Ask Tom - birthday and anniversary woes

Nov 10, 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

Beef with worcestershire foam

Beef with worcestershire foam.  Credit: Stir Food Group.


MAJOR MAKEOVER: Within the last week or so, eight-year-old Zola has released a new menu, brought on a wine and spirits director, expanded its drinks to include "edible" cocktails, rethought its desserts and christened one of its six dining areas the Chef’s Tasting Room.


Why the flurry of changes?


For the past two years, the company behind the modern American restaurant in Penn Quarter has been busy launching the nearby Zola Wine & Kitchen and Potenza, an Italian concept downtown, says Karen Corbin, COO of the Washington-based Stir Food Group. Throw in the challenges of a recession, she says, and "this is the first opportunity to step back" and address the needs of Zola. Corbin calls the recent changes at the restaurant "long overdue."


Not to mention mouth-watering. Among the highlights on the so-called "bar menu" introduced Monday by chef Bryan Moscatello are braised oxtail ravioli tweaked with pomegranate, seared orata served with sunchoke tortelloni and lemon sabayon, and duck breast and duck leg confit offered with sage gnocchi gilded with quince butter. His menu, which includes a section of snacks, is currently available throughout Zola.  Starting Nov. 15, a separate three-course ($55) and five-course ($69) menus debut in the 32-seat tasting room,  formerly part of the main seating area.


Reggie Abalos, late of Zentan and Poste in the city, is Zola’s new pastry chef. His contributions involve baklava incorporating honey-poached eggplant and a chocolate-chestnut bar fueled with whisky-stewed prunes.


On the liquid front, Zola has hired Malia Milstead, the former wine director at Agora and The Source, to oversee all things grape for the establishment, while brothers and fellow bar tenders Ari and Micah Wilder have brought Zola’s cocktail list into 2010. 


One of the drinks I'm most looking forward to sipping -- and snacking on -- is simply titled "Smoke."   The $12 cocktail combines 10-year-old scotch, designer vermouth and orange bitters cooled with an ice cube infused with smoke and apple notes.  The garnish is timely, too:  skewered pork belly, natch.



Happy Wednesday, gang. Bring on the questions and comments.


Hi Tom! I loved the fall dining guide, but I need a different suggestion for good pasta-centric Italian in the DC/NOVA area for a birthday dinner. Thanks so much!

There are two new choices on the DC scene. One of them, Carmine's, is in Penn Quarter and celebrates mammoth plates of Italian-American cooking in a big, noisy series of dining rooms. The other, Casa Nonna in Dupont Circle, is more upscale (but still casual) and includes lasagna, ravioli, fettuccine and the like on its menu.

Full disclosure I am a huge Todd Thrasher fan! With that said I was wondering why you did not include PX in your dining guide? Don't get me wrong the Columbia Room is great also but in my humble opinion PX is just better from the Paninis, the Fish and Chips and do I have to mention the cocktails? Just wondering ?

I'm a big fan of Mr. Thrasher's, too, but part of my goal with this year's guide was to feature some exciting *new* venues, of which Columbia Room is one on the food scene. 

Hi Tom, for all amateurs out there, from the last month in reservation requests and general experiences.... We do not celebrate 1st dates, 1 month or 5 month anniversaries. Or 5 birthdays in a party of 6. We saw your request for free cake for your partner. There's no need to get aggressive with the hostess because the server presented the dessert menu. Perhaps your obsessive control freak side doesn't allow for him to CHOOSE his own free dessert that you requested? (twice just last week!) If you want flowers on the table for your date, show you care by at least selecting them YOURSELF and having them delivered. Or better just pin a simple coursage on her. That will go a long way for you! Flowers are personal.... Why do people feel the need to have a bunch of strangers (restaurant employees) celebrate their little "holidays" anyways? 1 guest on his 1st visit wanted the WHOLE staff to acknowledge their 25th anniversary! Aren't anniversaries and birthdays private affairs? Since you want free dessert can I put a 33% gratuity on your check for MY bday???? All month??? Oh yeah. We are a grown up establishment with seasoned professionals both working and dining. We don't sing "Happy Birthday" nor do we want to hear your party do it either.... No, you can't bring your own bottle of cheap scotch for a toast! The mojito is not "national" drink of our establishment. Nor is the caiparinha, pisco sour, or Red Bull/vodka... I don't have room for your favorite orange vodka. I have 1 8pm Saturday night I'm likely NOT going to shut down my bar to squeeze 2.5 limes,1 lemon, and 1/2 orange for your scratch margarita. Please stay simple in the busy times. The poor service you complain about elsewhere is probably due to people like you AHEAD of you. I'd love to see this forum open up with more stories on guest behaviors. Should make for an interesting day!!!! Thanks Tom!!!! PS: I'm posting early. Despite the cloak of anonymity that the intenet provides, I need all other posters to be aware that I am SUPERIOR because I posted early!!!

Feel better now? ;)


You raise some interesting points in your rant, among them, diners who feel entitled to something gratis in a restaurant just because it's their birthday.  I know of no other industry where this occurs. 


Seriously, can you imagine asking your hair dresser for a free cut, or your airline for an upgrade, simply because you turned a year older?  (You can? Well, shame on you.)


I realize there are restaurants that promote free desserts or whatever for patrons celebrating birthdays, but they tend to be casual and corporate.  Just because one restaurant offers such doesn't mean every restaurant should feel obliged. 


It might be one thing if you're a regular at an establishment -- and by that I mean someone who visits a restaurant two or three times a month, not once a year -- but newbies shouldn't expect freebies.


Okay, dissenters, fire back at me.

Tom - our dinner plans fell through tonight and we're looking for something yummny, casual, and somewhat kid-friendly (6 year old) in the Dupont area tonight. We're usually pretty adventurous but don't want to go all-out fancy with our kid in tow. Any suggestions? No burgers or pizza please.

What about mussels and fries at Bistrot du Coin? Or shared lasagna at the new Casa Nonna? Or scallion pancakes and curry laksa at the tiny Banana Leaves?

This shouldn't be a difficult question, but I'm coming up empty: I'm looking for a good Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, or Korean restaurant that is "authentic" (not Pan Asian) and casual (not Ten Penh prices), but not a hole in the wall either (a little more decor than Full Kee). Bob's Noodle 66 or Four Sisters would be perfect. BUT I'd like it to be within 20 minutes of Capitol Hill (and the closer the better). Any ideas? Thank you!

Can you pose the question again next week? I'm going to lunch today at a restaurant -- in Washington -- that might  offer one of the flavors you're seeking.


Right now, the city proper doesn't have any Korean, Chinese or Vietnamese restaurants of note. For Thai, I've relied on Regent on 18th St. NW in the past, but I haven't been there recently and the owners' spin-off in Logan Circle, Teak Wood, is pretty to look at but mediocre in the eating.

We have eaten at Blue Duck Tavern and Corduroy for holiday dinners in the past and enjoyed both. Where should we go this year in the DC Metro area? Open to all types of cuisine and would prefer DC locations.

There are lots of places to consider, but a few that stand out include Rasika, where the turkey will be served with spiced brussels sprouts and pumpkin chutney;  Vidalia, because of its southern bent and oyster stuffing;  and Trummer's on Main, in part for the scenic drive out there, in part for the pumpkin pudding cake.  


Where are others going this season?  Any restaurants care to share their game plans?

Hi Tom, I looked in your chat archives and Postcards, but I couldn't find anything on restaurants in Australia. We're going to Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Cairns, and Brisbane. Any recommendations?

Sorry, but I've never been Down Under. I'll throw this one out to the peanuts.





I was watching NBC 4's new show/channel on DC Food Scene and they featured someone from Zagat. Is Zagat even relevant any more with the ubiquity of customer review sites and the convenience of finding reviews elsewhere.

Once the leader of civilian reviews, Zagat is now one of many voices out there. But it's still relevant (and you know it has a web site, right?)

How long does it take to squeeze that citrus maybe 5 minutes unless you are lazy and incompetent and want to spend more time flirting with the staff. What a punk! Come on little boy out yourself so we can all avoid your establsihment. What a a fool! youa re there to serve your customers. BTW I have tneded bar, waited tables, washed dishes, bussed tables and cooked in restaurants so I understand busy Saturday night. Obviously you dont! Gunny would have you doing a 100 push ups but I am sure a whiner like you couldnt do five since squeezing a few limes was too tough for you.

Your passion is vibrating on the screen!

Tom, I just spent a year-and-a-half in London and finally returned to Washington. What are the top three (or five) new additions to DC dining that you would consider "must do?"

  1) Birch & Barley in Logan Circle is a (serious) beer lover's paradise but also a very good modern American restaurant.


2) Kushi raised the bar for Japanese restaurants by opening with both an excellent sushi counter and a U-shaped robata grill. To me, it feels very New York.


3) Bibiana, with Nicholas Stefanelli at the helm, has emerged as one of the area's finer Italian restaurants.


That's off the top pof my head, and I'm sure I'll think of other candidates for those three slots before the end of the hour. Chatters, what would you add to the list of important newcomers?

I gotta say, I was extremely disappointed that last week's chat was cancelled (and unless you were ill, downright P.O.'d). It would go a long way toward making us feel better if there was at LEAST a little sentence or explanation of why; e.g., "Due to a missed connection this morning, Tom's chat has been cancelled. He'll return next week at the regularly scheduled time.", or some such. Jeeze, that ruined my lunch hour.

I am so, so sorry for missing last week's chat, especially because I was out of the country and unable to participate the previous week. But I think it was the first time in 10+ years that I missed two chats in a row. 


The reality is, I was on a major deadline (did you catch my Postcard from Portland, Oregon on Sunday?) and couldn't afford the three or so hours I typically spend reporting/writing/hosting the hour-long discussion.

I am appalled at the rant from the restaurant owner/server/bartender? Someone does you the honor to celebrate his/her special event at your restaurant, and you won't acknowledge it or thank them? Shame! I was at Wildfire near (not on) my birthday and was showing my daughter a cute birthday card I got. The server saw that and, unasked but not unappreciated, brought a dessert to the table, not knowing exactly which one of us was the birthday person. Needless to say, he got a larger tip than usual AND a comment about his service to the manager. Many good restaurants offer free birthday/anniversary desserts.

Tom--I enjoyed your article on Portland in Sunday's paper. I'm wondering if you had a chance to visit Naomi Pomeroy's Beast while you were there, her so-called feminist meat collective. I had a terrific birthday meal there last May, and with its communal seating and fixed price menu, it was a far cry from anything I've had here in DC!

 I did dine at Beast. But honestly, I didn't taste what the fuss is about.  My meal was so ordinary, in fact, I left before dessert.  The whole night felt ... catered.

Daily Grill sends me a gift card every year for my birthday. Not huge, but enough to cover lunch and I pay for a drink. A friend and I celebrated our mutual birthday at The Tombs and when it was mentioned we received a very nice dessert that was comped. Suffice to say the very gracious waiter got a very substantial tip--and made us happy to go back.

I'm curious: Why does DG send you a gift certificate? Are you a regular? Just on its mailing list?  Either way, it's nice of the restaurant to treat you.

I can just imagine what the poor restaurant owner/bartender/server has had to go through that caused him or her to rant that rant. I've been a server with unreasonable customers. I've been a server whose bartender couldn't be bothered to stop flirting long enough to make my drink. I've been a diner whose special occation was marked by absolutely amazing treatment (rose petals on the table, a visit from the head chef, more free courses than paid - shout out to Marmelade in San Juan). Having seen it from all sides, I gotta say : diners be cool and don't set the expectations bar higher than normal. Staff, do your best, make your restaurant look good by going above and beyond where you can, and don't let the awful people make you treat the good ones poorly.



(Is Marmelade a restaurant or a server?)

First, the writer sounds like a jackass, but that doesn't make him wrong. I generally don't understand why people expect to get free food from restaurants. If you go to Giant on for your birhtday, they don't give you cake. A restauarnat or server who acknowledges a special day (e.g. a real anniversary or actual, on-tht-day birthday is nice, but not required). However, his point about a complicated drink is ridiculous. If I want to "keep it simple" I'll make it at home. I am going to a restaurant/bar because I assume you have some superior ingredient/knowledge/skill, which I am paying you to use. A high-end restaurant is not supposed to be "simple" -- that's why I'm there.

I was so focused on the free birthday cake rant I overlooked the poster's cocktail gripe. When drinks are as costly as they are these days ($15 and up in some places!), I have high expectations that I expect to be met.

Restaurant (see: Also, I meant to say that the person who was so upset about the 11-30 chat should have a nice lunch and move on to enjoy the rest of the day. Of course we all missed the chat, but it's back now!


Any early feedback (good, bad...) on the new Michel Richard place? Also, in your latest review you talk about a goat dish cooked over hay. That technique of cooking with hay seen a lot of that in San Fran over the years. First time hearing about it at an establishment based in DC. thanks!

Actually, several Washington chefs cook using hay as fuel. I recall Fabio Trabocchi (soon to return to the city!) doing so at the late Maestro. His former colleague, Nicholas Stefanelli, has also incorporated straw-cooked food on his menu at Bibiana.


As for Michel in  Tysons Corner, I have yet to visit. But I'm greatly looking forward to my first meal there.  Anyone out there been in?

Tom, great info on your chats. I am headed to Equinox on Friday night and never hear you mention the restaurant or see reviews in your dining section. I thought it was great before their fire and hear that it is even better now. What am I in store for, or should we go someplace else?

You must have missed my preview of the post-fire restaurant that ran in June, as well as my formal critique that appeared last weekend.


Bottom line: I like the place.

Hi Tom, welcome back! Kudos and thanks for Fall Dining Guide. And I look forward to enjoying vicarious visits to Paris and Provence when your Post Card comes out. I'm posting early as I'll be on a conference call during the chat. Headed to the Atlas district for a performance at the Atlas Center this Friday: five baby boomers in search of good food as a start to a fun evening. If you were dining on your own dime, where would you catch a pre-theater bite/dinner? The Liberty Tree, Sticky Rice, The Star and Shamrock, Granville Moore's, or somewhere else? Thanks!

Despite all the competition in its neighborhood, Ethiopic is my favorite place to eat on H St. NE these days.  A plus: It's as good for vegetarians as it is for meat-eaters.

The service was fantatic and the food lived up to expectations. There were 3 of us and we shared - chili garlic scallops, palak chaat, shrimp masala, dal makhani. Everything exceeded expectations. FANTASTIC and well worth the praise.

Happy to get your field report from Rasika.

Hey Tom - If you answer my question a genie will grant you three wishes..honest. My wonderful partner and I will be celebrating our second anniversary soon and we are looking for a place for dinner. We just got back from NYC (locande verde was amazing by the way) so after some fancier dinners there, we would like somewhere tasty and intimate but I really don't feel like doning a jacket and spending too much. What would you suggest for a "nice" meal that is quiet and cozy enough that I wont have trouble focusing all my attention on the person across the table. For reference we love Central (might be too bustling) and Corduroy ( jacket clause).

 I tend to gravitate to restaurant bars when I want to relax.


Not long ago, on the eve of my trip to France, my SO and I had a dynamite meal at Bibiana: just a few terrific starters and some cocktails at a counter where the seats happened to look into the kitchen. Lovely. A hamburger or mussels at the (tiny) bar of Et Viola! in the Palisades is also an easy and delicious evening.  While I have mixed feelings about the standing menu at the grand Taberna del Alabardero downtown, a corner table in the bar area of the Spanish restaurant, and a few tapas, always make me feel as if I'm in Madrid for the duration.


That help? (And where's my genie?)

Six for brunch this past Saturday afternoon at the always slammed-for-brunch DuMont Restaurant. One salad didn't arrive with the other appitizers. Ok. Then one guest (a tourist from South America in our party) got cold eggs -- not just warm, but cold. Sent back; new plate arrived steaming hot. Only problem: THE SALT SHAKER WAS FILLED WITH SUGAR. She kept pouring it on, and her scrambled eggs only got sweeter. Her boyfriend had the burger, he "salted" it, but couldn't taste any difference amongst the ketchup. No real on-site management or expiditer it appeared. Just a waiter, a computer, a kitchen and runners, with nobody REALLY on top of the whole situation. You been there? They also have burger places as well around town as well. I'll be back for dinner. However, no more brunch.

Sounds like one reason NOT to explore Brooklyn's restaurant scene.

I know you said you would be away on Wed., Oct. 27. But what about last week, Nov. 3? I wasn't able to tune in, but if you were chatting, the transcript didn't seem to make it to the Web site. Help !

See above. I was away last week as well as the one before.

Since you bailed on us without any notice, I think you should comp us a round of drinks at the bar! Or dessert, I'm not picky.

Okay, so if I invited everyone on here (truly reading this, live), how much would my tab be and more importantly, where should I host?



Fabulous sangria and delicious (and cheap) tapas at happy hour!

"Cheap:" You get what you pay for, no?

Maybe my husband and I are just getting old, but we would NEVER want restaurant servers to make a spectacle by serenading either of us on our birthday. It's not worth the hassle and disruption of our serenity just for a free piece of cake, and besides, as the birthday-honoree I'd rather select my own dessert, thankyouverymuch!

I'm with you! I'm not only attention-averse in public, I'm molten chocolate cake-averse anytime.

Tom: This may sound strange as I've never even been there, but I have this urge to retire to Portland. What do you think of it as a city? (I know you spent a lot of time in the Pac NW, so it seems reasonable to ask you.)

I could see myself owning a second home in either Portland or Seattle. I love the Pacific NW. Great food, smart people, rugged beauty ... all good reasons to keep the place in mind for my sunset years.

Tom, What is the `actual` reason you reviewed this restaurant 3 times in almost 2 years? Changing chefs can not be the only reason, right?

That's not a secret. 701 changed chefs and I thought the replacements were worth readers knowing about. But because I reviewed the restaurant earlier this year, I paired it with another one, Equinox, that I thought merited some attention (but maybe not a whole column, all by itself).

Actually, Nam Viet in Cleveland Park has gotten pretty good in the past year and I recommend it highly.

Ah, it's been awhile since I ate there. Thanks for chiming in.

For bar eating, there's nothing like Bourbon at the Four Seasons. The food is amazing. If you decide you're hungry, go for the burger. But the highlight is the cocktail menu. Take time to chat with the bartender about what he's doing, and you get entertainment along with your meal.



How could I overlook the watering hole, one of my faves?

Hi, Tom, Not sure this is relevant for the general chat, but if you're going to check out the new Rustico, here's what you have to try: the squash salad (I know, sounds odd, but it really is fantastic), the short rib cheesesteak (available at lunch) and the ricotta doughnuts (like beignets from New Orleans, but better!). Service is still hit or miss and there are still some communication flaws with the kitchen at times, but the food has been terrific. Don't bother with the gluten-free pizza, it's nice that gluten-free is on the menu, but it tastes like the pizza in a high school cafeteria. Regular pizza was good but heavy on the cheese, and with Pizzeria Orso so close, why bother with pizza anywhere else? The beer menu is glorius. Keep up the good work with the reviews and the chats, my family loves reading them!

You have just made me very hungry: Squash is a favorite vegetable, I love short ribs and donuts are one of my vices. Thanks, too, for reminding me I need to return to Rustico, where I haven't been since Frank Morales was in the kitchen.

Is about as Spanish as Taco Bell is Mexican. Suggest any of Jose Andres' places for a better bite and where the sangria won't taste like soda pop.

I'm with you there, bud!

I understand that people really a gratis dessert/drink when celebrating a special occasion (like the Wildfire poster) and I do as well. I think the distinction is that while we are talking about a service industry, it is still a business, and to expect such freebies is a little unfair considering you don't expect them anywhere else from another business. I think the answer is to graciously aprreciate these gestures when they occur, but never to "expect" them. Likewise, I don't "expect" coworkers to treat me to a birthday lunch, friends to send a birthday gift or greeting, etc. but I always appreciate it when they do. Manners people!

And on that oh so civilized note,  we'll bring today's chat to an end.


See you next Wednesday, gang. Thanks for tuning in.

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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