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Ask Tom

Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, June 25, 2003; 11:00 AM

In a city loaded with diverse restaurants, from New American chic and upscale Italian to sandwich shops and burritos on the run, finding the best places to eat can be a real puzzle. Where's the best restaurant for a first date or an anniversary? Father's Day? What's the best burger joint? Who has the best service?

Ask Tom. Tom Sietsema, The Washington Post's food critic, is on hand Wednesdays at 11 a.m. ET to answer your questions, listen to your suggestions and even entertain your complaints about Washington dining. Sietsema, a veteran food writer, has sampled the wares and worked as a critic in Washington, Seattle, San Francisco and Milwaukee, and can talk restaurants with the best of 'em.

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Tom Sietsema: It must be summer. Lots of questions this week about where to eat on the road, from people heading to New Orleans, Ann Arbor – even Duck, North Carolina. If anyone out there has suggestions for any of those destinations, pass ‘em my way.

Thanks in advance, and good morning. The sun is out!


Washington, DC: Hi Tom, I am curious to hear your reactions to the restaurant award winners. Were there any major upsets? Who would you have/or did you cast your vote for?

Tom Sietsema: The poster is referring to the RAMMYS, held by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington this past Sunday.

I think it’s great to see so many Washington restaurants band together for a night of self-congratulations – from what I hear, it’s a really fun gathering, and just about everyone from the local food community shows up -- but I have a real problem with the way the honors are awarded. Basically, it’s a popularity contest. Anyone can vote for a favorite, which leads to the obvious ballot-stufing, etc.

That said, Zaytinya richly deserves the “new restaurant of the year” prize and Gus DiMillo is indeed a fine industry ambassador of the year.”


No Haste to Poste: Tom, recommended Poste to family from out of town and joined them there for dinner last night. Wrong choice!! 55 minutes for our entrees, and that was the only thing we ordered! It was not crowded at all. My steak was HUGE, while my cousins chicken was tiny. Everyone ordered something, but in the end we all ate steak and french fries. Tell me what I am missing please!

Tom Sietsema: I guess you didn't read my review of the restaurant?


Laurel, Md.: Tom, what's the area's best Ethopian? If that one's pricey, what the best one in normal price ranges for that cuisine?

Tom Sietsema: Not having dined in all 100 or so Ethiopian restaurants in the Washington area, I’m reluctant to tag one “the best.” But I am fond of Dukem on U St. NW and recently had a nice meal at the tried-and-true Addis Ababa on 18th St. NW, where I pretended to be a novice and the helpful waitress -- get this -- fed me pieces of injera swabbed with lamb!


Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom. My parents are coming to town this weekend and staying at the new Ritz in G'town. My husband and I were planning to meet them at the bar there for a drink on Saturday and then head to dinner. We were hoping to try Nectar, but it's booked. Is it worth sticking around and eating at Farenheit? We were also thinking of Dish, but it seems to be getting negative feedback. Should we try it anyway? Any other ideas in the Georgetown/Foggy Bottom area? We'll eat pretty much anything in any price range.

Tom Sietsema: Fahrenheit is a dashing dining room with a sorry menu. My review of the place ran June 8. Dish is a new but promising American restaurant – probably your best bet in the Foggy Bottom area if you can’t get a seat at Nectar.


McLean, Va.: What's the latest word on Colvin Run Tavern? I just read some of the WashPost readers' online comments, and many are quite negative. We are planning to go there for a birthday celebration.

Tom Sietsema: I’ve not been to Bob Kinkead’s suburban venue in months. Anyone with recent experience care to comment?


Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: Tom, a little gentle needling about today's dish:
""I'm back on my feet," says Ricky Stokes, who wrote the original menu -- "one step above bar food," as he puts it -- for Local 16 (1602 U St. NW; 202-265-2828) and resurfaced this spring at Saveur (2218 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-333-5885) in Glover Park, where the chef now serves guests such innovations as watermelon gazpacho and rack of lamb with chocolate demi-glace, or what Stokes calls "progressive classical French" cooking."
Summer fever in the food section? How did this remarkably long, inscrutable sentence make it into print? It's okay -- the heat's been rusting my synapses too...

Tom Sietsema: Yeah, okay, it was a long sentence. I plead guilty.

But YOU try juggling a fall dining guide, a book, a reader service column, a dining review, a gossip column, postcards from out of town – and take 40 calls and emails a day from readers who want restaurant advice – and you, too, might write a lengthy sentence or two.

(Whew! That felt good!)


Washington, D.C.: Tom, I know where to drink, but where should I eat in Adams Morgan?

Tom Sietsema: Depends on what you’re hungry for. French? La Fourchette. American? Grille 88, Little Fountain Café or Perry’s. Ethiopian? Meskerem. Light Asian (and hip digs)? The new Mantis. There are many, many options.


Reston, Va.: Tom, You mentioned going to Rehoboth Beach earlier in the season. What's the scoop? Will be going over there soon and wanted to know which restaurants are standing out this year. Last season, Cloud 9 was awesome with its panko crusted tuna. Best dessert was the cinnamon saigon waffle with chocolate sauce and ice cream at the Blue Moon. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: The best meals that I had there this season were at the innovative Back Porch Cafe at 50 Park Ave.


Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: Hello Tom, thank you for responding to this question. As you have mentioned before, one of the reasons you choose a particular place to review is to give readers to assess the money they are going to pay (mostly the expensive ones) if worthy. How about the time they are going to spend in waiting? I am really interested in reading your review on Lauriol Plaza, just for the time we waited there, to see if is worthy.

Tom Sietsema: Waiting for a table at Lauriol Plaza for more than two minutes is too long for me, but I can understand why people do so. Lots of eye candy. Fun rooftop seating. And sangria that's strong enough to help you forget what you're eating.


Washington, DC: Hi Tom, where was the last place that you ate and had a really good meal?

Tom Sietsema: The patio outside 15 ria, where I enjoyed bowtie pasta with juicy rock shrimp, roasted red and yellow beets -- and far too many of Jamie Leeds' scrumptious onion ringlets.


Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.: Tom, Thank you for mentioning Cafe Palena. We visited it for the first time this past weekend, and absolutely agree with you - probably the best deal in town. BTW, their hamburger gives Morton's a run for the money as the best in town. 9 bucks for the fries it a bit steep though, but where else can one get food, ambiance and service like that for the money?

Tom Sietsema: For that kind of money? That's a toughie.

Alternative haute bargains to consider, though, are the tapas bar at Taberna del Alabardero and the hot dog with hand-cut fries at Johnny's alf Shell (lunch only, alas).


eGullet or Chowhound: Which one do you like better?

Tom Sietsema: You don't REALLY expect me to answer that one, do you?

Honestly, I like them both. (And an admission: I was recently a Q & A guest on egullet, which was great fun.)

Some posters are really knowledgeable and entertaining, others seem to have way too much time on their hands. So I've learned to read both forums with that in mind (and keep my eyes open for the discerning voices).

Bottom line:I think it's great, having two such lively sites devoted to matters of the table and beyond.


For Foggy Bottom/Gtown diner: What about Citronelle?

Tom Sietsema: My sense was, the diner is looking for a more moderately priced venue.


Foggy Bottom Restaurant: If Nectar is booked when I try to make a reservation in the next couple of weeks, I will call Marcel's -- one of the best and in my opinion, most overlooked restaurants in the city.

Tom Sietsema: Hey, Robert, is that you online?


Captiol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Where would you suggest a group go to enjoy Italain food w/ an inexpensive price? Preferably in NOVA or in DC. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Try Kuna on U St. or Luigi's (sp) on 19th. The first is moody and innovative; the latter is more of the red check cloth and lasagna school.


Washington, DC: A book? Do tell!

Tom Sietsema: I'm at work on a restaurant guide to the Washington area, to be published by the Post this fall. (Just after my fall dining guide for the Magazine. It's been a busy, busy summer, kids.)


Washington, D.C.: What are some fun, inexpensive Chicago locales? We are going to visit there this fall. Thanks for answering this question.

washingtonpost.com: Tom's Postcard from Chicago.

Tom Sietsema: Don't miss a magarita and appetizers at the bar at the colorful Frontera Grill on N. Clark. Trust me on this. Its owner, Rick Bayless, won the coveted chef of the year from the Beard Foundation a number of years ago -- one taste of his cooking, and you'll know why.


Parents...: What about La Chaumiere? Or a walk over to Kinkead's?

Tom Sietsema: La Chaumiere is kind of fusty; Kinkead's, you need to book well in advance.


Rosslyn, Va.: I know you worked previously on the west coast as a food writer. Of all of the cities you've done extensive eating in - which one's your favorite? Perhaps not a fair question, so you don't have to provide a fair answer. If there is one, why?

Tom Sietsema: That’s a tough one. San Francisco might sound like the obvious answer, but I landed in Seattle at a time (1994) when there was a ton of money to open new restaurants and locals were hungry for adventure. So I got to cover the birth of fusion and other innovative cooking styles during my time there. I’d say it was a toss up between the two cities.

Los Angeles, rich with ethnic possibilities, was the place everyone looked to in the 80’s for culinary excitement, but it became rather conservative thereafter.


The Hill, Washington, D.C.: I had written a couple of weeks ago in search of Rocky Mountain oysters. Well, I finally had them at a reception on the Hill (courtesy of the great Western states convention)... breaded, deep fried and slathered with bbq sauce, they weren't bad... not what I expected. And no, didn't taste like chicken. By the way, what's the strangest thing you've eaten?

Tom Sietsema: Happy to hear you found what you were looking for.

The strangest thing I’ve eaten recently? A dessert of cornbread served with a scoop of ice tea-flavored granita, sold at a local restaurant.

The strangest thing ever? It would be a toss up between an ortolon (small whole bird “drowned” in armagnac) or a fish served while it was still alive. Long stories there.


Fairfax, Va.: Tom, how long do you wait to be spoken to in a resturant? Not seated, but spoken to, offered a glass of water or a drink, etc? Thanks! Tom Sietsema: At the door? Patrons should be acknowledged in at least 30 seconds. At the table, depending on the restaurant and the time, I like to be greeted within a minute or so of being seated.


Washington, DC: For the Ann Arbor requester, you have to go to Zimmerman's deli/gourmet shop. Great samples and great sandwiches. Also, for a true AA experience, Blimpies (not the chain) for hamburgers. They are small so get a triple or larger! Also for good beer (try the Bells from Kalamazoo) and sangria, go to the bar across from the law school library (name escapes me). It has a nice outdoor patio and decent snack food.

Tom: I am heading to Providence, RI for a few days. Saw your postcard, anywhere else to add. I am a pizza freak by the way if you have any other pie recommendations.

Tom Sietsema: One out-of-town question addressed, two to go! Thanks.

One good turn deserves another:In Providence, Al Forno is known for its first-class pizza.


Re: Colvin Run: Had lunch there last week. Excellent service. Very diverse lunch menu but simply too pricey. Dinners are around $38 an entree (I grabbed the dinner menu on my way out). Unlike Kincaids, everything is a fixed entree, they do not appear to have daily catches grilled or available to be cooked to order (not so good for my picky lunch mate who did not want coconut crusted or cilantro lime or curry sauced seafood). My meal was excellent however, as it should be at a $25 lunch price.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the mini-review.


Washington DC: When is your fall dining Guide coming out? How many restaurants are going to be featured?
Also when is your book coming out?
Thank you in advance
Happy eating! Happy writing!

Tom Sietsema: The fall dining guide comes out mid-October, the book just before Thanksgiving.


Washington, D.C. -- formerly Ann Arbor, MI: For the Ann Arbor visitor:
Angelo's for breakfast/lunch
Jerusalem Garden
Gandy Dancer
The Earle
Pizza House -- you have to have a chipati.
Stucchi's -- ice cream

It's a great restaurant town...have fun!

Tom Sietsema: Maybe I shuld consider grad school after all ....



Washington DC: Tom -

What's your prediction on the impact on Falls Church's 2941 given the recent management departure you mention in today's food section?

Tom Sietsema: 2941 is a well-financed business with a fine chef and a beautiful dining room to help fill its seats, despite the remote location. I predict the restaurant will only improve.


Curious: Did you contribute (meaning vote) at all for the reader's favorites entertainment guide? Are you curious to know what's popular and what's not?

Tom Sietsema: The only restaurant "contest" I participate in is the Beard Awards. Even before I became a critic, I was never a big fan of reader polls.


Southwest, Washington, D.C.: Thought you might be interested: Went to Zola, and enjoyed the excellent drinks, and the quite good food (not overwhelming, but much better than I expected from your review, especially the tuna tartare). But when I looked over the large wall of press coverage, the Post review was conspicuously missing. Guess you weren't glowing enough.

Tom Sietsema: Guess not.

The restaurant does have a new chef in place (and has for some time), but he hasn't done much to change the menu yet, at least from what I can tell.


Go Green: Ann Arbor sucks.

Tom Sietsema: Hey, hey, let's be civil here!


Washington, DC: Tom,

I am a bit confused as to why people think the pizza at Matchbox is so good. I went there the other night and although I liked their interesting cocktails and a salad that I had there, the pizza was one step up from Trio's (especially the crust). I expected it to be more like a Two Amy's kind of deal. Those little burgers looked good. What do you think of their pizza?

Tom Sietsema: My review of Matchbox runs July 13.


Arlington, Va.: Tom said: "Even before I became a critic, I was never a big fan of reader polls."

Why? Because the great unwashed should vote with their wallets, not their voices? Or are we just not "educated" enough about the dishes at 2941?

Tom Sietsema: You don't need to be rude. I wasn't. I simply implied that I'd rather follow the advice of a critic (or critics) I had learned to trust (that's the key) rather than an anonymous collection of voters. Period.


Washington, DC: As a pretty influential reader poll, how does the
Zagat guide rank in your opinion?

Tom Sietsema: The surveys are as good as their editors in the individual cities. Like most food professionals I know, I use the guides only for addresses and phone numbers.

That said, people seem to love them: the Zagat guide to Washington is almost always on the best seller list published in the Post's Book World.


Krispy Kreme Invasion, Mass.: Tom, Submitting early, but would really love a response! I live outside of Boston, aka Dunkin' Donuts land.(I just moved from DC and I miss your columns and chats!) On Tuesday, the first Krispy Kreme store in Massachusetts opened nearby. The boston.com site had a board for peoples views on what could become the doughnut wars. I am very interested in your opinion on this - Dunkin' Donuts or Krispy Kreme? For coffee? For a breakfast doughnut? For a dessert doughnut? Thanks! p.s. Is there anyone in the Boston media that can even remotely hold a candle to you? Tom Sietsema: I hate to disappoint you, but I haven’t eaten a Dunkin’ donut in a very long time, so I don’t feel qualified to weigh in on the matter. Let me try one (or three) and report back in the near future.

Locally, some of the best donuts to be found are at Amernick Bakery on Connecticut Ave. NW (Friday and Saturday after 11 a.m.).

Thanks for the kind words, by the way, and yes, there are fine food writers in Beantown (Corby Kummer being one of several I enjoy reading).


Annapolis, Md.: Any suggestions for good but not too pricey restaurants for D.C. summer interns to dine this summer? Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: Sure! For pizza and youthful ambience, check out Matchbox in Chinatown and the even newer Ella’s Wood Fired Pizza on F St. NW. Teaism, with several locations around town, is good for an Asian-accented breakfast and the top toque at Zatinya assures me that the check average there is $24 a person – a real bargain, given the setting and the Turkish, Lebanese, and Greek cooking. The café at Palena in Cleveland Park, with its heavenly bar menu, is quietly romantic – and you can tell friends that a former White House chef (Frank Ruta, one of the best chefs in the city) made dinner for you.


Old Town Emergency!: Tom! Help! My future in-laws are coming to town and want to take my fiance and I out to dinner in Old Town Alexandria, but I have NO idea where to go! What do you like? Help this son-in-law-to-be!

Tom Sietsema: Take them to the Majestic Cafe, grounded in local history and celebrated in part for its lovely, old-fashioned desserts. The in-laws will think you a fine man indeed.


Washington, D.C.: Friday is my birthday -- where can I get either the best piece of coconut cake or cheesecake?

Tom Sietsema: The best coconut cake I’ve had recently was at a steakhouse: Caucus Room in Penn Quarter. If you don’t want to commit to protein in the dining room, I bet you could savor a slice (it’s ENORMOUS, by the way) in the clubby bar.


Washington DC: Tom,
What is your typical day like? How many meals do you have in a day? Do you work out or go to a gym? What are your hobbies? Do you like movies? What is your favorite drink? Your favorite Meat? Your favorite seafood? Do you like vegetables? Your favoite fruit? Your favorite snack?
The vegetable you can't stand.
The Spice you dislike.
Answer as many as you like

Tom Sietsema: 1) Crazy
2) Two restaurant meals, sometimes three
3) Yes
4) This job
5) Sometimes a margarita, other times a sidecar
6) Pork
7) Shrimp
8) Yes
9) Blood oranges and mangoes
10) Peanut butter on toast
11) Green peppers
12) Anise

Lunch time! Thanks all. Gotta dash.


Reader Poll: Last year's Post reader's poll rated the Cheesecake Factory as a top restaurant, so I'm with Tom on this one.

Tom Sietsema: Exhibit No. 1 .... I'm outta here.


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