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

May 14, 2014

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Hello, Tom! We have a delightful conundrum. My husband and I will be spending a night on the town, including hotel room (!) over Memorial Day weekend, our first night away from our toddler. We're staying near Logan Circle and are excited to sample the newest delights on 14th Street. We're set on the dinner front (thank you Fall Dining Guide!), but I'm wondering what might be the best option for brunch the next morning. I know some places are closed Mondays...what's your best advice for a leisurely brunch for a couple thrilled to be going out just the two of them? Thanks for these chats!

How cool of your parents to give you a break. I just looked at Open Table and was shocked, SHOCKED to see a.m. tables free on Memorial Day at Le Diplomate on 14th St. NW. In the neighborhood, that would be my first choice.  If you don't mind taking a cab, consider BlackSalt (seafood) in the Palisades, Blue Duck Tavern (American) in the West End,  The Grill Room (ditto) in Georgetown or Oyamel (Mexican) in Penn Quarter.


BREAKING NEWS:  After a nearly five year-long run, Tiffany MacIsaac, one of the Mid-Atlantic's best-known pastry chefs, says she's leaving the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, probably to do something on her own.


"I'm 33, not sure what I want to do next, but I need to take a moment to reassess," MacIsaac said this morning.


As executive pastry chef for the company, she was responsible for almost 20 restaurants and bakeries in the area. Her husband, Kyle Bailey, with whom she opened Birch & Barley in Logan Circle, plans to stay with NRG.


"I support whatever she wants to do," says Michael Babin, the restaurant company's head.  "She's a great friend, and always has been."


MacIsaac, whose handiwork featured childhood favorites with a twist, gave her employer six weeks' notice. Babin says he plans to look for a replacement -- or two, depending on the skill set -- both inside and outside the DC area.


Happy Wednesday, gang. My next chat is going to be at noon on Monday, May 19, following the Sunday publication of my spring dining guide. Please bring your questions there. I'll be away May 21 and back on my usual schedule May 28.


Let's rock and roll.

Hi, Tom. This is my final attempt to get updated info on La Mediterranean Bistro in Fairfax, which you reviewed in June of 2013. Any updates on the kitchen there? Things that stood out, or faded, on subsequent visits?

This is the first time I'm seeing your query. Unfortunately, I have been back to the restaurant since I previewed the place.

I'll be visiting my husband in San Francisco next week. His current work assignment has him working there Monday-Fridays through August. This past month, he's been eating at expense report places/big meat places with coworkers who are not adventurous eaters and want to stay near the office/extended stay hotel. We are in search of true bay area finds. While he'll eat anything, I stray more towards vegetarian (fish, dairy ok). We won't have a car, but our legs work great and we love public transit - give us three meals a day for a week that will make the separation bearable when I get back on the plane to DC. Thanks!

Here's my most recent dispatch to my old stomping grounds. 

I just changed jobs and am back in Dupont after six years working in less culinarily interesting neighborhoods. What should I be checking out? Old favorites are the Greek Deli, C.F. Folks and The Well Dressed Burrito. I've already enjoyed District Taco. What else should I try? Thanks, Tom!

Sounds as if you've been eating well. I'd add to your list the neighborly Mourayo, where a couple of  Greek appetizers could make a nice lunch, and Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen for build-your-own meals in a bowl. 

Tom, I am so excited to read your spring dining guide! The link provided in your chat goes to the 2013 spring guide. Is the 2014 version available online yet? Thanks!

Hang tight. The 2014 guide goes up online tomorrow.

Tom, since writing to you yesterday about the potential loss of the Citronelle gift certificate that had been a wedding present, I wanted to let you know that I have been called now by the company, which says it is offering refunds. I will submit the requested information and will let you know about any problems, I'm sure I'm not the only one who has experienced this issue. Not sure if you'd reached out to them, if so, then it worked! Thank you,

I love happy endings. Thanks for circling back.


If anyone has an unused gift certificate from Michel Richard's late dining destination in Georgetown, they can contact Fadi Ramadan with Interstate Hotels and Resorts at


While we're on the subject of restaurants responding to customer issues, here's a missive from Dan Simons, the concept developer and partner with the Farmers Restaurant Group:


We saw the comments from last week's Ask Tom chat regarding your recent visit to Farmers Fishers Bakers, and wanted to respond since we were unable to join the chat in real time. First, please know that we are really SO sorry to read about the guest's experience. From the interaction at the front desk and lack of responsiveness to get them sat as quickly as possible without a reservation, we let them down. Please know that we in no way  promote or tolerate the acceptance of bribes. That behavior does not align with our brand nor our culture, no matter what the wait time or situation. Our General Manager of FFB is digging in to investigate further, and we promise that detailed coaching, counseling and re-training will occur for anyone and everyone at the front desk. That your server wasn't readily available and you felt neglected is also not what we train or expect.


In any of our restaurants, when serious mistakes like these happen, and we fail to deliver on our promises to our guests of great food and drink, friendly, efficient service, and a comfortable dining atmosphere, we take responsibility and move quickly to address them. We also understand that sometimes a guest doesn't want to make a scene or involve a manager, but truly, when a manager is aware of a less than stellar experience or an incident that failed to meet their expectations, it can be addressed immediately and quietly so the guest leaves at least feeling that their concerns were heard and addressed. Simply put, we're MORTIFIED to read of this experience, and would sincerely like to make it up to the guest and win back their loyalty.


If last week's original poster is out there, the restaurant would like to hear from you:



What would you recommend - other than Rose's Luxury - for dinner on Barracks Row?

Try Ambar for Balkan fare, Matchbox for pizza and mini-burgers and Cava Mezze for Greek flavors.


Any hints as to any surprises, etc., before it goes live?

Unlike the fall collection, a celebration of favorites, the spring collection returns to previously reviewed restaurants and brings readers up-to-date on how they've changed, or if they've changed.


There will be brickbats, in other words.

Tom, where are you going to lunch today?

Funny. As if I'd announce plans on a live chat?

Glad you enjoyed your trip and Nashville is a happening place to be sure, but I was surprised you missed Etch-oneof the best meals I've had in Music City USA.

If only I had more than 48 hours to taste-test Nashville!

Isn't Mari Vanna the restaurant with the odd entry system, where you have a bunch of different doorbells to ring to get in or a private key or something like that?

It was. I went twice to the Russian restaurant and never had to use a key or a code, as earlier diners did.

Hi, Tom. I saw an advance screening of the movie "Chef" and wanted to confirm something that's come up in the chat before, but about which I can't quite remember the details. In the film, a famous food critic comes to a chef's restaurant for a review. The critic is recognized by the staff. There's no attempt by him to disguise himself or use another name. In your opinion, how realistic is that? Do most big-name food critics, the type who can make or break a restaurant, take no pains to keep from being recognized?

That always drives me crazy in films depicting reviewers. With very few exceptions, the major food critics I know -- Michael Bauer, Phil Vettel, Pete Wells, Sherry Virbila, Bill Addison, etc. -- take pains to avoid being noticed on the job.  In Europe, it's a totally different matter, however.

Hi Tom - I know that most (if not all) of your meals are covered by your expense account, but what do you consider to be the best deals in the D.C. area? Right now, I love the Oval Room's pre-theater menu (three courses for $38) and Lyon Hall's happy hour for beer, olives, and hot dogs, as well as the ethnic food standbys, but are there any other can't-miss deals out there? Thanks!

The new Toro Toro downtown offers an "express" lunch buffet -- lots of salads, dips, cocktail shrimp, etc. -- for $28.  Bonus points for al fresco seating, overlooking a park.

It was. I went twice to the Russian restaurant and never had to use a key or a code. Of course you didn't.

Are you implying they knew me and I didn't need the key?  Not the case.

Was this a typo or has the restaurant changed for the worse?

Oops. I meant to type that I haven't been back.

Hi Tom, my husband and I would like to give our good friends a $150-200 gift certificate to a nice restaurant as a thank you for their help this past year. They have two young children, one is 3 and the other is an infant, so we'd like to treat them to a place they can go to w/o kids and may not normally go to in the Northern VA or DC area. I am not aware of any cuisines they don't like so open to any and all suggestions. Thank you!

Gosh, where to start? High on my list: Iron Gate in Dupont Circle, Rasika West End for modern Indian, Marcel's for haute French, Makoto for traditional Japanese, Bibiana for Italian ... that help?

Way to take one for the team -- I heard on the radio this AM that the owners of the chain are rethinking expansion plans in DC due to your less than stellar review.

I don't know if I can take credit for the chain pulling out of a few deals, but I'm relieved to know I won't have to review another bad pasta palace.

6 pm dinner Saturday night at J&G Steakhouse at the W Hotel prior to a show at the National Theatre. Seated for ten minutes before we even met a waiter. Such a long wait for his return to take our drink order that we had closed our menus and were ready to order dinner at the same time. Never checked back with us during our starters or our entrees. Had to hail a waiter to get my bride a second glass of wine. The service was so slow and inattentive that we didn't have time for dessert. I list these details to comment on the relationship of service to overall quality of a restaurant experience. Our starters (mussels for one of us; pea soup for the other) were very good. Our entrees were okay but not memorable. Our bill was $200. With all of the other wonderful places to spend our dining dollars in DC, there is now absolutely no reason for us ever to return. We found ourselves longing for the kind of service we get (at the same or even lower price point) at Marcel's, Blue Duck, or Jaleo. Heck, we've gotten better service at the massive Old Ebbitt and The Hamilton, just around the corner. With just a little more attention to the service part of our experience, J&G could have cultivated two repeat customers. Too bad -- it's a nice room and located conveniently to the National Theatre, the Warner Theatre, and so on.

What a shame. Such a beautiful room, as you point out. And when the chef is on, he's *on.*  But my affection for the hotel restaurant has dimmed since its renovation. Thanks for the field report.

Tom, I really enjoyed reading the interview you did this week with Metro Weekly. As the Post's restaurant critic, you're a "bit of a mystery," and necessarily so, so it was nice, after reading your work for all these years, to get a better sense of your personal side (without identifying details of course). It was also fun to hear about some of your favorite restaurants, including Buck's, which I love too. Has the menu changed much since they got a new chef?

Thanks. It was fun to sit down with the magazine's executive editor and talk shop (and life) for an hour or so. 


 Buck's is a really consistent place to eat, one of the many reasons I like it so much. The onion rings and the prime steak and the chocolate buttermilk cake are as delicious today as they've ever been.

I'm looking for a great seafood restaurant in DC to celebrate my last years in the 40s for early June. Suggestions?

You get a Potomac view and a VIP crowd with your catch at the youthful Fiola Mare in Georgetown.


That's a wrap for today, gang. Remember, I'll be hosting the next chat on Monday rather than Wednesday.  See you -- soon!

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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