Ask Tom: Siroc Review, Obama to Ray's Hell-Burger, Miami Dining

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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, May 6, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema discussed his review of Siroc, the president's recent visit to Ray's Hell-Burger and other dining and etiquette questions on Wednesday, May 6 at 11 a.m. ET.

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Arlington, Va.: OK, how could our fearless leader go to Ray's Hell-Burger and order his burger "medium well." Sacrilege. Everyone knows the only way to eat one of those burgers is medium (at most) or medium rare. He and Biden both ordered their burgers medium well (yes, I'm one of the idiots who watched him do so on Youtube). I have lost faith in Obama's judgment.

washingtonpost.com: Video: Obama and Biden at Ray's Hell-Burger

Tom Sietsema: I was surprised they got their burgers so thoroughly cooked, too! Oh, well, at least the two are getting out and exploring the city and its environs. That's what pleases me most.

Other surprises this week? I was shocked that DC chefs and restaurants were all but ignored at the James Beard Gala on Monday night. (But congrats to my esteemed colleagues in the Food section for beating out the Chicago Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle for the honor of Best Food section.)

The third surpise in the last 48 hours: Chef Rock Harper ditching Next Door on U St. NW for a supper club in Alexandria ...

On a house-keeping note, I'll be away next Wednesday, May 13, but back in the saddle May 20.

Lots to talk about, folks. Let's get started.

washingtonpost.com: Dancing With a (Food) Star: Chef Rock Harper Moves to an Alexandria Supper Club and James Beard Awards Announced

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Gossip Central: Do tell -- the WPost article was too coy -- what "posh Georgetown restaurant" did the Obamas eat in on Saturday night?

Tom Sietsema: Michel Richard Citronelle, of course!

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: Citronelle and The Reliable Source on the Obamas Dinner at Citronelle

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

I am what I like to call "athletic," blessed with a rump. Can you PLEASE tell restaurant owners to make some space between tables.

It's SO frustrating/embarrassing trying to get out from in between tables and knocking things over, or having to move tables. It is EXTREMELY frustrating.

Thanks, A devoted reader

Tom Sietsema: Here's your plea, Washington. I'm supportive. Not all of us are walking pencils, after all.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

I am going to Miami for my honeymoon end of May. Do you have any restaurant recommendations?

Tom Sietsema: I've never talked to anyone who hasn't come back from Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in the Design District and raved about the restaurant.

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Capitol Hill: Hi Tom! Love your chats. Hope you can serve as marriage counselor in addition to restaurant critic and solve a long-running debate between me and my husband. Central -- how is it pronounced? As in Grand Central Station? Or is it French-i-fied as in Cehn-trahl? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Say it as the French would: Sehn-trahl

(So who wins the debate?)

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Arlington, Va.: Oh, the humanity! The President likes his burgers MEDIUM WELL. I'd rather eat shoe leather myself. What can we as Americans do to correct this disaster?

As for no ketchup, if that's his preference, then so be it. I just hope he doesn't get nailed as a fancy pants elitist for requesting dijon mustard.

Tom Sietsema: The era of Freedom Fries are clearly over, no?

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Arlington, Va.: Good morning Tom! I'm trying to decide where to take my husband for a special Italian dinner to celebrate his birthday. Price is less important than value and an enjoyable atmosphere. Any suggestions? Thanks, and I really appreciate the chats.

Tom Sietsema: Although the setting is dated, Teatro Goldoni is getting good press lately, particularly for its chef's table in the back. And both Spezie downtown and Tosca on F St. NW continue to be reliable for high-end Italian fare.

washingtonpost.com: 2007 Dining Guide: Tosca and 2008 Review: Spezie

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Tom, I came home from college (3 hours away) to study for my exams, planning on a week of essay-writing and coffee-drinking at Murky Coffee in Arlington -- only to discover that it closed May 3rd. I'm in dire need of a (non-chain) replacement. Somewhere in Arlington is preferable. Suggestions?

Tom Sietsema: Do any of the peanuts have an alternative to suggest?

washingtonpost.com: David Guas Moves Into the Murky Space

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Falls Church, Va.: Hi Tom, can you tell me the name of that restaurant I think in Maryland (Rockville?) that makes real entrees where the calories are kept under control? I can't remember the name but I remember that they are known for making calorie-controlled but still tasty dishes. Is it any good? Thank you!

Tom Sietsema: You're probably thinking of Rock Creek in Bethesda or its sibling, Rock Creek at Mazza Gallerie. I've not been to either location in a long time. Chatters?

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Chinatown: According to America's Test Kitchen, a well-done burger can be done....well:

"The Solution: Taste tests proved that well-done burgers made with 80 percent lean chuck were noticeably moister than burgers made from leaner beef, but they still weren't juicy enough. Because we couldn't force the meat to retain moisture, we opted to pack the patties with a panade, a paste made from bread and milk that's often used to keep meat loaf and meatballs moist. To punch up the flavor, we also added minced garlic and tangy steak sauce. To keep our burgers from puffing up the way most burgers do, we made use of a previous test kitchen discovery: If you make a slight depression in the center of the patty, it will puff slightly as it cooks and level out to form a flat top."

Tom Sietsema: Reader to the rescue! (But I wonder how that "paste" -- not to mention the other enhancers -- affects the taste of the well-done patty?)

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Coffee Places: I'm not sure about Arlington, but I love Misha's and Buzz in Alexandria for good coffee and studying. Buzz does have much better baked goods.

Tom Sietsema: Buzz Bakery! I should have thought of that. Thanks for the memory jog.

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I am what I like to call "athletic," blessed with a rump.: I like big butts and I cannot lie!

Tom Sietsema: Good for you. But let's not wade into Penthouse Forum material here, OK?

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Miami Food Suggestions: Tom, there are so many more restaurants! Ortanique on the Mile and Cacao, both in Coral Gables come to mind. The Mandarin Oriental also has excellent choices!

Tom Sietsema: Sure. But MGF&D is the single restaurant that everyone praises these days.

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Reston, Va.: Hi Tom! My sister is doing a talk for her Toastmasters club on cheap eats in Washington D.C./Northern Va. Her picks are Hell-Burger, Mussels at Granville Moore's, and the Monday night special at Faccia Luna. I always read your chat and thought it would be cool for her to incorporate your top three cheap eats/deals into her talk as well. What do you think?

Tom Sietsema: In no particular order and not necesarily the "top" (but definitely good):

The burger on a home-made bun at the bar at Palena.

The sushi (and endless Beatles loop) at Kotobuki in the Palisades

Half-dozen oysters for a buck a piece before 6 p.m. at the bar at Legal Sea Food in Penn Quarter

Any others we should include, gang?

washingtonpost.com: Kotobuki

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Washington, D.C.: Dr. Sietsema, what's the prognosis on Potenza? That place is open all hours but I never see anyone in there, reminds me of the dear departed Les Halles, n'est ce pas?

Tom Sietsema: Gosh, I've been by the place several times now, and the bar (visible from the street) has always been hopping.

What is everyone else seeing?

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Miami restaurants: After a recent dine around of Miami's best I can recommend Sra. Martinez, Michelle Bernstein's take on high-end tapas, and a half block from Michael's in the Design District.

Tom Sietsema: We have a nice list going here ...

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Obama burger: Live and let live, folks. Medium well is a good way to avoid getting burger juice all over your shirt, and Michael's meat is high-quality enough that it'll outshine others even if it's not red in the middle.

Have we so soon forgotten that Five Guys, which people have been RAVING about for years, only does medium well and up?

At least he went to Ray's Hell and not G.S.

Tom Sietsema: Let's not forget: The First Lady took her staff to Five Guys not long after she arrived at the White House. "And we did it with just two cars!" one of FLOTUS's associates told me afterwards.

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Arlington, Va.: Would you recommend The Source for a special engagement dinner?

Tom Sietsema: I would! I very much enjoy the coolly elegant dining room upstairs.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: The Source

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Silver Spring: I'm so bummed about Mark & Orlando's closing. Should we expect to see any other of our faves closing down due to the troubled economy?

Tom Sietsema: I think, when the time and/or location is right, the two namesakes will re-team and open another restaurant.

As for other troubled restaurants, I really don't think it's proper for me to speculate which might be next to shutter.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, a little mini-review and a follow-up question. My husband and I ate at Inox last week and have nothing but rave reviews. We tried the tasting menu with wine pairing, which they immediately adapted to my husband's pescetarian diet, without asking (we usually don't ask, but the server offered up the changes upon learning that my husband didn't eat meat and we jumped at the chance). While your halibut may have been overcooked on your visit, the kitchen must have corrected the problem because ours was some of the best I have had in a while. My squab was also cooked to melt-in-your-mouth perfection and while I am not a huge fan of lentils, as a side on that dish, they were fantastic. Being the meat eater of the duo, the striploin really goes all out...pairing linguicza sausage with a striploin might seem like a total meat overload, but the smokiness that results from that little sprinkling of sausage is enough to give the steak an entirely new and amazing flavor. While I really wanted to try something from the regular dessert menu after hearing about it from a friend who lives and dies by desserts, the passion-fruit cube that came with the tasting menu was a technicolor, inventive and a delicious taste of spring. (And now I have one more reason to go back...the regular dessert menu.) All in all, it was delicious...I took issue with one of their wine pairings, but really it was one of the best meals we have both had in a while. So, to my question. I really want to call the management's attention to the fact that our server put the meal over the top for us. You could tell she genuinely cared about her job, making sure every last detail was perfect, and spent a lot of time with us (and with every table, it seemed). And, when a restaurant is trying to sell luxury in a tough economy...well, amazing food AND impeccable attention to detail means a place I will return to and tell my friends about. So, I would like to let management know that she did a fantastic job. I know that it makes a difference in my day when someone goes out of their way to thank me (and maybe it is my mother's upbringing that has sparked that internal voice, chastising me to write a thank you note!) But, in checking the Web site, there is no e-mail contact information. I know, a written letter, sent via snail mail will always do, but it seems so....formal. Is that, however, the way that a restaurant prefers to receive such feedback? Or is a forum like this a better way? (If so, then I hope the management at Inox is reading this...Dianne is amazing!)

Thoughts on this Tom? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: I suspect the staff at Inox would be thrilled to get your rave via snail mail, e-mail or in this public forum (which is why I'm sharing it today). Who wouldn't want to get a kiss amid all the bills and junk mail?

washingtonpost.com: Last Week's Review: Inox

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America's Test Kitchen: The panade works well! (I had to do well-done burgers for frantic pregnant friend). The steak sauce compensates for the bread. I still prefer rare myself.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the feedback.

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What can we as Americans do to correct this disaster? : We can LEAVE HIM ALONE. Jeez, the bigotry of the rare-beef people.

Doesn't the Prez have a hard enough job, with all he has to do? Let him have his treats the way he likes them. Now, as to going to a place for burgers that doesn't serve fries...

Tom Sietsema: If he had ordered his burger rare, I'm sure the food police would have had something to say! You can't win sometimes.

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Weekend diners: Why is it that people can wait in line at the bank, grocery store, etc... But when they they have to wait for their mojitos and red bull drinks they start pushing and complaining immediately? Just another example of how restaurants have different realities from other of our life's venues...

Tom Sietsema: You raise a very interesting question. I think people equate restaurants with hospitality, thus raising their expectation/demand levels.

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Good for you. But let's not wade into Penthouse Forum material here, OK? : Oh Tom! It's just a song by Sir Mix-a-Lot.

Tom Sietsema: I realized that the second I hit "publish."

(Live discussions. Little time to ponder. Grrrrr.)

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Springfield, Va.: To the student wanting a chill coffee spot to study: Stacy's Coffee Parlor in Falls Church on W. Broad St. Comfortable couches, good coffee, free wi-fi and tasty chocolate chip cookies.

Tom Sietsema: Sounds nice to me.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom -- I've been reading you for a long time and am impressed by your work. I could never do what you do (too picky and too little discerning an eater). And I read your chats and reviews regularly, though I rarely eat out (and when I do, I don't spend in the range that you describe as reasonably-priced). I welcomed the introduction of your star rating system on reviews. But reading your review of Siroc (where I have not been and likely will not visit -- too expensive for me) made me realize that I cannot predict your star rating from reading the review. Reading this week's review -- it all sounded good (well, not to me the picky eater -- sure hope the salami was identified as octopus on the menu -- but it read as though you enjoyed it), but the restaurant got only two stars. I wonder about the seeming disconnect between your reviews and ratings. Is it just that your scale has wide and narrow tails (says the statistician)? That is, does your internal scale bunch most restaurants around the mean?

Tom Sietsema: (Great, more fodder for the star-haters out there!)

Seriously, I'm quite comfortable with my ratings system, although I'll admit to going back and forth now and then in my mind on certain places. As a lot of critics do.

I was initially tempted to give Siroc a slightly higher rating, but when I reread my notes, I noticed that my initial impression on two of four visits was clearly "good," not "good-to-excellent." The wine list is brief and not great. A couple pastas were ordinary or bland. The room is comfortable, but not particularly beautiful. And one night -- I didn't note this in the review, but perhaps I should have -- we were sort of ignored after the menus were doled out. For all those reasons, Siroc gets a "good" rating.

In assigning stars, by the way, I compare them (in my mind) to restaurants in their category, in this case, Mediterranean bistro vs. Mediterranean bistro.

washingtonpost.com: This Week's Review: Siroc

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More cheap eats: Fish tacos (or anything on the menu, really) at Surfside.

Tom Sietsema: I'll second that.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Review: Surfside

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Re: Siroc: Keep up the good work, Tom! I read the review and thought it was very clear that it was a "good" restaurant. There are too many restaurants out there for all of them to be good-to-excellent, and I think your opinion about Siroc came across perfectly. It was good, not amazing, but worth going to. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Whew!

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Arlington, Va.: If you reviewed "Present" -- a Vietnamese restaurant in Falls Church my friends rave about, I've missed it. Would love to know your opinion.

Tom Sietsema: Hang tight. My review of the Vietnamese restaurant comes out May 24.

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Arlington, Va.: Tom, do you think young diners are treated differently at the top D.C. restaurants?

About three years ago, when my husband and I were in law school (dating) we saved up for a special meal at 1789. Well, we couldn't get a reservation until 9 p.m. When we got there we were not seated until 10:15. They didn't give an explanation, much less comp the drinks we had at the bar. Our waiter didn't take our order until after 10:30. Does this sound like a typical happenstance at 1789 or do you think we may have been bumped because we were young 20-somethings?

One thing is for sure, they have lost the business of two attorneys.

Tom Sietsema: Did you say anything to anyone during your hour-long-plus wait? That's the first thing I wpould have done, talk to a person in charge.

I don't think most restaurants actively discriminate. And any restaurant that does is in trouble. Generalizations are dangerous.

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Washington, D.C.: I hope it is not too personal. Because of your work, I assume you dine almost every day in different restaurants. Butter, heavy cream, fried food.....

How do you take care of your body? Do you work out? What do you look like? (Too personal??)

Tom Sietsema: I've lapsed to such a degree on the fitness front, I'm embarrassed.

I got rid of the three-times-a-week trainer a few months ago now, and joined an inexpensive gym that I don't grace nearly as often as I should.

What do I look like? I can't share those details here for obvious reasons.

Scary e-mail of the week: A waiter who sent me a vacation shot of myself, a little bleary-eyed. Not sure how that got out there, but it was disconcerting to say the least.

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Alexandria, Va.: A low brow question...

Who makes the best buffalo wings in the area?

Tom Sietsema: We love low-brow here!

Chicken wings are one of those dishes that are pretty good even when they're not so great. Don't you agree?

Of course, I'm stumped at the moment. Readers?

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Tom, Happy Wednesday. I am looking for a good Peruvian sit-down restaurant and not having a whole lot of luck. Any suggestions? Anywhere in the Metro area fine. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: La Canela in Rockville is one of my favorites, but I also enjoy El Chalan on I St. NW and Las Canteras in Adams Morgan.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: La Canela

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Annapolis, Md.: Tom, I sent this to you a few weeks ago and wanted to follow-up since my most recent meal, again, was crazy good. Disclaimer: I AM NOT, nor have I EVER BEEN, a restaurant publicist, publicist sympathizer or shareholder in a restaurant. I recently dined at Punk's Backyard Grill at the Annapolis Mall and was somewhat amazed. I recommend you try it. It is not a typical mall restaurant or, for that matter, a typical family restaurant. They offer a backyard grill vibe. Freshly grilled meats/kebob, an outstanding burger, interesting salads (try the Chesapeake Cob). They even have a Boylan's re-fill soda station, not your typical Coke/Pepsi -- made w/cane sugar. Also, I could not find a French fry in the place!! For the record, I am not anti-fry and not a health nut. I just think it is unique not to see them on a menu for once. Also, the vast majority of fries are pre-fab and lame It forced my kids to pick a different side item. Also, the portions were actually human sized. I commend the Punk Family (if that is their legal name....) for this brave concept. Now, I just hope they can stay in business!

Tom Sietsema: I'm a fan of Punk's as well. I wrote about the youthful new restaurant in today's Food section.

washingtonpost.com: Today's First Bite: Punk's Backyard Grill

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Arlington, Va.: Wings: Nando, Oohs and Aahs, Hard Times

Tom Sietsema: That's a delicious and messy start.

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Friendship Heights, Md.: Hi Tom, Had a disappointing experience at Rock Creek Mazza Gallerie this weekend and was curious if I was being overly picky. The restaurant opened at 5:30, our reservations were for 5:45, and we were seated quickly. Unfortunately, for the first 30 minutes of our meal the servers were still preparing for opening by cleaning glassing with hot water and a napkin, loudly beating the dust off chairs with rags, and discussing the large party that was coming from "an assisted living home or something." Our amuse-bouche was lovely, the accompanying solo by a waiter who sang along to the dining room music was not. I don't object to people singing as the work, but shouldn't a restaurant that advertises as open at 5:30, be open, not preparing? We were dining early to catch a show, but those little things really ruined the elegant feel of the dining room. I pay for an experience, not just a meal, and I left this one feeling over-charged. At over $100 for two, I don't want to watch as the dining room is prepared for other guests.

Tom Sietsema: Yes, a restaurant that opens at 5:30 should probably be dressed and ready to go at 5:30. But real life sometimes intervenes, and I'm not all that bothered if the staff isn't completely done with house-keeping tasks right when the green light goes on.

The picture you paint, however, sounds a bit different: Lots of stuff still being attended to thirty minutes after the doors have opened.

Let this be a gentle reminder to restaurants: Some diners don't care to see chairs being dusted or hear diners singing. Be prepared when your doors open!

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We were in your noise article!: Hi Tom! My fiance just wrote you about our honeymoon in Miami -- you profiled our engagement in your article about noise -- we were the couple who (tried!) to get engaged at Central.

I have a follow-up question -- Ron asked about nice restaurants for dinner -- do you or any of the chatters have any hole-in-the-wall suggestions for Cuban food (and we're especially on the prowl for good coffee!)

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Welcome to the chat! And a hearty congratulations.

Cuban in Miami, anyone? I've been to Versailles, and like it, but the space is huge and crowded with families on weekends in particular.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Feature: No Appetite for Noise

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Siroc's prices: So when I read your review of Siroc that 9 entrees were priced below $25, I thought: Wow a place that has taken the recession to heart and is offering value. But then I looked at the menu and 7 of the 9 are still above $20 (plus they are all pasta dishes). $20 an entree may not be a lot for you, but it's still a special occasion for me.

Tom Sietsema: Gotcha. But you need to take into consideration Siroc's downtown (pricier) real estate; the fact some of those pastas are graced with seafood; and the skill involved in the cooking.

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Arlington, Va.: You will likely hate me for an etiquette question that everyone deals with.

Last night I went out and we split a check. We came up short, so the last person to see the check had to make up the shortfall. I saw who it was who stiffed the check, but we were in a large group and I didn't want to call her out in front of everyone.

What is the polite way to do this? I've noticed it be an ongoing trend with certain friends in my group, and I want to say, if you are going to be cheap EAT AT HOME. But that's not friendly.

Thoughts?

Tom Sietsema: You can always pull someone aside and say, "Hey, did you put in the same as the rest of us? Because I noticed .."

Cheaps friends tend to be cheap in other areas of their lives, I've learned.

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Arlington, Va.: Young diners follow-up...

We didn't talk to the manager or anything but we kept asking the hostess about the wait. With every inquiry we were told it would be another 10-15 minutes. I'm definitely a bit wiser now, I think at the time I had the mindset that it was a privilege just to get a table at 1789.

I still have trouble speaking up when something is lacking in my restaurant experience (maybe it's because I'm a former waitress).

Tom Sietsema: I would have escalted your complaint and spoken to a manager.

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Arlington, Va.: For the reader who needs a coffee joint in Arlington, how about the Java Shack?

Tom Sietsema: My producer concurs. Thanks.

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Re: The Source: Great! Any recommendations as to what to order? Any place in particular a better table to sit at?

Tom Sietsema: I like the tables near the windows and never fail to start out with the fish tartare miso cones and anything involving pork.

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Huong Que: Tom, I know we probably should have posted earlier so that you'd accept it for the chat, but I just wanted to let you know that we went to Huong Que (Four Sisters) at its new location for the first time over the weekend, and we were sooooo disappointed. The summer (garden) rolls we ordered still had shreds of plastic wrap on/in them, and the rice paper wraps were crunchy, they'd obviously been sitting out for a while. My vegetarian noodle soup was bland bland bland, and the vegetables really seemed to be rejects that they thought they could throw in and no one would notice (before anyone jumps in to say that vegetarian soup will always be bland compared to pho, I beg to differ, there is plenty of flavorful vegetarian Vietnamese noodle soup out there), and my husband's lemongrass and chili seafood dish wasn't spicy at all, just a gloopy brown sauce, and lots of fish cake (fish cake! seriously?)...you've always given them high marks in the past, but we were really disappointed, having traveled all the way out there from Maryland. We'd been once to the old location a few years ago and had had a better experience then, but the kitchen seems to have suffered with the move. Do you find this as well, or was our experience that unusual?

Thanks so much, we read the chats religiously...

Tom Sietsema: Man, am I ever sorry to hear this. Has anyone experienced anything similar at Four Sisters?

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Eastern Market: Tom -- I don't want you to scoop yourself, since the review comes out this Sunday, but I've got my birthday dinner scheduled for this Friday at Eventide. Am I in for a happy birthday?

Tom Sietsema: You'll find out tomorrow afternoon, when the review goes online. ;)

Thanks for a lively hour, everyone. I'll be away next Wednesday and back here May 20. Until then, dine well.

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Cuban eats in Miami: Peerto Sagua (Washington Ave?) on Miami Beach for good Cuban food at a good price.

Tom Sietsema: This just in.

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A veteran food writer, Sietsema has worked as a critic in Washington, Seattle, San Francisco and Milwaukee and covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns and moderates the Sietsema's Table discussion group. Join his live Q& A each Wednesday at 11 a.m. ET.

Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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