Ask Tom - Portland, Richmond... Edinburgh?

Oct 06, 2010

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema answers your questions, listens to your suggestions and even entertains your complaints about Washington dining.

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IT'S (ALMOST) A DONE DEAL: As long expected (and hoped) by DC food enthusiasts, Fabio Trabocchi says he is leaving New York for Washington, where today he's finalizing plans to lease the former Le Paradou space in Penn Quarter and transform it into Fiola. The acclaimed chef describes his new venture as "a more casual approach to what I was doing before at Maestro," the late ode to high-end Italian cuisine he presided over for six years at the Ritz Carlton in Tysons Corner.

The tucked-away location for the chef’s first restaurant of his own, 678 Indiana Ave. NW, is considered cursed by some but is special to Trabocchi, 36. "It's the first place I worked as a chef when I put foot in the U.S.," he says, referring to the late Bice and the mid-90s. It's also where the he met his wife, Maria, who worked in the restaurant's office.

Fiola is is a term of endearment fathers might use with their daughters, says Trabocchi. In his native Marchese dialect, the word is akin to "sweetheart," he adds. 

The menu at Fiola will change daily and highlight the flavors of Marches. Trabocchi is calling his ideas "gourmet but accessible." They are also a continuation of “the democratization of gastronomy” he sees in the restaurant market.

Trabocchi left Maestro in 2007 to open Fiamma Osteria in New York; despite a three-star rave from the New York Times, the restaurant closed in January 2009, an early victim of the recession. The Four Seasons subsequently tapped him to helm its kitchen, but the arrangement lasted a brief three months. Since last month, Trabocchi has been consulting on Villa Pacri, a combination café, lounge and restaurant in New York’s Meatpacking District, which has been opening in stages.

Construction on Fiola is planned for January; the chef aims to open the 140-seat dining room in spring 2011. He also hopes to succeed where others haven't, and he's taking no chances: "I'm going to have it blessed three times before we open the door!"

SWEET UPDATE: Also proving that a guy can go home again, pastry chef Peter Brett tells me he’s departed Circle Bistro for Blue Duck Tavern in the   Park Hyatt  Hotel -– the restaurant he left three-and-a-half years ago for Circle Bistro.

"I’m coming back to family," says Brett, who oversees six pastry cooks in his new/old position. "I missed being part of a team."

BDT’s new fall dessert menu sounds enticing. Brett is featuring a baked-to-order chocolate cake, flambéed at the table with bourbon; a pecan-date tart; quince upside-down gingerbread; and phyllo-wrapped, mascarpone cheesecake-stuffed baked figs.

"My pastry chef instinct tells me to put on an ice-box cake," says Brett, who is tarting up his version of the old-fashioned notion with lemon and crushed butter toffee. The only dessert from the restaurant’s past to survive the pastry chef’s return is one he created for its launch in 2006: apple tart.

Brett has also tweaked the hotel’s tea menu, served on weekends. The confections include pumpkin-walnut bread, pear-almond tarts and oatmeal-cranberry scones. Anyone else getting hungry?

Good morning, everyone.  It’s a busy day here in Food Land.  Let’s get started.

Hey Tom, I'm picking for our monthly dinner club this month and I'm having trouble. It needs to be relatively cheap due to some employment issues surrounding some of the members. Needs to have a meat option and metro accessible is a plus. To give you an idea, the last few places we've eaten are: Honey Pig BBQ, Little Ethiopia, Ted's Bulletin, Liberty Tree, Againn, Mendocino and Rasika. We're open to all types of food, as you can see. Any recommendations? Thanks for your help

Two places that leap to mind are Masala Art, the fine Indian restaurant in Tenleytown, and La Limena in Rockville, where the menu features both Peruvian and Cuban cooking.

What do you think of opening parties for restaurants? On Saturday night I was invited to the opening party for a new restaurant by the Harbor; Kona Grill and the food was really good, but I wondered how it would translate to an actual meal. Also, do most restaurants do these kinds of fancy parties? I had never been to one before. (A friend of a friend works for the PR company who put the party together.)

Most (major) restaurants throw a party to announce their openings. Sometimes they celebrate with a "soft" launch for friends, family and industry types; other times, they do it up big and invite hundreds of potential future guests. It generally depends on budgets, of course, and who restaurants want to target.  In the best cases, the food served at the party is the food that ends up on the menu, but some restaurants serve canapes or nibbles if the gathering is a large one.

What dining options do you recommend here? Party of 5 going after a show. Really want good quality food. Does that exist here?

The restaurant I've most enjoyed thus far is Bond 45, where my ideal meal would be composed of the vegetable antipasti, a dry-aged New York strip steak, creamed broccoli rabe and tiramisu, everything chased back with one of the bar's great cocktails.

I've got family visiting at the end of the month and am trying to plan ahead and make dinner reservations. Can you suggest three spots (we're in DC but will travel to MD or VA) that will wow four food lovers? The group includes one vegetarian. Thanks!

  (Hey, are you trying to get me to divulge the contents of my forthcoming dining guide early?) 


Among the many restaurants you should introduce to your tribe are Birch & Barley for its terrific beer-themed menu;  Rasika for its amazing Indian fare;  Trummer's on Main in Clifton (the drive is easy) for Clay Miller's imaginative American cooking; and Ethiopic for what might be the best Ethiopian in the city, in a neighborhood that keeps getting more interesting by the month.

A web site that I frequent had a thread started by a chain-restaurant hostess who had a couple come in and the male half insisted on a female server because "I don't tip male servers." She was horrified that her manager agreed to this request. What's your view? I think the manager should have told the guy to take his business elsewhere.

What century is this guy LIVING in? The manager should have used the request to teach the goof one of those life lessons. ("Buddy, we don't discriminate here, but in your case, I'm going to have to make an exception. So ... good-bye!")

Pick me, pick me, pick me, please... We're going to a show in NYC on Friday and want to eat after the show ends. We like everything but probably need to keep it light since we'll be eating late. Any suggestions? Cost is not a issue.

I adore the Austrian accents at the cozy Seasonal on W. 58th. The boiled-beef tafelspitz, among other attractions,  is more elegant (and lighter) than it sounds: thin slices of flat-iron steak in a golden oxtail broth, staged with divine creamed spinach and lacy potato cakes.

Any insider gossip on what will happen to Del Merei Grille or its chef Eric Reid? I saw on his twitter page that he was working on a new menu

Let's hope he shares any news with us here, first! (For those who aren't aware, DMG closed last month.)

Why do you think that a lot of people ask for dinning options but say "anything but Indian food" Do you think it's the spices? The lack of familiarity? Why has Indian food gotten such a bad rap?

People who say "no thanks" to Indian bring to mind people who say they don't care for liver and onions or seafood: A lot of them probably haven't had those dishes prepared right.  Unless a diner is allergic to something in the cuisine, I can't understand why he or she would dismiss the varied and intriguing cooking of a large swath of the world -- my favorite type of food, in fact.

Hi Tom, Taking my boyfriend out to dinner for his birthday, trying to decide between BLT and J&G, which one do you recommend? He'll order steak for certain and would like an atmosphere where we don't have to shout at each other. Thanks so much!

You definitely want to book at J & G in the W hotel.  The dining room is as fetching as the steak, and unlike BLT, you don't have to read lips to enjoy the place. (You will, however, miss out on BLT's fab free popovers and chicken liver pate.)

I have reservations for Thursday night at the new Galileo 3. Any word on if it opened on time, or if I should make back up plans just in case?

The pope eloped and hell froze over: Galileo III is very much open for business, and I got a chance to eat through much of Roberto Donna's menu last night.


Some early advice:  Find room for the parmesan custard with porcini mushroom cream. And focus on the appetizers and pastas.  I'll be writing more for my First Bite column next Wednesday.

Hi Tom - I'm going to be in Edinburgh next week, do you or the chatters have any recommendations? I enjoy pretty much any type of food. Anything that would be good for someone dining on her own would be particularly appreciated.

I've never been. Chatters?

Sounds like a new concept for Michael Landrum! How was the service at Galileo? Did Roberto retain any of the staff from Bebo or the last years of the old Galileo? I hope not; the service was some of the worst in Washington.

There were lots of Italian accents among the suits that waited on my table. A few faces looked familiar to me.

for the reader going to Edinburgh - there is a restaurant near the Castle called "the witchery" - it sounds really hokey (its supposedly haunted) but the interior is gorgeous and the food is amazing. also, not food related but defintely check out the underground city - that was my favorite part of Edinburgh!

Sounds ... bewitching. Thanks.

apples and oranges... in relation to an entire ethnic cuisine. I have had liver and onions prepared every way from Sunday, including ways that made other diners swoon. I, on the other hand, reach for the napkin every time - it is a texture/flavor issue for me. Even seafood, for the most part, has a briny taste that may be off-putting to some. I think disliking an entire cuisine is simply a matter of ignorance to the possibilities based on a single incident or even hearsay.

My response to people close to me who say they don't like Indian food is to take them to dinner at Rasika. I've converted many a naysayer there in the past.  I hope Vikram Sunderam never leaves the tandoor there.

I was in Edinburgh last February. I had a wonderful meal at Thai Orchard (located just off the Royal Mile near the top). I had a very medicore meal at the Atrium which some say is the best restaurant in town.

I find it just as useful to know what to avoid as where to gravitate. So thanks.

How formal is it? I love Carmine's, but it's casual. I miss Maestro. We need a Del Posto down here. BTW, that gem of a New York restaurant got a NYT upgrade from three to the four stars last week. First Italian place since the 1970s to achieve maximum stars. Italians can -- and should -- have a formal place to eat. Mangia!

Galileo III is a smart dining room, cheerier (in orange) than the original.  The bar is placed just off the entrance; the dining room is sunken.  The suited servers make it look fussier than it is.

Saying that without knowing the person's allergies, health issues, experiences, etc. IS ignorant. EVERYONE doesn't have to LOVE everything YOU consider important to be a valid, respected person. PEACE OUT!!!

Uh oh. I feel a little nastiness drifting our way, chatters! Let's everyone take a deep breath before hitting the send buttons.

So when can we expect a Postcard from Portland? Did you make it to Castagna?

I didn't make it there, but I made it to some new places that I'm eager to share with you -- October 31, in Travel.

are you still in Portland? how was your trip?

I was in Portland (Oregon) for a mere three days last week, not NEARLY enough time to put even a DENT in the 600 or so food trucks that exist.  The highlights among the restaurants were Pok Pok (amazing Thai) and Gruner (a chic Austrian arrival).

Manager should ahve made it point to see customer at the end of the night and apologize for sitting him at a table where their server was a pre op.


Fabio is coming home!! That is the best news I have heard all week (so far). Thanks for making my day, Tom.

This is really exciting news for the city.  Trabocchi is a great talent and has been much-missed here.

Dear Tom--a question from Columbus OH--we'll be in Richmond VA for the first time this weekend, going to our niece's wedding. Saturday night is free for us to go out to dinner. Suggestions? Thanks very much.

 Here's my recent dispatch from Richmond. Bon Appetit.

Hi Tom, I'm a former DC resident coming back to town on business next week. I'm organizing a lunch for my boss and a small group for next Fri somewhere near the convention center. I used to work in that neighborhood but it's been a long (long!) time and so much has changed. What would you recommend? Somewhere that takes reservations is a must. Thank you so much!

My first choice would be a communal table at Kushi, the trendy new Japanese restaurant that combines a sushi bar with a robata grill on lower K St. NW.  My second choice would be Acadiana and its Louisiana flavors on New York Ave. NW.

Looks like there is a ton of work going on at the old Olives space on the corner of 16th and K. Any inside scoop on the cuisine?

You bet.  PJ Clarke's is opening in that spot.

Was just there in March and still dream about the local oysters and salmon at Creelers, a lovely wee place in Hunter Square, just off the Royal Mile. Was not as impressed with the much-hyped Kitchin.

I think we now have a week's worth of meals for today's poster to try.

I live in Richmond, and in addition to the fine Carytown restaurants you mention, a new very worthy spot also in Carytown is Secco. Crazy delish food and very sincere people who love food and are down to earth enough to make sure and talk to every customer.

Thanks for the tip, Richmond.

answer my question, Tom! Husband and I are going on MUCH overdue date night on Friday in DC. Not looking to break the bank (a la Cityzen) but willing to spend some dough. No food restrictions. What's new and hot, or old and fab?

New: Kushi, where I just enjoyed a date night myself at the animated robata bar

Old: Corduroy. I adore the subdued chic, the quiet,  and Tom Power's understated and always-delicious American cooking.

That's a wrap, folks. Over and out until next Wednesday. Thanks for participating.

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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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