The Washington Post

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

May 08, 2013

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

My friend and I are going to the Shakespeare Theatre next weekend. And, we always have a nice lunch before we go to the theatre. We've been to Jaleo, Oyamel, Cedar, Poste, Teaism, Rosa Mexicana, Ella's, Co.Co. Sala, but I am looking for some place new and there seems to be lots of new places. What can you recommend?

You can't get any newer than Nopa Kitchen + Bar at 800 F St. NW, which has its launch party tonight. The 160-seat American restaurant, from Ashok Bajaj, replaces Zola in Penn Quarter.


Remember that Takoma Park restaurant and beer garden we told you about earlier this year?  The one coming from restaurateur Jeff Black and Pearl Dive chef de cuisine Danny Wells? The idea that was hatched without a name?


Well, it has one now. Black has settled on (insert drum roll) Republic. The idea came from Wells's mother, Beth Baker, a long-time resident of what some locals refer to as " The Republic of Takoma Park,"  given  the town's independent political and cultural streaks.


Why didn't Black go with "black" in the future restaurant's name, as he's done with his earlier businesses?  Because "this one is jointly owned by Danny," says Black, and Wells eventually "wants to build his own brand."


Permits have been submitted for Republic. Construction is expected to take four to five months, says Black, who is hoping to start serving food and drink in the fall. 


Calling all vegans: Demand for the once-a-month meatless Sunday brunch at 500 17th St. NW --  specifically, Todd Gray's Muse at the Corcoran Gallery  -- has been so strong since it was introduced last summer, chef Todd Gray has decided to offer the vegan menu every Sunday, beginning Mother's Day.


"We've been turning people away" from the vegan buffet, explains the chef-owner of Equinox, who has been associated with Muse Cafe within the Corcoran since 2011.  Gray says his vegan events are attended by between 115 and 140 patrons; the May 12 buffet is already sold out.


Brunch is served between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Sunday for $25, which includes coffee and juice. Stronger stuff -- sangria, blood orange mimosas -- is extra.


Gray says he's taking a "cook's approach" to the food. Translation: "no faux protein."   Because so many attendees are return visitors,  he mixes up the menu from brunch to brunch.  If recent dishes are any indication, sign up this diner.  Even a meat lover is likely to be tempted by Gray's Israeli couscous with charred asparagus and pickled ramps, his vegan "paella," his chickpea burgers with eggplant chutney and his granola-crusted whole-wheat French toast.  Desserts run to tropical fruit salad and vegan brownies, cookies, even a spiced carrot cake.


For reservations and more information, go to


I'm just back from several days of James Beard Foundation events in New York, including the chef and restaurant awards held Monday night at Lincoln Center. In delicious local news, Johnny Monis was awarded Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic for his cooking at Komi and C.F. Folks became an American Classic.


Tell me what's on your mind, food-wise.


Help! I'm coming from Richmond to see Taylor Swift with friends and our 12 year old daughters. Where would you recommend for a slightly early dinner close to the Verizon Center? Thank You.

Within walking distance (and good) are a host of possibilities: Jaleo for Spanish small plates, Oyamel for Mexican fare, Zaytinya for terrific Middle Eastern mezze, Nando's Peri-Peri for rotisserie chicken, Matchbox for mini-burgers and pizza ... does that help?

Tom: Thank you for your always solid advice. Not sure I would have dined so well in my ten years in DC without your guidance. And now my questions, I am having trouble thinking of where to take the parents for their upcoming visit which falls on my mothers bday. In the past they have greatly enjoyed Zaytina, Graffiato, Posto to name a few. Looking for some place in the district, around $40ish a person, mostly adventures eaters although one member of our party has a fish allergy and one does not eat red meat. Thanks in advance!

Did you catch my preview of the new Red Hen in Bloomingdale in today's Food section? That's an option for open-minded diners. There's also the white-hot Le Diplomate for terrific French bistro cooking in Logan Circle.

Hi Tom - My wife and I are a celebrating our anniversary with our first trip to Mintwood Place this week. I'm sure the menu changes seasonally, but any tips or must-eat items? We aren't vegetarians, so we will probably pass on the special veggie meal you had there, though it did sound good. Thanks for your help!

Congrats -- and lucky you! It's almost easier to tell you what to skip than what to order at Cedric Maupillier's exciting French-American restaurant in Adams Morgan. But among the dishes that have received some of the best press, be sure to try escargot hush puppies, the wood-grilled shrimp with makerel and the baked Alaska.

Have you found a pattern in restaurants where you are more likely to get bad service or a sub-par meal on certain days/times than others? Recently I have had several less-than-stellar lunches early in the week at places I've loved for evening or weekend meals. Have I just had bad luck, or can one assume that restaurants put their B- or C-list chefs and staff on duty for these low-revenue-generating shifts?

That's an interesting question that I'd like to throw out to both diners and chefs: Diners, do you find less stellar cooking at lunch? Chefs, are you coming in later in the day to work?

Doesn 't "Blackwells" immediately spring to mind?

Funny you should say that, because Blackwells was one of the top considerations for a name, Mr. Black tells me.

Good Evening Mr. Sietsema, My daughter turns 16 mid-June and would like to celebrate by dining with 4 of her closest friends. She prefers Italian cuisine though is open to American as well. Could you recommend a moderately priced restaurant that would be fun for teenagers but would also give a feeling of a special occasion and night out? thank you, Diane

If you're careful, Diane , Fiola off Pennsylvania doesn't have to be expensive, but I always find myself spending more at Fabio Trobacchi's beautiful Italian dining room than I expected. (In this scenario, however, at least five of you won't be sipping Jeff Faile's amazing cocktails -- right?) 


Another option is the recently reviewed Osteria Elisir downtown, where chef Enzo Fargione is serving delicious crostoni, lamb steak, stuffed squid, roast chicken and pastas, including a terrific plate of cavatelli with fresh seafood.


For something more American, try Blue Duck Tavern in the West End, Tabard Inn in Dupont Circle or Birch & Barley in Logan Circle.

Hi Tom - late summer travel to the capitals of Scandinavia - Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm and Helsinki. I tried searching the archives, but was hoping you or other might have suggestions.

I'm jealous! Which means, in part, that I've never been to any of those cities. Maybe a fellow chatter can help?

Any intel on the VIP dining at Range last Friday? We were wanded by Secret Service on the way in and agents were everywhere but no one was allowed to tell us who was visiting. President Obama was out of the country, so we assume Mrs. Obama or VP Biden. The food was terrific (especially the grilled octopus and the halibut) but I can understand complaints about the service, which was always very gracious and helpful but had several minor snafus: I got the wrong credit card slip when I tried to pay the bill and got dark chocolate instead of white chocolate bark for dessert. The only pacing complaint I had was that we got our broccoli rabe last, when all of our other food was finished, which is not really when I want to eat a vegetable.

Your complaint about Range is consistent with what I've been hearing from readers and colleagues: food is reliably good, but the timing and service need polishing. Presumably, the First Lady, who was dining there last Friday, did not encounter such glitches.

"Swellblack" would be even more memorable.


So is Muse going to be all-vegan for Sunday brunch from now on, or is there an omnivore menu as well?

It will be all-vegan every Sunday. (Didn't I make that clear? If not, my apologies.)

My wife treated me to a birthday dinner at Rasika (Penn Quarter) last night. As we are the parents of two small children (with another on the way), this was a real treat for both of us. The food was spectacular (as expected), and the service was similarly great. Our waiter was attentive but not overbearing, and he cleared up a minor error pleasantly and efficiently (it helped that we were more than happy to sub the mistake for what we ordered, I suppose, but isn't that part of the fun of eating out?). What I really liked were the casual plating arrangements that encouraged sharing. We made a bit of a mess as we passed plates and scooped dishes between us, but that seemed to be part of the vibe that the restaurant seems to encourage. I'm sure this isn't news to many chatters, but Rasika is proof that exquisite food and excellent service don't require a stiff and formal setting. A transporting evening, to be sure.

No doubt, your post is music to the ears of Vikram Sunderam, the chef of Rasika and a contender Monday night at the Beard awards for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic (along with fellow DC-area chef Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve in Old Town).

My brother has recently but enthusiastically discovered Indian food. We're off to Rasika this weekend. Dish suggestions for a newbie?

Everything! Seriously, it's hard to edit choices from the four-star Indian menu. Definitely get the mussels in coconut milk and the black cod marinated in honey and dill. 

I was at McDonalds the other day and noticed they had date stickers on their ketchup and other sauce pumps. I never really thought ketchup had a short shelf life, but I was thinking how that may apply to other restaurants. I have seen various places just top off the salt, soy sauce, ketchup, and other containers on all of the tables. Should they keep reusing the same containers, day after day, month after month, year after year?

Good question! As a waiter years ago, one of my nightly duties was re-filling condiment holders. I never stopped to wonder if the real "bottom" of the sauces were ever tapped. Restaurateurs, care to weigh in?

Tom, in this forum and in the Dish column of the Wednesday Food Section, you often report on the comings and goings of chefs. Absent context on a specific restaurant or chef, I am often not sure how to read these notes. Are they just news, or am I to read them as, "Chef X is leaving Restaurant Y, so you may not want to go there." (?) On the other hand, is a little creative turbulence good in a kitchen, in which case, should I be more leery of the places that do NOT have changes in the kitchen? In short, I like the news (e.g., someone is leaving), but I also would love your analysis (e.g., this is either a bad thing or a good thing). Thanks.

It really depends on who's leaving the kitchen and who is taking the chef's place. In the case of today's item (George Vetsch is leaving C.F. Folks), I think customers are in good hands with his successor, because he's cooked at the lunch-only cafe in the past and C.F. has a long history of turning out good solid food.

Any chance any DC rooftops that you know of also have pianos?

I'm stumped, unless the Bombay Club can somehow hoist its white piano on its roof? 

I think it depends on the restaurant. I've had lots of delicious (and much cheaper) meals and good service at fine dining establishments at 11:30 AM -- Rasika and Sushi Taro come to mind. I hate crowds, so I eat at 6PM and avoid going on Friday and Saturday nights; I think I've gotten good service partly because the server doesn't feel overwhelmed.

Good point, about staff  having the time to attend to you.

Hi Tom, I know you have a lot of new restaurants to review, but how often do you revisit restaurants that you reviewed years ago? I'm thinking of some of the places where I've dined recently (Ris, La Chuamiere, Praline, Black Market Bistro). Also, regarding Range, I went recently, and the service was terrible. It took 45 minutes for dinner to arrive after ordering, and when it was delivered, it was cold!

Perfect timing: My spring dining guide comes out May 19. In it, as in seasons past, you'll find updates on more than a dozen previously reviewed restaurants. (Past subjects, by the way, have included the aforementioned La Chaumiere and Praline Bakery.)


Regarding Range ... I so wish I wouldn't have given the restaurant three stars out of the gate. It was a three-star establishment when I experienced the restaurant early on, but the number of complaints I've received about the service since the review is hard for me to ignore, or chalk up to a restaurant having an off day.

headed to ris for the first time. What to order?

One of chef Ris Lacoste's long-time signatures is her scallop "margarita" made with chilies, orange and tequila ice.  Glancing at the current online dinner menu for Ris, the smoked trout panna cotta (a small dish) and chorizo- and almond-crusted salmon (an entree) both sound intriguing.

Would love to see more DC resturants offer menu items for shopping via the internet.

You mean you want to buy boudin blanc from Marcel's or barbecue from Standard from the comfort of your laptop?

Is it really worth ordering the roasted chicken at San Francisco's Zuni Cafe, if a person is capable of making their own pretty darn good roasted chicken? I'd hate to waste a special night out on a dish I could make at home!

Does it help if I say it's a dish I'd consider for a last meal?

Tom, my husband and I recently relocated to Reston. After much hype from friends and neighbors, we recently have dined at Maple Avenue, Villa Mozart, Lakeside Bungalow, and Bazin's on Church. All of these were overpriced and ill-served. At Maple Avenue good ideas translated poorly when our food came out cold and over-salted. At Bazin's our server was clearly overextended--forgetting our drinks (twice!) and the food was priced higher than their delectable decibel. Lakeside Bungalow botched our pork belly, and again, cold food. And most recently, Villa Mozart delivered small plates with smaller taste, and it seemed their specials were stretched too far, with proteins piecemealed or ground, and then mixed into pasta that fell flat. Please tell me NoVa has more to offer than just L'Auberge--we've been there twice already! But at least a visit there, we leave smiling and filled with the delicious meal we'd been craving.

I'm sorry to get your lukewarm feedback. Of all the places you listed, I'm surprised you didn't have a better experence at Villa Mozart. Have you checked out Minerva or Jacksons in Reston?  Both count fans. Bistro Vivant in McLean may be an option, too.  The French restraurant has a new chef whose work I'm eager to try.

I second your "last meal" comment, Tom -- I've been to San Francisco and sometimes eaten at Zuni three out of three days in a row, and always, always, always the roast chicken. It is divine and sublime.

Wow. To eat back-to-back meals at the same place in restaurant-blessed SF is strong endorsement.

Tom - for the diner looking for Scandinavian dining, Noma was the best restaurant in the world for three years running (knocked down to second this year) and is in Copenhagen. I have not been but good friend went and said it was well worth the hype

Yes, yes, of course. I've not eaten at Noma personally, but it's one of the most sought-after reservations in the world.  I guess I was thinking of less lofty ideas for the OP. As in, I wouldn't necessarily promote French Laundry to the reader heading to San Francisco's wine country.  The expense and the hassle are considerable.

I have worked at a number of restaurants, and in all of them the new and not-so-good waitstaff was more heavily scheduled on days earlier in the week. The best, most experienced staff was scheduled on weekends.

Ah, interesting! Likely because the experienced staff  -- I'm thinking waiters here -- wanted to work the busier (later-in-the-week) shifts and make better $$.

at all the restaurants i've worked at, we had weekly condiment duty. for example, we dumped all of the salt into a container, washed the salt shakers, and once they were dry, filled up the shakers with the container salt.

Thanks for sharing.

I know that this is getting to be an old topic. I went to Range on Saturday night for the first time. I am right out of school with a modest income so I do not go to restaurants like Range very often. The food was amazing. I had the Arctic Char and it was the best dish I have ever had. However, the service was rushed. I asked about a replacement for the aioli on the fish, and I could see the server became borderline hostile. Made my fiance and I feel like we didn't belong. Then again, the service at the bar was excellent. And the food was so good that we are definitely going back. Maybe we will eat at the bar, though.

So the bar is more reliable than the dining room proper. Let's go!

I, Fulgencio, too often avoid meals I know I can prepare at home, but that chicken is one of the most amazing experiences one can possibly ever have. I usually have to ask my server for an extra napkin it's so good!

That makes three compelling reasons to get the bird at Zuni Cafe.

Tom, I don't get all your love for Little Serow. Their seating policy is obnoxious (after being in line when it opened and started seating people and taking names, I got seated THREE hours later). Also, it seemed like all the food did the sweet & sour notes. While good, I can get similar food at any number of Thai or Vietnamese places in the area without the $45/person bill or the obnoxious wait. I just don't get the hype.

No one likes to wait, I get that. I, too, would love it if tiny Little Serow took reservations. But to compare the cooking there to your neighborhood Asian spots, begs the question: Share your list with us, please? Where are these Little Serow-alikes?

As we live in Olney, hubby & I don't get to Reston much, but I love Jackson's. I love the devilled eggs with sugared bacon (Coastal Flats also has those), the chopped salad (almost as good as Artie's), and the white chocolate bread pudding.

A vote in favor of Jackson's.

...but I certainly remember long nights of sidework scraping mustard and ketchup into one jar and early morning sidework filling new jars with homemade condiments. However, this was one restaurant out of the three I worked at over the span of seven years. The other two filled one bottle to another and while this method was certainly faster, who knows how long the "bottom" of the condiments were there!! However, as long as your condiment bottle is fairly full, I think it's safe to assume they are fresh.

Makes some of us wonder if there's a "mother" (initial) sauce in some of those catsup and mustard bottles out there!

I just had to let you know of a new favorite dining establishment - in Springfield! I was skeptical when a fine steak house opened in the shopping center near my house in West Springfield, but the food and service are such a welcome addition to the neighborhood. If you get the chance, try out Monty's Steakhouse! The brother/sister duo who run the place are often on site and they circulate around the tables to ensure everyone is enjoying their meals. It tends to be packed on the weekends, but I'd definitely recommend it!

Been there, eaten that. I was impressed with the service and decor, but not the steaks, at Monty's. The lamb chops, though, are very good.

Tom, although Nopa sounds really fantastic, it won't work for "Lunch in Penn Quarter" since they are only open for dinner on the weekend and the chatter was looking for a weekend lunch place.

I'm looking at a press release from April 23:  Restaurant hours on Saturday "11 a.m. to 11 p.m."

What, no mention of the palak chaat?

Because I'm doing a live chat, I didn't have a menu or notes in front of me and I've mentioned the appetizer like, a zillion times before?

Hi Tom -- we're meeting our (vegetarian) son in BA in a few weeks -- any ideas at all on how to eat with a non-meat-eater there???

Poor boy. BA is pretty meat-centric. Can anyone offer some restaurant suggestions for a vegetarian?

Also near Verizon Center is Ella's, with wood-oven pizzas and pasta. It's my 11 year old daughter's favorite.

Yep, Ella's could be fun.

Range needs help in service and customer satisfaction. Arrived for a 1:00 luncheon reservation exactly at 1:00. Told that my companion had not arrived and seated me. At 1:20 I phoned my companion who had been waiting in the restaurant at the other end for 20 minutes, having been told that she was the first to arrive. The restaurant has two entrances and they clearly did not communicate with each other. We complained respectfully to the manager who apologized. No offer of a cup of coffee or anything to make up for the fact that we lost 20 minutes of a valuable lunch hour simply waiting alone. At the end of the meal, we presented our parking tickets for validation. Parking in Bethesda is awful so you have to park in the Chevy Chase Pavilion which ain't cheap. We were told that Range doesn't validate parking, but the server recommended that we walk over to The Cheesecake Factory and get our tickets validated. We were offended at the suggestion and made it clear we didn't do that kind of thing. If Range wants to be upscale, it better think about validating parking and training its staff. Food was great, by the way.

Grrr. Double grrr.

My only concern about a restaurant's business practices, credit rating, etc., is whether they'll skimp on the food or service in a misguided effort to save money. And I would like to know for that reason alone, if someone were a poor credit risk. That said, I've only eaten once at a Roberto Donna place (Galileo II many years ago). The food was outstanding and the service cordial.

The reader is referring to a post from last week's chat, about why I chose to write about chef Roberto Donna's legal troubles in an Ask Tom column following a recent rave for his new restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Roberto's 4.  

I worked my way through college at a midwestern pizza chain (which has changed names at least three times in the last 25 years; I'm not sure what it is now). For reasons that are not easily explainable, the tables featured parmesan "cheese" and red pepper shakers...and ketchup bottles. We did nothing with the ketchup unless a bottle appeared close to empty. Then we topped it off. Offhand, I'd say there was still "original" ketchup in every bottle at the end of my four years. On the plus side, no one ever got sick (as far as I know).

Four year-old catsup, huh?

Their website lists hours starting at 5pm on Saturday and Sunday - look at the top of the menu.

Gotcha. Sounds like a certain press agent needs to update her backgrounder.

For the person going to Ris, you MUST order the butterscotch pudding. I've had some uneven meals at Ris, but I still go back for the pudding.

I don't have a huge sweet tooth, but yes (!) to the budino at Ris.

What happens to the questions you don't get to in your live chat?

I ask my ace producer, Maura, to move 'em to the next week.

Here's a few: Los Toltecas (Sterling) awesome mole sauce, very good mexican. Delia's (sterling) fantastic gyro. Santini's (Reston, Oakotn...) GREAT deli & NY style pizza. Ford Fish Shack (South Riding & Ashburn), Mon Ami Gabi (Reston) Steak Bordelaise was amazing! Also, can't go wrong with Clyde's, while it won't blow your socks off it's consistently good food & service.

Thanks for the additions to the list. I've been to, and enjoyed, Ford's Fish Shack.

Where is the logical fallacy in the writer's comment?

There is no fallacy. I just responded a little quickly there.

I'm a vegetarian who traveled to Argentina armed with Luna Bars, which turned out to be unneeded. I did, however, eat some terrible Italian food. Unfortunately, I can't remember the places we visited, but I wouldn't worry.

Uh ...... alrighty, then!

If you're dining in Chevy Chase (Friendship Heights) during the day, the cheapest place to park is the Saks Fifth Avenue ground lot, which is never filled. (But it closes at 7 pm.)

Tip o' the day!

What is currently your favorite restaurant for crab cakes in DC? Thanks!

Hmmm. You know who does a good crab cake? Miles Vaden at Nage near the WP. 


I hear a lunch bell. Actually, I see a lunch reservation on my calendar.  Off I go, until next Wednesday. Here's hoping the A-team is cooking, since it's hump day!


Thanks for joining me, gang.

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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