Ask Tom

Feb 09, 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.

I was wondering what criteria you use to determine if a restaurant provides a four star experience rather than just a great meal?

Well, there are a lot of details to consider -- the quality of the food and service, the comfort and the attractiveness of the setting -- although cooking counts for at least half the rating.  If a place isn't much to look at but serves transcendent food, it could still merit a four-star (superior) rating from me. 

 

Among the questions I ask myself when deciding whether to award a restaurant the Post's highest rating: Is this the very best of its kind in the market?  Does the experience transport me somewhere else (Paris, Japan, San Francisco)?

 

Currently, there are six  four-star establishments in the area. They are CityZen, the Inn at Little Washington, Komi, Michel Richard Citronelle, Rasika and  the Tasting Room at Restaurant Eve.  (Before anyone asks: CityZen was not reviewed in my 2010 fall dining guide, but until I re-review a restaurant in print or online -- in public, in other words -- it retains its last rating.)

 

Happy Wednesday, gang. Lots to chew over this morning, so let's get typing.

I used to live in the District about 6 years ago and will be in town for on business for over a week in mid March. Can you please recommend two or three places that would be worthwhile to visit? Thank you.

So much has changed on the dining front since you used to call Washington home!

 

Three places that I  can almost guarantee will make you wish you still lived here include the beer-themed Birch & Barley in Logan Circle, now one of our most delicious neighborhoods;  the omakase sushi counter in the back of the redesigned Sushi Taro in Dupont Circle; and Bibiana  downtown, which where one of the subjects of today's Food section cover story does wondrous things with flour, water and sweet breads (though not all at once or together, I should point out).

Hi Tom - I have an issue with the general response to people saying they hate Indian food. I hate Indian food generally (yes, there are some dishes I can stand to eat, but I would never choose to go to an Indian restaurant and really can't tolerate a lot of it). I have eaten Indian food in India and I still dislike it. Eating at Rasika is not going to change my mind. Maybe there are some converts, but people are allowed to have likes/dislikes when it comes to food, and we shouldn't be chastised for them (not by you per se, but you and the other chatters).

I guess my point is, a lot of people think of Indian cuisine as not much more than curries and samosas, when in fact  it's so much more than that in terms of variety. Of all the cuisines, I think I could eat Indian every day if I had to, and be happy. But to each his own.

Hi Tom, Last week in your first bite you described a restaurant as semi-private. What does that mean? Thanks!

The Rookery, now Bayou in Foggy Bottom, had previously been an invitation-only destination with $1,000 or so annual dues that members got back in food and drink.

Wouldn't you think all top restaurants would have a place on their web to allow patrons to contact them with comments? Not so. A place you rave about where we recently had a mediocre meal has none (we were guests so did not want to raise matters while there). I guess they don't want to hear from their customers. Pretty haughty in our view. (Name of restaurant available to you privately or publicly here).

Reminder to restaurants: Make sure your websites include a way for customers to reach out to you. Because why wouldn't you?

 

Note to poster: Do tell! I'm at asktom@washpost.com

Hi Tom -- thanks as always for these chats; they are great. My wife and I both enjoy Indian food, but we haven't had it in a long time. I know your usual recommendations for Indian in DC are Rasika and Bombay Club. We've been to both and love them, but we're interested in something a little less "high end" and instead more "every day" Indian. Can you recommend a place in DC proper (not MD or VA) that fits the bill?

Yes I can: Masala Art, on upper Wisconsin Ave. NW.  Start with the onion-potato fritters or sweet-hot chicken wings (or better yet, both snacks) and be sure to find room for the kitchen's amazing black lentils and fresh-baked breads (my fave is cilantro with rock salt).

So many new pizza places, so little time. My family loves going to 2Amys, but we are ready to try something new. I have read good reviews for a number of different places. Which ones would you recommend?

Two Amys is no longer a favorite.  The food is too inconsisent for me.  Far better: Seventh Hill or Comet Ping Pong  in the city or Pizzeria Orso in Falls Church.

 

Chatters, care to weigh in with your favorites?

Hi Tom - Maybe this should be a joint Sietsema-Hax question, but I'll focus on my dining dilemma. My uncle and aunt have decided to come to town this weekend to visit my Grandma. They have "asked" me to find a nice restaurant, in Old Town, the Saturday before Valentine's Day for 10 people, one of them handicapped. Cuisine needs to be in the "not too far out there category" to accommodate my Grandma who can be rather picky about food. I've asked if they will consider other areas, like Arlington or downtown DC, but they only want Old Town. Can you help me find a suitable restaurant? Or am I doomed to failure?

You are not doomed to failure, but you better get on the phone, pronto, with Majestic or Vermilion (in that order) followed by Jackson 20, all on King St.

I'm a lot like the poster today -- not a fan of Indian food, although there are some dishes I can tolerate. I've been to Rasika and enjoyed it, found enough dishes that I could really enjoy, but it didn't change my mind about Indian food, chiefly because most Indian restaurants obviously aren't of Rasika's caliber. It's irritating to be dismissed by Indian food fans as unadventurous or by saying we just haven't tried enough of it. We've tried it plenty and just have different tastes.

I hear you.

Tom, I work near McPherson Square, and it's been ages since I've had Thai. Can you recommend anywhere close by that I can go? I'd prefer to take it out, if possible. Thanks!

Hmmm. Trying to picture a Thai place near you.

 

Is Nooshi on 19th St. NW too far away? I had a nice lunch at the bar there last week.  On New York Ave. NW, I can also recommend the recently-previewed Noodles on 11.

Tom: You often make the distinction that your first bite column is not a formal review and instead is just a first impression of a new place with buzz. However, at least on the website, the column name is: Critic Review for <insert restaurant> which can be a bit misleading.

Fair point. But up top, those previews mention First Bite. They also omit star ratings.

Recently had a HORRIBLE experience. Host was snarky at the door. Server was a catastrophe. Food was bland minus a couple of dishes. Drinks were watered down and took forever. So many people tending to the table picking up your plates (while still eating from them) your having to literally grab things before they can swipe them. Food was to be staggered...it was for the 1st few plates then it came in swarms of 3-4 at a time. We had already been served dessert and then the last dinner plate came! With all the hoopla I went in here with my group WANTING to love it. Not so much. Bad night or par for the course? Should I give it another try? And yes, I did ask for a manager at the table, one never came so we paid and left.

Sounds like my early experience at Ping Pong

 

By the way, when I was in London last year, I checked out the chain at its source and found similarly lackluster cooking and indifferent service. (At least PP is consistent, right?)

I find it quite disgusting, and embarrassing that men seem too lazy to even lift the toilet seats even with the toe of the shoe. And actually stop to smile or flirt with the female entering behind them. C'mon guys! Step up to the plate and be courteous to the other guests! Surely you don't do this at home do you??? Just another example of the difference in behavior in private lives versus when someone else has to clean up after them..... Thanks for the rant!!!!

I'm with you on your first point (if you make a mess, clean it up, guys!), but less supportive of the second.

 

Do you *seriously* want someone to flirt with you in a restroom? And exactly how does one flirt while exchanging positions with someone in what tends to be a compact environment? 

Posting earlier because my bosses are jerks that don't understand the importance of my Chat Time.... Birthday this weekend, and I want to go old school dc - have a (two) martini, monster steak, big red wine, potato, spinach dinner. Where should we go (in the district - my boyfriend has an electronic braclet that goes off if he leaves northwest)? I would do J and G, except the last couple of times we've felt in the mood for this, we've gone there, and it was awesome, but want to try something else. Thanks!

No steak house in Washington says yesteryear better than the venerable Art Deco-style Prime Rib on K St., the first restaurant I reviewed when I became food critic in 2000.

 

Go for the signature cut, which comes with freshly grated horseradish, and round out the centerpiece with the restaurant's lightly creamed spinach and buttery mashed potatoes.  Icing on the cake: live music.

You have long lauded GAR. Wanted to share what happend to me this week. I went with my sister to lunch. I found a shard of broken glass in my salad (after it was in my mouth!). I mentioned it right away to the server, he immediately took the salad and summoned the manager. The manager came over, apologized and got a new salad. I figured this was a terrible accident/oversight, but nothing that could have necessarily been avoided. The manager comped the entire meal (she insisted) and gave us a gift card for an upcoming visit. It was above and beyond. Just wanted to let you know.

Good call on the manager's part.

 

I'm not always in favor of restaurants comping entire meals because of one diner's problems, but in this case --  a potentially serious situation that would have affected both you and your sister --  picking up whole tab was the right course of action.  The addition of the gift card  underscores the company's strong attention to detail and customer service relations.

Last Tuesday, my husband and I decided we wanted to sit at the bar and have a drink and dinner at Trummer's on Main. It was around 8:45 PM when we arrived with the restaurant's normal closing time not until 10. As we sat at the bar, the bartender offered us a drink but informed us the kitchen had closed at 8 PM! The bartender explained this was because the dining area had only one reservation in the evening and apparently is restaurant policy to close down if this is the case. I was frustrated at this notion and we left to go elsewhere. Later in the week, I wanted to call them and find out if this same thing was going to be the case on a Friday night. The hostess did not seem sure if the kitchen would close as early, but I was confused that a restaurant would do such a thing unless someone was having a big party and bought it out for the night. My husband and I happen to prefer dining in the bar area at Trummer's, so we may be less inclined to go there if whether the kitchen is open or closed is a surprise each time. Is this something normal for restaurants to do, as I had not heard of this occurrence before last week?

     I tracked down the co-owner, Stefan Trummer, for a response  and he kindly took time --- away from the hospital, where his wife is poised to have a baby! -- to write back.  (Go, Stefan! And Victoria! And baby!)

 

 

Tom,

Thank you for reaching out to us about this guest complaint.  It is very unusual that we close the restaurant early.  Last Tuesday we had a severe weather warning and we were supposed to get hit with ice rain. This was the reason that the restaurant wasn't busy. Being somewhat a destination restaurant it is hard to get customers to come out under these conditions. Our main concern though was  our employees. We wanted to make sure that all of our employees could get home safe and closed the restaurant a bit earlier.


We know that consistency is one of the most important things and the last thing we want is to confuse our guests.

Again thank you for allowing me to clarify our position. I hope we've had enough weather threats this year!

Best,

Stefan

I think the previous chatter was complaining that men DO try to flirt when they are leaving the restroom, not they they don't....

Oops! You are oh so right. I read that a wee bit too quickly. My apologies.

It's a bit of a walk but Haad Thai on 12th at New York is good. Not the best, but very good.

Another option. Thanks.

For a quality pizza, tasty salads, and very good desserts, I'm a fan of Mia's in Bethesda.

Haven't been there in awhile. Thanks for the prompt.

The LAST place I want to even make eye contact with another person, let alone "flirt," is the restroom door! And I'll bet I'm in the majority. If someone holds the door open for me, that's all the contact I need.

As I said above, I misread the post the first time.

I know this has been discussed before, but wanted another take. Last weekend, we had a group of 25 holding an annual event and we went to a restaurant we've gone to for several years. They had a table ready for us, but also had another large party (looked like maybe a birthday party) on the far end of the dining room. Our server was coping with us and about 3-4 tables of 2-3 patrons each. The manager helped serve our table. However, during the course of our meal, our server was very brusque and rude. For example, she brought salads for one half of the table, when she called out (yes, auction style) the salads, someone on the other half called out and she rather nastily responded, "I'm not serving your side!" Several items asked for were not brought including condiments. So after about 6-7 minutes, I went up to the entrance by the kitchen and asked the first person I saw (turns out it was the manager) for the condiment. The waitress came up behind me and demanded "What do you want?" I explained that I wanted the condiment that I had asked for a while back. She then screamed "Well I'm busy!" and stormed off. And the busboy was left staring at both of us wide-eyed, and apologized. There were a few more like incidents. They waited until they served the whole table to tell my wife that they only had three portions of the item she had ordered and everyone else had gotten theirs, so would have to order something else...which came out after most of the group had finished eating. My meal came out clearly overcooked and dried out and they offered to substitute. They did, but my meal came out after even my wife's meal came out so we were the only ones eating then, after we had watched everyone else eat. They did comp my wife's, but not mine. So, the question. The business tacked on 18% for the group, which we normally more than cover. I chose to leave only about 12% tip on my food, but the group leader didn't feel it appropriate and covered the whole 18%. Do you think it acceptable to not cover an added on gratuity with very poor service and food?

Okay, my first question here is, where was the manager in all this? Obviously he didn't respond/take charge when you approached him for the condiment you were looking for?  Bad, bad, bad.

 

I can see where a host wouldn't want to challenge a gratuity during what sounds like a big affair. But SOMEone ought to communicate with the manager or owner -- someone who can make amends -- and detail your shoddy experience.

 

Readers? Thoughts?

Re: Handicapped/group of 10 The person needing a restaurant in Old Town should inquire specifically about the handicapped designation. Are the restrooms easily accessible for a wheelchair? Are tables accessible for a wheelchair? When locating a restaurant for a group luncheon (not in DC region), I found that sometimes the main room would be accessible but not a separate dining room. Check out the specifics.

Yep. For anyone who has special needs, it's imperative for him or her to verify the details. No one wants an unpleasant surprise at dinner.

Thank you Tom and to Stefan (congrats!) for taking the time to address this question!

I love being able to get restaurant responses in real time.  Thank you, Mr. Trummer. (Maybe you'll have some news for us by the end of the hour?)

We tried Pete's New Haven Apizza on Wisconsin Avenue and really liked it!

I like it, too. But I'm not sure I'd drive across town, or state lines, for a slice.

Tom, I appreciate all the thought that goes into your rating system - and for those few establishments that are able to eek out a four-star rating from you. I query one thing: Why is it that 5 of the 6 places are also super expensive? I would hate to think that only super expensive places are able to achieve a transcendent experience. Surely this cannot be the case when some of the best cuisines, some of the best meals offer nothing more than simplicity. I'd love to have your insight on my observation. Thanks

I would LOVE to give a mom & pop my highest rating. But the reality is, none in my experience fulfills the requirements to reach that peak. 

 

This is explained, in part, by the (often expensive) ingredients and labor and  technique that go into our loftiest dining experiences.

 

Of the area's starriest places, Rasika is probably the most accessible in terms of price.

You're joking, right? Please be joking.

Yes, that was a joke. (Right, original poster?)

Tom you live in this area, how could you forget Thai Tanic & Teakwood?

I'm not terribly fond of either.

Reminds me of the good old stoner pizza places of my college days. Good times....

I enjoy the pizza there, too, but that long line at lunch is a drag. Again, I'd eat there if I was nearby, but wouldn't travel for a "We" pizza.

I'm hosting my book club later this month and would like to serve Ethiopian food to complement the theme of the book. Do you or the chatters have experience with delivery or take out from any restaurants in DC? I've only dined in at Etete, Dukem, and Meskerem (and I find Etete the clear winner between those three). Delivery to the Dupont area would be best, but I can do take out from U street easily. I'm mostly just worried about how the food will stand up to time spent in Styrofoam. Does injera just become a soggy mess? As a side note, where is a good place to buy Tej?

I don't have any experience with Ethiopian deliveries, but I'll post your question in the hope that someone in today's audience does.

 

Etete, by the way, isn't as good as it once was. My new favorite Ethiopian restaurant is Ethiopic, but it's removed from you, in the Atlas District. 

 

Do you want to buy tej, the Ethiopian grain, or injera, the floppy pancake sometimes made with tej? Meaza Ethiopian Cuisine in Falls Church is your best bet.

The concept looks like a mess. "Commons" to "reach out to the commoners?" Who the owners think they are--aristocracy? Fittingly, the menu seems awfully pretentious. "Dried raisins?" Aren't raisins already dried? are these extra dry? "Vanilla Creme Brulee" with chamomile and lemon? Doesn't adding lemon make it lemon creme brulee? And an ironic note--a "commons" was a municipal property reserved for the use of a village's citizens. Pricewise, this is another H Street offering that will exclude most of the local residents most of the time, like the late 1015 Napa (which, to its credit, did try to adjust somewhat). Not only the old residents--most of the newcomers are straining to afford their mortgages, too.

The poster is referring to the subject of my First Bite column today, the new Smith Commons on H St. NE.

 

It always amazes me how these places spend big bucks and lots of time on creating great spaces, but give short shrift to what goes on the plate. 

 

I went with four friends to Smith Commons, so I feel as if I gave the newcomer a fair shot.  With the exception of a salad and the interesting scallops, no one ate much. ("Global," more often than not, has become restaurant short-hand for "we lack focus." )

 

The cocktails, on the other hand, were very good, and the space is very inviting. I'll definitely be back -- to drink and hang out.

I believe Anthony Bourdain is right. If a restaurant has a poorly cleaned bathroom they will have a badly cleaned kitchen. And have stop going to an eatery if this is the case. Do you factor this in to your rating?

If the restroom is dirty all three (or more) times I go to a restaurant, that might have some effect on a rating. I'd at least mention the fact.  But I've had some terrific food from places where the bathrooms are atrocious over the decades -- mostly overseas, I should add.

By your statement "Does the experience transport me somewhere else (Paris, Japan, San Francisco)?" It seems you don't have much faith in the DC dining experience. When you are in Paris does a restaurant have transport you to DC or Chicago to be a top restaurant?

I have plenty of faith in DC restaurants.

 

What I want to say is, a four-star French restaurant in DC should  whisk me to France and a superlative sushi place in DC should at least let me pretend I'm in Japan. 

 

The experience should be moving, in other words. Minibar comes very close to that.  I know I'm firmly in Washington at the counter, but the food by Jose Andres is novel, interesting, often luscious.

While the treatments the guests received is not excusable, I think there are a few lessons: 1. a sit-down dinner for 25 is sure to result in some glitches. Has the group considered having this annual dinner catered or renting a room at a restaurant where the restaurant can then serve a catered buffet to the group? 2. restaurants would be wise to offer a reduced menu of say, 4-5 entree choices to such a large group. This would make service easier. I think the waitress' behavior was at least partly attributable to stress rather than sheer rudeness. 2.

Great advice to anyone planning a big dinner in a restaurant. (Sounds like you work in the business?)

 

Thanks for a lively chat,  folks. See you here again next week,  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; 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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