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

Jun 25, 2014

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Hi Tom--posting early in the hopes you can comment. What are your thoughts on Decanter at the St. Regis? I noticed that you have a "First Bite" from July 2013 but nothing since then. For what it's worth, I visited for lunch this past week and was thoroughly unimpressed. While the drinks were decent, the food was mediocre; not only was the quality lacking, but there was a very limited menu, especially for dessert (and no sign of the lemon tart you enjoyed in your article). Moreover, the service bordered on terrible. And while this is a minor point, the chairs looked battered and scuffed, like rejects from a 1990s office. I never got the chance to visit Adour, the previous tenant, so perhaps that was a better choice for the location. Decanter certainly doesn't rise to the level of what I think of when I think of the St. Regis. Anyway, I'm wondering if I caught them on an off day. Your thoughts?

If you caught the hotel restaurant on an off day, so did I. The lunch menu is indeed a snooze, and brief to boot, with a mere four starters and six main courses.


With so many interesting new restaurants on the scene, I see no reason in wasting time or space on a dining room that seems not to be trying very hard. Bottom line: If Decanter were a bottle of wine, I'd send it back.



CHECKING IN: Two years in the making, Gypsy Soul finally has a due date: July 23, announces chef-owner RJ Cooper.


“Take all my favorite restaurants” --- Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, Husk in Charleston, the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm in Lovettsville – “and put it in a suburban setting,” Cooper describes the future 135-seat restaurant in the new Mosaic District in Fairfax. “More approachable than Rogue 24,” his novel dining destination in Washington, Gypsy Soul will reflect the chef’s travels in the South and Mid-Atlantic and emphasize food sourcing over “fluff,” Cooper says.


Expect a relish tray and fried biscuits, then. And crab cakes, 100-day dry-aged rib-eye, a burger made with short ribs, roast chicken for two and fish including wreckfish and clean-tasting wild catfish.


One of two sous chef positions has been filled by Allyson Lara, who comes from L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg. Cooper says he hopes to find “an eager kid who wants to go for it” for the vacant kitchen position.


Good call: The menu will be rounded out with cocktails from Rogue 24’s ace mix master Bryan Tetorakis. While the wine list will roam the world, only American craft beers will be served. Most of the sodas will be made in-house, says Cooper. “Except Coke and Diet Coke. We can’t get away from them.”


Finally, forget current design trends. “We’re not doing reclaimed lumber or Edison lights,” cracks the chef of the ubiquitous restaurant staples. “I love leather, motorcycles and metal.” A whopping 40 percent of the space, in tones of gold with “lots of slate” will be devoted to an elevated kitchen. A central feature of Gypsy Soul will be a roof-top deck with a chalk-board menu and a wood-fired grill and hearth.


THIS JUST IN: Chaplin Restaurant & Bar, from mixologists Ari and Micah Wilder, has named a chef to oversee its Asian-inspired menu: Jeremy Cooke, who until recently was helping out at Toki Underground on H St. NE.



The Montana native, 34, is no stranger to the scene; his previous gigs included chef jobs at Argonaut, also on H St. NE; the late Elisir and Siroc downtown.


A replacement for Mandalay in Shaw, the 83-seat Chaplin is named for the famous film comedian and dressed to evoke the early days of cinema.


Expected to open sometime in the first half of July, the restaurant will feature hand-crafted cocktails, ramen and dumplings “drunken” enough with spirits to require IDs from those who order them, says Cooke (who is not joking).


Good morning, gang. Lot to chew over today, starting with this missive from the chef of the Red Hen, regarding some of the Post's coverage on the RAMMY awards held Sunday:




I felt compelled to write a note to you, which I hope you will post on your chat. My business partners and I wanted to reach out, not because you named Rose's Luxury the "rightful recipient" of the New Restaurant of the Year RAMMY award (although thanks for that) but because we felt someone should stand up for the RAMW in a public forum.


Your paper has been very outspoken about the association's way of doing business, and maybe your position has its merits; we don't intend to debate it. We just want to point out that The Washington Post's unwavering focus on the issue of membership after the RAMMY awards this year completely removed emphasis from something that, for many of us in this industry, is a wonderful experience where well deserving, hard working restaurant professionals are celebrated on many levels. We chose to speak out today because it was an innocent joke made during one of our speeches that managed to be used as basis for a tirade we do not support. 


There are over 800 RAMW members in the DC area, which means that when you and your colleagues cover the RAMMY awards, and focus predominantly on restaurants and chef/owners NOT nominated for an award, you are ignoring an awful lot of us who, for a variety of reasons, did decide to join this organization and were honored by our peers Sunday night. You don't have to respect the process or the ceremony, but we implore you: please stop trouncing on it.  If you want to affect real change, take a meeting with Kathy Hollinger; we know for a fact she would welcome the opportunity to discuss your issues in person.


Restaurant owners and chefs such as myself and Aaron Silverman are able to coexist in this industry without the least bit of tension over this question of RAMW membership, and we wish you would help position the discussion on the great achievements and progress happening in restaurants across this region. 


We want to personally congratulate all the nominees and winners of this year's RAMMY awards. 


Mike Friedman, Mike O'Malley and Sebastian Zutant


The Red Hen


In a private response to the chef, I included this:


P.S. As someone who hosts a live online chat every week, I’ve learned one has to make jokes and choose his words very carefully, lest they be misconstrued by his audience.



Last but not least, I also received an email from the chef-owner of Del Campo, hoping to locate a dissatisfied diner who posted on last week’s chat:




Service and hospitality are key to the dining experience and I was very concerned to hear about a guest’s issues at our bar in your chat last week. We have been refining the service experience at Del Campo since we opened a little over a year ago, and that guest’s visit is not at all typical of the level of hospitality and attention we offer.


Though nothing can excuse an experience like that, we always wish guests would bring these lapses directly to the attention of a manager while they are occurring so we can take immediate steps to make things right.  We ask that the chatter who wrote the original post please contact us at  202-289-7377 so we can make amends.




Victor Albisu

Hi Tom - Submitting early as I will be unavailable on Wed. Looking for a dinner spot for 9 in early August to celebrate a milestone birthday (50). Wide range in ages will be joining -- age 10, 16, 19, mid 40s, 50s and a couple over 75. We have a mix of eaters - some adventorous and some less so. A spot in Maryland is preferable, but willing to go into the District (VA is too much of a logistical challenge). Don't want to break the bank but also don't want to go too cheap either since this is a big celebration after all. Help!

In Bethesda, Food Wine & Co. would be a good place to start. There's lots of variety on the menu: strawberry gazpacho, a wedge salad, a lamb burger, pork chops, roast chicken, a milk chocolate-caramel flan for dessert. Oddly, the American restaurant doesn't post prices online.


In Rockville, I've had some pleasing traditional Greek food (love the lamb chops) at Trapezaria, where the strapping main courses run from $12 to $28.


A third option is the groovy Jackie's in Silver Spring, where the menu includes duck breast and halibut with risotto and the entrees cost between $14 and $21.

Hello Tom I am at my wit's end. Going to Baltimore in a couple of weeks for a weekend jaunt and I need a place for dinner Saturday night. We have already done Pazo, Charleston, Woodbury Kitchen, and Neopal Smokery. I await enlightenment oh great one. thank you

Get thee to the meaty new Parts & Labor, a combination butcher shop and dining room, from chef Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen acclaim.  The hamburger, among other dishes, rock.  Make reservations, or show up at opening time, if you hope for a spot.

Tom, may I share a pet peeve with you? When my husband and I go to restaurants, we sometimes get the maitre d' saying, "Just two?" While it's not a big deal in the scheme of things, why must they act like we are almost too small a group for them to bother with? I've never said anything other than a polite "yes," but I have to bite my tongue to prevent myself from saying, "The other personalities stayed home, so we're not a six-top tonight, sorry." Should I just keep mum? Why do you think they do that? - Puzzled Diner in Maryland

You know what's worse? Hearing "Just one?" if you're a solo diner.


Unless you've made a reservation for more than two, and you're showing up as a couple, I have no idea why a restaurant would greet you with such a question.


Then I don't give the restaurant my business. There is no reason for a restaurant to be so precious or secretive - I will eat somewhere that helps me make an informed choice.

When a restaurant doesn't publish prices online, it makes me perform another step -- call the place and ask, or look elsewhere -- or give up and look for another place to eat. 

I'm taking 3 days off next week and staying in D.C. Where should I go for lunch? My favorites in D.C. for dinner include Rose's, Little Serow, Jaleo, and Kapnos.

Love the idea of staying in town for three days! If I were you, I'd book at Rasika, Iron Gate and Fiola Mare for my afternoon meals: Great Indian, great Greek, great Italian -- and no jet lag.

Yes, what's wrong with "Table for one/two/whatever?"

Or how about: "So glad to have you join us tonight!"

Are you friends with the owner or something? You always recommend it and it's really not that good -- boring food.

Not friends with the owner, no. But my meals in recent seasons have been good ones. And it has a menu that appeals to a range of appetites.

Hi Tom, we have started sampling some of the restaurants in your guide that we haven't been yet. We live in the Tyson's Corner area and enjoy Nostos every time. But we were pleasantly surprised bu Bistro Vivant. The friendly atmosphere, very generous selection of rosés by the glass, the succulent and crispy duck confit and the delicious clafoutis made me forget that I was in a strip mall bistro in McLean (more like a bistro in Paris in the 11th arrondissement) What a lovely surprise! We will continue sampling your excellent guide, and report along. Brigitte C.

Glad to have your feedback. Merci!

I recall a postcard or a story about dining in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Can you send the link? Even better, any suggestions for downtown St. Paul, in particular, along the lines of either (a) funky and inventive, or (b) something that just sings, "Minnesota"?

Perhaps my favorite "Minnesota" restaurant is just across the river, in Minneapolis. It's called the Bachelor Farmer, which I wrote about for a Postcard column two years ago.  In St. Paul, your go-to place should be Heartland, which serves, at the moment, venison rillettes, walleye and rhubarb tart, among other dishes.

I hope to go to Rose's Luxury in the next few weeks with two friends. Is there a good night or time to show up to avoid a long wait?

Mid-week and 20 minutes before the doors open worked for me several times. If any chatters have other suggestions, please chime in.

I anticipate it, by immediately saying "One for dinner."

A pro-active approach. I like it.

Good Morning Tom, Thanks for holding these very informative weekly chat sessions. I realize that your favorite restaurants in the area change based on seasons and other criteria. I have a friend who will be in DC for the remainder of the summer, and she wants to dine at your current favorite "top five" restaurants. As of today, what would you say those five restaurants are?

Right this moment? For the sake of diversity, I'd say Le Diplomate, Mintwood Place, Zaytinya, Rose's Luxury and Thai Square in Arlington.

For the person that wrote asking for dinning suggestions in Baltimore...they can also try Cazbar if they are in the mood for Mediterranean (Turkish) dishes. Friday and Saturday has Belling Dancing Entertainment. The food is served in good portions from the falafel down to their meat selections. I once went on a Friday. Belly dancing is mainly in the upstairs dining area on those nights. Dancer was funny and personable as she performed. Saturdays I believe the performances are both up and downstairs. They have to check with the restaurant for hours of performances if they want to catch it. Reservations are encouraged but not really needed. The interior is nice; intimate but not too intimate.

Never heard of the place. Thanks for writing in.

Writing more for catharsis and sharing. Went to Range after it first opened (but before your original review) and had exactly the same experience - OK food, but stuck in the way back with poor service (complete lack of attention). Over a year later, we decided to give Range another try for Father's Day brunch - 4 of us with a 12:30 pm reservation. We each ordered an appetizer (3 salads and clams for me) and each an entree. Salads eventually arrived but no clams. By the time the salads were almost gone I was finally able to flag down our waiter to ask about the clams. He said he was on it (turns out there was a breakdown some where). Also flagged down a manger-looking guy (suit, earpiece) who said he'd check. Clams eventually came, followed by a long wait before entrees were delivered. Food was OK, check was expensive (3 goat cheese stuffed ravioli were $20+) but the overall time was long - 75 minutes. Meanwhile, other empty tables around us filled, ordered, and got served in less time. No apologies from anyone - manager never came back to check on us at any point. I'm torn - I did speak with both our waiter and a manager, but I didn't forcibly "complain" - should I? But doesn't any one in the restaurant know (or care) we didn't get dishes or how long we were waiting - a quote from your original review said "("we're kind of ‘Big Brother' here," said the chef)". (Oh, by the way, Range opened at 11:30 am and by 12:30 am they were already out of French Toast - really, no eggs or bread available after one hour? About 30 minutes later, the pull pork sandwich was unavailable too). Never going back.

Holidays are always tough shifts for restaurants -- crowds of people with high expectations -- but that doesn't excuse inattention to detail. Or "touching the table," as they say in the industry, by checking in on guests.

Hi Tom -- just wanted to get this off early. I have some guests coming to town, and I know you reviewed a relatively new (I think) Thai restaurant in downtown DC (L Street, perhaps?) and you really liked it. I think the pricing was reasonable, as well (a good thing). I cannot find the review, so I wonder if you could tell me what it is again. It had a number at the end of it, if I recall (38, maybe?). Thanks.

You're thinking of the new Soi 38, which is as easy on the eye as it is on the tongue.

I think even the the people who work there are confused about the prices. Like you Tom, I always enjoy their food when I go, but at least three or four time, I have been charged the wrong price for items. Although the prices may not be online, they are on the menu, so if you do go, check your bill carefully!

You should *always* check your tab. I catch at least three or four errors in a month of dining out -- sometimes in the restaurant's favor, other times in mine.

I usually agree with your recommendations on restaurants but I have never understood everyone's obsession with Zaytinya. I've been there twice and was completely underwhelmed by the food - seemed very generic/ordinary to me.

For real? What did you have? I was in the modern Greek restaurant recently and had a terrific meal, including lamb tongue with chilies and sultanas and some of the best raw oysters in recent memory.

Tom: Please never again describe a new restaurant as a new "concept," as in "Chef Smith has announced plans to open a new concept in Bloomindale." It's pretentious, jargony, pronbably bag grammer and defuinitely makes it seem as though parts of your brain are controlled by local PR firms. OK, if robots are serving cloned vegan entrees to refugees from the Iraq crisis, that can be a new concept. Otherwise, it;s just a restaurant with a different (allegedly) menu and decor. Thanks.

And a happy, happy Wednesday morning to you, too!

No meet my companion a 6 ft pooka named Harvey

Ha! Except, the hostess probably won't know what you're referencing.

The Black Olive is well worth a visit, as is Ouzo Bay.

Gosh, I always forget that wonderful seafood destination. I love being able to "shop" for my fish from the counter at Black Olive before committing to a dinner entree.

Hi Tom, I read with interest the comments two weeks ago about folks of all ages getting carded when ordering alcohol. A few years ago I went to a coworker's birthday at a bar and accidentally left my wallet at home. Of course the bouncer asked for my ID and of course I tried to explain I forgot my wallet. He told me he couldn't let me in and seemed very apologetic. I said I understood and he replied, "I feel really bad about it. I mean, you're obviously old." It's still one of my favorite stories! (Incidentally I was 32).

Oh my. Good for you for laughing it off, though!

Dear Tom, Last time we have been to Bistro Vivant was September of last year. We didn't have a great experience then. We've heard from friends that they have a new chef and the food gotten much better. Do you think we should give it another chance? Thanks.

I do. Bistro Vivant has a new and talented chef in Katie Busch, who previously cooked at the Modern in NYC.

Tom...I don't have a question or a rant; I just wanted to say thank you for doing these chats. I've been reading them for years, and have always enjoyed them. Although I no longer live in the DC area, it's nice to be able to stay on top of local news and trends, as well as more general issues around food and restaurants. I know that you take a lot of heat for a variety of issues (Why don't you review more locations in X?; Isn't your anonymity compromised and therefore shouldn't you quit?; Why do you share info about your personal life that might freak us out?), but your chats are consistently a pleasure to read, and I always look forward to them. Journalism is changing, and we're all learning how to relate to newspapers differently. You're one of the reasons that we continue to enjoy it. Thanks again.

Readers like you are one of the best parts of my job. Thanks for taking the time to write. You just made my ... week.



"Also flagged down a manger-looking guy (suit, earpiece) who said he'd check. " Is the diner sure that he didn't mistakenly ask a Secret Service agent about his food?

It's kind of hard to tell some restaurant managers apart from security details these days, isn't it? (See: Fiola Mare.)

I just wanted to say that we had a very good experience at the Del Campo bar about 2 weeks ago, mostly due to the knowledge and good service of the bartender (I wish I could remember his name, but he was truly exceptional with his recommendations and wine knowledge, plus friendly approach). The place is a bit expensive for my taste, but when I saw the comments I had to respond. Victor Albisu sure knows how to cook meat, I would especially go back for the sausages and the rolled up flank steak (unless someone else is paying for the bigger pieces of meat!)

I'm sure Mr. Albisu will be cheered to read this post.

I am with you on this one - that is one of the main reasons why I head to the bar most of the time. There are also times I respond with "yeah I am one person but can eat like three" if I see that the person has a bit of a sense of humor. And if they don't give me any attitude I eat and drink like a "man" instead of the woman who'll order a salad and linger - which is generally what they expect. I love to see the surprise on their faces when I order enough food for two and a nice dark beer to go with :-)

My response to hosts who don't want to seat me until my entire party is present: "I promise to start ordering drinks right away."

Oh come on, Tom. Are we really trying to eliminate ALL fun? It sounds like he made a good joke. I'd be much more interested in your (or the Post's) substantive response to the letter rather than your chiding post-script.

Um, did you read Tim Carman's blog post that initiated the communication?

It's not bad grammar. Using the wrong word is a lexical error, not a grammatical one. That said, I agree that this use is pretentious to the max, man. And would put me off trying such a restaurant.

Since when is "concept" a bad word?


To me, "veggies" is bad. So is "toothsome." As is "unctuous." And "yummy." Die, "yummy," die!

but using it to mean "restaurant" is silly. "The chef is opening a new concept on Pennsylvania Avenue" is MUCH more of an eye-roller than, say, "veggie."

"No it isn't," says the Bossy-Pants of this chat.

I guess I better not invite you to dinner at my house, where conversation with my 10 month old goes, "Do you want a bite of green beans?" (Bite) "Green beans are yum, yum, yummy!"

A caveat is in order. If you are under 10, you can say "yummy" without punishment.

I think the original poster meant that it shouldn't be used to describe a new restaurant. It really means a new idea, not a new place. To me, a new concept means something radically different from all existing eateries.

You can't say I don't listen: I'll watch my use of "concept" from this moment on.

Hi Tom, I just wanted to thank you for the chats and especially this sentence: "With so many interesting new restaurants on the scene, I see no reason in wasting time or space on a dining room that seems not to be trying very hard. Bottom line: If Decanter were a bottle of wine, I'd send it back." I think it pretty much sums up the DC restaurant scene today. I certainly am not going back to places who don't look like they appreciate my business.

Unfortunately, I still have to! This job is about covering the good, the bad and the ugly, after all.

Tom, I'm just getting to the age(and income level) where I can afford a moderately priced wine with dinner--as opposed to always picking the cheapest glass or bottle. What's the etiquette when they pour some for you to taste? If you don't like it can you actually send it back and not be charged?

It would be bad form to return a bottle of wine if you simply didn't like the taste and there was technically nothing wrong with it.


The *best* thing to do is to tell whoever is in charge of the wine program what you like and don't like in your wine: flavors, textures, aromas, etc. He or she can then point you in a direction you might find suitable.

LOVE the "Harvey" reference! I'd get it - I love Jimmy Stewart.

Me, too. But not everyone is a classic film buff.

Roberto's 8 -- table or sit at the bar? For a special occasion. We were offered the choice.

News to me! It was a counter last time I dined there. I'd still opt for the bar, across from which the chef cooks your parade of dishes.

Dear Tom, I once again noticed a comment on your most recent chat, perhaps ironically about repeated comments on the chat as well as being seated after a previously reserved time. I do hope, as your response indicated that these are few and far between. The staff and management here are fully committed to guest satisfaction, when we make a mistake we try to own up to it, apologize when we are wrong, correct it as soon as possible and do a little something extra by way of making things right. Like many others in our industry I take hospitality very seriously because I truly enjoy what I do. Long ago I recognized that the thrill I get from providing someone with service that creates a positive impact be it for a moment in a meal or a memory of a lifetime was what I wanted to do for a living and it has been and continues to be one of the best decisions I have ever made. It hurts to know there are people out there who we have not been able to re-connect with and I wouldn’t feel I was representing the dedicated employees of Le Diplomate if I didn’t make every effort to reach out by whatever means available. With all the great choices diners have in the DC area I truly feel it is a privilege when people take the time and trouble to choose us over so many other worthy establishments. I would also like to formally say that my contact information can be shared anytime with anyone who would like to express their concerns. An unhappy guest has the right to express their dissatisfaction in any forum they wish and as painful as it is to read about at times I am truly grateful when they do as it gives an opportunity to improve and a place to focus our attention – hopefully so as to prevent a reoccurrence. Might I beg your indulgence, hopefully for the last time and ask that you publish my contact information for your readers – the one who waited too long for their table as well as any others who wish to share their experiences so we might better serve them? Thank You and Best Regards, William Washington | General Manager Le Diplomate STARR RESTAURANTS 1601 14th Street NW, Washington D.C. 20009 E. O. 202 332 3333 C. 202 815 5858

Thanks for sharing this, sir.


And might I add: If a restaurant goes out of its way to make you happy, don't forget to praise it, via email or in forums such as this. We are all plants that need a little watering, right? (Can't believe I just typed that, but I did, Blanche, I did.)


Have a four-star rest of the week everyone. I'm adding "concept" to my "banned words" list and heading out to lunch .... Ciao 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 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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