Ask Tom

Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, July 12, 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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Tom Sietsema: Good morning, everyone!

I've just returned from five glorious days in San Francisco and Healdsburg, that restaurant-rich town about an hour's drive north in Sonoma. It was great to be back on my old turf and check out the dining scenes.

Neat find in Sonoma: Modest corkage fees just about everywhere, and at least one restaurant that WAIVED the charge, provided the wine was made in Sonoma. (Maybe we should try that deal closer to home, using Virginia wines?)

Worst lodging trend: The owner of the highly rated Duchamp in Healdsburg -- is there a travel or lifestyle mag that HASN'T dropped by? -- instructs his staff not to get too friendly with guests, "because then, it just never ends," one of them told my little posse of friends who stayed there.

Funniest food description: The "saddened" chocolate cake served at the intimate Mirepoix in Windsor, seven miles south of Healdsburg. Yet another way to describe the ubiquitous warm chocolate cake, I wondered? Yep, a waiter confirmed. "The center is depressed," because it's sunken with gooey chocolate...

Back to reality -- and your questions and comments.

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Chantilly, Va.: Hey Tom, love your chats!

When I go out for sushi I usually like to eat with my fingers. If I look around I'm the only one not using chop-sticks. Is it acceptable to use your fingers for sushi?

Tom Sietsema: Fingers and chopsticks are both correct. Just don't rub your chopsticks together (!) or stick them in your bowl of rice, behavior considered bad form among the Japanese.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom!

What have you heard about the probable Palena move in the near future?

Tom Sietsema: "News to me," says Frank Ruta, who, as Palena's chef, should know.

Palena still has five years to go on its current lease, Ruta tells me, and even if it didn't, there are several obstacles in the way of any imminent move.

One of them is a liquor license: Good luck trying to secure one in Dupont Circle, which is where an investor in Palena recently bought a building, Blaine Mansion, setting off the "Palena is moving" rumors. Another is the property's historic status; and still a third reason Palena won't be relocating anytime soon is the chef's commitment to doing things the right way -- slowly and deliberately, never rashly.

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Washington, D.C.: I have one delicious, glorious word on my mind today: Komi. Last night my partner and I were treated to a wonderful dining experience. The food was fabulous - the watermelon and feta salad was summer on a plate and if I could have I would have loaded all of the homemade crackers into my pockets- and the service was gracious and attentive without being overbearing. What a gem!

Tom Sietsema: A lot of us are nodding our heads in agreement with you.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm a notorious foodie and I think when people write in about who is that guy they see all over, that's me, but it's getting so it's so hard to get a reservation and then, if you do and they honor it, it's so hard to get served. When I do, it's great so thanks, Logan Tavern, you may not have a chef but you have great service and good location.

Tom Sietsema: Say what?

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Arlington, Va.: Tom -- My uncle from Iowa is going to be in town for one night. He lives in a small town where his dining out options are beef and more beef. He's requested an Italian restaurant. Besides the super high end places like Galileo and Cafe Milano, what would you recommend in DC? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Regular chatters already know my answer: the charming Al Tiramisu on P St., one of the city's most reliable choices for Italian.

washingtonpost.com: Review of Al Tiramisu

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hot or not?: I have a weird question: how hot should food be when it is brought to your table? I feel like almost all the meals I've been served lately (at both upscale and cheap eats-type places) has only been warm to lukewarm.

I think food should be served at a temperature that is hot enough that you can't start shoveling it in right away. But maybe that's just me?

Tom Sietsema: Can you be more specific? Some "hot" dishes are actually better when they are served warm to the touch.

To get around the problem, I appreciate restaurants that warm their plates in the oven (and chill their salad plates).

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

Last week I dined at the Daily Grill in Penn Quarter and ordered lemonade. Typically, I know that lemonade is not refilled for free (unlike sodas), so I only planned on ordering one glass. Later, when I was in mid-bite, the waitress swept down and picked up my half-empty glass of lemonade and re-filled it. I did not ask for the refill but figured that I would not be charged because the waitress refilled it without checking with me first. However, when I received the bill, there was a charge for two glasses of lemonade. Now, I was a bit perturbed because I did not request the second glass of lemonade and because my first glass of lemonade was not empty before she refilled it. Not knowing what to do in this situation, I just paid the check and left. Is it normal practice for restaurants to refill for a fee without asking? What should I have done in this situation? Thanks.

Refills in Penn Quarter

Tom Sietsema: All you had to do was tell your waitress you didn't order a second glass of lemonade, reminding her that she re-filled your lemonade without asking you if you wanted more.

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Washington, D.C.: Great timing, Tom! I am headed to Sonoma for 5 days at the end of July. Day 2 (Thurs)is for business, so I am looking for an enchanting meal for our arrival Day 1, and your best thoughts on Fri-Sun in Sonoma when the larger crowds arrive. Obviously any wine recs are welcome, but I'm more about the dining.

Thanks, as always,

- Dedicated Foodie

Tom Sietsema: Cyrus is THE place you want to be sure to book for dinner. The chef hails from the very good Gary Danko Restaurant in San Francisco.

As for nearby winery tours, one of your best bets is Gary Ferrell, if only for the view from its handsome tasting room.

Skip the over-rated Dry Creek.

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Galileo : Hi Tom,

My bf tells me there is some cheap way of eating at Galileo... something about tastings or something like that. Please advise.

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: The restaurant's Osteria, off the bar, is home to some lovely (and homey) Italian bargains.

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Mount Airy, Md: Palena moving? Palena is moving, according to a recent online chat at washingtonian.com. Who's right? You or washingtonian.com?

Tom Sietsema: I stand by my report. (I actually spoke to Ruta last night.)

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Arlington, Va.: I am going to Minh's in Arlington tonight and have never had Vietnamese before. Any recommendations?

washingtonpost.com: Review of Minh's

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Washington, D.C.: My girlfriend and I are headed to 1789 tomorrow night... How strict are they on enforcing the "jacket required" policy?

Tom Sietsema: Very. A guy has to wear a jacket to eat there. And if he doesn't have one, the staff provides a blazer from a supply of more than 30.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Thanks for spreading the word about chopstick etiquette--another no-no is to pass food from one person's chopsticks to another person's. This, like sticking chopsticks into rice, is done at rituals for the dead and is considered extremely rude. Another no-no that a lot of westerners do is pouring soy sauce into their bowls of rice--it's really NEVER done is Japan (not sure of other parts of Asia, but I think it's probably the same unless the rice is being fried--and seasoned in the wok). I don't know why anyone would do it, it tastes awful. By the way, have you been to Temari in Rockville? Fun, casual, and authentic Japanese diner nibbles.

Tom Sietsema: When it comes to eating sushi, I see lots of people experiencing it the wrong way. As in drenching sushi in soy sauce. No, no, a thousand times, no!

Haven't been to Temari.

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Kind of afraid to "confront" a server: Your response to the lemonade drinker was that he/she should've told the server they had not ordered another drink. Perhaps I'm just a wimp, but I've heard horror stories about how servers will retaliate against their customers if they pi-- them off. A friend who was a server at The Outback said her co-workers would spit and drop food on the floor on purpose. Surely to God this is not prevalent?

Tom Sietsema: How can a server retaliate after she's presented the check, though?

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Atlanta, Geo.: Tom,

Months ago, you recommended Le Timbre in Paris. I happened to be staying 2 blocks from there last weekend at the tail-end of my honeymoon, and walked by. The menu seemed rather common and limited (4 choices), so we didn't bother. What was it that you liked about the restaurant?

Tom Sietsema: Ah, you missed a real gem. The room might be small, but the talent in the kitchen is big. And restaurants don't get cozier.

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Everytown, USA: Just a request to the food service industry employees: When engaging your guests in conversation, please do not use it as an opportunity to "one up" your customers' stories or launch into your unscientific theory as to what is wrong with the world. Perhaps the world would be better served if you would put your brilliant and patent-able ideas to work outside the restaurant business. I know it would at least make my dining world a much better place to eat. Thanks for letting me vent.

Tom Sietsema: Gosh. Where did YOU eat last night?

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, I know this isn't exactly your area, but I was hoping that you could give me your impression of the inn part of the Inn at Little Washington. I want to splurge on dinner there for my 30th birthday, and was also thinking of splurging on a room, as I can't imagine having to drive back to the DC area after such a wonderful meal. Do you have any thoughts on whether the accommodations, like the meal, are worth the money?

Tom Sietsema: Friends who have stayed overnight rave about the rooms and the frills but have also mentioned that the service was SO attentive, it seemed as if the staff had a peephole into their space. If you like hyper-diligence, I guess a room at the Inn is for you.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Dear Tom,

Love the chats. As -the- man in the know -- what is taking so long for Ray's the Classics to open in Silver Spring? I see people inside the room once in a while but no progress . . .

Tom Sietsema: Owner Michael Landrumm tells me he's doing dinners only for friends, family and restaurant colleagues at the moment. Because he paid for the business himself, and he doesn't owe anyone any money, he can open whenever he wants to open -- a rare privilege for a restaurant owner. And when might he greet paying customers? "When I stop having fun," he jokes. That said, I suspect he will launch within a month or so.

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Washington, D.C.: In response to the posting about 'retaliatory actions' by servers...maybe in some places, but I've been a restaurant manager for the past 5 years and was a waiter before that and have NEVER seen someone do that. Sure the wait and kitchen staff may bitch about you in the back of the house, but c'mon...spit in your food? Gross.

Tom Sietsema: Yeah, I find that hard to believe as well. Plus, people like that tend not to last very long in the business.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom-

I've asked this before, but it hasn't made it through. Maybe I'm oversensitive to my surroundings, but I'm having a hard time finding a place for a special dinner for me and my husband that also looks like a comfortable place to spend a couple of hours. I'm considering Notti Bianche or Komi, but neither looks like a place I'd want to linger, you know what I mean? For example, Cashion's is comfortable. Palena's back room is cozy- the plush bench seat, beautiful colors and light. But Mark and Orlando's, while the food and service were fantastic, felt spare and a little cold (though our wonderful waiter mostly made up for it.) Does fine food have to be served to diners in hard straight-backed chairs or echo-y modern interiors?

Tom Sietsema: Places that ooze comfort and style: Charleston in Baltimore, Cityzen on the SW waterfront, Marcel's in the West End, 2941 in Falls Church, Vidalia downtown, Zola in Penn Quarter, the nearby Rasika ... there are more than you think there are.

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Washington, D.C.: Love the chats! Where do you think has the best Thai food in the city? Bua and Thaiphoon are neighborhood favorites, but I'm looking for new places with good food and reasonable prices. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: The best Thai food in the *area* is in Arlington, home to the excellent Bangkok 54, and Fairfax, where Sakoontra is located.

But that isn't your question. In the District, I tend to gravitate to the serene-at-lunch Rice in Logan Circle and the handsome Regent Thai Cuisine in Dupont Circle.

(Thaiphoon has slipped a bit, in my estimation. And I haven't been to Bua in years, so I hesitate to weigh in on the place. )

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Need Paris advice: Hi Tom -- my mom (who loves food, and has never been to Europe) is going to be in Paris for one night next month. Where (great food, expensive is okay but not break the bank) should she have dinner? Any London recommendations are welcome too; your most recent postcard is over a year old -- anything new?

Tom Sietsema: Le Timbre is where you want to send Mom in Paris; in London, she should try the very English -- and very good -- Green's restaurant, at 36 Duke St, SW1.

washingtonpost.com: Postcard from Tom: Paris

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Fairfax, Va.: We're headed to Minneapolis next week. Any restaurant recommendations from your recent visit?

Tom Sietsema: An oldie but a goodie: Restaurant Alma, which offers an inspired Italian menu on University Ave. SE. (Sorry, but I don't want to scoop myself on my next Postcard column, running August 6.)

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom, I am a 25 year old professional in Farragut West, and I need your help. My boss is DEMANDING I find out where a good Chinese restaurant/takeout is downtown. I never really gave it much thought before because I usually steer everyone to Mark's Duck house in Falls Ch. or to Full Kee in Bailey's. I went to school at GW so I am familiar with most of the local spots, but the ones I have tried are, well, less than good. In the interest of keeping my job, PLEASE tell me where I can find some good Chinese lunch eats downtown!

Tom Sietsema: Much as I would like to help you look good in the eyes of your boss, I can't point you in the direction of something that doesn't exist -- and there *is* no "good Chinese" downtown.

For that you have to go to what's left of Chinatown, probably to the barebones Eat First on H St. NW. Another possibility is Meiwah on New Hampshire, though I haven't been there in awhile. Forget City Lights of China in Dupont Circle, however, which is a mere shadow of what it used to be.

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Sushi etiquette: Why does it matter, assuming you are not in Japan? My mom eats everything - burgers, pizza, candy bars -- with a fork and knife. It's odd, but not rude. Just what she's more comfortable with. If I want my rice to taste like soy sauce, why does it matter to other diners, even it's not "authentic" --whatever that might mean?

Tom Sietsema: To each his own, I guess. But soaking sushi rice in soy sauce is like dumping catsup on a good piece of beef. Why mask the flavor?

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Komi: I ate there a few weeks ago and thought the food was outstanding, but why is the menu so cryptic unless you're a certified foodie? We had questions about most items. The waitress was extremely impressive and patient going through every item with us, but it took more than 10 minutes. By the time it was over I felt like I had just been to the theater. It would've been easier on us, and the waitress, if there had been more detailed definitions/descriptions right on the menu.

Tom Sietsema: I concur. While I don't need a novel, haiku is sometimes *too* brief.

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Comfortable restaurant response: For the chatter looking for a comfortable restaurant for her and her husband, what about Two Quail? Their restaurant screams comfort with the big chairs and puffy pillows.

Tom Sietsema: Yeah, but you have to then eat the food there! Ugh.

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Miami, Fl: Going to Madrid on a business trip. Do you have a postcard from there? Is there any type of food you recommend?

Tom Sietsema: Just a reminder: You can access my Postcard columns using the link in my chat intro (above).

washingtonpost.com: Postcard from Tom: Madrid

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Le Timbre Paris: You're right, Tom, Le Timbre was a good bet! We dined there in May on your recommendation and really enjoyed it - the fried hogshead terrine was porky and rich, and the cod with olive oil smashed potatoes and some kind of anchovy sauce was a great combo. Very friendly service too, and amazing to see all that great food coming from the tiny one-man kitchen. I took a clipping of your Postcard with us when we went and they enjoyed seeing that.

Tom Sietsema: Ah, someone to back me up! Merci for the field report.

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Minneapolis, MN: In your chat from June 28th, a person with the moniker "Twin Cities" who had just moved here from Washington D.C. was looking for a good sushi restaurant in the Twin Cities.

I have lived in Japan and know good sushi when I see it. The best place in the Twin Cities is called Midori's Floating World Cafe. It is a little hole-in-the-wall place on Lake Street and 27th in Minneapolis, and has the BEST Japanese food I've found in the Twin Cities.

Unfortunately, I'm moving to San Francisco in November so I'll have to find a new great place! Just thought I would put my 2-cents in if they were still curious. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: One good tip deserves another:

A restaurant that I was truly sorry to miss on my weekend swing through San Francisco was Sushi Sam's in nearby San Mateo. I got the name from no less than Eric Ziebold, the chef at Cityzen.

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Annandale, Va.: Not a question, just some gossip - during an early (pre-Spamalot) dinner at Charlie Palmer Steak on Saturday evening, we saw Michel Richard and Mark Furstenberg enjoying dinner together there as well.

Tom Sietsema: Maybe the two friends were talking about their forthcoming project: Central Michel Richard, a "French-American bistro" scheduled to open late this fall at 1001 Pennsylavania Ave NW.

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Arlington, Va.: I was a little surprised that you did not make mention of your friendship with Mark Furstenberg within your review of Breadline. While I completely agree with your inclusion of the restaurant, I do think you should of had some sort of disclosure within the review.

Tom Sietsema: You know, you're right. I've mentioned the fact many, many times in the past and I failed to do so in my recent round-up of sandwich places. Mea culpa.

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Laurel, Md.: In the Magazine section in this past Sunday's paper you listed a restaurant called Deli City in your article and talked about the great corned beef sandwich. Jay Eckstein wouldn't give you his secret. But I know from an excellent source he buys the corned beef briskets raw from Saval Foods in Dorsey, Maryland. They have been making corned beef for many many years, along with pastrami, roast beef, etc. and supply their product to most of the delis in the metropolitan area. He cooks the product himself and probably adds his own personal touch to their excellent product.

Tom Sietsema: Mr. Eckstein says Saval is one of several places he buys his meat. (And who might *you* be, I wonder?)

washingtonpost.com: Seven Sandwich Spots .

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Arlington, Va.: Hey Tom! Where is the best place for dim sum with the carts in the area?

Tom Sietsema: While our dim sum is no match for the best in say, Vancouver or San Francisco, I think the service at Hollywood East on the Boulevard In Wheaton is pretty good, as is the dim sum at Fortune in Falls Church. (The very good A & J in Rockville and Annandale don't use carts, if I remember correctly.)

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Washington, D.C.: I'm thinking of trying Wasabi for lunch today to get my sushi fix. What's the buzz on this new restaurant?

Tom Sietsema: It's .... amusing.

I'll be writing about the newcomer for next week's Weekly Dish column.

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Old Town, Alexandria: Would you please ask your friend to open a "Breadline II" in Alexandria? Pretty please?

Tom Sietsema: You hear that, Mark?

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Chevy Chase, Md.:

Tom,

I'm a server in a high end restaurant in NW with a dilemma. Our managers are now asking us to bring bottled water to the table as we greet our guests. No longer are we even to give our guests the choice of regular ice water. (they can still get it but only by asking after we pitch the bottled stuff). I've noticed this trend. Personally, it annoys me and my family when we go out to eat and restaurants get pushy with the bottled water. Do you notice this trend too?

Tom Sietsema: I see more and more places 1) putting out bottles of water (as if they were flowers) and 2) opening fresh bottles of water without first asking if customers want more. At the least, the trends are irritating.

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PLEASE TOM!!: Tell us more about your trip to Healdsburg!!

Tom Sietsema: You'll have to wait for my Postcard -- September 3, in Travel.

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San Diego, Calif.: Sushi: so what are the extra little plates/shallow bowls for, other than to dip the sushi in a little soy sauce?

My fiance likes to get a plain bowl of rice and put soy sauce on it as a side dish. Is that bad?

Tom Sietsema: The way to *properly* use soy sauce is to dip the edge of the fish (never the rice!) in the liquid.

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Argh, so tired of the term..: Foodie. It is so middle-brow. For those really interested in food (cooking, eating, growing,etc.) there is really no need to define yourself with a term. When I hear someone refer to themselves as a "foodie" I cringe. They are right up there with "wine snobs." Why label yourself?

Tom Sietsema: People love labels. I, too, find "foodie" a bit tiresome. Maybe we should switch to "passionate eater?"

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Washington, D.C.: Where can one find a real southern hushpuppy in DC and environs? not frozen or from a bag, but made from scratch?

Tom Sietsema: Kitchens that know their hush puppies: Majestic Cafe in Old Town, which serves 'em with remoulade; Jackie's in Silver Spring, where the snack is on the brunch menu; and Vidalia downtown Washington. Indigo Landing in Alexandria, which I'm reviewing in this week's Sunday Magazine, serves hush puppies made with ... foie gras!

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Centreville, Va.: Tom,

I have watched how Poste Brasserie has had it's "issues" and like how you have supported it's emergence from the hits it has taken. So, after a morning of museum hopping a couple of Saturdays ago, we set off for Poste at the Monaco. I had seen on line and saw that they had a Softshell Crab BLT. I was psyched! We arrived and the restaurant was not very busy-3-4 tables. We were given a Brunch menu that did not have the sandwich on it. We asked if we could get them. The waiter went to the kitchen to ask. A cook came out in the dining room with the waiter and kind of eyed us over.That was uncomfortable. She went back into the kithchen and the waiter returned with a stern no. Now I worked in a major hotel chain that rivals this when early in my career and we had a policy that "if it was available in the hotel, we served it no mattter what menu and time of day". I am surprised that Kimpton does not have the same policy. Anyway I had a Croque Madame that was horrible. Overcooked egg, salty proscuitto and gummy Mornay Sauce. Bread was an inch thick, not a real tasty alternative to the BLT. But fries were awesome. Service was spotty with no one really knowing who was waiting on who. We were approached by 2 different servers. Complain to a manager??? There were none in sight during our entire visit. Tom, you have been very kind to their criticism to no avail. I think I'll go to Hanks for my softshell BLT. I know it's not on the menu, but Jamie has all the stuff to make it and I know she will.

Tom Sietsema: Sorry to hear about your bad croque madame. I'm not sure a restaurant is OBLIGATED to serve a dish that's not offered on its menu, however. As for the service, did you request a manager?

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RE: Warm Choc. cake: Tom

you seem to dislike the above, or at least find it over served. But, like creme brulee, it is very popular with those of us who eat dessert out infrequently. My advice, sigh and order something else.

Tom Sietsema: I do! I do!

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I know you've answered this before: But... my birthday dinner is at 1789. I know you have mentioned the best tables to request at this restaurant. Can you tell me again which one I should request? Is a nice romantic dinner with my husband. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: My preference is to stay on the ground floor at 1789. My first choice is the John Carroll Room, just beyond the host stand, but I also enjoy a seat in the cozy Manassas Room. Avoid, if at all possible, the upstairs dining areas, which lack the charm and warmth of anything on the first floor.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi Tom, are there any "can't-miss" restaurants in Boston or Cambridge that you recommend? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Boston: Hamersley's Bistro

Cambridge: Oleana

And off I head to (garbled text) for lunch! See you here next Wednesday, folks.

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