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

Sep 21, 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.

I'm sure the haters and the know it alls are coming out of the woodwork, but I sincerely wanted to see Chef Donna succeed and soar again.......

You and me both. I have such fond memories of his food from way back when!

 

Does anyone else out there still recall, and crave, the pork and other sandwiches he used to make at lunch at his second Galileo?  Or the fabulous parade of dishes ( duck liver custard with summery peaches, olive-stuffed lamb roulade) that unspooled from his restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Laboratorio del Galileo? 

 

Donna is a great chef but a terrible businessman. For those who haven't heard, Galileo III shuttered last week.

 

If you haven't made plans for Rosh Hashanah next week, several restaurants are happy to help out. As it has before, Hudson in the West End, which bakes its own challah, is offering a three-course meal for $37  on Sept. 28 and Sept. 29. Dino in Cleveland Park is opening at 4:30 next Wednesday to begin its Italian-leaning, family-style celebration, which costs $44 for adults and $22 for children. Mon Ami in Bethesda is getting into the act as well, with a Wednesday through Thursday holiday dinner for $34.95 for adults and $16.95 for kids 12 and younger.

 

Good morning, everyone. I'm here to answer your restaurant questions for the next hour or so, but I'll be off on assignment next Wednesday. Our next chat will be Oct. 5.

 

Let's rock.

I went to Seasons 52 over the weekend and just read your review (I know, wrong order!). We all thoroughly enjoyed the food and like the concept -- it's nice to have another healthy alternative. The reason I'm writing, though, is that my dining companions and I were put off by the server and the script. First, when we entered (and there was no waiting list), the hostess asked for my name. I gave it to her, though I was confused why she would need it as we were being ushered to our table. A few minutes later we were all reading our menus and all of a sudden I heard someone declare my name. No hello, just my name. I looked up and must have given the server an odd look because she got defensive and said "what? I just said your name." Ok, no big deal, but odd. Then, at the end of the meal, we declined the offer of coffee and asked for the check. A few minutes later, the server brought the dessert tray to our table, put out doilies at each of our place settings with spoons, and placed the tray on our table. I was thoroughly confused (again), and questioned whether we said that we did want dessert. I learned later than one of my companions thought that the dessert came with the food. It became clear that it was just an aggressive sales pitch to get desserts. The desserts did indeed look good, but we had already decided we didn't want any, and frankly after that pushy pitch, there's no chance that I would have validated that behavior/sales strategy by getting a dessert. Perhaps I am oversensitive here but I think it is offensive and left a bad taste in our respective mouths after an otherwise delightful meal. Just thought I'd let you know!

Thanks for your take on the subject. Funny, I was never asked for my name (or referred by name) at either branch of Seasons 52, nor did I get the dessert pitch you describe. Not that I don't believe your story, just that nothing similar happened during my visits.  Did your companion say something about dessert that you didn't hear, which may have been why the sweets were brought out for display?

Tom, I am planning a 40th birthday dinner for my wife with 12 people on a Sunday night. Our group is pretty well versed in the DC restaurant scene and have done a lot of the tried and true places in the city. I am looking for something slightly newer and fun where most people in our group may not have been. We wanted to do Bibiana but they are closed on Sunday. Thanks!

America Eats Tavern, the new history-themed venue from Jose Andres in Penn Quarter, might be fun for your group. Also interesting -- and open on Sunday -- are the wine-themed Ripple in Cleveland Park and the southern-inspired Vidalia downtown. The latter is far from new, but it tastes better these days than it has in a long time. I'd be happy to be taken to any of the restaurants again.

Hi Tom, I am going to a wedding in Telluride, Colorado next weekend and I'm hoping for some restaurant recommendations from you or anyone in the Sietsema Nation! thanks in advance.

Anyone have any ideas? I've never been to  Telluride.

For all those who have food allergies: When dining at a restaurant (or anywhere), it is solely your responsibility to inform the server of your allergy. Do not be surprised that the crabcake you ordered has some scallops in the preparation....especially after you've eaten every last bite and exclaimed how delicious it was. A menu cannot list every single ingredient in a dish....it's just not reasonable. Imagine being handed a novel size menu. Crabcakes TYPICALLY have bread, egg, mayo and/or mustard, and any number of varying spices, any of which you personally may be allergic to. Therefore, it is your sole responsibility to make sure the thing(s) you are allergic to are not in the dish you're ordering, not the server's responsibility to list every ingredient in a dish. Imagine how long service would take if that were the expectation. Fortunately, I don't suffer from any food allergies, but if I did, I would have no problem asking to make sure what I was ordering was safe for me to consume. Heck, I would ask if there was any scallop in the vanilla ice cream I was ordering. No matter how ridiculous you feel asking, you'll feel less embarrassed than when you're being carted out on a stretcher in anaphylactic shock, unable to breath. Other common allergens in foods at restaurants: Nuts actually IN the chocolate ice cream egg in salad dressing assorted peppers in entrees Just let the server know your allergy while you are ordering the food. If you mention it at the beginning when you first sit down, and then don't wind up ordering for 15 minutes, you should again remind your server of your allergy while you are actually ordering. It can get very busy in restaurants, and even though you told your server at the very beginning, it's possible he/she could have forgotten YOUR allergy while addressing the many other needs of the other tables he/she is waiting on.

Well said! I agree that anyone with special requests, be they food- or space-related, needs to be pro-active when dining out. Waiters (and restaurants) are not mind readers.

 

On the other hand, restaurants should try to flag ingredients  that a lot of people are either allergic to or have an aversion to: nuts, cilantro, pork come to mind.

With the "reduction of Roberto Donna", the "lack of focus" with Fiola, where is a good place to go these days to just have some great fresh pasta?

There are still plenty of places for a grand carbo-load, and Fiola is one of them. (Did you skip over the parts of my review where I raved about the lobster ravioli or the signature lasagna?) 

 

I've had also enjoyed lovely pastas at  Bibiana, Obelisk and Tosca, where the kitchens turn out, in order, squid ink spaghetti with crab, bigoli with tomatoes and sardines, and tortelli stuffed with cow's milk cheese and lapped with black truffle sauce.

 

That said, a lot of non-Italian restaurants do pasta well.  I'm thinking now of the Oval Room, where chef Tony Conte spins magic from jalapenos and sea urchin to make an unbelievable spaghetti dish.

What are your thoughts on food truck and do you have a favorite one?

I can't say I've eaten from more than six of them, but I still get a thrill sinking my teeth into one of the seafood rolls (sweet shrimp tossed with tarragon mayo is especially transporting) from the cheery Red Hook Lobster Truck.

 

Chatters, where are you grazing on the streets these days?

I have requested no cheese, no alcohol, no raw vegetable, but they still serve cheese shaving on top, raw greens on top, and a glass of smoked coke with wisky. Paying $500 for two, should be perfect. I won't be back for a long long time.

And this is after you signed the contract and spoke with your server at Rogue 24?  Did you pipe up when you noticed the ingredients you were hoping to avoid?

Here's a good example of a waiter who properly "read his table." He served both my dining companion and I with water glasses, and he noticed that we transferred the glasses from the right side to the left side as we are both left-handed. He then remembered this and served the wine and coffee cups on our left side! Needless to say, we left a bigger than usual tip and will return to this restaurant.

Smart waiter. Richer waiter, too.

Tom - I'm a bit blue because my significant other is never around. I want to take myself to dinner solo on Friday night, sit at a bar and just treat myself. Where should I go? I really don't like loud, crowded happy hours. Just want some quiet time to reflect and eat great food.

I like your thinking. A seat at the bar of a good restaurant is like having dinner with company; there's the sense you could strike up a chat with your neighbor or bar tender, but you can also just focus on the food if you want.

 

Some of my favorite restaurant counters in Washington include the ones at Palena Cafe, Rasika, 701, Cork Wine Bar, Cashion's Eat Place, Perry's, Atlas Room ... the list is a long one.

 

Any great restaurant bars I'm missing?

 

 

This looks like another of those stupid management-dictated policies, like "Hi, I'm julie and I'll be your waitress this evening." Like the supermarket cashiers who are required to look at your discount club card and greet you by name. Stupid. And annoying.

Yep, just take my order correctly and bring me my dinner, dammit! (Right?)

 

Actually, I've gotten used to servers introducing themselves in recent years. The practice doesn't bother me so much anymore.  Maybe I'm mellowing? 

I ate at the bar at Zaytinya last week and it was great!

And noisy, right? I think the poster was looking for less of a scene.

Hi Tom! Please help me convince my boyfriend to go with me to Againn this Friday for dinner. He thinks gastropub sounds bland. I've never been to the place, but I'm really excited to try it out! Gilman, if you see this, listen to Tom, remember we trust his opinions when it comes to food!!

I'd love to support you, reader, but I haven't been back to the gastropub since it lost its opening chef, Wes Morton, to Art & Soul on the Hill. 

Tom: Traveling to Niagara/Toronto for a couple days any must eat recommendations? Thanks in advance!

Here's my last Postcard from Toronto.

 

Chatters, if you remember to submit your questions early, even a day before the chat, it gives me an opportunity to do some extra reporting/sifting through files on your behalf. This applies not only to travel-related questions, but also to questions that require some investigation (phone calls and such).  Once the chat starts at 11 a.m.,  it's tough for me to do any reporting.

So Tom, we know you're not too fond of the pizza at Graffiato or the District of Pi. Who's pizzas do you recommend nowadays?

The pizzas at Palena Cafe have never been better and I'm a new fan of Pete's Apizza, which has grown to three locations. (Poor Pi. It's such a sweet staff behind those cardboard crusts.)

My bizarre experience at Seasons 52 included the dessert hard sell. We watched it happen at other tables (the doilies & spoons being set at each place before asking if they wanted dessert). This was at the Tyson's Corner location.

Darn. Hate that. I can just imagine what Page 54 of the corporate manuel instructs: "Set the doilies and the silver down first and follow them immediately on the table with our beautiful dessert sampler. Guests will find it hard to say no once everything is in place."

Hi Tom - I went to Siroc a year or so ago and had a good meal. My parents are coming to town next week and are staying in the area. Is it still a good option or are their better choices in the same price range and (since we'll be tourists) that will meet a similar dress code ?

Siroc is fine, but if you've been before, why not branch out?  Fairly close by are  Bibiana, J & G Steakhouse in the W Hotel and  Cafe du Parc near the White House.

I am absolutely enamored of Red Hook Lobster. They make an appearance in my neighborhood (more or less) about once a week and I never fail to get my lobster fix. I think they're pretty fantastic at $15 with tax and tip included. Plus, they're really pleasant folks on the truck.

Pleasant is good.

I'm thinking ahead for once in my life, Tom. My wife and I will celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary on Nov. 29. I'd like to take her out for a dinner to celebrate that milestone--and that we are happily now empty nesters. My wife does not eat meat. Seafood is fine, though. I am thinking of Rasika as an appropriate spot. The cuisine is a favorite and the atmosphere sounds perfect. Shall I book it or are there alternatives you'd suggest considering?

If you haven't tried Rasika yet, go, go, go! It is an important restaurant in so many ways and there are plenty of dishes your wife will find to her liking (loving even).

 

Congrats on 25 years. Gotta ask: What's your secret?

At this rate, they'll soon be asking if you want fries with your supper. That kind of blatant upsell is par for a fast food place, not a fancy restaurant. Phooey.

Are you kidding? "Fancy" restaurants are not immune from up-selling. Haven't we all heard the question "Still or sparkling?" and paid the extra $8 or more for the privilege? Or  "souffles take an extra 20 minutes, so if you think you want one, best to order it now."

No, all four of us were sitting at the table the entire time, and all four of us commented later that we thought that perhaps one of the others had asked for dessert and we missed it, but alas, none of us had.

Gotcha.

2 Amy's has got to be on or near the top of the list!

I've fallen in and out of  lust with its pies over the years.  One reason might be due to all the  competition. To its ever-lasting credit, though, Two Amys raised the bar for pizza (and Italian snacks) in the city.

I need a restaurant for a last-minute client dinner on Monday night for eight. Clients are very unadventurous food-wise (Oval Room was just too much for them) and the last couple of places we have been have been horrible, but they totally enjoyed them (so bad I couldn't tell you where we went because I want to block the visit from my memory). Any recommendations? Preferably downtown (K Street area). You will be my hero. Thanks!

Safe and ... dull? Not sure any restaurants want to see their names highlighted in that response!

 

Places that come to mind because they're welcoming and offer a variety of options on or near K St. include Fogo de Chao, DC Coast, Occidental, maybe Oceanaire.  Good luck!

given the great comment of food allergies, I just wanted to flag that when a group of us went to Hill Country a couple months ago and someone mentioned they had a food allergy, the hostess provided a laminated list of allergens and the food that contained it! We were able to keep the list while we dined and could quickly see what contained soy, nut, dairy, etc. Very helpful.

Good for Hill Country!

I hear there may be an opening at the Gray Lady for a restaurant reviewer! Any word on who will make the cut?

I'm keeping my fingers crossed for my pal Brett Anderson, the talented critic at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. I worked with him at sidewalk.com -- remember that online arts & entertainment site from Bill Gates ?  -- and read him avidly when he was here in DC, writing for the City Paper.

 

For those who haven't heard, NYT restaurant critic Sam Sifton recently got a sweet promotion.

Tom, I think he answered your question already: Think ahead!

I can not begin to tell you how many times I get urgent phone calls and emails from guys (always guys) who are hoping to get a great table for them and their mates -- THAT DAY.

Tom, my husband is approaching his 47th birthday in November. He is a foodie and we have dined in many of your recommended restaurants. I wanted to arrange an intimate dinner with 5 other couples in honor of his Birthday. Can you please make some recommendations? We live in NW DC.

You caught me at a great time. I'm nearing the end of my restaurant rounds for the  fall dining guide (the new one comes out Oct. 16) and while I was surprised to find slippage among some previous favorites, I was also tickled to eat some sensational food, sometimes in unexpected locations. For a birthday gathering, though, you probably want something festive. Have you been to Restaurant Eve's Tasting Room (worth the drive)? The Oval RoomRasika?  Knowing where you've been would help me narrow down the options.

The Source and Cityzen!

But of course.

When did Cleveland Park get so many incredible places to eat? i think you shoud conduct a food tour of CP. Doany other neighborhoods rival CP?

This has been a busy year or so  for the neighborhood, hasn't it, what with the arrival of a talented new chef at Ripple, the merging of restaurants that gave us Ardeo + Bardeo, the expansion of Palena.

 

Logan Circle is certainly no slouch in the dining department. It's got Birch & Barley, Cork Wine Bar, Estadio, Bar Pilar, the just-opened Pearl Dive Oyster Palace from restaurateur Jeff Black to recommend it.

I've had conservative clients- very unadventerous LOVE Old Ebbitt and Occidential- it's the proximity to history and the White House that hooks them. At the latter, I try to get the historic booth. They can order "normal" things and not feel out of place. I would also suggest any of our myriad steak houses.

My vote goes to Occidental over Old Ebbitt Grill, but I know what you're saying.

I've never been to the new local Seasons 52 but have been to the one outside of Philly and my party of 6 found our food bland and literally flavorless (we all got different dishes). I guess the DC restaurant is allowed to actually use spices and herbs?

Indeed they are. Look, I gave the chain a "satisfactory-to-good" rating. It's not great, Seasons 52, but they do some things quite well, service being one attribute (at least in my numerous experiences with both area  branches).

For me, the biggest factor is accepting that we change over the years.

Thanks for the advice. (Hear that, EAL?)

I was delighted to hear that the Chipotle-owned Shophouse was opening up so near my work, so I trundled out there this week to try it out. Loved it - got the meatballs with the rice noodles - but I have to say, I was very surprised by how spicy the "spicy curry" was. I guess it shouldn't have been, as "spicy" was in its name, but still. I have a cast-iron stomach so I was fine with it, and kudos to the Shophouse folks for having the courage to actually make spice for the masses.

You are not the first person to tell me how much fire-power "spicy" packs at the new ShopHouse.  I love the heat.

Tom: I always check your Postcards first when planning a trip, but I'm not finding any postcards for Vienna, where I'm going next week to visit a friend. If you haven't been, do any of your pals whose judgment you trust have recommendations for where to eat? Preference would be for more personal, creative places like Ruppert's in the old days, or Komi before it became a destination.

My single best dining experience in Vienna last winter was at a place called Ofenloch. Don't have my notes in front of me, but you can't beat the place for its hospitality and well-executed Viennese dishes (including boiled beef with lacy potatoes and creamed spinach. Heaven!)

I'm lucky my daughter and I are allergy-free, but a friend is deathly allergic to avocados. Once, a sandwich she ordered had a minute amount slipped into the aioli - not mentioned on the menu nor visible - and she collapsed in the restaurant, Ambulance, ER, coma ensued. Terrifying!

Scary indeed.

Just a reminder that while the meals described may be in the spirit of the holiday, they are not kosher.

Good point. Thanks for weighing in.

Don't forget Corduroy and the 3-course $30 bar menu. This may be the best value in Washington.

Thanks for adding to the list.

My favorite spot is 1789. The bar is small (only 4 seats), but the waiters and bartenders make you feel like friends.

You are absolutely right. (Hmm, you just gave me an excuse to check out the new chef of the venerable Georgetown destination).

When you sign a contract, identify your food restrictions/allergies, and agree to pay that amount after the restaurant agrees that it can comply with your restrictions, why can't the burden be on the restaurant? When the meal costs close to ten times the amount of a meal at McDonald's, there is an expectation that they will deliver.

I wouldn't compare the cost of a refined meal at Rogue 24, where you're getting so much more than inventive food, to the price of  a meal at a fast-food chain, but I see what you're saying. There's an expection for a restaurant to get it (exactly) right when a couple hundred bucks are involved.

 

Time is up, folks. Thanks for participating. Remember, no chat next week. See you back here Oct. 5, same time.

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Weaned on a beige buffet a la "Fargo" in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. In thinner days, he was a critic for Microsoft Corp.'s 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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