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

Jun 26, 2013

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Tom - I'm curious - did you hear from any La Tagliatella personnel after the review ran? It was such a harsh review and given that the problems seemed to be concept as well as execution, I wonder if the restaurant offered any explanation. As a Shirlington resident, I'm depressed that the restaurant is coming there and wonder who would eat there after your review ran.

While I was fact-checking my column with a spokesperson for La Tagliatella, she asked how the restaurant scored, and I told her what I tell any chef or owner who asks: "I never discuss a review ahead of publication, but I'm happy to talk about a critique afterward."   Just this morning, I received a phone call from the president of the restaurant company. We are now playing phone tag.


Good morning. Lots to chew over today, as usual. Did you hear that we're getting a pan-Latin steakhouse this fall?  That Ardeo + Bardeo and Urbana are both getting new chefs? Also, Mike Isabella started taking reservations for his Greek concept (Kapnos) yesterday and Michel Richard finally has names for his multiple projects at the New York Palace.  Speaking of the French chef, a car ran into Central Michel Richard last night. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt.


Let's rock & roll.

I was suprised that you gave Azur 2.5 stars. I found the restaurant to be very uneven, where the appetizers were great as well as the raw bar but the entrees to me were a complete miss. Portioning was was very inaccurate and the service is not refined and attentive like it is at TABLE.

I did enjoy the starters (particularly the tilefish crudo and uni cappucino) more than the main courses, but that's true at a number of  restaurants. And some of the larger plates at Azur, most surprisingly the steak frites, were very good. I also thought the design was impressive; a quarter of my rating is based on the way a place looks and feels.

I was shocked the other day at Bistro Lepic where the menu now states "we reserve the right to add 20% gratuity" Is this a trend? I was really floored by this. Heck isn't gratuity the choice of the diner? Jeff Strohl

It should be. I confirmed Bistro Lepic's policy with a waiter, Sebastien Charieau-Guilbot, who said the wording was on the menu primarily for foreigners, to "help them understand" the American tipping situation.


I'm curious how chatters feel about this.



Hi Tom, We're picking up friends in Baltimore the morning of July 4 and thought it would be fun to go to lunch while we're up there. The places I was interested in (like Wrench and Fork) don't appear to be open for lunch. Do you have a recommendation for a great lunch option?

I called a few favorites in Charm City and mostly struck out. Wit & Wisdom, for instance, is offering its tavern menu, but only until 1:30 p.m. on July Fourth.

Hi Tom, My wife has tasked me with selecting the restaurant for her birthday dinner, with the only requirement being it has to have great ambience, bonus points if it's al fresco. We've been to Le Diplomate and Rasika. The patio at Blue Duck Tavern seems like a good option but it's probably pricier than I'd like. Ideas?

What about the rooftop at Perry's in Adams Morgan?  Or the patios at the very good Zaytinya or Bombay Club in Penn Quarter and near the White House, respectively?

Hi, Tom. I thought about taking family members (including kids) to Comet Ping Pong but it's a little out of the way from the main tourist spots they want to hit downtown and along the mall. Is it still worth taking the short metro ride to Tenleytown or do you have a better suggestion? Thanks.

Comet Ping Pong is great fun. Closer to the sights downtown, however, are the family-friendly Hill Country for barbecue, Mitsitam Cafe for its menu representing the foods of the North and South American Indians and the recently made-over Oyamel for Mexican small plates.

Hi Tom, My husband and I lived in DC for 10 years before relocating to Miami Beach 5 years (yay!). We do miss the more interesting dining scene in DC... We both pass through DC fairly frequently for work, but this July we'll return for the very first time together in 5 years. We have 2 weeknights there. One night is my husband's birthday, and I already made Rasika reservations. What should we do with our other night? What is new and noteworthy in the last 5 years? Doesn't have to be fancy or expensive. We will be staying near downtown for work, so it needs to be metro center/chinatown/penn quarter or up the 14th street corridor no farther north than U Street. Thanks!

Rasika is a terrific choice for a celebratory meal. For your next night, you should do something completely different.  Right now, I'm a big fan of the new Japanese tavern, Daikaya, across from the Verizon Center, as well as Etto, the sweet pizza and small plates retreat in Logan Circle.  Try to go early; both are very popular.

As a fed who has seen my salary decrease for the past three years and only further decreases in the future (but not yet facing furloughs), I've economized by completely eliminating restaurant meals in this city. D.C. restaurants are already very expensive compared to other cities and your average meal here is becoming a more and more significant percentage of income. Given that i'm a GS-15, step 10, Ive got to think a lot of us feds are eliminating or decreasing restaurant meals. Do restauranteurs ever discuss this with you? Or do they just cater to private sector these days?

Based on what I'm seeing in restaurants in the city, especially in the good-to-better category, business is booming. The big complaint I hear from chefs is not about a lack of diners, but a shallow pool of kitchen talent.


Any chatters care to weigh in on the subject?

Do you have any new recommendations for Seattle? The most recent restaurant reviews I can find from you are 2007 and 2009--an eternity in the Seattle food scene!

Right you are! I was in Seattle earlier this month and had some memorable meals at Altura (Italian), Terra Platta (dig the rooftop scene at brunch), Rione XIII (for Roman-style pizza), Revel (for modern Korean fare) and Restaurant Marche on Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride away from Seattle.

Does Et Voila allow you to bring your own wine for a fee?

It does. The corkage fee is $20 per bottle at Et Voila!

My father has been talking about finding someplace to get beef wellington for years but we've never found it on a menu. Can you recommend a restaurant between DC and NYC that offers it? My brother and I are working on an anniversary gift around sending our parents for dinner. Thanks!

Maybe a chatter can come to your aid?

Tom, What are reasonable standards or expectations of a restaurant when it comes to food allergies. We recently had a family dinner at Masa 14 that went terribly wrong. Upon our arrival I told our server that my son had a shellfish allergy and it was serious enough that if she wasn't familiar with ingredients she should ask the chef. She was very gracious and told us the dishes we should avoid. After several dishes my son suddenly looked up in alarm and said, "I can't breath." We got him his medication and quickly realized we needed to take him to the ER. The waitress went back to the kitchen to find out if she was wrong about any dishes so we'd have more information and returned to say that one of the prep stations had both their chicken salad and a shrimp dish. The manager actually insisted on giving my husband the check and making him pay for it - while my son was in front of the restaurant having an anaphalxis reaction to his food - as a sign that it wasn't the restaurant's responsiblity. Aside from being horrified that anyone would keep us any longer from getting to the ER I am most concerned that the next customer's allergic reaction will not end as well. My son was successfully treated at the GW ER and we went home that evening (well, several hours later and I haven't even seen the ER bill yet). Is it an unrealistic expectation that he should be able to eat out successfully? Is there a way we should be more clear with the restaurant? Thanks for your help! Denise Sughrue

Unbelievable. Unless you've left out some details, that manager at Masa 14 doesn't sound like he's long for the business. Safety should always  trump being reimbursed for a meal that sounds as if it wasn't even completed.


It would behoove you and your son to carry a card (specifying forbidden ingredients) that you could give the waiter to give to the kitchen and let everyone know the seriousness of your son's condition. 

Any updates on when the revamped Iron Gate will open?

"It's been a fun trip so far,"  first-time restaurateur Tony Chittum noted dryly on the phone just minutes ago.  "But I can see light at the end of the tunnel," says the former Vermilion chef. 


  The delay in re-opening Iron Gate has to do with the historical nature of the building, some structual issues and the reality there are multiple pieces of the puzzle to figure out (the property includes a carriage house and a patio), says Chittum.  At this juncture, "I'm optimistic about a mid-August opening."

Hi Tom, I just want to give a quick shout-out to José Andres for organizing last night's Dine-N-Dash in Penn Quarter, where 500-600 people gave a contribution to World Central Kitchen in return for food and drinks at six popular spots in PQ, including three of José's own restaurants. José himself was stationed at Jaleo for much of the evening greeting participants and posing for pictures with anyone who wanted one. The food and drink was copious and tasty and it raised money for such a good cause. And let me add that an overwhelming majority of the participants were 20-30 somethings, who outnumbered us 50-60 somethings by about 8 to 1. Don't let anyone say the younger generation isn't generous and can support a good cause as well as have a great time. Thanks, José, for a wonderful evening.

Great to hear, both that Mr. Andres took time to mingle and that the young crowd was doing some good for charity.

Hi Tom, Bringing my wife to DC for her very first visit for a birthday celebration. Looking for a "dress up" 5 star restaurant. Any suggestions?

I use a system of zero to four stars, but I imagine "five stars" is something extraordinary. CityZen qualifies. So does Komi. As does Rasika.  And if your wife likes Japanese, there's no better than the omakase ("chef's choice") menu in the restaurant-within-a- restaurant at Sushi Taro. On the more traditional side, you might consider the southern-themed Vidalia or Bourbon Steak.

I think Tom Sietsema was way off on his critic of Latagliatella. I have been in the foodservice industry 43 years, graduate of the CIA, and Professional member of FCSI and was an Certified Executive Chef. Latagliatella's food is their Spanish version of Northern Italian cuisine (evidently not Tom's version, which seems mid west American). Bottom line it tastes great, a good value and they offer cuisine that the average diner would not be able to try without going to Europe. Most importantly they do it with a consistency which is unmatched in the industry.

I stand by my review.

Tom, any hints about where you had dinner Monday evening?

My lips are sealed. But you'll be reading about the mess, er, restaurant, soon.

Any idea when they plan to open? And is it in the site of the late Red Sage?

The new Mexican restaurant from chef Todd English has already set sail. It's in Roberto Donna's former Italian restaurant downtown.

Would you have been a little less harsh or have not reviewed the restaurant at all if it were not a chain? The review was on the front page of the website for a while which i thought was overkill.

If it had not been a chain in a prominent location and with plans for expansion, I might not have reviewed La Tagliatella at all.  But the idea that this concept might continue bothered me -- a lot, obviously. To address your other questions,  I've been hard on independent restaurants before, most recently Suna on the Hill.

Holy moly, Tom, we enjoyed a tremendous dinner/evening at Roberto's 4 last night. Your praise was spot on. Chef Donna was charming, the food was outstanding and interesting, and due to the physical location of bar seats, it was a great opportunity to interact with everyone and get more of a feel for the operation. I also was fascinated to witness an interaction between a waiter and the chef over a misinterpretation of a special order. As someone who occasionally likes to alter menu items (I don't like mushrooms and frequently order dishes without them), it was interesting to see how the kitchen reacts. Anyway, the food was stellar, with some surprising highlights, a fried shrimp with saffron sauce was out of this world, venison with sour cherries, squab with fois gras, and a panna cotta caramel were all mind-blowing. Thanks for the tip (and so many others!).

I'm pleased to get your feedback, more pleased to hear that your experience at Donna's mini-restaurant within Al Dente mirrored mine.

Oh great guru of good food... We've out of towners coming in for a day at the Newseum... and one is truly (not a fad) Gluten-sensitive. Last time they came in we "did" the Philips Collection and wandered down to reservations at Firefly... REALLY accommodating. Is the any chance that the "gluten free" hype from The Source is REAL? We can't take chances here... this friend really and truly is forced to live "gluten-free". Thanks Tom... sign me-- "only a little allergic to very little" and "learning about the rest of the world..." Silver Spring, MD

A food friend who's gluten-intolerant sings the praises of Cedar (contemporary American) and Rasika (modern Indian)  on E St. NW and D St. NW, respectively.

Finally made it there. Dinner was wonderful from start to finish. Five of us split a couple of the pastas, then I had the shrimp spiedino and the others the skirt steak. The house-made breads are to die for. Two thumbs up!!!

I concur. I wish there were more restaurants like Liberty Tavern in our market.

Hi Tom - I saw the announcement of the RAMMY winners in today's Post. It explained why some of the better restaurants (like Little Serow) were missing, since restaurants have to be a member of the association to be nominated. But are there any restaurants that received accolades that you think are undeserved, even taking into account the smaller pool of possible winners? In the vein of your review of La Tagliatella last Sunday, I'd like to know of what places to avoid wasting a meal at! Thanks!

There was one winner that I thought didn't merit the award at the local event, but you know what? I don't want to take away from the individual's moment of happiness, not this morning at least. 

I have to say that, if I had a child who might require an ER visit if the kitchen or wait staff made an error, I would not be taking the child to restaurants until such time as the allergy was under control (if ever). There's just too much risk involved. Without justifying the manager's behavior in requiring payment of the bill, I feel bad for restaurant owners who face liability if a mistake is made. At some point, the parents have to blame themselves for taking on an unnecessary risk.

I agree -- to a point. But the customers were misinformed by staff. It seems some shrimp had been near one of their orders?

Hi Tom. If I recall, I think you said last week that you're going to review Mi Cocina soon. I ate there last weekend and found it disappointing with food that was surprisingly bland and margaritas that sounded delicious but weren't well mixed or cold (which signaled to me that they hadn't been shaken). I'll be interested to see if your experience was different, in which case I'll probably give them a second chance. I love Tex-Mex and would love to see another great restaurant in Friendship Heights.

Hang tight. I'm previewing the newcomer in next week's Food section.

Tom - What's the deal with "price point" and when did it become phrase? As in "Compared to all the other price points on the menu, the draft beer prices are oddly low." Why not use the good ole, "prices" instead? I don't know why, but this drives me nuts. Sort of like the wanna be intellectuals who say "utilize" instead of "use". Can you make it stop?

Simple is better, I agree. As a writer, I try my best to use straightforward, unfancy language whenever possible.

Tom: I'm taking someone out on a first date and I find out she loves mussels, as do I. Most of the places that I like are not really first date places (Granville Moores, St Arnolds, etc.) since they are noisy. Just needs to be in DC. Suggestions?

I'd go to the aforementioned Et Voila! in the Palisades, which offers steamed mussels in the traditional (Belgian) double pots with excellent fries.

Hi Tom, After reading your reviews for years, I find that I don't always agree with you, but still read all of your reviews. By becoming familiar with what you like and dislike about restaurants, I have calibrated myself against your reviewing style so that I generally have a good idea of how I would feel about the same place. This, I guess, is the point of your reviews. I know that you constantly get complaints from people that you never review restaurant X, or that you don't review enough places in neighborhood Y. I wonder if you have ever considered having some sort of contest where people suggest places for you to review (that you have not recently reviewed) and you promise to give your honest reveiw of the winner of the contest. You could select the winner randomly, or via some sort of raffle. I know you often get suggestions through this chat and via other routes, but maybe something like this would engage your readership in a new way. You wouldn't have to do this consistently, since you are reasonably tracking and reviewing new restaurants of note, but maybe a once-per-quarter Reader's Pick would take you places where you haven't been before.

Hey, I'm always open to new ideas. But I also think my spring guide does pretty much what you're asking for: looking at restaurants that haven't been evaluated in awhile. Let me ask you: What do you think I should review that I haven't already?

Some places seem to have hundreds of items on the menu while others have just a few. I don't know if the size of the kitchen is any larger or smaller but I wonder if there is any relationship between the number of items on the menu and the quality of the food. I find it hard to believe that a place can make all things equally well. Wouldn't restaurants be better off with smaller menu selections and making those items all taste great?

I prefer smaller menus, too, for the reasons you suggest.  No one kitchen or single chef can do a million dishes well (or so experience tells me).  On the other hand, just because a restaurant does a few dishes desn't mean those plates will necessarily be well-executed. 

Tom, we love your reviews and base many of our restaurant experiences on your comments. We were at Ripple, a place we enjoy, a few nights ago and discovered just how much people are attuned to your reviews. We could not avoid overhearing the couple next to us who were first astounded by radishes in their salad that weren't "round", followed by their amazement at something billed as "hanger steak". The waiter asked how they heard about Ripple and they immediately responded that they live in Maryland, but that man at the Post convinced them to give this place a try. So nice you are expanding dining experiences and our meal at Ripple was perfect!!

"That man at the Post" is smiling.

Hi Tom- Usually I think your reviews are spot on, and always love the same restaurants that you give high marks. I though had a completely different experience at NOPA, and really surprised that you enjoyed your meals there. We were a group of 6, and all pretty much agreed that it was one of the worst meals we have had in a while. White wine served warm, shrimp cocktail not properly deveined, cocktail sauce so sweet it was not edible, hamachi tartare so fishy, again not edible, and no concern from the waitress where most dishes were going back barely touched. We really value our Saturday nights as we hire a babysitter, and it was such a waste to dine at NOPA. Just my two cents to save someone else from making the same mistake!

Just fyi: what you read was a preview of Nopa Kitchen + Bar, not a full critique, for which Ivisit three or more times before writing up.


Did you say anything to a manager about yor dissatisfaction?

A close friend, an adult, has food allergies. Even with taking all precautions, sometimes a person has a reaction. Suggesting people not go to restaurants is a little harsh. Being irresponsible would be not asking about ingredients, not carrying a medication and delaying someone having a reaction from going to the ER if that's what's needed.


I tip 20% come what may. I can't even imagine what a server would have to do to result in a lower tip from me. (In lower-priced restaurants, I leave a higher percentage of the bill). That said, i do not like being told what to tip. If that notice is in Bistro Lepic's menu for the benefit of foreigners who might be confused about tipping customs in the US, a better line would be "The customary tip in the US is 20%." Otherwise, patrons may be left feeling that they're being shaken down, which I would hope is not what the restaurant is going for.

I can already predict the comments from readers who think 20 percent is not the norm, that it's too high ...

So you are finally admitting Olive Garden actually has a few tasty dishes!

I don't beleve I've ever said otherwise? That it doesn't have anything worthy to offer?

Well, I am fed (lower than GS-15 though), and I still eat out, but extremely strategically. I take advantage of Restaurant Week, theater specials, and "high end" restaurants with lunch menus. There are places to eat with great food but may not have the best ambiance. I limit my wine intake. Then I save up for places I can't afford and make it a special occasion. What else can you do?

I * like* the way you think and plan!  Smart cookie, as my mom likes to say.

Why has there been such a fascination with donuts lately Tom? Many of us are - really - tired of it, especially those of us who can't even eat them. Jes sayin'. So can you pass that along to the GoGs, or Food section, or whomever is responsible? Much obliged.

Consider your sentiments passed along.  (In my colleagues' defense, however, ignoring a big trend would be kind of irresponsible, don't you think?)

Original poster here.We did complain to our waitress that the wine was way too warm, but she did not have any answer except asking us if we wanted to wait while she cooled that bottle, which we did not since we did not want to wait any longer for our wine (service was also very slow). So the option she left us with was drinking warm wine. In this case we did not speak to the manager because I felt that it would put a weird tone on the evening to be complaining. I think in general when the food is just bad, there is not much to say to a manager.

Boy, knowing the way that restaurant works, I bet you would have received chilled wine in a hurry had you said something to a supervisor. Same thing re: the food you didn't like. If it was meh, the restaurant wants your feedback.

Hi Tom, About a year ago I also had a poor experience with food allergies at Masa 14 that luckily didn't end in the ER. I called ahead (about 4 PM on a Sunday afternoon) to ask about ingredients of several items on their menu--something I often do when I haven't been to a restaurant before because I find that restaurants are much more willing to explain ingredients to you when they're not in the middle of dinner rush. I was told that absolutely no one in the restaurant was available to discuss ingredients with me, even when I told them we had reservations that evening and I had several allergies. We went anyway, because it was a friend's choice for birthday dinner. We arrived a bit early to the (not crowded) restaurant, and I again tried to ask for a manager or someone who could discuss ingredients. Again, the hostess claimed no one was available. I was so annoyed by their dismissive treatment--I have never had a restaurant refuse to answer a few questions about ingredients--that I ended up eating nothing at dinner other than some fried plantains, I think. I could have also asked the waiter, but wasn't sure based on that treatment that she would actually convey my questions. At least the mojitos were good! As someone who eats out frequently at a variety of area restaurants with severe allergies, I'm glad Masa 14 is the exception to usually excellent service!

Ouch. On so many diffeent levels.


When we were on Crete for our honeymoon, we stopped in to a promising-looking taverna off the beaten path. We were a little wary when we were handed a menu that ran at least 4 pages, but when the host came over, he took one of the menus and said "Tonight we have this, this, this, and... this," pointing to a few items scattered across the pages. The food was great, and the next time we went in, the items offered were different than the first time. We asked why, and he told us that what they served depended on what was fresh and what his wife was in the mood to cook. What a great experience!

Love it. Makes sense -- and reminds me there are exception to "the rules."

Teaism also as a GF menu. Or they can try Oyamel.

Good to know. Thanks for adding to the ist.

According to the link, three of the four injured are said to have life-threatening injuries...

I missed that in my quick scan of the news earlier. My sincere apologies.

I have a shellfish allergy as well, and it is very tough. I explain to servers that I need to avoid not only shellfish as an ingedient, but also cross-contaimination, and I ask them what would be the easiest thing for the kitchen to prepare without using any utensils or pans that might also be used for shellfish. I hate doing it, and sometimes I eat soup and bread for dinner. Avoiding restaurants at all--especially for business functions--isn't always practical.

Thanks for sharing.


And on that note, I bid you all a delicious rest of the week. Hope to see you here again next Wednesday, same trime.

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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 contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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