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

Jun 15, 2011

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Kliman recently put in his two cents in previous chat regarding the 'differences' between the two most [powerful] popular food critics in the area. He claims he gives more credit to smaller "mom and pop" type establishments, while Sietsema only dines and gives acclaim to big name restaurants. I, as a loyal reader of yours, knows for fact that this is untrue- however I am very curious on your POV on this very interesting debate: What is the difference between the two (besides the obvious)?

I don't agree that I focus only on big-name places (or that I am most interested in them). I cover them in part because readers are curious about them and generally they're in the heart of the market. I can't very well ignore a major arrival in Penn Quarter or Bethesda or Arlington, right?


I think my work speaks for itself. This year alone, I've reviewed Ford's Fish Shack, Bayou Bakery, Carbon Peruvian, El Sabor Bolivian and Sabai Sabai in the Magazine and previewed Pho Dc, Zee's Restaurant, Noodles on 11, Cava Mezze, Burger 7, Bubby's  and Island Hut -- among others -- in the Food section.  Truth be told, I often have more fun eating in the mom and pops, the smaller spots, than I do those with large PR machines fueling them.


Happy Wednesday, all. I'm almost over my jet-lag from last week's trip to Istanbul, which I'll be detailing in a future Travel section. 


Did you hear that Ten Penh is closing the end of the month? And Medium Rare has a new chef


Let's begin.

Hi Tom, You've never steered me wrong on your Postcards (I'm the guy who was over the moon with Rasoi in London). Wondering if you have any updated recommendations for Chicago; your last Postcard was in 2006. My girlfriend and I are going next weekend, and we'd love some advice.

I've not been to Chicago in far too long, but the one restaurant everyone is falling for is Girl & the Goat.


Perhaps some chatters have been there more recently?

I have a rave for Pizzeria Orso in Falls Church....the pizza is so fresh and awesome and the calamari OS the best I have ever should check them out sometime :) I really enjoy your work!

Uh, I DID check out Orso.


I relished my first meals there, but found serious slippage more recently.  Curious what others have experienced in the last month or so?


Would you ever consider getting together with some local food bloggers and bestowing some of your knowledge upon them. I'm sure everyone would be thrilled for you to join one of the DC Food Blogger Happy Hours we have every month!!!!

Funny, while I was away last week, I was thinking about how few local bloggers I know.  Part of that is explained by a crazy schedule, but I also value my privacy.  (I don't want that to sound snooty, because it's not intended to be. But sometimes the last thing I want to talk about is food at the end of the day.) 


I think I'd be more comfortable meeting one or two fellow writers over a drink or a meal, and  somewhere more intimate than a happy hour.  Bottom line: I'm game to meet! And I know I'd learn a thing or two.

Lots of great places to eat in Rehoboth. Was at Henlopen City Oyster House last weekend ( and had a great meal - except for the oyster stew, that committed the cardinal sin of oyster stews - too hot, overcooking the oyster. Often dined at Eden ( though I find a bit precious. Blue Moon and Finns are also recommended. Have not eaten at Salt Air, but they're rather popular right now, and are farm to table. The SoDel restaurants are also good - in North Bethany, Matt's Fish Camp and Blue Coast.

Thanks for the beach recommendations. Much obliged.

Hi Tom, I know this is frequently requested topic, but I am trying to pick a dinner location for sunday night for my visiting family for a father's day dinner. My dad has requested that we get authentic ethnic food, and my mom has defined the area to walkable from my apartment- Dupont, Georgetown, West End. Thai, Indain, Vietnamese, etc. would all be great, and we are pretty adventurous eaters (minus mom, who will grin and bear it). Any suggestions would be much appreciated!

"Ethnic" is such a broad term. But I know what you mean. Sushi Taro and Regent Thai in Dupont fit into the non-American category. So might the venerable La Chaumiere in Georgetown (has your dad ever had pike quenelles? Divine!).

Was at GATG in March and it's completely worth it. Paris Club, on the other hand, is not...despite seeing Hubert Keller dining at the table next to us. Frontera Grill is still cranking out great meals, too.

Ah, Frontera Grill. Some of the best Mexican cooking in the country is found there.

I am an owner of two restaurants in the area and, for obvious reasons, will remain anonymous, but I have been taken by the conversation in the chat about free things when mistakes are made. If you buy a bottle of milk at whole foods, take it home, and its bad, if you return it, they will give you another bottle of milk. They won't also refund your money. You will get a one -or-the-other choice. If you buy a blouse at Saks, take it home and notice a rip. Go back to Saks, they will swap the blouse, but they won't do that and refund your money. I so often feel like people forget I'm running a business and at the end of the day, my bottom line is no less precious to me than Whole Foods or Saks. To the contrary, it is a lot more precious to me because the margins are really really slim in the restaurant business and I don't have a corporation backing me. Rereading the posts from the chicken lady, its almost like the undercooked chicken wounded her, but a cookie would of made it all better. I really wish people would have a bit of perspective when they eat out. We don't do things intentionally. People make mistakes, things go awry (sometimes we have those nights where EVERYTHING goes wrong) we try to accommodate people, but if something is off and we fix it, I can't possibly intuit that someone is uncomfortable not having her food in front of her toddler children. I comp a lot of food, especially when nights go really bad. But I really get depressed when people treat it like an expectation.

I sympathize. Some people expect too much of some restaurants. I stand by my original response; the mistake was corrected and the diner got a bill for what she ate.  Sounds fair to me. 


But you know what? I actually heard from a few chefs who told me they would have given the customer a cookie for having to wait while the order was redone. 

Tom, I'm meeting a friend for dinner this week near Dupont Circle. I don't want to suggest somewhere too expensive (I'm thinking $20 or less entrees), and I don't think she's a particularly exotic eater, so Asian cuisines are probably out. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks!

Agora is fun for Turkish small plates.  Nando's has great spicy chicken. What about a pie at Pizzeria Paradiso?

For those of you heading to The Shenandoah Valley of VA for events related to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (or for anything else, for that matter), consider a lunch stop at The NY Deli on Main Street in Woodstock. I've had the pork roll and the Italian Sausage sandwich and both are fabulous! My husband hasn't tried anything other than the Reuben because it's so good. I'm not associated with the restaurant, just a weekend resident who wants to see a good restaurant succeed in a small town!

History and hoagies! I'm there.


Thanks for the suggestions.

I'd like to respond to the comment about the expectation of free food in a restaurant. Going to a restaurant is not like buying milk or a blouse, if I just want some food, I do go to a grocery store. When I eat out, I am there for the experience, to relax and to share a meal with friends and/or family. When something goes wrong with my meal and I would like to say this could be a huge range of things, sometimes it isn't a big deal and can be easily fixed. For example, sometimes I get a regular coke instead of the diet I ordered. I don't expect free desserts and drinks for that. It's a two minute fix and my meal is barely interrupted. If it's something else, like my whole meal is wrong and I have to sit there while it's corrected and now everyone else feels awkward - do they eat in front of me? Do they wait and let their food go cold? Then I think it's a nice gesture to give me the free cookie. I imagine that running a restaurant gives you a window on humanity that makes you want blackout blinds sometimes but occasionally, the cookie should be free.

I think our restaurateur friend would agree; he/she mentioned he/she gives away stuff when big mistakes are made.

Look into Paul Kahan's restaurants, Blackbird and the Publican.

Both solid bets. Thanks.

Hi Tom, I decamped from DC for the (best) west coast years ago, but continue to read your chats. I love your unpretentious, enthusiastic but discerning tastes; I'm sure you'd be welcome out here. My boyfriend will be in DC for work on his birthday and I'd like to treat him to a long-distance cocktail and bar snacks by delivering a gift certificate someplace nice. Ideally, a place with fantastic cocktails and a few solid appetizers. An outdoor patio/deck would be great but, alternatively, a friendly bar in an elegant restaurant would work as well. He's friendly and enjoys chatting with people. Vegetarian options make it the perfect trifecta. Thanks!

The pressure! The pressure!


Let's see now. Fiola, the new Italian restaurant from star chef Fabio Trabocchi, would be high on my list, in part because it hired away from Palena its top-drawer bar tender.  I love the custom-made cocktails at Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons, too. If your SO goes early, he might inquire about the insider nosh of pork cupcakes (well, if he isn't 100 percent vegetarian).  Another idea: the bar at Ardeo + Bardeo in Cleveland Park.

I'm curious. As a restaurant critic you must try all types of food and probably have a very diverse enjoyment of food. Are they are any foods that you don't like?

I'm not a big fan of  things with a licorice flavor, but I'd like to think I can still be fair when I'm evaluating dishes or drinks with fennel or pernod, for instance. And I dislike zucchini and summer squash. Bo-ring! 


Otherwise, I'm game for most anything (as long as it's safe, as in properly cooked).

Hi Tom, a few friends and I (all moms of toddlers) are going out for a rare dinner together next week. Can you recommend a reasonable-priced restaurant that may have escaped our radar over the last couple of years? NW DC is preferred. Thanks!

New(ish) and nice: The revamped Perry's in Adams Morgan, the groovy, wine-focused Ripple (new chef) in Cleveland Park and Masala Art in Upper NW for very good Indian.

Got a preference Tom?

It depends on what the occasion is. Can you provide more details, please?

I go to Chicago once every year or two for business or to visit family, and your first stops should be Portillo's for a Chicago-style hot dog and Giordino's for deep dish pizza. For fine dining, I usually avoid the chef on multiple TV shows that everyone's talking about (because even if they're that good, they're usually still not worth the ridiculous wait), but I could probably eat dinner every night at Frontera Grill or Topolobampo, then get a churro for dessert around the corner at XOCO. The mezcal margarita I had at Frontera still teases me with a vivid memory of it's spicy, smoky goodness.

Hot dogs. Pizza. I'm getting hungrier by the post!


Here's another tip, from another chatter:



Can't go wrong with anything Graham Elliott is doing. A chef who actually focused on quality cooking first, and is thus becoming famous for it, not the other way around.

Hi, Tom! Thanks for taking my question! I was at a very nice restaurant downtown last night for a work dinner. I loved my appetizer, but I was really disappointed in my main--duck breast. I wasn't able to send it back, since it was a work dinner, but I've been thinking about sending them an email--something along the lines of "loved the service, loved the appetizer, but didn't love the duck." I'm thinking in terms of just letting the chef know, not to mention the fact that that was one expensive duck. It was overcooked (more well done than medium), had a charred skin (thought they might have meant that, but it was burnt tasting), the sauce was flat, and overall, was really salty/bitter. It definitely needed something to perk it up. If it helps, it was a Ashok Bajaj restaurant. Would the restaurant see this as a positive email, or would it tick them off? Thank you so much! I love your reviews, and I've even gotten my husband to ask "what does Tom think about this place?"

Trust me, Ashok Bajaj would want to know if a customer thought a dish in one of his many restaurants was off in some way. And so would his chef there. (I like your inclination, starting the email with notes of praise.)

apropos of the first question...we have a week when the kids are away this summer--so far reservations at Kushi & Rasika so we're looking for something a little lower-brow. We eat everything. Live in Silver Spring but can travel for dinner. Thoughts?

Kushi and Rasika. Can I tag along?


Close to home for you, Jackie's and Ruan Thai should go on your list of options. And if you're feeling exploratory, the food at Ethiopic in the Atlas District continues to set the bar for African cooking in the city.





What's the best greek restaurant in DC?

Upscale: Komi (followed by Zaytinya)

Mid-scale:  Kellari Taverna


Fast and easy: Zorba's in Dupont


I hear a lunch bell.  Time to go, gang. See you back here next week, same time.


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 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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