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

Jun 22, 2011

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

SHIFTING GEARS: With the departure of his opening chef at Ba Bay, owner Khoa Nguyen says he’s leaving the front of the Vietnamese retreat for the back. “I’m definitely going to get dirtier,” says Nguyen, who is replacing Nick Sharpe in the kitchen of the Capitol Hill establishment.

Sharpe, who came to the project from the nearby Sonoma, left earlier this month. According to his former employer, he’s been tapped to work with a restaurant group in San Francisco.

The opening at Ba Bay gave Nguyen an opportunity to reevaluate the modern Vietnamese menu and “go back to the drawing board.”  While he’s keeping a few dishes that have become signatures, including autumn rolls and chicken wings,  Nguyen plans to “rely more on traditional family recipes” moving forward.

Out: romaine salad with sesame vinaigrette and egg noodles with rock shrimp. In: jicama salad with shrimp and fish sauce and rice noodles with grilled pork. “There will be more fish sauce everywhere,” jokes the restaurateur. He predicts 80 percent of the menu will be different in a month. (Ba Bay’s bahn mi is staying, we’re happy to report; Nguyen is experimenting with a version using fish cakes.)

Helping him ease into the kitchen is sous chef Sara Siegel, who Nguyen met when the two worked at Vidalia downtown. Keeping him on a firm Vietnamese leash is the restaurant’s namesake and inspiration, the owner’s 83-year-old grandmother, Hoa Tran. She’s eaten everything on the current menu, says Nguyen, and advising him on what to revise and what to retire.

She’s taking her task seriously. Nguyen says she extended her visa to stay here to help tweak the script.

Good morning, gang.  Did you hear Mike Isabella is opening Graffiato this Thursday?  Can't wait to try his house-made agnolotti, demonstrated here, among other dishes.


Let's rock.

Tom: We were at Masala Arts on Sunday and had a great dinner as usual. One family, however, had two children running wild. They were screaming, running around the restaurant (endangering themselves and others as waiters carried large tray of food and drink), and one child kept throwing silverware on the floor. I will admit a low tolerance for such behavior, but what's the proper etiquette? Talk to the manager? Talk to the family? My parents almost never took us out to "nice" restaurants when we were young and on the rare occasion when we did go out, any acting up wouldn't have been tolerated or would have been taken outside, not ignored (or laughed at, as the family did here). @Dogfish Head in Falls Church (I get it, I went into the lion's den... and haven't been back), I once had a father turn a screaming child's high chair around, away from his table towards ours. Not a pleasant dining experience.

 Tricky problem there. I think the best strategy is to enlist a manager to talk to the parents:


  "Thanks for joining us this evening. Could I ask that the children stay in their chairs?  It's for the safety and comfort of everyone in the dining room. We need to keep the path from the kitchen to the tables clear when possible."  (Basically, a friendly warning.)


  Regarding the father at Dogfish Head: Hilarious, but also not.

I'm taking my former husband out for a B'Day dinner. He's a steakhouse kind of guy (Morton's, Palm, etc.). What other choices are there (preferably downtown). Thanks!

You're taking your ex out for his birthday? Classy.


A few other places you might add to the list of meaty possibilities: Capitol Grille on Pennsylvania Ave., Charlie Palmer Steak on the Hill and Prime Rib (with live background music) downtown.

Hi, Tom, Love the chats! You have mentioned before that you get dozens of questions to sort through for each week's chat. Would it be possible sometime, for you to publish all the questions you get for a week, even though it is impossible to answer them all? It would be very interesting to see how many similar questions you receive, and also the ones that you consider answering. Thanks!

Interesting idea. Let me mull it over with my producer.


Just so you know, I am planning to write and post a Frequently Asked Questions round-up yet this summer.  The list will obviously reflect what a lot of readers are most curious about.

Have you ever considered job swapping with another critic in another city for a year? I think it would be really interesting experiment. You could each review some of the others favorites and not so favorites and see what a second opinion is of the food. Might also give a good perspective/comparison on the level of food here in DC.

As long as the cities included San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle, I'd be game! Not sure how the switch would work, exactly, but I like the fantasy.


Random thoughts:  What if readers in the different cities didn't want their critics back after a year?  Or the critics got a little too comfortable in their new roosts?


One of the reasons I enjoy writing the Postcard column for the Travel section is the opportunity to taste what's going on outside the Washington market.  Most of those trips, alas, are just three days long, which means doing a lot of homework in advance to avoid anything that's less than terrific.



Hey Tom, I've been given a mission by a friend who is pretty down in the DC restaurant scene to go to three of the most interesting/best "food experiences" I can think of in DC? Where would you go?

Off the top of my head, I'd steer you to the exclusive sushi bar in the rear of Sushi Taro in Dupont Circle;  just about anything on Vikram Sunderam's menu at the thrilling Rasika in Penn Quarter;  and maybe Elizabeth's Gone Raw downtown, if only to savor uncooked vegan fare and leave impressed by the experience.


Curious which three D.C. restaurants others might pick?

Hi Tom, My new job takes me regularly to DC, where I'm based around 18th and L NW. Can you recommend a couple of interesting lunch spots within an easy walk (i.e. ~ 1/2 mile)? This would be just for me - not business - and take out, ethnic, veggie are all preferred. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience.

Try the new Lincoln, which I'm reviewing July 3. The  American-themed restaurant specializes in small plates and counts a number of good meatless options on its menu.  (I'm partial to the shredded kale salad with dried cranberries and hazelnuts. )


Am I missing anything delicious, chatters?

Tom, in your opinion where is the best burger in dc?

In the city proper? My vote goes to Palena Cafe in Cleveland Park for an upscale version (chef Frank Ruta even makes his own bun) and probably The Burger Joint in Dupont Circle for something more accessible.  The latter sandwich uses aged, hormone-free beef.

Hi Tom! I'm happy to hear that Ba Bay is making some changes. I wasn't a fan of it the first time I tried it. I liked the atmosphere, but not the food. They just need to keep it real because Vietnamese food is fine the way it is. I would love to see this place succeed in Capitol Hill.

Me too. The changes sound promising.

Must agree with your assessment of Senart's. My husband and I went Saturday around 5:30, and the place was packed. The food runners were excellent at getting stuff out to us quickly, but I swear the waiter was going out of his way to avoid eye contact with us, and the wait staff seemed to be doing more talking among themselves than with the diners. I'd have to say the really strange part was when I ordered a dirty martini and a regular one came out. I asked the waiter if he could take it back to the bartender to mix in the brine. Instead, the waiter came out with a shot glass of olive brine so I could repair my own drink. Now, I'm no prima donna, but it's not like we were at Dan's Cafe. It was just...odd.

My group lucked out and got seated at Table 1, the cool alcove booth,  which is almost a room of its own with a view of the street.  But despite having three hostesses and a bunch of servers within feet of us, we had a lot of service issues at Senart's.  No one was paying much attention to us or anyone else, it seemed.


Too bad. The room is a beaut.

Any chance you've been to Rio? I'm heading there in a few weeks and would LOVE any suggestions you have---especially for inexpensive/moderate places!

Rio, anyone? I've not visited.

Hi Tom, My husband and I and our two kids (4 and 6 years old) will be visiting DC in late July, staying in Gaithersburg. Can you recommend a kid-friendly restaurant or two for dinner (either in DC or near where we are staying)? My kids are good eaters and especially love rice and beans. Thanks!

In Gaithersburg, I really like the combination Burmese-Chinese menu at the charming Burma Road.  Don't miss the brassy ginger salad and rice noodles with shredded chicken, bean sprouts and chilies. 


In Washington, I'm thinking you might want something family-friendly near the Mall.  My recent lunch at Jaleo reminds me what a role model the Spanish tapas restaurant continues to be.  The hardest decision you'll have to make is what *not* to order from the list of 70 or so small plates.

Hi Tom, not sure if you watch TC Masters, but during last week's finale, the 3 finalists were tasked with creating a dish for the judges - not just any dish, mind you, but the dish that inspired the judges to get involved in the food industry. For example, Ruth Reichl had a lemon souffle in Paris at age 16 that changed her life. What would your dish be?

What a fun question.  I don't think there's one dish that inspired me, but rather a combination of things I made, as an aspiring food writer (and Wash Post recipe tester), that captured my attention.  Like the time I made Alice Water's pizza using fresh thyme or Marion Cunningham's graham crackers, the real deal.  Or the time my boss, Phyllis Richman, handed me a bunch of recipes using Stilton cheese (she had just returned from England) and I made one of the richest soups of my life.


Curious what dishes inspired you all?

I have a toddler, and my husband and I take her out to dinner with us from time to time. We always go early (meaning 6 pm), never on a Saturday, and we never order more than 2 courses so as to maximize our chances that she'll be on good behavior. We choose medium-range, loud, non-fancy restaurants (not Citronelle) and are prepared to leave if she isn't cooperating. She stays in her high chair. But she might emit an excited shriek or two -- which is why we favor loud restaurants -- and her table manners leave something to be desired. We tip well to make up for the increased mess. She likes eating different foods, and she loves looking at all the people and commotion. So considering all of that, we're being courteous to our fellow diners, right? Let me know if we're over-stepping what parents of young children should do. Thanks.

Thanks for the great tips; you and your spouse are to be congratulated. As I've said before, I love seeing (well-behaved) families in restaurants. How else are children going to learn how to dine out?

What used to be there? It's killing me that I can't remember - and I know I had been there!

Il Mulino, a high-priced Italian import from New York.  Its timing couldn't have been worse.

The International Square Food court at 18 & K has a little bit of everything but the Cuban restaurant is particularly good. Also, Well Dressed Burrito would be a solid choice.

And let's not forget Nirvana Express, the abbreviated reincarnation of the late Nirvana on K St. NW.

I would steer the diner toward the Greek Deli, Malaysia Kopitaem and maybe Maoz Falafel

I'm not familiar with your last idea, but I know (and applaud) your other picks.

Near CF Folks and the Well Dressed Burrito (19 &M), also great sandwich joint on 17th called "city lights" with home made soups and specials. Naan and beyond at 17th and L. Nando's . . .

All good ideas. Thanks for chiming in. I'm particularly fond of C.F. Folks.

I'd take them on a tour of DC's Most Overrated Eateries. Ben's Chili Bowl, CakeLove, and Lauriol Plaza. :)

But isn't the point to counter the friend's lowly impression of the city?

Hi Tom, I called a big-time restaurant the other day to make a reservation. It was clearly after noon, but the person said "Good Morning," upon picking up the phone. I think that I should get a free meal out of this, and that they should also probably give me a dedicated table for life, name a drink after me, and give me a share in the restaurant's profits. What say you?

Yes, yes, yes -- to everything! How DARE they! I mean, the greeting must have ruined your entire WEEK. If I were you, I'd consult a lawyer.

Tom -- Think fast! You're on a desert island with Mike Isabella, Carla Hall, and Spike Mendelsohn. The food has run out. Whom would you eat?

Um, um, um ... Why are you asking me this?


(Folks, I don't make these questions up!)

All right, I really wasn't wounded up until now! I've tried to be gracious while watching my sincere question turn me into some kind of whiner. I thought I was clear that I didn't care at all about the wait time between when I sent back the undercooked food and when the new plate came. I was just asking -- out of pure inexperience with returning a dish -- whether I was wrong expecting a customer-friendly gesture beyond replacing the bad food. That was it. For the third time, I will say thank you for providing me with the answer, so I know for the future. I will just add, though, that I know owners of other establishments (likely much smaller than those of the restauranteur of last week, and with even tinier margins of profit) who have a much different attitude about keeping customers. One I know, who owns a small cafe, sometimes will slip a cookie (yes, the dreaded cookie) into your sandwich bag, just because. Or his mother, no doubt from whom he learned graciousness, is known to give you an extra tea bag so you can refill your cup later. I understand completely that this is not the norm, but that is exactly why I appreciate it so much. And why I keep choosing that place over the hundreds of other places I could go, reimbursing them many times over for their small payout. I promise, it's not about what the gesture is. The Woodside could have taken one penny off the bill and it would have given me a different impression. It's whether the restaurant cares to make the gesture. Thank you, Tom, for letting me defend myself a little.

You're welcome.  And let's let this be the last word on the subject.

We always brought some type of finger food (for one of mine it was cut up tomatoes and dill pickles) just in case they decided not to like something on the menu, if they were fidgity or screaming...they were removed immediately. This is just how my parents and grandmothers were -- none were ashamed to take us out and they did so with frequency. We taught our daughters the same, ours are at the age to start their own families and are teaching their young nieces and nephews how to behave in restaurants.

Your readers are a wealth of advice. Thanks.

Tom - To follow up on the first post about rambunctious children: When taking my three-year old to eat, I noticed that we were seated at "out of the way" tables (i.e., in the bar area, near the bathrooms, in a room only with families), likely because the hostess sees a toddler and assumes she will be loud and annoying. However, my daughter has never had behavior problems at the restaurant (knock on wood!), but nonetheless we end up having a poor dining experience because of where we are seated. Do you or the chatters have any tips on how to ensure we are provided a better table or to avoid second-class service?

You can always ask for another table, right? If I got a seat that wasn't to my liking, regardless of who I was with, I'd certainly pipe up.

Wow, Tom, you and your readers are great. Thanks for all the suggestions. Swinging through DC about 2 days a month I'm set for the next half year at least!

Terrific. Thanks, everybody.

To the individual who posted about calling the restaurant and getting good morining rather than good afternoon. I know this was sarcasm, LMAO. This however, is something that I would actually expect to see as a serious post to this blog. Thanks for the laugh.

JUST in case anyone thought the above was serious, I'm posting your response.

Hi Tom! Celebrating a late-20s birthday with a small group in late summer. Thinking about either The Source or Bourbon Steak-- which would you recommend? And where should we start off the night with a drink?

Both are fun -- and expensive -- but I'd probably give The Source my reservation.  Its bar whips up some great cocktails, but if you want to start the evening elsewhere, I'd suggest the nearby Rasika (for something fashion-forward) or Capitol Grille (for something classic).

With Bryan Voltaggio getting ready to open two new restaurants and some of our really good places to eat never visited (Firestone's, Monocacy Crossing), are you planning on coming up to Frederick any time soon?

Do you really think I can answer that question in a public forum? (The short answer: I go where the restaurants are. )

I had dinner at Fiola recently; food was great but the service was very slow and our waiter seemed stressed. I hope they get the kinks worked out so I can take clients there. (Also, restaurants, if you have a kids menu, please have cups with lids. A three year old will make a mess with a juice cup. I'm talking to you, Dino.)

I'm hearing similar regarding Fiola, which (news flashlette) recently lost its opening chef, Miles Vaden, who came to the project from Eventide in Arlington.

Tom- What kind of research do you do before you travel to a city to write a postcard? I travel a lot for business and try to eat at local places but frustrated when I talk to coworkers who tell me there is a great place called PF Changs at the mall. Yelp has been hit or miss (everyone has a different definition of what "authentic" ethnic food is) and Beeradvocate is a great place to find good bars but not necessarily good meals. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Thanks!

To come up with a list, I try to talk to local critics and others whose taste I trust, or opinions I care about: cooking school teachers, wine shop owners, well-travelled citizen diners, cookbook authors, State Department types (if I'm going overseas).  I also allow myself a couple of open meals, just in case I hear about something good once I'm on the ground.  In every good restaurant I visit, I ask the chef afterwards where he or she likes to go; they often have great suggestions.


Time's up, people. Thanks for spending the hour with me. See you next week.

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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