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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, August 9, 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.

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Tom Sietsema: COMINGS AND GOINGS OF THE LIQUID VARIETY: Michel Richard Citronelle welcomes a new member to its front-of-the-house team, as Derek Brown, previously with Agraria and Firefly, moves to the modern French restaurant in Georgetown as assistant sommelier and assistant maitre d'. Across town in Penn Quarter, Rasika is losing its popular young sommelier, Sebastian Zutant, who bids adieu to the Indian restaurant August 21. Zutant plans to spend the next four months interning at two wineries in Northern California, where he will help with the harvest and watch the bottling process. "If I fall in love with it," he teases, "I might stay put."

OVER THE RIVER: It's no secret that Galileo -- and the two other Italian dining rooms within Galileo -- will soon shutter, so that the building that houses them all at 1110 21st St. NW can complete major renovations. And it's hardly news that chef Roberto Donna plans to take his pots, pans and a lot of his staff to Crystal City (and a soon-to-be-vacated, 140-seat restaurant space) so that he can continue to cook for the year or so the construction downtown is expected to take.

What's news is the forthcoming restaurant's name, Bebo Trattoria, and the dishes Donna plans to offer (as soon as next month, if all goes according to schedule). The Post got a sneak peek of Bebo's menu yesterday, and the choices read like a cross between Donna's budget-priced Osteria and the more formal Galileo. The seductions include (start salivating) house-made salami with fried bread and green sauce; fried rabbit with artichokes; an Italian wedding soup; raw veal topped with celery, mushrooms, Parmesan and olive oil; spaghetti with bacon, cream and egg yolks - amusingly dubbed "spaghetti alla coronary"; and the chef's popular hot and cold panini and pizzas. For the curious, "Bebo" is Mr. Donna's nickname.

WHAT GASTRONAUTS ARE WHISPERING ABOUT: I have no issue with chefs taking time off. Kitchen duty is hard work and the hours are long. But when diners are paying triple digits per person for a meal, is it too much to expect for the top toque to make an occasional appearance? Three times now, I've been to one of Washington's big name restaurants and three times now, the master is nowhere to be seen. Am I the only one to notice that (insert name of absentee chef) isn't where he should be? Just wondering.

Onward!

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

Would like your answer to the question: What is a diner's recourse when food is just BAD?

I don't want to provide too much detail, but at a recent visit to a new restaurant my party had a comprehensively bad experience.

Most of the problems could have been dealt with ourselves -- prices surprisingly high (leave before ordering), lax and inattentive service (say something to the manager), etc. -- but I was definitely still wondering about the protocol for general unhappiness with the meal.

To be clear, we were served what we ordered. Further, the portions were more than ample and the presentation nice enough. No signs of bugs or hair or all the other traditional "send it back!" stuff.

It just tasted, well, blah. A stewed dish was tough; a should-have-been spicy dish was bland; another dish just seemed inexpertly done.

So it wasn't a service issue; just a "boy, this food isn't good!" issue. What's a diner's move in this case? Just pay and never return?

Tom Sietsema: I would have raised concerns early on ("Gosh, isn't this dish supposed to be spicy? Because mine isn't.") But since you didn't, I think it would be helpful to let management know on the way out about your unhappiness with the food. How can a place improve if it never gets feedback?

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Server 4 life, DC: I have been serving for quite some time now and I will have to say that I have pretty much seen it all. Between you and Phillis R. I have seen some pretty accurate reviews...BUT, if you could please take into consideration that the F.O.H. has about 3 to 4 weeks to memorize the ingredients from lunch, dinner and dessert menus as well as a wine menu. All of the stress from permits not arriving on time to failed food inspections stress out the owners down to the management. Stuff rolls down hill. The average staff needs 60 days to get this under thier belts. You will open a restaurant (soft open) with twice as many staff members to guest. Servers probably getting 2 or three tables a night, four shifts a week (not counting 2-3 days of mock service). Food critics reviews (good or bad) can drastically change the flow of business. If a critic arrives during the first month, the server is actually hitting about his/her 15th table. Most private owned stores can not afford to train for more than 2 or 3 weeks. Servers are usually working in other restaurants during this time and can not study while at work. This is by no means an excuse but a suggestion. if you think that is bad, what do you think happens when the kitchen has less time to set then that. Coolers that are not working or nor even there. Late food deliveries or (this actually happened) no certified food handler on site! I am sure that I have left quite a few things out, but, could you please give your up and coming restaurants. Le Pigalle was a dissapointment but the hostess was very polite. Those guys should know better! ATTN. READERS: Lets move on from this restaurant and look foward.

Tom Sietsema: With new restaurants, I have a policy of waiting a full month before making the first of at least several visits for review purposes. However, I sometimes go to new restaurants during their opening days, to give readers a preview; those early experiences tend to be more about who's behind the stove and what's on the menu than a blow by blow account of what works and what doesn't.

A few restaurants win diner sympathy and loyalty by opening to the general public with discounted prices. A year or so ago, I remember 21P in Dupont Circle doing just that. Great idea, I think.

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Wheaton, Md: Tom,

I'm a sucker for local farmer's produce so when I heard about Agraria naturally I was thrilled..the question is, does the restaurant's actual execution match the quality of ingredients so elaborately described on the restaurant's website? I would love to hear your thoughts on this place, especially since I'm considering going for Restaurant Week. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: The short response: I'd hold off on visiting the waterfront restaurant for anything more than cocktails until the new chef settles in and writes his own menu. The current script is pretty generic.

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Rockville Reader: Tom: Was wondering if you had any insight as to why 1789 had decided not to participate in this go-round of Restaurant Week? We have had very enjoyable Restaurant Week experiences at 1789 in the past, allowing us to take the whole family at a very reasonable price. Result: two sons and daughters-in-law have returned as regular price customers. I also know some of my younger staff had hoped to get acquainted with the restaurant during Restaurant Week. Seems like such a good way to grow your customer base. We'll miss them this time.

Tom Sietsema: Chef Nathan Beauchamp tells me the reason 1789 isn't participating in Restaurant Week is because his employer already offers a three-course, $35 dinner menu.

It's a great deal, since diners can choose, with just three exceptions, dishes from the entire menu. The promotions runs through Sept. 13.

As Mr. Beauchamp puts it, 1789 celebrates "Restaurant Week all summer long."

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Washington, DC: Tom,

I live in Penn Quarter, and we all are wondering whether you've heard rumors about what might happen with the Andale space? The sign on the window says "Closed for renovation." Heard anything? And by the way, most of us are not sad that Andale has closed...it seemed to get very tired

Tom Sietsema: I've heard rumblings (unconfirmed) that both the owners of a Georgetown cafe and the owners of a locally-owned restaurant company, based in the 'hood, are angling for the spot.

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Lake Havasu City, Ariz: Enjoyed your article "Diners share their gripes with critic" in our local Todays News Herald. What do we do when we have asked for bacon very crispy, are served "limp" bacon and when we comment, the server says its the chef's fault, she had it written on the order. I contend that it should not have been served to us in the first place. Your comment please.

Tom Sietsema: Hellooooooooo, Arizona!

Simple: I'd send the bacon back if I wanted it crisp and it arrived limp. (The waitress should have noticed that ...)

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Bethesda, Md.: I moved to Bethesda in June. Since then I've tried Austin Grill, Cafe Deluxe, Rock Creek, Blacks, David Craig, Centro, Mon Ami Gabi, Jaleo, and Raku. Are there any other Bethesda restaurants I should try before I return to my first round favorites?

Tom Sietsema: The recently renovated Black's Bar & Kitchen should be on your list, and I'm hearing good things about Persimmon in Chevy Chase again, after a long spell of hearing nothing about the modern American restaurant.

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Report from Ray's: Tom, I ate at the new Ray's in Silver Spring and I have to say--don't waste your time. I'd advise your readers to stick with Red Lobster and Macaroni Grill across the street. That way I'll be able to get a reservation whenever I want. HA HA!

Seriously, it was everything we had hoped for. Everything was amazing, but in particular, do not miss the sausage biscuit appetizer; my friend (a true Southerner with a true Southern mother who is the best cook he knows) was beyond impressed with them. THANK YOU MICHAEL for bringing a restaurant of this caliber to Silver Spring.

Tom Sietsema: Word on the street is that Ray's The Classics is THE place to dine right now. I'm eager to check out Mr. Landrum's hosting and Mr. Hartzer's cooking.

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Washington, DC: Tom, I reserved a table at relatively less buzz-generating David Greggory for Restaurant Week (for dinner). What's your opinion of the place, as far as food and service go? I've never been and look forward to hearing your opinion! Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Honestly, I haven't been there in over a year. Does anyone out there have recent experience with the restaurant?

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Washington, DC: Since there is always room in this chat for something positive, I just wanted to share that my husband and I had a lovely dinner at Rosa Mexicano in the last week. The experience underscores the idea that it is the small things that make the largest impact.

Typical to the non-planners we are and without a reservation, we had decided to just walk in on the off-chance the restaurant had availability (during a known "slower" time of the evening). Not only were we lucky enough to be seated immediately, but the manager made a trip by our table to check in and wish us a happy anniversary.

After a delicious and filling dinner with attentive and helpful service, we declined dessert - only to have our waiter bring an unexpected, unrequested complementary dessert to share, in honor of our celebration.

Such examples of thoughtful attention to detail put smiles on our faces, which accompanied our saited stomaches. While I likely won't remember the details of my food a year from now, I will remember the positive experience I had at this restaurant.

Tom Sietsema: Which is precisely what restaurants want you to do -- leave the table thinking good thoughts.

(Details, it's all about details, isn't it?)

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Washington, DC: I hope you don't count Fogo De Chao as a "buffet" in your 10 percent tip pool. Although there is the salad bar, all the Gauchos are in the tip pool as well as the servers and bus staff. This isn't Sizzler or Golden Corral. It is a full service restaurant with a twist in the service as well as a comprehensive wine list. Also, 10 percent is just plain wrong in an expensive market like DC where we make $2.13-$2.77 per hour and lose most of that if we are lucky enough to get a health plan.

Tom Sietsema: When I addressed The Buffet Question is my Magazine column this past Sunday, I was thinking of your garden-variety buffets. I'd put Fogo de Chao, the Brazilian steak house, in a separate category and tip accordingly (20 percent or so, depending on the service, which has aways been attentive and helpful on my visits there).

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Maryland - Regarding Change: We have trained servers at our establishments to say "I'll be right back with your change" when picking up a check paid with cash. This gives the customer the chance to say "Okay" or "Keep it", whatever the case may be, and prevents any awkward moments for the server when the "change" is two pennies. I think servers ask if change is needed simply because if it's not, it saves them the time it takes to make it. But, better to assume that the customer wants change than to assume that it's the tip.

Tom Sietsema: A smart solution to the "change" problem. Thanks for weighing in.

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Washington, DC: We are generally disappointed with Chinese restaurants in DC. Which one do you recommend?

Tom Sietsema: Gosh, it's been ages -- probably since the beloved Yanyu closed in Cleveland Park -- that I've had really good Chinese in the District. Outside of the city, I like A & J, with branches in Rockville and Annandale, and Bob's Noodle in Rockville.

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Farragut Square, Washington, DC: Tom,

Last week you noted the closing of Andale and Allison Swope's quest to keep her staff employed. Do you have any way of contacting her? Some of us in the industry are fans of hers and would like to help.

Many thanks.

Tom Sietsema: Contact me directly and I'll share her email address. I'd do it here, but .... well, this is the Internet!

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Instantly Chicago, Ill.: I'm in Chicago for just one more day (leaving tonight). WHere should I go for a nice (relatively cheap) lunch that would give me access to doing something fun with the few hours on either side?

Tom Sietsema: If Avec (615 Randolph St.; 312-377-2002) is open at that time, that's where I'd head. I adore the cozy, cedar-lined restaurant and the chef's lusty cooking: pizza from a wood-stoked oven, chorizo-stuffed dates, fabulous wines by the glass. Mmmmmmm.

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Bethesda, Md: Hi Tom- drove past the Old Homestead steakhouse today and the sign in the window said "closed for renovations". Do you know if they're permanently closed or truly making some changes with the interior?

Tom Sietsema: Gosh, that place has been closed -- really and truly -- for months now.

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Do you mean Joe's Noodle House?: You recommended "Bob's Noodle" in Rockville, bud did you mean Joe's Noodle House? They have some of the best, and authentic, Chinese there.

Tom Sietsema: Joe's, Bob's --- BOTH Chinese restaurants are worth the trek. Joe's Noodle House is at 1488C Rockville Pike, while Bob's is located at 305 N. Washington St. in Rockville.

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Washington, DC: Hello Tom. I'm a lobbyist in DC and eat out nearly as much as you do. I just had a client request a fun, new place for lunch. Any ideas? I'm tapped out.

Tom Sietsema: First, tell me where you've been. Hot and new: Rasika certainly fits that bill. And the Oval Room has a fine chef in place, Tony Conte, late of Jean-Georges in New York. Both restaurants are owned by Ashok Bajaj.

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Washington, D.C.:

Thanks for letting us know: Thanks, Tom, for sharing a guest's "bad experience at Cafe Milano" during your chat session last Wednesday. This was the family who called at 10:15 and was told we'd serve dinner until 11.

But when they arrived a few minutes later, a different staff member told them serving had stopped. Their account was accurate-we messed up. They were unhappy. They should have been. I was unhappy when I read about it.

The staff member who said serving had stopped is also unhappy, because he is no longer with our restaurant. The motivation for his unacceptable behavior had nothing to do with teenagers or with this particular group.

We welcome teens and their families for lunch and dinner. We want to welcome these teens with this family again. I hope the family will call me personally so we can get things back on track. Thank you. Franco Nuschese, Cafe Milano.

Tom Sietsema: Thank you, sir, for your prompt response to last week's poster.

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New York, NY: Help! Help! Please, please, please take this question...

Do you know of or have any recommendations on restaurants that allow you to cook or prep your own meals with chef's supervision? Looking to give someone an experience for their upcoming birthday.

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Under its previous chef, the Oval Room offered such an experience. But I'm not certain if there's any local restaurant doing that now. Can anyone help out?

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Denver, Colo: Good morning, Tom. Will Galileo still be closed in October? I have a group heading to DC for a company meeting at the end of October and am compiling a list of your recommended restaurants in the District. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Chances are very good that Galileo will NOT be serving food in October.

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Alexandria, Va: Quick question - I'm meeting someone on the Hill tonight for a quick bite before the Nats game. Can you recommend a place? We've tried a few places down 8th, but haven't been all that impressed, even for pub grub. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: The bar at Sonoma is probably your best bet.

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for the chicago diner: i'd hit up bin 36---they've got amazing flighs of wine

(available for purchase almost at cost), a diverse menu of

both meals and snacks, and a comfy dining room right

next to the river.

Tom Sietsema: Been there, too. Bin is fun. But Avec is better.

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Alexandria, Va: I don't understand everyone's seeming love affair with Del Merei. For what they give you in terms of quality, it is way overpriced. To give an example, after the umpteenth time of hearing how great Del Merei is in your chat, my husband and I tried them out again. I ordered the kabob medium rare and it came out well done which I sent back, but even when it came back medium rare, the meat was tough, not seasoned terribly well, the coconut rice that came with the dish was incredibly bland and tough. This has been my experience every time I have been to Del Merei except, oddly enough, for the first time I went which was a perfect experience and right after they opened too. The steaks I have had there have not been cooked or seasoned properly and the quality of the meat hasn't been good (i.e. usually the steak in a restaurant, even Outback, tastes better than what I get in the grocery store). The first time I went I had the perfect pork chop which has never been repeated. I will grant that their salmon plank is always done well. I really really want to like them. I think Mary is wonderful and it is so close to where I live, but I don't think they are as good as Evening Star down the street, or the Indian place in the same strip, yet they charge as much or more than either place.

Tom Sietsema: Del Merei Grille is such a hit in its 'hood because the owners couldn't be more charming. The last time I was in, half the place seemed to know one another and one of the owner's mothers was watching over the place. The menu has its ups and downs (my buffalo hanger steak was pretty bland, but the sides were great, for instance).

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Washington, DC: Tom,

Can you recommend a romantic place for dessert in DC? My wife and I will be going out to dinner for a special occasion (near Captiol Hill) and we want to go someplace nice for dessert afterwards.

Thanks

Art

Tom Sietsema: Before you venture out to any of the suggestions I'm proposing, call the restaurants and explain what you're looking for: Just dessert. Obviously, they might not want to offer a table at prime time, but if you're going later in the evening, I bet one or more of them would welcome you and your request.

Try the garden at Tabard Inn, the bar at Cashion's Eat Place, the lounge at the new (and soon-to-be-reviewed) Blue Duck Tavern or the bar at Buck's Fishing & Camping.

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Washington DC: Still no comment from you on Breadline, though I have submitted this for several weeks running. They are now serving La Brioche Doree products in the morning. Protecting your friend Furstenburg? Breadline seems troubled despite the constant lines and volume of business. I have had to return sandwiches lately that were so poorly made or just bad I couldn't eat them.

La Brioche Doree is a fast food franchise in the French tradition.

This franchise concept has been adopted all over France (89 Brioche Doree franchises) and is now developing abroad.

The brand has an excellent reputation.

It now has more than 390 restaurants and 2900 employees in 13 countries. Part of the Le Duff group, The La Brioche Doree franchise is the uncontested leader in this market.

The concept of the La Brioche Doree franchise is an original one: combining fast food with French tradition, offering products to be consumed on the premises or to take away, to make consumers' lives easier. This is a rapidly expanding sector due to the fact that time pressures mean that leading workers want to eat a quick but healthy lunch.

Tom Sietsema: I'm not "protecting" anybody. But I wanted to get a response to your post from MF.

He says:

"I don't understand the 'question.' It sounds like an ad for La Brioche Doree."

He also said that while the French company has added some of its pastries to the Breadline shelves, it "has not tampered with the quality, the cooking or the ingredients" of anything he's doing.

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Washington, DC: Hi, Tom. My husband and I are celebrating our one-year anniversary on August 20---right at the end of Restaurant Week. Are there any restaurants in the Penn Quarter area that won't be packed and will still treat us well? We're willing to spend more than a typical night out but aren't the wealthiest food fans in the area....Thank you!

Tom Sietsema: Congrats, Washington.

Just because a restaurant might be busy doesn't mean its staff won't treat you well. That said, next week IS Restaurant Week -- and I know of people who book weeks ahead for the chace to dine in popular places, including restaurants in bustling Penn Quarter.

You might consider bar hopping: Make an evening out of checking out three or four bars for drinks and snacks. I'd include in any such tour an outdoor table at 701 restaurant (love that fountain view!), Cafe Atlantico, Jaleo and either Poste (which has a nice patio) or Zola (where chances are good you'll have to stand). Edit the suggestion to fit your budget.

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Washington, DC: Tom - I went to Lia's this past weekend was pleasantly surprised by the food. I often go to Chef Geoff's and am always disappointed by the food unless i get a burger but lia's was great. I also loved the decor and the bar. The service was a bit iffy - we had to open our own bottle of wine and the waitress did not know anything about the food - especially the cheeses. All she would say was "it is very good." You should check it out!

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the field report. Maybe the third time is the charm?

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Silver Spring, Md: Tom, just wanted to report that Mandalay now has a sign on its door that warns patrons that service ends 30 minutes before closing time. They must have read the chat!

Tom Sietsema: Ah, great news. Thanks for sharing it with us.

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Washington, DC: Where would you go for a special lunch, price not an object? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Special as in "romantic" or special as in "oh my God, this could be my last meal?"

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DC Waiter: I always enjoy your reviews, but I was a little disappointed by this past Sundays tirade of complaints. What bothered me most was that with only 52 reviews per year (in the magazine) it seems like such a waste to not focus on the hundreds if not thousands of great places there are to eat in the DC area. What also bothered me was the stupidity of the person who requested that you include whether Cilantro is on the menu or not so she can decide whether to dine at certain restaurants. Come on! Are you supposed to add an ingredient meter to every review. In my opinion people like that should buy a cook book and stay at home. I think that by publishing a complaint like that you are encouraging people to think it's okay to flip out and expect something for free just because every ingredient is not spelled out in the menu and the guest does not have the intelligence to ask whether the dish includes it. If you dislike something that much open your mouth and tell your waiter. It's hard enough to do this job, please don't start letting people expect us to be psychics too.

Tom Sietsema: You know what? I got a ton of feedback from that column -- from restaurateurs and readers alike. Yours is the only complaint.

But I hear you regarding reviews. Have you noticed you actually get MORE than 52 reviews a year, though? Quite frequently, I've done round-ups of two or three restaurants based on a theme.

As for the cilantro-hater, I used that because I thought it was fun and different. I ALSO put the responsibility for alerting the kitchen or the server on the patron. You should see the mail I get from people with aversions or allergies to certain ingredients. Adding such to a menu description is no biggie, is it?

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Arlington, Va: Just Dessert -

My husband and I went to Les Halles for dessert and coffee on a Friday night at around 9:00. There was plenty of room on the outside patio, so we didn't feel we were taking too much room. The desserts were excellent as well. The service was a little slow, but I think that's just the Les Halles way.

Tom Sietsema: Ah, Les Halles! Thanks for the reminder.

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Washington, DC: In response to NY, NY's question about cooking your own meal -- my wife surprised me on my birthday with a private class at L'Academie de Cuisine. Us and 15 of our friends cooked a three-course meal and had a great time. It was definitely an experience!

Tom Sietsema: I can't think of a better "teacher" for the job.

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Adams Morgan, Washington DC: What do you like in Georgetown these days for not-too-expensive dining? Some friends are back in town for a day or two,and we want to meet them for dinner tonight.

Tom Sietsema: Bistro Lepic is a crowd-pleaser -- and often crowded, as a result.

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re "special lunch": or perhaps, "I want a divorce"? Still laughing at the question you got a couple years ago about the best restaurant for asking for a divorce.

Tom Sietsema: People actually DO dine out to celebrate the end of their union -- or so chef Patrick O'Connell of the Inn at Little Washington told me awhile back. Interesting, no?

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Cilantro LOVER!: Re: your column this week-- maybe I am just being a mean old cilantro lover, but I think the request that you include all ingredients folks might have an aversion to (even if they are common items to be repulsed by, like cilantro) smacks of self-centered anti-cilantro-ness. And, also, as you implied quite nicely but not as cattily as I would have, cilantro ain't a "TREND" in the global perspective of things.

Cilantro is an EASY, EASY ingredient to leave out-- oftentimes it's added at the last stages of cooking, isn't it?, so that it doesn't get super-wilty and lose it's fresh spark.

Poor cilantro. And why do we call it cilantro instead of coriander, which it is? Do people who hate cilantro also hate dried coriander? Just wonderin'...

Tom Sietsema: And on that inconclusive note, I bid you farewel until next Wednesday. Dine well, play safely and come back with your interesting comments and questions.

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