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Ask Tom

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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, August 25, 2004; 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. Tom's Sunday magazine reviews, as well as his "Ask Tom" column, are available early on the Web.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Tom Sietsema: CALLING ALL FOOD LOVERS: Be sure to mark your calendars for Friday, September 17, when the Jean Louis Palladin Foundation will be celebrating its internship program with a seven-course dinner prepared by a stellar cast of chefs at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. Among the participants are Michel Richard of Citronelle, Fabio Trabocchi of Maestro, Robert Wiedmaier of Marcel's, Todd Gray of Equinox, Gerard Pangaud of Gerard's Place, honorary chairperson Phyllis C. Richman, and Gourmet magazine, whose October issue is devoted to restaurants and includes stories on the foundation's four interns from around the country. A bit of background: The Jean-Louis Palladin Foundation was created to honor and keep alive the contributions of Jean-Louis Palladin, the late cooking giant, by working with emerging chefs and food professionals to encourage excellence and high standards in the food industry. For reservations, call 202-944-2055. Tickets for the black tie event are $250, inclusive.
Let's roll!

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Bethesda, Md.: Do any of the chatters have any updates re: fine dining in Las Vegas? Is Thomas Keller's (of French Laundry fame) Bouchon Restaurant in the Venetian worth trying? Your Postcard from Vegas, Tom, is from 2001.

Tom Sietsema: Just so you know, I'll be returning to Sin City in January and writing about what I find for my February "Postcard" in the Travel section.
In the meantime, does anyone have suggestions for where to dine in Vegas?

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Washington D.C.: Tom:

You've probably covered this before, but I have a birthday coming up and I need a recommendation. A friend who loves ethnic food has offered to take me out (some place reasonable). I'd like to try some good, authientic Latin American food. Any recommendations in D.C./Northern Virginia?

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: "Latin American" is pretty broad. Can you be more specific? For Peruviuan cooking, I like Costa Verde in Arlington.

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Washington, D.C.: I'd like to take my parents out to dinner for my Mother's 60th birthday. It's a Saturday night in October. Prefering great seafood or a nice French rest. in the District. My mother frequently dines at D.C. Coast and other downtown spots for lunch. Would Kinkeads work?

Tom Sietsema: Kinkead's would be fine. So, too, would Marcel's (haute French) and the elegant Cafe 15 (ditto).

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Northern Virginia: I eat out when my budget permits which is not very often. I'm a somewhat fincky eater when it comes to resturant-prepared food. I often ask to put dressing/sauce on side, 96 something or replace an item with something else, etc. When I ask to 96 more than one item; 99 percent of the time I'm charged the full price. One place I used to frequent would deduct 20-40 cents per item omitted from your order. Which one do you think is approperiate? I would rather not pay for something I never requested nor comsumed! But then again, the cost of veggies must be so minimal, it could not have been missed by the chef! Example, I order the most decent salad from maybe four or five salads the resturant sells and I ask to 96 the onions, peppers, some weird veggies; are they still entitled to recieve the full price for the salad?

Tom Sietsema: Interesting situation there. Do any restaurateurs care to chime in?

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi Tom! A follow-up here. A couple of weeks ago, I'd written to find out whether 2 Amys would be a good choice for us when we were looking for a restaurant for my 12 year-old stepdaughter's birthday dinner with her friends. You'd said it was a great choice, and we went ahead and took them there.

I wanted to let you know that the evening ended up a great success -- in large part due to the thoughtfulness and consideration of the staff. When we first arrived, the host was kind enough to locate a table for my husband and me where we could conveniently keep a stroller for our youngest. Then, she found a great table - a distance away - for the girls, which let them feel really grown-up. Both the host and the girls' waiter took excellent care of the girls and checked in with me several times. Everyone was very responsive and made us feel well taken care of.

I just wanted to share this with you, since we were so pleased.

Tom Sietsema: I love spreading news like that. Tanks for following up.

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Shepherd Park, Washington, D.C.: Tom,

I know you're flooded with questions, but I'm hoping persistence pays off (this is my fourth try with this question).

Do you (or anyone else out there) know of any good places to eat near the AFI Silver theatre in the new downtown Silver Spring area?

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Actually, I've addressed this question before, from another poster.
Some of the choices include El Guajiro (a plain-Jane Cuban eatery on the same street as the cinema); Sergio's (Italian in the Hilton on Colesville Road); and Mi Rancho (ok Tex-Mex but boasting an outdoor terrace).

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Maryland: Tom

There are probably a ton of restaurants like this, but what do you recommend in the Georgetown area for a date? I'm looking for some place that attracts a young crowd, and is fun, but not so crazy that you can't hear the person across from you. No preference on type of food other than it be good.

Tom Sietsema: Bistro Francais on M St. attracts a pretty diverse crowd. You might also consider the stylish Cafe Divan (Turkish food) near the Social Safeway in upper Georgtown or Smith Point, which caters to the college crowd and is known for its good chicken pot pie and crab cakes, among other American dishes.

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Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom!
Submitting early because of work...today's my birthday (better to celebrate -- because look at the alternative!) and we'd like to do a happy hour and dinner somewhere after work today. Where's the best place for a vegetarian (my husband) and a kind-of-craving-French-food (but flexible, too) birthday girl to go?

Thanks

Tom Sietsema: My first choice would be the charming Montmartre on the Hill, whose most recent menu includes chilled carrot and ginger cream soup and tiny ravioli with pesto (for him) and homemade pate and hanger steak with red wine sauce (for the birthday gal). Congrats!

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Washington, D.C.: After hearing recommendations from friends and critics alike, we went to Little Fountain Cafe last Wednesday. We loved it upon entering -- the ambiance, the service, the half-price wine. The bread and butter were tasty, the spinach salad was excellent, but we were very disappointed in the entrees. My steak was... fine. Nothing to write home about, just fine. The vegetables were overcooked in both our meals, and my mashed potatoes had started to harden from sitting out by the time they brought us the food. We left having enjoyed a lovely evening, but very conflicted about our meal.

Did we just get them on an off night? I just don't think those entrees were worth $25. Thoughts?

Tom Sietsema: That sounds like an off night to me. My experiences there, and the experiences of friends I've sent there, have not included glitches such as yours.

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Reston, Va.: Hi Tom -- my wife and I will be celebrating our third anniversary with dinner at L'Auberge Chez Francois. I've never been able to get a straight answer regarding the dress code for this fine restaurant. Would I be out of place without a jacket, or with a more contemporary shirt and tie (as opposed to the "classic" white or blue colors)?

Tom Sietsema: Just to be on the safe side, wear a jacket. You can always take it off once you get there if you see others in casual attire.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom, I so enjoyed today's story in the food section about local chefs and their summer favorites. The chefs' customer stories were a riot, but Carole Greenwood's story about the couple who fought and then ran out of Buck's and left their food takes the cake. Have you been witness to such things over the years? I bet you have some good stories to tell!

washingtonpost.com: Stolen Steaks!, (Post, Aug. 25)

Tom Sietsema: Let's see. I once watched a woman pour a glass of wine on her date's head. (What prompted THAT, I wondered.) Another time, I saw a diner's menu go up in flames when she leaned in too close to a candle on the table. Elsewhere, I sat next to a fireman who got down on bended knee to propose to his girlfriend -- in song. A really, really long song.

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Washington, D.C.: Am I right to assume that 96 means 86? As in, 86'd from the menu/taken off?

Tom Sietsema: You are correct. I should have explained that restaurant lingo.

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Struggling for Ideas, D.C.: Hi Tom, I could really use your help today. This may not be entirely appropriate for your discussion, but I don't know who else to ask. I am looking to hold a reception at a restaurant for 100 people. For the life of me I cannot find a restaurant that everyone will agree to (came close with Smith and Wollensky) Are you aware of A. a restaurant in Penn Quarter called the Mark? or B. A restaurant that has a private room large enough for this group? Or one that rents the entire place out for a few hours?

Sorry this is so long, but desperately need help!

Tom Sietsema: The Mark is now known as Andale, but it's run by the same chef, Alison Swope.
Have you thought about Les Halles, the French brasserie, or the new La Paradou on Pennsylvania Ave.? I'm not sure what your budget/food preferences are.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Other good choices near the AFI:

Langano's Ethiopian a few blocks down Georgia, Vietnamese at a place whose name keeps changing at the corner of Sligo and Georgia.

Also, a Burmese place is slated to re-open on Bonifant, about four blocks away.

There are always the chain places in the New Downtown behind the AFI - Austin Grill etc.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for weighing in.

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Re: Picky Eaters: The NOVA reader seriously thinks that leaving out key ingredients should save her 40 cents. That is outrageous. The extra time to put in the non-standard order and for the kitchen to make the non-standard order should incur an ADDITIONAL charge, not a lesser one.. and, I am not in the restaurant business.

Tom Sietsema: One person's reaction.

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Re: N. Virginia who likes to "96" things on his or her salads: It is a menu, not a list of suggestions. If you think your version may be better than the chef's, don't expect a discount for your high maintainance.

Tom Sietsema: And another.

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For the picky eater: I'm quite sure that the computer systems the restaurants use have predetermined prices and that there is almost no way a server can tell the kitchen what you want without having a full blown discussion with the manager about how to price lettuce, tomatoes and the like a la carte. It's not fair to the restaurant or the server to demand something of that nature.

Tom Sietsema: And a third!

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Takoma park, Md.: Eating near the AFI:

Half Moon Barbecue down the street on Georgia towards DC has live music and decent BBQ. Could make a nice evening paired with a movie.

Roger Miller african restaurant on Bonifant is an experience to have at least once.

Tom Sietsema: More useful recommendations. Gracias.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom -- I know you've never been to Atlantic City, but I was wondering if you could post this for the chatters to respond? I am taking my boyfriend to Atlantic City for his birthday and I'm looking for a casino restaurant with good food and as un-tacky as possible atmosphere. Our hotel was expensive enough, so I don't need the fanciest spot in Atlantic City (if there even is one), but something close. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Ok, here goes. Chatters?

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Washington, D.C.: Just curious if you ever get tired of slagging Restaurant Nora? Truth be told, it's getting awfully old and it shows poor taste on your part. Move on already.

Tom Sietsema: I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. I rarely have reason to talk about Restaurant Nora, much less "slag it." Do your research before you whine!

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Oakton, Va.: Tom, I'm writing this on Monday morning, having just finished the Business section of The Post, where I noticed that "SER Corp. also known as Galileo Restaurant, Laboratorio Del Galileo and Osteria Del Galileo" has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy with assets of $3,000 and over $2.4 million in liabilities. I know Chapter 11 bankruptcy is "reorganization," but sometimes reorganizations don't happen. So what is going on? Are we at risk of losing Galileo from the D.C. dining scene?

Tom Sietsema: I'm no lawyer, but the best hope for Roberto Donna to pay off his debts is to continue doing what he does best: cook. From what I understand, Chapter 11 is no the bitter end.

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Falls Church, Va.: In Re: the person from Downtown D.C. asking about "Blue and Gold" and their barleywine called "Old Crankcase."

I'm a pretty avid follower of the brewpub scene in this area and don't recall either the place or the beer, but if they are looking for a good, locally-produced barleywine, I can suggest Millennium from Old Dominion. Unfortunately, it's released in March and likely gone from the shelves by now.

They might also want to stop by the local brewpubs come winter, when most barleywines are traditionally released. Likely picks would be Capitol City and Founder's in Old Town. Rock Bottom in the Ballston Mall might also crank one out. DuClaw in Maryland releases a barleywine in the winter called "Devil's Milk" that's also quite tasty. Call ahead first.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for shedding some light on the subject.

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McLean, Va.: Tom,

Is there any hope that the Jaleo location under construction can continue the legacy of the original? I sense that the new Jaleo will be forced to attract a new -- ahem -- clientele to make payroll.

Cheers, mate!

Tom Sietsema: What makes you think that? Jaleo does a pretty good job as far as consistency ius concerned. I'm thinking of my meals at the original vs. the sibling in Bethesda.

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Omitting ingredients from menu selection: I don't eat meat, and I sometimes find myself at a restaurant where the best option is to ask for an item sans meat. (Sometimes it's possible to substitute, i.e., some fruit instead of a breakfast sausage, but usually the item is just omitted.) I've never had a restaurant charge less than full price for the selection -- even when ordering a cheeseburger without the burger!

Tom Sietsema: Ha!
In a lot of Asian restaurants, diners can find meatless versions of chicken, beef and seafood dishes.

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re: Restaurant Nora: It's not Tom who's tasteless, it's the food!;

Tom Sietsema: I'm only posting this (not necesarily agreing with it).

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For Struggling in D.C.: If, I am not mistaken, and you are looking for dinner, the Ebbitt Grill has access to the atrium area in the building it is located in and can handle 100+ people for a special function. I attended a cocktail party there a few years ago.

Tom Sietsema: Anyone who has been to the restaurant's aptly titled "oyster riot" in the fall knows it can handle an invasion of eaters.

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Washington, D.C.: You wrote: "I once watched a woman pour a glass of wine on her date's head."

But was it red or white?

Tom Sietsema: You know, I was so startled to see the behavior, I forgot the color of the beverage.

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Vienna, Va.: Tom:

It's my daughter's 16th birthday and I want to take her out to an elegant restaurant with wonderful food. After reading a multitude of your columns, I settled on Cafe Mozu in the Mandarin Hotel. But in this morning's Post, I read that the Mandarin's signature restaurant isn't due to open until the fall. If Cafe Mozu isn't the Mandarin's signature restaurant, what is it? Would I be on safer grounds to take her to that old Washington landmark -- 1789?

Tom Sietsema: CityZen hopes to be the hotel's "destination" restaurant, though Mozu was first to open.
1789 is great fun. You can't go wring there, particularly if you're seated downstairs.

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Arlington, Va.: In Atlantic City try the Borgota hotel. There is a wine cellar below one of the restuarants that makes great pizza and you can purchase a wine flight (a few to choose from) quite reasonably. If your nice the manager may even give you a tour around.

Tom Sietsema: Sounds good to me.

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McLean, Va.: Good morning! I am going to Minibar for my birthday on Saturday. Can you explain how the wine situation works? If you don't know what you're going to eat, does the chef help make a wine selection? I plan on having a mojito or two before dinner, but I really do want wine for the meal.

Tom Sietsema: I drank sparkling wine (champagne) throughout the myriad tastes, per the suggestion of my server.

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Washington, D.C.: So, what's you opinion on the Dallas reviewer getting sued?

Tom Sietsema: We're supposed to have dinner together in New York next month (Per Se, finally!), at which time I hope she can take off her muzzle and tell all.

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Washington, D.C.: Before everyone starts the whole "Northern Virginia" war -- a co-worker of mine (in D.C.) -- wrote that picky eater, "96" posting as a joke.

Tom Sietsema: Some jokes DO get past me here!

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Strange behavior: A friend of mine tried to break up with his then-girlfriend and she smashed a plate of spaghetti in his face in the middle of the restaurant.

For some reason, he ended up marrying her. Go figure.

Tom Sietsema: And how long will THAT little situation last?

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Re: Atlantic City: The Hooters located in the Tropicana boasts "Nearly World Famous" wings, with scenery to boot (it's off of the boardwalk ;). It's Atlantic City, not Vegas baby.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the chuckle (baby).

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Avid foodie in Virginia: Hi Tom,
I have been trying to "break in" to some of the local food forums here -- Egullet in particular -- and have found it to be very overwhelming, almost cutthroat, and not always a friendly environment. Could you recommend someplace for a food lover to weigh in that doesn't take itself quite so seriously? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Hey, aren't WE fun to play with, right here?

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Privacy issue: What do you think about restaurants that have video cameras throughout? I was recently told that a certain Old Town restaurant named after a Tolkein character has video cameras everywhere so the owner can sit at home and monitor everything that happens. Is this legal? I find it a bit creepy and won't be dining there again!

Tom Sietsema: Do tell!
The restaurant I know for certain that has video is Daniel in New York. The cameras are part of perfect timing, or so the French restaurant explains.

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Bangkok, Thailand: Tom,
I was in D.C. recently and went to one of my favorite spots, Cashion's. We were seated promptly, but it was quite clear that I was not fabulous enough for the server's taste. I was dressed casually but certainly not out of line with other customers. The hostess' disgust was quite apparent, and I was quite put off by her attitude. Please tell me what has always been a warm, welcoming place hasn't changed during my absence into a place where only the hip, beautiful people are treated nicely.

Tom Sietsema: Can you provide more detail, please? That scenario sounds very uncharacteristic of the staff at Cashion's.

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Huntsville, Ala.: Tom: I've been reading your columns/discussions for over two years now online. Just wanted to let you know that I have learned that it's always appropriate to deal firmly with a server/food problem; last night instead of meekly submitting to a server's poor attitude and a dish that contained a (highly aromatic) ingredient that was not listed, we called the manager over, who very quickly removed the offending dish, replaced it with another, comped the first dish and spoke to the server. All in all a very good result, and this was directly due to the learning I've gotten by reading you! And this was just a chain restaurant! Thanks ever so much.

Tom Sietsema: Ah, glad to hear that! The neat thing is, you were diplomatic in your complaint, the manager kept your business and everyone ended up better off -- well, everyone but the waiter.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Tom:

Heading out to Long Beach and Los Angeles in early October. I will try to make it to PATINA when in Los Angeles (Postcard suggestion), as I will be staying/working nearby at my company's Los Angeles office. The real question is about Long Beach. Attending a conference at the convention center and wondering if you or any chatters have suggestions for lunch or dinner places nearby.

In addition, a group of, perhaps 20, that participate in an associated listserv like to gather when we all attend this conference for drinks and dinner. Drinks and dinner do not have to be in the same location. We will be gathering on a Saturday evening and I am looking for places to suggest to the organizers, neither of them local to southern California. Thanks all for your suggestions.

Tom Sietsema: Are any chatters (or lurkers) up to date on Long Beach? The last time I was there was in eighth grade. Let's HOPE the dining scene has changed since then.

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Clear soup: What are the ingredients for clear soup (in Japanese restaurants)? I love the stuff but can't help wonder what exactly it is that I am paying for?

Tom Sietsema: If you're thinking about miso soup, the ingredients typically include fish stock, soft tofu, some scallions and soybean paste (a.k.a miso)

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Washington, D.C.: Re: the woman who poured wine on her date's head: If this happened in D.C., I am willing to bet that it was my ex-husband who got the shower, when one of his girlfriends found out about some of the others (true story). It was red, and it was totally deserved. Tom --was the woman a petite blonde with, uh, enhanced assets?

Tom Sietsema: Oh my!

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SB, Calif.: Hi Tom,

Just wanted to thank you for your recommendations for Montreal. We especially enjoyed L'Express! I had the steak frites with a shallot butter and it was fantastic. Even my husband, who teases me for reading a restaurant chat 3K miles away, was grateful.

Also a note to anyone who is going in the future -- all of the restaurants Tom mentions are within walking distance of each other and were a great walk from our downtown hotel!

Tom Sietsema: Glad L'Express worked out for you. It's a charmer.

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Re: Foodie in Virginia: I think D.C. has some of the biggest food snobs in the country and on top of it is probably one of the least reputable food towns on the east coast. That being said, I think there are some good things to be learned from reading these forums, chats. Primarily that good food and good respect should go hand in hand.

Tom Sietsema: If you think Washington has a lot of food snobs, you should see Manhatten!

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Fairfax, Va.: Tom, Where can I get the best butter chicken in Northern Virginia?

Tom Sietsema: It's been a year since I last had it, but the butter chicken at Bombay Tandoor in Vienna was one of the best entrees on the menu.

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Washington, D.C.: Hey Tom love the chat.
Who was this tool you found in the Post magazine this weekend? She goes on and on how these servers saved her life, then stabs the entire service industry jibing its historically "worst ever" status.

Tools like that wouldn't recognize good service unless it saved their life!
Good service gets tipped, great service sometimes goes unnoticed when you realize how nice a time you had, hopefully the diner had something with it to.

I've been a server for years, love it most the time, but these people ... these gripers on the chat. Everyone should work in some service for a while and then edit their comments!
Thanks

Tom Sietsema: Having been a waiter before, all I can say is "amen!"
That said, the woman who sent me the Valentine to Artie's did not have a chip on her shoulder. (I spoke with her, as I do with all readers whose names appear in Ask Tom.) She simply stated that service isn't often great (true) and wanted to shine a light on a place that bent over for her.

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Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C.: What was the deal with Tuesday's mock Krispy Kreme opening? They claim they were opening at 5:30, but I showed up and told me, no, we're not open until 10 a.m. That doesn't sound like a good way to build brand loyalty, by advertising one opening time (including by flacking you) and then saying, sorry, we meant something different.

washingtonpost.com: Krispy Kreme Tries To Rise to Occasion, (Post, Aug. 25)

Tom Sietsema: Bad, bad, bad.

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Washington D.C.: Tom,

No question here. Just wanted to let you know I really enjoy your chats and reviews. You're an asset to The Post, not just because you are a talented writer and foodie (if I may use that word), but also because you are a critic and not a sycophant.

Best wishes.

Tom Sietsema: I'm trying, I'm trying.
Seriously, thanks for the kind words. One of the things I like best about this job is the back-and-forth I have with readers, be it in a forum such as this one, over the phone or via email.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

Hosting a going away dinner for friends leaving D.C. Looking for a restaraunt that might have a private table for about 10 people (gay guys) in case things get lively or just a place with a festive, fun atmosphere in D.C. or Arlington. Moderate price, food-type doesn't matter. Suggestions?

Tom Sietsema: Try the new Leftbank (formerly Cities) in Adams Morgan, the new Regent Thai in Dupont Circle or Harry's Tap Room in Arlington.

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New York, N.Y.: Tom, I've been reading your chat for years, first as a resident of D.C. and now as a New Yorker. Never did I think my hometown of Long Beach would come up in the chat!

My suggestions for drinks: The Yardhouse is a great brew pub.

My suggestions for dinner: for upscale fare downtown (near the convention center), 555 East (steak) and L'Opera (French) are good bets. A little farther away, but worth the 10-minute drive, is McKenna's on the Bay (steak and seafood). For casual fare, Second Street in Belmont Shore (kind of like a small-town main street) has lots of restaurants to choose from. Second Street also has lots of bars, so it's also a good location for drinks.

Thanks for letting me chime in. To the chatter attending the convention, have fun, and don't forget to visit the Aquarium of the Pacific. It's great!

Tom Sietsema: Wow, dinner and a show in one response!

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Reston, Va.: Tom: Cafe Divan was great when it first opened but went down hill after it was mentioned in Washingtonian (maybe too crowded). By the way, last week's chat mentioned a good butcher for Merguez. The butcher also supplies sausage for Pita House in Alexandria (best mekanek in town).

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the update. I haven't been to Divan recently.

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Just curious: Do you keep a spreadsheet or something of what you eat and where? How do you know you last had butter chicken one year ago? Impressive!

Tom Sietsema: No spread sheets. Just a happy recollection.

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Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Hey, Tom. This is someone you know very well. But because of the charming anonymity of the chat format, I shall tantalizingly keep my identity a secret. Oh, heck, you dragged it out of me. It's Weingarten. I have a complex question.

Several years ago my wife and I moved to Capitol Hill. One of the first restaurants we visited was the Greek Taverna, on Pennsylvania Ave. We had a memorably awful meal. Neither of us can remember many particulars (it's like women and the pain of childbirth; nature kindly erases some memories, for the survival of the species) but one thing I do recall is that I ordered an appetizer of "anchovies in olive oil," for $4.50, and was presented with anchovies straight out of the can, plopped on a plate with so little ceremony and lack of shame that the fish clump was still molded into the shape of the can.

We vowed never to return, of course, and in the last three years have been more or less satisfied with the other Capitol Hill restaurants. (If you haven't, you should try the Pacific Grill Vietnamese place on Pennsylvania, next to Frager's Hardware; recently opened, quite remarkably good.)

Anyhow, last Friday night my wife and I were out walking and we decided, on impulse, to try the Taverna again. Our theory was that since the place was still open, and was reasonably busy, it HAD to have improved.

So, we walked in, sat down, and had a memorably bad meal. We knew we were in trouble when we ordered the only interesting looking appetizer... Mezedalkia (sp?) Taverna, described as an "assortment of sizzling hot chunks of pork, liver, and sweetbreads in oil with lemon and oregano." Promising, no? The waitress told us, I swear, that the restaurant has been "out" of that dish for "several years."

The avgolemono soup was a thick, corn-starchy mess without much evidence that a chicken had ever even walzed by it. My wife's shrimp special was overcooked into pulpy tastelessness. My dish was lamb and artichoke in avgolemono sauce -- it was a watery stew that featured what appeared to be canned artichoke hearts and stringy lamb that had been overboiled along with the potatoes. Yes, boiled.

It was wretched. We walked home in silence, my wife ticked that she had "eaten fattening food that was lousy," me basically angry at having been charged anything at all, much less $60. We were grousing and grumbling and not talking to each other much -- the epitome of a restaurant-ruined evening.

Here is my question: How can a truly bad restaurant survive so long, in a competitive area? What explains this phenomenon?

Tom Sietsema: Gene, don't you have a column to write?
Your meal there could have been my last meal. The place is really, really bad.
I don't have a ready answer to your question. The restaurant must be a draw for SOME people, right? Then again, there aren't many great places to eat on the Hill. I keep wishing and remain hopeful, however.

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Washington, D.C.: What's the story on the Dallas reviewer (sued by whom, etc.)

Tom Sietsema: Short version: An Italian restaurateur is suing newspaper critic Dotty Griffith over a review that read worse than it was rated. Among other charges: she got some food facts wrong and dined on one occasion with a guest who happened to be the restaurateur's competitor.

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Washington, D.C.: Okay, before everybody yells that I'm a cheapskate, I admit you're probably right.

Here's my question anyway: How do I not get taken advantage of when going to lunch with my boss and other co-workers who want to split the bill?

I usually avoid these lunches because of this problem but sometimes I feel the presure is on to join in. Hey, sometimes I feel like going out, too.

Invariably though, my boss orders appetizers and drinks to be shared by whomever wants them. He and others, even some of the administrative folks who make less than me, usually order some of the most expensive meals.

I get a $6 side salad and breadsticks but end up with a $20 or more bill after the group decides it wants to split the bill.

Is the only answer to not go out with the group? Seems like I lose either way

Tom Sietsema: I'll throw this one out to the peanut gallery.

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RE: Las Vegas and Atlantic City: The Temple restaurant at Caesar's Palace was one of my most enjoyable meals at Atlantic City.

As for Las Vegas, we just came back and had a great tasting menu extraganza, eating at Michael Mina's (Formerly Aqua in Bellagio) for seafood, Bradley Ogdeon at Caesar's Palace, Andre's at Monte Carlo, and lastly Nobu at the Hard Rock Hotel.

Time to hit the gym!;

Tom Sietsema: More promising choices. Thanks.

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Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: For the chatter who needs a restaurant for 100 in Penn Quarter, we rented all of Andale for a party that size. It was fabulous: the food, the service, and the ambiance were first rate. Expensive to entertain this way, but worth it to the hosts and all our guests.

Tom Sietsema: We appreciate the field report.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Good morning, Tom!
We're going to try Rice (the Thai restaurant on 14th Street) this evening, on the basis of your review and a friend's recommendation. I'm having second thoughts after reading the online comments by diners, though. Do you have any updates since you visited last?

Tom Sietsema: What were the complaints? The thing that would keep me away is the noise -- unbearable at prime time.

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Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C.: I am in my early 20s and have decided to become a professional waiter (many reasons; it's a long story). I have yet to make my move from my current job, as I'm study on my own to prepare for the Big Move.

I have read Charlie Trotter's guidelines on service and many others, and I'm a self-trained "chef" (yeah, right!), but I'm looking for more. I would also like to become a "licensed" sommelier, if such a licensure exists.

My intent is to be a competent, sought-after waiter at a restaurant of the caliber of Marcel's, Maestro, Galileo, etc. I am familiar with several that have managed to make quite a comfortable living for many years, so why not?

PLEASE provide some guidance.

Tom Sietsema: For starters, you should introduce yourself to Mark Slater, Michael Flynn or Vincent Feraud -- the sommeliers at Citronelle, Kinkead's and Maestro, respectively -- and chat them up over drinks. All are very good at what they do and would likely be happy to give you some background.
Gotta dash. See you here next week -- September already!

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Baltimore, Md.: For Washington, DC who orders the side salad but still gets stuck with a split bill -- Either don't go or just suck it up and pay. I've been on both sides of that fence and figure it all evens out in the end, especially if you tend to go out with the same people. OR instead of ordering a side salad that you know you are going to pay $20 for, order an entree like the rest of them!

Tom Sietsema: One last submission

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Washington, D.C.: Splitting bills is such a touchy question. I'd speak to the boss (or whoever is the "leader" of the lunch group) before going and say, "Hey, I love to go to lunch, but I need to keep it affordable. Can we split the bill based on what we order rather than evenly? Thanks."

Tom Sietsema: No, this one is last.

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