Tom Sietsema on diners’ dilemmas: To leave, or not to leave?


(Edwin Fotheringham)

A periodic peek at the Post food critic’s e-mail, voice mail and in-box.

What’s a fair amount of time to occupy a table? asks Hazel Saffell in an e-mail.

Earlier this year, the Loudoun County reader and her husband dined at a “very busy” Palio Ristorante Italiano in Leesburg, where she says they were seated promptly for their 6:30 reservation. “We had a cocktail, lovely meal and coffee,” after which “the waiter came to the table and asked us to leave, as he needed the table for another reservation. It was 8:45 p.m. To say we were astonished is an understatement. We made no fuss and left. We did not see anyone waiting to take the table.”

Saffell asks, “Is this normal? Is this acceptable?? Is this what we should expect in the future? We would not have sat more than another 15 minutes, but that is not the issue.”

A mini-survey of local restaurateurs shows that they budget between 1 3/4 and 21 /2 hours for tables for two. The day of the week and the occasion account for the range of times; for weekends and celebrations, more time generally is allotted.


(Edwin Fotheringham)

Most restaurateurs are loath to ask seated customers to free up their tables. “It’s not my style,” says Antonio Pino, the co-owner of Palio. He says the server in question is no longer employed there.

In my opinion, the Saffells — who sat at Palio for 2 1/4 hours — were hardly being pushed out the door. As a former restaurateur told me, “the table is a rental, not a purchase.”

***

Shortly after they were seated at Evening Star Cafe in Del Ray, Alana Hurley and two friends, one Muslim, “realized the menu was very limited, and most of the dishes involved pork in some way,” writes the Alexandria reader. “We apologized and left before ordering anything, but the host was extremely rude about us leaving.” Hurley was curious about what she should have done. “Is there a way to handle this gracefully? I’d like to at least let the manager know that he lost two regular customers because of the host.”

Neel Lassetter, the restaurant’s general manager, says he wishes the problem had been raised while Hurley and friends were still at Evening Star Cafe. “I can’t do anything without information first,” he told me in a telephone interview. As for the restaurant’s new American menu, which changes frequently, Lassetter said, the kitchen, under chef Will Artley, can accommodate a host of special circumstances, from gluten intolerance to nut allergies. Hurley said there was no menu posted in the window or outside the door. Lassetter acknowledged that an exterior box “got beat up in the snowstorm. I need to get a new one.”

Lessons (hopefully) learned: 1) It’s best for everybody when a complaint is handled in real time, and 2) posting menus outside is a great way to lure customers — or prevent disappointment.

***

A Bethesda reader new to the area wants the scoop on Newton’s Table, which replaces Rock Creek at 4917 Elm St. “Any word on the chef and his chops (no pun intended)?”

Chef and owner Dennis Friedman, 32, is a 2003 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.. After an externship at the esteemed Daniel in New York — where he volunteered to start work on Thanksgiving and was promptly dispatched by top toque Daniel Boulud to cook the holiday meal for a wealthy family on Park Avenue — Friedman went on to work at Alan Wong in Hawaii, Kinkead’s downtown and Michel Richard Citronelle in Georgetown. Most recently, he was the chef and co-owner of Bezu in Potomac.

Newton’s Table, says Friedman, will feature a contemporary American menu in a 72-seat dining room enlivened by fruit colors — “blueberry, raspberry, banana, apple green” — and a custom-made bar and two chef’s tables in alder wood. He expects to buy a quarter of his ingredients at the nearby Bethesda Central Farm Market. Fans of his earlier roost in Maryland should be pleased to hear he’ll find room on his menu for a few former Bezu signatures, including a rice noodle salad brimming with vegetables, shrimp and scallops, and beef short ribs fueled by a hoisin barbecue sauce.

The name? Newton was a nickname Friedman’s father gave his son, while “table” is a link to kitchen and chef’s tables.

As of press time, the new restaurant’s due date was March 28.

***

Kudos to a forward-thinking restaurant in Dupont Circle: “I recently had dinner at Firefly and noted on the Open Table reservation that my guest eats a gluten-free diet,” wrote a chatter. “When we arrived (and without prompting), they handed her a special version of the menu; it was the regular menu, but edited with modifications to suit her diet (a component of the dish eliminated, a substitution, or just scratched entirely).”

Chef Daniel Bortnick says, “We try to stay ahead of the game” with gluten-free menus and trained staff members who know what’s in the food. For other special requests, servers take a regular menu into the kitchen and have Bortnick scratch off choices that don’t qualify. (Allergies to onions and garlic are trickiest, says the chef, because those items are a component in many stocks and bases.)

The restaurant’s effort is smart business. The chatter concluded her salute by letting me know that “my friend has been back several times.”

***

“I took my husband to Rasika for the first time for our anniversary, and we were blown away,” wrote a participant of a recent online food discussion, whose post missed airing live. “We can’t decide if the palak chaat or the dal makhani was our favorite. But as we were chowing down, we were faced with a question of etiquette that we hope you can answer. When we eat Indian, we eat Indian style: scooping with the breads and eating with our fingers. But this is Rasika! A tad more upscale than our normal Indian fare.”

The chatter asks, “Did we commit a terrible sin?”

I put the question to Ashok Bajaj, the owner of the posh four-star restaurant in Penn Quarter, who says that “even in India, some do and some don’t” eat with their fingers. (The restaurateur uses a combination of fork and fingers at Rasika and its sibling, Bombay Club, near the White House.)

Those wishing to dine without utensils should use their right hand; to eat a dish such as curry, tear off a piece of bread and use it as a scoop for the food.

The regular Dining column will return.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. 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.
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