Ask Tom: Splitting Dishes, Nicaro's Closing, Arancine and Savannah Dining

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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, July 8, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema discussed charges for splitting dishes, Nicaro's closing, arancine and Savannah dining on Wednesday, July 8 at 11 a.m. ET.

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Tom Sietsema: Good morning and happy Wednesday, everyone. Lots to chat about this morning, include news about the chef from Nicaro in Silver Spring, which closed July 5.

Pedro Matamoros is going out on his own, to open a place called 8407. The name comes from its address, at 8407 Ramsey Ave., which is conveniently located between the Metro station and the Discovery building.

His business partner, Nancy Mola, tells me that Matamoros intends to focus on small plates, charcuterie, seafood and the like. 8407 will be BIG: 5,000 + square feet to accommodate a ground floor bar and three upstairs dining rooms, including banquet facilities.

Mola says a web site for the restaurant, which is expected to open in October, is planned for next week.

Onward! (And sorry for the slow start to this morning's chat.)

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Brookeville, Md.: Tom -- I'm posting this again because this craving just won't go away...ARANCINE! Fried, stuffed risotto balls. Where can I find good ones in the area?

Tom Sietsema: Chatters?

I didn't answer this question the first time I got it because I couldn't recall (or find) a suitable example, other than at Potenza, which in general I didn't review so favorably.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Potenza

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Washington Navy Yard, D.C.: Tom, You recently wrote an article about saving money at restaurants. There was a bit about Bourbon Steak: "diners who show up between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays can take advantage of a three-course, $59 pre-theater special."

But on the Bourbon Steak Web site, they state that it's "available Friday and Saturday at 5:30 p.m."

I'm wondering if we can make a reservation for 6 p.m. on a Friday night and still get the pre-theater menu.

Tom Sietsema: I just called the restaurant. The deal, as I wrote, runs from 5:30 to 6:30, so you'd be good to go at 6 p.m.

washingtonpost.com: Tom Sietsema's June article about dining out for less

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, What's your take on restaurants charging extra for splitting plates? This is usually $2. I don't like it.

Regards.

Tom Sietsema: Short answer: I'm actually OK with the charge. Restaurants are businesses with low profit margins.

I'd like to throw this question out to the gang today. If a restaurateur could weigh in and explain the fee, all the better.

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Thomas Circle, D.C.: I was wondering if you ever feel like you end up recommending the same restaurants over and over again? Maybe it's just because I read this chat every week, but it's gotten to the point where I feel like I can predict your answers. Someone wants Ethiopian? Tom will say Etete or Meaza. Wine? Proof. Does it get repetitive for you or do you wonder if you may be missing out on some great places since you are just one man and can't get out to all of D.C.'s restaurants? Still love the chats!

Tom Sietsema: Yes, it DOES get repetitive sometimes! But until I can find better examples of Ethiopian or wine bars or whatever, I'm afraid I'm going to be repeating myself here.

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Ellicott City, Md.: I am unfamiliar with the "cheese course." When does it come in the course of a meal? What are the expectations? Is it a shared plate? Do you often order a cheese course when dining out?

Tom Sietsema: Around here, the cheese course is generally a dessert course option. The presentation varies from restaurant to restaurant, but the typical plate (which can usually be shared) includes three to five selections. Sometimes you pick, other times the restaurant does; the cheeses generally come with toasted bread, nuts, a condiment or two, sometimes fruit. I probably order two or three such plates a month in my rounds.

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Re: Split Plate Charge: Oh please -- you're expecting a busy kitchen to do more work to satisfy your request, and not charge you for it? If you don't want the charge, then sit next to each other and eat off each other's plates.

Tom Sietsema: Hey, that's one of my tricks!

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Arlington, Va.: My husband and I eat out frequently, and we ALWAYS share dinner, because restaurants give out HUGE portions. If we get an appetizer and dessert, that's enough for two, nothing goes to waste, and we're both satisfied. I think an extra plate charge is a rip-off. We've only been charged it once, and it was EIGHT BUCKS!! thankfully, we were on vacation, so we're never going back there again.

Tom Sietsema: Eight bucks seems excessive.

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Splitting plates: The highest cost in any service business is labor. Splitting a plate is more work -- the food has to be divided up fairly and both plates have to be carried out. $2 seems reasonable for that extra time and effort.

Tom Sietsema: Good point.

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Logan Circle: Good Morning to my favorite food critic! Thanks for the chats.

I have a silly question. I'm feeling the effects of last night a bit and am dying for a good grilled cheese. Where in D.C. would one find the best?

Tom Sietsema: What a nice way to log on! Thanks, Logan Circle.

Right near you, Stoney's grills a respectable cheese sandwich. But maybe a chatter can think of a better cure?

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Risotto Balls: I have had great ones at the bar area of The Source as well as Cindy Wolf's Cinghiale in Baltimore. YUM.

Tom Sietsema: Yes and yes.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

Just back from a trip to L.A. last week (thankfully, we got out before the MJ memorial onslaught). We tried all 3 of your Postcard recommendations: Bazaar, Rivera, and XIV by Michael Mina. Gotta say, we were not that impressed with Bazaar - the patisserie was a lot of fun, but the food in the restaurant was a mere shadow of Minibar. We did, however, LOVE Michael Mina's restaurant. We did the tasting menu, which was a lot of fun. Thanks for the recommendations!

Tom Sietsema: Um, I didn't plug Mina's place because -- I never ate there. Must be another critic you're following (sob).

washingtonpost.com: Postcard From Tom: Los Angeles

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Wahington, D.C.: I'm wondering what you think about Jean Georges coming to town with another steakhouse concept?

Tom Sietsema: I think:

1) The W Hotel wanted a marquee name

2) Vongerichten has one

3) People will be drawn to the space because of the allure of the chef's appeal

and

4) return only if the food is very good, because the city is swimming in steak houses

I'm curious why no local was tapped for the project? THAT would have been an impressive move on the W's part, wouldn't it?

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Arlington, Va.: What exactly is ceviche? I'm seeing it mentioned more and more, and from what I can tell, it's raw fish marinated in lemon juice. Does this mean it's like sushi? Where is the best place for me to try it for the first time?

Tom Sietsema: Ceviche, sometimes spelled seviche, is a Latin American dish of raw, chopped or sliced fish marinated in lime or lemon juice. Good examples abound in the area. Some of my favorite sources for the appetizer are Le Limena in Rockville, Ceiba and Lima downtown and Oyamel in Penn Quarter.

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Riverdale, Md.: In last Wednesday's chat, you and a chatter mentioned Faidley's for the best crabcakes ever. I've had a lot of crab cakes but think the best came from Jerry's Seafood in Lanham, Md., and a new one in Bowie or Laurel, I believe. If Faidley's is better, I HAVE to have them. What is the secret to a good crab cake. Jerry's uses no filler -- only lump crabmeat. Yum.

Tom Sietsema: I like the "bomb" at Jerry's, but Faidley's crab cakes are superior.

washingtonpost.com: Jerry's Seafood

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Plate-splitting fee: $2 is pretty cheap, considering that 2 seats are being taken with the food consumption of one person. It costs a restaurant money to have people occupying seats without ordering food.

Tom Sietsema: Uh huh

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Washington, D.C.: Hey Tom,

I'm headed to L.A. next week and have reservations at The Bazaar. Have you been? Any recommendations or things that I can't miss?

Thanks -- love the chats.

Tom Sietsema: Have I been? I certainly have -- and I'd be eager to go back.

washingtonpost.com: First Bite on Bazaar

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Capitol Hill: Thanks for taking my question Tom. Two things: Your suggestion for Market Table in NYC was spot on for a nice relaxed dinner that still impressed a hardened New Yorker. The spring onion gnocchi was one of the best I've had. Thank you for your continued efforts to keep us well fed both here and other parts of the country.

Second question -- my mom is coming to town. I'm thinking either Eatonville or Cork. Neither of us are big red meat fans. Would you choose either of these places or somewhere else? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Great news about Market Table. Glad you enjoyed yourselves. I love sitting near the window there and watching the parade of people go by.

Eatonville and Cork are apples and oranges. The former is big, colorful, loud and southern in spirit; the latter is intimate, sophisticated-but-not-stuffy, loud and wine-focused.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: Cork Wine Bar

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D.C. is my oyster: Hi, Tom!

I'm so excited -- a relative I haven't seen in a while wants to take me out to lunch, her treat. Only requirements are that it's fun and new (I think she likes feeling younger by hanging out with me!), and in the downtown/Penn Quarter area. It can't be too too over the top because I don't want to feel like I'm taking advantage of her.

What do you recommend?

Tom Sietsema: How fun and how new are we talking? Because I've had very nice meals in recent months at the likes of Poste and Oyamel in Penn Quarter. But if "new" means "within the past year," I'd steer you to the sleek, Asian-inspired Sei.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Sei

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

We will catch an evening show at Kennedy Center this Friday. Marcel's has been our go to place for the great food/service/free limo, but we want to try something new. What is your order of preference for the following: West End, Circle Bistro, Blue Duck Tavern, Kinkead's, and any good nearby spot that I missed.

Thanks in advance for your advice.

Tom Sietsema: Right now, I'd rank the restaurants you list this way:

Blue Duck Tavern

West End Bistro

Tie: Circle Bistro and Kinkead's

I'd be inclined to check out El Chalan (Peruvian) or Kaz Sushi Bistro (Japanese), both near-ish the KenCen on I St. NW

washingtonpost.com: El Chalan and Kaz Sushi Bistro

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Arlington, Va.: Okay, one more comment on the extra plate charge: the kitchen never splits the plate, we always do it ourselves. So, to be charged any amount of money for the server to bring out a plate is a TOTAL ripoff.

Tom Sietsema: Ah, but see the above posts.

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Mt. Pleasant: U Street favorites of the moment?

Tom Sietsema: Creme does a good job. Gibson is fun for a quiet drink. DC Noodles allows me to slurp noodles in style, and for not much money ...

washingtonpost.com: First Bite: DC Noodles

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Glover Park: The grilled cheese and tomato soup appetizer at Town Hall is really good -- cheddar based instead of American cheese like at Stoney's. Nothing really beats the super grilled cheese though!

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for your contribution. I'm getting hungry -- and the apple on my desk isn't cutting it.

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Closing restaurants: I feel like from experiences in the D.C. area that we don't usually get a lot of notice when a restaurant closes. Is that normal? There's been a few closings in the area that felt sudden (can't remember specifics, but Nicaro jogged my memory).

Why the suddenness? Some of us would love to have a last hurrah if given some notice. I was lucky to get a last meal in there in mid- June, with no hint that it would not be going strong for a while yet.

Tom Sietsema: Good question! I think in some cases, the owners themselves don't anticipate pulling the plug as unexpectedly as they do, but mounting debt, partnership disputes or poor business (summer is slow for a lot of restaurants) forces them to make hasty decisions.

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Washington, D.C.: suggestions for a solo diner for an inexpensive snack and drink before a Kennedy Center show thursday?

Tom Sietsema: The bar at Dish + Drinks on 25th St. NW is modestly appealing.

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Re: fried risotto balls: I've had really good ones at Two Amys.

Tom Sietsema: Of course (he types, slapping his forehead). Among the best, I'd say.

washingtonpost.com: 2 Amys

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Arancine: Also on the lounge menu at PS7.

Tom Sietsema: Merci.

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Cheese Course: I love the idea but have only ordered at once, at the now defunct Le Tire Bouchon.

What do you order to drink with it? Coffee didn't seem right. A dessert wine, maybe?

Oh, and what's a reasonable price for cheese course?

Tom Sietsema: Coffee wouldn't be my choice, either. I love wine and cheese, but my choice of grape juice varies according to what cheese I'm eating. With a blue cheese, for instance, I'd be inclined to drink a red that would stand up to it.

The prices for these plates are all over the map, depending on the size, the selection, how they're presented, etc.

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Additional cost for splitting: When you pay for a meal at a restaurant, you're not just paying for the food on the plate. You're paying for the A/C and the lights, the employees' wages, the insurance on the space, the linen service, the replacement cost of broken china and glasses; in other words, overhead. When people split entrees, that small overhead cost rolled into each menu item gets thrown off. The restaurant still has to "keep the lights on" for that second guest, but they aren't getting reimbursed for it.

Tom Sietsema: Spoken like a true restaurateur!

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, I am desperately looking for help for my wife's 30th birthday celebration (sponsored and attended by my parents; I took her to Proof last week). She is interested in stopping by The Gibson for a pre-dinner cocktail, but we don't want to drive to some distant part of the city for dinner.

I know Komi is relatively close, but I think that $90 pp (before drinks) might be a bit on the steep side. She is super-open to cuisine, and I'd like something on the nicer side if possible.

Any bright ideas?

Thanks so much.

Tom Sietsema: What about Komi's terrific neighbor, the recently renovated Sushi Taro? It's expensive, but the restaurant also offers a mouth-watering trip to Japan.

If you're stopping at Gibson before dinner, you're not too far from Palena in Cleveland Park, another noteworthy place to toast a special occasion.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Sushi Taro and 2008 Dining Guide: Palena

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Fried Risot, TO: Taylor Deli has phenomenal fried, stuffed risotto balls that are accompanied by a slightly spicy marinara. They're on H St NE (with a new Mt Vernon Triangle location at 5th and K NW opening up in the fall!).

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the tip.

washingtonpost.com: Good to Go: Taylor Gourmet

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Washington, D.C.: Would you elaborate on your bottom ranking of Kinkead's earlier in the chat? I haven't been in a while, but it was still "on my list". Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: I had dinner there recently, and everything seemed off to me. The waiter seemed bored and distracted, the setting looked dated and worse, "classics" like the fried clams were heavy and soggy and greasy. The meal just made me ... sad, because I have a lot of respect for the name behind the brand.

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Jonsing for a grilled cheese: Bourbon does a great grilled cheese and tomato soup. They even cut the sandwich into dippable strips for you!

Tom Sietsema: Dippable strips! Count me in.

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Capitol Hill: Hi Tom -- How long do you think is reasonable for one to wait for an answer that you offer to give one privately by e-mail before reminding you that one has not heard back?

Tom Sietsema: My sincere apologies. But in my defense, I have an average of five deadlines a week -- not including this chat, my discussion group, a looming fall dining guide, a project for News and something like 100 new email questions every day. I work seven days a week, just to keep up.

Mind resending the query?

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Falls Church, Va.: Help! They're coming to get me. Tom, maybe I have watched one too many Nazi movies but I really don't like the popular serving style at higher-end restaurants where the servers approach the table all at once and place everyone's plate down at the same time. It actually startles me and plus you don't get a chance to see the other dishes one by one. I'm curious if you or any other chatters have this same reaction. Love the chats

Tom Sietsema: The only time I've been startled by Everything Landing At Once in a restaurant was at a place that specialized in duck in Beijing. Seconds before the plates were set down, a gong (!) was struck behind me.

How do others feel about the practice, which is fast becoming the standard in high-end restaurants? I actually think it's kind of fun.

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Washington, D.C.: What elements of taste do you focus most on when you test out a dish?

Tom Sietsema: There's an interesting question in there, but I need more detail. What do you mean by "elements of taste?"

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Re: Recipe for Faidley's crabcakes: Couldn't agree more about Faidley's crab cakes. If you want to fix them fresh, the Post published their recipe many years ago (exact date unknown, my clipping is yellowed and bespattered, and I checked -- it's not in the current Post recipe index). I'm happy to share it with you (to also share with your chatters). I would've sent you the recipe via e-mail, but I couldn't find your email address. BTW, could you mention it again in your next chat?

Nancy Devine's Backfin Crabcakes (Faidley's Seafoods) Makes 4-6 crabcakes.

These are the ones served at Faidley's. Nancy Devine (nee Faidley) described the recipe to us as she waited on a line of customers. She never lost a beat.

1 pound backfin crab meat

1 cup crushed saltines

1 cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon dijon mustard

1 tablespoon worchestershire sauce

1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning

2 eggs

Spread the crab in a shallow pan. Add the crushed saltines and toss slightly. Be careful not to break up the crabmeat pieces or pulverize the crackers. (Over crushing yields a mealy crab cake.) Mix the remaining ingredients and mix this batter with the crab and crackers just enough so you can form cakes. The art is in the handling: firm but light. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or overnight, if convenient. When ready to serve, fry quickly in hot oil. Brown one side, turn, and brown the other, then quickly remove. The cakes should be just heated through.

Tom Sietsema: I know what I'm having for dinner sometime this week. Thanks for sharing this with us.

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Ceviche: Might want to explain that unlike sushi it is "cooked" due to being marinated.

Tom Sietsema: Right. Fish for sushi remains raw.

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Savannah: Tom, Just saw your postcard from Savannah and am a little disappointed you missed Noble Fare. This small place is truly an exceptional dining experience.

Tom Sietsema: Unfortunately, I had limited time in Savannah. I was eager to try the place after a waiter at the very good Local 11 Ten recommended it, but I ended up going elsewhere on my last night, in part because Noble Fare had no menu listed on its site, and what I read about the food there elsewhere online was vague.

washingtonpost.com: Postcard From Tom: Savannah

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Arlington plate splitters: Okay - now I get it. The Arlington plate splitters are a bit on the cheap...er....frugal side of things. They probably also bring their own lemon wedges for their water and deduct money from the tip because they did the work themselves for splitting the platof it! While applaud their cost-saving measures (who amongst us couldn't stand to save a few more $$), but maybe people like you need to stay home, or at least eat a restaurants that are a bit more "do it yourself" (e.g., KFC or McDonalds) Or if you are going to eat at a real restaurant, suck it up and pay the advertised and expected cost.

Tom Sietsema: Ouch (but there are some pearls of wisdom therein).

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Splitting Plates: Running a restaurant is a tough business - lots of pressure, very small margins. When there is a person taking up valuable table space, but not ordering food, it cuts into that margin. I think that a $2 charge for splitting an entree is perfectly reasonable, and may be a bit low for the amount of revenue that the restaurant may be losing. Plus, the server works for tips, and a lower overall bill equals a lower tip for likely the same amount of work (running the drinks, entrees, checking in, etc.). Signed, A former server who would wince when two folks ordered a medium cheese pizza and two waters and sat chatting forever.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks, Former Waiter.

And that concludes another hour of food chat. Have a great weekend, everyone. Thanks for keeping things lively here.

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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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