatter can weigh in?

Tom, Going to see 4000 Miles at the Studio Theater later in the week, any recs for the restaurants nearby/ any thoughts on the new Le Diplomate?

Gosh, you have lots of options near the Studio. Among the more delicious are the aforementioned Cork Wine Bar, the aforementioned Birch & Barley, the Spanish-themed Estadio and the good-luck-getting-a-table Le Diplomate, which I'm previewing next week in the Food section. I'd mention Standard, too, but you don't want to go to the theater smelling like barbecue.

Do you have a list of all of the places you visited last year? It would be interesting to see information like thiat, which would reveal a lot about places you have eaten at but did not feel like writing about, or places you visited in preparation for your Fall Dining Guide that did not make the list, etc.

This might be too much information, but I buy the same paper calendar I've purchased for the last 25 or more years, in which a record exists of every place I've eaten in. So yes, I could tell you where I ate, with whom, and how much the meal cost.  Sometimes I share some of that information, as I did after my last fall guide appeared and I wrote about some contenders that didn't make it in.

It is interesting to me that "name" chefs seem to be able to leave a post, like you mention at today with Cork, and then he/she travels and spends time with family while a new project opens months away. Most people who lose their jobs focus on finding the next opportunity right away. Being a chef is an amazing talent and I don't begridge anyone any money for their talents. It's just a curiousity. Any insights

I don't think Mr. Weland "lost" his job, in the sense he was asked to leave. Both he and the owners of Cork told me they were parting on good terms; Pitts even mentioned the possibility of working with Weland again in the future.


I do know of chefs who are desperate to secure a job, almost any job, after being let go. Washington is an expensive place to live if you don't have savings and are out of work.

Have you been to the recently opened Azur yet? Is it something that should be in the must visit list?

Azur, which I recently blogged about, opened just as I was taking off for Paris.  Haven't been yet, but the photos I've seen make it look very different from Cafe Atlantico.

Hi Tom, I'm headed to Restaurant Eve tonight and have never been. Any food or wine recommendations?

Are you going to the bistro (my preference) or the tasting room (a little uptight on my last visit)?  Either way, you have to try one of Todd Thrasher's divine cocktails. The menus at both places change, so I can't really plot a strategy for you, food-wise. 

Anywhere (fairly reasonable) I shouldn't miss while I'm there? I know there's supposed to be an amazing Thai restaurant somewhere in a shopping center.

I don't care if a Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic raved about it eons ago, Lotus of Siam, the place I think you are talking about, tastes pretty routine. At least it did when I ate there a few years back, with knowledgeable locals in tow. A far better bet off the Strip is the tiny Japanese retreat, Raku, which is where Vegas chefs like to graze off duty.

Do you keep your paper calendars? At the end of your career would you be able to say, "I ate at Citronelle x number of times, Komi y number of times and Popeye's z number of times"?

Yes, indeed I could! But I'm not sure I would have the patience, or a good reason, to do that. Every once in awhile -- again, probably TMI --  I like to go back and see what I was up to on such-and-such a date 5, 10, 13 or more years ago. Whenever I wanted to be secretive, I'd code something in half French or German or Russian. Since I don't speak those languages much anymore, however, I'm sometimes left wondering what the big deal was that transpired on, Oct. 5, 1983 or Dec. 12, 1998.

Hi Tom - Love your columns so much! I'll be traveling some in May, but don't want to miss your Spring Dining Guide! Can you tell us what date it will be released so I don't stop my paper that weekend? We've saved the past several spring/fall guides, and they are great reference materials when deciding where to eat! Thanks!

My spring dining guide, which looks back at previously-reviewed restaurants,  comes out May 19.

Looks like you keep careful records of your culinary excursions. So could you tell us how much you have spent on food while working as the Post food critic?

You mean personally and professionally since 2000, when I got the job? I have a very good idea, but I'm afraid if I mention it, it's going to go viral and I really don't want that attention.  Let me put it this way: Reviewing restaurants is not an inexpensive enterprise. But then, neither is covering the White House, overseas wars or elections.

You know that we moved to the 21st century, right ;-)? There are those things called computers and smart phones which have electronic calendars and can give you the counts of where you ate etc in a snap? ... Joke aside, I love the chats, and I hope you get to collect many many calendars over the years!

If my house were in flames, I'd race to get those files. They are my life.

There are LOTS of good restaurants in Park City (don't know Provo). My favorites from a recent trip are Chez Betty (which has a good chef's choice option, with matched wines), The Reefs (Mediterranean), and Chimayo (Southwestern).

Reader to the rescue! Much obliged.

Restaurant suggestions for Minneapolis? Im headed there this weekend and am looking for some help on what i can't miss while there! many thanks!

If you can get into the oh-so-Minnesota Bachelor Farmer, do so. Alma is also an exceptional restaurant, one of the top draws in the Twin Cities.

Go to the Red Iguana! It was my introduction to mole many years ago and is still memorable. Also, Ruth's Diner in Emigration Canyon is a terrific place for breakfast.

Another reader to the rescue.

We recently went to Old Anglers Inn (partly because we were at Great Falls anyway, partly because we had been curious for a while, and partly because of your review), and I have to say we were underwhelmed. The food was pricy and (for the things we had, at least) unspectacular. In that and a few other respects, it reminded us of some places that seem to survive simply because they are a habit for some loyal clientele (like, say, Le Vieux Logis in Bethesda). One thing I found interesting: the hostess practically insisted that we look at the menu before being seated. I took it as insulting at the time (as though -- dressed in casual, Great Falls-visiting clothes, but not hiking gear -- maybe we looked as though we couldn't afford it), but we later noticed another couple that sat down and then left without ordering (possibly because of sticker shock?), so perhaps it was warranted after all. Maybe that happens a lot.

Old Angler's Inn attracts two different crowds with its two different menus. The garden outside is more casual; the dining room on the ground floor is more polished. I focused on the inside restaurant, which I thought was vastly improved over my previous visits. What exactly did you eat? Detail helps.

Hi Tom. I recently ate dinner at Four Sisters in Falls Church. I've been there many times, but this time I didn't think the food was as good as usual. My husband said his dish was rather blah; I had the ginger chicken in a clay pot (because I'm incapable of ordering anything else there) and the flavor didn't seem to be up to par. I'm hoping this was just an off night for them and that they have not been a victim of their success.

I keep going back -- and longing for the good old days at Four Sisters, when I couldn't get enough of its baby clams and shrimp crackers, among other Vietnamese dishes. But the place has slipped, in my opinion.

Hi Tom – Love your work! My partner and I are leaving DC to move to Manhattan in a couple of months. Are there any cuisines/restaurant experiences from the DC area that we won’t be able to find up there, or that DC does better than NYC? In other words, what should we be filling up with before we make the move? Thanks!

New York does not have anything quite like Little Serow or Jaleo -- probably the best tapas restaurant in the country -- or the (relatively affordable) omakase at Sushi Taro or the refined Indian cooking at the Rasikas in Penn Quarter and the West End

Hi! Longtime reader, first time writer. Any suggestions for restaurants in San Juan, Puerto Rico? We're a bunch of 20-something ladies who want to try some good "local" spots (or, as "local" as you can get in a tourist-y spot).

As the lunch bell rings, I have two words of advice for you: Jose Enrique.

So Park City, Minneapolis, and Las Vegas are legitimate queries, but Savannah isn't?

Check out my last Savannah Postcard, dear reader.

I will be in DC tomorrow on business staying near Boqueria, and I really like tapas. Is it still a good choice?

It's a fine choice. I love the chili-hot margaritas, the lamb meatballs, the baby squid and .... pay attention to the list of specials, invariably delicious. 

Tom, I read your Tweet and mini-review of Roberto's 4 and was thrilled to see that Chef Donna has once again "found his groove" and is turning out some of the best cooking in the city. I would love to try Al Dente and Roberto's 4 but just need to know one thing: has the Chef made any restitution to all of the parties he is indebted to? Before I spend any money there, I want to know that my money is not only being spent on his fabulous food, but also helping out those who have been aggrieved. Any information you can share?

I'm addressing your question, which I got from a number of readers after that preview, in an Ask Tom column in the Magazine this Sunday. Short answer: He's paying off his debt, but not in the amount that makes everyone happy.


And on that inconclusive note, I bid you all a happy remainder of the week. See you back here next Wednesday, I hope. Thanks for spending the hour with me.

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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