Ask Tom - are D.C. restaurants terrorist targets?

Oct 13, 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 washingtonpost.com/tomsietsema.

And here I thought weight gain and the occasional off oyster were my only concerns as a Washington restaurant critic .... Yikes!

 

I, for one, refuse to be intimidated by terrorists. I am concerned, of course, for the industry I cover and have to wonder how seriously restaurants are going to take this latest threat. 

 

Are we going to see metal detactors at the entrances of dining rooms?  Homeland security types disguised as servers?  Customer profiling via opentable.com?

 

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

 

Happy (?)  Wednesday, everyone. Today's chat should be anything but dull.

 

Onward!

Tom--Thanks for your preview of Galileo III this morning. I went there on Monday night, and I have to agree with your assessment that the main courses were rather listless (I'd include the fish dishes among that as well). But for me, part of the problem is that the portions were quite small, which didn't seem like the best platform for these dishes--to make that work, the flavors really need to pop more and interact to make a good impression in this abbreviated form. I left thinking they would actually be better in larger portions, which seems odd, given that they were the weakest part of the meal, and didn't leave me wanting more. Thoughts?

Funny, I think larger portions tend to *emphasize* mistakes or shortcomings in dishes, which is one reason I prefer appetizers to entrees.

 

My dinner at the new Galileo III was interesting on many levels. The kitchen's energy/ideas seemed to flag with the main courses, all of which were surprisingly ordinary. But I loved some of the earlier plates, in particular chef Donna's savory budino.  In general, though, I felt as if I were eating in 2006; the scene has really changed since the chef closed his second Galileo then.

 

Has anyone else been there?

Hi Tom, My husband and I are going to Paris this summer. Can you reccommend any local French restaurants where we can get used to ordering and eating in French? Is Bastille any good? We usually eat Spanish or Italian food, so French is new to us. We'd like to educate our palates in advance. Merci.

I think you'll have fun doing your homework at, among other spots,  Cafe du Parc next to the Willard Hotel, Bistrot Lepic in Georgetown, Montmartre on the Hill and Praline in Bethesda.

 

I'm going to Paris next Thursday, by the way, on my way to Provence. Hopefully, I'll come back with a delicious new tip or two.

After reading your review of Estadio, I have to ask... can you compare this to Jaleo? The husband and I love small plates and we love Spanish food, and no one delivers either like Jaleo (the only Spanish restaurant in the 2009 dining guide). Cork is the only other small plates establishment that could hold a candle to Jaleo, but somehow, we still end up at Jaleo a few times a year, which is a lot when we only do "serious" dining out 1-2 times a month... so the question is, should we exchange one of our Jaleo nights and give Estadio a try? I'm a wee bit skeptical.

Jaleo is truly in a league of its own. I've never been to a finer tapas restaurant in the U.S. 

 

Even so, you ought to make time for Estadio. There are some terrific small plates on its menu (love those tuna-stuffed deviled eggs!) and dishes such as the grilled octopus on sliced potatoes taste authentically Spanish.  Plus, the scene is great fun.

Hi Tom What if any impact do you believe the call by Al Qaeda to attack DC restaurants will have on an already fragile business

People are going to continue to eat out, right? I mean, we have to! But I would suspect all of us are going to be a lot more vigilant about our surroundings.

 

Please help me settle a debate with my husband. When is it acceptable to send back food because you think it sucks? I think it is one thing when there is something wrong from a safety perspective, but what about when it is just an issue of personal taste or mistaken ordering? He says you can send it back whenever you want because they ask you how the food is and you are paying so you should be honest. This has been bugging me since a meal at a 2 michelin star restaurant in Spain last summer that was so disappointing I am still bitter about it. We ordered a tasting menu and course after course barely wanted more than one bite. The restaurant is known for avante garde food, but "fosslized salsify root and caviar" was totally foul. It was actually amusing to watch people around the restaurant look puzzled at the food and even disgusted but then eat it anyway- maybe because when it is that expensive you feel obligated or that at places that are so highly rated you feel silly not liking something that you are told you should think is great. But when we finally confessed to the waiter that we weren't enjoying our meal, they sent us new food off menu that was way better. So looking back, this makes me wonder how many other times I've been displeased with my meal and maybe sending it back would have been the smarter thing to do. If it is ok at a really expensive fancy restaurant, what about at a more "everyday" type of meal?

Situations vary, as you point out. It's one thing to get food that isn't prepared correctly, another thing to receive a dish that simply isn't to your liking.

 

In the former case, you should definitely send a mistake back; in the latter, I think honesty is the best policy. Restaurants don't necessarily owe you something different if you discover say, that you don't like skate or liver after a bite or two. But a good establishment also doesn't want to lose a customer or risk bad word-of-mouth by ignoring someone's dissatisfaction.  (Notice how your initial poor impression of  the Spanish restaurant turned around after you piped up?)

 

Keep in mind, however, that a lot of  "everyday" restaurants run on pretty slim profit margins and the owner is going to have to eat a loss on a dish.

Tried asking this a couple weeks ago but then you didn't have a chat. Soon-to-be wife and I will be in Rio for the first night of our honeymoon in a couple weeks. We're only there one night and are looking for someplace great for dinner. Don't need to be fancy, per se, just great food. We're staying around Copacabana Beach if that helps. Any suggestions? Thanks!

Rio, anyone?

Thanks so much for this recommendation. We ate there Saturday night and loved it. The food was elegant in presentation and extremely tasty. The service was attentive but not over the top. My husband said to tell you Seasonal's lingonberry martini was one of the top 5 cocktails he's had in his life. Thanks again!

Wunderbar!

 

I'm always pleased to get feedback on my Postcard recommendations. Happy to hear this Austrian retreat worked out for the two of you.

Hi Tom. I'm going to London in a couple of months. Besides the usual suspects, such as L'Atelier Joel Robuchon (sp?), what are the 2 or 3 places in London you would go to if you were there right now? Love ya!

As a matter of fact, I *do* have a few ideas for you, in one of my more recent Postcard columns.

sounds like a good name for a restaurant~!

Indeed it does. Or a cocktail lounge.

Any feedback yet? First Bite planned? I really hope it's good!

I ate there for the first time just last night. You can expect a preview next Wednesday. (Early warning: Cuba Libre is not the place to go if you're looking for quiet conversation. My head is still throbbing from the aural assault.)

Be honest. Al Qaeda just wants a shorter line for the lobster truck, right?

Funny! (But sorta kinda not funny at the same time.)

I regard to sending food back. I think it is wrong to send something back just because it is not to your taste. I had an experience in a very nice restaurant once where I ordered a dish that came out looking perfect, but it truely just was not to my taste. I didn't like the sauce on it. I ate a bit of it then simply did not finish the rest. the waiter who was excellent noticed that I had only eaten a small portion and asked if it was ok. I simply remarked that it was prepared correctly, it was just not to my taste. Everyone else raved about their meal choices. A few minutes later he arrived with what was my second choice (he obviously heard me pondering my choice with my dining partner). This was totally unexpected. Not only did he bring out my second choice, he brought out desert afterward and my meal and desert were not on the bill when I left. (I left a very hefty tip in appreciation) I do not expect this to happen in cases where someone simply doesn't like something, but it sure made a great impression on me. I will definitely go back to that place again. The best thing is to be honest. If you don't like something but it is prepared correctly, just chalk it up to experience, don't expect that you shouldn't have to pay for it, but be honest and let the waiter know if they ask.

I'd love to know where this happened. Happy to give credit where credit is due.

The best food I have had in Rio is at Tres Tintos. Also, if they want dessert the lady fingers at Postillion are wonderful!

That's a start. Can you give us some idea why you like it?

Would CL be a good place for an after-work happy hour? My office is nearby and I'm wondering if they could handle a group. There's usually 5-15 of us that like to go hang out if there's standing room.

There were what appeared to be lots and lots of office workers milling about in the bar. I say, go.

What do think of live music in restaurants? I was having dinner and there was a live duet playing. It's kind of unusual for music to be played there, but I guest there was some sort of special occasion. The guy sitting at the table next to me was annoyed and told the waiter to have them quit playing and they did. Everyone else seemed to enjoy the music. What do you think?

You don't specify what instruments were being played, or the volume. I love classical guitar, for instance, but might not want an organ recital with my dinner. (Believe it or not, I was once a waiter in a Minnesota steakhouse that had an organ player come in on weekends. Very "Fargo.")

I did this back several months ago twice and offered to show the kitchen staff and chef at Trummer's on main how to properely cook a rib eye to medium rare. Chef what's his name was not pleased. attention to detail and training. I learned this skill at 18yo back 40+ years ago and have never forgotten it. its not that hard expect for chefs trying to make a name for themselves. Red warm center not pink. Poke meat with finger after a few minutes and it will tell you how done it is. You did hear Trummer's is having staffing and financial issues. Hangout at the Clifton PO and you hear all the good stuff.

If I were the chef at Trummer's -- or any other restaurant, for that matter -- I might not appreciate a customer giving me a "lesson" in the kitchen, either.

 

But I hear you: you like your meat the way you like it.

My sister got pancakes with blueberries but she ordered plain. She does not like blueberries, but she ate them and then asked for them free. I say if you eat it, that's implicit acceptance and you should pay. The only way you can justify not paying is to not eat it. How can she argue they were unacceptable since she ate (accepted) them?

She can't.

 

Why didn't sis pipe up as soon as the fruity pancakes were set down? And if she has such a dislike for blueberries, why did she eat them?

I think if I sat down at a restaurant and saw "fossilized" anything on the menu, I'd get up and find another restaurant.

I wasn't sure if that was the poster describing the taste/appearance of the dish or a menu description.

Thanks for ruining my last Friday plans! Now that your Sunday magazine reviews are posted early, I had to change my plans. Restaurants are mobbed when you give them favorable reviews.

Are you returning my review? Should I give you something in its place? 

"Not only did he bring out my second choice, he brought out desert afterward and my meal and desert were not on the bill when I left. (I left a very hefty tip in appreciation)." If the manager okays the freebies, sounds fine; but if the waiter provides these without approval and then garners a bigger tip, I suspect the manager/owner will rightly be upset. Anytime a waiter offers to comp something for me, I say thanks to the manager so that there is no misunderstanding.

Ah, good point.  I should have addressed that part of the rave.

I was excited, thrilled to try it. After 45 minutes in line and having moved 30 feet down the a line the length of a block I gave up. Part of being in the service industry is actually serving your customers. Sorry Red Hook, I won't be trying you again until mid-December or until the fad is on the way out.

I feel your pain. It took me FOUR TRIES to actually land a lobster roll. The last time, near Metro Center, I even showed up 10 minutes early and joined a line of 30 or so seafood fans.

I think I'd like to send THIS guy back to where he came from. He sounds like a real boor. Ugh.

The first of several responses to Mr. Medium-Rare's post.

I haven't made it to Trummer's yet, but after reading that steak guy's post, I think I'm going to make a reservation in solidarity. They deserve a little extra income for putting up with that kind of attitude (twice!!).

Kind of like having a theater patron go on stage in the middle of a performance and telling an actor, "You call that Shakespeare? I'll show you Shakespeare!"

I ate a restaurant where the menu offered "scared" tuna on a bed of greens...." I gave it a shot and ordered the "seared" tuna whereupon the waiter asked how I would like that cooked. Um, seared? A sense of adventure and sense of humor keep me dining out.

You're cracking me up!

I am the poster who got his second choice at the restaurant. This was all done with the approval of the manager. I was not advocating that waiters should simply make this decision on their own. I shortened the story for the sake of space. besides how would the waiter expect that I was going to give him a bigger tip just because he did that. I wouldn't risk my job with the "chance" that I might get a bigger tip. Its funny how a nice story can be turned into something negative. Why does someone always have to find something negative in every post?

Thanks for following up, Arlington.

 

Everyone happy now?

Tom, in all the griping that usually happens in this chat, would like to share a story of exemplary service - repeated. My husband surprised me with a rare night out (two young kids, demanding jobs, blah, blah blah) Monday. I managed to guess were - Marcel's. We've been fans since our first visit (and probably once/year since), when we were much less sophisticated diners, and Jonathan (yes, he's worth remembering) treated us just the same as everyone else. Well, it just so happened we were seated in Jonathan's section again - 7 years later, it turns out (he went and looked it up). Even though it wasn't an occasion, he brought a glass of champagne to honor our escape, and deftly steered us through the evening, reading us well and making spot-on recommendations. We watched him do the same with others - whether regulars or first-timers. Never mind the amazing dinner - from the mussel, cockel, and oyster gratin all the way through the complimentary post-dessert nibbles (is there a name for those?). "Robert," as Jonathan kept referring to him, clearly has his diners' interests at heart when he mixes a menu with new and favorites (brought back his roasted chicken and his foie gras b/c of customer requests). Kudos. My point - to the chatters - if you want to splurge on a lovely, relaxing evening out during which you don't have to think about a thing (not even your menu choices if you don't want to - the staff would certainly be capable of selecting for you), go. It's worth its weight in dining gold.

I, too, am a big fan of Robert Wiedmaier's French restaurant in the West End. So civilized. So delicious.

 

The word you're looking for, by the way, is mignardises (confections that follow the dessert course in many high-end places).

Tom--In the latest issue of The Washingtonian, in an article on Jose Andres, Todd Kliman writes, "Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post had previously reviewed Minibar, which Andrés had conceived as his most personal statement, and found it wanting—a clever exercise not worthy of serious consideration." Does that really reflect what you wrote and thought about Minibar when it opened? I seem to recall that you said some dishes came off as merely clever exercises, but I don't believe you ever said that Minibar as a whole didn't merit "serious consideration." In fact, it seems you've been one of the chef's biggest champions over the years. Care to set the record straight?

I was definitely surprised to see that comment attributed to me, because it's not how I feel about Minibar at all.  While I may have questioned a dish or two over the years, I don't recall ever writing (or even thinking) that Andres's six-seat statement was anything short of exciting or significant or trail-blazing.

Hi Tom- We love your reviews- you've never steered us wrong! We have a toddler in our house, and my husband's birthday is coming up. In past years we have always gone to Ray's the Steaks for his birthday. I was planning to get a babysitter and do the same. Hubs surprised me by saying he wanted toddler to be part of the birthday. His food preferences run to the "all-american" style, although he will try anything (hence the Ray's birthday tradition). Can you think of a kid friendly good restaurant in Arlington or maybe Falls Church?

Ray's is a good choice (and it's buzzy, so a toddler is likely to fit into the picture), but if you want to venture out, consider Liberty Tavern (American) in Arlington or either Bamian (pretty Afghan with meat dishes) or the cozier La Caraquena (Bolivian and Venezuelan, also with interesting beef preparations).

Folks, they already crashed a plane into the Pentagon and tried to crash one into the Capitol. Are you really bothered by some two-bit threat? To quote: "But I would suspect all of us are going to be a lot more vigilant about our surroundings." I am an not going to be one bit more vigilant. I have enough security barriers, metal detectors, etc. in my neighborhood due to endless paranoia about additional attacks. You have a much greater chance of dying driving to the restaurant than eating in one. If anything, we should treat this as a call to dine out more frequently and more publicly. And you, as an influential voice to the dining community, you should not be feeding this paranoia in anyway.

I think you misread what I wrote.  At the start, I stated  I wasn't going to be intimidated. But it never hurts to check out your surroundings, regardless. Just last week, I tapped a woman on the shoulder in a restaurant because her purse was hanging over her stool, pretty much a green light for a would-be thief.

I would love to go to a chef's table to celebrate my 50th birthday. What are some of the better chef's tables in town both for food and more importantly for a fun experience? Thanks for any help in making my special day, really special.

The most celebrated kitchen table in the city is probably Michel Richard Citronelle in Georgetown, which I've twice had the pleasure to experience through friends. I love that long table and the up-close ballet of really talented cooks.

 

Other chef's tables to think about include Tosca downtown and 2941 in Falls Church.  Outside of Washington, there are the Inn at Little Washington and Table 21 at Volt in Frederick.

 

Am I missing anything else wonderful?

Hi Tom, I was catching up on Wednesday's chat tonight where a poster was in disbelief that diners would dismiss an entire cuisine. I wanted to offer my perspective. For me, certain foods leave a bad taste in my mouth, pun intended. It's emotional and I remember hearing once that smell is one of the biggest memory triggers. For example, I had a horrible, soul-sucking job with a horrible boss who ate Indian take-out two or three times a week. The curry and cumin and other spices permeated the office for the rest of the day and now, every time I walk into an Indian restaurant or smell curry, I'm instantly transported back to one of the most miserable times of my life. So, I chose not to eat Indian. Alternately, my boyfriend is Ethiopian and a lot of my good memories revolve around food. I wonder though, if we were to part ways, if injera would taste as sweet to me. So, it's not a matter of snobbery, or reluctance to try new things, or an unsophisticated palette, but an emotional trigger caused by the smells and tastes.

You are absolutely right about the connection between smell and memory.

 

Every time I walk past a fresh-cut lawn, I'm instantly whisked back to my youth in Minnesota, where I was the resident landscaper. Same goes for yeast or vanilla, scents that whisk me back to time spent with my mother or grandmother in their kitchens.  As for Polo cologne, a mere whiff transports me back to college. Funny how that all works.

 

Thanks for writing.

Hi Tom- Cannot wait for the dining guide- thanks in advance for all your hard work on it! So here's my question, my daughter in turning 4 on Tuesday. We'd like to take out the kids and all the grandparents for a casual dinner in Bethesda or nearby to celebrate. We are thinking at this point: American Tap Room, Mon Ami Gabi, or Black Market Bistro. Any suggestions as which we should pick or other places we should consider? Thanks so much!

 Of those ideas, I'd vote for the local pick, Black Market Bistro. But you know what else is fun?  Woodmont, on Woodmont Ave. Its menu is pretty basic (go for the salads, burgers and crab cakes), but the service is terrific and dinner includes free parking, in a lot next door.

 

 

Thanks for mentioning my fall dining guide. It goes online Thursday afternoon and appears in print on Sunday (or Saturday, depending upon when you get your paper).  It was a lot of work, but I hope you'll be pleased with the results.

Tom, Do you get a kick out of all the comments you get for chats, the one you post and some you don't. Are there ever really dicey ones you don't post, but that really make you laugh?

Every week there are at least two or three comments or questions that could well get me in trouble if  I posted them.  Some are serious:  "Did you know so-and-so's checks are bouncing?"  Other times, people just share weird stuff with me. 

Very true, how strong this is. I don't care for the smell of fancy expensive cigars, but let me catch one whiff of a cheap American one (White Owl, Dutch Masters) and I'm instantly six years old sitting on a midwestern farmhouse porch while my grandfather & great-uncles relax after a long day of harvesting.

I love that picture. Sweet.

Lots of salespeople are given some leeway in offers they can give. You think the car salesman is really asking his manager? He's back there eating a doughnut while you sweat! It's business.

At the risk of offending some of my best friends (Hi, Michael! Hi, Big Post Advertiser!) I'm publishing this.

 

Yes, some workers are given leeway. I like it when restaurant workers are.

Tom I just have to ask. How you're doing? And what's on your lunch and dinner menu tonight? No specific restaurants but more what you plan on eating.

Lunch is going to be leftover pizza from A Place I'm Poised to Review Soon. Dinner is with my favorite wine columnist and his lovely wife at (insert garbled text).

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. Thanks for a lively hour. I'll be discussing my fall dining guide next Wednesday.  Have a delicious week.

Is Equinox going to be in your fall dining guide? If so, I'll wait for you review. If not, any more information since your First Bite you did after their re-opening? I'm headed there soon for my birthday. Thanks!

Equinox isn't in my forthcoming guide, but I'm writing an updated review of  Todd Gray's downtown restaurant for the Magazine Nov. 7.

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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 sidewalk.com 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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