Ask Tom

Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, June 14, 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 and the Weekly Dish 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.


Tom Sietsema: Hump Day!

I took a break from my usual high-fiber, low-fat breakfast routine this morning to indulge in one of my passions: cheese. Not just any frommage, mind you, but artisanal cheese from the just-opened (as of yesterday) Cowgirl Creamery at 919 F St. NW, a branch of the beloved Cheese Shop at Tomales Bay Foods in Point Reyes Station, California. Conveniently located next to Central Liquor in Penn Quarter (think: wine and cheese), Cowgirl Creamery looks like something airlifted from San Francisco, all buffed wood floors, clean white walls and fresh-faced staff eager to help you select from among dozens of mostly domestic cheeses, including the fresh organic cheeses produced by owners Sue Conley and Peggy Smith. The air, of course, is pleasantly fragrant with cheese, which takes up much of the counter space in the long shop. One of several favorites: St. Pat, a a whole-milk cheese with a slightly smoky flavor, bound in stinging nettle leaves that taste similar to artichokes. Mmmmm. (The number, which is not yet listed in the directory, is 202-393-6880.)

Interesting complaint of the week: A reader wrote in to tell me his dinner at a high-end restaurant was ruined by an over-perfumed sommelier. If it was so obvious, I'm surprised someone from the staff didn't tell the fragrant employee to tone it down?

After last week's discussion, during which one of you inquired about where to eat in Hawaii, I received a bunch of additional suggestions from the peanut gallery. Keep in mind, I haven't experienced any of the recommendations personally, so I can't endorse them. But they include a "hole-in-the-wall" called Irafune, where you can bring your own suds; Sam Choy's Breakfast, Lunch and Crab; Duke's Canoe Club; Zippy's or Like Like Drive Inn for a coffee shop frequented by locals; House Without a Key for breakfast, including guava juice and macadamia nut pancakes; and Kyo-Ya for "elegant Japanese."

On to your rants, raves, questions and comments!

_______________________ Cowgirl Creamery .


Oakton, Va.: Tom,

My wife and I had dinner at Bazin's on Church Saturday night and your review Sunday was absolutely spot on. We even had the same dishes you reviewed although I should have gone for the corn-crab chowder. The chocolate tart was to die for. I'd agree it was very noisy, and we look forward to the sound muffling materials they will be installing. Also, we look forward to having dinner there during a large snowfall so we can look out the window. Vienna has been missing a restaurant like this, and judging from the crowds on Saturday, it seems to have found a home. Our question for you is with the lack of salt and pepper on the table. Should we ask for them if we want to use them, or is that considered bad manners?

Tom Sietsema: Increasingly, restaurants are not putting out salt and pepper shakers. It's not a trend I feel strongly about, although other diners wish they had the option of using them. In some instances, chefs think their food is appropriately seasoned, and would rather not have diners messing around with their compositions. That said, it certainly isn't impolite to ask for extra seasoning. Review of Bazin's on Church .


Washington, D.C.: We ate at Rock Creek in Bethesda recently, and a very powerful air conditioning vent was blowing over our table. We asked for it to be turned down, which they did only momentarily. The cold air was uncomfortable to sit under and was blowing right on what was supposed to be our hot entrees. We brought it to management's attention and received a very nonchalant apology. What is the customer supposed to do at this point? Begrudgingly pay for the ruined meal and simply never go there again?

Tom Sietsema: If it happens again, try this:

"This is really uncomfortable and the AC blast is ruining the food. Can we please switch tables?"


Washington, D.C.: Hey Tom,

Is it ever okay to NOT tip a waiter at all?

I was at dinner with a group of friends, all college-aged. The waiter we had was the rudest I've ever encountered- I'm talking eye-rolling, lots of attitude, snide remarks, and complaining when a member of our group came 10 minutes late. This was at a casual chain restaurant in DC. We should have said something to the manager, but were in a hurry to leave by the end of our slow-serviced dinner. We were a party of 6 so a gratuity was added on, but I really don't think his behavior warranted any tip at all. We left it, but I couldn't help feel that as young patrons of the restaurant we were treated poorly by this waiter AND made to pay for it. How could I have handled this situation? What should I have said to the manager and would it ever be okay to not pay the gratuity or not tip at all?

Tom Sietsema: It's too late now, of course, but one of you should have left the table, pulled a manager aside and explained the problem. While I rarely advocate not leaving ANYTHING, this guy sounds like a good reason not to reward a poor performance.


Washington, D.C.: Hello Tom. When diners ask you how to handle rude service, I know you advise that diners speak with management to address the problem. But what if the rudeness came from management itself? Recently I was at a very well-known local neighborhood restaurant; and the owner was shockingly rude to me without provocation. (I don't want to get into the details here.) If I had not been waiting there for a friend to join me shortly, I would have walked out immediately. As it is, I will never return there. But there really isn't much else I can do, besides tell my friends what happened? It's clear to me that this person does not care about treating their customers with respect and dignity.

Tom Sietsema: Is the manager also an OWNER, I wonder? That's a tricky one.


College Park, Md.: Tom -- Have you had a chance to sample the talents of Cristena Comerford, executive chef at the White House?

Tom Sietsema: No, and I don't think I'll have an opportunity to do so for at least the next few years. (But you never know!)

The menus I've seen in recent months certainly sound less glam than when pastry maven Roland Mesnier worked his magic at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.


Farragut Lunch: Tom,

I'm craving pasta. Is Spezie worth a visit?

Tom Sietsema: Al Tiramisu's is better.


Satisfied Dad: Tom,

With all the reports of marginal (or even bad) service we've heard lately, I wanted to take a moment to shout out some kudos to Majestic Cafe. Given we're just wrapping up Prom season around here, I wanted to relay how pleased I was with he service my son and his friends received at Majestic. My son, his date, and two other couples (six teens all-together), had dinner reservations for prom night at Majestic. The evening started out a total running late, hired limo arriving at the pick-up house a full 45 minutes late, driver didn't have directions, etc. However, the saving grace of the evening was the fine staff at Majestic. Even though the kids had reservations, we were concerned because of the initial delays and the time constraints of the rest of the evening. We called the Cafe and explained the situation. They told us "No problem, we'll take care of them as soon as they get here."

True to their word, the staff performed wonderfully. The kids were seated as soon as the (finally) arrived. By all reports from the young diners, the service was prompt, courteous, and respectful. In fact, for several of the kids their dinner at Majestic Cafe was the highlight of their evening.

I sent a note to the restaurant, but I also wanted to mention publicly how pleased this Dad was with the way the staff helped our kids have a memorable evening.

Props to Majestic Cafe - I'll certainly be dining there more often now!

Tom Sietsema: Your timing is perfect. I recently had several meals at the Majestic and I plan to write about the experience, along with those of two other previously reviewed Old Town restaurants, June 25.

Funny (but promising): The kids had more fun at dinner than the dance.


Park View, Washington, D.C.: I was disappointed to read in today's Weekly Dish that Bar Pilar is going upscale. I gave up trying to eat at the pricey and over-populated St. Ex a long time ago, but have really enjoyed having Bar Pilar as a casual and affordable dining option in that hat neighborhood. (Does this mean no more Tater Tots?) It always looked pretty well populated to me. Does "getting off the ground as a restaurant" necessarily translate into hour-long waits? Is that the only way to make it affordable?

Tom Sietsema: I was bummed to hear that a delicious source of lomo saltado is disappearing -- along with those Tater Tots -- but I think the chef knows what he's doing (and what people in the neighborhood like to eat). The price points are expected to remain budget-friendly. The Weekly Dish .


Washington, D.C.: As a server in a restaurant with a substantial outdoor patio, here's a gripe/plea: office and group happy hours that don't call ahead. People, if you are expecting upwards of 20 people for a happy hour after work and you want to sit outside, PLEASE call the restaurant to at least give them the heads up. And when your group trickles in 2-3 at a time, with each person ordering food and drink, don't get annoyed at the one server who has to handle your party as well as other diners. This happens more and more frequently now that it's warm, and I'm tired of guests who bring in an exceptionally large "drinks" party unannounced and expect perfect service. Thanks, Tom, for letting me get that off my chest!

Tom Sietsema: I was thinking about just your problem as I was strolling to dinner in Dupont Circle the other (beautiful) evening. There were masses of post-work imbibers EVERYWHERE.

I'm glad to make your life a bit easier by publishing your plea.


Del Ray, Va.: Tom, Where in the D.C. area may I purchased canned or salted edible (obviously) insects? Preferably, worms, grasshoppers, crickets, etc. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: The National Geographic gift shop?


Re: Salt & Pepper Shakers: Overheard at a restaurant recently that there has been a rash of theft since they began putting salt & pepper shakers on the tables during service. Perhaps more restaurants would put spice on the table if patrons would stop putting the cool shakers in their bags on their way out the door!

Tom Sietsema: Yeah, but I don't think that's a new problem. People have always been tempted to "take a souvenir."


Penn Quarter, Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

I really hope you answer my question this time because I have no idea what to do here. What do I do when a server pours my unfinished glass of wine into the new glass of wine she just brought me? Is that common practice? It caught me completely off guard.

Tom Sietsema: I would have been surprised, too! I hope it was the same wine. Whatever, bad form.


Takoma Park, Md.: Not putting condiments on the table is just condescending and silly at the same time. Condescending because it assumes that I want it exactly as you made it and silly because restaurants should always make the customer happy, either by taste or by comfort or both. I can't imagine what it would be like if Cajun restaurants didn't put Tobasco on the table.

Tom Sietsema: Do any chefs out there care to weigh in on this matter of life and death?


Herndon, Va.: Tom,

My wife and I have decided to do a Tour of Gastronomic Delights this summer. We already have reservations at the Inn at Little Washington and at Laboratorio del Galileo. What other can't miss places should we add to that list?

Tom Sietsema: Sounds like a fun vacation to me!

Restaurant Eve, Komi, the Inn at Easton, Charleston and Cityzen -- and lots of cardio training between meals --should also be in your game plan.


Clifton, Va.: Many years ago my brother and I went to Blues Alley to see Wynton Marsialis. We got there early for first show and ordered drinks, appetizers and dinner. My brother was in suit and I was in blue blazer with a tie. The waitress ignored us. At the time I was in my late 20's and my bro in his mid 20's. The couple next to us in their early 50's got great service from the waitress. She was awful. Food was okay and the performance incredible. She never offered us dessert or came back to ask about more drinks. At the time it was the worst service I or my bro had ever received. Both of us had put ourselves through college waiting tables. I have done everything in restaurant from wash dishes to waiting tables so I know whose fault things our. I wrote "STIFF" in the tip box on the Amex credit slip. SHe wrote back thanks on slip. She would have gotten 25% is she had done a good job. Her loss.

Tom Sietsema: She really wrote "thanks" on the charge slip?


Washington, D.C.: Tom:

Rachel Ray and Bobby Flay are descending on Washington this weekend--any bets where they will eat? Tell me they'll be more creative than Milano!

Tom Sietsema: I know Ms. Ray tried Zaytinya on her last swing through the city. I have no idea where she or Bobby plan to refuel this time. Where do you THINK they should head?


Columbus, Ohio: My wife and I will be in DC the last week of June and I am planning a surprise tour of the Monuments by riverboat on Sunday June 25. I will depart from Georgetown to Alexandria roundtrip. Would you please give me a suggestion or two for dining in Alexandria? Seafood (Crab), Italian, French bistro, on the water. etc. Also, any other suggestions for our stay in DC. Based on your previous recommendations I am considering Laboratorio Del Galileo, Vidalia, Bistro Francais, Cafe 15 and Notti Bianche.

Thank you

Tom Sietsema: Good morning, Columbus! You can get your wish of seafood AND a water vista at Indigo Landing in Alexandria, just south of National Airport.

As for additional ideas in Washington, you might try to squeeze in Komi and Palena among the other restaurants on your impressive list.


Eastern Market, Washington, D.C.: As they say third time's the charm right? I'm still lookin for a some tasty Russian food, where should I head Tom? Oh and I was at Notti Bianche last weekend, the "coffee and doughnuts" dessert = heavenly!!

Thanks for all your hard work!

Tom Sietsema: The only Russian food I've encountered in recent years has been at Russia House off Dupont Circle, which was better as a purveyor of drinks than of food when I dropped by.


20th and Pennsylvania, NW: Please Tom, don't take the buyout!!!

Tom Sietsema: Ha! I'm too young and too happy.


Bethesda, Md.: Hi Tom-

Your chats and columns are required reading! I will be visiting Cape May, NJ next week. Can you or any chatters out there recommend a great restaurant there? We are flexible with regard to both price and cuisine.

Hope you can help. Thanks

Tom Sietsema: Does anyone know the dining scene in Cape May?


Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom. Thanks for taking this question- I know you get a lot of generic ones like this but I was wondering if you could still help. I work down on K street and my manager is taking myself and another staff member out to lunch to celebrate a completion of a project. We've done DC Coast, Kinkeads, Ceiba, TenPenh, Capital Grill, and the likes, but want something a little special where we haven't eaten at before. We don't mind cabbing it, preferably though in NW. My manager suggested 1789 but I told him I didn't think it was open for lunch. Is Komi open for lunch? Any other suggestions for a great lunch when you don't have to pay? Also, any cuisine is fine. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Neither 1789 nor Komi is open for lunch. For something fairly close, I'd suggest Bombay Club, which recently added some interesting new dishes to its script and always seems to attract a flock of movers 'n' shakers. For something more transporting, and certainly different, consider the spare but delicious Makoto up on MacArthur Boulevard.


Farragut North, Washington, D.C.: I'm a college intern and I'm looking for the best, cheap cafe/restaurant to have a delicious, healthy lunch outside during my lunch break. Any suggestions?

Tom Sietsema: How about Teaism, which has at least three locations?


Penn Quarter: Just wanted to give some quick praise to John Latham and the rest of the Clyde's crew for some great service on Friday afternoon. I went into Clyde's on the walk for a late take out lunch, and after my sandwich was made the gentleman behind the counter realized the computers were turned off in addition to the hotlamps on the line, so he couldn't ring up my order. He promptly told me the problem and went to retrieve a manager. The problem was something with a main circuit box that would take a while to fix, so my lunch was given to me on the house. Not that I expected anything free, but they realized in a take out place such as Clyde's on the walk, time is of the essence and took quick action. Good for them!

That aside, have you been to the take out sandwich line from Clyde's? My pork and rapini greens sandwich was great, but the Gazpacho was not. Way too much acid and the soup base was way too thin and vegetables were cut every shape and size from this strips to huge chunks. I am in the business and all for using trim, but it needed a buzz in a food processor for my tastes.

Thanks for the chats! The Weekly Dish on Clyde's .


Kalorama, D.C.: Hello Tom,

A recommendation to your readers on the wonderful German cuisine--yes, cuisine--at Old Europe in Glover Park. My parents--originally from Cincinnati, former home to mitteleuropa dining--visited last weekend and jumped at the chance to eat at Old Europe. The decor is reminiscent of the late 19th century, including a rathskeller on the lower floor. The real attraction are the traditional preparations of mainly veal and pork dishes, while the salmon, trout and vegetarian omelet were good options for non-meat eaters.

The service was top flight and the staff was very accommodating towards our two young children, even on a Saturday night. Lots of good German beer on draft and in bottle, a respectable wine list and a tantalizing selection of desserts to round out the meal.

Don't miss this old world delight celebrating 58 years in business!

Tom Sietsema: Hey, who needs a publicist when you can post something like this on the Washington Post's web site?


I agree, though: Old Europe is a good place for sauerbraten, sausages, potato pancakes, wiener schnitzel and gemutlichkeit.


RE: Air Conditioning Ruined Dinner: Funny that the other reader posted about air conditioning ruining their meal. My boyfriend and I ate at Acadiana last weekend, and the air was blasting from a vent above us. We asked several times if they could turn it down since there were not other open tables we could have been moved to. After our requests, it would get warmer for just long enough for our teeth to stop chattering then the air would blast on again. We really enjoyed the food and the atmosphere, but the air was definitely a problem. We know not to request a booth in the same area when we go back. I generally find restaurants to be overly cold, although as a former server I understand at least one reason why they crank it up.

Tom Sietsema: Moral of the story: Always dress in layers, no matter the season.


Alexandria, Va.: As a professional chef I consider it a MUST to put condiments on the table....the customer should always have the option to make the meal taste the way they like it. A lot of chefs are smokers and their taste is off. I, personally, under-season some foods (especially veggies) because I'm pleasing the customer, not myself. Shame on those pretentious chefs who think they are "perfect".

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for contributing.


Seasoning Station, U.S.A.: Tom-

The seasoning issue is similar to diners who find their requests for substitutions in dishes unwelcome. Many chefs prefer their food served the way they prepared it, seasoning level and all. As both a chef (past life) and now a frequent diner, I certainly understand the practice of not wanting your food altered, but again this is the service industry, and I would always rather let the customer add salt if they felt it necessary. I do admit that in the better restaurants in our area, I generally find my food to be seasoned properly.

Tom Sietsema: Yep, it IS the hospitality business, isn't it?


Rosslyn, Va.: As a home cook, I get really annoyed when my guests salt and pepper their food before they even taste it. I usually make a comment that I season everything properly. Of course, my friends won't walk off with my salt and pepper shakers, so maybe it's less ego and more bottom line.

Tom Sietsema: I don't care for the picture, either: people seasoning their food before even tasting it. If it's salty to begin with, how are they planning to undo the seasoning? Indeed, how would they even KNOW something is properly or improperly spiced?


Virginia Server: Ack! I'm scared by all of these comments regarding leaving NO tip! I'm a server! When you leave 0% tip, please keep in mind that you are actually taking money OUT of my pocket. This is because of the automatic tip-out servers pay to restaurants on their total sales (in my restaurant, I pay to the management 4% of your meal cost, and this is then divided amongst the busboys, service bartender, etc.). And by people writing in saying bad service warranting 0 tip you are also giving leeway to people who are sometimes just cheap. I'd MUCH rather fix the problem, have you change servers to one you prefer more than myself - anything but 0 tip! And while I think I am a decent server as I have been doing this for some time, I still now and then get pitiful tips from people who are just cheap. It stings! So please, Tom, don't push this as an acceptable practice.

Tom Sietsema: Trust me, I'm not! More often than not, service problems can be cleared up if diners pipe up in a timely fashion.

Cheap people = no fun to eat with


Downtown: They aren't canned or salted, but if you want to eat bugs, the gift shop at the Natural History Museum sells lollipops with them imbedded inside. I think they're supposed to be evocative of amber.

Tom Sietsema: Anything to amuse a pack of tired kids after a day of museum-hopping, right?


Canned Insects: Why go for canned when you can find fresh ones right in your own backyard ?

Tom Sietsema: VERY funny.


Re: salt and pepper: Etiquette-wise, there is nothing wrong with adding salt and pepper to food that has been prepared for you. However, you should NEVER add seasoning to food before you taste it. It implies that you do not respect the abilities of the chef. (Dinner guests in my home tend not to be invited back if they dump 400 pounds of ketchup on their chicken before tasting it.) Seasoning the food after you taste it implies no fault on the part of the chef, it just means you have a personal preference for spicier/saltier/whatever food.

So restaurants should put salt and pepper on the tables, but customers should have the decency to taste their food first, rather than drown it in gunk and salt. Want ketchup and salt for dinner? Go to McDonald's.

(I'm not a chef, but I am an etiquette freak.)

Tom Sietsema: Thank you, Miss Manners!


Cape May, NJ: I just spent a few wonderful days in Cape May. Suggestions include: Louisa's, Black Duck, Merrion Inn, Peter Shields Inn, and Union Cafe.

Breakfast on the front porch at the Carrol Villa Hotel "The Mad Batter" restaurant is a gem.


Tom Sietsema: Wow, practically a week's worth of eating ideas.


Gaithersburg, Md.: About two weeks ago, I and two friends visited the Del Merei Grille in Del Ray. We didn't stay too long; we only had "frickles" (fried pickles) and the bacon-artichoke dip. We all agreed that both were good.

But it was both the decor (a nicely done space) and the friendliness of the server Elizabeth and of the owner (who served as maitresse d') why we all decided we had to go back.

My two questions are have you ever had such a cursory experience that told you that you had to go back, and have you reviewed Del Merei Grille?


Tom Sietsema: I'd mention the name of the place where I had 15 minutes of pampering at the bar if I wasn't planning on reviewing it soon. But stay tuned.

As for Del Merei Grille, I've been there/done that and enjoyed the ride. Review of Del Merei Grille .


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Tom-- Thanks so much for the chats! Hoping you can help me out...I'm picking up a friend from Dulles tonight, and am looking for a place to eat close by there or on the way back to DC. She'll be very jet-lagged but hungry after a long international flight, so we're looking for somewhere casual where she can recharge and enjoy really good food again (she was not impressed with the food in the country she was visiting!). Any suggestions? Thanks again!

Tom Sietsema: My standard reply to the oft-posed question: Thai Basil on Lee Jackson Memorial Highway in Chantilly. Review of Thai Basil .


Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom! I've come to depend on you and I'm hoping you can give me some suggestions now!

As birthday gifts, I've been giving some people I know $40 gift certificates to area restaurants. The recipients of my gifts are young people - and so I've looked for places that young people would want to go. In the past, I selected Two Amys and Lauriol Plaza. I'd really appreciate a few other suggestions, so that I can treat the upcoming birthday celebrants to different places. Many thanks!

Tom Sietsema: What about Pizzeria Paradiso in Georgetown or Perry's in Adams Morgan?


Re: Patio Server: Would you mind compiling lists of popular drink locations that keep, at most, 2 servers on duty during happy hour to attend to 40-60 people? Usually one bartender at the bar (natch) and one semi-ambulant server for the rest of the bar. My coworkers and I keep coming across these snazzy places that play up their happy hours only to fail to provide more than minimal service. I suppose it's our fault, right? We're not paying full price for drinks and nosh, so we shouldn't expect full price service?

Trust me area restaurateurs, these impressions play absolutely NO ROLE whatsoever when we think about locations for $60/head lunches and $100+/head dinners.

Tom Sietsema: Happy hour hosts, are you paying attention?


Toronto, Canada: Tom,

I've read a couple of times that you dislike the reply of "no problem" from a server. I'm a waitress and I have to confess that sometimes I just find it tumbling out of my mouth. In its place I have tried out "sure thing" at lunch and "my pleasure" at dinner, but the first seems to casual and the second seems too kiss-ass. What do you want to hear your servers say? Will "absolutely" do?

I work at a slightly upscale Thai place, by the way.

Tom Sietsema: You don't even have to speak. How about just a smile and a nod?


Taste of Carolina?: hope I'm not too late!! What's the skinny on the new restaurant on 9th St. Decent? Authentic? I'm wondering if it's worth a visit.

Tom Sietsema: I have to go back and try it out when the owner isn't the only one working the room ... the day I visited, he admitted, after several long delays for everything, that his staff didn't show up.

(Oh, the glamour of the restaurant business!)


Baltimore, Md.: Re salting before tasting: there is a famous anecdote about Admiral Hyman G. Rickover selecting the captain for a nuclear submarine. He took the two candidates for the position to dinner; one salted his food before tasting and one tasted and then salted. Guess which one got the command?

Tom Sietsema: Who knew that pre-salting could be such a liability!


more bugs: My 8 year old loved the cicadas back when they were out. Said they tasted like shrimp.

Tom Sietsema: Your eight year old sounds like a budding food critic.


Washington, D.C.: regarding pouring the remnants of an unfinished glass of wine into the new glass of wine:

As a server in a fine dining restaurant in DC, I have done this before, but only after first asking "is it all right if I pour this into your new glass to make a little more room on the table?"

I've never had anyone refuse this question/suggestion, and I don't understand why anyone would be offended by this. Of course, we're talking about the same type and brand of wine, not pouring the remnants of your chardonnay into your new glass of sauvignon blanc.

Why would this be bad form? Especially if it's a crowded table, taking away extra and unnecessary items is part of my job...

Tom Sietsema: True, but shouldn't tables be big enough to hold a reasonable amount of food in the first place? And what about the sediment that occasionally rests at the bottom of a glass of red wine -- that goes into the fresh glass, too, right? Better for the diner to finish the sip (if that's what it is) and let the server remove the empty glass.


Washington, D.C.: Just a comment about Cowgirl Creamery. I've been getting their cheeses from San Francisco for years, and they are wonderful. I've been eagerly awaiting the new store opening (checking their web site once a week for updates on the store opening) and can't wait to head down this weekend to pick up some great cheeses and scope out the store. If this store is anywhere near as great as the San Francisco offerings, everyone who loves cheese and wine etc should head down and check it out! And no, I'm not affiliated with them at all, just a legitimate cheese lover.

Tom Sietsema: Yep, yep, yep. Cowgirl Creamery is big news for foodies.


CityZen: Tom,

I had dinner at Cityzen recently and wonder if I missed something? I thought the food had no "wow" factor - wow being Alinea's oyster, lychee, and caviar in chervil broth, or Charleston's grilled cheese on brioche with black truffle, or Palena's burger, fries, and brownie sundae, or even Hanoi street food bun cha for $0.75; it was fine but certainly nothing worth raving about. Do I owe it another shot?

Tom Sietsema: Yes! Eric Ziebold is one of our top imaginations. Alone, his cigar box of bite-size, warm-from-the-oven Parker House rolls is enough to elicit a "wow!" from this diner.


Odd ingredients -- top this tale!: Someone wrote last week about goofy ingredients in menu items. It reminded me of an experience I had at Red Sage a few years ago (and why I have never gone back even though it's across the street from my office). The special on the lunch menu was softshell crab tostada (yum!!). I took one bite and stopped mid-chew. There was clearly banana in it. I can't eat bananas for a strange traumatized-in-childhood incident involving banana-flavored medicine. I called the waitress over and asked if, indeed, the tostada had banana in it. She said it did (having neglected to mention that when she described the special before I ordered -- and I didn't ask. I mean, who asks if there are bananas in softshell crab dishes?). I said I couldn't eat banana. She sort of shrugged and walked away. I KNOW I should have called over the manager, but it was lunchtime, I was on a fixed time, and my luncheon partner agreed to switch plates.

Not sure what the moral of the story is: Always ask if any menu item includes your most-detested food?? Always dine with someone who can eat your most-detested flavor??

Tom Sietsema: (I like your dining companion!)

Servers really need to mention unexpected ingredients in the food they're serving. I wouldn't have imagined bananas in an order of soft-shell crabs, either.

That said, if there's something you detest, it's always best to make mention of that when you're placing your order. I know people who do that with garlic (because they're allergic to it) and cilantro (because the flavor turns them off).


Washington, D.C.: Dear Tom, Which of the two doomed restaurant locations will close first, drinx or Agraria? After my dinner Sunday at Agraria, it gets my vote!

Tom Sietsema: Oh dear. Agraria just opened!

I think you have to give a newbie a chance. But I'm rather surprised Agraria opened (albeit "softly," as they say in the business) without a head chef. I've already received several complaints from diners who have visited the Georgetown establishment and who were disappointed to find such a limited menu. The problem is, a business doesn't get a second chance to make the all-important first impression.


Washington, D.C.: The husband and I went to Buck's Fishing and Camping

last weekend. Saturday night, about 9pm. We were

seated quickly and looked forward to our meal. We

quickly ordered a bottle of wine. After the wine came, the

server told us that 2 of the items from the menu we

wanted to order were not available (roasted asparagus and

soft shell crabs). Disappointing. So we ordered. The

appetizer (fried okra and squash blossoms) were unsalted

and begging for it! Grilled whole fish was bland and the

skin was completely blackened and burned. Luckily, the

cherry cobbler was great. But definitely an expensive

disappointment. Wish we'd just have ordered the steak!

Tom Sietsema: I hear you, I hear you. The chef should really consider expanding her haiku of a menu. If a kitchen is only offering six dishes, and it runs out of two of 'em, that doesn't leave much to eat, does it? I get this complaint about Buck's a lot, which is why I'm posting it.


Logan Circle, Washington, D.C.: You often suggest Mimi's on P St. to readers. I had lunch there on Sunday and the service and food were both miserable. We waited over 15 minutes just to get coffee - this after the waiter breezed by the table and said he would be back in 5. Once we did get food, we could not get butter or more coffee. I walked up to the hostess stand to beg her to help. I also asked to speak to the manager. The hostess ignored us, the manager was unfriendly but comped one of the meals (we had ordered poached eggs which came hard and cold), but then we couldn't even get him to bring us our check so that we could get out of there. This was my second and last visit to this establishment.

Tom Sietsema: Actually, I'm lukewarm about Mimi's, which features singing waiters along with its American menu. I've always felt the staff would rather be on a real stage with a mike rather than at my table with a note pad. It's always been more entertaining than delicious.


McLean, Va.: My parents are attending a play at the National Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue. I made reservations for them at Les Halles because it is relatively close to the theatre. Is this a recommended restaurant or do you recommend another nearby choice for pre-theatre dining?

Tom Sietsema: Les Halles is just fine. But there are several reliable options in the area, including the Occidental and 701, both of which have, like Les Halles, the bonus of al fresco seating.


Washington, D.C.: Tom, with all the pleasant June weather we are having, what are your favorite outdoor dining spots in --and around-- DC? Which have a good balance between cool, shaded ambience, unobtrusive street noise,quality cuisine and professional service?

Tom Sietsema: Leaping to mind as I type: Bombay Club, Tabard Inn (did you hear Alice Waters recently breakfasted there?), Zaytinya, Cafe Saint-Ex, Montmartre, Poste and Jaleo.


McLean, Va.: Tom, please help a girl out (or enlist your regular chatters to do so). It's my turn to plan our monthly girls night out, and I've run out of ideas. We usually have a group of 7-8, and we've already been to lots of places for groups (Peking Gourmet, Rustico, Guapo's, La Tasca, Harry's Tap Room, Lebanese Taverna, Minh's, Flying Fish, Vienna Inn, Jaleo, Tallulah). As you can see, we're not picky about the type of cuisine (chili dogs and cheese fries work just as well as sushi and tapas), but we'd prefer to stick to Alexandria or Arlington. Any suggestions? Thanks in advance.

Tom Sietsema: You should consider adding Del Merei Grille, Layalina, 100 King Restaurant, Taverna Cretekou, Vermilion and Bangkok 54 to your repertoire. (I'm curious: How was your meal at Harry's Tap Room?)


Arlington, Va.: My husband is a relentless salter. I think the only thing he doesn't salt is bacon.

I don't know why it's rude to salt before tasting. Ill-advised for most people, yes But salting before tasting, in my husband's case, means "I like food saltier than any normal human being does, so I know I'll need more." Salting after tasting means, "Hey, you didn't season this properly."

Tom Sietsema: That's the end of the salt talks -- and this chat -- for today. See you back here next Wednesday.


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