Ask Tom

Jan 05, 2011

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 COMEBACK KID: Ever since he closed his fashion-forward Farrah Olivia in Alexandria in May 2009, Morou Ouattara has been looking for a space to resurrect the restaurant he named for his daughter. 


He finally found the perfect location: Right inside Kora, the vast Italian-themed dining room he operated with his brother and fellow chef after the demise of  his signature business. 


Tonight, beginning at 5:30 p.m. in what used to be Kora's private dining room, the Ivory Coast native plans to unveil his restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Farrah Olivia @ Kora, with himself as master of ceremonies. 


"The only thing the two concepts will share, " the chef says in an email, "is myself and the address. There are separate menus, decor, staff."


Earlier this morning, Ouattara gave me a preview of the new menu. Hanger tartare with berbere oil, vanilla-poached lobster,  and  "shocked" tuna with olive "caviar" brought back exciting memories of meals past in Alexandria. 


As at the original, Farrah Olivia @ Kora will offer three-, four- and five-course menus (at $45, $55 and $65, respectively). The restaurant will be open Wednesday through Saturday nights. Reservations can be made by calling 703-445-6571.


Happy 2011, gang. It feels good to be back in the saddle and chatting again. Let's get rockin'.

Ate at the new Vento last week -- wasn't impressed (except with the decor). Did we just order the wrong thing? We loved Siroc and were thrilled they opened an offshoot in Dupont. Worth giving it another shot, and how long should I wait?

I hear you. The one and only meal I had at the spinoff was  such a disappointment, I didn't even bother to take notes when I got home. Bo-ring! The quality was nothing like what I've experienced at the very good Siroc. Vento, unfortunately, has more in common with Sysco.

When a restaurant has a completely reserved, full seating at 6:00 and 630 and a person comes in at 5:30 with no reservation and is told, "I am sorry, we are completely booked for this evening". The person looks at the hostess like they are crazy because the restaurant is empty at 5:30, but will be packed later. Then the person goes and writes about you on some blog how you didn't want their business, don't know what you are doing...REALLY

I presume you're a restaurateur upset with a nastygram?

I know you "can't" be friends (generally) with restauranteurs, but what are your relationships like (if any) with the other restaurant reviewers in town?

Over the years, I've met most of the print reviewers and  a handful of the area's bloggers.  With very few exceptions, I don't socialize with competitors, not because I don't like them, but because I'm  pretty busy doing my own thing.

Tom, I know you've talked about the lack of quality Italian restaurants in the region, so maybe I have a tall order for you. I have been dying for some good Italian food - nothing fancy, just some place that's not a chain where they make their own pasta and basic sauces. I live in Alexandria, and don't want to travel far from home. Any suggestions?

I haven't been in ages, but A La Lucia in Old Town has the neighborhood style I think you're after. Bonus: There's a 25 percent discount on wine Sunday through Tuesday.

Hi Tom—We are in Mexico and just heard that in two weeks Rene Redzepi is going to be guest chef at Nectar Restaurant in Merida, Yucatan, very near to us. The dinner cost is about $500 for two. I think it will be worth the experience, but am hesitating a bit because Redzepi will be cooking in a different restaurant and without his own staff. Valid concern or am I crazy for even asking this question? Thanks!

It's a valid question, but I need to know more about the situation to offer any kind of helpful answer.


Is the guest chef (of the two-Michelin starred Noma in Copenhagen) used to working in unfamilar kitchens and without the benefit of a support staff that knows his style? Will he be bringing his own ingredients with him, or using what's available in the Yucatan? Five hundred dollars is a LOT of money for dinner for two in Mexico. Then again, Redzepi is one of the world's most famous chefs; Noma has been hailed as "the world's best restaurant" in a poll of critics conducted by San Pelligrino.

I'm thinking about jetting off to Paris for a weekend! I've read your postcard, of course, but am wondering if Paris is a veg friendly city? I have no problem with bread, cheese, and pain chocolat for a couple of days, but thought you and the rest of the crew might be able to give me a couple of more options. Thank you in advance!

I haven't sought out meatless meals on my trips to Paris, but I know that Arpege, in the 7th arrondissement, honors vegetables on its haute cuisine menu. It is, I should point out, expensive.


Perhaps a chatter can help out?

Tom - My 11 and 12 year olds have been out to a number of restaurants in the area with the highest end ones being Jaleo and Carlyle (in Shirlington). They love Carlyle and think it's a 4 star restaurant but were shocked to find out it wasn't. I don't think you reviewed it, but I'm sure you've eaten there, so what would your off the cuff star rating be? I know this may be an unfair question, but come on! It's for the kids! Thanks!!

Anything for the kids.


I've been to Carlyle a lot over the years. I'd rate the Great American Restaurant as a two-star kind of place.  In my book, that's "good."  But I can see where your offspring might see it as even better than that, given their limited experience with loftier restaurants.

Kora doesn't have the best reputation, at least not with me, anyway. Service is bad, food is so-so. Do you think their reputation could affect yours?

I was not a fan of Kora, but Ouattara tells me that he is now the executive chef for both restaurants there. His brother, who had been overseeing the kitchen at Kora, is now just doing its breads and pastas.


I'm hopeful, in other words.

The hostess did a poor job communicating the situation.

Well, I wasn't there to witness the scene. If she's good, the hostess is going to explain why the empty restaurant isn't going to stay that way for long. 

I lived down the street from this place and was sorry to see it close but can't say that I was surprised. The unglamorous location along busy Washington street probably would have been better for a family or casual restauant. Also, I have to say I read about Mr. Ouattara's cooking and saw words like "foam". That may be very revolutionary and modern, but the fact is most people don't want to pay to eat foam. Mr. Ouattara, you may be an artist, but if you want to make a living you have to give people what they want.

He didn't mention anything about foam in my chat with him this morning. I think there's room for experimental restaurants like Farrah Olivia. It's all about balance, don't you think?

I just went a few weeks ago and found the food simultaneously bland and too salty. It was really just blah. The fennel salad I got was a few tough pieces of fennel with two (2) shavings of parm on top and drenched in olive oil. The pasta was overcooked and the sauce really resonant of a jar. I was sad, as they were good in the past. I would try Edgardo's over on Van Dorn. Also Geranio on King for more upscale (also check out Redrocks in King. Mostly pizza, but excellent)

Thanks for your feedback. As I wrote, I haven't been to A la Lucia in awhile.

I know it's not in Alexandria, but Acqua al 2 in Eastern Market is fabulous! The pasta is homemade and the array of different sauces are wonderful!

Fabulous is not the word I'd use to describe the Hill newcomer. It's ... OK.

I had this experience as a diner. I was alone walking home from work and decided to stop at a restaurant on King street for a quick supper. The place was empty but they wouldn't seat me because they were expecting a full house later. If they had just seated me I would have been in and out before the first reservation showed up. As it is they lost my business and how many of the diners with reservations probably failed to show up anyway.

I hear you.


I love it, in those situations, when I encounter a host who says something along the lines of "You know what? We're booked for much of the night, but we'd love to have you join us. Do you think we could have your table back in an hour?"  So much smoother!


Had our rehearsal dinner at Geranio in Old Town. Very good, very straightforward (i.e., no real experimentation) Italian food. Plus, serious Open Table points at decent hours.

Foam-free for sure!

At the risk of turning my favorite cozy Italian restaurant into a crowded mess, you should really check out La Strada, in Del Ray. The pasta & bread are homemade and delicious, the food is always seasonal, and it's a family-run operation (Mom & Dad are owners, son is the chef & trained in northern Italy, and daughter is one of the waitresses). They also do a very good job of incorporating fresh vegetables into their pasta and meat/fish dishes, which I appreciate. And to give you an idea of how lovely the management/staff is, a few months ago, I was raving over the bread, which had just come out of the oven. When my husband and I were ready to leave, the waiter brought out a full loaf of bread for us to take home. We are regulars now.

I'm getting hungrier by the keystroke ...

Have you made it out to the new Matchbox space on Rockville Pike? I've been twice now and can confirm that the beer selection and sliders are still great and the pizza rocks (though I still prefer to pie at nearby Amici Mei)

Haven't made it out there yet, but I'm looking forward to sitting near one of those cozy-sounding fire pits.

You guys are breaking my heart because I really wanted Vento to be another regular Italian option for me--I hope you both just had bad visits. I went the first week it was open and it was fabulous. Have you heard bad things from others as well?

Actually, I've heard zip.


Has anyone else been to Vento?

I completely understand the restauranteur's frustration, but look at it from the customer's point of view. The room is empty and the hostess is saying they are booked. That's odd. If, instead, she said, "I'm sorry but we are full beginning at 6 so we don't have enough time to seat you. You're welcome to sit at the bar." I'm sure there would have been no nasty write-up.

I actually PREFER the bar in many cases. So much more fun and less formal.

Really, it's one of the most charmless spaces I've ever dined in. What's up?

I'm afraid there are a lot of chatters nodding in unison right now.

My family is treating me to a matinee performance at the KC next Sunday and I'd like to treat them to a nice brunch prior. I know some of your brunch faves, but what can you suggest that is sort of in the area of the KC?

Your best, closest-to-the-stage bet is Blue Duck Tavern, the light-filled dining room in the Park Hyatt, which offers a nice variety of dishes, from waffles with huckleberries to short rib hash.

Tom, submitting early in hopes of getting your input! I recently had a wonderful meal at Charlie Palmer Steak and felt that their steak was on par with the other chophouses that typically garner more attention in your chats (read: Bourbon Steak, JG Steak, and Michael Landrum's empire) ... have you not been to CP recently, or do you simply feel it is not worthy of being in that discussion? Where do you think will emerge as some of the better places for a cut of meat moving forward into 2011? Who's trending up, basically. On a similar note, I also recently dined at Zola, and think they're putting out some of the best food in the city - I can't wait to get back there and give their menu another go. Thanks for the chats and the input Tom!

Funny. Just the other day I was on the Hill, where I passed Charlie Palmer Steak and thought, "I need to get back there. It's been too long."   In the crush of all the new places, the restaurant simply fell off my radar. So thanks for the prompt.


Your post gives me an excuse to ask today's audience for suggestions on what you would like to see re-reviewed in the spring guide, which I've already started on. The theme will be similar to last year's  "Then & Again" issue, in which I revisited old favorites and even some previous flops.


As for Zola, lots of changes over there, you're right.

Is Paris veg-friendly? Not so much. Non-French food restaurants -- ethnic Asian, African, Italian -- may be more likely to have things, but that's probably not why you're going to Paris. If you want to stick with French restaurants, try crepe places, which usually have some veg options but you need to be able to read the menu to confirm (how's your French?), and in bistros look for salads with delicious breaded goat cheese rounds (careful for pork in salad dressings though) and, yes, bread and cheese sandwiches. Soups will usually not be veg. You may be able to find some cheesy/cream sauce pastas too. I always come back from Paris desperate for light vegetable stuff after that much cheese...and dessert! Oh please go to Laduree and get macarons! Good luck!

You've offered some good advice there. And I second your recommendation regarding Laduree. I never go to Paris that I don't buy some of the tea salon's sweets -- only some of which make it back home, I confess.

This is a sort of last-minute question, but do you or any chatters have any recommendations for excellent dining in Barbados? I'm heading there next week with a girlfriend and we're adventurous eaters of just about everything... looking forward to the fresh fish and fruit for sure. Thanks!


I've been thrilled with the homemade pastas and sauces at the neighborhood-y La Strada in Del Ray. Granted, it's around the corner for us, but it really always hits the spot and is super-friendly.

Note to self:  Get thee to La Strada.

Went with a couple of friends two weeks ago. It was recommended by a good friend loves the place. While I typically go to a restaurant a few times before I make up my mind I will have to say my first visit was very underwhelming. We were a party of four, each of us ordered different apps and entrees. I didnt like mine and the others said theirs was ok. service was friendly but forgot our bottle of wine. i will def give it another try though perhaps it was an off night.... we all have them don't we?

Note to self 2:  No rush

Au Gourmand, near the Louvre, has a daily vegetarian menu and several a la carte options. Their maitre d' is amazing, and never forgets a face; he will recognize (and welcome) you on subsequent visits! Plus, the food is good!

Reader to the rescue! Much obliged.

Tom, I live two blocks away from the new Rustico in Ballston. I have reservations tonight. Have you tried it? Any must haves on the menu? I'm hoping for a restaurant in the neighborhood that can put out some good food.

I really dig the new place. The kitchen does an interesting twist on hummus, using pureed carrots instead of chickpeas and serving the snack with warm pita and zesty minced lamb. Delicious stuff.

I usually prefer eating at the bar as well. What are some of your favorite restaurants with bars in DC and NoVa?

Off the top of my head, Central, Palena, Bar Pilar and Rasika all come to mind, the last because it's sometimes the only option, given the restaurant's popularity.

Trying to decide between Ceiba and Assaggi Osteria for Restaurant week - thoughts? Thanks!

I was underwhelmed by a recent meal at Ceiba. Everything but the service was kind of muted.


Curious how you came to decide between those two places? They're quite different.

What do you think about Esquire magazine critic John Mariani naming DC one of the top ten restaurant cities (#8, specifically) in the U.S.? My own take is that he got the right answers for a lot of the wrong reasons ("Taberna Alabardera" [sic] over Jaleo for Spanish cuisine? And singling out Capri, a strip-mall Italian place in McLean, seems just bizarre). Here's his entry for DC: 8. Washington, D.C. — Money, lobbyists, and lawyers fuel the Capital's dining scene, even if our stalwart legislators can't accept dinner from BP, the NRA, the AMA, or the NFL. D.C., especially for its size, has the country's best Spanish restaurant, Taberna Alabardera; its best Indian restaurant, Rasika; and an increasing number of first-rate Italian restaurants, like Bibiana downtown and Capri in nearby McLean, Virginia. And few would dispute that chef Michel Richard is not a national treasure and an inspiration for chefs everywhere, both at Citronelle in Georgetown and the brand-new Michel's in Tyson's Corner.

I  like John personally, but ... Capri? Seriously? And Taberna del Alabardero hasn't been good in the last two years. (I've been at least three times in that period.)  I agree with him about Rasika, though.

Tom - please help settle a debate! My friend and I we had after a lucious brunch (at Meme in Philadelphia). I said it was the best meal of my life, and she pointed out that (i) we hadn't had any breakfast and (ii) that our dinner the night before was extremely light. So was it the best of our lives, or merely very good? Of course, this is where you come in. How do you account for hunger level? Have a snack before heading out to eat? Normalize for hunger? Thanks Tom!

I think about this every time I'm out with a ravenous friend or two and they're digging food that I may or may not find very good.  I'd like to believe I can evaulate food based on its own merits and not the reality I might be famished. (Hey, it happens!)


I keep a bowl of fruit and a jar of almonds at my desk, snacks I dip into if I am ravenous before heading out to a review. I can't stand eating bad restaurant bread, for instance, simply because my stomach is growling.

Curious - how many times do you eat out each week? Do you enjoy cooking? How many times do you visit a restaurant before you review it? Thanks! :)

1) An average of 10 meals a week


2) I love to cook, but I seldom do these days. The last time I turned on a burner, other than for coffee, was Thanksgiving.


3) For my reviews in the Magazine, I visit places at least three times, sometimes more, depending on the scope of the restaurant and the size of its menu.

4) You're most welcome.



Don't forget Corduroy! And the bar at Cityzen. And Cashion's.

Yes to Cashion's (which, by the way, is really good again).

Have you been to Vidalia since the departure of RJ Cooper. Is it still good or no?

I've had a couple of very nice meals at Vidalia since Mr. Cooper bid adieu. I think its biggest drawback these days is its downstairs location. But once you're THERE, the room erases any doubt, thanks in part to its light color scheme.

Hi Tom! You sent out a request on Twitter for restaurants that can host a small wedding for me, and I wanted to let you know that I've signed a contract for my March 2011 wedding at Volt! Thanks so much for your help--I never would have thought they were in my price range and gotten the courage to call and ask without you.

That's great. Thanks for letting me know you're all set.


Thanks, too, to all the chefs and restaurants -- some of whom thought I was inquiring about a setting for *my* wedding -- that replied to my Tweet request.  (No bells for me just now.)

My 94-year-old grandmother is going to be visiting D.C. during the heart of restaurant week. She still walks, but isn't too great with stairs. I am looking for quiet, non-RW spots to suggest for dinner, as I'm sure that just about everywhere that participates in restaurant week is going to be mobbed and loud. Corduroy is on the list, although I'm a bit wary of the steep entrance stairs. I'd love to find a few other places, perhaps at a slightly lower price point, with reliable food where she won't be overwhelmed by ambient noise. There will probably be six or so adults eating a fairly early dinner, 6-6:30. She's reasonably adventurous with ethnic food and her comfort is more important to me than a super memorable dining experience... Downtown/Chinatown/PQ/Logan preferred. i have been going over lists of options in my head and am coming up fairly empty. Thanks - love your chats!

That's a tall request: good, moderately-priced food in a quiet setting in a hot neighborhood *and* during Restaurant Week.  (Just so you know, it's nearly impossible to find a better restaurant that's not participating in the promotion. )


But I love a good challenge. So I'm going to suggest Siroc on 15th St. NW, the Bombay Club near the White House, Kellari Tavern on K St. NW and, if you care to splurge a bit and soak up a gem of a room, Plume in theJefferson Hotel.

I have seen first hand the power of your positive reviews. I live a couple of blocks from Pho Viet and first ate there in February, when I needed a break from shoveling snow. After being snowed in up in Boston, I made it back Wednesday and decided to get take out from Pho Viet. When I walked in at 7 PM, every seat, including at the counter, was occupied and Mike looked slightly frazzled. After placing my order I was told it would take 45 minutes. I went home and returned 45 minutes later and the place was still crowded! Fortunately, there was no decline in the quality of food due to the crowds.

I'm smiling. One of the things I always fret about, when favorably reviewing mom and pops such as Pho Viet, is the restaurant's ability to handle a crush of new business.  I'm thrilled to hear that owners Phi Nguyen and Minh Chau are still turning out quality food (and service?)

What was your reaction to the outing of the LA Times' restaurant critic?

I thought it was incredibly short-sighted for  the owner of Red Medicine to  not only take a picture of the restaurant reviewer, but also to post her pseudonym and contact number.  What could they possibly gain, other than 20 minutes of fame? 


The Times pledges to go ahead with a review, by the way. It would be cool if Ms. Virbila could slip in and write it up, just as Bryan Miller did for the NY Times years ago, when the Cipriani owners  said they wouldn't serve him if he came in. (He went undercover to review the place.)


Out of time, kids.  The lunch bell is ringing. See you next week, when restaurateur Ashok Bajaj will be my guest.   Come hungry, and with good questions!

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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