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

May 15, 2013

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

When I'm eating out, I will sometimes order a dish I make at home--especially if it is one that I think I do "pretty darn well." The restaurant may or may not do it better based on my personal prejudice toward my own cooking, but I almost always find that the restaurant dish inspires me to try something a little different with my home version. And that bit of variety makes everyone at my table a little happier.

Thanks for sharing. Now that I'm cooking more at home, I find myself taking cues from chefs whose work I admire, too. And the ideas I glean from them go beyond food to include presentation (clever plates or utensils and so on).


Happy Wednesday, gang. Thanks for joining me for another 60 minutes or so of food and restaurant talk.

I understand that Daikaya in Penn Quarter is part small plates and part ramen bar, but does the restaurant serve ramen upstais in the izakaya portion of the restaurant as well? My friend and I would like to sample both menus. Thanks! Your work and insight is always appreciated.

The specialties in the ramen shop and the izakaya can only be ordered in their respective settings. To slurp the soup at Daikaya, you have to stay grounded; to get to the Japanese pub grub, you have to climb stairs.

You might let the owners know that prospective diners are more interested in menus and prices than bios of the owners and staff. It's particularly egregious to have visitors page through those bios in order to find out that there's no practical information offered other than the address.

So I'm not the only diner who noticed the significant ommissions!  Did you catch that, Misters Friedman, Zutant and O'Malley?  We want to see the menu and the prices for Red Hen online.

Tried Hill Country last weekend and was not impressed. Any recommendations for good barbecue in the area? Coworkers of mine are raving about Absolute barbecue in Manassas!!! Have you tried it?

I haven't checked out Absolute, but I'm a big fan of Standard in Logan Circle, the barbecue joint with the beer garden seating, winning pulled pork and fab onion rings.

Tom, I was quite surprised at your extremely low star rating of a newcomer to "The Hill" . Beucharts has finally opened their doors and were doing a great job of offering a venue that was a departure from the norm, with a wonderful cozy atmosphere, no large TVs, interesting menu options, welcome & friendly staff etc. The overall concensus in the hood is HOORAY ! The restaurant, at the very least deserved recognition of efforts as well as some praise for breaking the monotomy on Sports Bars. Please give these guys a chance to at least make it, 1 1/2 stars ? Really ? We love the place and hope your review doesn't push folks away, although it would allow us to get a table with ease, I'd rather see them succeed and stay around. Gina Eppolito, Capitol Hill Resident

Trust me, Gina, I *so* wanted to like Beuchert's (say BOO-kerts) Saloon.  The Hill really needs a success story in its restaurant ranks. But three or so visits to the newcomer left me liking the design, the drinks and the servers more than the menu.  Yes, BS is better than most sports bars, but that's not necessarily a high bar, is it?

Had a lovely dinner out on Saturday at Le Diplomate, started with a cheese plate, ordered the steak tartare and a couple of entrees and a side to split. When we ordered, we asked for the tartare to arrive after the cheese. As we were wrapping up with the cheese, our entrees arrived. So naturally, we asked what happened to the tartare. The waiter said it was his fault, he forgot to put the order in, and offered to bring it after the entrees, "probably" without charge. We declined, since it didn't really seem like it would be very appetizing after our entrees, whether we had to pay for it or not. We weren't comped anything else, but we sort of felt like we should have been. Is it wrong to expect at least a free drink in the instance of a screw up at a very nice restaurant or is tartare for dessert the best one can hope for? (As a side note, all the food we did get was fantastic!)

I appreciate an honest waiter, but yours at Le Diplomate goofed twice by forgetting your raw beef and then suggesting he could serve it after your main dishes "probably" gratis.  I'd say the lapse was worth a dessert on the house or a comped glass of wine.

Do you (or readers), know where I can find shrimp with the heads still attached? I've heard they are delicious, but I haven't had any luck finding some! Thanks

My most recent encounter with whole shrimp was at the South American-themed Del Campo on I St. NW., which serves prawns a la plancha with lemon oil. Readers, feel free to chime in with other sources.

My husband and I are expecting our first child at the end of the summer, we'd like to dine our somewhere special for our upcoming anniversary. Neither of us eat fish, and he's a big meat and potatoes kind of guy (loved Bourbon Steak for his bday last year) and I am open to mostly anything except pork, what would you suggest? We like Restaurant Eve having been for lunch a few times, but just having peeked at their spring sample menu, there's not a lot of option on there for dinner. Additionally, friends have suggested eating out at fancy restaurants now - where would you suggest we add to our before-we-become-parents list? (And this isn't meant to start a discussion on taking your kids out to nice places, simply if you had some time and money, where would you go?)

Congrats on the forthcoming addition to your tribe. For a pre-baby dinner, I'd suggest a drive in the country ending at the Ashby Inn in Paris; a drive to Baltimore for chef Spike Gjerde's farm-fresh fare at Woodberry Kitchen or a comparatively short drive to The Source in Penn Quarter. The last recommendation is Asian-inspired, but has enough meat -- stir-fried lamb in lettuce cups, a "Sichuan" beef filet -- for your mate to enjoy.

Just curious if there is a reason why you're avoiding the questions about Ray's? I've asked a few times since Ray's Hell Burger closed, I just want to know what's going on there and where I can go (if I can go?) get a burger.

No reason, other than I missed your query amid the lot. Here's the latest Hell-Burger news I can share.

Just had some at Open Kitchen in Falls Church - shrimp and grits dish.

Suggestion No. 2!

Why name a DC restaurant after an incredibly popular but unrelated SF restaurant?

Because Nopa sets the scene, "north of Pennsylvania Avenue," and the simple name is easy to remember?

Hi Tom- Thought I was equipped to pick out a restaurant for my husband's 40th, but we're both stumped. When I asked what he pictured for this meal, he said, "A table full of good wine." I took that to mean not only good wine, but feeling comfortable, not formal, not rushed. There will probably be about 10 guests. Someplace in the District would be ideal, but we aren't ruling out great places nearby. For what it is worth, we love oysters. Places I've considered: Volt, Birch & Barley (not wine, I realize, but we are also beer drinkers), Restaurant Eve. Thanks for your expertise.

Volt in Frederick would make a lovely destination for a 40th, as would Charleston in Baltimore, but if you want to stick closer to home, I'd explore a big table or private part of Marcel's for French, Ripple for modern American, Vidalia for southern comfort (ha, ha, ha) or CityZen in the Mandarin-Oriental, whose sommelier, Andy Myers, was up for a James Beard wine award this month.

Bride and I were in Charlottesville for the weekend and I took your suggestion about Glas House Kitchen. I rarely make the plans and my wife is truly a foodie. Quick call on Friday and we were able to walk in at 8 and had a great dinner. Specialty cocktails were wonderful, the duck appetizer was delicious and the main courses of halibut and local beef were outstanding. Service was very good. I earned lots of points for the suggestion and would rate it on par with Restaurant Eve, Marcel's and the like in terms of quality, interesting choices and experience. Only concern was the ability to walk in on a Friday at 8 without reservations. May not bode well for its longevity in a college town.

Thanks for your field report. I look forward to another round of drinks and dinner at my favorite Charlottesville restaurant.

If the poster is interested in making their own head-on shrimp at home (and yes, it's great!), many of the larger international grocery stores in the burbs sell head-on shrimp along with their other seafood offerings. Try any H-Mart, for starters.

Thanks for sharing.

Tom, I wanted to tell you about a great Mother's Day dinner at Ris. It was my first time there and wow! The food was wonderful and the service was excellent. The scallop margarita (which I heard was legendary) was fantastic and the grilled quail with BACON braised collard greens, HELLO! I thought I had died and gone to food heaven. To top it all off they had small flowering potted plants one for each mom to take home sitting all around the restaurant. I couldn't have asked for a better dining experience and I will be back. Thank you Ris and of course my wonderful daughter Kati for making my day memorable.

Nice touch, the plants dispensed at Ris.


I broke my own little rule and actually ate out on Mother's Day, but in a small mom & pop where I didn't expect (or encounter) a traditional crowd. You'll be reading more about that Park Road NW charmer in a future First Bite column.

My husband and I went to Elisir recently after reading your review. We liked it, for the most part (loved the crostoni with gorgonzola and candied celery!) but I encountered an issue that I run into at far too many restaurants: vegetarian entrees that clearly show disinterest on the part of the chef. There were a few vegetarian pastas on the menu, but they all seemed kind of standard-issue -- rigatoni with mushroom ragu, spaghetti with tomatoes. On the advice of my server I ordered the tortelli filled with ricotta and spinach, with a mascarpone/parmesan sauce. The dish was completely overwhelmed by cloying amounts of cheese, butter, and cream in the filling and the sauce. It seems like some chefs feel they need to compensate for the lack of meat by pouring on the dairy. My husband loved the squid appetizer you recommended in your review -- it's clear Enzo Fargione has some creative ideas. How about extending that creativity to the non-meat entrees?

You have my sympathies. In 2013, a restaurant with any ambition really needs to offer meatless dishes supported by some thought.


The good news: I've encountered some really interesting vegetarian plates lately, mostly at new places, including  Nopa Kitchen + Bar, Table and B Too in Logan Circle, where the curried cauliflower soup is not to be missed.

Hi! Our French au pair is turning 20 next week, and we were going to get her tickets to the Verizon Center as well as a gift certificate to a restaurant (in the area of the Verizon Center would be great, but not necessary). Can you think of a fun place for a few early 20-something Europeans to dine? She is certainly not into haute cuisine, and think a fun atmosphere is critical. We were thinking about in the range of $25-$35 a head (excluding alcohol, of course). Thanks in advance!

How thoughtful of you. Near Verizon, I'd head to Jaleo for small plates of Spanish fare, Zaytinya for small plates of Middle Eastern cooking or Sei for sushi and small plates of Japanese flavors.

I was at a restaurant that was having a fundraiser for a local school. The place was packed. I hadn't known in advance and had just thought it would be a good night to stop there for dinner. Unfortunately, the line was out the door. I think it is great that restaurants give something back to the community and that organizations get the word out to their members and they all show up with their friends and family. But, sometimes, it seems the event was a little too successful or the restaurant bit off more than it could handle by inviting the group and all of its members to come in. Either that or they needed more hands in the kitchen and counters to keep the customers moving. It really does make it hard on the regular customers who just wanted to enjoy a quick meal.

Any time a restaurant is doing an event like that, it needs to hang out a sign and announce such on its outgoing voice mail so non-particpants know.

How do you handle service that is super friendly, but the servers have no idea about the food they are serving? We were at a restaurant that you recently revisited, and the food was great, but I had a better idea about the ingredients and preparation than our server. Another nearby server was just as nice but also clueless. Not something I would go to a manager about. Mabye if the server was rude or very slow...

Why wouldn't you mention the cluelessness to a manager? It's obviously enough of an issue for you to tell me about, and you'd be doing future diners a favor. Not to mention the staff, who might get better tips if they knew more about what they were selling.

I call shenanigans - that is definitely penn quarter. 'north of penn' sounds like a weak excuse to steal a famous name.

Well, the full name is Nopa Kitchen + Bar, although I don't any of us are going to refer to it as such.

Finally got a reservation. What MUST I try?

Like most good restaurants, Komi, whose top toque was just recognized as the Mid-Atlantic's Best Chef by the James Beard Foundation, changes its menu with some frequency.  If there's a choice of main dishes, however, spring for the goat.

On the upside, it should be a lot easier to improve the food than it is to change a bad design or find competent staff. So there's hope, if the back of the house is open to contructive criticism.

I agree!

I also want the address AND hours on the home page - don't make me click around looking for it.

Right-o. The basic info -- where it is, when it's open, what it serves -- need to be prominent. I wonder how many restaurants know how many customers they lose by not offering up such facts. I can't count the readers who tell me they look elsewhere for dinner when they can't easily find prices or menus.

Any thoughts on this new restaurant in Logan Circle? I figure with the same guy from Belga cafe I can't go wrong, but I guess you never know!

Over the years, I've learned that a good restaurant doesn't necessarily beget a second of equal quality (and vice-versa: spin-offs can be better than the originals). 


My preview of B Too, from chef Bart Vandaele, runs next Wednesday, by the way.  Don't want to scoop myself, however.

I'd give a certificate to Graffiato. (just had some char grilled ramps with romesco sauce there that I could bathe in--groan) Food is amazing and atmosphere would appeal.

Or the recently reviewed Daikaya, I should have thought to include. The upstairs tavern is a blast, literally and figuratively.

Willie Degel, of Uncle Jack's Steakhouses in NYC, has a show called Restaurant Stakeout. One of the first things he notices when he goes to restaurants in trouble is that the servers don't know the menu. He strongly advises better training for the servers including tasting the dishes but definitely knowing what goes into them.

I've heard of  restaurant owners who don't let their servers taste the cooking because it costs too much money, which is about the dumbest thing I've ever heard.

Well, my husband didn't want to risk our special night on the chicken, mainly because of the mixed reviews on Yelp (lots of "it used to be good, but not so much now). That may have been a mistake, but we'll never know because what we did order (duck for me, lamb for him) was so bland that we have no desire to go back!

You trust Yelp over me? For shame!

Please stop contributing to the entitlement mentality that abounds in this town by suggesting that the waiter or manager at Le Diplomate should have comped anything to make up for the waiter's lapse in placing a complete order for that couple. He admitted his mistake, apologized and offered to do what he could to rectify the situation, and they weren't charged for an item they never received. Shouldn't that have been enough, or have we really reached a point where people always expect free stuff when someone makes a mistake? I'm not in the restaurant business but I am an event planner and stuff like this makes my blood boil. What if your boss expected you to work overtime for free because you made a grammatical error on a PowerPoint or something equally innocuous? People are human. They make mistakes. Even people who feel the need to write to restaurant reviewers to complain about not getting free dessert make mistakes. First world problems!

First world problems indeed.


I'm often reluctant to suggest that restaurants correct minor mistakes by offering a dish or drink for free -- the industry has low profit margins to begin with -- and I take every complaint on a case by case basis.  Not every glitch merits a free whatever, I agree.

I believe in this discussion a few weeks ago you or a reader touched upon compensation for Chefs. Not very well. If you are an owner chef that is a different story, as is "celebrity Chefs" which are few and far between statistically speaking. If you are an employee of an independent restaurant you maybe make anywhere from $65 to $100K. But that is with no benefits and you are of course working grueling hours and on your feet for all of those hours. Also remember that Chefs age out of their profession early because of the damage to their bodies. So this is not a great way to make a living. They need to really want to be in the profession before considering this a career. If you work for a chain or a hotel you probably make between $35K and $100K with benefits, but the schedule is just as grueling and you only know one week in advance what your schedule is going to be and some times you will be told you have a Tuesday off and then the catering department books a party and your in Tuesday, whether you like it or not. Another issue having an effect on pay is what I call the LA Law effect. Remember after the show went on the air there was a glut of attorneys in this country. Same thins with Cooking shows and competitions. every one wants to be a chef, so their is now a glut of Chefs, some great most not, who are driving down he salaries. Just thought you'd like the 411 on this biz.

And you know these salary ranges and stories because you are ... a chef? A restaurateur? Just wondering.


Salaries are all over the map. I know some chefs who get great perks and insurance and others who don't.  But, unless they work for a corporation in an exec position, they all work pretty long hours. And yes, the work -- over fire, on their feet, for demanding masses -- is physically punishing. I have enormous respect for those who do the craft well, and for a long run.

I find that people's memories are always better than the real thing, even if the thing itself hasn't changed, or has even improved over time! The power of nostalgia is strong. This is why I am consistently burned by nostalgic childhood foods that are inedible to my adult tastes. Boxed mac and cheese, I'm lookin' at you.

That is so, so true.


Was my mom's ground beef and macaroni casserole really "all that" in the 1970s, or am I just recalling it with affection for mom? Was the very first pizza you ate the true bar-setter, or was it simply the first crust with toppings that you and your high school friends spent your allowances on?  Was that first bistro meal ijn Paris really that awesome or were you and your significant other drunk or jet-lagged or both?

What are your thoughts on Azur? Wife and I loved Table but were unimpressed by Azur and their high priced entrees. The appetizers and raw bar were excellent. We were suprised to see such high entree prices and the portions do not justify the price they are charging. Desserts make you somewhat forget that you paid so much for an entree that was really the size of an appetizer.

I've only been to Frederik De Pue's new restaurant in the former Cafe Atlantico once, and I don't want to share my thoughts at this early stage. But I've been hearing grumblings from readers besides you.

I was the original poster. I live a mile or so away, and I'm always looking for destinations to get me out for a walk, but I'm on a budget so I want to know what a places charges before I show up. Increasingly, it seems restaurants don't want anyone who has to think about what they're going to pay. (And while we're sort of the subject: Put the menus back in the window, especially if availability changes from day-to-day. It is NOT easier to check your Facebook page on my phone when I'm standing right outside, trying to decide whether it's worth the trouble to go in. Put an i-pad in the window open to your FB page, if you must, but don't make me do the work for you.)

YES to posting menus outside restaurants! So simple to do. So thoughtful and user-friendly, too.

If a restaurant offers me something I normally don't order (such as dessert wine) as a gesture or to apologize for service, I am more likely to go back with confidence and order the same thing I didn't before, such as topping off a meal with a digestif or dessert wine or cheese plate. It can actually be very beneficial for selling more items and making more money.

Hadn't thought of it that way! Thanks for weighing in.

As a waiter, if I ever goofed so badly as to forget to order/fire someone's appetizer I would offer to get them a glass of wine or dessert even if the management didn't comp it (which they often would with the explanation that I effed up). I'd rather pay the 8 or so bucks for dessert/drink out of my own pocket and keep the guest happy. That being said, it would be ONE drink or dessert for the person who ordered, not for the entire table of guests.

You sound like a good (and fair and discerning) server.

Aren't offering a dessert/glass of wine/etc good public relations? Won't they show the diners that they are appreciated and therefore likely to return? The aforementioned Willie Degel suggests small comps for mistakes, for celebrations, for long waits, etc.

Depending on the problem, something gratis can result in PR, sure. (See above post.) But I most appreciate when the restaurant gives you a choice:  "Sorry for the delay/the spill/the missing dish. Can we offer you a drink/dessert/signature appetizer to make up for it?"


Lunch looms. Thanks for joining me today. Next week, we'll be discussing the spring dining guide, which comes out (in print) over the weekend.  Until then, dine well.

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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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