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

Jun 01, 2011

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

THIS JUST IN: Washington’s best-known pizzaiolo has landed a new gig. Starting today, Edan MacQuaid will be working at Local 16 in the U St. corridor. “The last few years have been interesting,” says the cook, who rocked the local pie scene when he parted ways with Pizzeria Orso in Falls Church in March and most recently consulted at Ardeo + Bardeo in Cleveland Park. “I’m looking for a change of pace.”

MacQuaid will be joining a friend and former colleague from Two Amys, chef Alex Vallcorba, in the kitchen of nine-year-old Local 16, where he hopes to have “a lot of freedom to do something interesting, new.”  His main focus will be on helping Vallcorba develop a repertoire of dishes using the restaurant’s wood-burning grill. 

We’re talking “little roasts” of lamb and pork, and maybe a s’more pizza. FYI: MacQuaid thinks his new employer puts out “pretty good pizza already,” praising the crust for its light and puffy crust.

MacQuaid isn’t the only news at Local 16. David Bueno, the former sommelier at Taberna del Alabardero and general manager of Café Milano who became a partner of the establishment last fall, recently introduced a liquid deal: a $16 bottle of wine on Monday night. I’m there (or will be).

As always, lots to chew over today. Did you see that Againn Tavern shuttered in Rockville? I went to Bourbon Steak in Georgetown and had what I hope is not my last pork cupcake and I dropped by El Centro D.F. in Logan Circle twice for some pretty forgetable Mexican food. I also stood in line for 20 minutes in 93-degree weather (yesterday) for another rendezvous with Shake Shack, which I'll be writing about for next week's First Bite column. 
A house-keeping note: I'm going out of the country tomorrow afternoon (Istanbul!) and won't be hosting a chat next Wednesday. Let's gather again Wednesday, June 15 at our usual time.
Ready, set ... ask away

Where's the best place in town to get a good banh mi? I was blown away by the one from the Sauca food truck, and now I want to know if they're all that good.

The last respectable banh mi I had in the city (lots of qualifiers there, I realize) was at the tiny Pho Viet in upper Columbia Heights.  The sandwich costs $7 and comes with a soda and a side of tasty battered sweet potato chips. 


The second most reliable banh mi was at Ba Bay on the Hill, where the filling changes (pulled pork when I tried it) and the meal is accompanied with airy shrimp chips.


Bahn mi lovers, where do *you* go in the city?

I am the owner of Shooter McGee's and Ramparts Tavern and Grill (neighborhood restaurants) in Alexandria. I have just opened a new restaurant in Old Town called T.J. Stones Grill House and Tap Room and am wondering how I get someone to come in and review us?

Thanks for sharing the news with us. Sounds as if we have another contender for my First Bite column, in which I preview new establishments in the Food section. (But please keep in mind, there's a lot of competition for that space.)


What kind of food are you serving and how does T.J. Stones differ (if at all) from its siblings?

Hey Tom, Going to dinner with the in-laws from out of town on a Saturday night this month. We tried to get a reservation at Indigo Landing since the outdoor seating, marina views and decent menu. However, it looks like IL might be having a private event and are not taking reservations for that night. What would be a good alternative? We are looking for something preferably in nova, with outdoor dining (if the weather is nice) and not too casual. Seafood is a plus, but not a must. Thanks!

Count yourself lucky. The best thing about Indigo Landing is its view. 


If it's upscale, al fresco dining in Virginia you're after, try either the venerable L'Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls or the swell-egant 2941 (with a lake view behind expansive windows) in Falls Church. Eventide in Clarendon has a roof-top patio, but I have yet to try the cooking of the newish chef there, Adam Barnett, formerly of the Westend Bistro in Washington.

Your take on the undercooked chicken sandwich inspired me to compliment Arlington's Northside Social for their recent gracious handling of an error. After waiting longer than usual for my sandwich, I approached the counter to inquire. It took a little back and forth, but we determined that someone grabbed the wrong sandwich (I have a common first name, and there was an order left behind of someone with the same name). Not only did they speedily remake my sandwich, but they brought it to me (normally you pick it up), and gave me one of their fantastic cookies for free. Much appreciated! And that offering sure kept my loyalty from wavering.

Good work, Northside Social! For the price of a cookie, the restaurant has won the loyalty of a customer and (probably) earned the admiration of more than a few of us here in the audience today.

Posting early because I will be on my way to the beach during your chat. Are there any decent restaurants in or around Rehoboth? Some neighbors of mine are kind enough to put me up for a couple of nights and I'd like to take them out to a nice dinner or two. I'll pay anything for a new and adventurous meal; they'll be my guests and never complain about free food. All of us drink and none of us have food aversions. I'm ever-so-gently broaching 40, my neighbors are slightly older. Is there anyplace you or our chatters can recommend?

I wish I could be of help, but I haven't gone to the beach in forever.  Chatters?

Thanks Tom. I followed your advice from a few weeks ago. I asked about two lunches and one dinner. You recommended Oyamel and Rasika for lunch and Palena Cafe for dinner, and I followed through on my visit. Either you read my mind, or we share similar tastes. All of my meals were fantastic. The meal at Palena may be one of my favorites ever. Everyone should note that the more specific they are in their requests, the better you can respond. Tell Tom what you're after, and I'm sure he will lead you to very fine dining indeed.

Why, thank you! Very kind of you to follow up on your experiences. We aim to please around here.

Tom - I read the letter from the Woodside Deli customer who was served an undercooked sandwich that had to be returned. You said the patron was not due compensation since he received a new meal. I beg to differ. In a supermarket, you are buying food, but in a restaurant, you are also buying the experience, and that is usually a shared experience. There's nothing worse than sending a meal back, only to be left with no food, causing your dining companions eat while you watch, or uncomfortably pick at their food in the hopes that yours will arrive soon, while you feel responsible for spoiling the occasion. The better thing for the restaurant to do is to bring out a salad or appetizer, on the house, so the patron has something to eat immediately and the rest of the party can dine in comfort. I would guess that a patron treated this way would have not complained to the Washington Post or countless friends. Once a patron asks for compensation, it is clear that he is dissatisfied with the experience and the way it was handled. At the very least, send him home with a free dessert. It often is not the size of the compensation, but the effort and acknowledgement, that turns a bad experience into a good one.

As I recall, the poster who returned his/her sandwich was by himself/herself, and the wait probably was not all that long. 


Don't forget, this is a DELI we're talking about and a SANDWICH we're discussing. It's not four people ordering a five-course meal in an expense-account venue on a Saturday night. 


A glitch in that scenario might warrant a gratis something-or-other, depending on the seriousness of the mistake.  But to expect something free, or to be compensated after an honest mistake was rectified in a timely fashion, is almost taking advantage of a business.


I stand by my original response.

Hi, Tom, My 78-year-old mother-in-law wants to take two of her friends out in DC for a celebration dinner next Sunday. They're looking for upscale, fine dining in a formal atmosphere--she's a bit "Sunset Boulevard" and wants to show off. We tried to get them reservations at Citronelle, but it isn't open on Sundays. Same for the Prime Rib. Is there anyplace else you can suggest? Valet service is a plus, as parking is no longer her strong suit. Thanks!

Norma Desmond want to strut her stuff, eh? Sunday evenings are tough, but Blue Duck Tavern, Kellari Taverna and the Bombay Club might provide a worthy backdrop for your grandmother (who sounds like a hoot).

I just started food blogging and want to know what you look for in a favorite restaurant. Are there boxes any great restaurant has to tick?

I'm looking at a lot of things when I'm in restaurants in general. Is the setting comfortable? Does it fit with the theme of the establishment? Is the food true to its roots? Are the waiters good representatives of the restaurant? Is this food I look forward to eating again?  Is parking easy? And on and on.  As you can see, there are hundreds of details that go into the business of feeding people.

I had a wholly forgettable group dinner at Galileo a few weeks ago, and I was wondering if it was more likely that the management problems that doomed earlier Roberto Donna ventures were cropping up again, or whether it was likely just an off night. It was a Tuesday or Wednesday, and it was SLOOOOW, despite asking the servers to pick it up. Is it worth giving it another shot? If so, what could I do to improve my odds of a good experience?

You know, there are so many good restaurants interested in your business right now, it's really not necessary to patronize competitors that aren't up to snuff. Service has rarely been one of  Galileo's strong points (unless you were a Most Favored Patron) , but I think the sad state of affairs at the latest incarnation is affecting the entire operation. A shame.

Hi, Tom. I had to bring up this topic from the 5/25 chat again as I thought it brought up a good point: that maybe you and others who didn't grow up with "real Chinese food" (whatever that is, as Chinese food is so adaptive to whatever country it's cooked in) just aren't ordering what actual Chinese people are ordering (to put it bluntly). It's not that I think people are intentionally ignorant about the type of Chinese cuisine that is available here (and throughout the States), but I wonder if those who have more "westernized" palates just end up ordering different dishes than those who have more "Chinese" palates because those are the dishes they read/hear about most from others, for the most part? I say this because having had very good, memorable dishes at Full Kee on 6th St in the District (all specials on the wall, btw), Peking Gourmet, and a couple of the Maryland Chinese places...I always make it a point to sneak a peek at what others are eating. Being Chinese and having grown up with the food and the many great varieties available in NYC's Chinatown (along with back in my birth country in the short time I lived there), I am always curious what non-Chinese people are eating at Chinese restaurants, and I always notice that it's not what my family and I typically order (based mainly on the waiter's/owner's recommendations). On the non-Chinese customers' tables, I always see dishes akin to General Tso's Chicken, moo shu pork, shrimp with lobster sauce, gloopy, thick sauces that overwhelm the ingredients, wonton soups, egg drop soups, fried rice, egg tarts and fried sesame balls... Yes, some of these are everyday "authentic" Chinese foods, but they're never really what my family orders unless one of us has a craving. It's almost like there's a list of "acceptable" Chinese foods for those not very familiar with the cuisine to order (everyone knows ma po tofu, the most common dim sum items, etc.). This is merely a hypothesis, of course. I also know I'm painting with a pretty broad stroke, and I know there are tons of non-westerners who know real, good Chinese food...but do you think maybe the basic problem is that they're far, far less numbers than people think? The concept of "everyday, peasant Chinese foods" vs. "special occasion, restaurant Chinese foods" also springs to my mind, as it might also be a cultural difference that one wouldn't order fried rice or anything at a restaurant that can be made easily (and probably preferably) at home. Maybe it's just my natural, deep cynicism at the heart of this, as I do personally have major problems with D.C.'s dining scene (been living here for seven, very long years). I know I sound very down about the D.C. dining scene even though I think there are some truly fabulous restaurants here. The problem, I believe, is that they're all "New American" or some form of fusion (Rasika and Komi are examples, I think) that there's really just a whole gentle whitewashing of cuisine in general in the area that is very accepted (even in suburban Korean and Vietnamese places, where Korean BBQ and bahn mi are the most popular), and that can at least partially explain the lack of Chinese restaurants in the area worth recommending to the general public. Also a disclaimer, my parents ran an American Chinese restaurant, so I do love and still crave the Americanized Chinese stuff, but it still makes me cringe when others refer to it as "good/great Chinese" when someone asks for a recommendation.

First, thanks for taking the time to pen such a detailed and thoughtful post. You raise some very good questions.


Second, remember that this is, for better or worse, a live and unedited chat and I sometimes leave things out, or forget to throw in qualifiers, when I'm trying to answer the many questions I get --  which come, generally, after the hour-long discussion has begun. That doesn't always give me time to respond in as great a detail as I might like.


In reference to some of the points you raise:


True, I didn't grow up with "authentic" Chinese food, but that detail shouldn't automatically disqualify me from reviewing it.  Since my late teens, I've certainly eaten in a lot of great role models, occasionally with native eaters in tow. I've also had the good fortune to watch top Chinese chefs in their kitchens, both here and abroad. 


I order the full range of a menu -- it's my job --- although, like you, I am most interested in dishes that customers who appear to be Chinese are eating.  (But that brings up an interesting question: Who says all Chinese have great palates? )


A lot of Chinese have grown up on, or are accustomed to, textures and flavors that the general American population might not appreciate. I'm thinking of  squishy, slimy or gelatinous dishes, which over the years I've come to understand and like (but maybe not crave).


Rasika and Komi are amazing Indian and (modern) Greek restaurants, respectively.

Eek, who knew this would ruffle so many feathers! (hehe) To clarify, I was with my family (2 toddlers + husband) and I did feel odd waiting for my food while they ate. But that didn't bother me so much as a sense of letdown. The small gesture of the cookie that the earlier poster wrote of is more in line with what I was expecting, not any sort of extra course to occupy me. But if even the cookie is not the norm, again, I'm just glad to know so what to expect in the future.

Ah, you omitted some useful details. The way your first post read, it sounded (to me) as if you were solo.

In a recent chat your said that La Chaumiere would be one of your frequent hangouts once you retired. I'm curious, what are the others? Where would you be willing to deplete your retirement savings?

Gosh, there are so many places! With the caveat that favorite restaurants can change with the season, the company I'm with, my mood and so on, I'd want to be a regular at Palena Cafe, Rasika (if I could get in at a decent time!), Bibiana, Sushi Taro, C.F. Folks, Bangkok Golden Thai (for the Laotian fare),  dim sum brunch at the Source ...

Along the lines of "Wrong about compensation...", I think that sometimes it is important for a restaurant/server to consider the patron that has to send food back. When a plate contains an entree and one or more sides, if something needs to be sent back, I think a server should at least offer to leave the other parts of the meal. For example, if you order a burger and fries and send the burger back, the server should offer to leave the fries. I know when I've had a situation like that, the establishments that I remember the most fondly are the ones that leave me with some food to pick at while my dining companions eat. Even if I am alone, it leaves me with something while I wait for the meal or part of the meal to be remade. As the other person said, sometimes it's the experience and not trying to get anything for free. Since often, the entire plate is put into the bin and a new plate is made up, it doesn't hurt to offer. And for the cost of a side order, they can often give the same warm and fuzzy feeling that the free cookie gave the earlier chatter. In these times of economic recession, I can't imagine any business that wouldn't want to get a few more loyal customers.

I guess the best thing for a waiter to do is to ask if you want to keep the food that's cooked properly to stay or go, and if you want everything removed, to offer a nibble (say, a salad) while you wait for a mistake to be made right.


I hate to do this, but I'm going to have to cut the chat short today, folks. The system is unbearably slow/not functioning on my end. My apologies.


See you here again June 15. Chow for now.

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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 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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