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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, September 14, 2005; 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. You can access his Postcards from Tom to read his recommendations for other cities or read transcripts of previous "Ask Tom" chats . Tom's Sunday magazine reviews, as well as his "Ask Tom" column, are available early on the Web.

The transcript follows.

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Tom Sietsema: Dear Tom,

I want to respond to a comment in last week's chat, from the diner who was upset that a bottle of wine was brought to the table, instead of glasses of wine. I spoke at length with our server about this incident.

At Taberna del Alabardero, our policy is not to bring a pre-poured glass of wine, but to bring the bottle of wine to the table, so that our guests may view, taste and approve their selection. This particular group, who dined with us on Saturday evening, ordered their Chardonnay by the glass. The server opened the bottle and poured the wine. He asked the guests if they would like to keep the bottle, which they decided to do so. (It is usually less expensive to order by the bottle than by the glass, depending on the size of the group.)

Our guests also asked the server to recommend a good bottle of red wine with dinner. The definition and price of a "good bottle of wine," can vary greatly, especially in a fine dinning establishment. The server initially recommended a $95 bottle of wine, but after the guest indicated he wanted a less expensive bottle, they agreed on a $68 bottle. Since we don't have a $235 bottle of Rioja, it seems to me that perhaps there was a misunderstanding between our server and the guests?

At Taberna, our intentions are to always please our guests, so we appreciate the opportunity to respond to this comment.

Thank you for your attention.

Sincerely,

David Bueno

Sommelier, Taberna del Alabardero

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Bloomingdale, Washington, D.C.: Tom,

When would say is the best season to enjoy the chefs talents at 1789 for vegetarians? Does she prefer ingredients one season has available over another season? Thanks

Tom Sietsema: I think almost any chef will tell you that late spring and late summer are probably the best times to showcase vegetables. Knowing chef Ris Lacoste of 1789, however, I bet she can whip up something memorable with root vegetables, too.

Good morning, all.

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Greenbelt, Md.: I was reading an online chat here earlier this week, and it makes me wonder: apparently there are food critics who strive to get special treatment from restaurants. Does this ever mean accepting free food as well? Doesn't this make a creditability problem when writing about the restaurant? Do you ever do this?

Tom Sietsema: I do not willingly or knowingly accept "free" food. Ever.

That said, in those cases where chefs have sent out a plate or a glass of something they really want me to try -- and I'm NOT encouraging this, but it happens now and then -- I insist that it be put on my bill or I leave extra cash behind to cover the estimated cost.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Etiquette question here: I dine alone frequently at lunch and dinner and what is the proper way to pay when you don't need change back? If you are paying cash, and you leave the total and tip in cash inside the bill caddy, can you just leave? OR should u stay just to make sure the server gets the bill caddy even if you aren't waiting for any change back?

Tom Sietsema: I think it's best to stay with your cash and bill until a server sees that the latter has been paid, then say "The rest is for you" or some such.

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Crystal City, Va.: Just a quick note to to give props to Chef Paul Luna of the Oval Room and plug their "extreme cooking" classes. My boyfriend signed up for my birthday last Friday and we had a blast!

He and the rest of the staff were so gracious and quick witted. The service was lovely and gracious. My BF made moules frites, lobster ravioli, and strawberry shortcake...not easy things! But they let us bring our drinks back and made the whole evening enjoyable for us. The chef was patient and walked by BF through the whole thing without making him feel like a novice.

Max Kudos to the oval room for their hospitality, we will def. be returning! savitha

Tom Sietsema: I've been hearing nothing but good things about the program. Thanks for the feedback.

 The Weekly Dish on classes at the Oval Room

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Arlington, Va.: As I was scraping little bits of lamb fat off of my cast-iron grill pan, a thought occurred to me: is there any standard in a restaurant for a tool or utensil remaining "vegetarian"? I know they have very intensive commercial dishwashers (as well as the human variety), but I would imagine that some items can't get 100% "meat-free." What about commercial griddles? Is there a designation that this side is for veggies only, and this side is for meat?

Tom Sietsema: Interesting question, for which I have no answer. Chatters?

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Arlington, Va.: Tom,

You mentioned that on the rare occasions that you are not dining out about town that you sometimes are invited to your friends houses for dinner. Being an amateur cook myself I couldn't begin to try and imagine how nervous I would be trying to cook for your critical palate. Do you ever see nervous beads of sweat on the brow of your friends as you take your first bite? Do you give honest critique if asked or are you more diplomatic? Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: I count some pretty good cooks among my friends. Inevitably, however, someone will ask, "So, are you reviewing this meal?" to which I inevitably say "Nope, tonight's my night off."

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Foggy Bottom, Washington, D.C.: Good morning, Tom! Thanks for taking my question.

What are you looking forward to for fall? Seasonal ingredients? Specialty dishes? New drink menus? New restaurants?

Bon apetit!

Tom Sietsema: Restaurant-wise, there's lots to look forward to, including the recently opened Willow (w/chef Tracy O'Grady, late of Kinkead's) in Arlington; Acadiana (from the folks at DC Coast/Ten Penh and Ceiba) downtown; and Dahlia, previewed in today's Weekly Dish column. And I look forward to finding out when -- if? -- chef Peter Smith, late of Vidalia, finds a new roost. U St. NW is also alive with new places to eat. I just might have some changes of my own in store, too ....In all, it's going to be a busy autumn.

 The Weekly Dish on Dahlia

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Falls Church, Va.: 'Morning Tom,

I could use your help as I am having a terrible time finding a restaurant to accommodate 35 people for a Saturday noon luncheon reception following my daughter's baptism in October. Because so many guests are from out of town, I want to minimize driving from the Falls Church church where the ceremony will take place. I also would like to find a place with fairly easy parking. And finally, I would like to keep the luncheon to $30 per person. Type of cuisine is not that important to me.

I am at my wit's end and October is creeping up on us. Please help!

Tom Sietsema: My first thought: the welcoming Huong Que (Four Sisters) in the Eden Center. The Vietnamese cooking is of high quality, and the staff couldn't be friendlier. Plus, it's big enough to accommodate your party. You might also consider Argia's as a back-up, though I'm less thrilled by the Italian food there.

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Arlington, Va.: I just want to know if I'm behind the times.

I usually tip servers 18-20% of the pre-tax total in restaurants and, where there is valet parking, about $1 or $2 to the valet, regardless what the charge may be for the parking (generally ranging from zero to about $10).

Are these the "proper" current amounts or did I miss a memo somewhere?

Tom Sietsema: Those sound like appropriate amounts to me. I might tip $3 for a valet who has to run a great distance to retrieve a set of wheels, however.

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Greenbelt, Md.: Hi. I am supposed to meet a friend for a casual, late dinner tonight in Silver Spring. However, it seems like even with the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring there still aren't many options in the area. Any suggestions? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Have you dropped by Jackie's yet? Or the new Ceviche?

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

My husband and I used to enjoy going out to nice dinners and trying new restaurants in D.C., but since my daughter was born last year we haven't had the chance to dine out very often. My birthday is coming up in two weeks and we'd like to go out to dinner somewhere special in downtown D.C. to celebrate. We enjoy all types of food, and are willing to spend the money for a great meal, although something like Citronelle is a little out of our price range. Delicious food is the most important criteria, but good atmosphere is a plus. Before the baby we had been to and enjoyed places like Corduroy, Ceiba and Zaytinya.

Can you recommend something for a couple who now knows more about restaurants on Sesame Street than in D.C.?

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Komi has great food and wine and service to match, but it's lacking in the design department and the place can get incredibly loud. What about dinner at the serene Makoto, the venerable 1789, Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan or the soulful Palena in Cleveland Park?

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

Perhaps you or one of the all knowing chatters out there can help me out. When eating surf & turf (lobster & steak). Do I order red wine or white wine?

Tom Sietsema: I say, drink what you like best.

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Clients, clients, clients: Running dry on suggestions for lunch and happy hour around GW. Anything new and exciting?

Tom Sietsema: Circle Bistro, Notti Bianche and the bar at Marcel's all come to mind.

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Re: Veggie equipment: My experience is that "vegetarian" tends to be just the ingredients, unless the restaurant makes a BIG deal out of the fact that they have separate stuff. An exception is Japanese restaurants, where the nicer ones tend to have different knives and surfaces for different products for cleanliness and flavor reasons. I've gotten pickier the more places I eat... You wouldn't believe how many places throw a veggie burger down on the grill after scraping up a few cheeseburgers!

By the way, I have decided that Amma's in Georgetown is my favorite Veggie restaurant ever!

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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Alexandria, Va.: Great forum TS!

How does the pretentiousness of this city effect the service in our restaurants?

Don't you think that we feel too entitled as customers? In cities that I have traveled, on this continent and others, there seems to be a sense of pride in supporting the local eatery. DC, and I think by its transient nature, does not have the same capability.

Your thoughts are appreciated.

Tom Sietsema: Boy, there's a comment that deserves more than a sentence or two of discussion. I have to say, though, there are lots of loyal diners among "real" Washingtonians -- just ask any restaurateur.

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Silver Spring, Md.: How far in advance should you call for reservations at the more swanky establishments in town?

thanks

Tom Sietsema: Most big deal places take reservations a month or so out. So, the sooner the better, especially if you're looking for an 8 p.m. seating on a weekend night.

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Surf & turf: I've found that a nice Shiraz can often work well with surf & turf.

Tom Sietsema: That would work.

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Arlington, Va.: On August 11, I sent an email to Kimpton Hotel on their Web site with a copy to the Hotel Monaco general manager and restaurant manager of Poste Brasserie regarding my unpleasant experience at their restaurant. To summarize:

I had taken an out of town guest to Poste Restaurant in the Hotel Monaco in Washington, DC for drinks and appetizers prior to the Neil Diamond concert. We were able to get two seats at the bar and order drinks/appetizers directly from the bartenders. It was when we decided to order a few more appetizers that the bartender told us that the kitchen would not let them place any additional orders. He stated the kitchen was backed up and they had not anticipated the crowd! It was at this time, that a majority of the patrons became very unsatisfied and left.

When I asked to speak with the manager, we were unable to because he was on the food line! My bill for the evening was over $100 and I am embarrassed by the fact that my guest could not order additional food prior to the concert!

In my August 11th email, I explained that I have enjoyed my stays at the Hotel Monaco's in DC and San Fran and other Kimpton owned hotels and that I was extremely disappointed and surprised(?) with the mayhem involving last visit.

On August 12, 205 , I received a very apologetic response from Frank Kawecki, Assistant General Manager stating "I express my sincere apologies for your obviously less than pleasant experience at our restaurant. I take your comments in the spirit made, and appreciate the opportunity for us to fine tune issues at Poste."

"I would like nothing better than the opportunity to make it up to you and your guests. Please accept my offer for you to come into Poste for the dining time of your choice, on us. And, if you forward me your credit card information and amount, I will credit your card. We want to show you that the service, or lack thereof, that you received on Wednesday is not what we strive for on a daily basis. Given that you have patronized many other Kimpton properties, you are obviously very important to us, and I would really appreciate the chance to mend fences."

"Please let me know if you are willing to allow a second chance at a first impression. Thank you again for your feedback."

On August 20, 2005, a friend and I decided to take them up on their offer and we went to have dinner at Poste Brasserie.

I found the service to be wonderful. The food was terrific and they really rectified the situation and made a great impression on me. Based on their good food, superior customer service, attention to detail and desire to uphold fantastic customer satisfaction, I would like to recommend to all your readers that they visit Poste Brasserie - 555 8th Street NW, Washington , DC.

Tom Sietsema: Restaurants are run by humans. People make mistakes. "Things" happen. Kudos to the powers that be at the hotel for addressing an unfortunate incident so diplomatically and generously. I'm pleased to share your exchange with a few hundred thousand eye balls.

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Re: Griddles for Vegs: Many years ago I worked in a restaurant (started as a dishwasher and thankfully soon was offered a job as a waiter) that had a griddle. While we did not have a separate griddle or section for vegs. I can tell you that the griddle is scrubbed very well at the end of the day, and at the heat those things operate, any fat is burned off very quickly. Most restaurants are careful to make sure that true veg. meals are not cooked with any animal products. Besides, if it is cooked on a grill as opposed to a griddle, the heat (often about 800 degrees) will burn off any animal fat that may remain from previous items.

Tom Sietsema: That's great, but I bet the previous poster still won't be happy to know that meat and vegetables are cooked on the same surface.

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Petworth, Washington, D.C.: Ai-yi-yi. Another suburbanite talking about the "transient" nature of DC and how it undermines our city.

Dude, there are many of us for whom this is home. And we eat out. And we support the local restaurants. I repeat, this is our home.

Perhaps you're not seeing that in the downtown expense account places, but come on uptown and look in on the local places. You'll see a whole different scene.

Tom Sietsema: Yep!

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In a meeting, Washington, D.C.: How's Kinkead's these days?

Tom Sietsema: I'm always eager to eat at the bar, less enthusiastic about the dining room. The kitchen seems to be cooking in place.

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Beignet & Coffee Fundraiser: On behalf of the Evening Star Cafe, we wanted to thank everyone who came out to support the Taste of the French Quarter fundraiser last Saturday!

The event was such a success, we're planning on another one this Saturday at Tallula from 9 to noon. For a $5 donation, you get an order of housemade beignets and a steaming cup of coffee. All sales go to benefit Katrina victims.

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: The line starts here!

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

I've just moved back to the area and am desperate to find some great desserts. Which restaurants/pastry chefs are making the best ones right now?

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Lately, I've had some really nice endings to meals at Colvin Run Tavern, DC Coast, Buck's Fishing & Camping and the Inn at Easton.

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Tonight: Tom,

What do you think of Al Tiramisu? Do we need reservations for tonight at 7:30 or should we wing it? An unexpected guest called and I sorta picked it out of a hat and would love some reassurance.

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: You better start dialing! Al Tiramisu is a popular place.

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Eastern Market, Washington, D.C.: Tom--"Possible changes of your own"? Do tell! Personal changes (Botox injections? Liposuction?)? Professional changes (Taking Todd Kliman's job at City Paper?)? Or changes within your current job? It's not fair to drop a tantalizing hint like that!

Tom Sietsema: Hey, a guy is entitled to keep a FEW secrets -- for awhile -- right?

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Petworth, Washington, D.C.: Just a comment...if I try on a pair of jeans in my size at a store and they don't fit, the service staff could help me choose the right pair, but I don't expect to get them for free.

Why do we always expect restaurants to give us something for free if it "isn't what I expected" or "I don't like it"?

If I order it and there is something wrong it should be replaced but not comped. However, if I order it and I just don't care for it...well, I ordered it, now didn't I?

Tom Sietsema: Indeed you did.

Another tricky question. But I bet plenty of restaurants would rather replace a dish that a customer didn't care for than wait for a "I had a meal and didn't like it at X restaurant" to appear online or elsewhere.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

I really need your urgent assistance. I work in an International Organization and my boss asked me to reserve a place for 10 in a nice downtown Washington DC restaurant. It can be either Italian or French. It has to be in Downtown Washington. Last time, they enjoyed Citronelle and Galileo. Can you please an elegant place for high level foreign delegates? Please answer my question. I am depending on you. Thank you.

Tom Sietsema: (The pressure! The pressure!)

Consider Tosca for Italian and Marcel's for French.

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Rosslyn, Va.: Tom, I'm a big fan. However, I just don't understand your praise of Buck's. My boyfriend and I tried it based on your recommendation, and we thought the menu definitely lacked variety. What we ordered was OK, but neither of us thought it worth the price. The 'whimsical' atmosphere of the restaurant is interesting, but definitely not for everyone. I hate those people who write in to criticize your reviews, to each his own, but I keep seeing the recommendation from you so I'm wondering - did I miss something or should I try again?? Our visit was months ago...

Thanks in advance!

Tom Sietsema: Try again. I, too, wish the menu was longer, but Carole Greenwood is a mighty fine cook. No one does better steak or mussels, in my opinion. They are two ubiquitous dishes, but in her hands, dishes raised to glory. I'm also partial to the arty setting.

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Arlington, Va.: I appreciate the "Postcard from Tom" columns in the Travel section and have used the reviews as guidance several times. What's next for your travels beyond D.C.? Thank you.

Tom Sietsema: I plan to visit Miami and Oaxaca in coming months.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

Good morning. I hope you can shed some light on my question. Quite often when we go out to dinner, we buy wine by the glass, usually red wine. The amount of wine poured varies from, hey, that's pretty generous, to, the pour seems to be a bit on the skimpy side. Can you clear up on how much wine one should expect to receive when ordering by the glass. Since wine glasses vary in size and shape, could you respond by providing your answer in ounces.

Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: Five- to six-ounces is pretty much the industry standard for a "glass." Keep in mind, six ounces in a big, beautiful goblet can look like a splash!

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Clients near GW: Thanks for that, any info on Notti Bianche? Never heard of it.

Tom Sietsema: Review of Notti Bianche

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Washington, D.C.: I was in a restaurant recently and had just finished my meal when a group arrived and were seated at the table next to me. One of the ladies at the table had an overpowering perfume that enveloped the whole area with the sweet cloying scent. I left soon afterwards, but wondered what the restaurant (or I) could do in a situation such as this. Your advice would be appreciated.

Tom Sietsema: THAT'S a tricky situation. One person's cologne is another person's aggravation. I guess you could have asked to be moved, had it happened earlier in the meal.

Any restaurateurs care to weigh in on possible solutions to the problem?

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, my boyfriend dumped me and I'm an emotional wreck. Barely sleeping, barely eating. Where would you go for comfort food, something that you'd eat even without much of an appetite?

Tom Sietsema: Sorry to hear that.

Maybe sushi -- and a little show -- at the bar at Sushi-Ko will help you get over the blues. Or a plate of pasta and a friendly greeting at Al Tiramisu.

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Re: International Org. dinner: Another place to try would be Le Paradou.

Tom Sietsema: Yeah, but my last meal there was pretty underwhelming.

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Arlington, Va.: Really appreciate the chats. A few months back on a rainy night around 9pm, my partner and I had the most amazing meal at Chef Geoff's...shrimp and grits. We went back this week to find out they only serve the dish at brunch! Any where else you can recommend for a memorable shrimp and grit entree?

Tom Sietsema: Two of the best purveyors of that southern delight: Vidalia and Colorado Kitchen.

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Foggy Bottom, Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

Just wanted to share our lunch experience today (Tuesday) at Notti Bianche. In a nutshell, delicious food, but the SLOWEST service I have ever experienced. I will not go back for that reason. We had a 1 pm reservation. Our appetizers arrived at 1:35, our entrees at 2 pm, desserts at 2:30 and the bill at 2:45. This was a business lunch--2 hours? Seriously? It took an HOUR to get our entrees. We were not slow eaters. We were talking, but not so intently that the servers could not interrupt us.

Also, I thought it rather strange that when no one ordered any beverages (I don't think they're printed on the menu) the server didn't bring it up at all. The water was kept plentiful, but I was surprised that there was no "would you care for iced tea?" or whatever.

Anyway, just my 2 cents.

Tom Sietsema: I noted slow service in my review. Sorry to hear the problem has yet to be fixed.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi Tom,

After hitting a preview party tonight at Hotel Monaco on 8th St., we'd like to go out for a real dinner afterwards. Something medium priced would be great. Any suggestions? Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: You can certainly find a "real" meal right on the property, at Poste, but if you want to move on, I'd suggest Andale for Mexican, Jaleo for tapas or Matchbox for pizza.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hey Tom, I am supposed to meet some friends in Clarendon for drinks later this week. I could use some advice on where to go since its been years since I have been out in Virginia.

Thanks in advance

Tom Sietsema: Try the chic and nightclubby Eleventh St. Lounge, which pours some good cocktails and serves a snacky menu.

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Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: Tom,

Any new and exciting tasting menus being offered in DC (or Baltimore)

I've been to the most obvious on anyone's list (Citronelle,Minibar,Galileo) and now find myself looking around for something new

Thanks,

Devoted follower

Tom Sietsema: You're in luck. One of the most interesting tasting menus I've come across in the past year is being featured in this Sunday's Magazine. Stay tuned.

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Fairfax, Va.: What are the best seafood restaurants in the area?

Tom Sietsema: A few of my favorites include Johnny's Half Shell, Jerry's Seafood, Hank's Oyster Bar, Pesce and the bar -- but not the dining room proper -- at Kinkead's. O'Learys in Annapolis also has been good in the past, but it recently lost its chef and I haven't been in to see if it's still a worthy destination.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom...I wait tables part time and find it extremely annoying when customers come in and only want to order dessert. Do you find that appropriate in a busy restaurant? Shouldn't they just go to a place that serves dessert primarily?

Tom Sietsema: Diners should not expect to be able to order "just dessert" in a busy restaurant, but if there's room, the bar of said restaurant might be a good place to seek out.

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Washington, D.C.: I very much appreciate a vegetarians place in this world but if an 800 degree griddle doesn't satisfy someone - please don't go out. I continue to use silverware at restaurants though Lord knows what that's touched before it's been washed. But it has been washed, burned off, etc.

Tom Sietsema: LOL

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Overpowering perfume?: Perhaps a sign at the door that says "No shirt, no shoes, no jacket, no overpowering perfume, noisy children, sick people, cell phones...."

Isn't that a bit ridiculous? What the restaurant can and should do? NOTHING!!! I realize that eating out is and should be a lovely experience. But get real...

Tom Sietsema: Sure, but I wouldn't want to eat my meal in a cloud of offensive odors, either, and as a diner, I think I have the right to ask for another seat.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, I am on jury duty at Superior Court (3rd and Constitution). Where can I get a good (and fairly quick) lunch in that area?

Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: When I was summoned, I took the opportunity to revisit Andale and Cafe Atlantico, both of which fed me well -- and got me back to the court house in under an hour.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Tom. Thanks for making Wednesdays a little more special with these chats.

I was just watching "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" again this weekend - one of my all time favorites - and wondered: With your worldwide travels and the inevitable plethora of cuisine you've had, have you ever eaten human flesh?

Tom Sietsema: Not that I know of!

(Years ago, critic Gael Greene of New York magazine famously mused about what a baby might taste like. Oh, the letters she got in response!)

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom! I've submitted this before with no response, so maybe that means you don't have any advice... but I'm looking for restaurant suggestions in Madison, Wisc. I'd like to buy a gift cert. as a wedding present for some friends who live there. So ideally a nice restaurant that will be a memorable experience for them, but also where they can get most of a meal for 2 with wine for around $100. Hope you (or anyone else on the chat) can help! Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: Chatters?

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Alexandria, Va.: Do some restaurants refuse food critics to come and review their restaurants? Do restaurants have to have a "business" relationship (e.g. advertising) with the Post to be considered for review? I have heard the above from a restaurant owner in Alexandria. Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clear up some misperceptions.

Restaurants do not have to advertise to be reviewed. Indeed, plenty of businesses that DO buy ads have never been given any ink (by me) in the Magazine. I'm in the fortunate position of choosing the subjects of my column and have never encountered interference from the business side of this newspaper -- or from editors, for that matter.

In the five years I've been food critic, only one place has been uncooperative about having a representative from the Post write about the restaurant, and that was because the owner disagreed with the Post's handling of a foreign political matter and not because of anything I did. I was able to write the column -- I visited the restaurant anonymously three times -- but getting background information and a photograph proved challenging.

I don't think restaurants can "refuse" to be reviewed. They might not allow a camera in, they might not give us their hours and other information, but there are ways around those obstacles.

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Arlington, Va.: Tom,

There's a little Chinese place where I used to live that I adored. The food wasn't inventive or extraordinary, but I loved it for what it was and I really miss their sesame chicken. Do you have any guilty restaurant pleasures? Any places that you go that, while lacking in service, ambience, or culinary fascinations, you go anyway?

Just curious.

Tom Sietsema: If I've had a really tough day, or someone has dropped out of a dinner scheduled elsewhere, I've been known to head to Stoney's on L St. NW for a grilled cheese sandwich made "super" with bacon. (I keep hoping someone might save it from the wrecking ball; in my book, the dive is a treasure.)

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Tyson's Corner, Va. Cube Dweller: Hey Tom, great chats! One comment and a question.

As a single girl, a tidbit to all those DC men debating over 10, 15, and 20 percent tips: one of the best indicators of the future of a relationship can be found by sneaking a peak at the tip line of a restaurant receipt. A cheap man to his servers, I've found, is cheap with everything. Gals notice, and skimping a few bucks CAN affect the probability of date #2.

Also, Tom, if you're reviewing a restaurant for a Postcard, do you ever talk to/read reviews from your fellow food critics if they've visited the place before? In other words, do you visit restaurants with preconceived notions what the experience is going to be like?

Tom Sietsema: Great date advice there! Hear that, men?

I do a considerable amount of homework before I set off for a city for my Postcard column, part of which involves reading reviews of restaurants that have been suggested to me. Since my time in most of these destinations is short and I aim to bring back three solid recommendations, I can't afford too many bum tips.

As I do with local restaurants, I try to keep an open mind when visiting new (or unfamiliar) establishments.

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Washington, D.C.: Just wanted to let you know -

Merkado for sure needs help - the food was terrific; the drinks were terrific. The service was awful. The following happened when we a big group of us went there this past Saturday night:

My boyfriend ordered a glass of chianti and was corrected by the waiter that it was pronounced "CHI-anti" and then he proceeded to grab the wine list out of his hand.

I ordered a drink which arrived after the appetizers.

2 appetizers came out and the 3rd did not. After 10 minutes, we asked about the 3rd one, the waiter then walked away and plunked the appetizer down - it obviously had been sitting in the kitchen.

When the meal came, we were confused over the pork "big plate" as it came out in a big bowl and was covered in watercress. When we asked if this was the dish ordered, the waiter took a fork, turned over the dish, and said "yes, here is the pork".

A friend asked where her side dish of plantains were - the waiter took the dish from another person (already half eaten) and gave it to her. When we asked for a new side dish the waiter was very mad and started arguing with us.

We brought a birthday cake and they said we could serve it at the end of the meal. Well, the plates for the cake were placed down before the cake even came out, so the surprise was ruined.

All in all, none of the 9 of our party would ever return. Not worth it.

Tom Sietsema: One waiter did and said all this? (And was the side dish moved from and to people sharing the same table?) Sounds like someone needs to re-read a training manual.

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Chevy Chase, Washington, D.C.: Tom - went to Esca in NYC Saturday night for our anniversary based on your recommendation from the chat two weeks ago. We really enjoyed it! Great food, attentive server, near the theater. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Ah, I'm happy for the feedback. Thanks.

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Bethesda, Md.: Good morning Tom,

I'm curious to have your opinion on my recent experience at Morton's Steakhouse in Bethesda. We called and were told 'there might be a short wait, but we can seat you'. We arrived and parked in their garage (posted sign said 3 hours $9). Once inside the restaurant the hostess (not the one who spoke to us on the phone) claimed there was no way to seat us for 3 hours. We chose to find another place for dinner. My issue is with the $9 in parking fees. We were required to pay these because 'that's what the garage charges us'. Paying $9 for less than 10 minutes of parking seems wrong, especially when we would never have parked if the person answering the phone had given us an honest answer. I think the hostess should have found a way to reduce or waive the parking fee. The hostess seemed shocked that I would even suggest such a thing. I know $9 isn't a lot of money, but it feels like I'm being ripped off. What do you think?

Tom Sietsema: Did you talk to a manager? If the exchange you relate is a full account -- if whoever answered the phone told you there would be but a "short wait" -- I think Morton's should have reimbursed you the parking fee.

P.S. I've found that it pays to record the time of calls and jot down employees' names, just to protect yourself in situations such as this one.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

My 24th birthday is this coming weekend (the 18th) and I'm trying to plan a dinner out this weekend (Sat or Sun evening) for myself and anywhere from 8-15 friends, all aged between 23 and 25. I'm looking primarily for somewhere young, fun, metro-accessible (only in the district) good food and wine. I realize the size of the group limits our possibilities, but I was hoping you could provide some insight.

I mostly want to go somewhere that can accommodate a large group and make it an enjoyable experience, while still maintaining a high quality of food (while not a picky eater, I've been known to be critical when eating out). I don't eat out very frequently these days, but certainly have been to my share of restaurants in DC over my 2+ years living here.

I'm just not sure where would be best-suited for this type of occasion, and a group this size. I seem to pass dozens of restaurants in the Dupont area (which is quite close to my apartment) all the time, and I'm just not sure if any of these places are worth going to or not.

Basically, I'm looking for some guidance and would appreciate any and all suggestions.

Tom Sietsema: What about the communal tables at Sonoma, Zaytinya or Buck's Fishing & Camping, the wine room atop Bistro Lepic in Georgetown, or the glass-enclosed rooftop at the new Tabaq on U St. NW? And congratulations, by the way.

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Washington, D.C.: Are there any restaurants in the area with good beef wellington?

Tom Sietsema: Funny, how this question pops up every month or so. I wish I could name a restaurant that offers the pastry-swaddled hunk of meat, but nothing comes to mind. Chatters?

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Washington, D.C.: More about complaints from the restaurant side. What should a restaurant do when they know a customer is not being truthful about a complaint? This recently happened and it was pretty appalling. I did not handle it as I normally would handle a customer complaint because I was so shocked by the dishonesty of the person (they thought I was a different manager than the one they originally spoke with and fabricated a completely different situation). They said the first manager they spoke with handled things rudely, yada yada. Well the first manager was me and that was not the case. I won't get into the details, but I did not out myself yet and in fact took their complaint info. I think I was a bit snarky in my final response to the guest, though adequately apologetic for the "situation." I haven't caught someone in a lie like this before and was just so surprised. How do you think things like this, and other customer's word against a restaurant's should be handled?

Tom Sietsema: Ouch. Can you share more details, so we can discuss this next week? Time is running out for today.

See you back here next Wednesday, folks.

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