Ask Tom

Jul 28, 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

 THE OTHER SIDE RESPONDS:  Hi Tom. Mark Kuller from Estadio and Proof here. I read last weeks posts on your chat about our seating and I offer this response:

Regarding Nascar and the bolted stools at the bar. I want to assure the "POS (person of size)" and his "NFL size" friend that I clock in at 6'6" and 275 pounds. These stools had to meet my comfort standard and I tested a prototype before having them made. Moreover,  I ended up eliminating a stool on each side of the bar from the original plans when we ultimately installed them, and they are neither "crowded" nor "cramped" for my sizable frame. I have dined on these stools on two separate occasions. I have no problem getting in and out of them and find them to be quite comfortable, a sentiment endorsed by many guests. I understand I cannot please everyone and I am truly sorry that you were not comfortable, and especially if it detracted from the delicious food, but wrenches be damned - I stand by this design. As for getting bumped around, that is the downside of a crowded bar, something for which I am reluctant to apologize. If anything, bolting the stools down, a feature borrowed from Mas in Charlottesville, helps keep them in a place and reduces the amount of bumping from passersby. Not sure how this is can be self serving, but I assure you that was not my intent.

Regarding seating strangers at your table, we have 15  two tops, 5 four tops, and 3 communal tables (an eight top and 2 six tops). We do seat "strangers" together at the communal tables, but guests are advised before seating that these are communal tables and are given the option of waiting for a "private" table if that is their preference.

Regarding seating at regular tables, the spacing between tables at the windows is standard and replicates the spacing of tables at the windows at Proof. I will review the alignment again to insure maximum separation but perhaps a contributing factor are the oversized chairs. Though their size may increase the difficulty of getting seated hopefully that is made up for by their comfort once you are seated.

A final note, Much has been said, by me and commentators, about Casa Mono in NYC being an inspiration for us. That is true, but anyone who has actually eaten there (or at most tapas/pintxos bars in Spain) can attest that the spacing of tables and stools at Estadio is extremely generous, borderline luxurious, in comparison!


News flashelette: I received an email from Roberto Donna just before this chat went live today. He writes that "work at Galileo III is moving well and  we are looking to open by the 20 of August." Hmmm.


Ready to chat? I am. Rock on.

Tom, Yes, I know there are 6 trillion delis in Washington, but I am looking for a 5-star, truly dazzling sandwich. I want something really yummy, that knocks my socks off. I want a sandwich so good that it is memorable. I end up paying every day for lunch, why not make it really count? I'd like your suggestions, please! Thanks much.

The last really good sandwich I had was at Seventh Hill Pizza, which makes a first-rate vegetarian version: roasted red peppers, eggplant, summery pesto, mozzarella and more on puffy, Parmesan-crisped bread that's baked in the pizza oven.


Any chatters care to weigh in?

At least now I know why you didn't respond to my questions over the past couple weeks about places to eat in Baltimore. We've been here for 2 days and haven't found a single place for lunch or dinner that would make us want to drive back up here from Virginia. The Inner Harbor is chain restaurant hell, not really many places "downtown" worth going to, maybe something good in Little Italy, but without any recommendations, we weren't going to just wander about.

Baltimore isn't a great dining city, but there are certainly exceptions to "chain restaurant hell" there. One of them is  the whimsical Woodberry Kitchen, set in an old foundry in Hampden.

Hi Tom! One of my husband's favorite meals is french onion soup. He has been looking for a while and can't find a place that serve one that he totally likes. Any suggestions?

I had a terrific version not long ago at Praline, the charming bakery/restaurant in Bethesda, where Christian Gautrois, formerly of Les Folies Brasserie in Annapolis,  is the chef.  His soup ($7.50) is rich with beef stock, near-melting onions and a molten cap of Swiss cheese.

We are planning a trip to New York over the holidays. If you could pick one place for a memorable meal, where would you go? In DC we've been to most places and the chef's meals at Komi and Sushi Taro stand out.

 Having eaten there a few months after Frank Bruni's four-star take on the place in the NYT, I understand why Eleven Madison ranks as one of the city's top dining destinations: It's nearly perfect (and fun to boot).

Hi Tom, My husband and I are headed to London and Paris to celebrate our first wedding anniversary this fall. Can you recommend one restaurant in each city where we can splurge on a fabulous meal? We are both big fans of your chats and appreciate your help!

Well, there are four strong candidates for the London half of your trip in my recent Postcard column, which ran last Sunday in Travel.


As for Paris, I'm returning in late October. Too late for you? If so, check out the Postcard archives on the city.



I saw your tweet about doing research for the upcoming Fall Dining Guide and wondered how you actually do it year after year. Do you continue to visit the same restaurants you already featured in addition to scoping out new ones? I noticed that your Spring Dining Guide was all different restaurants than your Fall one. I'm intrigued by how you actually accomplish it, can you share a bit more about how you go about putting together a Dining Guide? Oh and I loved Brian Voltaggio's response to your tweet!

To get to 50 or so reviews for the fall dining guide, I typically visit 100 or so restaurants, a process that starts in late April or early May. Those restaurants include old places I haven't been to in awhile, past favorites and new spots -- a mix, in other words.


I recently tweeted about enduring a string of mediocre meals. My only regret is that there wasn't space to explain *why* certain restaurants aren't delivering this season. (The reasons differ: some places seem to be resting on their laurels, while others have changed their concepts for the worse.)


I wanted the spring guide to be completely different from the fall, so I chose the theme of returning to previously-reviewed restaurants and taking their temperature, so to speak.

Tom - care to share what has been your best summer dish at a restaurant this summer? One that we shouldn't miss trying before the summer ends?

I may have had it last night, at Palena: A salad of several kinds of  summer beans and leeks, decorated with shaved truffles and garnished with a two-bite fritter made with pork. Heaven.

Went to a small organic restaurant in Capitol Hill (will refrain from naming it) yesterday for lunch and ordered a grilled chicken wrap. When I got my wrap, I opened it up and noticed there was tofu and baked chicken in there. The menu didn't advertise tofu and the chicken was not grilled so I told the owner that I'd like something different because I was unsatisfied. His response : "It's not about satisfaction, it's about getting what you ordered." I was stunned. How does a customer respond without getting belligerent? What should the owner have said?

 You should have said, "Well, there's tofu in here, and that's not what I expected. Same for the chicken. It's baked rather than grilled: NOT what I ordered, or thought I was ordering."


The bottom line, though, is there's too much competition on the Hill to put up with that kind of attitude. I wouldn't return to a place that cared so little abut its customers' satisfaction.

is also at the Silver Spring Farmer's market every Saturday. No French onion soup, but I highly recommend the lemon bars. And the apple chausson. And the pain au chocolat. And... pretty much everything.

I was in a rush to leave Praline, but I did stop to check out its mouth-watering bakery display, which included some of your faves. 

Tom: I'm going to J&G Steak with three friends for my birthday this Friday. Any must have dish?

If there are scallops on a glossy bed of snap peas, bacon and mint, go for the appetizer. And I still think the halibut with celery and chili sauce is wonderful.

Tom, It has been well documented by you and others that Annie's has gone through some changes in recent years, and none for the better. It renovated and tried to go upscale (with higher prices and smaller portions), its mainstay clientelle rebelled, and then following this Annie's tried to go back to its tried and true ways. Recently I went to Annie's on a weekend for lunch, thinking it was better now for good, but I was wrong. The steak in the steak salad was dry and chewy, the corned beef hash was too salty, and the jalapeno poppers had sat too long in the kitchen. I'd hate to abandon for good one of my old favorite places, but I am just frustrated at this point. Doesn't Annie's get the message? --Mattie in DC

Hi Tom, I booked a reservation at Trummer's on Main for next weekend. Your review of the place, overall, is good, but the user reviews on the WaPo website are, for the most part, pretty terrible! Have you been back recently? Should I keep my reservation?

Keep your reservation. There are plenty of reasons the restaurant's top toque, Clayton Miller, was tapped as one of Food & Wine magazine's Best Chefs of 2010.  One of them is no doubt his honey-glazed pork shoulder with pineapple confit, which I had the great pleasure of eating last Thursday in Trummer's light-filled main dining room.

My favorite sandwich in the area...or maybe the grilled pork banh mi (#8) at Song Que in Eden Center. It's the perfect combination of salty, sweet, tangy, and spicy.

Friends have also raved about the Vietnamese sandwiches served at Broad Branch Market at 5608 Broad Branch Rd NW in DC. (I'm still a virgin, alas.)

Hi Tom, following up on last week's chatter who brought a two-year-old to Corduroy. My husband and I were two of the diners next to them, and the family did a great job of trying to engage him in the "grown-up" meal, and took him out of the room when he was not. As they mentioned, the service was impeccable - not just to them, but to us as well. We have a one-year-old of our own at home, and will definitely use this family's example of how to teach a young one to eat at fine restaurants.

I'm glad to post your eye-witness account of the story (and to encourage other parents to ease their offspring into the world of restaurants).

I hear often about Ben's Chili house or something like that. Is that worth going to in Washington?

Honestly? I appreciate Ben's more for its place in Washington history than for anything on its menu. I've had better dogs and better chili in a lot of  other places (but none frequented by a president, I should add).

A lot of people usually ask what the proper tip etiquitte is at a sit down restaurant, but what (if anything) should you leave for carry out orders?

It depends on the size and cost of the order, but I think a few bucks to the hostess or bar tender or whoever hands over your order is a nice gesture. Remember: Someone has to take the call, wrap the meal up, verify the contents of the box or bag and add utensils and such.

A few suggestions for the person who thinks Baltimore dining is limited to the Inner Harbor. -Clementine (in Hamilton). Spectacular food and even better desserts. -Brewer's Art (in Mount Vernon). Spectacular food and even better beer. -Samos (in Greektown). Spectacular food -- seriously, so so good, and so, so cheap -- and even better BYOB policy. So there.

And just before closin' time! We thank you.

I'm a weekly devotee of your chats, and have discovered some fabulous places based on your advice to other commenters, so thanks! My family is visiting next weekend, and we are going to Rehoboth for a couple days of R&R. None of us have ever been. What are the can't-miss local places for dinner? We're especially looking for a place to get some delicious crab, and a couple casual/affordable places that aren't a total tourist trap!

I've not gone to the beach in several years. This little thing called "the fall guide" keeps me local. Chatters?

Last night I went to dinner at the Source. My group of 3 was thrilled to be there. The appetizers of tuna tartar, and shumai in an uni and lobster emulsion were amazing. However, trouble arose when the entrees served. 2 of us got our entrees a solid 10 minutes before our 3rd party member got hers. The waiter knew the 3rd dish would be late and didn't tell us until after we complained. Some advance notice would have been appreciated. After the bill came our waiter offered 2 free desserts, but we told him that wasn't going to solve the issues so he graciously removed all of our entress from the bill. If the waiter had been up front with us from the beginning I may have considered going back, but it seemed like the entire time he was trying to avoid addressing the issue of the late 3rd dish. If I'm paying $38 for a dish, I certainly want it to arrive on time. Anyone else have service issues at The Source? Also, why do restaurants offer free dessert when service is bad. If I've experienced bad service, the last thing I want to do is wait even longer for another dish to come out of the kitchen.

Honesty -- straightforward information and a swift apology -- are all most diners want when things go south in a restaurant. "Free dessert" doesn't cut it, in my opinion, because diners were still greatly inconvenienced by the late entree.

Hi Tom! I wrote to you a few weeks ago asking if we should stick to J&G Steakhouse for an upcoming special occasion or if you had other recommendations. You told us to keep our reservation - we did - and let me tell you, we were not disappointed! We had a fabulous experience. That is a classy, classy place, and our waiter, Morgan, was excellent. The food was absolutely delicious and we never felt rushed. So thank you for telling us to keep our reservation - we're glad we did. Thanks again for your advice.

You're welcome! It's great to see that restaurant performing as smoothly as I remember from its first few months.

Tom - My buddy wants to know where he can find caribbean/island food in a dressed up/fine dining atmosphere. Any ideas?

As I mentally scan the horizon, I can't recall any dressy Caribbean destinations. But I can vouch for the hot cod friiters, the goat curry and the peppery mango chicken wings at Islander Caribbean on U St. NW

My boss is new to DC and is taking an important client to a pretty important lunch. I asked her where we were going and she said Cafe Milano. I have to admit this gave me pause. I'm sure its a "name" restaurant she picked up and thought this was a good place. I've never been there for lunch, only for dinner and its honestly been awhile. But, my initially reaction is that Cafe Milano is for the "Sahali crowd" and not giving quite the impression she thinks she is to our guest, who has been in DC for an eternity and undoubtedly knows the landscape. She's a new boss, so I don't want to ruffle feathers. Should I suggest somewhere else, or let this one ride?

This calls for a bit of diplomacy on your part, but I think it would be in your boss's best interest to know about some alternatives. As in Bourbon Steak, the Oval Room, or The Source -- all trendier and more delicious.

If you haven't found a good place in Baltimore to eat then you haven't look very hard. The Helmand, B, Salt, Corks, Petite Louis Bistro are just a few of the great places around the city. Any local will tell you that only out of the know tourists eat in the Inner Harbor. Get out an explore the real parts of Baltimore.

Thanks for the ideas, and I'd add Pazo to the list. The Helmand isn't what it used to be, however.

I tip 15% and sometimes 20% depending on the service.

I bet the places you frequent LOVE you.

Hi, I need a place to meet an old friend early this evening for drinks and light, but good food. Problem -- he's on crutches. So even Church Key on 14th is too far. Can you give me something within three blocks? Thanks.

Lemme see. Kababji Grill? The new Mad Hatter?

Tom, Kudos to you for your kind response to these folks, whose rudeness and sense of entitlement floored me. As if you owed them your personal attention because they couldn't be bothered to check readily available online resources before venturing to Baltimore (e.g., the Washington Post's own Restaurant Finder on the Going Out Guide, Baltimore Magazine, egullet, chowhound to name just a few sources). Keep up your class act.

Um, I try!



I haven't been there in a while but for upscale dining, I really loved Espuma. The food and service were excellent and it is right near the boardwalk/main drag.

And that brings another chat to another conclusion.


See you back here next week, gang. Eat well in the meantime.

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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