Ask Tom

Feb 23, 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

What dishes would you recommend for a 3 course "progressive" dinner at your 3 favorite restaurants in DC?

Based on recent meals, I think I'd start with the oxtail consomme floating bits of vegetables and sweetbreads, offered in the formal Dining Room at Palena in Cleveland Park. 


Next, I'd go to Adams Morgan and Perry's for chef Robert Dalliah's first-rate duck confit served with a cheesy potato gratin. 


For dessert, I'd be inclined to go to Vidalia in the West End for its red velvet cheesecake. The size of a cupcake, the confection sits on a graham cracker crust and comes with a lashing of caramel sprinkled with sea salt. 


A rich meal, for sure. But it's fun to dream about.


Good morning, everyone. Have you heard the news that Ashok Bajaj is opening another place to eat?  Lucky West Enders, is all I can say. 


Because I'm facing a major deadline today, I'll be online here for just 30 minutes instead of the full hour. But I'd rather be short and sweet  (or sour, depends on the question!) than cancel the chat. I hope you understand.


Plenty to chew over today. Let's rock and roll.

After 25 years together, my partner and I are marrying in a civil ceremony at the DC courthouse on an upcoming Monday afternoon. We are looking for a restaurant where the two of us can go after the ceremony for a late lunch (around 3:00). A lot of the DC restaurants close between lunch and dinner hours. Do you have any suggestions? Somewhere between Judiciary Square and the West End would be perfect. We'd like to keep the bill under $120 with a couple of glasses of wine. Thanks!

You're in luck. Ris in the West End serves lunch weekdays from 11:30 a.m. til 5:30 p.m.  Chef Ris Lacoste's menu packs in a lot of variety, too: ricotta dumplings, scallop "margarita," chicken pot pie and Portuguese -style skirt steak.


Congrats, by the way. (Twenty five years, huh?  What's your secret?)

Due to our religious dietary requirements, we do not eat meats that are not slaughtered in the Islamic way; plus we do not consume any alcohol. Thus, when eating out, our only choice is seafood. Recently, we went to a restaurant and looked through their choice of 15 seafood main dishes, There was no indication on the menu that most contained some meat products or alcohol. The waitress asked us if we had any any allergies, etc. We requested her to ask the chef which of the 15 were clear of any meat products or alcohol. Only three items qualified. Often you get boiled beans and later find out that bacon had been added to enhance flavor.Or, chicken or beef stock was used; or wine was added. Why aren't restaurants required to give complete list of ingredients?

One reason restaurants don't spell out every single ingredient on their menus has to do with length. Can you imagine descriptions 20 or 30 words long per dish?


Here's what I think: Restaurants should list major ingredients and flag those that aren't typically found in common dishes (say, bacon in a crab cake). But diners with specific issues are responsible for raising them with their servers -- or better yet, doing some homework in advance of dining out, to verify what they can actually eat.


Thoughts from today's audience?


Hi Tom, Thanks for letting me vent about a pet peeve. And hopefully restaurateurs who read this chat will pay attention. When hot food is placed on cold plates--especially those really large plates that seem to be so in vogue these days, it will cool very quickly and before the guest has a chance to enjoy the last morsel. And no matter how delicious it is, my enjoyment declines as rapidly as the food's temperature drops. Recently I dined at a fine restaurant and really enjoyed my entree of sauteed scallops but they were absolutely cold by the time I got to eat the last two (and I note, it wasn't due to dawdling over the main course). There was nothing wrong with the dish, quite the opposite so I didn't send it back, plus, heating the remaining scallops likely would have over cooked them. I did mention this to the maitre'd on my way out, but oh how I wish chefs would realize that those big plates will render their wonderful efforts cold in very short order and much less appetizing if they don't preheat the plates first. Thanks for all your continued efforts to steer us to dining enjoyment!

 Catch that, chefs? Hot food goes on warm plates and cold food goes on chilled ones. 

A good friend is coming into town this week and we're planning to meet right after work. The problem is that she's more of a Sex in the City, five o'clock happy hour lover, where as I'm more of a sit down dinner gal. I don't mind a restricted bar menu but I'd really rather not get stuck in a loud and active bar scene. Can you recommend somewhere that might suit us both?

I think you should meet at the amber-lit, map-dressed Quill in the newly cool  Jefferson Hotel.  The look is modern and comfortable, with deep chairs to sink in to. The cocktails are among the city's most fashionable and on the menu are paninis, grilled fish, chicken noodle soup, salads -- more variety than you might expect in a bar.


Another option is the seek out one of the sleek sofas hugging the windows at the Source off Pennsylvania Ave. NW (rather than the bar itself or the nearby communal tables, both pretty animated when I've been in). The kitchen weighs in with a terrific menu of snacks and pizzas.

Good Morning! Having a ladies' slumber party...we've been friends since kindergarten and we all turn 52 this year. Here's the scenario - the slumber party is in Southern Illinois. I'm in charge of having some local specialities (crab cakes, soup, oysters) shipped for the party. Any help in picking out a good supplier who can ship would be much appreciated!

A slumber party? Sounds fun.


My favorite crab cake supplier is the family-run Faidley Seafood at the Lexington Market in Baltimore, which uses only fresh jumbo lump meat and ships its fat cakes fresh rather than frozen. Call 410-727-4898 for details.

I am curious about your two most recent tweets regarding bad experiences. The first being last Friday about Charlie Palmer Steak and the second on Monday about an expensive bill at an unnamed restaurant. At CPSteak did you involve a manager before deciding to go elsewhere? At the expensive restaurant was the food alone $345 or was there wine and other beverage included in that number and how did you not realize how expensive it would be when ordering? Also, how would you have had the manager at that restaurant handle your complaint about the $345 bill (I'm not defending the manager here, just curious)?

Just to elaborate on those tweets of mine: A friend and I dropped by Charlie Palmer Steak on Friday for drinks and dinner. We wanted to sit at the bar, which was pretty crowded, but we found two seats -- and then waited for a very long four minutes for the bar tender to ask us what we wanted.


He seemed distracted. We asked for a cocktail list and he said there was none.  (Seriously? In 2011?) He walked away while we were mulling our options, one of which was "Let's go somewhere friendlier!"  We didn't feel the need to tell a manager we didn't dig the reception.


And so we strolled over to Capital Grille and had a grand time over burgers and Caesars and wine from a generous friend who couldn't be there (thanks for sharing the contents of your restaurant locker, Matt.)


At the American restaurant with the high tab, wine was involved. I told the manager that one dish in particular -- and over half the food in total -- was seriously over-salted. He volunteered to get us a replacement for the most seriously flawed plate, but by that time, everyone was more or less finished eating (and we left a lot of food behind, which I think the restaurant should have picked up on). Nothing was taken off the bill -- and this, despite my comparing one dish to a deer lick.  Maybe the manager didn't know what I was referencing, but I think  he should have. "I'll let the kitchen know," he responded.


At any rate, a brand-name restaurant that had the potential for being reviewed in the Magazine probably won't get that ink now.  The experience just wasn't good enough on my second visit -- and there are too many contenders out there.

Hi Tom! I'm going to Komi this Saturday :) I have no question...just felt like sharing the joy!

We're jealous! But also happy for you.

Tom -- I know it's not your normal restaurant question. But this is a situation that many of your reader's regularly find themselves in. If you were driving on a trip and needed to stop for food and your only options were fast food -- McDonald's Chick-Fil-A, Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy's, etc. Where would you stop and why?? Thanks!!

I'd get a plain burger at Wendy's, a fish sandwich at McDonald's --- and keep my eyes peeled for a Popeye's, of course!  Make my order "spicy," with sides of slaw, red beans and rice and at least two biscuits per diner.

Hi Tom On Saturday, we need to make a fuss for my husband's birthday, which is today, and nearly overlooked by my taking the kids on a ski weekend last weekend. The wrinkle is that the kids have sports practice at the Rockville (nearly Gaithersburg) Swim Center until 7 pm. Cava looks geographically friendly, and like it suits our palates and wallets, but I've never eaten there. My other thought is the closer to home Portuguese restaurant on Connecticut Ave in Chevy Chase, but by the time we get down there it will be getting on 7:45, a little late to start with sports-hungry tweens. Tell me what you think of Cava and/or if you have other (Saturday night accessible) suggestions between Rockville and Chevy Chase. Thanks so much for always helping us to be informed diners, even if we can't always take advantage of your info (see above re: kids and sports practice).

It's been awhile since I've dined at the original Cava in Rockville, which I enjoyed at the time.


But if you've never been to Tavira in Chevy Chase, you owe it to yourself to try it out.  It's quieter, and cozier, than the rollicking Cava and there's something (appetizing) for everyone on the wide-ranging menu.  Tavira's service is great, too.


My suggestion, then, is to pack some granola bars or beef jerky in the car and drive the gang to Chevy Chase this Saturday. Good luck!

Dear Tom: I usually have alcohol when out to dinner, but I went to Tabaq last month with my kids and we ordered diet cokes. We requested refills several times since the glasses were so small and filled with ice. I was shocked to get the bill and be charged for NINE rather than 3 drinks. I've been to a few other restaurants that don't give free refills and have been warned in advance that I would be charged. I used to love Tabaq but will not go back because of this. If you are going to charge for each glass of soda, then don't sell me 80% ice for $2. Usually my bar bill for dinner far exceeds the cost of that soda, but I'll be spending it elsewhere in the future. Hello Marvins!

Let this serve as a lesson to restaurants: If you're going to charge for seconds on sodas, you might want to point that out on the menu, or at least instruct staff to pass on the news.  (I never assume seconds = free, but perhaps I'm in the minority.)

Hi Tom, I have a question about restaurant reservations. I made a reservation for three of us for Saturday night at Ray's the Classics in Silver Spring. I was very flexible as to time and we were willing to eat early. After telling me that 6:00 would work, the receptionist then says: "We are busy on Fri. and Sat. nights, so we want you to know we will need the table by 7:30." Huh?? (Later, I learned that my hair stylist received the same response months ago when he reserved at that restaurant.) Why would a restaurant be so off-putting?? Especially when, as in our case, the restaurant had LOTS of empty tables at 7:30, and even at 8:00 (when we finally finished our dessert and bottle of wine). We had a good meal at Ray's but I must say that the resaurant did its best to scare us off from making the reservation in the first place!! Your thoughts??

I wouldn't be thrilled with that kind of reception, either, but better to know up front than after you're in the restaurant, right? 


Ray's the Classics is not alone, by the way. Lots of popular restaurants give customers time limits, particularly on busy nights.


That said, 90 minutes for three (or four) people is a tad short. Most restaurants tend to give "four-tops," as they're known, two hours to eat and relax.

Hi Tom, Thank you for these chats, they are my mid-week break. I love food. I love eating, watching cooking shows, reading your chats...but I don't go out to eat much! I recently started my own business (visual communications), and since I am often cooped up at home working, I really miss being around people. I've tried to make a pack with myself: to treat myself to a nice lunch every 2–3 weeks. So far, I've done this once. I had a wonderful lunch at Persimmon (the trout spring rolls and s'more-like mousse dessert were awesome). Where should I go next? I'm open to try just about anything, as long as there is no mayo, pickles, or sushi on my plate. I'd like to stay within a 5–10 minute drive of Chevy Chase if possible. if you ever need a lunch companion, I'd love to join you! Thanks!

Your next lunch should be at the airy Redwood on Bethesda Row. It's become a much more delicious restaurant than when it first opened.


I like your idea, by the way: treating yourself to a meal away from a quiet office.

Hi Tom, Tonight is probably going to be my (and my husband's) last meal out before our first child arrives. Where should we go? We are flexible as to the type of cuisine and price, we would just like it to be in NW DC. Thanks!

Wow, that depends on so many things. What are you hungry for? What restaurant has special meaning to you (because you know you'll be referring to it in stories again and again)? And, um, how much time do you have? ;)

My new boss, new to DC, is really big on breakfast meetings. I can barely scrap up one recommendation - and suggestions on places to get breakfast (often with clients, so no McDs (which would be fine with me)) in the Kstreet, gold triangle area? Thanks for your help!

Aside from the major hotels like the Hay-Adams, whose Lafeyette restaurant overlooks the White House?


Johnny's Half Shell is a nice way to wake up, but it's a bit removed from downtown on the Hill. For something less formal, but not fast-food casual, I like Teaism, which has a branch at Connecticut and H St. NW.  Yet another option is the venerable Old Ebbitt Grill on 15th St. NW, right across from the Treasury building.

I know you will receive this question a number of times, but could you explain why you used your Sunday Magazine space to review not only a restaurant in Baltimore, but one that only ranked 2 stars? I realize that Baltimore and DC are only an hour apart (for those of us who have cars), but aren't there enough DC-area restaurants to keep you busy? And doesn't the Baltimore Sun have its own restaurant reviewer?

As I  see it, my Magazine territory includes just about anything in the District, Maryland and Virginia (even Delaware and West Virginia down the road, since a lot of Washingtonians vacation there).


Believe it or not, there are plenty of readers who are interested in good places to eat (and Bluegrass qualifies as "good") outside the city limits.  I hear from them weekly. 

Your headline writer needs a map (or maybe intended to confuse us). As a resident of Warrenton, I was so excited to read about a good new restaurant just down the road in New Baltimore.

Sorry to disappoint you, Warrenton.

But in our defense, the caption on the main photo of last Sunday's review refers just to Baltimore, and the contact number for Bluegrass Tavern is in the 410 area code.


(For those who might not know, New Baltimore, Va., is in eastern Fauquier County. )

Tom - I have an upcoming meal planned at Cashion's Eat Place, any tips on what I should order or avoid? It doesn't seem to get as much press as a lot of other restaurants in the city. Also, didn't you just go to San Francisco? Are you going to publish a postcard from that trip? I'm looking for restaurant recommendations there for my trip this spring. Thanks in advance!

A crush of new restaurants may have knocked Cashion's Eat Place off our radar for awhile, but that's got to stop. I've had some terrific dinners there in the past six months, the highlights of which have run from a frothy broccoli and beer soup and bluefish rillettes to a juicy flat-iron steak served treated to marrow and excellent fettuccine tossed with sweet crab and buttery toasted crumbs.


As for San Francisco, I ate at a couple new spots I can't whole-heartedly recommend, Michael Mina, from the star chef of the same name, and Prospect, from the owners of the popular Boulevard.


The exception is a bar that puts as much focus on food as it does its cocktails. Run, run, run to the fabulous Bar Agricole on 11th St.

Tom: It seem too me that the restaurant business in the DC area is booming. Places always seem crowded and it is getting more and more difficult to make reservations at the pricier places. Also, more restaurants seem to be opening every day. Is it my imagination or is the restaurant scene in this town rocking? Any thoughts? What's been your experience?

Washington has been a really good restaurant city for at least the last five years, when I featured just that theme in my fall dining guide, "State of the Plate."


The recession hurt the market, as it did other cities, the last few years, but I do think we're roaring back with some terrific new places or old places that have rethought their missions. See: Palena, Ardeo + Bardeo, Perry's, etc. 

I go out to eat alone a fair amount and the treatment varies wildly. I have been told that a completely empty restaurant is booked full up, I get seated in the back or in odd corners, am told there are no specials and then the next table gets read the specials, entrees come minutes after first course, etc. Do you know if restaurants actually have such formal policies or is it just the server?

I know of no restauant that intentionally rushes solo diners. Here are some responses you should have at the ready for your next disappointment:


1) "Fully booked? Is there a chance I can dine with you if I sit at the bar or if I promise to be done in X amount of time?"


2) "Thanks, but might there be another free table? I'd rather not sit in the dark/by the kitchen/near the trash."


3) "Before I decide, are there any specials I should know about?"


4) "I'm here to relax tonight. No rush on the food, please" -- best said at the BEGINNING of the meal.

A recent outing prompted two thoughts. 1. More places around Penn Quarter/Convention Center should think about opening earlier on Saturdays. We went to a certain place after a mantinee and had double-checked online that it opened at 5pm. We got there to find the sign on the door said it opened at 5:30 on Saturdays. They were kind enough to let us in and sit at the bar while they finished setting up. I looked around at about 5:40 and saw that the place was half full. More of the nicer establishments might be pleased to find that they could get enough customers in the late afternoon/early evening to justify earlier opening times. 2. To all male restaurant owners/managers/designers: Please make sure there is plenty of lighting in the women's restroom. I know that I look better under softer lights and that you don't want to break the mood from your romantic ambiance. But I really, really want to be able to see before, um, I sit down. Thank you.

Thanks for your thoughts. The subject of this coming Sunday's Ask Tom column is about where to find a good drink downtown (ish) on the weekend before 5 p.m.  It's not as easy as you might imagine.

You will be able to find that Ask Tom column in the GOG Blog tomorrow.

. . . diners who want to control every aspect of the meal. That's what your kitchen is for. If you go out to eat, you're eating their food, prepared the way they do it. The whole point is to experience something different.

Yes, Carole Greenwood!

Tom, why can't you tell us the name of this establishment? I'd hate to eat there and have a bad experience. Much better to know the culprit and avoid it, and save my valuable moolah for a better meal.

Because there's an off chance I might end up reviewing the place and I don't want to scoop myself. 

Oh come on Tom! you don't have an hour for us once a week? That's not fair! btw, did you hear about Againn's chef leaving for Art and Soul?

Yep, I tweeted the news last week.

Agree that the onus is on the diner when there are restrictions but I'd add that it's better to be specific than too general. I'm a vegetarian and I learned a long time ago that "is this dish vegetarian?" doesn't cut it. For a lot of people, the name of the dish, not how it's prepared, is all they're looking at when they respond. But "vegetable soup" could be made with chicken stock, green beans could have been cooked in bacon, or the server assumes seafood is okay with vegetarians and doesn't mention the oysters in the stuffing. For a long-tiem vegetarian, any of those oversights leads to a long night of tummy troubles.

Thanks for the pearls of wisdom.

We like Asian food a lot - Rasika and Kushi are among are favorites. And, we have time (at least, we think we do - famous last words, perhaps).

Just in time! How about the omakase menu at Sushi Taro (if you can eat raw fish), the new Mandu in Mt. Vernon Square for Korean or the romantic Bombay Club, Rasika's older sibling near the White House?

I think it would be hard for restaurants to list all ingredients for all dishes. I'm allergic to wheat and I don't asking the server to check for me. What gets me boiling, though, is when the server says they don't know (unless they offer to find out) or if they just shrug or say "I'm sure it's fine." All of these have happened to me. I can't trust my health to the server's gut feelings about what is probably in (or NOT in) the dish.

A good server will volunteer to verify ingredients; a good chef will know what's in his or her food.

We just enjoyed a meal at Bistro Cacao where we ordered the Coquilles St Jacques. They were fantastic. Broiled to perfection and served on a bed of mushroom and white beans with a hint of lemon. My husband, a true scallops connoisseur, was in 7th heavan. The rest of the meal was pretty terrific as well If you lo

Thanks for the field report. The food I've had at Cacao in the past has been ... decent.

I wrote in two weeks ago for suggestions for an Old School DC dinner for my birthday - you had suggested Prime Rib, which didn't work out logistically (I'm cursed to have a birthday the day before Valentine's Day, so the weekend before for dinner is always dicey). Anyway, we ended up going to the Capitol Grill, where neither of us had been in years (I don't think I had been there since the smoking ban). Anyway, our meal was really something special - a lot better than either of us was expecting. The carpaccio was lean and flavorful and very generous proportioned (by darling liked his lobster bisque, I'll take his word on it) our delmonicos were so tender and great but the best was the service - our waiter had the exact right combination of comradarie without hovering or bothering us, and despite the fact that it was the Saturday before Valentine's Day, he didn't rush us and encouraged us to linger for a (second) Gran Marnier. We had a great meal and a great time. I would highly recommend the place, which I have to admit I forget exists a lot of the time.

Capital Grille, this your day!

Hi Tom - 2 couples - leaving our kids at home - would like a nice place to dine. Thinking in DC or Arlington. The last three places we have been are Bourbon Steak (delicious), Founding Farmers (disappointing) and West End Bistro (disappointing). We are open to any cuisine - just want a good wine list and good bourbon! Thanks in advance!

You know what's "nice?" Scallop schnitzel, chicken soup, pork cacciatore, pecan pie and sommelier Timothy Galvin's guidance at the youthful Ardeo +  Bardeo in Cleveland Park.


Hot tip No. 6:  The best place to sit is on the right side of the restaurant, in the corner near the pizza oven.

In December you recommended Praline in Bethesda as a good spot for brunch. I took my visiting parents there on Sunday, and they thoroughly enjoyed it; thank you very much for the suggestion!

When the parental units are happy, WE'RE happy. Pleased to hear everyone enjoyed Praline.

Monday is my birthday. I don't have time to get out of town, but wanted to have a super nice lunch. Any place that I should not miss (price not an object)? Thank you!!

No need to spend a fortune. Why not celebrate your big day with a restaurant that's toasting its 21st anniversaryby offering a terrific three-course lunch for $19.90? I'm thinking of the aforementioned, southern-themed Vidalia in the West End.

Hi Tom, I wrote in a few weeks ago asking for Manhattan dinner recommendations. You suggested Le Bernadin. I took you up on it. Thank you, thank you for the recommendation. What a memorable meal I had. The food, the wine, the service -- all were impeccable. Definitely burned a huge hole in my wallet, but I was frugal the rest of my time there and will make up for the cost by curtailing my eating out for a while. Again -- thanks for leading me to this wonderful treat!

 Details, details!  Tell us what you ate and experienced at New York's starriest seafood restaurant.

What is with restaurants not noticing that food isn't getting eaten? (Or at least that a lot is left?) Yes, I could point out that I left my meal uneaten because there was something wrong with it. But isn't it also their job to notice what's going on?

It sure is!

May I also suggest Founding Fathers for breakfast - they were a life-saver a few weeks ago in a weekday breakfast pinch.

Not a big fan of the place myself, but another option can't hurt.

I think restaurants should label items that are not obvious (soups) as vegetarian or not. 9 times out of 10, I cannot order a soup because it used chicken or fish broth (or has bits of bacon in it, an epidemic lately). It would not be tough at all to tell people if it used a veggie broth or otherwise. Also, other non obvious things like pasta with vegetables or macaroni and cheese. I have gotten those items and found bacon in them recently. Not trying to be difficult, but it does matter to some of us a lot.

Flagging a vegetarian item makes good sense.

I saw the same question asked to Todd and his recommendation was the same as yours RIS...why is that? not too many places open that late, same taste,why this question got a chance to be answered by both...Just curious.

That is sheer coincidence. (I read Todd's chat, but often after the fact.) I have yet to see what he discussed this week.

Tom: I live in Baltimore and was trying to figure out where my girlfriend could take me for a birthday dinner that would be good, but wouldn't break the bank. Voila! You gave me the answer on Sunday. And as I had never heard of this place, I wouldn't be going had you not reviewed it. Which brings me to a question--how did you hear about Bluegrass Tavern?

The reviewer from the Baltimore Sun referred to it as one of his favorite new restaurants of the last year. 

I live in PG and work in Baltimore. I wouldn't ever drive out to Manassas for a restaurant, but I appreciate the reviews that pay attention to the fact that not all of us live in DC proper. Thanks!

You're welcome. (Thanks for the proof!)

I agree that your average restaurant menu should not list all ingredients in every dish. But restaurants should keep a separate menu that DOES list all ingredients, for patrons will allergies, sensitivities, religious or other dietary concerns. The only way to have complete information is to have complete information. It needn't be on the regular menu, but it should be easy for any waiter to get and bring to the table.

Great idea, but what about menus that change daily, or near-daily? I could see that becoming a problem.


Thanks for a great chat, folks. I'm sorry to have to sign off early today, but I promise to give you a full hour of my attention next Wednesday. Ciao for now.


Coming up next: The Food section 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.
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