The Washington Post

Ask Tom

May 26, 2010

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

 My pants are a little tight and I'm thinking I better hire a personal trainer again. Which is a long way of saying I am  happy to have the spring dining guide behind me (you caught it last Sunday, right?) .


 Feel free to share your thoughts about the compilation. I could have written about 20 MORE places or 20 OTHER restaurants, but I hope you like the mix I ended up with May 23.


 In last week's chat, mention was made of the new Ted's Bulletin on Barracks Row on the Hill. Some of us didn't care for the factory french fries. Co-owner Perry Smith subsequently wrote to let me know the side dish was a one-week experiment that no one was pleased with; the fries at Ted's are now all hand-cut.  Score! 


Also, the promised "all day" breakfast is not yet served throughout the day. But it will be offered within the next few weeks, Smith and his associates tell me. The (new) kitchen just has to figure out how to re-group between for lunch and supper service.


Happy Wednesday, everyone. Let's get started.

Tom, An aunt from Los Angeles is coming into town June 11-13. She's a foodie big time and the pressure is always on me to impress her palate when she's in town. My question: among the meals I have to plan for is Sunday brunch and I'm at a loss. Last time we went to the Willard and had a great experience. This time I'd like to take her somewhere a little more modern but still nice. Friends suggested Georgia Browns, but I saw it panned in your spring dining guide. Price isn't so much an option, but we're breaking the bank other nights with Restaurant Eve. Do you have any suggestions for a great DC brunch to round out her visit? Thank you, Chris M. D.C.

Regular chatters can anticipate what I'm going to type: The Tabard Inn in Dupont Circle is where you want to take your discerning aunt.


I love the brick-walled patio in nice weather. But even more, it's the sure cooking and the vast selection that make this one of my favorite diversions on the weekend.  There are quiche, pancakes and eggs for those inclined to eat breakfast at noon, but also house-made terrines, steak and interesting seafood preparations (gumbo!) for bigger appetites. And the wine list is lovely.


Don't dawdle making a reservation; my "secret" is pretty popular.

Do you really think it is fair to rate Georgia Brown's with 1/2, the same as Vienna Inn? Vienna Inn is a bar, that serves hot dogs! I'm sure Nora and Georgia Brown's are beyond insulted to be on the same level or slightly above Annie's Steakhouse! What an insult. And why are you the sole food critic in DC? I feel like more people need to challenge your reviews, as your palette is not the law. Sarah

It doesn't matter that Georgia Brown's is fancier than the Vienna Inn. Those restaurants got similar ratings because they fall in the same category:  Just above "poor."   And  I base those judgements on multiple recent visits to both establishments. 


You're right, Sarah. My palate is not the law. You might be happy to know that plenty of people challenge my writing online (and elsewhere) and there is plenty of competition for your eyeballs where restaurant reviews are concerned .


That said,  I'd like to think that, among other things,  two decades of professional eating all over the world give my opinion some credence.

The reviews for Nora and Annie's.

I don't get it-the list shows restaurants that apparently neither reviewers nor the public were very crazy about. Where is the re-visiting?

 Yes, I spanked several places in the spring guide.  My feeling is, unsatisfying experiences should be documented, especially when they occur in restaurants that are well-known, expensive or both.


  Hopefully, there's plenty in the mix to whet an appetite, though. Did you miss my fresh takes on Buck's, the Oval Room, Redwood, Restaurant Eve's bistro, Inox, etc?


Some friends and I recently ate at Agora, the new tapas place on 17th Street. We really enjoyed the food, but the service was attentive to the point of being irritating, if that makes sense. Throughout the meal, on at least five separate occasions, a server would try to remove a plate that we were not finished with. One waiter removed a dish as I was in the process of taking a bite off of it. Because there were several servers working our table, it wasn't possible to ask just one to leave the plates -- more and more of them kept swooping in until I finally said (sharply, I'm afraid), "We are going to eat all of this food. All of it. If there is food on the plate, please do not take it." The experience made me feel self-conscious and rushed. Can you explain how and when plates should be cleared, and what I should do if I find myself in this situation again? I'd like to go back to Agora, but I'd rather not stab waiters with my fork to defend my food.

 And I thought I was the only one who needed a fly swatter to ward off the overzealous servers at Agora!


 Agora just opened (officially) on Monday. I figure things will calm down once the staff gets more experience -- or more diners complain about the intrusiveness.

I am a hostess at a family-oriented restaurant. On Mother's Day I seated a man, woman and 2 children, maybe 5 and 8. As I did so, I said, "So you're taking Mom out for Mother's Day?" To which one of the children replied, "She's our stepmom, and we hate her." Ouch! I murmured a quick apology and walked away, but I learned a valuabhle lesson: limit social chitchat to non-controversial topics, and define "controversial" very broadly. I still feel bad about this and am sure the meal did not go well.

Oh dear! I cringed just *reading* your post.


Let this be a lesson to all of us:  Never assume anything.

Hi Tom, you had taken my question a few weeks ago regarding my apprehension about being distracted by fellow Minibar patrons while dining on me and my SO's anniversary, and you had asked to let you know how it went. Well, the evening was a complete delight, and it turns out that my apprehension was unwarranted. It was an incredible experience, unlike anything I'd ever done before, and the level of attention paid to each patron by the chefs and bar-backs was wonderful. Definitely the most memorable meal we've enjoyed. Me and the SO stayed mostly to ourselves with regards to the other patrons, but we enthusiastically engaged the chefs in conversation and questions, which they were happy to oblige. For the record, at our seating there were three couples, and for a good 15 mins two of the men from the other couples discussed mundane law school junk, while their SO's (one on their bday, one on their anniversary) sat there looking disinterested and bored. This is what I was talking about with regards to fellow patrons, on our anniversary I wanted to focus entirely on my SO to celebrate the occasion, which is exactly what I did.

Hey, thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts on your dinner. And shame on those men for not making their dates more their focus!

Review of Minibar.

Hi Tom, I know you're not big on these things, but I was hoping you could mention the Brainfood Grill-Off happening June 10th. ( I'm a long time volunteer with the group and could go on forever about how wonderful the organization is. These kids get to learn how to cook, plus we get some great guest chefs from local restaurants (Dino, Granville Moore, Zola, just to name a few). The money earned from the grill-off really helps keep the program going and growing. Thanks.

I'm happy to plug an organization that I think is doing some great work with kids. In fact, I'm donating dinner for two for the group's auction. (The caveat: I'll be along for the meal, reviewing it.)

Have you ever put together your views on the best restaurants that appear like a dump inside & out but offer very good food?

Interesting idea! I could start with the place I ate at in the Atlas District last night. The front door has a BULLET HOLE in its handle. But there's nothing scary about the menu inside.


Chatters, help me develop a list of  places that don't look like much from the outside but that contain some delicious surprises behind the door.

Tom, you've talked in the past about not wanting to waste valuable print space on bad restaurants, which is why so few zero or half-star reviews get published. Why not have an online list of "Places Tom Wouldn't Wish on His Worst Enemy"? Something that wouldn't require extensive writing, since I know your time is also a finite resource. I don't think a short-form review like that would hurt your credibility; it might enhance it since so many diners would say "Yes, that place does suck!"

Hmmm. Let me mull that one over a little bit. I think more than a few sentences per rant are in order, because if I'm slamming a place, I need to justify why. But I appreciate the idea.

Years ago the W.Post did a series called, I think, Crummy but Good. They would review dives each week and provide some background on the establishment and staff. The concept is worth resurrecting.

One of the problems I had with that column, in the end at least, was that the restaurants being featured were just plain ... crummy (and not so good).

I am sorry to hear about your dislike of Annie's. While I agree completely with most of your review, I have found the burgers and prime rib to be a safe bet. And it is really fun for brunch. That said, I appreciated your Spring Dining Guide, and have something to chew on (sorry, couldn't help it) until the Fall Guide comes out. Thanks for the great work!

Thanks for the support.

The last time I was walking around Ford's Theater, I noticed two interesting restaurants close to the theater...Bistro D'Oc and Asia Nine. Which would you choose for a pre-show dinner for my next show at Ford's? Or some other alternative?

Based on my last meals at the two, I'd probably go with Asia  Nine.  There's more variety on the menu, more interesting setting.

There wasn't one restaurant reviewed in your Spring Dining Guide that caused me to change my mine and consider going there. It would have nice if VA had the same number of reviews as MD. Again just more discrimiantion by the WP.

 Yes, I have a master plot to make readers forget Virginia restaurants even exist (insert maniacal mad-doctor laugh here)!

I don't rember you doing a review on Kazan's in McLean or Renaissance in Virginia. These are two fine resturants that are filled to capacity on weekends.

 There are thousands of restaurants in the Washington area and I try my best to cover the scene via my weekly Food and Magazine columns (and here online).


I have nothing against the places you mention, but also no compelling reason to examine  them, either.  That said, I'm glad to hear both restaurants are busy!

we are visiting DC from foodie San Francisco. Looking for 4 restaurant suggestions for dinner in central DC--prefer not fancy, non-touristy good food, any type.

Ah, so we have a tough customer here!


Right now, I'd probably steer you to the veteran El Chalan (Peruvian) on I St. NW,  the new Ezme on P St. NW (Turkish small plates), the festive Oyamel in Penn Quarter (cocktails and fun Mexican near the Mall) and maybe the hybrid Masa 14 (Asian-Latin and a great bar) in Logan Circle.


And your question is ....?

Tom, I'm so excited, I'm being taken to Tabard Inn Saturday night for my birthday dinner! Do you have any specific menu recommendations for me; especially from the dessert menu?

Lucky you. It's hard to go wrong with anything on pastry chef Huw Griffiths' dessert menu, which, like the savory selections at Tabard, change frequently. I'd be inclined to go with something with fruit in the form of a pie or cake. 

I am using this route to say we disagree with your recent write-up on Rock Creek Restaurant. Here is my submitted review to Zagat's on Rock Creek: "Our new favorite. Menu has healthy, yet super tasty items. If you are tired of heavy over-sauced, over-salted food and want subtle, innovative & fresh flavors, this is the place. My physician wife is in heaven with the sensible calorie portions and whole grain approach. Been here 4 times in the last two months and have not had a disappointing item. Decor is quiet and classy; service topnotch." We had the cod last week and both loved it. I just fear that when a review by you is this bad, it hurts a restaurant doing good work.

I stand by my review in the spring dining guide (which includes a tip of the hat to the service, which we both agree is good).

Feel free to post your own take on our reader reviews page.

Hi Tom: Just wanted to share a superb experience we had at the Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore -- our second, and definitely not our last. Baked potato flatbread (best flatbread dough I've ever had, topped with potato-chip-thin slices of potato, bacon, bits of green onion, cheddar cheese, with a squirt of sour cream after it had all been cooked), succulent and sweet scallops, and a ridiculously good rhubarb float that took me back to my childhood were some of the highlights. If you ever find yourself up in Baltimore, you should make a reservation and stop in! You'll soon understand why we drive there from NoVa just for dinner.

I already count myself a fan of the place.

Completely agree! My colleagues love it, but I just don't understand it. Every single thing I've had there (thankfully when work is paying) is almost inedible. The shrimp and grits, which I was so excited about, were so disgusting (mushy, mushy shrimp) that I had to get a sandwich later in the day. Keep doing the good work!

I ate there twice for the guide. The place was packed both times. I just don't get it. 


Part of me attributes the crowd to the (mostly African-American) clientele and the sense of community they likely feel there. But the food is SO not soulful or southern, at least to these taste buds.

"Part of me attributes the crowd to the (mostly African-American) clientele and the sense of community they likely feel there." I think you just gave the politically correct something to rant about for the next chat or two.

Well, I happen to think that's the case. Same thing with a bunch of other restaurants around town. You don't see a lot of youngsters at the Prime Rib, right? Or droves of  straight families at Annie's, right? Or ... the list goes on.

We were given a gift card for $200. We went to the restaurant/inn and after dinner, gave the card to the waitress. After a while she had her mgr. with her and said the card had expired. Nowhere did we find an exp. date on the card. Mgr said the restaurent/inn was under a new chef, so they could not honor it. She said the card expired in 2009. So we had to pay for our dinner?Is there anything we can do about this? This is a $$$$ place in Paris, VA. I will listen in on radio for your reply. Thank you.

I need more information in order to answer your question. For starters, you say that there was no expiration date on the certificate, but the manager says it  was last year. Where did he get the date from?

Dear Tom: My sister had hoped to celebrate her upcoming birthday in July at l'Auberge Chez Francois, her very favorite restaurant for many years. Alas, the only day all the friends and family will be together will be on a Monday when it is closed. Can you suggest a place she'll enjoy as well on her 70th birthday, along with 15 family members and friends. (Lunch or dinner would be fine.) Many thanks.

It's hard to come up with a comparable destination, given  L'Auberge Chez Francois's age and character.


Is it the escape to the country you like? Trummer's on Main is a lovely retreat in Clifton; its chef, Clayton Miller, was honored this year by Food & Wine, which included him in the magazine's Best New Chef  list.


Is it French cooking you want most?  Then I'd point you to Bistrot Lepic in Georgetown (warning: it's cramped) or the more sumptuous Marcel's in the West End.


Good luck!

Hi Tom! We just went to Osteria (James Beard winner) in Philadelphia, and we have to say we MUCH preferred James (nominee but not winner)... I suppose we have very different tastes from the judges. Also: we recently went to Corduroy on 9th Street DC par your recommendation, and had a very unusual and delectable durdock soup. Before this, we had only had durdock at sushi restaurants... Is it usual to have it in other types of cuisines?

 I've not been to James in Philly, but I have to say, my (admittedly early) dinner at Osteria paled in comparison to the more sophisticated  food I've enjoyed at some of the other Mid-Atlantic contenders for best chef, including Cathal Armstrong's Restaurant Eve and Peter Pastan's Obelisk in Alexandria and Washington, respectively.


Regarding burdock,  I don't recall seeing it outside an Asian eatery, either. Corduroy chef Tom Power says he got the idea for using the root vegetable after eating it in  a soup he had as part of a kaiseki dinner in Japan last year. 


Made from peeled, sauteed burdock, cream and chicken stock,  Power's $9 soup is served cool, and with a fried lotus root chip as a garnish.


  "It's not a big seller," the chef reports. "People are scared of cold soup and they don't know what burdock is."  But he likes its flavor, which reminds him of mushrooms and artichokes.


  Anyone interested in sampling the stuff better hurry. Power's supplier, Tuscarora Organic Growers in Pennsylvania,  has no more burdock in stock, and won't offer it again until next September.

Good morning, Tom - I'm a huge fan but you never take my questions! I'll be in Seattle for the weekend and I already have reservations at Poppy and Dahlia Lounge. Two questions: is Dahlia Lounge worth the money, and where can we find the best, freshest, (preferably raw) fish? Thank you!

I adore Poppy. Dahlia has been around forever. Not sure it's Tom Douglas's best restaurant, however. For oysters and a view, ya gotta check out Elliott's. And Matt's in the Market (Pike Place) is ADORABLE.  Shiro's in Belltown is first-rate for sushi. That help? 

I honestly don't see what is offensive about ""Part of me attributes the crowd to the (mostly African-American) clientele and the sense of community they likely feel there." What is wrong about saying people of a common interest or identity like to gather in a place they like and share a sense of community in doing so? Geez people, stop being so freaking sensitive about everything - there was nothing derogatory or hurtful whatsoever about that comment unless you yourself wish to interpret it so.





Tom, I couldn't disagree with your half-star review of the Vienna Inn any more strongly. I've been frequenting that establishment for 10 years now, and have NEVER come away disappointed. Truth be told, I think your half-star review of the Inn is something they might display with honor rather than shame.

Maybe so. But even the former owner told me she thinks the place has slipped mightily. I used to love the place. But seriously, not even the hot dogs are any good. It's just ... crummy. And sad.

Good Morning, Tom. Love the chats. Can you please recommend a place in Arlington that would be appropriate for a post-funeral gathering? There will be about 25 people, and the family prefers a low-key atmosphere, where people can come and go, have a beer, and eat some good pub food. Thanks very much!

That's a tough one: low-key, pub grub, suitable for mourners. I know Liberty Tavern would cheer me up, though. So might the revamped (and greatly expanded) Spider Kelly's nearby.

Tom--Thanks for your review of Annie's Paramount Steakhouse in your Spring Dining Guide. While I have had better luck with the burger there than you did, I won't dispute your review. Yet, I think that one of Annie's continuing appeals to many of us is how it feels like a sort of gussied-up rural midwestern steakhouse transplanted into the middle of DC's gay neighborhood. There's a certain back-home familiarity to the place that I think appeals to some of us that moved here from Iowa, Wisconsin, etc. It's by no means a great restaurant, but oddly comforting in its own way.

Oh, I totally got the vibe you're talking about. But the service and the food at Annie's are both unfortunately erratic. I'd be happy paying a bit more for more quality on the plate. Can't beat those potent $4 Manhattans at happy hour, though!

Can you recommend a reasonably priced restuarant that is in the Studio Theater area?

The Thai-flavored Rice comes to mind. As does Dukem, the long-time Ethiopian restaurant. Parts of the nearby Posto are good, too (just steer clear of the pizza).  Another idea: Bar Pilar, further up 14th St.

La Caraquena, Clare and Dons, in Falls Church. About half the Vietnamese joints there, and in the Eden Center, qualify. McLean doesn't have any dives, though Rocco's has improved in recent years. Three Pigs went downhill, fast, under its new ownership. Can't think of any (good ones) in Vienna since the original Anita's closed.

I agree with your  inclusion of "half the Vietnamese joints," but La Caraquena is pretty charming, don't you think?

Hi Tom - My boyfriend is flying in for one night (en route back to Germany - he's in the army) and I would love to take him to dinner (preferably someplace somewhat decent :)).. It would be dinner around 10:30/11 p.m. - any suggestions of restaurants serving dinner on the later side? I am a restaurant person myself (server) - and don't want to be "that person" strolling in at 10:30 when the kitchen closes at 11. Thanks for the advice!

You want to double-check, but Sei in Penn Quarter and Marvin on U St. both stay open til midnight, I recall.

Hi Tom- Getting a sitter and going out for the first meal as a couple in way too long. Where do you recommend for weekday dinner at happy hour time? We love sitting at the bar and prefer Dupont/Logan/U Street. Thinking Cork or Birch & Barley? Thanks!

I think the new (aforementioned) Agora shows great promise. The people-watching from a seat on the patio is great fun. 

So considering it's new and probably has things to work on, it sounds like you had a pretty positive experience at Pacci's Neapolitan Pizzeria in Silver Spring. Would you recommend it for an affordable, fun place for dinner? Headed to Silver Spring tonight! Thanks!

I like the place. I don't love it (yet).  It looks great, but the appetizers need fine-tuning. And the wine list needs work, too. 

I was so happy to see you call RE Bistro's steak tartare the best. We went recently to the RE Tasting Room and when we were seated a half hour later than our reservation time, we were treated to the steak tartare as a consolation. That was our second meal at RE and we've decided to make it a tradition of going there every Spring and Fall. Chef Armstrong is a genius!

A genius and ... ambitious, in a *good* way.  Did you catch my Dish column in Food today?

Which one? That's my hood - always looking for new holes in the wall (no pun intended).

Okay, okay, I'll tell you where I ate last night: Ethiopic, the new Ethiopian spot on H St. NE at 4th.

Tom you seem both slightly irritated and sharp as a tack today. Hey thought the Spring Guide was an interesting take on the usual Sunday review formula. Not offended at all about the Georgia Brown thing. Have a great week.

Not irritated at all! Just a little hungry, that's all.


The lunch bell is ringing. Thanks for a stimulating chat, everyone. See you next Wednesday.


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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