Ask Tom

Feb 02, 2011

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema answers your questions, listens to your suggestions and even entertains your complaints about Washington dining.

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

A PEEK BEHIND THE CURTAIN: "Do you ever hear from restaurants after you review them? "  people often ask me. 

 

I do. Not often, but frequently enough, and generally after a rave.  I was impressed, then, when the owner of Cuba Libre, the subject of last week's Magazine review, wrote earlier this week to detail the steps he and his staff were taking to address some problems I raised Jan. 30. With Barry Gutin's permission, I'd like to share the changes that already have been made:

 

"As you may know, Cuba Libre’s menu in Washington is a departure from our menus in other cities.  In mid January, we brought our most senior servers from our Philadelphia restaurant to experience and critique that menu in action as we plan to introduce it this spring in our Philadelphia location. Just as you did, they identified that the opening remarks from our service staff were too lengthy. We are already addressing this issue and guests will experience this change when they visit Cuba Libre beginning the second week in February.

 

On Friday, January 21, the alcoholic content in our mojito recipe was increased in response to feedback from DC bartenders and guests.

 

Thank you for noting that we continue to address the sound issue we discussed after your generous opening coverage of Cuba Libre and again in January. We hope that after our efforts the sound levels will be more comfortable for our guests.  As I mentioned to you, still to come is the installation of wall art which will conceal sound absorbing panels, including the installation this week of the replacement (sound absorbing) mural.

 

We also appreciate your bringing to our attention the need for more training in the proper techniques of wine service regarding your first hand experiences with us. We will take immediate action to re-educate our servers in an effort to guard against over pouring.  We will also continue to focus on improving the execution of Guillermo’s menu including his signature ceviches."

 

It was clear from Gutin's email that he took into account the reaction of not just one paid reviewer, but a host of civilian diners as well.

 

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining me on this gray winter day. What can I help you with?

 

 

 

Did you watch Gillian Clark on Chopped last night? She was cut in the second round, but I thought she did well. The chef from PS7 (don't recall his name) was runner-up last week.

I missed watching Clark and PS 7's executive sous chef Andrew Markert (his boss is head chef Peter Smith). Both nights I was working/reviewing.

 

Speaking of Clark, did you catch Tim Carman's feature on the chef in today's Food section? It's an illuminating read.

Jose Andres happened to be at Jaleo last night--not in the kitchen, rather sitting at a table with someone--while I was dining there. I'm sure all the employees knew about it because there was so much service that it was creating chaos. Busboys and hostesses buzzing around so much to clear tables and re-set places that they were running into diners. A waiter spilled a carafe of wine--yes, red--on a gentleman and adjacent table. On the flip side, the food was excellent as always. My question: do you see this happen to you when you dine at establishments?

You mean because I'm sometimes recognized?

 

Restaurant critics, as my predecessor used to say, often get *more* service, not necessarily *better* service. It's up to reviewers, of course, to take that into account when they're evaluating an establishment.

 

There are ways to get around being recognized, by the way; I occasionally send trusted friends into places where I known I'm known to get a read on a place.

Hi Tom, My intended is having a milestone birthday in a few weeks, and I want to get him a gift card to a restaurant in DC. Is there one place/experience that you'd say we shouldn't miss? The only cuisine he doesn't care for is Indian (unfortunately). We both eat meat, so vegetarian options aren't a requirement (although not a problem either). I know this is a pretty vague request, but I'd appreciate advice from you or the chatters. Thank you.

How about the recently updated Dining Room at Palena in Cleveland Park or the always-interesting Oval Room, which is near the White House and helmed by Tony Conte?  I'd be pleased to be treated to either experience.

Hi Tom, Perhaps you have addressed this before, but I was wondering what your take on this is - Do you think it is important for the server talking about the "daily specials" to inform the patrons as to the price of aforesaid specials? Is this considered bad form if the restaurant is above average in terms of price ? I've noticed this at a few places and would like to know what the frequency you have observed is. Thanks and keep up the excellent work.

No one likes surprises, like a "special" veal chop that costs $40 when the average entree prices on a menu hover in the mid-$20s range.  That applies to restaurants fancy and not-so-much.

 

Once again, everybody:

 

1) Waiters should announce the prices of the specials when they're not listed on the menu, or offered verbally.

 

2) Diners should ASK if a price isn't offered.

How do you decide what restaurants will be featured in the Fall Dinning Guide?

It depends on the theme of a given year. 

 

In 2000, my first year as food critic, I flagged restaurants where I would spend my own money. In 2006, I highlighted places that I thought made Washington a top-tier restaurant town. Last year was more of an insider's guide on to where to eat.

could you also ask him to train his front door staff to be less rude? had a bad experience with one of them and will never go back.

Can you be more specific?

What do you envision as the theme for this year's Fall Dinning Guide?

Um, can we get past the SPRING dining guide first?

Is the phenomenon of diners expecting chefs to suck up to them in addtion to cooking superb meals unique to Washington? Maybe I'm suffering from low self-esteem but I really don't expect the chef to chat me up in addtion to cooking my dinner. I'm content if I get a great meal and it seems to me that dragging the chef out of the kitchen doesn't further that goal.

Some chefs love interacting with their patrons; others probably would rather just communicate by cooking for their audience. I think it depends on the day, the time (late lunch is much different for a restaurant than Friday at 8 p.m.), the mood of the chef -- a lot of factors.  

 

Let's discuss this. Diners, do you like to meet your chefs? Chefs, do you enjoy making rounds in the dinig room?

Tom, Recently, I've been condemned to a low salt diet (<=2000mg/day). Can I dine anywhere and eat a meal that has less than, say 1500 mg ? How many restaurants would be willing to cook me something without salt ? Even something simple like a piece of meat/fish and a baked potato.

If you make your wish known ahead of time (say, when you reserve a table) and again before you leave the house or office (just to make sure your request was noted), I think most kitchens should be able to honor your request.  I wouldn't just spring the question on a restaurant at a peak dining time, for obvious reasons.

It's spelled DINING not DINNING.

Sorry! I'm trying to address as many questions as I can (and my keyboard is a bit sticky).

I hate asking the price - I feel cheap. So I don't order specials if they haven't told me the price. The fact that not disclosing the price discourages people from getting the special should be an incentive for a restaurant to disclose it!

Yep. You never know what great dish you might be missing!

Huh? Your fiance doesn't like Indian food (the hugely diverse food of an enormous subcontinent of a billion people) and you still want to marry him? I would reconsider that decision!

To each his or her own.

 

I LOVE taking people who swear they don't like the cuisine at Rasika. Chef Vikram Sunderam has won over more than a few stomachs with his seductive Indian cooking.

Hi Tom, Love the chats. I have a dining etiquette question for you. I often go to restaurants for happy hour or to have dinner at the bar. If I go to a place that I've been before or the bar is in plain view, instead of asking the hostess "where's the bar?", I'll go straight there. Sometimes, however, the hostess channels her inner linebacker and and semi-demands that she help me. What's the proper thing for a patron to do when all she wants to do is go straight to the bar?

I usually give the hostess a nod and tell her I'm heading to the bar.  Never a problem. Not sure why you'd be blocked, unless you looked confused?

I would never expect the chef to chat me up or my table just because we dined at his/her restaurant - that would be absurd and self-centered. I have experienced, though, where a chef might wander around the dining room and chat with tables (usually as the night is winding down or there is a down period that would allow for this) - and that can be a nice, personal touch. They are doing it to see what the clientele is like, to see how the meal/evening was, and to see how/if they can do better. They want it to be a good experience and are checking in to see how they are doing. I have also had the occasion where I've asked a question about something specific in the meal - and it is the chef who comes out to answer in person. I think it happens because I'm someone (not famous) who knows about food and also loves food. I always think those are nice touches and I remember them, but I don't expect it. They have been rare occurrences - and I think that's fine. If a chef came to chat with me at most meals, I might begin to find it intrusive. Thanks

Thanks for your comments.

 

My question: Do chefs REALLY want criticism at the table? I got cornered -- literally -- at a party this weekend by a guy and his wife who gave me 101 ideas for improving the publication I work for.  Not so fun.

I am a foodie and eat out often for unique food experiences. I love being able to meet the chef and see his personality, and ask a question or two if I can. When I was at C-House in Chicago 2 years ago during a large conference in the city, I was sitting at the seafood bar on a Saturday and happened to be the only one at the bar who recognized the chef Marcus Johnsson. I smiled at him and also told the couple next to me who he was. They were from Germany and didn't know him. The interesting thing is, he came out, said hi to me, and once he heard they are from Germany he switched to German and totally ignored me. Then he sent a dessert to the couple which they shared with me because they felt awkward. It was an interesting experience. I still like him though, it sounded like he missed Europe and wanted to speak German. At many places when I recognize the chef I will point out to my companions as they are not familiar with the faces. Once I met Brian McDermott of Blue Duck Tavern at a different restaurant, and he couldn't have been nicer. To the chefs: treat your fans with care and respect please! Both in and out of your restaurant.

One thing my dining companions always notice is how much eye contact (attention) they get from a travelling chef.  Savvy chefs know to acknowledge everyone at the table.

Thanks for posting the follow-up about Cuba Libre. I had a coworker tell me she liked it, so I was interested, but then when I heard how loud it was I was turned off. But now I'm interested again. I hope the sound absorption works.

So do a lot of us.

Sure, I'd love to meet Frank Ruta.... at the bookstore or farmer's market. Not while he is at work. I don't care for chefs that wander out of the kitchen when they're supposed to be working, and schmooze the diners. It's offputting. Not to mention, you are schmoozing some people and not all, and that is doubly offputting. Share your love via the restaurant's excellent cooking and smooth service.

I cannot tell you how many times I hear from diners who feel left out when chefs, generally famous faces, spend too much time with one or two tables and ignore the rest of the dining room.

they were having a fundraiser which i was attending, i got there late. the door person wouldn't let me past the hostess stand because they "were closing for the evening", but the band was still playing and people were still ordering drinks. she wouldn't even let me in for the 5 minutes it would take to find the organizer and give a donation. people vouched for me and she still wouldn't let me in. i asked for the manager and she said no he would just say the same thing. i wanted to say hello to someone 5 feet away and she followed me. i am thankful to them for holding the fundraiser but if that's the way they treat potential customers, i will get my mojitos from the bar at the occidental hotel instead.

Oh dear. I wonder what the restaurant's side of the story might reveal?

Sorry, It is Marcus Samuelson, I wrote too fast!

Thanks for clarifying. I thought that was the chef you were referencing.

I think that if a chef comes to a diner's table to ask how a meal is, s/he would like the truth. Otherwise, it would seem that s/he was just out of the kitchen for an ego stroke: "oh, chef, it was wonderful" and that sort of thing. No need for the 101 laundry list though. Not to laugh at your pain, but your party experience is not specific to Post employees. Doctors, lawyers, etc., are always found by "that couple." I wonder if your couple is reading this chat. Maybe this will serve as a PSA.

The funny thing is, the guy initially had no idea who I was (his wife did). And he was a retired journalist. For Time and ... Newsweek!

People shouldn't corner you at a social event to give unsolicited criticism about your work... but the chef is at work. A better analogy is what you're doing here, opening yourself up to your most opinionated readers. I think getting lots of feedback about your work and learning to decide what to take seriously is an extremely important professional skill, for all of us.

Slightly different topic: The only reason I ask people what they do is because I think most of us in DC work very hard, and very long hours, and hopefully we're passionate about all that time spent away from home.

I appreciate the owner responding. Nonethless, like you I was shocked and dismayed at how BAD the Cubano was? I was excited because unlike traditional Cubanos they add salami. It was beyond bland. I don't think I will return. There are too many better options for the dollar.

Well, I'd be willing to give the place a second shot.  In the beginning, after all, it was a good restaurant. And my sense is the owner and his underlings are listening and taking corrective actions.

Tom, Thanks for your spot-on recommendation of Cheeky's in Palm Springs, California. The brunch and relaxed atmosphere lived up to your description. For anyone going to the area, we liked Tiramisu for dinner.

Glad you found Cheeky's to your liking.

Tiramisu? Thanks for the tip.

Tom, my brother and I are going to Hungary at the end of March with our Budapest born mother, to help her celebrate her 80th birthday. We would like to take her to a very special restaurant, and was wondering if you or any of your chatters might guide us. We want to steer away from hotel restaurants, like the one at the Gresham Palace, and we have already been to Gundel and the adjacent Owl's Nest. One restaurant that looks interesting is Dio, I'm wondering if any one has been there? Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated! Many thanks.

Sorry, I've never been to Budapest, but I bet someone in today's audience can help you out.  Chatters?

A good friend who just finalized her divorce is coming to visit for the weekend next month. I want to treat her to a fun night where she doesn't have to think about all the other stresses in her life... I'm looking for a restaurant that has good food and a fun atmosphere. Extra points if its near a metro. I'm not too concerned about price, and the only food requirement is that it not be 100% seafood/fish. I have a toddler so I'm feeling very out of what's hot in the DC dining scene. Any recommendations on new, fun places that will help make the weekend fun for her?

You sound like a four-star friend.

 

In Logan Circle, Estadio's Spanish vibe would certainly lift your gal pal's spirits, as would a counter seat at Kushi in Mt. Vernon Square, where you can watch sushi being made in one part of the restaurant and meat, fish and vegetables being grilled before your eyes elsewhere. A third option is the snazzy new Ardeo + Bardeo in Cleveland Park, where former Minibar chef Nate Garyantes is doing some interesting cooking.

Tom, Please help. My wife and I have had a rough go of it the past couple years with sick and dying relatives for whom we have had primary caretaking responsibility and other stressors, many emanating from my side of the aisle. She has been a huge support through it all and, while we're still not in a position to "get away," I'd like to take her to brunch - her favorite meal - to celebrate her b-day a week from Sunday. Easiest for us is to go out here in DC, Logan Circle-ish is easiest but not necessary to be right here. I tried to get reservations at Tabard Inn but they are already booked. I realised that although I know places that have brunch (St Ex, Hank's, Agora, etc) none are striking me as a cozy, "treat" type of place. My mind is drawing a blank on other options. Any suggestions or thoughts are so much appreciated (no, I don't cook but in all events I want to take her out of the house with the sick folks). Thanks.

Book a table at the handsome Birch & Barley in Logan Circle. 

 

Not only does its brunch menu have lots of choices, from fried chicken and waffles to brat burgers and fresh-made donuts, they're offered from 11 a.m. straight til 8 p.m.

A slightly different question. I have my grandmother's old recipe book, which is quite special as she passed away about 13 years ago when I was in high school. I was looking through it this weekend for her Chicken and Dumplings recipe (she made the best) and came across a random clipping bearing your name. It seems it was maybe a recipe book review? Regardless it was from the Seattle Times. What years (generally) would that be from? Thought it was kinda neat that my long deceased grandmother and I both are Tom fans!

You've piqued my curiousity! I was at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1994-1996, but my work for the Washington Post as a food reporter (1984-1988 and again in 1998-1999) sometimes was made available to other publications via the Post's wire service.  Is there any story attatched to the recipe?

I'm heading to Key West to start a week of snow-free vacation. I'm omnivorous, have no food allergies, and I'm not afraid to open my wallet to pay for a quality meal. Any suggestions on where to wine and dine? Thanks!

Hmmm. Key West is tough. Has anyone here been recently?

Headed to Georgetown to visit our daughter -- -- and give her and a group of friends a break from Leo's -- Any recommendaitons where we can take a group of hungry college students -- that won't break the bank?

In that vicinity? I like Pizza Paradiso a lot. Neyla has been good in the past for Lebanese and the wine bar above Bistrot Lepic is always entertaining.

Good morning Tom, My husband and I had a very bad service experience at a restaurant (which shall remain nameless as we need to follow up) and unfortunately, there did not appear to be a manager on duty. We asked. We will be following up today. My issue is, why is it that when the superiors are not around servers seem to think it is ok to just not do their job? It was obvious that the significant time delay had a lot to do with a long smoke break - both came back to our table reeking of smoke. It's a huge pet peeve of mine as I do not smoke nor do I wish to smell smoke while dining. It was disappointing because the food was actually very, very good. Sadly, we won't be back. Any thoughts on this? It really does damage to a restaurant. This was our first visit and our last.

I'll be interested in hearing what the manager has to say. Please follow up with me. As I undrstand it, NO ONE was in charge, not even a senior server? That's never good.

 

I sympathize re: smoking waiters. And waiters with dirty fingernails. And hosts with too much cologne. And ....

Both Cafe Sole and Azur (located near each other off the main drag) are delicious. Also, there was a very recent NYT article on Key West that offered several suggestions.

Thanks for coming to a diner's aid before deadline.

To the chatter going to Key West: Don't miss Nine One Five. Have had several great meals there and if the weather is nice you can dine on the veranda.

And thanks again.

Tom, with all the gripes about Palena since its recent remodeling, are you sure it's a "can't miss"? How about CityZen; it is the top on the can't miss list for my wife and me.

Ah, I was referring to the Dining Room at Palena, not the newly exanded Cafe.

Although it is appreciated when servers give the prices of specials, in my mind, if there are more than 3, then I don't want the prices...in fact, I'd like a shorter summary. Then, I'll just ask for both details and prices on the ones that sound good. If there are more than 3 specials, then my eyes glaze over by the 4th one and I've forgotten what else is on the specials list. My thought is that if there are more than 3 specials...they should definitely be written up on either a menu insert or a table card. In this day and age, how hard is it to print up a daily specials insert on the office printer?

You are preaching to the choir, girl!

Wow...you are a nice friend. I would take her to Mike's American Grill in Springfield. Even though I live on the other side of town, I love to go there when I'm on that side of town. The last three times I've been there, I've had the best servers, who are personable, know the menu, remember special instructions and make me forget about life outside those walls...to me, just the ticket for this friend.

I like Mike's as well.

I just made a reservation and Famoso. Should I keep it, or is there a better choice in Chevy Chase/Friendship Heights nice dinner? Food type and budget open, but the cold is making me crave some pasta, risotto, or similar "heavy" food. Thanks.

You know where I'd rather see you go? Tavira, the underground Portuguese restaurant in Chevy Chase, for some piping-hot cod fritters, zesty chicken peri-peri and steamed clams, served in a copper pan. Never mind that the restaurant is in the basement of a bank; the food is terrific.

Hi Tom - What's your favorite restaurant in Silver Spring for dinner right now? Any type of food and any price range is fine. I'm just looking for a fun and delicious place to celebrate my birthday. Bonus points for another place for a pre or post dinner cocktail. Thanks!!!

Run, do not walk, to Jackie's on Sligo Avenue.  Jackie Greenbaum's groovy restaurant has everything you're looking for, including a cool cocktail lounge next door.

With all the upcoming Bayou-themed restaurants in DC, can you determine which one is the most authentic? I read today's First Bite and it has no mention of Bayou in Foggy Bottom having anyone in the kitchen that has roots in New Orleans cooking. The only New Orleans restaurant I like to go to is Bayou Bakery in Arlington because their owner, David, was raised in New Orleans. I got his cookbook and when I read his stories I can tell that he is passionate about NOLA and brings that to the table. I am not from New Orleans but when I eat out, I like to go where I feel they know what they are doing.

I hear what you're saying. But just because someone has been raised in a certain part of the country (or the world, for that matter) doesn't necessarily mean he has mastered its style of cooking. You'd THINK it would help, but experience has taught me otherwise. For instance, I actually prefer the gumbo served at Bayou in DC, made by a native of North Carolina, to that of Bayou Bakery, the subject of my next Magazine review.

El Siboney for casual Cuban cuisine is my can't miss stop when in Key West!

Mmmm. Sounds promising.

Good morning! I think its nice when the chef comes out on his own accord to speak to the diners, get immediate feedback. What I have an issue with, as a former server, is when diners ask to speak to the chef directly - not because of a problem but because they just want to meet them or schmooze. Its rude to pull a chef out of a kitchen, from doing his job, so that you can say that you met so and so. A lot of it depends on the fame of the chef as well...so diners can say that they not only ate at this celeb chef restaurant, they met him as well.

And that's a wrap for today, everybody.

 

See you back here, same time, next Wednesday. Ciao!

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; keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom column and moderates the Sietsema's Table discussion group. His new video series, Tom Sietsema's TV Dinners, pulls back the curtain on a critic's life -- in and out of the dining room.
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