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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, March 15, 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. 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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Arlington, Va.: Hi, Tom.

Quick question about something I witnessed a few weeks ago at Restaurant Eve. My husband and I ordered a bottle of wine, which the sommelier brought to our table to show us the label and get our approval. He then whisked the bottle away and opened it at the serving station, pouring himself a small glass and tasting the wine before it was brought back to the table. Is this a common practice? I have never seen anything like this before at any other restaurant! In the long run, it worked out well for us, because the first bottle they brought us was corked. But we saw the sommelier tasting a bit of every single bottle that was ordered and figured he'd be a pretty happy guy by the end of the night!

Thanks for taking the question and for the great chats!

Tom Sietsema: What you observed at Eve is common in a lot of high-end restaurants; the sommelier's "preview" taste gives him a chance to check the opened wine for flaws -- and stave off any drinking disappointment at the table. The amount of wine that the sommelier ingests is actually very little, even over the course of an evening.

Good morning, chatters! It feels like winter out there today, doesn't it?

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, will you be attending the Taste of the Nation fundraiser on April 11th? (50 restaurants; 20 vineyards all serving up samples and entertainment.) If so, please describe your appearance and what you will be wearing so I can say hi.

Tom Sietsema: Yeah, right....

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Washington, D.C. to Toronto: Hi Tom,

I searched your archives but didn't find any postcards from Toronto. Is there a link? If not, do you have any suggestions?

Thanks so much!

Tom Sietsema: I've never been to Toronto. Maybe a chatter or two can weigh in with suggestions?

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Servers and Diners: Last week's chat was very eye-opening. I think instead of each side continuing to rant about the other (I should admit that I am a server as well as a diner), what we need to recognize is the lack of respect and understanding there is on both sides. Servers need to accept that customers vary and some will "know" how to dine while others won't. That doesn't mean they are bad people. And customers need to remember that servers are not beneath them (I was shocked that a reader thought it "wrong" for a server to have piercings or tattoos. Since when does one individual have a say in another individual's personal choices? If I find a customer's haircut ugly I wouldn't dare to say it offends me.) Kill people with kindness. On both sides. If you treat someone well, they will treat you well back. And as Tom says, "It's just DINNER!"

Producer: Last week's discussion .

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Georgetown Tour?: Hi Tom. Hoping you can help. We have family coming into town (sister and her boyfriend), and we've started a trend of the "bar & app" tour of different neighborhoods. You know - stop off at 5 or 6 different great places for a signature nibbly and drink.

Have done Chinatown and Penn Quarter, and are trying to plan one for Georgetown -this- weekend. Problem is - we don't go out in G'town often because of metro accessibility. The connector bus now has made it a lot easier. So where to go? Looking for places with a must-have dish and/or drink first, but open to pretty much anything.

Consulted your Dining Guide book (which EVERYONE should buy if for no other reason than to support Tom!!!), but I think we need something extra.

Thanks, and keep up the fantastic work!

Tom Sietsema: Great idea! I don't have time right now to search menus for specific drinks and starters, but I recommend that you include the following restaurants on your tour:

Michel Richard Citronelle

Degrees in the Ritz-Carlton

Blue Gin

The wine bar above Bistrot Lepic

Cafe Milano for some bubbly, a bite of pizza and the eye candy

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ISO real wine bar: Tom, I'm coming into town for travel (been away from DC for 5 years), and I want to hit a wine bar. Someplace that knows how to treat wines, offers a nice selection by the glass or in flights, and has respectable food to go with. Anything like that sprung up in DC since 2001?

Tom Sietsema: Yes! Sonoma on the Hill, the aforementioned lounge above Bistrot Lepic and Vidalia downtown all have what you're seeking.

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Sette Bello: Tom,

FYI, according to an Italian, although Sette Bello does literally mean "Beautiful 7," the more correct translation would be "lucky card" because the phrase "Sette Bello" refers to the 7 of diamonds in an Italian card game called "Scopa."

Tom Sietsema: Rule No. 237: Never argue with an Italian.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Tom,

Can you explain the price reactions in the user review section of the Fogo de Chao review you did a little while back? Your review is starting at $11 while they say the lowest dinner price is $45/person...

Thanks as always...

Tom Sietsema: The prices in the key in my print review are more accurate; unfortunately, because of the format, they were not included in the online version. I'll take up the problem with my helpful producer, ok?

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Tom: no question, just a comment.

I ate at Sette Belle last night, after reading your review in this past Sunday's magazine. You were spot on with everything except the noise. It was SO LOUD in there my friend and I had to yell at each other to be heard. It was so disappointing that we probably won't go back -- which is too bad, because the service, food and drink were all fantastic. Did you notice this when you were there?

(Ok, that was a question...)

Thanks!

A loyal reader

Tom Sietsema: The restaurant didn't strike me as particularly noisy on my multiple visits, or I would have mentioned it.

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Alexandria, Va.: Tom: If you were ever offered the opportunity, would you forego your relative anonymity as to what you look like to be a guest on a TV cooking show or, even better, a judge on Iron Chef America?

Tom Sietsema: Probably not.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Tom,

Do people that are opening a restaurant ever contact you for advice???

Tom Sietsema: All the time. But I typically let them know I can't advise them in any other than a general way.

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Georgetown App Tour: Heh. Turn it into a bar crawl, everyone will have a blast. Wings at Rhino Bar (probably the best in Georgetown); the raw bar at J. Paul's; pizza skins from Uno's; cornbread, biscuits and bourbon at Old Glory; and finally cottage fries from Mr. Smith's... With plenty of lubrication, of course.

Tom Sietsema: Man, that's a TON of STARCH. That kind of menu is going to put our revelers to sleep, no?

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

If you had to pick a Thai restaurant in Dupont, would it be Sala Thai, Thaiphoon, or Chef Thai? Feel free to mention any other that I may have forgotten. Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: Actually, I prefer Regent Thai Cuisine at 1910 18th St. NW to all of the above. It is both prettier and more delicious than any of the places you list.

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Denver, Colo.: Tom, you mentioned a week or two ago to ask you about Nawlins, so I'm asking. Any suggestions or will your postcard be out before JazzFest (end of April)?

Also, I'm heading to Key West this weekend - any suggestions?

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: My Postcard from New Orleans will publish in the Travel section April 2. One place I liked very much, but won't be writing about, is Herbsaint. I'm not including it because I already highlighted the place in my last tour of the city. Yet it's as wonderful as ever.

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Arlington, Va.: I agree wholeheartedly with "Servers and Diners" -- except I'd like to take it a little further. Maybe we need to send half (or more!) of the population of the DC metro region back to kindergarten (or nursery school) to re-learn (or learn the first time) some basic human courtesies: "please -- thank you -- why certainly -- I'd be delighted -- excuse me -- not at all -- that would be fine." Reminders that you are NOT more important than someone else, your needs and wishes and whims are NOT the most important thing in the world, and your belly

button is NOT the center of the universe might also be in order! Like the person said, "If you treat someone well, they will treat you well back." That applies all across life's venues, not just in restaurants. Grow up, folks!

Tom Sietsema: You tell 'em!

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Alexandria, Va.: If you got off work downtown at 6:00 and needed to be at MCI by 8:00 for a concert, where would you probably choose to eat? We usually hit Gordon Biersch before hockey games because those are at 7:00, but the Billy Joel concert tomorrow is at 8:00 so we have some more time than usual and would like to do something different.

Thanks in advance.

Tom Sietsema: The bar at Tosca comes to mind, as does Poste, Jaleo and 701.

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Washington, D.C.: For the chatter interested in Thai in Dupont, what about Rice on 14th Street. Rice is one of my favorite Thai restaurants. Tom, what do you think of Rice?

Tom Sietsema: Rice is still good, but it's also VERY LOUD at night.

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Dupont Thai Food: What about Simply Home on U?

Tom Sietsema: Also pretty good.

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Washington, D.C.: This is not directly related to food, but to the person looking to go to Georgetown: Don't forget that the circulator bus shuts down at 9 pm. However, the 30 buses run down M St regularly at all hours (if you don't mind traveling with commoners after your evening at Citronelle).

Tom Sietsema: A reader to the rescue! Thanks from the pilot's seat. We don't want to strand our friends in the middle of G'town.

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Arlington, Va.: Tom, I have a question about something I don't recall ever seeing mentioned before in your chats. My boyfriend and I had dinner Saturday night at Sette Bello, and overall it was very nice--the food was delicious, our server was friendly and attentive, and the atmosphere was very pleasing. However, the chair I was sitting in was the most uncomfortable chair I have ever sat in while dining out. I didn't notice it at first, but after sitting in it for about 20 minutes, the horizontal bars in the back of the chair started digging into my back, and the thin seat cushion became less and less effective at cushioning my legs against the bars in the base of the chair. I spent the rest of the meal constantly shifting positions, trying to find a spot where I could just relax, but to no avail. I considered asking our server to reseat us, but by this time the restaurant was packed, there were really no other seating options since the bulk of the dining was made up of these same type of chairs (the three booths they have were designed for larger parties), and at this point we couldn't even get to our server due to the people in the table next to us trapping us in the corner (our waiter literally had to lean over, and fully extend his arm to pass us our dessert and then the check). I tried to find a manager or host as we left, but there was no one at the front and lots of people waiting for tables, so we just left and I sent them an email the next day. I have not heard any response yet. Have you ever experienced something like this? What do you suggest we do next time? I'm not looking for any freebies here--I simply wanted to inform the restaurant of this problem. I would love to go back, but I just don't think I could physically sit in one of those chairs again. When restaurateurs are furnishing their eating establishments, I think that they should have to sit in the chairs they pick for at least an hour or two before deciding to buy them.

Tom Sietsema: With this post, the folks at Sette Bello will be made aware of their difficult-to-sit-on perches. I like your idea of having buyers spend some time with possible purchases before springing for them.

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Wine Bar: Though not exactly "wine bars" both 100 King and Tallula offer half-pours, and the bartenders work with you to create your own flights.

Tom Sietsema: I would have sent our friend to both those places, too, but I thought the question was for suggestions in DC only.

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Arlington, Va.: Just wanted to let you know about Sette Bello. The day before your review cam out last week my friends and I decided to give the place a try. Loved it at first, looked nice and had a nice menu. We sat at the bar because we wanted to have a casual evening but it took forever to get service. Our cheese plate app took about 20 minutes and the 45 minutes later our entrees came. Yes we asked and they told us another minute, then after 10 we asked again and they were like oh you didn't get your dinner yet. Come on the guy next to us came in way after us and got his dinner 20-30 minutes before us. We had to flag the bartender down to find out about our entrees and get more wine. Oh yeah and we ordered ravioli and beef carpaccio, shouldn't take 45 minutes! I guess maybe it was because the bartender on our end was cocktailing also so she completely forgot about us and we had to find another bartender. Yes and we still paid our entire tab nothing was comped, we weren't expecting it to be, but a glass of wine comped because of our extra long wait would have been nice. Why did we have to flag them down and they acted like they didn't know we had ordered food? I don't think we will return, we were hoping to like it since we live in Arlington, walking distance, and have been waiting for some new places to frequent.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for your field report. Judging from my reader email, Sette Bello seems to have equal numbers of fans and detractors.

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Bethesda, Md.: I know people complain to you all the time about you not visiting their area. I just moved to Bethesda from Germantown. Although I never complained about a lack of Germantown reviews (though we have a great Red Robin which you never bothered to visit) I am surprised at your lack of Bethesda reviews.

The restaurants which, off the top of my head, seem to have the potential to be reviewed by you but have not, include:

Cafe Europa

Centro

Grapeseed

Irish Inn at Glenn Echo

Jean-Michel

Louisiana Express

Parkers

Passage to India

Positano

South Beach Cafe

Thyme Square Cafe

Tia Queta

I'm not saying they are all fantastic, and this list is definitely not inclusive. They are just a few that seem to be the type you would review (especially Centro, maybe not so much Louisiana Express, although you have said you have nothing against great food in hole-in-the-wall places).

I know you can't be everywhere, but Bethesda is, arguably, the biggest DC area restaurant destination outside of downtown DC itself. I'm not complaining about your lack of reviews so much as asking out of curiosity why it seems a bit under-reviewed.

And this is nothing against Eve Z. or any of the other reviewers. It's just that I have read your columns and on-line chats for years, and I have a good idea whether I will like a place based on your review-- irrespective of whether or not you like the place. I am not smart enough to keep track of the idiosyncrasies of 5 different reviewers. Just yours.

Thanks for your answer. I really enjoy your columns and chats.

Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: Be patient. My column this Sunday looks back at three previously reviewed restaurants -- in Bethesda! And two of them are on your list.

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Re: Uncomfortable chairs: Galileo has the worst chairs ever! No cushioning and to endure the pain you have to sit there with the worst posture.

Tom Sietsema: Hard seating, continued: By now, I hope David Craig, the chef, found some pillows for the banquettes at David Craig, the restaurant.

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Judiciary Square, Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

I work about two blocks from Rasika and have been dying to try it. I work in a small office of 3 people- 1 big boss and us two assistants. Our boss is taking us out to lunch soon, and I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to try it. The problem is my co-worker, though curious about the restaurant that has gained so much praise, is not a fan of spicy food and is afraid there will not be anything to her liking.

All of this to ask, will my coworker be able to find a tasty lunch for a milder palate, or should we pick a different spot?

Thanks so much!

Tom Sietsema: (Geez, there always has to be ONE spoil sport in the bunch, doesn't there? )

Book a table at the Indian hot spot -- and tell your colleague to focus on the mango shrimp, the duck, the sweet potatoes draped with yogurt and the lamb biryani.

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Brilliant Disguise: Tom:

I know you sometimes wear disguises while reviewing places. How did you learn to effectively use disguises? I'm sure you have to be able to do it well enough to pass as a real person. Not to suggest you would ever dress as a woman, but I'm reminded of a transvestite I once saw at the bar in the Ritz in Pentagon City. While the clothing was Ritz appropriate, she looked like Tom Hanks from Bosom Buddies with 5 o'clock shadow. The bartender (a friend) disclosed that the gentleman often stayed in the hotel and visited the lobby lounge "in character"........

Tom Sietsema: As I've said before, I can do a mean Janet Reno ....

I'm joking! I'm joking!

Over the years, I've worked with professional make-up artists and acting coaches to be able to play the role of the average diner in all sorts of restaurants. It's not as fun as it sounds. Actually, it's a pain.

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Tomfan Fairfax, Va.: Tom,

I could be up in Baltimore this weekend - do you have any recommendations for a fun/late-night place to eat? I have in mind something Zaytinyaish or Cremeish. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Your best bet is the small plates-themed Pazo in Charm City.

Producer: Review of Pazo .

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Washington, D.C.: For the person going to Key West, Mangoes and Cafe Sole are wonderful. Cafe Sole looks a bit dodgy but is nothing short of fantastic -trust me and try the Hogfish Snapper. No joke.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for helping out a fellow chatter.

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Alexandria, Va.: Tom,

I've asked a few weeks in a row about possible Argentinean restaurants. Are you not answering because you don't know of any or are you just not getting to my question?

(I will be trying the gelato from today's food section).

Gracias!

Tom Sietsema: I know of no good Argentine restaurants in the Washington area. Does anyone here recall the very good Las Pampas in Georgetown? I used to save up my tips to eat there with dates. I can still taste that wonderful steak...

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom. Could use your advice & insight on how to handle a touchy subject. We have a couple that frequents our bar area in a casual dining restaurant. The situation that has developed is two-fold: they will come in and enjoy drinks and dinner for several hours, often twice a week, thoroughly enjoying their experience. Yet for reasons unknown, they will consistently leave the bar staff a 5% gratuity ( they are not foreign born ). Additionally, they have an inflexible attitude towards "sliding down a seat" to accomodate new guests at the bar. In an establishment where 18-20% gratuity is the norm and bar seats for our regulars are at a premium, this has created an awkward situation for our bartenders. Any suggestions??

Tom Sietsema: Well, you can't really force people to tip more than they do. But what century are these people living in, I wonder?

As for this couple's reluctance to slide over to make room for others, try this: Put out some table tents highlighting your new seating policy: "We love having patrons dine at the bar, and they love to eat and drink here. In other words, it's become a popular place to park. Please be considerate of your fellow eaters and slide over a seat or two so everyone can enjoy their time here. Thanks for your cooperation." Or something to that effect.

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Bethesda, Md.: I'm in charge of the rehearsal dinner for my brother's wedding but the two babies means I don't get out much. We need a Cap City Brewery-type casual restaurant that could accommodate about 20-30 people for burgers and beer before the formal big day. Any suggestions in the Foggy Bottom/West End/Georgetown areas? Thanks for your help!

Tom Sietsema: What about a room at the Clyde's of Georgetown on M St.?

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Berlin, Germany: Re Tipping rant.

From an European perspective I've to say that that including service charge on the menu (and even tax for that matter) is very customer friendly. The fact is, when going to a restaurant you can expect that the food and the drinks will be brought to your table otherwise it would be a self-service joint. Nonetheless most patrons do tip the wait staff for good service anyway.

Tom Sietsema: "Most patrons" tip in Europe? That has not been my experience abroad, unless we're talking about the temples of haute cuisine.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Tom

We are going to be in Washington on Thursday night and want an upscale restraint experience that local foodies and famous people may enjoy. What would you recommend? We are staying at the Mayflower and would appreciate something near the hotel. Of course it needs to somewhere where we can get a reservation this late.

Thanks in advance for taking the time to reply.

Tom Sietsema: Foodies and bold-faced names don't necessarily gravitate to the same restaurants. If you want an exceptional dining experience, head to Palena in Cleveland Park, Komi in Dupont Circle, Restaurant Eve in Old Town, Cityzen near the SW waterfront and Michel Richard Citronelle in Georgetown. If you want famous faces, try Cafe Milano in Georgetown or the Oval Room downtown (at lunch).

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Speaking of Thai Food...: Does it bother you that restaurants put out chopsticks at Thai restaurants? It irks me like no other! They eat with a fork and big ole spoon... I asked at Regent Thai once and the answer was quite funny...!

Tom Sietsema: What did they say, pray tell?

Chopsticks in Thai restaurants bother me a lot less than warm wine, frozen butter and the absence of visible salt and pepper shakers when I dine out.

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Washington, D.C.: Sir,

How often do you feel that restaurants (Maestro, Palena, Cityzen, Vidalia, Eve aside) should change their menus? Aside from "signature dishes" there are many places that appear to be resting on their laurels with and I make get a better selection at Sizzler. Furthermore some don't seem to respect seasonal products anymore. Asparagus for Thanksgiving? Heavy braises in August? Why no Yule logs in July?

Tom Sietsema: Gosh, the restaurants you cite seem to nod to the season pretty well. At least that's my experience. But I understand your gripe; the "current" menu at Bis is the menu I ate from two years ago and I was surprised to find rhubarb on the menu of a well-known French restaurant -- last FALL.

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Washington, D.C. : I hate to point out there's no such thing as a "great" Red Robin. (And yes, when I lived in MoCo I was there.) It's kinda like saying there's a great Cheesecake Factory - it may be fine, but they are all (roughly) the same.

I was missing the CF debate, wanted to start it up again.

Tom Sietsema: I THINK that poster was joking.

I HOPE that poster was joking.

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Lake Ridge, Va.: For the poster going to New Orleans for Jazzfest, a word of advice: No one who lives there actually says "Nawlins." Know that, and the rest of your trip will be wonderful.

Tom, thanks for the info on Herbsaint. I have Jazzfest reservations there, and am really excited!

Tom Sietsema: You're going to love it!

On the subject of regional peeves: No one in San Francisco calls the city "Frisco." At least the locals don't!

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Lunch with the Colleagues: Hi Tom-

In desperate need of your help. I work on the Mall and need to find a place close by that is relatively inexpensive for a lunch with my team at work. Please advise.

Thanks!!

Tom Sietsema: I'm thinking Jaleo. Or the cafe in the American Indian museum.

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Fairfax, Va.: I'm guessing Passage to India and Jean-Michel are the 2 Bethesda restaurants in your review.

Tom Sietsema: Your guess is half right.

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Bar Tippers: I have to ask: Does "thoroughly enjoying their experience" mean getting drunk as skunks ? If so, I'd suggest that may lie at the heart of the 5 percent.

Tom Sietsema: Could be! But the drunks I've observed tend to over-tip, not under-tip.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi, I've heard a lot of good things about Kotobuki. My question is, with all this praise from various sources, how crowded is it (given the size)? Is this a place where I could conceivably go on a weekend for lunch or dinner and not have to worry about waiting for an hour? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: I've not been back since I visited the restaurant, which is small, for my book. Does anyone have recent experience? I hate to think of lines outside ...

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Arlington, Va.: Tom,

When a co-worker tells you that they afraid to try a new restaurant because the food might be 'spicy', it could be that the person has never eaten Indian food and is not very adventurous when it comes to food. Since the outing is for all co-workers, I would suggest not pushing the person, coming up with a mutually agreed upon place, and going to the Indian restaurant on your own dime. You do have to work with these people 8 hours a day.....

Tom Sietsema: True.

But I'm getting more than a little tired of people who are unadventurous or otherwise picky. Fortunately, I don't encounter them much.

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Vienna, Va.: On the server pouring himself some of my wine, This happened to me for the first in Europe a few years ago. The waiter poured himself a generous sample, and I was not pleased. I made him bring the bottle back to the table and leave it in front of me.

I think you are wrong to say this is common in high end places. This has only happened to me once, and won't happen again.

Tom Sietsema: Yeah, but are you eating out a dozen meals a week, too? Trust me, it happens, and not infrequently.

Your European sommelier should NOT have poured himself a glass, however. As the old commercial used to say: "A little dab will do ya."

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Washington, D.C.: Who is the dude that seems to make the rounds every night (and maybe daytimes too?), visiting seemingly every restaurant and bar from Dupont Circle, to Logan Circle, to U Street, and others in that neck of the woods? We see him all the time, coming in, hanging with a manager or bartender for a few minutes, and moving on.

Any story there?

Tom Sietsema: I have no idea who you're talking about. Can you give me a better description, please?

The only "dude" that comes to mind is Ashok Bajaj, the owner of Ardeo, Bardeo, Oval Room, Bombay Club, Rasika and 701. He somehow manages to make appearances at each place every night. But his restaurants aren't in the neighborhoods you mention.

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Fairfax, Va.: Hi Tom,

A question for you about valet parking at restaurants. Because of a previous bad experience, I no longer use valet services at restaurants (I just don't want strangers handling my car). I understand why restaurants offer valet service, which many people consider a convenience, particularly when restaurants are in crowded areas like downtown DC. But I'm puzzled by suburban restaurants that essentially require you to use the valet, even when they have large, accessible parking lots. At one restaurant near us the valet chased after us and chided us for parking ourselves, telling us we needed to use the service (despite a large lot that's next to the restaurant and never completely fills up). At a subsequent visit we noted that they'd blocked off the entrance we'd inadvertently gone through, so you must go by the valet. We've run into this at multiple restaurants. Valet parking should be a nice extra that you can choose to use (or not). Why do they do this? Having to argue with the valet over why I'm not going to use the service is annoying, and makes me less likely to return to the restaurant.

Tom Sietsema: Interesting, but I've never encountered the problem of a valet company forcing me to use its service. Has anyone else experienced this?

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Alexandria, Va.: I've been watching the discussion about the quest for respect between servers and patrons. Whenever it begins to seem more like a small arms race, I can't help remembering something I saw a few years ago.

I was staying at a Ritz Carlton resort property and was impressed enough with the uniformly wonderful service to ask someone about it. He pulled out a small, laminated card from his pocket. "Everyone in the company carries one of these," he said, and handed it to me. On the card, in blue boldface type, was a statement of the company's service principle: We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen. I've never heard a better approach to a service-based business relationship, be it wait staff, lawyer, consultant.

I enjoy your chats. Thanks for the good work.

Tom Sietsema: I've seen that card, too -- and appreciate the statement of philosophy. (Now if we could only get a few hundred in the hands of every CVS employee ...)

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Bethesda, Md.: Good morning! I have recently started reading your chat sessions and was wondering if small scale restaurants with really delicious food are ever on your "highly recommended" list? As far as Indian food is concerned, I have only read about Bombay Club, Heritage and now Rasika.....would a small family-owned, fairly new restaurant in Rockville with good food be of any interest? By the way, the name is Flavors Indian Cuisine.......

Tom Sietsema: I love (good) Indian food -- I could eat it almost ever day, in fact -- and have previously thrown bouquets to such small-scale enterprises as Amma Vegetarian in Georgetown, Nirvana in the District and Delhi Club in Arlington.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm hoping you can help with a Baltimore dining question. I'm looking for a nice, yet not too pricey, restaurant in the Baltimore area to celebrate a birthday. There will be a party of 6. Any thoughts? (And we're looking at this Saturday. My sister made reservations at The Charleston, but it's really more than we care to spend.) (Bistro Le Pic is a DC favorite, as is Cafe Atlantico - to give you an idea of what we're after.) Thanks to you and other foodies for insights.

Tom Sietsema: I'm a fan of the modestly romantic Helmand, with its satisfying Afghan cooking and gentle tabs. Anyone else care to share a favorite, inexpensive Baltimore dinner destination?

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Arlington, Va.: Tom, in your experience at Sette Bello, did you ever come across their corkING fee policy? The one time we dined there, we ordered a bottle of wine that we didn't finish. In VA, if the restaurant replaces the cork and places the bottle in a bag, you can take the remainder home with you. When we asked the waiter to do this for us, he told us there would be a $20 corking fee (on the $28 bottle we had, ahem, already purchased!!!). So we decided to stay and drink the rest. This policy has got to be one of the most ridiculous things I've heard. What do you think, Tom?

Tom Sietsema: That's a new one! A corkage fee is for wine brought into the restaurant by the diner. Charging extra for bringing home wine that has been purchased in the restaurant is like charging to have remaining pizza or pasta wrapped to go. I think your server was mistaken.

Time to go. See you next Wednesday!

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