Ask Tom -- Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema discusses the DC dining scene

May 25, 2011

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at washingtonpost.com/tomsietsema.

Tom, Thanks for your spring dining guide, I really enjoyed reading it. I meant to submit a question last week, but didn't have the chance, but my comment/question was not raised by anyone in the chat, so I am writing now. DISCLAIMER: I really like Peking Gourmet. That being said, I was a little disappointed that you pretty much killed the restaurant in the dining guide. My question to you, and I am not being facetious, is whether you might consider that you simply do not like Chinese food very much and that has prejudiced your reviews of these restaurants? I've been reading your reviews and chats religiously for years, and we both know you've acknowledged being partial to certain types of cuisine, like Indian food. I cannot, however, think of many times you have endorsed Chinese food restaurants here or anywhere else. I'm not talking about Thai, or Korean places of course, I'm talking about places more along the lines of a Peking Gourmet. I have friends who are from California and have lived in SF and LA both who have told me that they think Peking Gourmet is some of the best Chinese food they have every had anywhere. I understand that you don't like that particular restaurant, but can you point to even one or two recommendations for Chinese food places that you have made on the record while at the WP? I think it's a cop-out if you say, well, gosh, there just hasn't been any great examples that I've reviewed, because that sort of begs the question -- maybe you don't think there are great examples, because you simply dislike the cuisine generally. I'm not trying to pile on here -- I love your work and am indebted for all the help you've given to us regarding restaurants in town, but would you mind addressing the possibility that Chinese cuisine just simply isn't your thing?

You are not the only reader to tell me how much you disagree with my review of the veteran Chinese restaurant in Falls Church, which I visited twice (with friends in tow) before reviewing for the spring guide. I stand by what I wrote, however.

 

Here's the deal. I love Chinese food. One of my earliest memories of eating it was as a kid in the 70s in Minneapolis, where my father always liked to take my siblings and me to a place called Nanking downtown to expose us to something other than the canned chow mein found in the grocery store of my small home town in southwestern Minnesota.  When I graduated from Georgetown University a decade later, my grandmother treated friends and family to my first choice restaurant: Sichuan Garden on 19th St. NW, which at the time was staffed by master chefs from China.  The dinner was brilliant, an eye-opener.  (If I'm not mistaken, my then-83 year old grandmother tucked the elegantly carved vegetable garnishes in her purse.)

 

Over the years, as both a civilian and a professional diner, I've sought out Chinese restaurants to eat in, and I've had some truly impressive meals in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Shanghai and Beijing -- where I had the Peking duck experience of a lifetime at Duck de Chine just before the Olympics. My god, was that skin amazing! And the flesh!  The birds were preceded by the sound of a gong, and rightfully so. Those were royally good ducks.

 

Unfortunately, Washington does not have an abundant supply of good (let alone grand) Chinese restaurants, but there are a handful I've enjoyed over my tenure, and they include A & J for dim sum, Michael's Noodles for shredded pork with dried bean curd and beef noodle soup, Burma Road for kung pao shrimp and beef with mustard greens and Joe's Noodle House for peanuts tossed with fried baby smelt and hot and sour fish.  There are others, but I think these examples prove a point: I'm a fan of quality Chinese cooking.

 

Good morning, gang. I'm eating cold pizza from Casa Nonna as I type this greeting (and wishing the bottom of the crust had as nice a char as the lip of the pie).

 

But you're here to have your questions answered, not to hear what's (literally) on my plate today. So let's get cracking.

My wife and I have an unexpected night off from the kids on Saturday. We'd like to check out a good Thai place we haven't visited before. We've done most of the restaurants in Wheaton and Silver Spring and were wondering what other joints we might check out. We're fine with styrofoam plates or white tablecloths. We're willing to drive a ways (we have the WHOLE night off--sweet!). All we're looking for is some great Thai.

You might not have to drive far for something impressive. Have you been to the newish Kao Thai on Colesville Road in Silver Spring?  The trim and tidy restaurant sounds like what you're looking for. I've just been once, but I thought the larb gai and the mango curry were quite good.

Can you tell me the name of the green sauce that's served with the Tandoori Salmon at Bombay Club?

Chef Nilesh Singhvi serves the fish with a cilantro-mint chutney, but the dish picks up flavor from ginger, garlic and lemon juice in its seasoning, too. 

Hi, Tom. Do you or any of the chatsters have suggestions for good places to dine in Norfolk? I'll be there for three nights, staying downtown, and while I'll hve a car, I don't want to go too far afield. Any cuisine is okay except Japanese. Thanks! By the way, even though I don't live in DC anymore, I still read you religiously; love your writing style and your sense of humour.

I've never been to Norfolk, but I have a hunch one or more chatter has. Anyone able to help out?

 

Thanks for the kind words, by the way.

Tom: I am an avid reader of all thing Tom (reviews, chat, First Bite -- ok, I don't follow your twitter feed). I was so excited to see your review Elizabeth's Gone Raw. I also read in your last chat that you need to get your cholesterol down and your vitamin D up. May I humbly suggest a guide to healthy eating in the DC area (including fine dining). I'm a lover of great food and in the past year and a half I have also become a conscientious eater (I strive for balance, organic, local, few animal products, whole grains, etc.). One could also say I am an annoying eater but I try to be flexible. I have lost more weight than I care to share in the past year and a half through healthy eating (not dieting) and exercise. Options (fine dining included) are out there but it would be great to have a guide and see what I am missing (and perhaps even influence restaurants to have healthier choices).

What a great idea. I'm on it, or will endeavor to figure out some way to execute it. (Can you give me a little time, though? I'm racing to wrap up some columns before a trip to Istanbul late next week.)

 

I like Elizabeth's Gone Raw more than I expected to, by the way, but it is not necessarily low-calorie eating. Lots of nuts in the tasting menu!

 

Chefs, if any of you are doing anything enlightened, I'd like to hear from you. The best way to reach me is sietsemat@washpost.com.

A dear friend, who has since moved from DC (boo!), is unable to attend my birthday party. So instead - she's offered to take me to dinner. It's been a while since I've had a fun dinner - so am a little over whelmed with the choices. We're both adventurous eaters, love seafood, & might like cocktails even more. Our go-to before was always Jaleo - but that feels a little stale. Looking for something that's fun, but also a place we can a conversation and is still in the moderate price range. Suggestions?

 Jaleo is far from stale. Well, the interior of the original DOES need some refreshing, but the food remains interesting.

 

If you're looking for something younger, however, consider the intimate Atlas Room in the Atlas District, where I recall a fine fish chowder and a distinguished pisco sour, among other attractions, or the fused Ardeo + Bardeo in Cleveland Park.  The latter serves some terrific drinks (hope to find tequila with grapefruit juice and agave syrup) and very good scallop schnitzel and rock shrimp-topped pizza.

Really appreciated your review on Sunday! As a vegan, I'm always interested in finding a new and creative restaurant experience, and will put this on my list. Don't know if you've mentioned it in the past, but for anyone visiting London, a wonderful vegan/vegetarian dining experience can be had at "Vanilla Black" - near the Farringdon tube stop. The meal, similarly priced to "Elizabeth's," also won't disappoint vegans and omnivores alike! The horseradish Turkish Delight in rice paper (a between courses surprise) was amazing...

Ah, that's a new one. Thanks for sharing.

Tom -- I'm planning a trip down to New Orleans, and am sad to see your last postcard was in 2006. We used the 2006 postcard on the last visit, but would love to know what's new in Crescent City. Any plans to return in the next few months?

Actually, I was just down in New Orleans. I wrote about four great dining destinations there  for the May 15 Travel section.

 

Tip No. 1: Pick up a muffaletta at Cochon Butcher in the Warehouse District for the trip home. It may be one of the best versions of that classic anywhere.

 

Tip No. 2: Some of the best cocktails are poured at Cure, a former fire house Uptown.

 

I know this is the food section, not Health, but I was disappointed that you wrote, without comment, "The rationale behind not exposing raw food to high temperatures, says Petty, is that the food will retain enzymes that help digestion and the absorption of nutrients." I have no doubt that the raw vegan food is generally extremely healthy, but scientists generally dispute the enzyme claim. (See www.livescience.com/889-raw-food-diet-raw-deal.html) Those enzymes are destroyed in the stomach, and in any case would not help humans digest food. It would been nice if you had either not printed that statement or added some brief disclaimer, such as ", although most mainstream scientists dispute that argument."

Fair point.  In relaying her rationale for not cooking food over a certain temperature, I should have mentioned that there's some dispute in the scientific community. Thanks for weighing in.

I'm sure you get asked this kind of thing all the time, but still I'd like your opinion. Last weekend we had lunch at the Woodside Deli in Silver Spring, and the chicken club sandwich I ordered came out with an undercooked chicken filet. I have never sent a dish back in my life, but the sandwich was inedible, so this time I felt all right about it. They were very apologetic and they made a new plate, with fresh fries as well. In these situations, should a customer expect some kind of compensation on the bill? I was expecting something, but the bill showed no discount or comped meal or anything. So when I took the bill to the cashier, I asked if I could get some kind of discount, and the manager's answer was, "well, we made you a new one..." Um, you HAD to make a new one, right? How is that a compensation exactly? Was I wrong to expect something beyond a properly cooked sandwich? I left it at that, because otherwise our experiences at the Woodside have been great. Thanks for taking my question.

Woodside Deli was right to charge you. Yes, the kitchen made a mistake, but it was corrected (refreshed even, in the case of the fries).  What sort of compensation were you looking for exactly?

Wow. I'm kind of amazed at the opening comment from the fan of Peking Gourmet. My husband and I were rather amused by your dead-on review, having been dragged there two or three times by my sister. I suspect that, rather than questioning whether your appreciate Chinese food, the commenter should have questioned whether they'd ever actually eaten really good Chinese!

I got some negative feedback from diners who appear to be connected to the military, which sort of amused me, because Peking Gourmet is crammed with photos of senior members of the armed forces.

Having a good friend in town on Friday, and we want to sit and eat at a fun bar in Georgetown or Penn Quarter. Suggestions, please.

In Penn Quarter alone, I can think of lots of fun spots, including Rasika, Oyamel, 701, Poste, Jaleo, Sei, the Source, Proof (doing a mental sweep of the landscape now) and PS 7's.

 

In Georgetown, there is ... can anyone think of a better destination than the bar at Boubon Steak?

Tom, Who has the best soft shelled crabs right now? And what's your favorite preperation?

Lincoln downtown is offering one of the prettiest treatments: golden fried soft shell crabs served on a bed of charred corn and tomatoes with a drift of whipped avocado.  An appetizer portion goes for $13.

El Centro El Centro El Centro! Your opposite over at Washingtonian gave El Centro a good bashing last week on his chat. As my go to guy on what's really good in DC what's your take? Me? I find alot of things that I like about it. The food is good, the drinks and service can use a bit of work but to me, those are nits. I don't drink alot and I haven't had any of the problems with service that everyone seems to be talking about but I also didn't rush in on the first day. I really love that it's on my block and that they stay open late.

Patience, dear reader. I went twice to El Centro D.F. for a First Bite column scheduled for June 1. (Preview: Downstairs is sexier than the ground floor and good thing you don't drink much. )

if you heat a pan with a tiny pit of olive oil and warm your pizza that way, it will get a nice little char on it. so much better and sometimes faster than a microwave.

Useful tip. (I hate microwaved pizza. The extreme heat turns the crust into ledgestone.)

Tom, I've seen a number of grumbles from people who think you must be in the pay of Eve, Rasika, Poste, etc. because you tout them. Well, I am here to say that we finally got a chance to eat at both Rasika and Poste recently (pre-performance at the Shakespeare Theater) and those places deserve all the accolades you heap on them. Marvelous food beautifully presented, although I could have used a fork for my bouillabaisse at Poste, which had about a spoonful of intense broth at the bottom of a bowl of fish and shellfish chunks and bivalves -- but that's a quibble. Like the distance to the restrooms in the Hotel Monaco, in which Poste is situated. I agree about the noise level at Rasika; our poor waiter had to ask us to repeat orders more than once, even though our party was seated right next to the upholstered wall. Still, the food, attention, atmosphere, etc. were all truly outstanding. Worth the big bucks they charge. I hope this balances the grumblers.

The grumblers don't bother me. It's to be expected.  I like to post both raves and rants about what I do, to let readers (including chefs and industry types) know Im not  above taking criticism in my own forum. That said, it's also nice to hear about chatters having good experiences at places I've written favorably about.

Tom, have you read the article in the Bethesda Magazine about Washington food critics hating Bethesda restaurants? There's quite a lot about you in there. What did you think of it?

While I thought the title of the article, by my former colleague Carole Sugarman, was a bit dramatic, I thought the story made for interesting reading.  For me, it was enlightening to hear  what Bethesda chefs and restaurant owners had to say about the issue.

Tom, Have you tried PIzzeria Da Marco? We went last night and were pretty disappointed. While the space is nice enough, the service has some kinks to work out (pizzas arriving at tables around us that arrived well after we did). The pizza also left a lot to be desired. The ingredients were of high quality, but the execution was horrible. The edges of the crust were good, but the center was so soupy that toppings would just slide right off. Perhaps this is caused by the pizza being too large and thus being difficult to cook consistenly in the oven. I heard they have a fancy oven in there, but they really need to fine-tune the execution. Anyway, I hope they get things sorted out because it seems like a great addition to the neighborhood.

Thanks for the preview. I have yet to eat at the newcomer. Any other reactions?

original poster here -- I honestly didn't know what to expect for compensation, since, as I mentioned, I've never sent back a dish before. But thanks for letting me know the general rule, for any future reference.

Hello again. Thanks for understanding.

I don't see why this needs a comment / disclaimer re scientific studies -- "The rationale behind not exposing raw food to high temperatures, says Petty"". Sounds like an opinion to me and I wouldn't take it as a scientific fact. If the statement had mentioned studies, that would be different. Stating that not all studies agree should be added then.

Right, it was her opinion. In retrospect, if I had added one more sentence, it would have improved the column. But ... it's published.

I still miss it.

Ah, you've been there! My brother and I used to love ordering the moo goo gai pan, just because it sounded funny to us.

Tom, Washingtonian now says that the pizza at Orso is as good or better than it was under Edan MacQuaid. While I think it is tough to make a comparison without eating a slice of each chef's pizza in the same sitting, I thought your review was a bit harsh given that your biggest complaint seemed to be that your pizza came sliced (when I've gone, they've always asked me if I wanted my pizza sliced). Anyway, it was interesting to see such starkly different opinions in Washington's two mainstream dining review publications.

I agree, it's helpful to eat comparisons side by side (which is why I like to book my four-star contenders close together in the summer and/or fall, to see how they perform against one another). But it's not always possible for a critic to work that way.

 

In the case of Orso, one pie was severely underbaked and another came out blonde on the bottom. My criticism of the pizzeria was about more than just a pizza coming out sliced.

Can you recommend a good brunch place for 7 adventurous eaters, one kosher vegan, that is dog friendly, isn't likely to have loud children, and is located in the downtown area? Bonus points for outside seating and good cocktails.

Why do I get the sense someone is trying to pull the polyester over my eyes with this question?

not sure if you've reviewed Cuba Libre, nice space, bland food, not sure how they make Cuban cuisine so dull, seemed like i was eating at a cafeteria.

Ah, so it hasn't changed much since I detailed my experiences there? Too bad.

I'm the one who submitted the original question re Peking Gourmet. I'd like to clarify a couple of points. First, Tom, thanks very much for the thoughtful response. I'm not in the military, and no one in my family is. And to be clear, I'm not saying that Tom's review isn't his true opinion (i.e. I'm sure he really is underwhelmed with PG). But I think there is/was a legitimate question about how much Tom likes Chinese food based on his reviews. People can disagree about PG all they want, but his review underscored how infrequently he has endorsed Chinese restaurants in this area. Even the recommendations he set forth in his response sort of support what I was saying. Tom, you pointed out four restaurants, two of which you reviewed in the same week for the 09 dining guides. The other two recommendations were from five and eight *years* ago. I think it's legitimate to wonder how much you like the cuisine when you've only found four places in 8 years to endorse. Love your work Tom. THANK YOU.

Thanks for your comments. Without turning this into a ping pong game, I just want to reiterate that I really, really like Chinese food, but I haven't found many examples of the cuisine that are worth telling a million readers about on a Sunday in print (and online, let's not forget online!).  I've certainly reviewed more than the examples I listed -- and good for you for doing some research! -- but when I've returned, they've been less interesting than before. X.O. Taste in Falls Church leaps to mind.

 

If there are Chinese restaurants you think I'm missing out on, by all means, let me know!

Tom, I wholeheartedly share your opinion on Peking gourmet. Having spent a big chunk of my life living in China & Taiwan I can honestly say that Peking Gourmet food maybe good food and a tasty and very affordable lunch, it is not "good CHINESE food." I am as Chinese, as you are, Tom, and perhaps because I have never eaten at Ferran Adria restaurants I am a firm believer that the best Chinese food I have ever eaten was in Taiwan, a small island where with the exception of spices & condiments everything that goes in your mouth has been harvested less than 4 hours ago. Since dissipation of DC's Chinatown enclave we no longer have really good Chinese.

Thanks for the feedback. Sounds as if you've experienced some memorable Chinese.

Downtown you might try Todd Jurich's Bistro, Vintage Kitchen and Trilogy. There are also some decent options in Virginia Beach such as One Fish Two Fish and Terrapin. Also, Stove in the Port Norfolk section of Portsmouth is sort of a funky setting with good food and is very close to downtown Norfolk. These are more "upscale" places for Norfolk. There are not many in-between options worth trying. The Boot is another more casual option which serves Italian cuisine using local VA ingredients and has tasty cocktails. It is on 21st Street in the Ghent section of town. And for a lunch that is worth it just for the ambiance alone, try Doumar's drive-in on Monticello Ave just up the road from downtown. Supposedly, they invented the ice cream cone which they still make by hand in the front of the store and the BBQ sandwiches are about $2 and quite good with a chocolate shake. You can go inside or have them serve you in your car.

Great suggestions. I, too, have heard good things about Jurich's restaurant. Two dollar barbecue! I'm there.

PS7s! You'd have to check on the dogs, but they have an outdoor patio, their drinks are world-class, and their menu clearly labels both vegetarian and gluten-free items (you'd probably have to confirm whether they are vegan). Done!

Okay, but I still suspect the chatter was pulling a joke, because he/she mentioned "engagement dinner" in the subject line and "brunch" in the text.

Tom: While the food is terrific, when are they going to get their service together?

Beats me. Yannick Cam does a real disservice to himself at Bistro Provence. He's a great talent, but seeming a poor picker of service staff.

The Hill has changed so dramatically over the past few years. I should be able to stroll to a different restaurant every night of the week, but I still find myself driving over the bridge, or Metroing back downtown, for quality food and service more often than not. It's just so sad. (No real question there, obviously. I just needed to vent.)

I hear you! So many restaurants, so little to like.

Any recommendations for a festive place to get sushi to celebrate a teenager's birthday? We live in upper NW DC.

You mean for take-out? I'd go to Sushi-Ko, in either Glover Park or Chevy Chase.

Some of your comments last week have me worried - you're not retiring are you? You said, "I decided La Chaumiere would be among those restaurants I'd patronize as a regular once I retire my notebook and bib." And "I'll consider doing an additional chat after the spring 2012 guide comes out, if I make it that far." Tell me I'm just reading too much into this.

Bless you.

 

I have no plans to leave this wonderful job anytime soon. When I was writing the review of La Chaumiere, though, I seriously regretted not being able to patronize the place (or any Washington area restaurant I like) on a regular basis. My reference to making it to 2012 (did I really type that?) was probably at a weak moment, when the thought of checking out 100 restaurants for possible inclusion in a future guide seemed what it is: exhausting. But also educational, informative, constructive and (sometimes) delicious.

I read with interest John Martin Taylor's article in this Sunday's travel section, and also read his blog post on Provence, where he mentions that you were part of his fabulous trip. So I'm wondering: Can you share any dining advice? Any restaurants we shouldn't miss in that part of the world? My husband and I are spending at least 2 weeks in Provence - Aix will be our "home" there - in November. We've been once before, and it was the best vacation ever.

Yep, I was part of the group of six that joined the author in Provence following his honeymoon last October. It wasn't a work trip; evenings, he and others cooked what we found in the market that day.

 

However, for lunch we ate away from the house we rented. I remember a pleasant Sunday meal at Le Jardin du Quai in L'Isle sur la Sorgue and an even better spread at Chez Serge in the town of Carpentras, which would be my best recommendation to you.

Decades ago, I very much enjoyed Peking Gourmet, paticularly their chicken curry carryout. But the last time I ordered it - a few years ago - it came with no curry flavoring! Between that and all the photos of my non-favorite people, I gave up on it and now buy wonderful carryout at Hong Kong Express in Lake Barcroft Plaza, where I'm a special fan of their Hunan chicken and hot and sour soup!

Hong Kong Express. Thanks for the tip.

I think the questioner was asking for too much. You got the chicken sandwich you paid for. Yes it took a little longer, and yes it was at first unacceptable, but they took care of it. Now if they'd dropped the sandwich in your lap . . . .

But they didn't!

Thanks for bringing back memories! We would visit our relatives every summer, and Nanking was always on the agenda for a visit. It was my Grandmother's favorite restaurant. On another note, what's your favorite food truck? Or haven't you had a chance to sample any of their fares?

My favorite food truck remains the lobster roll vendor, but I have to admit, I haven't eaten much from meals on wheels in recent months. What am I missing, folks?

The best Chinese that I remember having was in of all places Ogallala, Nebraska...the Peking Chinese Restaurant, had it 20 years ago and still use it as a measure for Chinese cuisine.

Huh.

I will just add to this discussion that I know a lot of families who have been going there for years, and it's tradition to go there on holidays or for special events. They've gotten to know Lily, the owner, and it helps them turn a bit of a blind eye to how good the food really is. If only some of those families coud be convinced to switch it up once in a while! (Not that I would know anything about this personally, of course) <sigh>

I'm smiling.

China Star in Fairfax may have slipped since Peter Chang left a couple years ago, but the Szechwan menu (not the American-Chinese one) certainly impressed us!

Been there before as well.

Tom, didn't your mother ever warn you about chatting online while you are eating? Crumbs can fall into the keyboard. You could spill a drink on the processor. Please, don't set a bad example.

Ah, but I've got one of those cans of air that I blast on my desk, my keyboard (and sometimes my suit jacket) to remove crumbs.

 

Folks, the hour is up. Thanks for a lively "conversation." I look forward to hosting another discussion next Wednesday, same time.

 

Coming up next, on the Food section chat: Guester Barton Seavor.

 

Chow 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 sidewalk.com 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 moderates the Sietsema's Table discussion group. His new video series, Tom Sietsema's TV Dinners, pulls back the curtain on a critic's life -- in and out of the dining room.
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