Ask Tom

Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, January 11, 2006; 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, read his dining column 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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Alhambra, Calif.: Hi Tom! Love the chats!

Quick question for you: what are five places you'd recommend within a short walk from the Post? All kinds of food are fine. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Stoney's on L St. NW for pub grub -- and before it closes next week!

Rice on 14th St. for elegant Thai in serene digs at gentle prices.

Georgia Brown's for southern cooking and politico sightings on 15th St.

Casa Blanca on Vermont for home-style Mexican and Peruvian dishes in a Spartan setting

and

Corduroy on 12 th and K for fine-tuned American fare with a French accent

God morning, everyone!

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, do you ever consider the cleanliness of restaurant bathrooms in your reviews? I've seen a lot of filthy ones in mid-range restaurants. I can't help but wonder if a restaurant keeps its bathroom so dirty, how sanitary could it be keeping the kitchen, not to mention how sanitary the staff is after using such bathrooms? And of course the customers are repulsed as well.

Tom Sietsema: The last time I mentioned a bathroom in a review was last month: Zengo has bathrooms that are way too visible to the rest of the restaurant, in my opinion.

Dirty bathrooms are indeed an indication of the restaurant's overall cleanliness. If I saw something gross, I'd certainly figure a way to let readers know.

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McLean, Va.: Hi Tom! I was looking through your postcards and didn't see any for Buenos Aires. Am planning on going there in March and was wondering if you or any of the other chatters had any suggestions on where to get some great Argentinean beef or any other foodie recommendations...

Tom Sietsema: I have yet to step foot in Argentina. Can any chatter come to this poster's rescue?

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom--

I had heard many complaints about restaurant performance during Restaurant Week in the past, so I'm happy to report that I've already had two lovely experiences my first year participating. I visited Vidalia and Notti Bianche, both of which offered their full menus (with supplements for more expensive items), which I much preferred to, say, Vidalia sibling Bistro Bis, which I saw on their web site only offered two choices per course.

The food was delicious and the service friendly at Vidalia. Our only complaint was that the timing of the service was way off. We waited seemingly interminably to order, then had our entrees brought out while my date was only halfway through his appetizer. With the main plates hovering conspicuously over our shoulders, and not wanting to send them back to sit under a heat lamp, he comically attempted to transfer what he still wanted onto his bread plate while an impatient bus boy looked on, anxious to take his plate. We spent most of dessert with the check staring out from between us on the table. Overall, though, the food and friendliness made up for it.

Notti Bianche, already one of my favorites, was as wonderful as always. An especially nice Restaurant Week touch: wine pairings for each course for an additional $10 per person. The port-poached pear with sweetened mascarpone and polenta cake I had for dessert was alone worth the price of admission.

One quick etiquette question for you-- the servers are doing the same amount of work as on a normal night, so should I calculate tip based on the actual bill, or what I estimate the bill would have been on a normal night?

Thanks for letting me get in my two cents!

Tom Sietsema: Good question! I'd tend to be a bit more generous with tips at a RW participant, for just the reason you gave -- provided the service merits the extra gratuity, of course. And kudos to Notti Bianche for offering a deal on vino as well as food.

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Tom Sietsema: Unfortunate press release of the week:

Viridian restaurant

1-8-2006

Sidra Forman, executive chef; her brother Kenan Forman, wine

consultant; and their longtime friend Derrick Bullock, general manager

have resigned from Viridian restaurant effective January 31, 2006. The

owners and staff of Viridian thank them for their help on our launch

team and for their service in our first few months in operation. The

owners and staff are dedicated to continuing the vision that we created

together-to the success and viability of this neighborhood restaurant

and to the food, aesthetics and ambience that is being so

well-received.

Giorgio Furioso, Saied Azali

owners, Viridian restaurant

From me: Comments from the peanut gallery?

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Washington, D.C.: A friend made reservations for us for Monocle for Restauarant Week tonight. I've never been. What would you recommend ordering? Thanks for the help!

Tom Sietsema: Gee, I haven't eaten at the Monocle since George Bush's father was in office ....

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Foggy Bottom, Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom! Always enjoy the chats and think your advice is great.

I'm eating with a friend in Del Ray Friday night. Should we hit the Del Merei Grille or Evening Star?

Tom Sietsema: Del Merei Grille!

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Washington, D.C.: Hello, Tom. I like your chats, but do not like having your religious beliefs foisted upon me. Don't you believe in separation of church and plate? God morning, indeed.

Tom Sietsema: Obviously, I haven't had enough coffee this morning ...

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Kensington, Md.: What are your thoughts about Coppi's? My wife and I are going to the Studio Theatre and plan to have dinner there. Other recommendations would be appreciated as well.

Tom Sietsema: I keep going there, and WANTING to like it, and then leaving disappointed. Try Viridian instead -- before the end of the month!

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Arlington, Va.: Sorry if this question is too simple for you, but where would you go for the best buffalo wings in the city? We're trying to answer a birthday dinner request!

Thanks, looking forward to the rest of the chat!

Tom Sietsema: You must have missed my rave in the Magazine December 25.

Oohs and Ahhs on U St. is the place to go for your wings.

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Washington, D.C.: Bathroom followup: I'm always stopped, especially in some of the "nicer" restaurants around town by the sign in the bathroom that says "Employees must wash hands before returning to work." I can't help but wonder, "Should I really be eating in a place where employees need to be told that?" Or is this some health-code thing that restaurants must post?

Tom Sietsema: It's a health-code requirement. (Too bad it doesn't extend to office buildings! I'm shocked at how many men don't, um, wash up after using the facilities.)

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom! I wanted to tell you that my fiance and I had a WONDERFUL meal at Minibar this past weekend. The food is super interesting and delish. Thanks for your great chats and reviews.

Tom Sietsema: Now if only the chefs could concentrate on improving Cafe Atlantico ...

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Washington, D.C.: Tom -

Love the chats. Where would you take an eager newbie for sushi? My friend wants to try it, but isn't all that adventurous - yet.

Tom Sietsema: Sushi-Ko or Kaz Sushi Bistro are both very good. You might also try Sushi Taro in Dupont Circle or, if money is an issue, Kotobuki up on MacArthur Boulevard.

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Washington, D.C.: 16 chats today. Yours is clearly the fattest. Cheers!

Tom Sietsema: Thanks, I think.

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Baltimore, Md.: Hi Tom -- Maybe Baltimore isn't worthy of a postcard (given our close proximity to Washington) but we in Charm City are wondering if you'd ever consider doing some comprehensive eating in our fair town with a write-up to follow. I've read a lot about Charleston here but am interested to know what some of your other Baltimore faves are.

Thanks in advance and happy eating!

Tom Sietsema: I also like The Helmand, Pazo, (parts of) Saffron, the Black Olive and Marconi's, among other destinations.

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Washington, D.C.: Why do you never seem to review BBQ places?

I will bet they appeal to more folks than the newest $100-a plate celebrity hangout!!!

Tom Sietsema: I bet they would, too!

My short answer: Good barbecue -- as in lusty, rib-stickin', transporting, oh-my-god-this-is-better-than-you-know-what barbecue -- is a rare commodity around here.

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Washington, D.C.: Improving Cafe Atlantico? What's wrong with it? I think it's about the best place (or perhaps one of two or three) to eat lunch or dinner within 10 blocks of it (8th and D Sts NW).

What restaurant around there do you like better?

Tom Sietsema: I think the kitchen has grown lazy. And what used to be good has grown tired. Plus, some of the dishes on the menu have been on there forever (and no longer deserve to be).

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Silver Spring, Md.: My dear Tom, you never steer me wrong. On the last chat you recommended Notti Bianche as a place to get last minute reservations for Restaurant Week. I was happy from the moment I stepped in the door. The service was top notch, the decor was intimate, and the food was outstanding. Being new to Restaurant Week I was worried that the rumors would be true, that we would be herded into a seat and rushed through a mediocre night. Not the case here. We were treated to crisp salads, succulent meats, and desserts that made me want to break down and cry. The cherries in the chocolate almond cake were like little hidden gems. And the trio of gelato, don't get me started. Butternut squash gelato you ask? It tasted like creamy cool pumpkin cheesecake. We opted for wine pairings which were right on target. Kudos to the sommelier, whoever he/she may be.

Also, don't be fooled by the $30 a person thing. After the wine pairings ($10 per person) and the surcharge for certain dishes (roast pork, for example, was an extra $5) the meal for two was well over $100. But was well worth it!

Tom Sietsema: Gosh, who needs a publicist when raves such as this one roll in for all the world to see?

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Washington, D.C.: I enjoy the chats each week, but I take issue with something from last week. A person wrote in and described the poor service they received and stated that the server questioned them about the poor tip. You responded, in part, as follows "under very few circumstances should a staff member challenge a diner for leaving what he or she considers to be less than the proper amount." As I read this, I was wondering what one of the "few circumstances" you describe might be. Then, a later post was from a server who described one time when he questioned a customer about a poor tip which, it turned out, was due to the restaurant not having something the customer ordered. To that you said, "as I hinted, there are always exceptions to the rules. This was certainly one of them."

I absolutely and completely disagree with this. There are NO circumstances where a server should approach a customer about a poor tip. Despite the common practice of leaving a 15 to 20 percent tip, there are always those that leave less for any number of reasons, including just being cheap, just as there might be an occasional person who leaves a 25 percent tip. Regardless, it is completely at the discretion of the customer and it is not for the server to question that. Having said that, MAYBE, there is some particularly unusual situation that warrants this, but I think it is wrong for you to give the your readers the impression that there EVER is such a situation.

Tom Sietsema: Well, let's agree to disagree then.

I guess it depends on how the diner is approached: diplomatically or defensively. I certainly wouldn't advocate someone threatening a customer, or running after him!

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Corduroy and Monday Night's Scallop Incident: Dear Tom,

Although Judge Alito would note that the "right to scallops" is not explicit in the Constitution, I am feeling slighted by Corduroy's flat-out refusal to serve our table with the respective dish.

My friends and I had 8:30 p.m. dinner reservations at Corduroy on Monday evening. I have been to the restaurant before and had raved about the food, service, and scallops to my dining companions for weeks. Before we could order, our server informed us that the kitchen was out of scallops. I was disappointed and, specifically, asked our server if the kitchen was completely out of the dish or if they might be available later that night.

He firmly stated the former. The kitchen was out.

With this news, my dining companions ordered wine and our first two courses. I enjoyed the tuna although, confidential to Tom Powers, you might want to rethink the sea bass dish.

As we ate our main course, to my chagrin, I noticed two other tables being served scallops. When our server stopped by to inquire how our meal was, I discretely pointed to the other tables and asked why the restaurant was all of a sudden serving the dish. He hesitated and responded that those diners must have reserved the scallops in advance.

Um, yeah. Right. Who does that?

The floor manager approached our table a few minutes later and asked how our dinner had gone. Again, still baffled that someone had the good sense to request a dish in advance, I asked about the scallops. The manager acknowledged my surprise and delivered the lame excuse that the kitchen had run low on scallops and so the staff was saving them so that they would be able to sell the dish later on that evening.

As I looked over to the tables of older, distinguished diners who were served the scallops, I realized that the manager meant that the restaurant wanted to save the scallops for their "more impressive and distinguished guests."

To her credit, the manager offered to "do something" for us, but we declined. I didn't want a free dinner, I just wanted the damn scallops. Two hours before.

As for the rest of our experience, service was off the entire night. No one could figure out who had ordered which dish. And, despite my efforts not to take out the missing scallop selection on our server, after expressing my initial disappointment, he avoided our table like the plague.

The staff at Corduroy might want to work on their service skills this week.

Tom Sietsema: I just got off the phone with assistant manager David Batista, who said "Honesty is the best policy" and went on to explain that the kitchen station in charge of preparing the scallops became overloaded with orders at one point during the night, at which time all incoming orders for the dish were refused, in order for the crew to catch up. Batista guessed that 2/3 of the room was requesting the seafood that night.

On the plus side: Corduroy offers its entire menu for Restaurant Week, not just a few select dishes.

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Urban Barbeque: Didn't you review this place and say it was good?

Tom Sietsema: Indeed I did! Too bad there aren't more such joints.

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re: Viridian: Those resignations don't bode well for Viridian, which I've really enjoyed. I wonder what the scoop is, and who will replace them....

Tom Sietsema: The scoop, as usual, is "creative differences."

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Fredericksburg, Va.: Based on your review, We tried Foti's in Culpeper for New Year's Eve. The experience was not a good one. They went from a limited menu when we made our reservations to a fixed price menu which we found out about when we arrived for dinner. The food and service were not up to the price they charged us!

We won't go back again

Tom Sietsema: I'm truly sorry to hear that. Someone should have let you know about the change of menus.

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Annapolis, Md.: Forget Baltimore, eat Annapolis! Sure we're quaint and charming, but our restaurants could really use your eagle eye for a little incentive. Tom, please do for Annapolis what you have done for Alexandria: praise the best, and identify the tourist traps, and encourage the others to try harder. We are really suffering out here.

Tom Sietsema: I'm trying! I'm trying!

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Alexandria, Va.: I was surprised that you gave the Occidental such a good review when I looked it up, as it doesn't seem like your taste of late. (I'm planning on dining there for the first time.) Is it because it's a Washington institution, or is the food really on par with some of the other places of that very high price?

Tom Sietsema: The cooking I had there, twice, earlier this year was very much to my taste. But there's a new chef at the helm these days, and have yet to sample his food.

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Falls Church, Va.: What about Capital Q?

Tom Sietsema: I'm not a fan.

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Buenos Aires, Argentina: Even the streetside parillas in Buenos Aires sell the best beef you've ever eaten in your life.

If you're looking to spend more money than you need to, go to Cabana Las Lilas. It's where everyone goes, particularly the tourists and all hotel concierges lead them there. A better pick for less money, (we're still talking about $25/person for a 4 course dinner with a giant steak and a decent bottle of wine) is Parilla 1880 in the south end of San Telmo on Defensa. Make a reservation. It's small, intimate, but fantastic food and nice people.

For seafood go to Dora or Oviedo. Dora is a busy place that fills with locals each evening. It's refreshing seeing so many well behaved children in a busy restaurant with everyone eating as a family at 11PM on weeknights! Oviedo is more formal, Galician-style seafood.

Hip and fun? Sucre is in Belgrano and Olsen in Palermo Viejo.

There are a gazillion places to eat in Buenos Aires. Many restaurants rival the best we have in this country at about 1/5th the price. And a cab ride completely across Buenos Aires only costs about $6 so getting to any restaurant you want is a snap and cheap too.

Tom Sietsema: I'm checking air fares as I type. Gracias!

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, what's your take on restaurants that won't serve bread until you've placed your order? I was recently in a group of 7 friends out to dinner. We'd made a reservation and 6 of us were on time, though we made it clear we'd been in touch with the last straggler and wanted to order some appetizers and get bread. We were told that they had to put the entire order in at once, and that they would not serve bread until we had ordered. We had already ordered beer and wine. I think it's a little absurd to keep guests hungry, especially if they've already ordered drinks and probably aren't trying to scam the restaurant out of its free bread supply.

Tom Sietsema: Geesh. What does a basket or two of bread cost, anyway?

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Alexandria, Va.: I am submitting before the chat because I will be in a meeting.

Anyway, last night I went to Galileo with 7 coworkers for restaurant week. We might all look fairly young, but we all have more than enough money to go back there on a regular night. And after our experience last night, I can honestly say I think none of us would.

Things started out fine. Service was a little slow, but the place was a madhouse, so we all just had a drink (when they finally arrived, which was AFTER the first course...) and tried to relax. The first course went alright. My fettuccine with rabbit ragu was very flavorful and the portion was just right.

Then the second course came. 7 of us got our second course at basically the same time, and then one person was left waiting for 6 minutes for his to arrive! When it did come it was missing the garnish, and was practically thrown in front of him. My entree of rabbit (I know, I have a thing for rabbit) was tasty, but it was hardly more than 2 mouthfuls. Plus, it said it came with a squash blossom, and I am fairly sure that I was served fried fennel (which I am not fond of).

The real issue was that when the 2 people who ordered the suckling pig tasted it, they both practically spit it out on their plates. I tasted my friend's order and literally all I could taste was cloves. It was inedible.

When the waiter came back around my friend told the waiter the dish was inedible and he immediately offered to replace it, so we were happy. Until his portion of rabbit came and it was swimming in the same clove sauce as the pork (my rabbit was served with some kind of reduction sauce, so I have no idea why there was this mix up).

My friend was understandably exasperated, and later went to go speak to a manager. They did attempt to rectify the issue by giving us all a complimentary plate of veal (that was 8 free entrees total) which was a generous gesture.

However, after each of us eating one first course, 2 entrees and a dessert we all left hungry! Now, we're not people who normally demand huge portions. We're all for quality over quantity, and many of us frequent fine dining establishments all over the world. But this was preposterous. I would never call what they served an entree. The rabbit loin was no more than an inch and a half, accompanied by the rack, which holds no more than one small bite of meat. The veal entree was two small slices of veal. It tasted amazing, but was a child's portion.

Not to mention that the man who was pouring our wine was gluggling into the glasses with pour sizes that might have been more appropriate to schlitz malt liquor than an $80 bottle of sangiovese.

Why do these restaurants participate in Restaurant Week if they are going to be so stingy and hostile about it? Galileo is a wonderful restaurant on a regular basis. I have eaten there before. However, based on my treatment there last night, I do not think I will ever return. And I am not sure I could recommend it to my friends, either.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the field report. You are not the only diner to complain about small portions at participating restaurants during this week's promotion.

It does sound as if Galileo tried to make up for some of your problems, but I, too, frown on huge wine pours and dishes that go AWOL. I think the "hostility" you say you witnessed there was the staff trying to keep up with waves of diners -- and not always doing so successfully.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom-- I'm begging you, please stop posting the raves about Notti Bianche! I want to continue be able to get a table at my favorite restaurant!!

Tom Sietsema: I'm afraid the word is out, my friend.

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Re: "Try Viridian before the end of the month"?

If the chef, wine guy, and GM are all resigning, wouldn't you suspect that there's some trouble in Denmark? If all are fleeing, I'd hesitate to go even before their departure, wouldn't you?

Tom Sietsema: It sounded as if the Studio Theater patrons were planning on dining out sooner rather than later.

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Arlington, Va.: Buenos Aires,

Although I didn't have a chance to eat at one of the fancy steak houses (which are everywhere), I did eat a lot of cheaper food there. Look for the gelato places that say artisinal on the outside. This means they make their own gelato, and they make some excellent gelato. There is a famous place for empanadas and alfajoles right beside the congress building. There is great steak everywhere that goes perfectly with Malbec that often runs $5 a bottle in restaurants. Argentina, since the currency devaluation, has some great deals for dining out.

Tom Sietsema: Mmmmmmmm.

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Dupont/Logan, DC: After this New Year's I have become a whiny restaurant wench. My husband and I made 10 pm New Year's Eve reservations at Sesto Senso. I was not expecting extraordinary food (and I didn't get it), I expected to have a good time. It was a three course prix-fixe menu. The courses were arriving quite quickly and there was a delay when trying to order another drink, but hubby and I were relatively happy.

Then as we were eating our desserts shortly after 11:00 the waitress (without being asked) put the check on the table. I wanted another drink and was quite annoyed. I told my husband to tell the waitress that I wanted another drink. We were informed that we couldn't get one because our table was booked. We were told we could have a drink at the completely packed bar.

I can't fathom taking a reservation for 10pm on New Year's and expecting people to be gone by 11:15. (Neither when the reservation was taken nor on the web site was a post-dinner party for which the restaurant was taking reservations mentioned.) In addition, while not noted on the menu a 20% gratuity had been added to the post-tax amount on the bill. My husband recalculated at 15% and paid. As we were leaving we were told that the manager had decided that everyone should be receiving 20% and had already "written down" the tip amount. (Normally, we do tip 20%--although not on the post-tax amount)

We said we were not paying the extra amount and left. For once I really don't care whether I was the unreasonable one, I'm still angry.

Tom Sietsema: The restaurant was wrong, wrong, wrong to expect a 10 p.m. reservation to leave in just over an hour on New Year's Eve. Yet another reason to consider staying home next year.

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Washington, D.C.: Re: questioning tips. Had a business dinner once at Chinoix on Main in Santa Monica and the person paying undertipped. On the way out, the server politely asked "Was everything all right?" This seems to be a reasonable way to determine what happened.

FWIW, the person paying had a policy of not tipping on wine.

Tom Sietsema: Not tipping on the wine!? How absurd. I mean, wine is food and part of the meal. Does the withholding of tips extend to cocktails, too? Really, where does one then draw the line?

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Cubeland: Regarding the restroom cleanliness issue (and I'm a guy): I was thinking about this the other day and came to the conclusion that restrooms which are spotless, well-appointed and in good repair make an especially good impression on me. Of course the dirty ones make the opposite impression. If I owned any establishment with public restrooms, I'd attempt to maintain that high standard. I fully recognize that it's very difficult to do in a busy environment. But it should pay dividends.

Tom Sietsema: Yep.

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Crystal City, Va.: On the question of tipping, if the server clearly feels that they had a great rapport with the client, that it is natural to want to ask about the tip. People do make mistakes, and it is often embarrassing when you get home to realize you left 10% when you meant to left 20%.

However, I would guess that a server is more likely to be intentionally gypped than accidentally. Perhaps following up at the end of the meal is the best method of gauging. People have become a bit immune to the "is everything ok" question--it is sort of like the airlines asking "have your bags been with you the whole time." You say yes, even if you, say, let the porter take them down to the lobby in your hotel.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for your insight.

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Vegan: For the chatter last week looking for a vegan tasting menu check with Vegetate. They are offering a special menu for Restaurant Week and it reminded me that they might be an option. Also, my husband and I took advantage of a little piece Tom did a few years ago on some upscale restaurants that might do several vegan menus if requested in advance. We went to Vidalia on that recommendation and had a lovely meal. (I don't remember what the other two were, but I saved the "Ask Tom" for future reference.) Thanks for thinking of us veggies Tom.

Tom Sietsema: You are welcome.

My producer informs me that Stoney's -- definitely NOT a vegetarian restaurant -- is closing THIS FRIDAY, not next week. My apologies.

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re; Corduroy and Monday Night's Scallop Incident: "Who does that?" There are several restaurants in New York City that I frequent that often tell me before it sit at my table or when I'm seated," We're running low on the branzino tonight, if you want it please let me know and I'll save one for you..."

Tom Sietsema: That might have been a better approach for Corduroy to have taken -- and from the start.

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re: Bread: The idea behind withholding bread until the order is placed is not the cost of the bread itself, but rather if the people eat the bread before ordering they will not be starving and therefore will not order as much food so the revenue on the table will not be as high.

Tom Sietsema: That's one way of looking at it. But the bread also shows a sense of hospitality. I mean, as a restaurateur, I'd rather have drinking guests nibbling on something rather than nothing while they're waiting for a companion to show up.

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Washington, D.C.: Funny Restaurant Week story for you. I dined at Ceiba with a friend on Monday night and ordered the salmon. When the server didn't ask how I would like it cooked I asked him how the chef normally prepared it. The server replied, "Medium well to well as it is a nice flaky white fish." I stared at him for a good thirty seconds, not really knowing how to respond to such an interesting statement. I finally said, "I prefer my salmon to be cooked medium, thank you." Of course the salmon was cooked properly and was delicious. It was a really curious incident though.

Tom Sietsema: No self-respecting chef would cook (most) fish past medium; depending on the fish, chefs tend to suggest medium-rare as ideal.

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Washington, D.C.: Re: Restaurant Week. Went with a co-worker to Indeblue for lunch. There was only one dessert on the Restaurant Week (some ice cream concoction). My co-worker explained to the waiter that she could not eat ice cream, asked if it would be possible to substitute something else, and said she would be willing to pay extra. The waiter's response was a very curt "No" and then served her the ice cream dessert, which of course went to waste. This was on Monday, the 1st day of Restaurant Week. Pity the customers who are assigned to this waiter at the end of Restaurant Week. And shame on Indeblue for not training their servers better.

Tom Sietsema: IndeBleu is usually pretty good with service. The server's rudeness comes as a surprise to me, as does his reluctance to swap in another choice for dessert.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, Can you recommend a good place to get a good/outstanding Hot Roast Beef Sandwich in VA/DC/MD?

Tom Sietsema: I like everything about the roast beef po' boy at the fledgling Acadiana save for its "debris" gravy. It's available only at lunch and best eaten at a stool in the bar.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Tom,

I have not recently visited either Corduroy or Firefly, although I have enjoyed great meals at both locations in the past. Could you tell my how they have been doing lately and whether you would pick one over the other for a date in Saturday? Thanks for your help!

Tom Sietsema: In my new restaurant guide, I awarded both places 2 1/2 stars. The warm and cozy Firefly is definitely more conducive to a date than Corduroy.

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17th and L: Hi, Tom! Happy New Year! I'm planning a business lunch that will be for three - looking for someplace with tasty food, quiet enough to talk but not so quiet that we feel like we have to whisper. A nice wine list is also a plus. We'd prefer nearby but are willing to travel a bit. Cuisine is open. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Bombay Club is a nice business lunch destination (and you might catch a glimpse of Maureen Dowd, a familiar face there). Vidalia, the Occidental, Corduroy and Le Paradou are other ideas.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Hey, Tom: We're meeting my father-in-law for dinner next week. He's staying the Ritz in Pentagon City; I was thinking Bangkok 54, but here's the catch: Our 4-year-old and 20-month-old are joining us. They're usually well-behaved and we take them outside when they're not, but I'm thinking we might need a louder option. Are there any more child-friendly options in the Pentagon City?

Tom Sietsema: Have you been to Bangkok 54 at night? It's not exactly hushed. Try it out. You might also consider Oyamel, where the (Mexican) food comes out pretty quickly and where I've witnessed more than a few families eat successfully (free of meltdowns).

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Alexandria, Va.: Is it rude to ask what's in a dish if you really love it? I had an incredible cheese plate with an apple-based condiment at Jump in Toronto last week, and when the waitstaff asked how I liked it, just said it was superb. What I really wanted to know was what-besides-grainy-mustard is in here, but was a little conscious of the rude, nosy American stereotype. Do you ever ask about ingredients or seasoning if there's something spectacular on the menu? Is it considered out of bounds in the restaurant world?

Tom Sietsema: Part of what you're paying for when you go out to eat is pampering and entertainment. By all means, ask your server if there's something you're curious about in a given dish. There's no harm in that -- and you might be surprised by some of the "secret" ingredients some kitchens use.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, you are the ONLY person who can help me!

My father is coming into town this weekend. I'd like to take him out for dinner this Saturday night. He really enjoys fine food and a hip atmosphere. In the past, he has enjoyed Montmartre and Cashions and the atmosphere at Tryst. However, he attended to too many rock concerts in his youth and now he has trouble hearing in loud places. And of course it's restaurant week and I'm sure that just about all the participating restaurants are booked for Saturday night.

I was thinking of Firefly or Bistrot du Coin? Do you think that these are good choices or do you have a better suggestion? We're looking for something in DC or Montgomery County.

thank you thank you thank you thank you!

Tom Sietsema: You're welcome, welcome, welcome.

Neither Firefly nor Bistro du Coin -- ESPECIALLY the latter -- could be considered quiet on a weekend evening. Try Charlie Palmer Steak on the Hill, the dining room at Palena in Cleveland Park or Zola in Penn Quarter instead.

It's very difficult to find good food, hip digs and low sound levels under the same roof. But the restaurants I've named are all more muted than the places you are considering.

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Corduroy Scallops incident: Man oh man people, get over it! Maybe the offending distinguished older gentleman simply ORDERED BEFORE YOU, rather than called ahead and RESERVED them.

I am so glad I got out of the restaurant business. Every customer interaction was like being deposed by Edward Bennett Williams. Relax people, and enjoy yourself! UGGGHHHH!

Tom Sietsema: LOL

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Washington, D.C.: Have you tried 1789 since the new chef took over? I have heard from several who tried it during restaurant week already and have heard mixed reviews... is it the limited menu or is the newness of the chef?

Tom Sietsema: Gosh, I don't think it's fair to judge a new chef based on one experience during an unusual week, and only a few weeks into his tenure. I say: Give the place a bit of time.

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Washington, D.C.: What's a good place for a group of about 20 work colleagues to celebrate completion of a big project? I would like to avoid a bunch of little tables pushed together in a long string, with no real "group" feeling. Marrakech has a great layout and atmosphere, but not always terrific food. Any thoughts?

Tom Sietsema: I don't think you're going to find a place with a round table, where everyone can see everyone else, big enough to accommodate a group your size. But I certainly enjoy the dynamics and menus at the upstairs lounge of Sonoma on the Hill, Zaytinya in Penn Quarter, Perry's in Adams Morgan, Bistro Tabaq on U St. and the wine bar above Bistro Lepic in Georgetown.

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Re: Tipping on wine: As a former server, it drove me absolutely mad not to be tipped on wine. The presentation of wine where I worked was a fairly elaborate ordeal, so the idea that I shouldn't be tipped on it was absurd. Often, the pouring of the wine and the attention to make sure that guests' glasses were full took more time and care than the service of food, so why on earth should a waiter not be tipped on it?

Tom Sietsema: I hear you, I hear you.

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SCALLOPS: Or to say "if you want scallops, there may be a wait for them, as we are getting a lot of requests"

Tom Sietsema: Also good. But lying always gets one in trouble.

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20th & Pennsylvania, NW: Hi Tom:

A belated Happy New Year and thanks for taking this question.

When is it ever appropriate to tip the host/hostess in a restaurant? If so, what's the proper amount?

Thanks again.

Tom Sietsema: The only time I tend to tip the host is when he or she has taken my coat or has done something beyond merely showing me to my seat. (When a host called my hotel to inform me that I left behind my attache, you can be certain I sent a tip to him.)

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RE: Waiter approaching customers' tip: Tom, one night, four girlfriends and I ate dinner at Johnny's Half Shell. We had a great time, and received wonderful service from our waiter. At the end of the evening (due no doubt to a few too many cocktails) we screwed up the amount of cash that we left in the check and totally inadvertently screwed the waiter out of his well-earned tip. Luckily for all of us, my friends and I were still hanging out outside the restaurant chatting for a few minutes after we walked out the door, which gave the waiter the chance to come out and ask us if we hadn't been satisfied with his service.

We were very embarrassed and immediately went back in to rectify the situation. And, suffice to say, we were very glad that the waiter came out to check on us. He did a great job, and didn't deserve the bad tip we accidentally left him.

So there's a situation in which a waiter approaching the customers is totally justified, for the poster who asked.

Tom Sietsema: Straight from someone with experience.

Gotta dash, kids. Enjoy Restaurant Week and report back here at 11 a.m. next Wednesday. Chow. And ciao.

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