Wednesday, July 26, 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.
Herndon, Va.: Hi Tom I went to Bazin's on Church on Saturday night. The noise baffling is in on the ceiling. It helped a lot you did not have to scream as much. It is still noisy but now not bruisingly so.
Tom Sietsema: It's true. Co-owner Julie Bazin informs me that the sound-proofing is in place and customers have noticed.
Good morning, all. Thanks for breaking away from your meetings and spread sheets to join me online today.
Alexandria, Va.: Love reading your columns and chats! Was very pleased to see your take on Bamian. I wanted to put in a good word for the Del Merei Grille in Del Ray. We've been twice in the past couple weeks and have been wowed both times. Delightful service, welcoming hostess (Mary, the owner), and incredible food. Put out the word so this place sticks around!
Tom Sietsema: My colleague, Walter Nicholls, wrote about the new Afghan restaurant last Sunday. And I'm pleased to share my review of Del Merei Grill (again).
washingtonpost.com: Review of Del Merei Grille .
Baltimore, Md.: Greetings,
I am traveling to Vienna in 2 weeks for a 1 week stay. I couldn't find a Postcard, but I was hoping you'd have some advice or throw it out to the peanut gallery. Cafe Demel is definitely on the list, but I am looking for other places not to be missed.
Tom Sietsema: Chatters?
Bethesda, Md.: Hey Tom-
I live for your columns and Wednesday chats! They are indispensable sources of gastro-info!
I'm going to Paris with a special someone. Aside from the selections from your recent postcard, what dining spots should I positively not miss? Price is not an option.
Thanks for all you do!
Tom Sietsema: If price is not a consideration, reserve a table at Le Cinq. I can still recall every sip, every bite, of my magical meal in that sumptuous dining room, five years after the fact.
LeDroit Park, Washington, D.C.: Tom, Love the chat!! If you had to choose between Charlie Palmers, Rasika, Indebleu, and Zengo, which one would win out?? I know they are very different but we only have one night to head out for a nice dinner since my mom is coming to babysit our son!
Tom Sietsema: Right now? Rasika. The Indian cooking and handsome dining room are both very much to my taste.
Hyattsville, Md.: Hi Tom,
I'm not sure if I want this posted publicly, as I don't want people trying to pull a fast one on the people at Mandalay, but I really want to come to the defense of the staff there. I read your chat every week (Love it!) and I've read the comments about the staff at Mandalay being rude and so forth. Granted, the servers there aren't exactly the warm and fuzzy types, they did something for me that I have never seen at a restaurant before.
I went to dinner at Mandalay after having been there a few times, including a few times at their College Park location. My boss at the time wanted to treat me to dinner and I suggested we go to Mandalay. After a great meal, we got the check. My boss then realized he had inadvertently left his wallet at home and I hadn't taken any money or credit cards with me, since he was treating (I know, big mistake on my part!). After telling the server what had happened, he said, No problem, I know her (referring to me) Just come back tomorrow and pay us then! I was really surprised and grateful to say the least. Needless to say, my boss went back and paid the bill the next day...and then stayed for lunch!
Like I said, I just had to come to their defense, but I don't know if it's a good idea to post this publicly, as I don't want people trying to pull a fast one on the guys at Mandalay after they were so nice to me. Just wanted to share!
And keep up the great work, Tom....Love the chats!!!
Tom Sietsema: Restaurants have their good days and their bad ones, and I've personally experienced both at the no-longer-so-"new" Mandalay.
Kudos to the server who gave your boss a break. Regular patronage has its benefits, and this is one of the perks.
Washington, D.C.: What is your favorite restaurant in the Penn Quarter section of Washington, DC?
Tom Sietsema: No fair! I like *parts* of all of the following: Poste, Cafe Atlantico, Teaism, 701, Zola and Capital Grille.
How's that for a non-answer? ;)
Washington, D.C.: Ok, Tom, this has more to do with the environmental practices of Washington's finer restaurants more than their menu, but here goes. Every morning, I walk past the Oval Room where an employee is wasting thousands of gallons of water from a hose to push leaves from the sidewalk to the street, when a simple broom could easily do the trick. Society may only be on step 4 out of 100 on the path to environmental enlightenment, but shouldn't D.C. area restaurant owners and managers be ashamed of themselves for allowing employees to squander natural resources (and run up their utility bills)?
Tom Sietsema: Let's hear it for push brooms, recycling and lower thermostats! I'm certain the Oval Room isn't the ONLY restaurant guilty of wasting resources.
Do any restaurant types care to detail what they do to minimize waste? This forum should be about success stories as much as pointing fingers.
Baltimore, Md.: Hey Tom,
My wife and I will be celebrating our anniversary in DC next weekend. Where should we eat dinner? Cost is no object, and we have adventurous palates. We'd like someplace within walking distance of the Willard.
Tom Sietsema: How far do you want to walk? I ask because there are some good places just a short cab ride away -- including Cityzen, Vidalia, Rasika and Marcel's -- and far fewer places of substance (oe truly festive) near the hotel.
Glover Park, Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,
I look forward to your chats every week.
Where is your favorite spot for Tapas? Cafe Ole on Wisconsin Ave. NW advertises itself as such, have you tried it?
Tom Sietsema: Cafe Ole was good years ago, but I don't care for the current menu. For the best tapas, the kind you find in Madrid and Barcelona, you have to go to one of several Jaleo branches, or the tiny bar at Taberna del Alabardero in Washington.
Corduroy: Tom, what are your thoughts on the above resto in DC? Any specific dishes to recommend here?
Tom Sietsema: Corduroy is a quiet and steady performer. I'm fond of the restaurant's filipino spring rolls, its succulent chicken, just about any soup and whatever pizza or omelet it offers. The very good cooking makes up for the rather generic backdrop.
Arlington, Va.: Hi Tom,
Just as much as I enjoy reading your reviews of restaurants, I appreciate your insight and observations about the restaurant industry as whole. This goes without saying, but you're uniquely qualified to not only review Restaurant X, but to put the dining experience at Restaurant X in the context of hundreds of other restaurants in DC and other cities. I would appreciate even more writing from you on your observations and characterizations of the DC dining scene as a whole -- a summary of the details, if you will.
For example, I'm curious to know what you have seen or experienced in area restaurants that has excited you over the last several months? And similarly, what trends are you not so happy to find?
Thanks for the lively chats!
Tom Sietsema: This is one of those interesting (to me) questions that I wish I had received earlier, to give it a proper response.
Did you know you can post questions the day *before* my online chat? I almost always log on early to address questions or comments that require calls, quotes or more thought than I'm able to deliver once it's 11 a.m. on Wednesday.
The single most exciting discovery of late, based on my frequent travel to other cities, both here and abroad: Washington has become a truly interesting, and important, place to dine.
Manassas, Va.: Just wondering why you like Sweetwater Tavern so much?
The last 2 times my family has been there, (the visits were about a year apart,) we had several food items in the meal that were extremely oversalted. The first time, I complained to corporate, and they sent us a gift certificate, which we used at one of their other restaurants. The second time, we just gave up and crossed them off our list of places to eat. Even the child's menu hamburger had a CRUST of salt on it. We were with a large group, and it would have taken too long to request a replacement meal, plus I was disheartened by the fact that nothing seemed to have changed from our first complaint.
Thanks for listening.
Tom Sietsema: I haven't noticed over-salting to be a theme at ST, but I'll keep my taste buds open on my next visit.
Bethesda, Md.: We recently returned from a trip to Portugal and recall that years ago a Portuguese restaurant used to be included in your Dining Guide. I believe it was on Connecticut Ave in Chevy Chase. Is this place still worth the trip?
Tom Sietsema: Tavira, at 8401 Connecticut Ave., is still worth the journey.
washingtonpost.com: Review of Tavira
Washington, D.C.: last week someone mentioned a hotdog grill operating that day at Galileo - what's the story on that? I work right there, but saw nothing.
Tom Sietsema: All the cooking at Galileo is done INSIDE the restaurant, but "grill days" are typically announced by the presence of a tiny red grill outside the restaurant's entrance.
washingtonpost.com: Seven great places to grab a sandwich .
Washington, D.C.: My 40th birthday approaches (eek!), and I'd like to celebrate with dinner at a nice restaurant that meets the following criteria:
--excellent food and wine, but NOT overly fussy/trendy
--lively atmosphere where eight women having more fun than everyone else won't disrupt Cong. Jefferson getting paid off in the corner OR a carefully planned marriage proposal
I was sort of thinking along the lines of Bistro du Coin, but without the hostile wait staff.
Tom Sietsema: I know I'm going to sound like a broken record here, but what about the garden patio at the Tabard Inn? The wine bar above Bistro Lepic? The lounge at Sonoma? That cozy back room at Firefly? Rasika in Penn Quarter? All have what you're looking for, hold the 'tude.
Fairfax, Va.: Hi Tom,
What are your thoughts on Geoff Tracy's new restaurant, Lia's?
Tom Sietsema: I don't have any. It just opened Monday!
Washington, D.C.: Tom
What happened to the harbor, especially Sequoia?? They used to be so busy. Has the food and management gotten worse??
Tom Sietsema: I get more reader complaints about Sequoia -- about the awful service, about the mediocre food -- than just about any other restaurant. "Busy" doesn't mean "successful." As far as I'm concerned, Sequoia has only its waterfront location to recommend it.
Garrett Park, Md.: Tom,
A behind-the-scenes question: I've noticed that, in your
reviews, you tend to sample a restaurant with a
predisposition towards liking it. You give props and you
enumerate shortcomings. So, when you visit a places that
pretty much fails on all counts, would it be your practice
not to review it al all?
Tom Sietsema: I am an optimist by nature (I know, I know, journalists are supposed to be sour and skeptical. "If your mother tells you she loves you," a writing coach once told his students, "check it out.") I go into every new restaurant hoping to like the place.
Sometimes reality intervenes, though, as it does this Sunday. For the first time since I introduced the star system three years ago, I'm giving a restaurant zero stars - a "poor" rating.
With so many choices out there, I think it's as important to know what to avoid as it is what to seek out. Especially if that restaurant is in a well-known neighborhood or has some "names" or pedigree attached to it.
Washington, D.C.: I am looking for a great sushi place to take my husband for his birthday. We have a number of regular sushi places we like to go, but I was wondering if you had a suggestion that might be more memorable or interesting for a special occasion. We'd like to stay within the district.
Tom Sietsema: Well, the FUN new place for raw fish and vinegared rice is Wasabi downtown, which I highlighted in today's Weekly Dish column in the Food section. The pace there is less leisurely than you might want for a celebration dinner, however.
Of the more upscale places, I like the oh so traditional Makoto on MacArthur Boulevard and the trendy Sushi-Ko in Georgetown.
washingtonpost.com: The Weekly Dish on Wasabi
Tom Sietsema: I stand corrected: Chatters can submit queries to this forum as early as the Thursday BEFORE the regular Wednesday discussion. Whoo-hoo! (Thanks, Ms. Producer.)
Capitol Hill D.C. : Hi Tom. Thanks for doing this valuable chat each and every week. Loved your piece in the NWA July World Traveler Magazine.
Based on our own personal interest in each, me and some friends are trying to decide on Indebleu or Zengo for Restaurant Week. I read a number of negative reviews of Indebleu's service posted on washingtonpost.com by diners in June 2006. A number of other sites also had similar negative comments on Indebleu's service, over billing customers, credit card charge mistakes with unhelpful assistance in correcting them.
Is this typical of Indebleu? Have they resolved it? Any recommendation between the two restaurants?
Tom Sietsema: I'm not getting good reports from the field re: IndeBleu these days. Zengo is probably a safer bet.
Arlington, Va.: Tom-
I totally look forward to Wednesdays at 11 cause I consider the DC restaurant scene a hobby of mine. It just seems like lately and especially today, the focus has been in other cities. I would prefer the chats stay more DC-centric and the postcards remain for the other cities.
Will probably read routinely regardless though..
Tom Sietsema: Well, I also like to mix things up here. But I'll TRY to limit mention of beyond-the-Beltway restaurants for the rest of the hour (unless someone chimes in with suggestions for our Vienna-bound chatter).
RE: Hyattsville, Md. ( Mandalay): As wonderful as Mandalay may have been on that one occasion, that does not excuse their POLICY of turning off the lights and blasting "Closing Time" at 5 minutes before their posted closing time. A bad policy (which it must be since the exact same thing happened to me there) overrules a good experience hands down.
It's sad because their food was admittedly wonderful! But for that attitude, I would be back in a second!
Tom Sietsema: Ouch. You're STILL simmering over the abrupt end to your meal?
Washington, D.C.: Hey, Tom, if Gordon Ramsey talked to me the way he talks to some of those folks on his reality television show, I'd beat the British snot out of him.
What about you?
Tom Sietsema: (Fight! Fight! Fight!)
The one and only time I ever saw Mr. Ramsay, he was as quiet as a mouse -- shy, even. I think TV (and TV producers) tend to bring out the animal in some of these personalities. Emeril, for instance.
Washington, D.C.: Hosing down the sidewalk--they aren't clearing trash and leaves, they're rinsing away deposits spit, pigeon droppings, and other even less savory substances.
Tom Sietsema: I *thought* there might be more to the story. I wonder, though, is this a 15 second burst of water or a 15 minute soaking?
Eastern Market: Tom--My sister-in-law and niece (just graduated from
high school) were recently here from Reno. Not knowing
much about their tastes in food (my niece is very picky),
and wanting to stay in the neighborhood, I decided to take
them to Sonoma for dinner. While we all enjoyed our food,
they really had trouble navigating the menu, which was
filled with words and foods they had never heard of, even
on the wine menu. The deal is, the food itself at Sonoma
is really very straightforward and nonfussy, but the menu
is quite intimidating for a novice or non-foodie. What can
restaurants do to make their menus more friendly to all
levels of diners?
Tom Sietsema: They can train their staff to translate.
Can you give me some examples of what your kin didn't understand?
watering side walks: bob levey used to say it was to clean the presents left by the homeless overnight
Tom Sietsema: Well, I've seen plenty of non-homeless toss things on the sidewalk, too!
Hosing down the sidewalks: In fairness to the restaurateurs, they are hardly the only businesses who hose down the sidewalks. This practice runs rampant all over downtown DC; I see a guy doing it outside the little candy shop at 12th & G almost every morning. I recall that a few years back when we kept hearing all the dire drought warnings, don't wash your car, don't water your lawn, etc., all the downtown businesses were STILL out there hosing down their sidewalks. HUGE waste of water.
Perhaps this is an issue better suited to John Kelly, but I thought it fair to note that it's not just the restaurants.
Tom Sietsema: True, true. EVERYONE -- diners, too -- needs to be mindful of saving resources.
Can service ever be too nice? (especially at those Great American Restaurants) I went to Coastal Flats a few weeks back and we had about 5 waiters checking on us at every bite. My friend mistakenly told them something was a bit salty where they of course took it off the menu and then we went as far to be thanked by the manager for complaining. Now I know some people appreciate this kind of attention, but for me, it was over the top.
Tom Sietsema: Balance, it's all about balance. But I like that the manager let you know he cared about your complaint, that he noted it.
Something that always surprises me: Waiters who never bother to ask why I leave so much food on my plate (when I do). I had it happen just last night, at a fancy restaurant that cost more than $100 a head.
Re: Sequoia and G'town in general: Is there any decent eating places in Georgetown at all these days? I'm drawing a blank.
Tom Sietsema: 1789, Bistro Francais, Lepic, Citronelle, Paradiso ---- not as many as you'd expect, given all the dining rooms in that part of the city!
Washington, D.C.: Hey Tom,
Where can a girl get a really good roast beef sandwich? Preferably one with thin-sliced meat cooked and seasoned just so with the perfect horseradish sauce? Maybe on a hard roll.
Tom Sietsema: Ah, you must have missed my mini-review of the scruffy but delicious Hodges on New York Avenue ...
washingtonpost.com: The Weekly Dish on Hodges
RE: Mandalay: The one time I went to Mandalay in Silver Spring, the food was pretty good, but the service was surly and clueless. Example: the server, who'd been slow as molasses and messed up our order, hovered over me as I signed the credit card slip, presumably to make sure that I gave him a sufficient tip. Needless to say, that action did nothing to increase the size of his gratuity.
You may excuse such pathetic service as "having a bad day", but I for one won't be back to such an unprofessional place.
Tom Sietsema: You have a lot of diners in your camp. Sounds like the staff needs to be sent to charm school!
RE: Hyattsville, Md. ( Mandalay):: No, I'm actually a NEW person that this happened to a few weeks ago. I thought it was just that one night that it happened to us until I read the chat from last week. The exact same thing on et totally different nights.
Tom Sietsema: Okay, Mandalay is officially off our Places We Like To Go list until the lights stay on longer and the staff stops hovering while we sign our checks. Maybe take-out is the answer?
RE: dining in Vienna, Austria: (tried submitting this earlier, but my computer malfunctioned, so I'm not sure if it went through... here's my post one more time.)
I just went on a European tour in march, and one of our stops was in vienna. a nice little restaurant we ate at was the Hofbrau¿u tucked right off the main shopping street by the twin museums. they serve traditional Austrian fare, which sometimes is hard to come by in the city (there are starbucks and McDonalds lining the same street.) the staff is very friendly... they have menus in German and English. I'd recommend the stroganoff and the goulash. they also have good austrian beer on tap. delicious. the address is Mariahilferstrae 47.
Tom Sietsema: There you go, Vienna!
Washington, D.C.: Hi, Tom!
Enjoyed the review of Bamian this Sunday. Although I realize the article was penned by your colleague Mr. Nicholls, do his star ratings count the same as yours? Do you confer with these substitute critics to make sure their impressions match yours and that you agree on the rating?
Tom Sietsema: While I did not read Mr. Nicholl's review ahead of publication (this time), I did hear back from him after each of his review visits to Bamian. Also, I ate at the restaurant shortly after it opened, and had a really positive experience. I was pleased to see an Afghan restaurant get 2.5 stars -- a rating I felt comfortable with.
Arlington, Va.: Hi Tom, What's your favorite Jose Andres restaurant and why?
Tom Sietsema: Let's put it this way: the place I find myself returning to most often is Jaleo. It's joyous. It's not too expensive. It's fast. And the food is consistent.
This is NOT to say I don't admire his handiwork elsewhere, just that I crave gazpacho more often than a deconstructed glass of wine. You know?
Weirton, WV: RE: Cleaning Sidewalks
As has been reported in the news, DC was nearly washed away with rains recently, so it is probably not on the conserve order list right now. One would prefer to enter a restaurant off a relatively clean sidewalk I would think. Positive criticism is pretty scarce today on the chat, lets lighten up!!
Tom Sietsema: Gosh, maybe I should include the appearance of sidewalks in future reviews! Who knew people cared so much?
Washington, D.C.: Can you please tell me the name of a restaurant that was recently reviewed, it is in Dupont Circle- I think it begins with the letter E and I think it is an off shoot of another restaurant. Thank you
Tom Sietsema: Gosh, nothing rings a bell. How far back are you talking? And was it *my* review or someone else's?
Great Falls, Va.: Tom, last week a chatter wrote in to declare that whatever you might think of the big restaurant chains, they at least train their staff well. I disagree -- chains might train their staff thoroughly, but not necessarily well.
It's thanks to the chains that we have servers introducing themselves and kneeling down to talk to us at eye level, two plagues of the restaurant scene. In addition, the chains really push the "upselling" technique (disingenuously suggesting that it will improve the servers' tips -- maybe so, but probably only by a matter of cents). Although upselling has become far too common in better restaurants too, it's these things as much as the middling food that keeps me away from many of the chain restaurants.
Tom Sietsema: My funniest (recent) encounter with up-selling:
I ordered chocolate-peanut butter cake for dessert, after which my server suggested a port to bring out its peanut butter notes.
Silver Spring, Md.: Tom,
We are regulars at a local restaurant and an awkward situation has developed. We usually have the same waiter and one night, after we brought friends to dinner, he brought us free tiramisu. We were delighted and the tip reflected it.
Now, whenever we dine there, we are each given a slice of tiramisu. I don't like coffee flavor, we may not be interested in dessert that night, or we may have plans to have dessert elsewhere. But we feel obligated to eat the cake and bump up the tip. We've started to avoid eating there, which is surely the opposite of what is intended!
Don't get me wrong - this isn't a complaint. We really appreciate the gesture but it has gotten out of hand. Rather, we're asking for advice on how to get the waiter to stop. His English is limited and we don't want to hurt his feelings.
Tom Sietsema: If you think the server can't or won't understand, talk to the manager when you arrive. Thank him or her for the thoughtful gesture, but let him or her know you aren't always hungry for dessert and you surely wouldn't want to waste the restaurant's delicious tiramisu. If the dessert *still* shows up, wave your hands "no" -- and don't take a single bite.
Washington, D.C.: In any discussion of hidden gems in the city, I think you have to mention Etete in the U Street corridor. It is not only one of the premier Ethiopian restaurants in the city, but has wonderful service and the best homemade tej (honey wine) in the city.
Tom Sietsema: I have yet to try the honey wine (beer is my personal preference with Ethiopian cooking), but I'm in your court regarding Etete.
washingtonpost.com: Review of Etete
Summertime!: Tom -
Best place to get apple pie or apple dessert?
Tom Sietsema: I'm still dreaming of the generous round dished up at the new Blue Duck Tavern, presented with freshly churned ice cream ...
Washington, D.C.: I read your opinion in Thursday's Express newspaper (7-20-2006)about Clyde's Restaurant in Chinatown and I was shocked at your remarks.
"I don't hate Clyde's; I simply deplore some of the shoddy cooking at the locally owned chain's newest branch in Chinatown. Who's minding the menu there? It might be "fun" but it isn't very satisfying. And the titanic portions remind me or why so many Americans are so fat".
I ate at Clyde's for lunch last week and found just the opposite. I found the crabcakes fresh and well-presented. I personally didn't find "titanic portions", in fact I didn't have enough. I was in a lovely room with very nice decor and found the restaurant overall very nice. I will definitely return there for lunch or dinner. Opinions, glad we all have them.
Tom Sietsema: I stand by my words. Based on several meals there, the expansive new Clyde's is pretty dismal. However, I *do* like the neighboring carry-out.
Washington, D.C.: We are going to Canada this summer, any recommendations for places to eat in Quebec City, Montreal or Tornoto? If not any suggestions of places to find good recommendations?
Thanks for any help you can provide.
Tom Sietsema: I've never been to Quebec or Toronto --- do any chatters have suggestions? -- but I *have* written a Postcard from Montreal.
washingtonpost.com: Postcard from Tom: Montreal
Washington, D.C. : Hosing down the sidewalks is not as egregious a practice as one I encounter every day: restaurants leaving their doors open. In an attempt to seem "welcoming," they are instead wasting enormous amounts of electricity by letting air conditioning flood outside.
Tom Sietsema: And on that little rant, I bid you adieu for today, folks.
See you next week!
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.