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

Sep 14, 2011

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at washingtonpost.com/tomsietsema.

Hi Tom, I emailed Graffiato more than two weeks ago (at the email address listed on their website) about a very subpar dining experience I had on August 30th. The night we dined, no one even asked us how our meal was, the service was very rushed (to the point where 3 servers swooped down to take away my plate that I was still eating from!!) and we all left feeling like we paid way too much money for a meal we just did not enjoy. The pizza had a soggy crust that did not stand up to the toppings, the sweet corn agnolotti (which I had high hopes for!) was way too heavy on the butter sauce, the bone marrow - well I could hardly find a single bone marrow chunk. And everything, everything was scattered with pistachios - it was too much! Between three people, we ordered three pizzas and five small dishes, and none of them were satisfying to the palate or the stomach - I know you had a much different experience and people have been raving about the food, but it just wasn't to my taste. In my email I simply explained my experience and I am not looking or asking for freebies, only that the restaurant acknowledge the time, money, and consideration I have spent on their food. No one has responded, yet they remain active on their facebook page constantly promoting their restaurant. It is a little frustrating that there is a disconnect between customers they are trying to woo, and a past customer who was not satisfied. Do you think I should expect a response, or just write them off?

Graffiato has been hopping since Day 1, but that's no excuse for the restaurant not to address an email complaint within a reasonable amount of time . (I think a week is fair during non-holiday/non-special event times.)  An easy solution would be to have whoever is in charge of handling social media respond to customer communications, too.


You say you don't want any freebies. Would a simple "We're sorry you didn't care for your meal with us" suffice?  I agree with you about the indifferent pizzas, by the way. I dig the toppings, but the crusts need work.


Good morning, gang. Thanks for joining me for another 60 minutes of food chat. If you haven't already done so, please take a moment to answer a short dining survey we recently put online.


The big news of the day: Sam Sifton is pushing away from the Dining table and assuming the job of national editor at the Paper Up North


Let's get started.

I go to a certain restaurant at least once a week (CF Folks) for lunch. They have a new server who we have had a couple of times. Recently I was there with colleagues and we completed our lunch (in about 50 minutes) and the server very rudely asked us to get up and pay so she could seat another table. I was a bit thrown off because we come there every week, tip well and there wasnt even a line to get in. Do I report this to the owner or let it slide an see what happens next time?

Funny, I was asked to give up my seat at CF Folks not long ago, too, but this was to make room for a large party outside (and just as I was wrapping up lunch).


Since you left without mentioning the incident, I'd let the slight slide. However, if the server is rude to you in the future, you should say something.

So people who are offended when a restaurant asks for credit card info when taking a reservation - are they also put out when hotels do exactly the same thing? Or when they have to buy an airline ticket as opposed to just promising to show up for a certain flight on a specific day? I know it's nice to think of a restaurant experience as a "when you're here, you're family" type event, but the fact is one party to the experience is running a business and quite reasonably trying to make a profit.

Fair point.


It takes awhile for some people to change their thinking; restaurants asking for credit card numbers is a more recent phenomenon than hotels or airlines asking for personal information. Also, some people have this vision (accurate or not) of  restaurant reservationists jotting down their credit card info in an open book as opposed to a computer than might be harder to access. 

Hi Tom. Do you have a postcard for Pittsburgh that I'm not seeing? If not, any excellent suggestions for fine dining in da burgh? thanks if you can get to my question!

I've never been, sorry to say. Chatters?

Hi Tom, Instead of lamenting about the manner in which waiters ask if they may clear your plate, perhaps we should be happy that they ask at all--it's quite horrid when a plate is simply taken before you are finished. (Yes, I'm looking at you, Ray's the Steaks.) Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to do these chats. They're a highlight of my week!

Except for the occasional technological hiccup, I really enjoy hosting these discussions with the help (and good nature) of my colleague Justin Rude. I learn so much from you all. So, back at you!

Thanks for taking my question! I've been living in Ballston and walking past Tutto Bene for quite a while now, and finally got around to checking out reviews. I'm definitely intrigued by the Bolivian / Italian combo, but was wondering if you've been back at all since the 2004 review. Obviously, a lot can change in that much time... any thoughts on whether it's still worth giving it a try?

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Restaurant reviews, like milk, have freshness dates.  I wouldn't put a lot of stock in a critique that's more than a year old.


Has anyone in the audience been to Tutto Bene within the past 365 days?

Hi Tom, I think your tastebuds have become ruined from all the grease-burgers you've been eating lately. The beef BBP uses is obviously high quality since they are allowed to cook it medium rare. Additionally, it's much leaner than the other pseudo-fast-food burger joints yet it's still soft and tender. So how can you say it lacks flavor UNLESS your looking for a grease-soaked, spice-infused burger? Seriously, do you remember what unmasked, lean ground beef is supposed to taste like? If you want a "flavorful" burger (as you call it), just go to Five Guys or any other burger joint that use 50/50 ground beef mixed with bacon fat and then throw on some extra bacon and 3 slices of processed American cheese and you got yourself your 5-star "flavorful" burger. -Russ

Rus, Russ, Russ. I stand by what I typed.

Tom, my dad is celebrating his 80th next week, and really wants to go out someplace that serves duck, preferably with a raspberry sauce or something similar. I'm having trouble finding a place. What can you recommend in Montgomery County or NW DC?

How about duck with apple butter? I spy it on the online menu at Marcel's, where I've enjoyed fowl before.  The entree is among the many choices offered on the French restaurant's menu, which starts at $65 for three courses.

While I had an enjoyable dining experience at Graffiato- one thing I agree they can work on is the "enthusiasm" with which people attempt to clear food from the table. One of my dining companions resorted to hovering over the bread basket to keep them from taking it. It seems they think if you're not in the process of eating it at that moment, it's ready to be swooped up.

Yep, I mentioned that in my review. The servers are quick to snatch anything resembling a clean dish.

Not sure you want to entertain another Rogue 24 impression, but here goes! My husband and I have happily dined at Komi a number of times and have had excellent experiences at restaurants of this general type in other cities, so we were very excited about trying Rogue 24. Alas, we came away rather disappointed. There were too many courses that seemed to be random assemblages of uncooked and crumbly ingredients. The dining room was freezing (I guess they overcompensated for the open kitchen), which made the lengthy wait for the check seem even longer. The reception area on a rainy night was a shambles with coats and umbrellas all over. I generally try and focus on the positive elements of a restaurant, but this was too much of a let down. That said, we did have a nice Italian white (Vigneti Massa, Derthona Timorasso, 2009) with the second group of courses and a couple of great pots of tea after the desserts (so warm!). I'm pretty sure we won't be going back unless we hear some AMAZING reviews in the future. I enjoy your chats every week, and learn quite a bit, but never felt compelled to post until now.

Thanks for sharing. Keep in mind, Rogue 24 is a young restaurant with lots of moving parts.

I know that brunch is not your favorite meal but can you recommend a nice place to have brunch that is not in the City. My Wife wants to go to brunch for her brithday but she would prefer a nice place in the country so we can get a pretty drive as part of the celebrationl. We live in Falls Church so anything within an 60 to 90 minute drive in either Maryland or Virgnia would work. Thanks so much

I adore the Ashby Inn in Paris, Va.  Such a lovely drive, and such an intriguing range of  brunch options. They include sweet pea and hominy stew, pork & waffles, sour cherry cobbler -- definitely not the same old, same old!

Saw your notes on this today. How was the food?

Hey, did you just read the first three paragraphs?


I really like much of chef Jonathan Seningen's cooking. But it gets lost in Sax's "eye candy," as he himself puts it.


I come from out of town and we will be getting married in April 2012 by elopement and we wish to celebrate by hosting a dinner at a restaurant for 10-12 people including 4 children aged 4-9. Where do you suggest we go in the NW area? Fish, eggs, cheese are all okay. We wish for something eclectic, international (Mediterranean, Italian, Indian, Asian are all ok), but not overly elegant. The children are all well behaved.

That covers a lot of ground. For Italian, you should consider the cozy Al Tiramisu in Dupont Circle;  for Asian, you might try Spices in Cleveland Park, which has a private dining room in the back;  and for Indian, I'd probably opt for Masala Art in Tenleytown.

So I completed your dining survey, then got to the page asking for my full name, email address, and where I live. Since there's no chance I'm going to provide that, I didn't complete the survey. I'm guessing I'm not alone and your response rate is much lower than it could have been if it were anonymous.

I'm sorry to hear that. Your personal information isn't going to appear anywhere public.  The request is, in part, "a way to prevent cheating,"  says  Ryan Kellett, the WP interactivity producer who created the poll. Plus, if a reporter or editor has a question, he or she can easily reach out to the respondent. So far, more than 800 people have weighed in. 

Tom - When service is really, really bad - so bad that you are comped something (and you love the restaurant, so it's not about getting the freebie, but the service did stink) - what is the etiquette for paying? Should I pay what I would have paid? FYI, I'm asking because tomorrow night I'm being comped two entire meals because I had to leave a restaurant after an hour of no service. A restaurant I like.

Wow, an hour of no service?


I'd tip 20 percent (or whatever you generally leave as a tip for good service) based on the approximate cost of the meal tomorrow.


Question: Did you tip for your original meal?

I went there about 6 months ago -- and found it quite good.

One chatter's opinion. (Thanks.)

Really not an excuse when you are failing at the things that are your selling points. If the point of the place is multiple courses and getting preferences right, then they should have practiced until they got it right before opening. It is not fair to make the first few months of customers suffer while chef and servers figure out how to execute his "concept."

I hear you. It's not as if Rogue 24 is an inexpensive dining proposition. And the chef did have a fair amount of time to hire staff and finesse his ideas (starting as early as his last days at Vidalia).

Lidia's (owned by Lidia Bastianich) is good. I had a really delicious freshly made pasta with lemon when I was there a couple years ago.

Sounds promising.

Most of the restaurants on Mount Washington (overlooking downtown Pittsburgh) are great, but for an amazing dinner and fantastic view, try the Tin Angel ($$). If you go on a night the Pirates or Steelers are playing, you may be treated to a fireworks show!

And another idea! Keep 'em coming, folks.

Hotels, rental cars, airlines have all developed policies and procedures to ensure that credit card numbers are kept private and safe. Writing them in a book that you keep at the front dest that any one of 100 people can access is why I don't give out my credit card numbers. Until these restaurants set up a system to ensure my credit card is safe, that's the deal - and I say this as someone who had to deal with a resturant worker stealing my credit card number (he was caught BTW, but the damage was huge).

Thanks for writing. You'd think more restaurants would have hopped on the computer model earlier, right?

It seems as if all the really good, moderately priced Asian restaurants, such as Four Sisters or Joe's Noodle House, are far out in the suburbs. Can you suggest anything like that in DC proper?

With pleasure. What about Mandu for Korean (meat dumplings, chap chae, clam-tofu stew) in Mt. Vernon Square or Viet Pho for homey Vietnamese cooking (summer rolls, banh mi, the signature pho) in Columbia Heights?

Can I chime in with a suggestion for Trummer's on Main in Clifton? Unless it's changed since I was there a bit over a year ago their brunch taste's great and the setting is quaint. I was just reminded of the excellent duck confit I had there as part of my brunch by the poster asking about duck. It truly was melt-in-your mouth.

Trummer's would have been next on my list of suggestions. Such a handsome destination.

Wow, how did you last an hour, I would have been gone after 15 minutes!

Me too!

Ok - I exaggerated - our server greeted us and came by 1 time in the hour. We got our starter but nothing else. We left a generous amount of money for what we had eaten when we left...because this genuinely wasn't about getting back at the place...we were just more and more disappointed as time went by, and it wasn't going to be a cheap meal. We'll probably leave more than the 20% tip...we want this place to do well.

Can you share with me where this took place?

Hi Tom! We're going to a show this Friday in the H Street NE/Atlas district area. Can you recommend a place for dinner?

The two most consistent restaurants on H St. NE continue to be the supper clubby Atlas Room and the more casual Ethiopic.

Hi Tom. I want to give a "thank you" restaurant gift certificate to my parents for a favor they did for me recently. They aren't big drinkers so I was thinking $100 would suffice. I would love for it to be near Tyson's, so I can give them some movie tickets to make it a fun "dinner & movie" night. Pretty much any type of cuisine is fine. What would you recommend? Thanks!

I'm keen on the new Nostos, from the same family that owns Mykonos Grill in Rockville. It looks and tastes more personal than so much of the nearby competition.


My review of the sleek Greek restaurant comes out Sept. 25, by the way.

I didn't provide the personal info either. By asking for the info, I'm thinking that you're running more of a risk of people not completing the survey than skewing the results because of cheaters.

Why are some of you so anxious about providing your real names and email addresses in a restaurant survey?  I don't understand. We're not publishing your vitals.

I know this is awful - but I don't want to share because I want them to do well! And they are recitifying the situation. If it's still bad after tomorrow, I'll let you know.

Maybe it's the restaurant where I dined last night!

I keep seeing references to something called a slider. What is a slider? From the pictures I have seen a slider looks like a small dressed hamburger such as a White Castle? Is that what it is? If so, why is it called a slider?

In my experiences, sliders are flat pieces of  seasoned meat (beef, chicken, lamb, whatever) served in buns. They tend to be smaller in size than typical burgers. I don't have time to research sliders' origins, but I'm guessing they're name such because they slide down easily?

Girasole, in Squirrel Hill. It was our go-to place for family dinners whenever we visited my brother at Pitt. Heavenly fresh Italian food.

Another Italian. Grazie.

I noticed that Michel Richard's Tysons Corner restaurant is no longer open for lunch. Have you heard any news on why? Is the pricey refuge soon to be no more?

Uh oh. I didn't know that. I think it was a huge gamble for Michel Richard to take on that hotel space in the middle of a recession, just as I think it's odd for him to open in Las Vegas with a 24/7 spin on Central.  The great chef needs better advisors.

Tom: I know you recommend this to people looking for a good meal in Baltimore. But I'm curious. When you tell someone about the place, do you assure them that, yes, they really are headed in the right direction when they drive by the Pepsi plant and those couple of rough looking bars and then have to cross the light rail tracks. (I'm from the neighborhood, by the way).

Ah, you've just done me a huge favor. Anyone headed to Woodberry Kitchen, please take note.

Hi Tom, Had an experience this past week I wanted to check in with you about. I went with 3 friends to Masala Art on Monday night right before closing. The staff was obviously getting ready to shut down, but we were seated and there were a few other tables as well. After we ordeded, got our dishes, and started eating, we realized that 2 of the 4 dishes were not what we ordered (wrong chickpea dish, wrong chicken dish). As we knew they were getting ready to close and didn't want to keep our 2 other friends waiting, we went ahead and ate what we had been given. It was very good, but not what we had ordered. We didn't say anything because we didn't realize the mistake until after our first bites and because the restaurant was getting ready to close. Still a delicious meal, but I was wondering what you would have done in this situation? Thanks for all your great work!!

If you liked the food you were served, I'm not sure there's a problem (unless said food was more expensive than what you ordered). You say you didn't want to keep your friends waiting and didn't want to make another request of the kitchen.  The time to address the problem was in your second or third bite.

I wonder if these folks know that their personal information is already everywhere if they have a vigorous online life--I can only imagine what Google already knows about me from my searches. My guess is most folks won't complete the survey because they fear being blitzed by marketers or by spam in their inbox. But if they are worried about protecting their personal information, that cow's outta the barn.


As someone who grew up with "White Castle" burgers, I was always told that they were sliders because (to be a bit vulgar) they were so greasy, they slid on through.

I've heard that as well. (Bon appetit!)

I second the recommendation for Lidia's. We were just there over Labor Day weekend. The gnocchi with duck ragu was excellent. The restaurants on Mt. Washington might not live up to your expectations, food-wise, but view-wise, they can't be beat. Also, my mother swears by Casbah.

Sounds like our chatter should book a table at Lidia's.

Hi Tom - thanks, as always, for the lively chats. I completed the survey and it doesn't ask you to enter your home address, just where you are. I put in New Jersey (because that's specific enough I think) and had no problems submitting. So perhaps the shy posters can simply put DuPont Circle, or Adams Morgan, etc. As for the real name and email, what's the harm? That info is out there all over the place anyway - LinkdIn, Facebook, Switchboard...


I did the survey and then aborted for the name reason because I don't think the world needs to know that I am getting comped, etc. It should be anonymous.

But my point is, the world WON'T know you're getting comped.

Does its dining scene outshine the overrated Bethesda? :) Please name other specific 'hoods that you rate better than Bethesda. Real Mexican in DC for you? Thanks, Bill

Let's clear something up. It's not that Bethesda doesn't have any good places to eat, it's that given the great number of choices there, a discerning diner expects better than exists.  I'd say Food, Wine & Company is good, as are Raku for pan-Asian, Redwood for American, Praline for French and  Tavira for Portuguese.


Good Mexican in the city? My vote goes to Oyamel, but it's an upscale example.

Hi Tom, I really need your help. I have friends who want to bring their small, well-behaved dog to a restaurant in DC for dinner, preferably on a Sunday evening. I don't have a dog, and am stumped.

Hope for nice weather. Unless the pooch is a guide (or similar) dog, you and your friends are going to have to dine on a patio. Think Cashion's Eat Place, J & G Steak, Two Amys, maybe Zaytinya in Penn Quarter.

Take the word of a local - at prime time Lidia's noise levels are painful. If noise bothers you, ask to sit upstairs (where it's slightly less earsplitting).

Useful information.

any of the big burrito group restaurants is reliable (in descending order of $$$, Eleven, Casbah, Kaya, Mad Mex).

And just as we're wrapping things up (get it?)

Born and bred....anything owned by the group that owns Casbah (Eleven, Mad Mex, etc) the name of the restaurant group escapes me now but all fabulous. Lidia's, imho, meh! Mt. Washington more for the fabulous view than the food. Andora's (locations in SewickleyMt Nebo Road/ and a little south of Pgh on Cochran Road) is also great. Don't forget Primanti's if you want to slum it!

Thanks, thanks.

Good morning Tom, just to clarify, all restaurants that use OpenTable keep credit card info in an "electronic vault" so the details are kept private and protected for reservations that require a credit card hold. Hope this helps!

It does.

Tom, I was happy to enter my name, email address, & city. No problemo.

Bless you!

My boyfriend and I are introducing our parents to one another. We would like to go some place delicious, not exorbitantly expensive and not too loud in DC proper. Any suggestions?

No other restrictions?


I nominate Perry's in Adams Morgan, a cozy corner at the Oval Room or Palena Cafe in Cleveland Park -- someplace that will be around for years to come, so you can celebrate anew.


It's after noon,  chatters. I'm off to lunch and you should be, too. 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 sidewalk.com 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 and keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom. His 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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