Ask Tom: Doggie Bags, Barbecue, Where to Dine When You Win a Bet, Romantic Restaurants

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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, July 1, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema discussed his review of Potenza and took questions about doggie bags, barbecue and where to dine when you win a bet on Wednesday, July 1 at 11 a.m. ET.

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Salivating on Capitol Hill: Am jonesing for some great ribs for the weekend but, alas, have no friends with grills. I am sure I'm not alone! Where would be the best place in the city to get some charcoal or wood-grilled ribs with sauce and those wonderful crunchy bits of char?

Tom Sietsema: Unfortunately, I'm stumped, Salivating. To my mind, there's no great cue in the city, or even nearby. But I'm happy to take suggestions from the chatters here and I'm pleased to report that one of my favorite barbecue spots, Hill Country in New York (of all places), is opening a second branch here -- but not until NEXT year around this time.

Good Wednesday morning, everyone. Blame my late arrival on the slooooow crew at my corner Starbucks.

washingtonpost.com: On the Horizon: Hill Country Cookin'

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Capitol Hill, D.C.: Tom, With all you do for us, do you also have time to Twitter?

Tom Sietsema: I briefly considered Twittering, but then I thought: Does anyone really care where I just ate, who I just saw, what book I just finished?

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Capitol Hill: What's a good place for a Saturday night birthday dinner? A crowd between 7 and 10, in our 20s, who love wine, but not party scene. I thought about 1789 because of the great prix-fixe option but I fear it might be a little staid for a birthday party. I'd like to pay $50 or less for each person (including wine). I ate at Proof a few weeks ago and it was wonderful so that's an idea but I'm always up for trying something new -- any cuisine too. appreciate any thoughts you might have.

Tom Sietsema: Proof would be my first choice, but you've been there. What about Cork in Logan Circle? Its intimate size might require you to dine early, but its wine list and menu are very appealing.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: Cork Wine Bar

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Shepherd Park, D.C.: Tom, you always seem to recommend just the right thing. Maybe you can help me this time. Saturday's my birthday, and I'd like to find a restaurant near the Mall so that we can dine and then stroll down to watch the fireworks. High cuisine not necessary, but something a cut above the vendors at the Folklife festival.

Thanks for your help.

Tom Sietsema: Close to the Mall and open on the Fourth: DC Coast, its sibling Ten Penh (with valet parking for $7), Asia Nine on E St. NW and Charlie Palmer Steak. The last is serving suckling pig in addition to hot dogs, burgers and cotton candy on a $45-a-head buffet.

washingtonpost.com: Charlie Palmer Steak

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D.C. to San Francisco: I asked...you answered! I was in San Francisco during last week's chat and enjoyed myself enormously at the Zuni Cafe (great stand-up bar, but not the greatest neighborhood...) as well as at Hog Island Oyster (so good, I had to go back a second time -- the clam chowder is fantastic!) and had a wonderful meal at Aqua. Thanks for your suggestions!

Tom Sietsema: Wow, that is some FINE food that passed your lips, my friend. Thanks for the feedback.

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Penn Quarter, D.C.: Thanks for doing these weekly chats-great stuff. My wife and I live around the corner from the Busboys and Poets at 5th and K Street. We want very much for it to be our go-to neighborhood dining spot but the consistent, astoundingly bad service has about driven us away for good. For starters, this place is the king of "auctioning off the food," as you like to say. Servers wander aimlessly through the room, plates in hand, offering them to random tables until they happen upon the right one. Then, last evening, as our server struggled to open our bottle of wine-after first trying to "unscrew" the cork by hand-she confessed to have never opened a bottle tableside before. Really? She brought the wrong order to me, took it away without comment, and brought the correct one to me again without a word. (That dish, too, was offered to both of us even though my wife had a plate in front of her.) She then disappeared for the remainder of the meal leaving us to walk through the restaurant to track her down and ask for the check. I was unable to speak to a manager but am going to pass along my experience by way of email in hopes that service will improve. We are not high-maintenance diners, honestly. And we really want to like Busboys as the food is serviceable enough, but it seems they are skating by on the fact that their new location and great patio seating means they are almost always packed. Have you or any other readers experienced this level of incompetence? Thanks again.

Tom Sietsema: I have to say, I've not had great service at Busboys and Poets, no matter which branch I've dined at. Your experience sounds frustrating.

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Rockville, Md.: I think you have had this question before but I forgot the answer. I recently had dinner at a very nice restaurant where I ordered the chef's tasting the food was excellent, but by the time the main course arrived I could not eat it (I may have had one bite) I was way too full. The waitress asked if I wanted to take it home with me, but I felt funny about saying "yes" because it was a nice restaurant. Would you take food home from one of the best restaurants in the city?

Tom Sietsema: I'm a Midwestern boy and a former Clean-the-Plate Club member. Of COURSE I take (good) leftovers home with me! I see people do it all the time, even in the best places.

What do others think?

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Columbia, Md.: Why don't you review restaurants in Baltimore? There are some excellent upscale as well as moderately priced ones that we would love to know your opinion about. Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: Funny, I spend more time eating in Baltimore (Annapolis, Columbia and Laurel) than you read about here or in print. We call that "scouting" in my business. But what I've tried in the past year or so has not resulted in more than a few formal reviews.

What's good there these days? I've enjoyed my meals at Black Olive, Charleston, Helmand, Pazo, Woodberry Kitchen and Faidley's in Lexington Market. The last has THE best crab cakes I've ever tasted, by the way.

washingtonpost.com: Pazo

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Sterling, Va.: Best fried chicken to pick up and bring to a picnic for the 4th of July?

Tom Sietsema: Regular readers know the answer I'm about to type: Popeye's, of course!

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Dinner in the Westend: Hi Tom -- My parents are watching our two month old next Saturday so my husband and I can stay in a D.C. hotel and get some much needed sleep! We're planning on having an early dinner at the bar at a restaurant in the Westend/M Street area (though are willing to venture slightly further) and are looking for some advice. We haven't been to Kinkead's or Vidalia in a while -- are either of these still (or again) at the top of their game? What about Westend Bistro? We were there last summer and I loved the fish burger and roast chicken, but haven't been back since. Any other restaurant suggestions? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: I haven't been to Kinkead's in seasons, but I continue to enjoy (most of) what I see at Vidalia. I'd also recommend the nearby Marcel's, which has a handsome bar area.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: Marcel's

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Ashburn, Va.: Good Morning, Tom. If memory serves me correct, didn't you review Il Fornaio Cucina at Reston Town Center about a year ago? I went yesterday, and I have to say, it was an average dining experience. Have you gone back since your last review?

Tom Sietsema: I have not. But quite frankly, nothing then gave me any reason to want to return.

washingtonpost.com: December 2007 Review: Il Fornaio

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Washington, D.C.: Tom...my wife and I tried the Carlyle Club a week ago Wednesday and there was hardly anyone in the place. From 6:30-8:30 a total of 4 diners...the food was pretty good, so what's up with that?

Tom Sietsema: I've not been back to the venue since chef Rock Harper took over the kitchen. Could it be the tucked-away location in Alexandria?

washingtonpost.com: Dancing With a (Food) Star

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Tom, I hope this question isn't more suited to Ms. Hax. On Mother's Day, we made reservations at a restaurant chosen by my MIL. There were to be 6 of us (5 adults and my one-year-old). Well, my MIL, FIL, and BIL never showed up!! We called them from the restaurant, and she said she forgot! Unfortunately, we were already seated at the time (I can see why restaurants wait to seat patrons until the entire party is present). We had already ordered drinks, and started to feed my toddler (nothing major, just fruit). I felt really bad that we were a party of 3 at a table for six. We offered to move, but the waiter said it wasn't necessary). What would you have done? I am still upset about this.

Tom Sietsema: Your MIL forgot where she was supposed to be -- on Mother's Day? I assume no one in your group reconfirmed plans for the day ahead of time?

Strange.

I would have offered to move, too. And I would have had a little chat with your mate about his family's poor collective memory.

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Oakton, Va.: re: taking leftovers home....as someone who has worked in numerous fine-dining and casual-fine-dining restaurants in D.C., it is perfectly normal, acceptable, and common for people to have their uneaten food put into a box to take home....

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for chiming in.

A plea to restaurants from those of us who like leftovers: Please pack up everything on the plate unless we specify we don't want everything and PLEASE don't make us pack up the remains of our meals at the table. That's just ... unsightly for all involved.

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Ribs in the City: I'm a big fan of Rocklands.

Tom Sietsema: I like the way it smells on the outside. Such a tease, that place!

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Washington, D.C.: I'm looking forward to a meal at Bourbon Steak next week. Are there any "can't miss" dishes I should think about ordering?

Tom Sietsema: I'm a fool for the lobster pot pie myself.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Bourbon Steak

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Re: Faidley's: My brother now lives in Wisconsin & has Faidley's ship him crabcakes once a month.

Tom Sietsema: I keep a supply on hand in my freezer for unexpected guests and warm the cakes up in a combination of butter and olive oil. Bliss.

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No-show MIL: Why do I have a suspicion there's more to the story of the missing guest of honor on Mother's Day?

But on the face of it, something is really wrong. She picked the restaurant, it's Mother's Day, and she FORGOT? Not only that, but her husband and son also forgot? Yeah, right.

I guess it just goes to show that a party of 6 can become a party of 3 through (presumably) no fault of the 3 who show up. They did the right thing by offering to move, and the restaurant did the right thing by saying it wasn't necessary.

Tom Sietsema: Yeah, something doesn't make sense. Can the chatter who posted the query fill us in on the aftermath?

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Does anyone really care where I just ate, who I just saw, what book I just finished?: Tom, of course we care! What good books have you read lately?

Tom Sietsema: I just re-read "Truman" and am at the early stages of reading Frank Bruni's forthcoming memoir, "Born Round."

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Silver Spring: Have cousins visiting from Israel, where there are, surprisingly, no Ethiopian restaurants. They heard Meskerem was the place to go in D.C., but I was just there last month and found the quality, service and experience lacking. Any suggestions for a good Ethiopian place in NW D.C. or MoCounty?

Tom Sietsema: Meskerem is so NOT the place to go. I have yet to talk to an Ethiopian cabbie who recommends the place. Try instead Etete or Dukem in the city or Meaza in Falls Church.

washingtonpost.com: Meaza Ethiopian Cuisine

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Capitol Hill, D.C.: (Submitting early so I don't forget..)

We live on the Hill but have family coming to town and they're staying in Georgetown, so looking for something closer to them, or at least 1/2 way.

My wife loves Hook except her sister is not big on seafood, and she and her fiance tend more towards steakhouses. I'm just looking for something with a decent beer list (think Bierria Paradiso but more upscale).

We'd be inclined to just stick to our local Belga, which would fulfill most of those wishes, but we're trying to make it easy on them and it is nice to get off the Hill now and then.

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Convenient for all involved: Brasserie Beck on K St. NW, where the menu includes great steak tartare and some fine suds. (Much better than Belga for Belgian food, in my opinion.)

washingtonpost.com: Brassierie Beck

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Penn Quarter: Tired cranky pregnant lady is in need of comofort food for lunch in Penn Quarter area. What are some of your favorite places/dishes in this 'hood that make all the crap go away?

Tom Sietsema: A Cubano at Cafe Atlantico? White gazpacho at Jaleo? A tongue taco at Oyamel? Fried spinach at Rasika? Steak tartare at Poste? Just about anything at Proof?

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Re: Fried Chicken: I'm sorry I have to disagree with you Tom. Pollo Campero has Guatemalan-style fried chicken and it's much better than Popeye's.

Tom Sietsema: I've not tried it. Thanks for the suggestion.

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Victory Dinner: Recently, a friend and I wagered dinner and drinks over...wait for it...whether I wear the correct size brassiere.

I won!

So, where should my friend take me? I'd like to keep the price fairly moderate, no need to be a sore winner, and within DC is good.

Tom Sietsema: (Folks, I don't make these questions up ...)

If you want to stay in the city, you might check out the new, southern-style Eatonville, Creme on U St. or the bar at Palena in Cleveland Park.

My question for you: Who judged the wager?

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Washington, D.C.: Just FYI, Annapolis is most definitely NOT Baltimore. No offense meant to Baltimore, a city I do happen to love, but you do realize that outside of the D.C. suburbs, Maryland is not just Baltimore???

Tom Sietsema: Of course. I just wanted readers to know that I get to a lot more places in Maryland than near-in Silver Spring and Bethesda.

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Olney, MD: Tom, do you think it's wise recommending raw meat to a pregnant woman? I don't.

Tom Sietsema: Oops. Raw beef AND raw egg. Sorry. My bad.

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Rockville: Of COURSE I take (good) leftovers home with me!

So do I.

Why not? And what does it have with being a nice place or not. This one has me lost.

Tom Sietsema: For whatever reason, some diners think it's tacky to take home uneaten food from an upscale restaurant. I obviously disagree.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom - I read your chats every week and always agree with your suggestions. I have a question for you regarding romantic restaurants in the area. My fiancee and I are looking for a romantic place to go to for my birthday. Now I've lived here for almost 11 years and I know that D.C. has a lot of places to eat. But I don't really know of any super romantic places. We are very stressed with planning our upcoming wedding and just want a restaurant with good food, not too noisy, helpful servers and nice candlelight. I heard about Restaurant Eve and was thinking of trying that. I would love any other suggestions. Thanks Tom -- please help make my birthday fabulous and romantic...

Tom Sietsema: Everyone has a different idea of what's romantic, but here are a few interiors that turn me on: a table near the window overlooking a lake at 2941 in Falls Church ... the brick-walled garden at Tabard Inn in Dupont Circle ... the golden-glowing dining room at Marcel's in the West End ... the newly elegant Bombay Club downtown ... the sleek style offered up at The Source near the Newseum.

Chatters, feel free to weigh in with your ideas, too.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Bombay Club

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Washington, D.C.: Quick question about your Potenza review. Do you like the spaghetti or not? You compare it to Bucca di Beppo early in the review, then laud it later in the review.

Were you talking about two different dishes? Or am I misreading it?

Tom Sietsema: I was referring to two different dishes (and I prefer the homey spaghetti with meat balls).

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Herndon, Va.: RE: Dress Codes: Since we no longer have smoking/nonsmoking sections in restaurants, how about if we bring back the sections but divide people into nicely/not-so-nicely dressed?

Tom Sietsema: Surely you jest! Can you imagine the scenes such a division would cause? Who would be the fashion arbiter?

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Wager: Nordstroms served as the judge.

Tom Sietsema: Aha! Thanks for the clarification there.

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Cue Suggestion: For the first question about good bbq, Capitol Q next to Matchbox in Chinatown is the best I've had in the city. Extra points for being able to order any combo as a "Chinese Cowboy" which includes rice as a side.

Tom Sietsema: Gosh, I've not had good luck with Cap Q.

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Baltimore?: Ummm, doesn't Baltimore have it's own newspaper? I think it's fine that you review places there once in while, and I think the amount you're doing right now is good....but as this is the WASHINGTON Post, I think it's appropriate for you to primarily focus on D.C. and it's suburbs.

Tom Sietsema: Post readers are everywhere, though. If there's something worthwhile in the far corners of the region, I want to tell people about it. In the end, it's all about balance -- a balance of neighborhoods, cuisines, prices, etc.

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Former Baltimore resident: Laurel and Annapolis are not in Baltimore.

Also, thanks the line at Faidley's isn't long enough already, but they are simply the best.

Some other good places in Baltimore, The Bicycle, The Wine Market, B Bolton Hill bistro, Dogwood, I could go on, lots of restaurants really focused on local produce especially. Then again if all you D.C. types start coming up more often, it'll probably drive up the prices.

Tom Sietsema: I KNOW, I KNOW Baltimore is not Annapolis or Laurel or Olney or whatever! (See above.)

Dogwood is ... okay.

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Leftovers: Another plea about servers who pack boxes behind the scenes. If I'd obviously picked something off my sandwich, like the sesame seeds from a roll, I don't need you to pack up the scraps of bread.

Tom Sietsema: Ah, but then we get into a problem, and the reason some establishments insist we pack our own leftovers: What goes and what stays isn't always obvious to the server or busboy (who is no doubt also busy with other tasks).

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Maybe the bra size winner should go to a: brasserie

Tom Sietsema: Hahahahahaha.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Tom:

Just curious. When you provide comments in this chat that might be perceived as 'less than positive' about a particular restaurant -- do you often get a response from them? I have seen you post responses that regard good reviews or experiences patrons have had, but when it is you basically not recommending a place, do they read and write back?

Tom Sietsema: Yes, all the time. And I'm happy to talk to chefs, owners and other industry types on the phone (when I'm not on deadline).

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D.C.: I understand the rationale for charging a cake cutting fee, but have you ever heard of a restaurant charging $9 per slice of cake brought in for a birthday party? In this case, the party planner/baker advised the restaurant that she would be bringing a birthday cake when organizing the event. The restaurant never mentioned a cake cutting fee. Once at the party at the restaurant's downtown patio with 20 plus guests, the manager informed the party of a $9 dollar cake cutting fee per slice. The manager would not compromise on the fee. This seems excessive, especially in light of the lack of prior warning. Thoughts?

Tom Sietsema: Nine bucks per plate for a cake brought from the outside? That's crazy. Where was this?

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Philadelphia, Penn.: The brassiere bet must have seemed smart to the dining companion -- widely available figures (ha!) estimate that 80-85 percent of women wear the wrong size.

Tom Sietsema: I'm learning a lot this morning.

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If I'd obviously picked something off my sandwich, like the sesame seeds from a roll, I don't need you to pack up the scraps of bread.: Dude, just throw them away when you get home.

Tom Sietsema: That was my thought, too.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Tom. Went with the wife and kids to Present last week. You were spot-on with your review. Excellent food. Plus, they treated our three and 5 year old kids very well.

My question is: How do you come to review a place like that? It obvious how you'd find out about a new restaurant from a big name chef or one that opens in a hot spot. Present, though, is a small place in a crummy strip mall in the 'burbs. How does a place like that come to your attention? Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: I'm so pleased to hear that Present continues to do such an outstanding job with both its cooking and service. If memory serves me right, the restaurant was suggested to me by a reader. It was one of the best tips ever.

I frequently find new arrivals, particularly small or out-of-the-way spots, just by driving around. Not long ago, on my way to another restaurant in Annandale, I noticed a "grand opening" sign outside of Han Gang and made a note to visit it (which I'm very glad I did, obviously).

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Present and First Bite: Hang Gang

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Dining etiquette: Tom: This may venture into Carolyn Hax territory, but here goes. Many restaurants are doing the "small plate" thing where you order a bunch of things and share with your guests. My husband and I went out with another couple to a place like this. The other couple are BIG eaters. They wanted to order twice the number of things we wanted, which we reluctantly agreed to. They ended up eating the majority of the food, but, of course, wanted to split the bill evenly. We came home fuming. Is there any way to avoid such problems in the future (other than never eating at that place with them again?)

Tom Sietsema: One way to get around this tricky situation is to opt for a restaurant that doesn't do small plates. This will require some homework on your part; as you pointed out, tons of restaurants encourage sharing.

Be proactive. Next time you're considering eating out with this couple, first go online and browse the menus of places you're interested in trying, eliminating any that do tapas, dim sum or other shareables. Then present your friends with some options.

Good luck.

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Peacock Grand Cafe: Only after about a year after opening, the Peacock Grand Cafe on K Street has announced that it is closed for "renovation." Curious to know whether that is a dodge for an eventual closing.

Tom Sietsema: Co-owner Shahab Farivar calls the shuttering "temporary." In light of the economic situation and traditionally slow(er) summer business, he says, Peacock Grand is in the process of rebranding itself. Look for a new name and a more relaxed atmosphere in September.

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OP for MIL dinner saga: Hi Tom, Thanks for taking my question. Loooooong story, but not with a happy ending. It was her way (I say passive-aggressive) of showing her unhappiness that my husband did not spend the entire Mother's Day with her (as she orignally requested). He chose to spend the day with me and our little one, and then celebrate her at dinner. My husband confronted her later about it, and she admitted her unhappiness. Oh well. We had a nice dinner.

Tom Sietsema: That's so sad, so counter-productive, so ... childish.

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Re: leftovers: A scene from CSI: Doggy Bags -- David Caruso takes a diner's plate into the back of the restaurant and whips off his sunglasses to get a better look at the remains before him. "It looks like this diner bit off more than he can chew." "I need the team out here to figure out whether these sides were pushed out of the way, or saved for later reheating."

It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

Tom Sietsema: Dude, you're cracking me up here.

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Edgewater, Md.: I recently moved to the Annapolis area from D.C. and think the dining scene is terrible! Maybe you should increase your coverage of these areas, because our local news sources are either extremely inadequate or paid by the restaurants (or maybe both..) and some negative publicity, perhaps, hopefully, possibly could inspire them to work harder.

Tom Sietsema: Maybe Bob Kinkead will change that (a bit) when he opens his seafood restaurant there this summer. Hope sprngs eternal.

Lunch calls. Leftovers from last night, in fact!

See you next Wednesday, everyone, Have a safe and delicious Fourth.

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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 every 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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