Ask Tom

Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, June 28, 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.

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Washington, D.C.: Has Stoney's ever reopened? My grilled cheese patience is running thin!!

Tom Sietsema: News flash: Stoney's is re-opening, across from Whole Foods on P St. in Logan Circle, in the P St. Bistro space. Look for an end-of-July launch date.

Whoo-hoo!

Until that happens, you can get your "super grilled cheese" fix for $8.55 at Tunnicliff's on the Hill.

Another cause for celebration today: It stopped raining!

Onward ...

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Tom,

Did you happen to catch Rachel Ray's $40 a Day last night? She was in DC and went to Teaism, Clydes and I forget where else she went. She kinda makes me gag a bit.

Tom Sietsema: I'm always amazed how producers select the places they do. Teaism is fine, but Clyde's?

(Is anyone else out there as over the whole Food TV thing as I am?)

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Washington, D.C.: I am completely obsessed with Indian food, and I can't get enough. I have only been living in DC for a few months now, but I have found a few good places. In your opinion, what's the best Indian restaurant in DC?

Tom Sietsema: Among the places that I'm drawn to -- I'm not calling 'em "the best" -- are Nirvana on K St. and Delhi Club in Arlington (for cheap and good Indian) and Bombay Club and Rasika, both in the city (for more yupscale cooking).

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Van Ness: For those of us on a limited budget, what restaurant in the district gives the best bang for the buck (Quality not quantity). Thanks Tom!

Tom Sietsema: Off the top of my (slightly sun-burned) head: Etete for Ethiopian, Amsterdam Falafel Shop for the obvious, Nirvana for Indian, Spices for Asian.

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Charlottesville, Va.: I really enjoy your chats!

Do you get food poisoning often, and do you confront the restaurant when it happens?

Tom Sietsema: The last time I know for sure that I got food poisoning in the DC area was in 1986 --- raw oysters in Old Town -- and I never called the restaurant. My bad.

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McLean, Va.: Tom: If you had to choose a dinner between

CityZen, Laboratoria del Galileo, or LeParadou which would you recommend for a special dinner for an out of town guest who travels widely and appreciates a great meal? Price not an issue. Need a suggestion. Want something special.

Tom Sietsema: Gosh, it would be tough to choose between Eric Ziebold's masterly strokes and Roberto Donna's lusty --- yes, LUSTY -- Italian fare. They are two very different experiences.

I can tell you, without any hesitation, that I wouldn't waste my time or money on the over-priced and stuffy-goofy Le Paradou.

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Arlington, Va.: Hey Tom,

Just wanted to share an experience I had this past weekend at Zaytinya, and a dining question I had. After your numerous recommendations, my girlfriend and I decided to pop in unannounced on Friday night (around 9 pm). The courteous people at the front desk told us it would be around an hour. We were happy to sit at the bar and have a drink while we waited. The bar was lively and was a fun place to have a drink while you waited for a table. Only 30 minutes later our table (on the patio) was ready. The bread they put out beforehand was hot and tasty, but we both agreed that the olive oil & balsamic vinegar they put out with it was amazing. We ordered the crab cakes, zucchini & cheese patties, carrot fritters, and soft shell crab. I was impressed with the crab cakes, zucchini & cheese patties, and carrot fritters, but not so much with the soft shell crab (it was my first experience with them, and after reading so much about them, my expectations may have been a bit high). The food was all-in-all good, but in my opinion, the dishes I've had at Jaleo were much more interesting and flavorful (I compare the food to Jaleo's obviously because they supposedly come from the same chef). Again, I'm not saying the food at Zaytinya was bad--it was good--just not as good as the food I've had at Jaleo (and I also only had 4 dishes at Zaytinya).

My question is regarding tipping though. We also ordered a bottle of wine. It was a Greek Chardonnay, and priced about $42. (I think their most inexpensive bottle was ~$34.) The bottle of wine cost just about as much as the rest of the bill (which included just our 4 dishes; $85 was the total with food and wine). This has probably been addressed here before, but I just wanted to get an up-to-date ruling on it. Should I tip on the whole bill (food + wine), or just on the food? The waiter was a nice guy. He opened the bottle there, poured some for me to taste, was very attentive about re-filling our glasses, and was very accommodating about moving us to an inside table when it started raining on us. Because of all that, I erred on the tipping-too-much side (20% on the total). For the future, does current etiquette require me to tip on the total bill, or is tipping on just the food just fine, or should I tip somewhere in the middle? This issue obviously isn't a big deal when I'm in a larger party and a few people order a few glasses of wine. But one can foresee situations like this where the cost of alcohol is comparable or even considerably greater than the cost of food.

Thanks for your help.

Tom Sietsema: Generally, I view wine as food and tip accordingly, usually 20 percent.

I tend to rethink my strategy on bottles of wine that cost over $100 -- NOT that I do that on the Post's account, I should let you know! Even wine professionals debate this matter: Do you tip 20 percent on $100-plus wines, and what if you purchase multiple bottles of an expensive wine? I'd love to hear from those in the biz on this one.

Short response to a question that deserves more time and thought, but we gotta keep trucking here.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

What do you think the sexiest food is, and where? I have an anniversary this weekend and want to wine/dine my special gal.

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Mangoes in the bath tub get my vote. Or caviar on scrambled eggs, served in bed.

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Rockville, Md.: Tom,

What are your thoughts on Peruvian food and its chances of becoming the next Thai in terms of popularity?

I enjoy La Flor de la Canela (although less now that they no longer serve their rotisserie chicken) but am not sure that it has the mass appeal of Thai.

Tom Sietsema: Funny. I recently found myself returning to El Chalan on I St. NW, the grandfather of local Peruvian restaurants, and wondered why we don't have more such purveyors. Peruvian food is really accessible, based as it is on seafood, beef, potatoes and mostly straightforward preparations (give or take a beer-infused goat stew). I love the velvety cheese and nut-based sauces -- and who can say no to a refreshing pisco sour?

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, please help. My parents are coming tonight and want an unpretentious meal in Georgetown. My ideas were shot down, Mendocino, Cilantro (my parents hate tapas GASP). So I thought Pizza Paradiso, only they don't take reservations. Do you have any emergency suggestions so I won't end up in JPauls or Clydes in a last minute shuffle, if we can't get a table. Thank you so so much!

Tom Sietsema: When my tribe came to town recently, and they wanted casual in Georgetown, I took them to the always-reliable Bistro Francais on M St.

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Pre-theatre menu?, Arlington, Va.: My husband and I had a disappointing experience at Butterfield 9 on Sunday night. We ordered off the pre-theatre menu even selecting our deserts when we ordered our entrees. I commented how nice it is to know that you won't have trouble getting out of a restaurant in time since they know when you need to leave. It didn't work that way for us. We waited 25 minutes between after our entree plates were cleared before our sorbet was delivered. When we asked for the check, it was brought promptly but our waiter didn't return to get the credit card. We ended up going to the hostess desk and waiting there while someone walked it back, who knows where, to run the credit card. It seems like they ought to be able to do better. Is our experience unique or is this a problem?

Tom Sietsema: Has anyone been to Butterfield 9 lately? It's slipped from my radar.

At the very least, restaurants offering pre-theater menus should plan to get takers in and out in a prompt fashion.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm a huge fan of tapas-style eating, especially for group gatherings. However, I would like someplace intimate and of course, delicious. Where would you recommend?

Tom Sietsema: Intimate? I presume this is for a two-some? Try the very small tapas bar at Taberna del Alabardero.

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Name Dropper: Tom -

A chatter asked you a specific question about a eating at place, A, B, or C and you responded with:

Tom Sietsema: Gosh, it would be tough to choose between Eric Ziebold's masterly strokes and Roberto Donna's lusty --- yes, LUSTY -- Italian fare. They are two very different experiences.

For those of us not on the inside, how about including the name of the places those guys cook at?!?!!?

Tom Sietsema: Sorry!

Eric is at Cityzen, Roberto is at the Laboratorio.

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Downtown: How could Stoney's ever be the same? Part of the charm was how difficult that sp-ace made doing everything. I am afraid a shiny new Stoney's wouldn't be the same.

Tom Sietsema: I always wanted to know who those people were who were drinking martinis in little tumblers at, like, 3 p.m. on a weekday. Will THEY come around to the new Stoney's, I wonder? And what about the Secret Service guys? The hookers?

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RE: TV Food Channel: Yes, Tom, some of us are over it...and have been over it for quite some time. Every time I hear that Rachel person refer to Olive Oil as 'EVOO' I PUKE!

- The 'Barefoot Contessa' in her pretentious Hamptons digs (and all her shee-shee-shaa-shaa friends) is sickening...

- How 'bout that 'Everyday Italian' twig. She CAN'T really be Italian... she's TOO THIN!

- I'm over Mario's orange clogs (and hair)! Gross...

- Emmeril(sp) lost his appeal with me many moons ago...

There are too many to list...

Tom Sietsema: I'll stick with Julia re-runs myself.

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Washington, D.C.: Wow. What happened between you and Le Paradou? Your review in 2004 gave it 3 out of 4 stars.

Tom Sietsema: It was (and is) technically correct, but without a soul -- and the place appears to have stayed that way. Plus, the menu seems not to have changed at all, and the service is stiff. Who needs that?

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Alexandria, Va.: I have a major sweet tooth. Where can I find the best chocolate dessert in DC?

Tom Sietsema: I don't know if it's "the best," but the chocolate sabayon at Corduroy turned my head recently -- and I'm not much of a chocolate eater. It's a cross between a souffle and a brownie, served with a scoop of creamy chocolate ice cream and a sheer pistachio cookie. Mmmmmmm.

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Anonymous: I used to be a waitress and bartender. I don't know where this notion of not tipping on the cost of wine came from, but I am horrified. I am not ordering $100 bottles, but if you just order a drink or two at a bar or at a table, doesn't everyone tip on that? What in the world makes it okay to not tip on alcohol because you also had food? In my gang, who has been hanging around together for 20+ years, I can barely recall a bill where the alcohol cost less than the food!

Tom Sietsema: For the record: I'm in agreement with you.

For my bosses: When I ordered $100-plus bottles of wine, I'm paying for it myself. (And do so only rarely -- buy expensive wine, that is.)

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Washington, D.C. - Pronunciation ??: Odd kind of question...

What do you do when you want to order something at a restaurant, but don't know how to pronounce it? I get embarrassed that a server will think less of me as a foodie if I say it wrong, but how can I become a better foodie if I don't go out and try new things? Have you ever encountered this? What do you do?

Tom Sietsema: There's nothing wrong with:

"Gosh, this sounds interesting. How do you pronounce it?"

Given that new ingredients come onto the market all the time -- and given that chefs sometimes re-christen familiar dishes -- you should not be embarrassed to ask questions.

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Food Channel: Has anyone else noticed that the skinny Italian girl is ALWAYS wearing a low cut shirt and ALWAYS rolling something in every episode. I call it food porn.

Tom Sietsema: Where's Mr. Powell when we need him?

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Crofton, Md.: This may seem like a strange question, but is it considered bad etiquette to not order a drink at a restaurant other than water? I always order water when I go out to eat, not because I'm cheap but because I just don't like soda or alcohol when I'm eating. Every time I do this the waiter/waitress seems put off, like "great, he's a cheapskate and isn't going to tip well".

Tom Sietsema: People don't drink soda, alcohol or caffeine for lots of reasons. And it's no one's business but yours.

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Marrakesh: Hi, Tom. A group of us will be going to Marrakesh for a bachelorette party dinner. What can we expect in terms of food? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: If your visit is anything like mine was, you're going to leave hungry. Not because the portions are small, but because the food is pretty bad.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

My dad will be visiting DC from July 8-11 and he is a huge jazz lover. Can you recommend any good restaurants with live jazz?

Tom Sietsema: 701 in Penn Quarter hosts a jazz combo in its bar every night from 7:30-10:30.

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Capitol Hill,Washington, D.C.: Tom,

Congratulations on the AFJ award!!! Where does one go out to celebrate such an achievement?

On a separate note, I'm meeting a friend in Baltimore this week. We're looking for a great restaurant at which to meet up, something less pricey than Charleston, but still nice. Any suggestions?

Congrats again!

Tom Sietsema: Why, thank you. My "win" won't be formally announced until the September conference of the Association of Food Journalists in Charlotte, and my competition includes two pals of mine, one from the LA Times, the other from the SF Chronicle. (AFJ keeps secret until the conference who receives the first-, second- and third-place writing awards but pre-announces the winners to get them to show up for the event. Sly!)

But enough about me. Pazo -- owned by the same folks who own Charleston -- is where you want to head for dinner this week. Small plates, sexy crowd, fun space, good vino.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

I read with dismay the comments by a writer on your chat last week about their long wait at the Indigo Landing bar. We obviously missed them and there is never an excuse for that. Although the guest declined the GM's (Ryland Johnson) offer of drinks that evening, I sincerely hope that she will use the complimentary certificate he gave to her instead. Additionally, I hope the guest will do as Ryland suggested and let him personally handle her reservation in the future. After all, at the end of the day it is our goal to always exceed guests' every expectation

Thanks Tom for providing us with a forum where the guest and the restaurateur can interact helping to make Washington restaurants the best they can be.

Dan Mesches

Star Restaurant Group

Tom Sietsema: I love happy endings. So let's hope last week's chatter sees this response and follows through on the restaurant's hospitality.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you know when the new capitol hill Johnny's half shell and the adjoining take out are supposed to open? as someone who works in the building we are very anxious and had heard June as the goal date. doesn't look like they're anywhere close.

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Co-owner John Fulchino is aiming to reopen Johnny's on the Hill, in the former La Colline space, on Sept. 12. He hopes to keep the original P St. space open through the month of July and "say good-bye to all our great neighbors," he told me today.

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Washington, D.C.: FYI: Kevin Martin is the chair of the FCC, not Powell

Tom Sietsema: Right-o. But Mr. Powell was the man who started fining the TV networks for bad behavior.

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Servers mispronounce things!: On the other side of the question, what happens when the server mispronounces items, and then when you pronounce them correctly, they seem to deliberately mention the mis-pronounced item again? Like bruschetta! It's pronounced "broosketta." Drives me crazy!

Tom Sietsema: A waiter recently mentioned rose wine to me, and he pronounced it as if the wine were made from a flower.

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Burleith, Washington, D.C.: Tom, must send volumes of thanks for the A Voce recommendation. Every couple of months we take a weekend trip to NY to catch up w/ my husband's mother - due to the quickness of the trip (up Sat. morn and back Sun. afternoon), Sat. night dinner is the big event. Well, I went out on a limb and suggested for the first time ever - and it was one of the best dining experiences we've had in recent memory. The rustic feel of the food pervaded the elegant (yet not stuffy) surroundings and melded into... well, pure delight - the duck meatballs are otherworldly, and the pappardelle w/ lamb bolognese, and the gnocchi - and the sheep milk ricotta w/ thyme and grilled bread to start.... So, many, many thanks for allowing the non-NYer (NC native) to shine w/ her (your) recommendation. And another life-altering suggestion (too much - ok, lifestyle-altering suggestion) - the Graffeo. My husband gave me a Gaggia espresso machine for my birthday (best gift ever, he does pay attention after all...) - and a morning cappuccino w/ the dark roast... no words (you wonder how so many things served out there can even be called cappuccinos,macchiatos, etc). Seriously, now when we have visitors for the weekend or something - they ask for two, even three, in the morning, v. usually just having one when I was using beans from another (very good) purveyor. I believe every word of their "best coffee in the world" slogan - I'm sold, under their trance, will do whatever they want, just don't stop shipping...

Tom Sietsema: Ah, you made it to A Voce and you're drinking Graffeo coffee! Life is good, isn't it?

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

Please answer me! This is my last chance! I am having one last meal out in DC before I move away and am trying to decide between the bistro at Restaurant Eve and Buck's Fishing and Camping. What's your pick? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: The bistro at Eve, which I just re-reviewed last Sunday. There, you can be assured of lots of choices, unlike Buck's, and no awkward moments should you ask to substitute an item, unlike Buck's.

washingtonpost.com: Review of the bistro at Restaurant Eve .

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Twin Cities: Tom,

I have recently moved from DC to the twin cities. Any places that I should check out here? I've been craving sushi but there isn't too many Japanese places... can you help me out?

Thanks

Tom Sietsema: Perfect timing! I spent the weekend in Minneapolis and St. Paul, which have some seriously good new restaurants.

Head for the just-opened Spoonriver, neighbor to the impressive new Guthrie Theater on the riverfront, and Town Talk Diner, a 40s-era landmark recently purchased by a group of talented young guys who dish up cheese curds, great old-fashioned cocktails, steak, pulled pork sandwiches, fried chicken -- and lots of jokes.

Stay tuned for my Postcard from Minneapolis, running Aug. 6 in Travel.

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Arlington, Va.: Suddenly (in recent months) we are finding that many of our favorite restaurants provide no napkins (or silverware) until the meal is served. This is particularly problematic in, for example, Mexican restaurants, where chips and salsa are brought to the table immediately. What are we to do about the dribbles? Why have so many restaurants changed the order of service?

Tom Sietsema: I always travel with "moist towelettes" in my briefcase. I never know when I might encounter a roadside barbecue or fried chicken stand!

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Anonymous: I have been in the restaurant business for more years than I can remember-in Europe-India-Egypt-Nepal-Sr Lanka and now in the US- what are you supposed to do when people sit with their shoes on your very expensively upholstered sofas in your restaurants? I see it all the time and quite frankly am a bit shocked because I have never ever seen this happen anywhere else.

Tom Sietsema: "Would you please remove your shoes from the cushion? The sofa is hard to clean." Said with a smile, that should do the trick, no?

Gotta dash. See you next Wednesday, and thanks for tuning in!

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