Tom Sietsema: Clearing the table and reservation book
By Tom Sietsema,
A periodic peek at the Post food critic’s e-mail, voice mail and inbox.
Jamie Horwitz and his wife were set to treat two friends to a joint 50th birthday dinner at Buck’s Fishing & Camping on Jan. 19 when the District couple got a call the day before from the restaurant: It was canceling their reservation to accommodate a last-minute inauguration-related event that needed the entire 65-seat dining room. Horwitz told the caller the move was “pretty rotten.” She told him not to shoot the messenger and offered 20 percent off a future meal.
“Was this appropriate?” Horwitz wrote me in an e-mail. “I understand if a restaurant closes because they have a fire or a power outage, but this seems to violate a verbal contract, and 20 percent off my next meal seems insulting.” Horwitz said he dines “frequently” at Buck’s, and because of President Obama’s second inauguration, he had difficulty booking another suitable restaurant on such short notice.
“It was a tough decision,” responded owner James Alefantis. “I close for private parties as rarely as I can.” The restaurateur says he decided to accommodate another “regular regular” (and company) after seeing a mere 18 reservations on Buck’s reservations book. Most of his would-be diners for Jan. 19 were “very understanding,” adds the restaurateur.
When I suggested to Alefantis that he might have assisted the Horwitz party with reservations elsewhere or offered a more generous discount, Alefantis said, “I guess I should have offered more,” then added he’d have bought the foursome dinner if they had asked. Mr. Horwitz, it may not be too late.
“I hate looking at dirty dishes, at home or a restaurant,” writes Jane Robbins of Great Falls. So when she found herself dining with a small group at two “top” restaurants in Raleigh, N.C., recently, she asked her servers to remove her plates even though some of her companions were still eating. Waiters at both restaurants refused, she reports. “Am I off base for wanting my plate removed?”
I side with the waiters on this one. Removing plates from the table before other diners are finished is viewed as ungracious, partly because it can make stragglers feel as if they’re being rushed. Waiting for everyone at the table to set down their knives and forks promotes a relaxed dining experience; a conscientious host will even time his or her eating to accommodate the slowest guest.
Everybody done? Plates can be cleared — from the right, I hope everyone agrees.
A member of a recent online dining chat says she was rebuffed by a server when she asked for a half-glass of wine. I told her I thought the restaurant was shortsighted, both in terms of hospitality and sales. (Why not encourage thoughtful drinking and make some extra money at the same time?)
The scenario brought to mind the laudatory program at Proof in Penn Quarter, where all the 30 or so wines it offers by the glass are also offered by the 2-ounce taste. Assistant sommelier Jennifer Foucher says the practice, launched when the restaurant opened in 2007, gives diners the chance to break out of their routine and try a wine they’re unfamiliar with, and encourages sampling richer pours. Customers who might hesitate to spend $20 for, say, a six-ounce glass of nebbiolo are more apt to take the plunge with what Proof calls a “two-sie” for six bucks.
“I would love to know how you decide on the international destinations you go to and which places to eat while there,” another poster on my online chat asked. “Is it places you have always wanted to go to for vacation, or places that are becoming increasingly popular, a combination or something else entirely?”
All of the above. Last year, I flew to northern India with more than the Taj Mahal on my to-do list. I wanted to check out the restaurant scene there, which is being fueled by the country’s growing middle class, and see how the food there compared with the Indian cuisine found in Washington (Washington can be proud).
I went to Vietnam, my most recent foreign trip, in part because I thought I needed to try the cuisine, which is richly represented in Northern Virginia, on its home turf. The south-to-north visit included two cooking classes and market tours in Ho Chi Minh City, Hue and Hanoi.
This spring, I’m going to Paris not just because it’s fun to say “April in Paris,” but because for decades, France was where food enthusiasts traveled to keep abreast of culinary fashions. That’s less the case today, I believe, as other parts of the world (Spain, Peru, Denmark) have grabbed gastronomic headlines, although it never hurts to check in with a veteran tastemaker.
As for suggestions, I do what a lot of readers do — search online — but I also reach out to embassies, cookbook authors and other experts in the field to avoid tourist spots and find local treasures. If it weren’t for a cheat sheet from the Turkish ambassador, for instance, I would have missed out on Kahraman, one of Istanbul’s finest stops for fresh fish, where the specialty is turbot. And I’ve learned over my dozen years of writing my Postcard From Tom column in the Travel section to leave time on the ground for last-minute recommendations from discerning locals. The best Peking duck of my life was the result of a suggestion from a Mandarin-speaking American in Beijing who pointed me in the direction of Duck de Chine.
To access past reviews from around the world, go to wapo.st/TEXoXk.
The regular Dining column returns next week