Ask Tom

Mar 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

THIS JUST IN:  As he moves ever closer to a target date of  (keep your fingers crossed) April 5 for his highly-anticipated Fiola, star chef Fabio Trabocchi tells me he's hired Miles Vaden, whose departure from the kitchen at Eventide was announced just yesterday, as executive chef for his forthcoming Italian restaurant in Washington.


Trabocchi says he selected Vaden, 33, whom he refers to as "a rising star," for his cooking skills  and maturity. "I want to help him get to the next level," says Trabocchi, who dazzled Washington audiences with his four-star cooking at the late Maestro and New York audiences at the now-shuttered Fiamma. Trabocchi is also adding Jason Gehring, the former pastry chef at the esteemed Charleston in Baltimore, to his team.


The 160-seat Fiola replaces La Paradou in Penn Quarter. The new Italian restaurant, says its chef-owner, will continue "the democratization of fine dining." 


Translation:  High-end ingredients on a menu that will change daily.


Lots of news already this week. Have you heard that Michel Richard has lowered his prices and added Centralish dishes to his new restaurant in McLean?


Let's get cracking.

Is today's chat cancelled? It doesn't indicate so on the listing of discussions, yet we're 15 minutes past start time and there's been no posting.

So sorry! But I just got off the phone with chef Trabocchi and I think our conversation qualifies as "news you can use" -- and worth a 15 minute delay.


Thanks for your patience.

Any recommendations for a caterer that would deliver a special meal, ready to eat? My 92-year-old dad is in rehab, and it would make him and my 87-year-old mom very happy to celebrate his birthday together (at his rehab spot). His favorite restaurant for special occasions is Auberge Chez Francois. Thanks in advance for any advice you can share.

Readers, can you help me out with this query? I'll keep my fingers crossed that one of you will come to this couple's rescue with a good source or two.

Tom, anything you're particularly liking these days in Bethesda/Silver Spring (other than Jackie's and Tavira)?

I think Redwood does a nice job. I like Raku for pan-Asian food. Praline, which I included in the fall dining guide, serves a fine French menu (and I can never leave the place without ordering a box of its so-good-I-feel-like-I'm-in Paris macarons.


In Silver Spring, Samantha's is still good for Mexican and Ruan Thai continues to deliver lots to like, including fried watercress with crisp seafood, tangy chicken lemongrass soup and pork belly stir-fried with Chinese broccoli.

No question, just a few pet peeve I thought I'd share - no prices on online restaurant menus! Why don't they include them? I've had to do serious research on Yelp to try and find certain restaurants' pricing before showing up (yes, The Source, I'm talking to you!). Back story - friends wanted to take me out for my birthday dinner and I didn't want them to have to break the bank so I did research on the various restaurants on my list. The Source had to be crossed off because I couldn't be certain it wouldn't be too much for everyone. Very frustrating when prices aren't listed officially anywhere online. Another pet peeve is when the menu hasn't been updated recently. I get it when a few items change, but when most of the items have changed I think an update is needed. Thanks for letting me vent!

Leaving prices off an online menu is like omitting the hours or address of the restaurant: Unhelpful. If an establish can't commit, it should at least list a range of appetizer and entree prices.


As for menu updates, I've said this many times before. Someone in the restaurant needs to be responsible for making sure what's being publicized online is what's actually being served in the dining room.

Your "First Bite" column this morning was particularly timely, as I ate at Next Stage by Jose Andres for the third time last night. I am distressed how the food I have had there has gone from pretty good ("Oklahoma") to okay ("The Arabian Nights") to poor ("At Home at the Zoo"). First the layout of the place is baffling -- you have two separate areas requiring two separate payments. You pick up your trays halfway between the two stations. The tasty smoked salmon sandwiches for some reason were reassigned from the hot food area to the bar area between my first two visits. Water and bottled teas are at the hot food area -- soft drinks and coffee are at the bar area. Your use of the term "vapid" to describe the current Julia Child chowder was spot on. My friend and I had a discussion as to how one takes ingredients like those in the chowder and removes all taste from them. How did the hot panini, which I watched them make, get so cold by the time I got to my table? Most ridiculous of all was their "Cardini Salad," their take on a Caesar salad. The parmesan was non-existent, and what madman thought it was a good idea to serve whole stalks of romaine lettuce at a place with flimsy plastic knives? While I applaud the attempt to bring something different to theater concessions, this one has become a dud. Since they have a captive audience, they ought to opt for simplicity and organization, and not worry about an over-reaching menu.

I didn't have/make the space in today's preview to describe the clumsy ordering process, whereby drinks are purchased in one place and food is bought at another, so thanks for mentioning it.


I visited the cafe twice, for two different shows. Some of the food, like those ribs, were very good. But other ideas (the soups come to mind) proved mediocre -- certainly nothing Jose Andres would want his name on. 


Whoever wrote the menu needs to be more careful. Not only is Julia Child misplaced in "Connecticut," there's a sandwich named after an Albee character, "Anne," which is correctly spelled "Ann."


You can't beat the convenience, though. And the reservation-takers have all been gracious and helpful on the phone, I should add.

Hi Tom, we went to Cava on Barracks Row for the first time Saturday night. We loved the food, but it was so dark in there, I wouldn't have been surprised to see a diner pull out a flashlight to read the menu. Although I really enjoyed what we ate, I hesitate to go back because the lack of lighting spoiled the meal. Why do some restaurants keep it so dark? I like to see what I'm eating!

Some restaurants think lack of light creates a sexy vibe. I say it causes blindness. Turn up the lights, Cava!

Have you eaten at any of the DC lunch trucks? If so, what do you think?

I sure have! My favorite of the lot is the Lobster Truck, which I wrote about in the fall guide.  (Hmmm, where might the seafood guys be parking today, I wonder?)

Where would you suggest a foodie go for dinner for a special night- a Sunday night birthday dinner in April?

Gosh, you have a world of choices on a Sunday in DC: The new Ardeo + Bardeo in Cleveland Park, Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan, Estadio in Logan Circle, Kushi on lower K St. NW, Oyamel in Penn Quarter, Vidalia downtown ...

The front page of this site now describes the chat as something like "Dining: Got gripes, tell Tom" ... Please God, no! I'm not looking forward to a bunch of self important types griping about how the server took too long to bring another serving of the free bread.

Well, the description got your attention, didn't it?

Tom, where in DC can I find unusual meats on the menu? I'm not talking about bison or ostrich - but even more unusual, like alligator or snake. I haven't found anything so far that can indulge my occasional need to try something weird.

Does turtle soup spiked with sherry qualify as unusual? If so, Acadiana on New York Ave. NW dishes it out. 



So, we have managed to score reservations for Volt this Saturday night. What should we not miss on the menu? No food restrictions.

I've not been there in awhile. Perhaps a chatter with more recent experience can chime in?

Tom, I'm now in the habit of checking the Postcards whenever I travel to see if there's anywhere I should check out. You've never steered me wrong, and last week was no exception! I was in London for work and decided to go to Rasoi in Chelsea based on your recommendation. Oh holy heavens, that was a delicious meal. The kebab selection was a perfect first course -- a nice variety of deliciousness that gave me a great idea of what the kitchen could do. For my main, I had the lamb biryani, with perfectly cooked and seasoned lamb chunks sitting in a bed of the most fragrant and flavourful basmati rice I've ever seen (and served with a pastry top kind of like a shepherd's pie!). The amuse bouche included a mushroom soup with just a hint of spice to it that might be one of the most delicious things I've ever consumed. The service was impeccable, even though it was a Wednesday night and I was a solo diner, which they probably don't get a lot of. The space is amazing and the food is just the same. Anyway, thanks for the recommendation and readers - when you're in London, go to Rasoi. Your wallet will cry but your tastebuds will dance.

Your vivid mini-review transported me back to one of my favorite memories of my last trip to London. Thanks for the feedback.

Hi Tom. I'm hoping you can help me pick the perfect place for a friend's small birthday dinner this Friday. The birthday boy (age 24) is vegetarian, but the other guests aren't. We'd like to go someplace fun within the District that has great drinks and food (not to mention a delicious birthday dessert). I think the group would prefer American/European cuisine more than something like Ethiopian/Thai/Indian. Entrees should preferably be $25 or less. If you or any of the chatters can help, I'd appreciate it! (I can't be online during the chat, so I hope this is specific enough!)

My first thought is Birch & Barley in Logan Circle, which serves a terrific beet risotto swirled with goat cheese and desserts ( "french toast" with oatmeal ice cream, spiced parsnip cake with passionfruit flan) by the talented Tiffany MacIsaac. The entrees there average just under $24, by the way.


Another possibility: the wine-themed Proof, across from the National Portrait Gallery, where just this week I shared a dinner of tempura-bound mushrooms and green beans, and a "bagna cauda" made with brussels sprouts and cauliflower,  with an editor who doesn't eat meat. 

Tom, in about a month I'll visit DC (Friday evening - Sunday afternoon) with someone I'm in the early stages of a relationship with (so at least one romantic venue would be nice). What would you suggest as the ideal "tour of DC" for breakfasts/brunches, lunches, drinks and dinners? Metro accessible ideal but not required.

 Dinner on Friday: Ease into the next 60 hours or so with dinner in Palena Cafe in Cleveland Park. The vibe is casual, the food is divine (but not over-the-top) and you'll display insider status if you let your date know *you* know chef Frank Ruta used to be a chef at the White House.


 Brunch on Saturday:  I never tire of grazing at Jaleo in Penn Quarter. How could I when there are 70 or so Spanish small plates (and a few entrees) to choose from?  Big bonus:  The restaurant is close to the attractions on the Mall, so you can work off the garlicky shrimp, the anchovy bread, the Iberico ham, the brussels sprouts salad, the house-made chorizo with mashed potatoes, the ...


 Dinner on Saturday: So many choices! For me, it would be a toss-up between Scott Drewno's exciting Asian takes at The Source near the Newseum (which you also ought to see) and Vikram Sunderam's starry Indian cooking at Rasika in Penn Quarter. 


Drinks: Stroll over to Seventh St. NW and slip into the posh bar-within-a-bar, Columbia Room, to see what  mixologist Derek Brown is stirring up these days.


Sunday brunch: No restaurant offers a more diverse a.m. menu than the cozy and long-running Tabard Inn in Dupont Circle.  The bar is high, too: Your smoked salmon comes with a bagel baked right there.


Let me know how successful this recipe turns out to be and best of luck, DC visitor!

Hi Tom - thanks, as always, for your great chats! My question is this ~ last weekend my SO and I were out to dinner with another couple at a restaurant that has great food, poor service. The food runners repeatedly brought us other diners' food, brought our food to the neighboring tables, weren't sure what they were serving, and neither spoke nor made eye contact the whole time. Finally my SO said "dude, you've been *u**ing up this whole meal, get it straight or get another job!" While I NEVER condone cursing at someone, I was mostly mortified that he even said something to this poor guy who just seemed in over his head. Should the comment have been directed at the food server or our waitress, or at the manager? We did speak with the manager at the end, and I am going to follow up with him by email because he is a friend of a friend and I believe he's very open to constructive criticism. Now I feel bad going back because I'm embarassed to see the food runner again (if he's even still employed), but I feel bad not going back to give them another chance. What do you think?

For starters, I think your SO was totally out of line. It's one thing to THINK what he thought of the inept service, but it's another thing to actually VERBALIZE it. 


He owes the poor runner an apology. And you should let the manager know about your experience, because how else are things going to change if problems aren't raised?


The optimal time to complain, however, is when the problems are piling up.

Tom--I heard that Palena's new menu no longer includes the plate of fried goodness, which was incredible. Why would they take that off? It was one of the most popular items.

Because the kitchen is tired of making it? Because the chefs want to introduce something new (and in order to do so, an item has to go off)?


There are many explanations for why favorite dishes sometimes disappear from menus.

Fine, as long as you continue until 12:15!

Hey, hey, hey! I managed to answer 40 questions last week, all by myself! (The average for solo hosts is 25 or so.)

I love how every other restaurant you recommended for the Sunday birthday dinner was indicated by neighborhood yet Kushi was indicated as "lower K St". As one of the thousands of of people who live in that neighborhood, I can tell you that its popular name is Mt Vernon Triangle. Heck, I'll even take Mt Vernon Square or Chinatown if it makes it easier. But "lower K St" sounds baffling (especially as K St runs east-west). I don't mean to sound curmudgeonly but DC residents have to have neighborhood pride if nothing else.

If you Google my byline and Kushi, you're more likely than not to see me position the restaurant in Mt. Vernon Triangle or Square. (My excuse today: I momentarily forget the name of the 'hood.)

While that is commendable, most of us are addicted to these chats. Taking 15 minutes away is like we didn't get the correct amount of a drug. We end up suffering from chat withdrawal all day.

Your friendly dealer appreciates your feedback. 

Tom - I've been anxiously awaiting a Postcard from Las Vegas - I thought it was supposed to be on February 27th. I've looked and can't find it. Help?

One reason I hesitate to throw out dates for future stories: Plans change. My take on two Vegas arrivals is currently scheduled to come out this Sunday in Travel.


Hiring update from Mr. Trabocchi (and it's a doozy):

Federico Galeotti GM from VILLA PACRI  NY

Adrian Reynolds Pizzeria Mozza LA  WINE DIRECTOR

Megan Scott Central DC Restaurant Manager

Justus Frank Eventide Chef de Cuisin

Jeff Faile Palena Bar Manager

half an hour last week, 15 min late this week and not extending another 15 min I presume? I am not enjoying this Tom. I am in CA and got up early on my vacation to make it to the business center to listen in on the chat and you are 15 min late. I think we deserve better. And the news you had, I think you owe it to us to be there on time once a week. I like Fabio but in 15 min you could have given us more than one news.

Wow. Why do I feel like a restaurant right now? Getting all beat up and stuff. I hope you know I routinely log on early Wednesday morning to fact-check for my chatters.  

I'm reading "Kitchen Confidencial" What is your oppinion?

It was an eye-opening and trail-blazing book when it came out. Tony Bourdain became a star -- and rich -- because of it.

For the person about a month ago who was looking for a Budapest rec: Comme Chez Soi. Tiny French/Italian place just off of Vorosmarty Ter; run by a very friendly chef/owner and his wife who love to talk about the food they make. Note that it's cash only, but when I went with a couple of friends last November and we were slightly short on a rainy night, despite repeated offers to go to a nearby ATM the owner not only waved us away with a smile but gave us a bottle of wine on the house. Great food, wonderful service.

Now *that's* hospitality!


Thanks for sharing the tip (and a heart-warming story).

Hello Tom, I have all of your dining guides, saved for about 5 years now. When can we expect the Spring Guide to be released? Are you having like 5 meals a day now in order to make it to the finish line or is just all writing at this point?

My next guide comes out May 15. Like last year's, this one will focus on previously reviewed restaurants. Picture a "Where Are They Now?" collection of 15 or so restaurants.


I've been eating at a lot of candidates lately. I don't have a definitive list yet (in part because I would rather write about food that resembles spring more than winter).


Let me throw you a question:  Which restaurants out there are you most curious for me to review anew?

Hi Tom, I have a question for you and anyone in the restaurant business who would care to comment. Last summer I started having problems with a shellfish allergy. Since then there have been several times when I broke out in a mild case of hives after eating at a restaurant, even though I made sure not to order anything with shellfish (e.g., I ordered a hamburger or meatloaf). So I'm wondering how much effort chefs make to keep common allergens away from other foods in the kitchen. For example, are burgers cooked on the same grill as crabcakes, or with the same spatulas? I did not mention anything to the servers about my allergy, since I thought ordering the right food would be enough, but would they prepare my food differently if I specified that I cannot have shellfish? Thanks very much for your insights.

I would LOVE to hear from chefs and restaurateurs on this matter. Any takers out there?  It would be interesting to know who takes what precautions or what diners should know about how food is handled or prepared.

Tom, Have you been back to Honey Pig since your 2009 review? I am considering going soon - wonder if it is still super busy on weekends - would be really annoying if I was hungry...

Yep, I went back to Honey Pig for the 2010 fall dining guide. The trick to getting in there on the weekend is to show up early. I'm talking 5 p.m. or so. Show up much later and you better have some pretzels or jerky in your pocket, because a wait is inevitable.


P.S. Honey Pig is more fun than delicious. There are better Korean restaurants nearby. But maybe you dig the atmosphere at HP?

my pet peeve is when you complain about things you should complain about, like burned food or missing wait staff on venues like Open Table, the place puts you on a black list. One place actually called them to say i was there and that i was a problem while i was sitting there, I didn't go back.

Details! We need details!

Hi Tom- I hate to write with a complaint, but... My husband and I love Comet and eat there pretty regularly. However, their erratic schedule of closures has us just about completely fed up. On Monday night we showed up around 6:30 and for at least the third time in the last year, they were closed to the public (scheduled to open at 7:00 for a special event). I understand that restaurants do occasionally host special/private events, but these are never listed on Comet's web page, and now they even have an "event calendar" that included not a mention of this event. Do I really have to call them before I go over every single time? I love their food and want to eat there, but these repeated, random, unannounced closures have made me very frustrated.

Plea to restaurants: If you plan to be closed during times you are typically open to the general public, don't just put up a sign on the door. Please update your online site, too.


If there's on thing I've learned in all these years (decades, now!) of restaurant hopping, it's to never assume anything. 

Hate to type it, but much as you'd like not to have to call every time you step out for a meal, it never hurts to double-check with a quick phone call that a place is open.

Sorry to pile on but this is really a 10-15 minute job per day at most. I understand, from experience, how hectic a restaurant can be before opening every day. But believe me, even the technically un-savy can update these things in mere minutes a day. Here are our specials - boom - done. Put it on FB or Twitter or even just your website. It is so simple to do yet provides such a great service I dont know why more restaurants dont INSIST on being up to date. But if I keep going to a restaurant site and seeing "updates coming" for more than a day or two - I wont go back there. I'm looking at you Sticky Rice - there menu has been "coming soon" for more than a month.

Well put: There are consequences for not keeping current.

My husband's birthday is coming up, and I was hoping to take him to Thai X-Ing to celebrate, but unfortunately they are closed on Monday nights. Can you suggest another location that's located in DC and open on Mondays? We are open to any type of cuisine, but would love to go to a place that's also a little quirky!

Quirky and open on Monday? I guess it depends on your definition of the term.


At Kellari, you get to pick out your own fish for dinner. H St. Country Club puts miniature golf on its menu. Oyamel entices you with grasshopper tacos. Take your pick.

Tom: Just wanted to thank you for the review of Baltimore's Bluegrass Tavern. My girlfriend and I ate there on Saturday night and she says she had the best old fashioned ever made. My beef short rib on spicy grits was excellent, as was her oyster and blue cheese stuffed sirloin. You also get a lot of corn bread for a single buck. What really impressed me, beyond the food, was the service. All servers were casually dressed, but very knowledgeable about what was on offer, attentive but not hovering and, best of all, did not say "you guys" or "still working on that" even once. We'll be back. (One note--the music is almost all classic country, so if you don't like hearing Waylon Jennings while you eat you have been warned.)

It always makes me happy to hear that a recently reviewed restaurant delivers the same kind of experience  for readers as it did for me.  I appreciate your taking the time to write.

Galileo III has an "unusual tasting menu" with things like lamb brain and veal feet.

And tripe! Personally, I love the new menu option there.

There is one absolutely shining example of what a restaurant website should be, and it's from someplace that regularly makes the world's best restaurant lists - St John in London. They update the menus for both their locations, lunch and dinner, without fail. every single day. So any other restaurant that claims they're too busy? Sorry, not buying it.

I *heart* that restaurant (reviewed, by the way, in the Postcard from London, above).

Tom you said "it never hurts to double-check with a quick phone call that a place is open" don't forget the places you call on Monday and get the recorded message with hours, only to find out they didn't update and that they are closed for a private event on Wednesday. Even more offensive if you don't take reservations.

Good advice.

I'm just amazed that restaurants don't realize how much ill will they're generating by neglecting their web sites. So many places contract the web management out, and don't seem to consider it important. Remember that saying about how each satisfied customer tells three people but each dissatisfied one tells eight? That's much more skewed now thanks to the Internet.

Paging, James Alefantis! Paging, James Alefantis!

Tom: Thanks for all you do. This isn't a food question. I view your reviews in Feedreeder using an RSS feed. It shows me a summary of what you've written but if I click on the article I get html codes, not your article. Maybe one of your IT people has a fix? Thanks again.

Hi. Without knowing more about your situation its hard for me to be much help. What RSS reader are you using? What feed are you subscribing to? Its possible you are receiving a mobile feed or something like that which wouldn't read properly in your browser. But I will check in with our tech tools people and make sure Tom's general feed is sending out the proper info. Thanks for the heads up.

Hi Tom, Have $50 Opentable certificate that is about to expire and SO is out of town. Where would you suggest to put this to good use? Wanted to try Obelisk but would not want to sit by myself if there is no bar area...your recommendations appreciated.

Obelisk is also a tough reservation.


Are you talking about tonight? I'd gravitate to the bar at Bibiana or Sushi Taro.

A former girlfriend had a serious nut allergy, my wife has a peanut allergy and I have a citrus allergy. I have learned over time that you should always make it a point to mention your allergy to servers. Some restaurants just make sure that there are no contaminants (like garnishes and ingrediants), but some will go out of the way to take care of you. I've had restaurants where the kitchen custom made a new salad dressing sans citrus for me, others where I was told afterwards that the manager checked the basting sauce for the shrimp and it included citrus, so she gave me alternate preparation methods (or the choice to select another dish). We've had servers come out to apologize for a delay in our meals arriving because the kitchen discovered after the fact that there was an allergen in one of our dishes, so they were preparing the meal over again. You get a very wide array of responses, but always found it worthwhile to mention the allergy. Let the restaurant do what they can about it. Some will pleasantly surprise you (and those are the ones that I've revisited later).

Thanks for writing.


Folks, that's a wrap for today. Thanks for your patience with the late start,  and please join me for another chat next Wednesday.


Chow for now.

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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