Wednesday, September 13, 2006; 11:00 AM
In a city loaded with diverse restaurants, from New American chic and upscale Italian to sandwich shops and burritos on the run, finding the best places to eat can be a real puzzle. Where's the best restaurant for a first date or an anniversary? Father's Day? What's the best burger joint? Who has the best service?
Ask Tom. Tom Sietsema , The Washington Post's food critic, is on hand Wednesdays at 11 a.m. ET to answer your questions, listen to your suggestions and even entertain your complaints about Washington dining. Sietsema, a veteran food writer, has sampled the wares and worked as a critic in Washington, Seattle, San Francisco and Milwaukee, and can talk restaurants with the best of 'em. You can access his Postcards from Tom to read his recommendations for other cities, read his dining column and the Weekly Dish or read transcripts of previous "Ask Tom" chats . Tom's Sunday magazine reviews, as well as his "Ask Tom" column, are available early on the Web.
The transcript follows.
Tom Sietsema: POPPING-FRESH GOSSIP: Veteran pastry chef Peter Brett has said farewell to the recently opened Blue Duck Tavern in the Park-Hyatt Hotel, with the intention of launching his own dessert shop.
"It was a very difficult decision to make," says Brett, who left last Friday. "I had been at the Park-Hyatt for almost 17 years," beginning with the late Melrose restaurant.
Brett says he is looking for a site in "an urban area with foot traffic," preferably near a Metro stop and hopefully in the District. Right now, he's taking orders for specialty cakes; part of his business plan involves selling desserts to restaurants (places that might not have pastry chefs of their own).
To reach Brett, call 202-302-3883 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a web site: www.peterbakes.com.
Meanwhile, executive chef Brian McBride reports he is close to naming a replacement. "I have three excellent candidates: One in-house, one from DC, a third from LA." A decision is expected as early as Friday.
Happy Hump Day. How's everyone eating these days?
Arlington, Va.: Why was the Reliable Source able to scoop you on the happenings at the Inn at Little Washington? And is there anything you can add to today's story?
Tom Sietsema: The Reliable Source didn't scoop me. I knew about the item and actually gave the Source-ettes some background information. But such gossip-turned-news couldn't wait until next week's Dish column -- surely someone else would have scooped the paper -- and the front page of Style is important real estate. More people will see it there, in print, than they would in my chat today.
washingtonpost.com: The Reliable Source on the Inn .
Washington, D.C.: Writers typically have a specific point of view, particularly people who write a weekly column. What would you say your point of view is on food writing for Washington D.C.?
Tom Sietsema: Dining out should be fun. Sharing a meal with friends and family is important. Setting and service matter more than ever. Memorable meals don't require an expense account or a $100,000-a-year floral budget. Washington is an important restaurant city.
I hope that I'm fair, discerning, entertaining and accurate, at least as far as the facts go. If I've done my job right, readers will have the sense that they've been to the restaurant, eating and drinking alongside me.
Does that answer your question?
Arlington, Va.: Hi Tom,
When we read your restaurant reviews, we typically find out your favorite dishes at a given restaurant. Just curious, though, out of all the restaurants you've dined at over the past year, what are some of the standout dishes, the ones you can't stop thinking about? Thanks!
Tom Sietsema: Gosh, can you wait until my dining guide comes out October 15? It will be filled with some of my happiest memories from the past nine months.
Washington, D.C.: I have to give kudos to Equinox. I recently got married, and my husband and I had the wedding reception there. Not only was the food out of this world, the event planner was so helpful (it doesn't hurt that she used to be a wedding planner). She went out of her way to make the night enjoyable, delicious, and affordable. Chef Grey and the rest of his staff were remarkably kind. Having worked in a DC restaurant during college, I can tell you their attitude toward large parties is way above par.
Tom Sietsema: That's good to hear.
Save for the private wine room, I've never much cared for the interior there, but the look is about to change: Equinox is poised for a make-over this winter. Co-owner Ellen Gray is calling the renovation "a new black dress." The sprucing-up will be done in phases, she says, so the restaurant won't have to close.
Rosslyn, Va.: Tom,
I have some friends who are moving to Cleveland Park. We've taken up a sort of group housewarming gift and want to get them a gift certificate to a neighborhood restaurant. There's somewhere around $100 available -- where would you send them that they could spend that amount without feeling as though they would be compelled to order lots of drinks to make up the difference for a casual meal.
I'm thinking Ardeo or Bardeo because they also like wine, but is there some other locale I'm missing as I run down the list of Cleveland Park establishments?
Tom Sietsema: I really like the newish chef at Ardeo. You might also consider the nearby, French-themed Lavandou.
washingtonpost.com: Review of Ardeo .
Bethesda, Md.: I've got a reservation for the Tasting Room at Restaurant Eve this weekend and I was wondering how distracted Cathal is with the PX and the fish and chips place. Will he even be in the kitchen? Should I reconsider?
Tom Sietsema: The best chefs train their staffs to cook just like the masters, so even if Mr. Armstrong were not in the kitchen, chances are good that you'd get food that looked and tasted as if he were there. That said, Restaurant Eve's tasting room is the chef's pride and joy. I've never eaten there when he hasn't been cooking. Go, go, go!
Washington, D.C.: Help -- birthday dinner coming up. Last year we did Maestro, the year before Eve. What should we do this year?
Tom Sietsema: Cityzen!
Alexandria, Va.: Did Johnny's Half Shell reopen yet?
Tom Sietsema: Not yet! Hang tight.
Washington, D.C.: Tom,
Since sampling some goat curry at the Adams Morgan Day festival, I've been trying to find it on some local menus. Could you steer me toward some restaurants that do good things with goat?
Tom Sietsema: Islander Caribbean on U St. NW does a nice goat roti; El Chalan on I St. NW makes a delectable goat stew.
Washington, D.C.: I'm hoping the third time's the charm...I love your chats and follow your advice frequently here in D.C...but I now find myself spending a great deal of time in San Antonio, TX and would love some advice from you or any chatters? I'm looking for fine cuisine, the local hole in the wall that serves great food, or the best Mexican joint. Any advice is REALLY appreciated. My most recent trip there left much to be desired (in terms of restaurants)and I'm certain there are better restaurants in San Antonio than I'm finding! THANKS!
Tom Sietsema: San Antonio is on my wish list, but I've never been. Can any chatters offer dining suggestions?
Alexandria, Va.: Pet peeve alert: I can't believe the number of restaurants that misspell a certain salad named for an assassinated Roman emperor. Since I first started noticing this, I've seen "Ceaser" salad, "Ceasar" salad, and "Caeser" salad (the last at Galileo Grill, where I expected better...sigh). Given its ubiquitous presence and relatively easy spelling (or so I thought), I really can't understand this disconcerting phenomenon.
And yes, I know this whole discussion might sound incredibly picky, but if a restaurant doesn't know how to spell the dish, why should I think it knows how to prepare it?
Tom Sietsema: Ah, interesting point. (It's all in the details, right?)
Caesar it is, menu writers!
Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina: Dear Tom -
Love the chats, even while working in Bosnia. Here's a question - Frank Bruni of the NYTimes has a blog where he posts impressions from single visits to restaurants throughout the week, along with interviews of local chefs. Any plans to enter the blogosphere?
Tom Sietsema: I've got a pretty full plate right now with three (sometimes four) weekly print deadlines, four weekly radio segments, this chat and (right now) the dining guide. But that doesn't mean you can't expect some changes later this year. Did you hear the great news? The Post has hired Joe Yonan from the Boston Globe to edit the Food section here; he starts next month. We're very excited to have him.
Foggy Bottom, Washington, D.C.: I love the chats! After WEEKS of visitors, my boyfriend and I need to seriously reconnect. I'm hoping this isn't too general, but I've read all your chats and columns, and I can't find quite what I'm looking for. We would want something inexpensive, any type of food, and somewhere where we don't have to yell to be heard. I'm open to either romantic or fun, but it also has to be someplace with a good vibe that we can hang out for a while. Finally, since our date night is Friday, we're obviously not looking for someplace that needs reservations far in advance. Thanks so much Tom!
Tom Sietsema: You're asking for a lot there! Good but cheap. Quiet but fun. Someplace you can get in without reservations. I'm thinking: the wine bar above Bistrot Lepic.
Washington, D.C.: I can't speak for the restaurant personally, but the NYTimes issued a glowing profile of La Reve in San Antonio back in June. It made me want to visit...
Tom Sietsema: Ah, great choice!
Chef's wife, DC: How do you handle a waiter who mispronounces menu items? I speak Italian and my husband is Italian, so we know it's bru-SKE-ta and not bru-SHE-ta, for example.
Tom Sietsema: I tend to repeat the name of the dish, as in, "I think I'll have a glass of the ro-SAY, please."
over-familiarity of servers: I read the insert in the magazine this week, and I have to agree. HOWEVER, if you find this offensive, complain to the management, don't diss the server. The trend for the "Hi, I'm Susie" intro began back when I was waiting tables, and I did not feel comfortable doing it, yet, you do what you're told by the boss. That morphed into the over-friendliness approach dictated by some of the chain restaurants, where my daughter has worked - where she's been instructed to kneel, crouch, and even sit at tables because some corporate buffoon has decided that it portrays a more friendly and relaxed atmosphere.
Don't attack the workers, tell the people in charge that you do NOT like this approach. Maybe they'll get the message.
Tom Sietsema: Crouching is the new "Hi, my name is (blank)."
Annandale, Va.: Hi Tom,
Can you recommend a place for Pho in Northern, Va.?
Tom Sietsema: The spare but sublime Pho 75 on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington is where I like to get my beef noodle soup fix.
Washington, D.C.: San Antonio:
the steak fajitas at Taco Cabana.
Tom Sietsema: My stomach is growling ...
Arlington, Va.: Inspired by The Weekly Dish...despite eating out a lot in Northern VA, I've never had Korean. I'm a vegetarian, so's my significant other, and I think we're intimidated because we don't know what to expect. Is it worth it for 2 herbivores to try Korean, and if so, where and what?
And one more place I always see goat curry, for the goat-lover...Delhi Dhaba in Arlington. It is definitely dhaba-style food, so I don't know if you'll recommend it, but my Punjabi pals seem to like the goat curry there just fine.
Tom Sietsema: One place I think you'd warm to is Yechon in Annandale. I seem to recall some (tofu-based) soups that were meatless, and it's easy to fill up on the vegetable-heavy side dishes (panchan) that accompany the meals.
washingtonpost.com: The Weekly Dish .
pronunciation: Well, as a customer, I've often prefaced my order with "I think I'm mangling the name here, but I'd like (this)" while pointing to the menu item.
But chef's wife, and others out there, you know that the waiter is going to bring you the bread dish whether he said brushetta or brusketta, and do you really feel the need to correct them? I remember the outrage expressed on this forum from customers when a server corrected THEIR pronunciation for them. But then, I guess it's different when it's coming from "the help".
Tom Sietsema: Yeah, people tend not to like to be corrected in public. You never know who's trying to impress someone on a date or during business!
Silver Spring, Md.: Does Ray's the Classics have a web site? I would like to see their menu and location information online, but have been unable to find a web site. Thanks!
Tom Sietsema: I looked for one as well! Neither Ray's the Classics nor Ray's the Steaks has a web site.
Washington, D.C.: Tom - this is both a comment and a question. My husband and I recently had a bad dining experience at a restaurant we otherwise love - they had an off night on a holiday weekend. He wrote an email to the restaurant and they responded about a week later apologizing for the slow response and the off night - and offered us a free bottle of wine on our next visit. We were both very pleased with how they handled the situation and are eager to go back.
My question is this - we both wanted to write to you and tell you about our positive response - I wanted to mention the restaurant name (they should get credit for their handling of the situation) but my husband doesn't want to mention their name because he thinks readers will remember the "off night" part of the story and not go to an otherwise great restaurant or start an email campaign to get a free bottle of wine. What do you think? Do restaurants like seeing their names on your chat in this way?
Tom Sietsema: It all depends. Some restaurateurs believe the adage that all press is good press, that just having the name of the business mentioned in a public forum is a good thing. Other restaurateurs tell me they'd rather not have readers be reminded of past mistakes, even when they've been smoothed over. Either way, kudos to the restaurant that responded to your obvious satisfaction.
Washington, D.C.: Tom - do you have any updates on Le Pigalle? I read your review which was right on target and I guess others did too as the restaurant is usually empty (even when Trio's patio is packed).
I'm curious as to what happens to restaurants when they get such bad reviews. I also live a couple of blocks away and would like for it to improve or go away so we can get a decent restaurant there.
Thanks - you are great!
Tom Sietsema: While I can't say I'm looking forward to returning, I'd be more than happy to report on a turn-around at Le Pigalle, if such ever happens. Meanwhile, I'm not surprised to hear about empty tables there.
washingtonpost.com: Review of Le Pigalle .
Washington, D.C.: Tom, how long do you typically give a new chef at an established restaurant before you review her/him, and what is your rationale?
Tom Sietsema: I generally wait a month before I make the first of multiple visits to a new restaurant. A chef deserves time to settle in, after all, and I find that it takes about 30 days or so for a new restaurant to find its rhythm. The policy is a fair one, I think, especially considering that the vast majority of new restaurants are charging full fare from day one.
Downtown Washington, D.C.: Hey Tom, this may be boring and I'm sure you have answered it before, but I'm looking for good Italian that won't put me in the poor house. I've tried Anna Maria's in Dupont, but I leave with different feelings every time I go, very inconsistent.
Tom Sietsema: Believe it or not, I had lunch there last week. I felt like I was eating in 1969.
For cheap and satisfying Italian in Dupont, I much prefer Famous Luigi's on 19th St. NW. And I'm hearing that Al Crostino on U St. NW has improved a lot since I reviewed the place.
Fairfax, Va. (discussing Front Royal, Va.): Hi Tom,
I'm not someone that normally writes rave reviews on restaurants, but I feel like I have to let you know about a certain restaurant in Front Royal, VA that my fiancee and I went to this past weekend. We learned that another restaurant in the Front Royal area made the Washington Post's top 100, but this one did not. I simply feel as if a truly unique restaurant has been overlooked that could easily make the list. I don't know if you are the person to mention this to or not, but we dined at a place called Apartment 2G in Front Royal, VA found here... http:/
washingtonpost.com: Review of Apt. 2G .
Tom Sietsema: Been there, done that. But thanks for the chance to plug a little charmer off the beaten path...
(The Post doesn't do a Top 100 list, by the way.)
"bru-SKE-ta" snob: In the dictionary it's actually listed with both pronunciations. I'm sure in Italy you would be pronouncing it correctly, but alas, you're not in Italy. Geez, how do you order your meals in Chinese restaurants, perfect Mandarin?
Tom Sietsema: LOL
Washington, D.C.: Please, please, please answer the question I sent in before the chat about where to celebrate my husband's birthday -- good restaurant, etc. with river view, even if the answer is that no such place exists.
Tom Sietsema: Decent restaurant with water view: Indigo Landing in Alexandria.
Columbia, Md.: I plan a "Lunch Bunch" trip every month for senior citizens. Any good ideas for restaurants that can handle a group of 45. We have been to many places in this area and are always looking for something different. Thanks
Tom Sietsema: A lunch spot near you or elsewhere? In Columbia, I'm a fan of the warm-hearted Cafe de Paris on Centre Park Drive.
washingtonpost.com: Review of Cafe de Paris .
Indigo Landing: Had a pretty bad service experience at Indigo Landing on Sunday night. I will go back only because the food was OK and the patio is the best. I was just wondering if you get a lot more complaints their service than anything else there.
(Service at the table was bad, but not as abysmal as the bar!)
Tom Sietsema: Can you be more specific, please? I'm getting more than a few reports on off service there, sorry to say. Which is one reason I refer to Indigo (above) as "decent" right now.
Baltimore, Md.: Aside from when you order omakase, what do you usually get at a sushi bar - when you're on your own dime? Curious to know if you order sushi, sashimi, any non-fish items, rolls, and what kinds of fish.
Tom Sietsema: I'm pretty much a purist. I adore toro, the fatty tuna belly. And abalone, if the delicacy is offered. Yellowtail and sea urchin (when fresh!) are other favorites.
Re: Ask Tom in Sunday's Magazine: Tom - regarding the writer to your Ask Tom piece in Sunday's Magazine. I've only experienced the behavior of a server sitting down to introduce themselves at only two places. Hooter's and any "gentlemens" club that is out there. Seems that the writer is trying to hide something, or is really unaware of the training manuals of both types of establishments.
Tom Sietsema: Verrrrrrry funny!
Actually, I've had servers sit down at my table before -- and in both cases, it wasn't at a strip club. In any case, I think it's not a good practice.
Centreville, Va.: Tom:
My wife and I were at the Capital Grille in Tysons Corner tonight (9-10) for our 29th wedding anniversary. There was a table close to us that had 5 adults and 2 children about 4-5 years of age. The children were running thru out the restaurant, laying on the floor in the lobby, and generally obstructing the wait staff from doing what they were doing. I am amazed the manager did not say something to the parents. To say nothing about the safety issue, it was a great distraction to us and to many other patrons. Why would the parents not control their children is beyond me, only topped by the management inaction. With the prices The Capital Grille charges... this ain't right. Your thoughts.
Love your columns and articles and have taken your advice on a number of dining places... all great!
Tom Sietsema: One piece of advice I routinely dole out, here and in print,is this: bring any problem to the attention of management as the problem arises. Did you say anything to anybody while you were there?
Capitol Hill, D.C.: For San Antonio: Try El Mirador, the perfect family run local spot. Just outside the downtown area, the tortilla soup is amazing. I took a client there and he insisted that we go back the next day as well.
Tom Sietsema: Sounds promising. Gracias.
Roman Emperor...I think not.: Most historians believe that Caesar salad honors restaurateur Caesar Cardini (1896-1956), who invented it in Tijuana, Mexico in 1924 on the Fourth of July weekend.
The Caesar salad was named after him, not the Roman Emperor, but alas, the spelling is the same.
Tom Sietsema: Right, right. I was so focused on the right spelling, I forgot to correct the salad's namesake. Pelt me with a bag of croutons already.
mispronouncing: I once ordered an Australian wine and couldn't pronounce the producer. So I told the Aussie server I was having a hard time pronouncing it, but I would have the Gnangara Chardonnay (butchering the name). She happily told me "You said it right. Chardonnay!"
Tom Sietsema: I LOVE that!
Arlington, Va.: What's with Agraria? I haven't heard many positive comments about it (in your chats or elsewhere) and have been on the lookout since I thought it would be a great place to bring our board group (35 rural Americans) for dinner in November. I called twice over the last week to see if this was possible and both times was told someone would call back and haven't heard anything. Is this just another example of why it's getting "bad press"?
Tom Sietsema: You want to reserve a room for 35 diners and the restaurant isn't returning your phone calls?
That speaks volumes.
My review of the new restaurant runs Oct. 1.
Office park, Va.: Do you prefer your French fries straight or curly?
Tom Sietsema: Straight. With a bit of skin. Long and thin. Lightly salted. Twice-fried.
Washington, D.C.: Comment: An obituary is in order for Becky's Restaurant, another small and modest Chinese restaurant disappearing in the wake of Chinatown gentrification. For years Becky's has been located on H Street between 5th and 6th Streets, next store to the more famous Full Kee restaurant. A developer has purchased the building, so Friday will be Becky's last day in business. The decor of Becky's is plain, the cuisine is very simple, and the prices are low ($3.95 for the luncheon special), so Becky's has maintained a loyal following, including many government employees on limited budgets. There is a real Becky running Becky's restaurant, a slim and energetic person who is also the sole waitress, literally running from table to table to keep up. But next week she will be gone. She plans to take some time off to visit home, and then look for a restaurant space in another area, perhaps near Silver Spring, where rents may be cheaper.
Tom Sietsema: Becky's? I learned something new today.
Arlington, Va.: Hi Tom -
I've been tasked with finding a restaurant for a special family occasion - my parents are going to meet my brother's fiance's parents for the first time. (The benefit is, my partner and I are included in the meal!) So, we're looking for a fine dining experience (suggestions have included Nora and Vidalia), with a large table in a semi-private or other "nook"-like space so we can have a decent get-to-know-you conversation. Any suggestions?
Tom Sietsema: Vidalia would be an excellent choice for your group. So would the Oval Room, 1789, the second floor of the Tabard Inn and perhaps Blue Duck Tavern.
Fairfax, Va.: Hi Tom,
Love your chat! We'll be in town for Thanksgiving this year and since there are only 2 of us, we've decided to eat out! Could you recommend a restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner? When should we make a reservation?
Tom Sietsema: I don't yet have a list of restaurants offering the traditional feast, but one place I've actually experienced and would be eager to return to is the venerable 1789 -- dinner followed by a long stroll through a (hopefully) leafy Georgetown. The sooner the better; the place books up quickly.
Re: San Antonio: Please don't go to Taco Cabana! That's non-local fast food!
Some Alamo City classics: The Barn Door (steak), Tip Top (homestyle cooking), Liberty Bar (eclectic American), and numerous Mexican restaurants (La Fogata, Mi Tierra, etc.). San Antonio is a place to eat deliciously for very cheaply.
Tom Sietsema: Wow, lots of experienced (San Antonio) chowhounds here today.
Washington, D.C.: Is my refresh button not working or are you really slow today Tom? A little too much vino last night??
Tom Sietsema: Maybe a little too much WONDERING last night.
Sorry, I'm a bit distracted (in a good way) this morning.
Re: Indigo Landing: I've actually liked the place since it opened, but wasn't impressed with the service on my most recent visit. Called on a Sunday to see if they could accommodate a party of four for brunch without a reservation. They said it would be no problem, that we should come on in. When we arrived a few minutes later, the hostess said they did not have a table available, but that we could eat in the lounge. I mentioned that we had called ahead, and the hostess repeated that we could sit in the lounge. We stayed and did that because we had already driven out there, but would not have made the drive if we had been told that was all that was available. Our waiter was nice and the food was decent, but we left disappointed about our seating.
Tom Sietsema: One story. Thanks. It's important to be specific.
Indigo Landing Service: Bartenders wouldn't serve my wife and I within 15 minutes...even had one bartender STARE at our empty glasses and then shoot dirty looks at the other bartender to serve us so she didn't have to stop cutting lemons. Bartenders pulling glasses out of the cooler with their fingers DEEP inside them, making sure to touch just about every place on the glass where my mouth would soon be.
Server walked around our table for about 15 minutes before stopping by to offer water, at which time we placed our entire order. Finished plates sitting on the table too long after they were finished (even after the waiter came by, looked at them and left). Server made a few visits during our meal, only to stand tableside awkwardly and offer his comments about what we were in the middle of chewing.
You know, nothing incredibly terrible, but altogether made for an unpleasant service experience.
We didn't ask for a manager because I am in the industry and just wanted to write the experience off and come back again another day.
Tom Sietsema: Gotcha.
Clifton, Va.: Hear waitpersons now want a mandated 20% tip and are confronting customers. Excuse me tips are earned not deserved and you have to provide the necessary service to get a 20% tip. Both my bro and I waited tables and have done every job in a restaurant but manage. We understand the business and whose fault things are. Our tips are generous 25% and up but bubba you have to earn it. Check on us, get the order right and remember who gets what, remember to fill our water and wine glasses etc. If you cant deliver this level of service then get out of the business it isn't that difficult. I could and flirt with the hostesses and waitresses and get a date for later that evening. What's your excuse? If you cant you ain't going to get 20%.
If you confront me about the tip you better have future employment somewhere else because I will make sure you current employer cans you that night. If you get nasty hope you have disability insurance.
If I managed a restaurant and anyone of my wait staff confronted a customer about their tip they would be gone.
Tom Sietsema: Feel better now?
NY: Tom - when would you say your tastes 'matured' or reached an 'equilibrium'? If you were to time-travel and meet your younger self of a certain age, what age would that have to be for you trust that younger self's restaurant recommendation?
Tom Sietsema: What a great question. Thirty maybe? My years in San Francisco were really important, and by then, I had travelled a lot, cooked a lot, been to important restaurants in New York and Paris -- then the important food destinations -- and eaten pretty widely and deeply.
Off to lunch, folks. Thanks for showing up. See you next week.
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