Ask Tom

Dec 22, 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

SINGING THE BLUES: Say farewell to phyllo-wrapped chicken and tomato soup thickened with cracked wheat and lamb. Couscous Cafe & Catering is closing after lunch this Friday, ending a six-year run on 20th St. NW.


"I gave it a shot," says owner Aziz Benassou, whose food was reminiscent of what he grew up on in his native Algieria. But "for the last two years, there's been no business at all."   The restaurateur adds, "downtown Washington is not good for small businesses."


On a brighter note, Benassou will continue with the catering side of his business, out of a rental kitchen in Alexandria, and he hopes to open something "small" and boutique" down the road -- just not in the big city.


During last week's discussion, the subject of over-rated restaurants came up and one chatter wrote in about a problematic Mother's Day brunch at New Heights. 


I subsequently heard from Kavita Singh, the co-owner of the modern American restaurant, who emailed, "We  stopped serving brunch 5 years ago and have only been open for dinners since."  Even so, "I was hoping to get any contact information for the poster so we could get in touch with them and hopefully have the oppurtunity to rectify a bad experience that they had a long time ago."


Plea to chatters:  If you're going to log complaints about restaurants, please base your posts on the facts (and not on something that occured eons ago)!.  A live chat doesn't allow me the time to fact-check every single detail, and I'm sorry New Heights  was dinged for something that may or may not have happened years ago.


HOUSEKEEPING NOTE:  There will be no food chat Dec. 29. I'll be back on Wednesday, Jan. 5.


So, where's everyone going to be this weekend? I'll be celebrating Christmas with my family in a very snowy Sarajevo on Friday -- provided I can get to, and through, London's Heathrow Airport tomorrow.  It's not looking great at the moment.


Ready? Let's begin.

What is one restaurant in DC that is both technically sound and imaginative that you still don't like?

Funny you should ask.


As I gear up to work on my spring dining guide (May 15), and I'm considering which restaurants to feature, there are several places I keep going to with the mission of solving this question: What am I missing about X, Y and Z that everyone likes, or seems to like, about them?


X is a pasta house run by one of the most genial owners around. Y is an elegant interior with a snooze of an expensive menu. Z plugs along in its hot neighborhood, but the best part of dining there involves liquids rather than solids.


I'm not trying to be coy here, by the way. I'm leaving myself open to (pleasant) surprises on my next visits to these establishments.

Hi Tom, thanks for the chat! Restaurant Week is coming, and I just wanted to know if you have any suggestions for a dinner for two with interesting food. From what I've experienced, not all Restaurant Week menus were created equal. Any picks?

Yep, that deal on meals is just three weeks away (Jan. 17-23) and now is the time to book at a restaurant or two that you've been curious about and have yet to try.


I haven't seen any of the special three-course menus yet, but based on recent meals and the generally high level of cooking, the following (participating) restaurants intrigue me at the moment: Bibiana, Bistro Lepic, Cafe Atlantico, J & G Steakhouse, the Oval Room, Tabard Inn and Vidalia, all in Washington.

I am available to check out any restaurant with you-anytime. I am excellent company and would love to add my 2 cents! To be "Tom Sietsema" for a day must be grand. You have the ability to clear, or pack a dining room.

Good morning! So, tell me a little about yourself ....

Oh no!!! I used to eat there all the time, the owner and sometimes his mum would be there, they were so lovely. They are MOST welcome to open a restaurant in Alexandria

  You're right. The owner's mother, Hada, and sister, Ranu, were frequent presences in the 30-seater. It's a shame that a small, personal place like Couscous can't compete with the chains in the neighborhood.

We have reservations at Michel. Did you eat any breakfast or brunch for your review? I didn't see any comments about either (except the lox), which makes me think that you didn't have a chance to eat brunch or it was unremarkable.

Sorry, my multiple visits to Michel didn't include any before 6 p.m.

Just want to thank you for the Belgian Endive/Mandarin orange appetizer idea. I made them for my annual holiday dinner and they were a big hit!

Glad to hear my idea for a quickie starter worked.

Good morning, Tom! Two questions: I moved away from DC last summer and am heading into town for the long weekend. Made a reservation at Birch and Barley for tomorrow night but my friend would rather eat at Churchkey. I've never been to either, so which should we go with? Second question: where can i get a drink (preferably scotch) near Dupont Circle mid-day on Christmas? Thanks much!!

Foodwise, Birch & Barley is the more serious of the watering holes. (Hey, if you decide not to use the reservation, I'm inclined to take it!)  For drinks, go to the amber-lit Quill in the beautifully-restored Jefferson on 16th St.  The lounge serves one of my new favorite cocktails.

Hi Tom: Happy Holidays. Am praying this question gets in. I have out of town guests coming tonight and they are looking for the "best sushi place in DC." Now I have my personal favorites - mainly due to convenience and location, but am pretty sure that they are not "the best in the city." Appreciate the help, love the chats!

Thanks for the kind words.


I adore Kushi (Mt. Vernon Square), which has great grilled items in addition to raw fish and seafood. There's lots of space in its chic industrial dining room, too. Sushi Taro, in Dupont Circle, is another favorite of mine.

if you were in downtown D.C., where would you get a good Indian dinner, money no object?

That's easy: Rasika, one of a handful of four-star restaurants in the area, or its sister, the romantic Bombay Club near the White House.

I need a cheap lunch, what's the best deal?

There's a modest storefront near the Post on Vermont Ave. NW that I dip into now and then. It's called Casa Blanca and serves a mx of Mexican, Salvadoran and Peruvuian dishes. (The owner is from Peru.) The ceviche and fried pork with yuca are particularly worthwhile.


Chatters, where do you go for a quality lunch on the cheap?

Tom, there are only a few of us in the office tomorrow (I'm submitting this Tuesday) so the big boss is taking us out to lunch. Where should he take us? We work near Metro Center and would probably stay close by. Last year we went to Nando's Peri-Peri. Hint: He is a friend of yours and he is preparing to move abroad... so we want our last holiday lunch with him to be somewhere delicious and memorable! (PS are there any Bulgarian restaurants in DC?)

Ah, your mention of Bulgaria was the tip-off! Boy, am I ever going to miss Mikel H., one of the smartest and most warm-hearted guys I know .... (sniff)


Lunch. Near Metro. Today.


What about Siroc? Oceanaire? Ceiba? The Brazilian-themed Fogo de Chao? I'll toast you from the corner of 15th & L streets.

The burrito cart at 15th and K or the Korean cart at Vermont and K. Great options on either side of McPherson Square.

Yes to both. Thanks for chiming in.

Tom, shouldn't you give credit to Jaleo for that recipe? I've had it there several times. Or is this common enough to be in the public domain?

I actually had a Puerto Rican buddy make it for me years ago. (Ola, Alex!)  It's from him that I know the dish.

Amsterdam Falafel in Adams Morgan is the best!!!!

Still good, even if you haven't been throwing back a bunch of beers? If so, good to know.

Indeed there is! Slaviya in Adams Morgan.



I should have typed that. Haven't been yet. How is the chow?

What sends you to Sarajevo? I lived there 05-06, and recommend the Tunnel Museum in Butmir and the Turkish quarter for sightseeing, and that you eat as much cevapcici and burek as you can possibly find!

My brother is with the U.S. embassy there. Thanks for the advice (and here's hoping I get to taste some of that sausage and burek on its home soil).

Unless you will be in the mountains, there is no snow in Sarajevo now. It is raining almost non-stop. I've just returned from two weeks there. While you are there, please check out "Klepes," meat dumplings reminiscent of Russian "pelmeni," but with more complexity. I got addicted to them while there and I am dying to find out whether anyone serves them in this area.

Really? My brother reported 14 inches of snow recently. (I saw the pictures.)

Tom - DO NOT tell people about Casa Blanca. You'll bring everyone to our marvelous little local secret and then the lines will be even longer!

Oops! Too late.

Well, I am female. Work in the industry (hope that does not disqualify me)! Love to eat & drink, am somewhat new to the area and am generally just an awesome individual and know we would have a great time and you would appreciate my input.

Alas, I never dine with folks in the industry. My loss, I'm sure, but it just keeps everything easier for me. But how about reaching out again when you retire?

Kabob Palace...

Indeed. (In Crystal City.)

ok Tom. Birthday dinner for girlfriend. MD or NW DC preferred. Price range, I'm pretty flexible. She loves new experiences, and would be just as happy with a cheery hole-in-the-wall place as a 4 star dining experience. Anything you'd recommend that's off the beaten track? She's probably been to most of the places in the Fall Guide. One more thing, as much as it's become a cliche, she really likes places that support local farms. Thanks so much!

I had great fun reviewing Jackie's in Silver Spring recently. The vibe and the food, from new chef Diana Davila-Boldin, are very much to my taste.


Did you know Perry's in Adams Morgan has a new chef, too? He's Robert Dalliah, late of Buck's Fishing & Camping. I've had some really lovely meals in his new roost (duck confit, tilapia in an almond crust) lately.


Pho Viet, which I'm looking at in the Magazine this weekend, is a dive in terms of size but not in terms of tidiness. The small Vietnamese mom-and-pop in Columbia Heights is immaculate, and a great source for pho, the ever-more-popular Vietnamese noodle soup.


That help?


Tom , any idea where we could go for dinner on Christmas. We tried PF Chang and they will be closed. Extra points if it's in NW or Bethesda...thanks so much

I know Asian Spice on H St. NW is open for Christmas. Its menu is pan-Asian, but includes Chinese dishes such as won ton soup, duck rolls, fried rice and so on.

Hi Tom. I want to have a delicious and fun NYE lunch and I'm willing to travel from Arlington. Not sushi, Ethiopian or Mexican, but open to anything else! Where should I go? Thanks!

New Year's Eve falls on a Friday this year, and a glance at shows that a lot of my favorite spots have availability right now. 


Just about every mood is covered. If you like a bustling dining room, I'd opt for Central, Ris or Zaytinya. There's fab Indian fare to be had at Rasika, diverting Asian cooking at the Source and great cocktails -- along with the obvious -- at Bourbon Steak.  For something more casual, but cozy, I'd check out Firefly in Dupont Circle.

Hi Tom: Do you have any vegetarian-friendly restaurant recommendations for Park City, Utah? I did not see a Postcard for the area. Thanks!

What, you don't want a mountain view with that request, too?


(I'm joking, I'm joking.)


Chatters, can anyone help our fellow food lover out with meatless ideas in Park City?

Tom, where can we go to grab some nice Afghan/Tajik food? Im thinking of heaps of rice and lamb and those yellow carrots...

Afghan or Persian? They are different cuisines.


For the former, I like Bamian in Falls Church, perhaps the most sylish of the lot.  But the more intimate Afghan Grill  near Calvert and Connecticut is fun, too.


I haven't been to an area Persian restaurant that I can rave about lately, Shamshiry in Tysons Corner included.  What am I missing, readers?

I saw something about Philomenia's in Georgetown on TV a few days ago. I don't recall reading you talk about the place and their homemade pastas. What is your opinion on it?

I think there are much, much better places than Filomena in Georgetown to eat Italian. In no particular order: Al Tiramisu, Bibiana, Il Pizzico, Obelisk...

I wanted to let you know your review of Michel was absolutely spot on. We ate there Saturday night and the leek appetizer was excellent just as you said. The thing that seemed really strange, and that you noted, was that the proteins in the main courses were somewhat of a let down. I had the salmon which was cooked well but I've had better - yet the bed of lentils in rested on were rich, smoky and delicious. The same with my husband's shortribs - the meat really wasn't that good - kind of flavorless meat - but the mashed potatoes and green beans were outstanding. The desserts were excellent, though, especially the cream brulee napolean where the "pastry" layers are actually the crystallized sugar. The chef was in the house that night but he really needs to focus on his entrees. I would definitely go back again since on balance the meal was delicious, but I hope next time they put more thought into their entree meats.

Thanks for your critique. No chef works harder than Michel Richard. I expect to return to a finer place to eat on my next visit to Michel.

Tom, have you tried Lyon Hall in Clarendon? We were very impressed with the all-in-house made menu, wine program (including serving reds by the glass at the proper temperature), service and pricing. But the place is crowded and loud. Bottom line, a very authentic French brasserie.

 Been there, done that, liked the place, too.

I am super excited to be headed to Komi for dinner tomorrow evening - it has been on my "To Do" list since it opened! Would you recommend the wine parings? And how long does the meal last? What is the dress code?

Komi is a four-star event, but it's probably the most relaxed of the city's four-star restaurants.  Men should at least wear a jacket, however. I'd opt for the carefully-considered wine pairings, if only to get more face tome with Komi's delightful sommelier.

Bibiana is in Georgetown?

No, Filomena is.

Hi Tom! A restaurant I want to go to says their dress code is "Smart Casual", what's that? Is it like Business Casual?

I think of the two codes as similar: Nice shirt, pressed pants, maybe a jacket (hold the tie) -- and leave the  baseball caps, jeans and sneakers at home.

Walk by Jakie's to and from SS metro to my home. I used to be a regular but stopped about 18 months ago; food, service and especially the bar had slid into local joint standards but prices stayed the same. I spent too many dollars there realizing what had happened so don't trick into going back unless its really changed.

The Jackie's I wrote about recently is vastly improved over what it was 18 months ago.  (I was in when you were, too, so I hear you.)

You can't copyright a list of ingredients, and the instructions weren't substantial enough to warrant copyright. It has nothing to do with how common the recipe is. Ugh, too pedantic today!

Well, I *do* like to credit sources (chefs) whenever possible, so I think it's a valid question.

Do you ever read Yelp reviews of restaurants? Just curious....

Occasionally, but mostly when I'm on the road, just to get a sense of a restaurant I'm considering writing about. I have to say, I find some of the reviews overly enthusiastic or harshly negative. Not all that helpful, to be honest. 

Since he's Jewish, I'm guessing dim sum and a movie.

Am I going to get in trouble for posting this? (Gene wouldn't!)

City Lights of China is usually open (in Bethesda, which the chatter said worked). Food is OK, not stellar.

Right -- which is why I didn't mention it.

Tom - What happened to Palena? The addition has completely changed the atmosphere (and the food, too). Most disturbingly, you can no longer order off of the full multi-course menu from the cafe. That was one of the great features of the place.

You are not the only reader to complain to me about Frank Ruta's recently broadened restaurant concept. Here's another comment (one of several) from today's peanut gallery:




You asked for comments on the "new" Palena setup. Hate, hate, hate it. Chef Ruta took what was a terrific thing and ruined it. I appreciate he can decide what the Palena experience is. But I can take my money and spend it elsewhere. I loved the ability to pick and choose between the two menus. I don't have the time, money or the inclination to sit through really lousy service to sit in the back. I won't bother going back for inconsistent cafe food even with the "expanded" menu. My first two visits were so not up to snuff that I left bitter and sad. My two cents.

Tom: As a long time fan especially of the front room at Palena, I agree completely with the finl hatter on the 15th. The loss of flexibility in the food offerings combined with terrible lightin and a very disappointing design for the expanded pace has left me feeling bereft. I hope Frank changes his mind bout offering dining room options in the cafe and has enough money left to improve the interior design.

Ive gone to Foong Lin in Bethesda on Christmas before. It's great.

I might be there myself if I can't get to London today!

Boring old Katabuki in impossible-to-get-to Palisades still has the best bang for your buck of any sushi place I've visited in DC

Yep, Kotobuki is a deal, if not the best sushi, in the city. Do they still play Beatles tapes nonstop?


Gotta run, folks. Here's wishing all of you a four-star holiday. Thanks for a great year of chats. I'll be back, as I said, Jan. 5 at 11 a.m.



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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