Ask Tom

Feb 16, 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

FOOD NEWS DU JOUR: Just three months after a major makeover at Zola, executive chef Bryan Moscatello says he is leaving the Penn Quarter restaurant and the company that owns it, Stir Food Group.

“The concept has changed,” Moscatello said during a telephone conversation late Monday. For starters, the idea of a separate dining room for tasting menus is history.


A five-year veteran of Zola, the chef submitted his resignation Jan. 21 but agreed to stay through Restaurant Week and Valentine's Day. His last day at the modern American restaurant is Friday.


“No hard feelings,” said Moscatello. “Time for something different.”  Asked about his future plans, the 42-year-old chef said, “I want to do great food in a great little restaurant. If that happens to be in D.C., awesome.”

Karen Corbin, the COO of Stir Food Group, which also includes Potenza,
Spy City Cafe and Zola Wine & Kitchen, said Moscatello will be replaced at Zola by Eric Fleischer, who was hired in November to assist the top toque. He last cooked for the Iridium Restaurant Corp. at Bread and LuLu restaurants, both in New York.


So what can customers expect from the newest incarnation?


Corbin says Zola will be "preserving all the positives" of the restaurant while making the menu "a bit more accessible."

 In other appointments, Peter Smith, the former general manager of J & G Steakhouse in the W Hotel and general manager of Potenza, has been promoted to director all Stir Food Group's eateries.



Chef Jamie Leeds and her business partner Sandy Lewis are poised to sell CommonWealth, their two-year-old gastropub in Columbia Heights later this month.


 Leeds, who also owns the popular Hank’s Oyster Bars in Dupont Circle and Old Town, says her landlord “made us an offer that we couldn’t turn down.”  The British-themed restaurant will be replaced by a similar concept from the newly formed Irving Street Restaurant Group headed by Terry Cullen. He expects to open the doors of the yet-to-be-christened dining room in May.


The sale of CommonWealth will free Leeds up to concentrate on what she calls “my baby,” her original Hank’s in Washington. The chef has acquired the brownstone next door and is waiting on construction permits to start expanding the six-year-old seafood establishment. The change will double the size of Hank’s patio and possibly lengthen the menu, says Leeds.



MEA CULPA: During last week’s live chat, a poster inquired about where to buy tej, the Ethiopian honey wine, for a book club. I responded with an answer about teff, the Ethiopian grain used to make injera, the floppy pancakes that double as eating utensils. I know the difference, I really do, and appreciate the many readers who wrote in after the discussion to correct me.  Tej you drink; teff you eat.



Lots to chat about this morning. Let’s begin.

Hi Tom! A good friend of mine will be deploying overseas for a year with Army JAG. He'll be in DC (staying near the Pentagon) for a few days in March right before deploying, and I'd like to treat him to a farewell dinner. To give you an idea of his tastes, last time he was in DC about two years ago I took him to Sei right after it had just opened and he absolutely loved it! But I'd like to show him somewhere new. He isn't picky, and he likes trendy/lively. Anywhere Metro-accessible is fine, and if it's possible to keep the price to around or below $150 for wine/appetizers/dinner that would be greatly appreciated! Thank you so much for your help!!

Ardeo + Bardeo, the newly merged restaurant near the  Cleveland Park Metro, is just what you're looking for:  a (relatively) young scene, good cocktails and diverting food from chef Nate Garyantes, late of Minibar in Penn Quarter. Among the early hits on his menu are the rock shrimp pizza sparked with lemon and a schnitzel made with (surprise!)  scallops.

You didn't mention the service either way, but it was thumbs down for me. My server took the same attitude the owner took to the name…that he is doing me a favor by finally taking my drink order and bringing my food. Him disappearing for such long periods meant I couldn't take full advantage of the one aspect I liked, the cocktails…because the food sure didn't do it for us, save for the crab cake sliders. He even dropped some dirty flatware on me (accidents happen) but when I handed it back to him, not a word, no "pardon" or "excuse me" or "I'm sorry." Such a small thing, and so easy to do, I found incredibly irritating all I got was a scowl. I only left 15% on the pre-tax amount for this too-cool-for-school dude. Little enough to make a point but not so little I had to stick around and explain to the manager b/c we were in a hurry. I typically do 20-25%

The service in the ground-floor dining room at Smith Commons was pretty friendly the night I dropped by, but the upstairs bar tender was incredibly slow and not particularly hospitable. I just wish the menu had more focus, better flavor.  As it stands now, I like the interior most.

After reading your review on Ford's Fish Shack and living close to Ashburn I was very anxious to try out their crab cake. Excellent crab cake, but the noise level from the radio/music playing was unbelievable and it was 3:00pm in the afternoon. The place was crowded so their was the usual crown noise, but you could tell everyone was having to talk loud. I was with my Mom who's hearing is not the best and she complained about it. She couldn't hear what the server was saying when he was giving the specials of the day and I missed half of it and I've got great hearing. I really liked the place, but probably wouldn't go back to sit and dine. I would order to go. So my question is, should I have said something or is one person's opinion a waste of their time. I just don't get why restaurants do this. It should be about the food - not the background music.

Yes, of course you should say something about the noise, because how many others feel as you do -- and might not return to Ford's, despite some good seafood cooking -- because they can't talk without shouting or reading lips? 


I have to say you (and others ) were warned, though. My sound check alongside the review was 85 decibels: "Extremely loud," in other words.

Hi Tom, I checked your Postcards but didn't see anything from Asheville, NC. Do you or the chatters have any suggestions of great places to eat there? Thanks!

Never been there. Chatters?

Hi Tom, How would you handle a string of little things that go wrong with a meal so that it's not just a laundry-list whine session?

Can you give me some examples, please?

How much do spend on restaurant meals each year?

Personally and professionally? I'd guess about $70,000 or so.

I saw you at a restaurant recently and the owner (an important culinary figure in DC with tons of restaurants to his name) obviously knew who you were and chatted you up. Is that a worrisome situation in terms of your anonymity? Os is it just impossible to expect perfect anonymity?

Is this the same restaurant where the manager said LOUDLY to everyone at the bar that I was in the house? Grrr. (A friend of mine was drinking at said bar. Thanks, Will. )


I've been covering the local scene for more than a decade now. It's very hard to dine out at Big Deal Places without someone on staff recognizing me. I don't like it, but what can I do?


Being recognized  simply requires me to focus even more on how others in the restaurant are being treated. Keep in mind, I visit places multiple times and I sometimes manage not to be noticed at least once, or mid-meal, or whatever.

Tupelo Honey for casual, yummy Southern food. I can still taste the tomato and cheese sandwich.

Sounds promising.

If I sent a polite but detailed email expressing my disappointment with a meal and the service I received to the general email address that a restaurant's website gives, how long should I wait for a response before concluding that they are just ignoring me. (For the record, no I am not looking for some sort of compensation).

I'd say a week or so is fair.  I imagine some restaurants get a ton of email, and they need sufficient time to investigate problems internally before responding. It never hurts to follow up with a second email, or a phone call, either.

Fig Bistro is amazing. Great food and service. In a little shopping strip closer to the Biltmore. Table, downtown is also very good.

More for the Asheville-bound.

Have you ever been contacted by a restaurant owner with the suggestion of favors in return for a positive review?

A couple of times I've received "gift certificates" in crazy amounts. Once, I got a *tape* from a restaurateur who shared his life story -- for one long hour -- and described how my not reviewing his restaurant was hurting his family. But no out and out bribes.

Um, no. It is the restaurant's responsibility to follow up after a complaint, not the responsibility of the patron who was treated poorly to follow-up. In this economy, you'd think that restaurants would pay a little more attention to customer service. If they can't be bothered, there are PLENTY of other more deserving venues in this town that do want my money.

True, but as someone who gets more than 100 emails a day, I'm always grateful for "reminders" from friends, colleagues, readers and others (well, not the Nigerian asking me to help him with a loan or the Russian hoping to marry me, but you get my drift).

Sometimes being ignored is almost better than receiving a response. A few years ago I sent an email of complaint to the corporate office of a Bethesda restaurant. Well, the manager emailed me back and not only didn't apologize, but listed justifications for the staffs bad behavior! Citing "it was an unusual night" as one of the reasons....

Ouch. Not very helpful.

If you are being recognized so much maybe you should consider moving...we will gladly take you in LA!

Hey, I love Los Angeles, but I think Sherrie Virbila (of the Times) and Jonathan Gold (of LA Weekly) are already doing a great job of covering the dining scene there.


I met a guy over the weekend who says he is frequently mistaken for me in restaurants.  (We could be broths.) I asked him only to be sure to tip 20 percent on the bill.

I hear what you're saying, Tom: $3 is not a lot of money and the restaurant's bread is great. But, charging for bread is not standard practice, and Palena's servers should do a better job of alerting diners that there will be a charge. My last outing there (and first in the expanded cafe), our server asked if we would like some bread while we waited on our entrees, but did not mention the charge. I'm on a budget, so I didn't order an app. Had I known of the $3 charge, I may not have said yes to the bread either.

Gotcha. On the last cafe menu I saw, however, bread was flagged as a $3 option.

Hello Tom, Birthday choice. Charlie Palmer in DC or the Prime Rib? 4 people, all love seafood and steaks. Thanks!

They are very different places.


The Art Deco-style Prime Rib (downtown) tends to attract an older clientele, features live music and serves great prime rib and crab imperal, among other dishes.


Charlie Palmer Steak (on the Hill) is tonier, and has a more extensive wine list and more imaginative cooking.


What, exactly, are you looking for?

GM Tom - Just some early morning praise for Ethiopic, which I have no vested interest in except that I'd like the restaurant to be around for many more tasty meals. The food is phenomenol; the portions are nearly grotesque (left-overs for sure) and the service is reliable and friendly. What a gem?!?!

I agree, on all counts. It's one of my favorite restaurants on H St. NE these days.

Hi Tom, I sympathize with the poster who doesn't feel the need to eat in at Ford's. My husband and I have a similar problem with the newly opened RedRocks Pizza in Old Town. We love the RedRocks in Columbia Heights and were SO excited to get one in our neighborhood. However, we went for dinner and were unable to talk to one another at all. It was 9pm on a Saturday, and it was still deafening. We were seated in the front area where there is a glass window, hardwood floors, marble tabletops, and a low, flat ceiling. Why oh WHY! do restaurant owners not put anything at all in place to absorb sound? I would imagine this is a regular complaint among diners of all ages. We now won't go back to RedRocks for this reason (why would we spend our money to sit silently at dinner?) Is it worth it to point this out to restaurants that have this issue? Would anyone care, or make the changes? I know a lot of these folks read your chat - for the love, people, we just want to talk about how our days went! Turn it down!

Noisy restaurants encourage diners to do something at least a few owners appreciate: eat fast and split.


Let's hope Ford's Fish Shack, RedRocks Pizza and their ear-splitting brethern see today's chat -- and buy some drapes, some rugs, some sound absorbers.

I have been a loyal follower of your for years, so when my boyfriend insisted on taking me out for Valentine's Day I was prepared for the worst. I picked an "editor's choice" restaurant - even though the review was from 2007- and hoped for the best. Well, we had an amazing dinner, and our server recommended the special menu specifically because she new the chefs had gone out of their way to make a dish they had not made in her tenure. I will probably still be a little weary about going out on major holidays, but I was so pleased that we received excellent service and food even though it was Valentine's Day.

And the name of the restaurant your beau chose was ....?


My plans to graze on sushi at home Monday night were thwarted. None of the Japanese restaurants I contacted would do take-out (I should have known, right?) on such a busy night. Sushi Taro was rude on the phone; Kaz Sushi Bistro, on the other hand, was sweet and apologetic.


My SO and I ended up whipping up a big spinach salad with almonds and figs from a friend's tree, and hamburgers, because that's what we could find in our fairly empty refrigerator at the last moment.


How did the rest of you spend Feb. 14?

I really don't understand the love fest for Comet Pizza. I went last week and after waiting for nearly an hour, was "treated" to soggy pizza, benches that were as comfortable as cement blocks, and a noise level that was unpleasant, to say the least. I grew up near New Haven, Connecticut. Comet wouldn't have lasted a week up there, and no amount of ping-ponging would have saved it.

Has anyone else had a similar unhappy experience at Comet Ping Pong


I've not been back in awhile, but I have fond memories of the eatery's thin and yeasty  "Yalie" dressed with clams, onions, garlic and Parmesan. True, the benches are hard, but I don't think they're designed for lingering long on. And I honestly don't expect a hushed environment when I'm eating pizza (see also: Two Amys).

I'm mentoring a teen in Anacostia. Is there any place nearby to take him for a bit to eat - other than McDonald's? Also, if I head over the river to Capitol Hill, what are your suggestions? I usually end up visiting on a Saturday morning.

Did you catch the recent Metro section story about the new sandwich-oriented Uniontown Bar and Grill on Martin Luther King Ave. S.E.? An even broader menu (filet mignon, fried shrimp, chicken) awaits at Michael Landrum's Ray's: The Steaks at East River on Dix St. NE.  And if you want to go to the Hill, I'd recommend the tiny but delicious Seventh Hill Pizza for the obvious pies and whatever soup the kitchen happens to be offering that day.

Tom, this is in response to the chatter who asked about dining in Budapest a couple weeks ago. I highly recommend Múzeum (, which is rich in history, offers wonderful food and a lovely setting for dinner. Sort of a Hungarian 701, in my mind.

Ah, I like your comparison to our very own supper clubby restaurant in Penn Quarter. Thanks for writing.

Saw the article in the Food section today. It lays out why I eat out rarely. Any local restaurants starting to pay attention to salt?

After my colleague Tim Carman's excellent story today, I certainly hope so. So far, I've seen little evidence that chefs are holding back on the salt they're serving us.


By the way, you can tune in to ask Tim, other Food staffers and even a few local chefs about the salt issue right after this chat, at noon.

So how much of that $70K is yours and how much is the Post's? I mean, this is not an irrelevant question for those of us who only pull down five figures - we obviously can't afford to eat like it's our job, but what kind of social budget are we measuring our expectations against, see what I'm saying?

For a variety of reasons, I don't care to go into specifics, but I'm grateful to be working for a publication that understands that in order to do right by restaurant reviews, a critic has to go to places three times before rating them. And I routinely visit at least 120 places to come up with 50 or so for my annual fall dining guide. Not every publication can claim that -- few, in fact.

What? i'm so sad about this news. is the irving street restaurant group a real thing?

A real restaurant business? Yes. Terry Curran has operated restaurants in Bethesda in the past, and he plans to open Lou's City Bar, also in Columbia Heights, next month.

I agree that their pizza stinks. They use good ingredients, but their crust is burned and soggy at the same time. Too bad, because it's a neat concept and less than a mile from where I live.

Sorry to hear that, especially because there's not much else on the menu.

Am I too late - they MUST go to 12 Bones for BBQ. It is unreal. It is VERY casual BBQ - best you will ever have. Obama actually stopped their during his campaign. Chech their hours becuae they are a little strange.

Casual is WELCOME in a barbecue joint.

Okay, then a less specific question about your personal much do you average per person on a visit. I know that we have a very diverse region and you review a lot of restaurants at all cost levels, but it would be helpful to know about what you think is an average per person cost for an average meal. Helps to know when you think something is high end, whether than matches our estimate of high end.

I used to print average costs per person, with wine and tip, atop my reviews, but I stopped in part because people's eating habit vary so much.


For a mid-week, non-festive dinner at a better-than-average  restaurant in Washington, it's very easy to spend $100 for two people if they drink and they tip 20 percent.


Thoughts from today's audience?

I recently read a review of Galileo III which mentioned having cameras in the dining room, presumably to monitor diners' pace in the kitchen. I have never heard of this and wondered if this is common practice. Seems a little creepy to me. Thanks.

Those little cameras seem to be EVERYwhere these days.  I think they're installed mostly for security reasons, although someone emailed me not long ago about having a video of me eating in his pal's restaurant. Scary? Yep.

"I've been covering the local scene for more than a decade now. It's very hard to dine out at Big Deal Places without someone on staff recognizing me. I don't like it, but what can I do?" Uh, quit and let someone else do the job? That's a glib and fairly (but not entirely) tongue in cheek answer. You've been getting this question more and more often, and you consistently respond that there's nothing you can do about it. And that's simply not true.

Happy Wednesday to you, too, friend!


Well, yeah, I could quit, but I'm not ready to do so. Also,  I think the question I'm getting from (a few) folks here is more about how anonymity (or the lack of it) influences how I do my job.

My colleagues and I will be traveling from Minnesota for a meeting at the Convention Center. Can you recommend some good places for lunch and dinner? We are not interested in fancy -- no foie gras please -- or even creative -- just places to have some good meals either near the Convention Center or accessible by Metro. Thanks!

Againn on New York Ave. NW  is a locally-developed gastropub known for its handsome digs (dark leather seats, faux fox heads) and solid cooking. Think shepherd's pie, fish and chips -- and beer, of course.


In Logan Circle, I think you might enjoy the suds-themed Birch & Barley; in Dupont Circle, Al Tiramisu is good for Italian (but be sure to ask about the price of the specials!) ; as long as you're in the world capital, why not take in some Peruvian at the venerable El Chalan near the World Bank?

Dear Tom. We're looking for indian alternative to Rasika. Too hard to get a table there when we want it - don't like always having to book 3 weeks in advance. Do you have any suggestions for a suitable alternative within the District?

That's easy. Try Rasika's older sibling, the Bombay Club near the White House.  I'm partial to the chef Nilesh Singhvi 's roasted eggplant, ground-duck kabobs and Malabari shrimp -- among, oh, at least a dozen or more dishes on the menu.


I hear the lunch bell ringing, gang. See you back here next Wednesday. Now, on to the Food chat!

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 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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: