Ask Tom

Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, January 31, 2007; 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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Columbia Heights, D.C.: Hi, Tom. Which do you think is the most underrated restaurant in DC?

Tom Sietsema: Interesting question!

If we're talking underrated by the general population, I'd venture to suggest Cafe 15, El Chalan, Ching Ching Cha, Makoto, maybe Lavandou on its best days.

Good morning, all.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

After restaurant week and a few other dining experiences, if I had the opportunity to write to D.C. area restaurateurs, this is what I would share:

1. Now that baby is here, we do not have many opportunities for dinner dates and we'd like to have time to enjoy our food and company. PLEASE don't rush us! Just over an hour for cocktails and 3 courses is too fast, especially at a 3 star fine dining restaurant. Please ask your waiters not to rush over to take drink orders before we've even taken off our coats. And if we ask for the wine list, please have them give us some time to look at that AND our menus before wanting to take our order. There is nothing worse than feeling like your staff is just interested in turning the table.

2. Strong arm efforts to pad the bill interfere with our enjoyment of our meal and will likely ensure that we do not return. The "bottle or tap water" question ranks at the top. We actually enjoy bottle water, but when the selection is the usual tasteless Voss or Fiji offered at most area restaurants, we're not interested. And please ask your waiters not to dismiss us as "cheap" because we don't order any - we may actually be inclined to order something later if given the chance. (Twice recently I've wanted coffee with dessert but was never asked, likely because the waiter wrote us off and stopped paying attention to us after we failed to order the bottled water.)

3. We're happy to pay $10-12 for a cocktail or glass of wine, assuming you're offering something interesting or of good quality. But watered down cocktails and extremely marked-up wine lists will also ensure that we won't be inclined to return. Also, if you only serve one beer on tap other than Miller Lite, we'd like your waiter to be able to tell us something about it.

4. Oh, about the coffee, it is kind of annoying to pay $4-5 at a high end restaurant and get coffee with a burned taste. Please make sure your staff understands how to make decent coffee and keep it fresh.

5. If you're known for your seafood dishes and your guests returns both plates 1/2 eaten, maybe you should see what is wrong or rethink participating in Restaurant Week if you cannot retain your quality while doing so.

Thanks, Tom, that feels good!

Tom Sietsema: Lots of food for thought therein!

The best (most helpful to perpetuators) complaints are rich in detail. This is a good example of what I like to see in a rant. Lots of specifics.

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Breakfast anyone: Hi Tom! - Submitting early in the hopes of getting an answer. I'm not a big fan of breakfast, but have a craving for some breakfast food. So, I am looking for an awesome breakfast (or brunch) joint for Saturday. I'm sure you've got a little list of places that offer great breakfast/brunch on the weekend. Thanks for helping!

Tom Sietsema: Breakfast on a Saturday (in the city)? Try Old Ebbitt Grill, Teaism, Hank's Oyster Bar or W Domku in Petworth.

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Alcova Heights, Arlington, Va.: I'm off to NYC in the next week. I'm trying to find out information about a culinary school that also has a restaurant. If my memory is correct the restaurant has discounted meals and you get the opportunity to obviously eat what the students are making.

Does this ring a bell to you? Do you happen to know which school it is?

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: The French Culinary Institute?

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom, I'm writing this before the chat and I'm really hoping you'll post it. Just want to rave about Restaurant Eve. Last year, I bought a gift certificate from them for my brother. It was stolen during a home break-in a few days later. After discussions with the owners, we settled on a plan that if the gift cert wasn't honored by the expiration date in one year, Restaurant Eve would reissue it. One year later, remembered the episode and have made good on their promise. I'm so impressed by their professionalism. Just wanted to give credit where it's due.

Tom Sietsema: What a delicious compromise!

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Washington, D.C.: Hello Tom,

I just want to confirm something that I have heard you say in the past. Tipping on the pre-taxed bill is ok. Four friends and I had dinner last night at my favorite neighborhood Thai place. At my suggestion we left a 20% tip on the amount before tax. The waiter ended up chasing us down the street yelling at us for not leaving a higher tip. It was extremely embarrassing. I'm not mentioning the name as the owner was extremely apologetic but I think I've lost my go to place for thai. So Tom, is tipping pre-tax something I can do in the future and not expect to get run down on the street.

Tom Sietsema: You're yanking my chain, right?

Tipping on the pre-tax amount is just fine, and it's what I tend to do.

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Arlington, Va.: Hey Tom,

I'm in the process of starting up a baking business and I would like to rent some commercial kitchen space on a part-time basis, only a few hours a week. I was hoping you may have know some places I could contact in DC or Arlington/Alexandria that could possibly accommodate my needs.

Tom Sietsema: Can anyone out there come to a baker's rescue?

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More changes?: Tom: Don't want to start any unfounded rumors, but I've heard that there may be big changes in the works at Majestic Cafe in Alexandria. Can you confirm anything?

Tom Sietsema: All I can conform at this point is that one of my long-time favorites has shuttered. I, for one, am bummed. And just when things were looking UP for Old Town, restaurant-wise!

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Middletown, NJ: Good Morning Tom! I don't know who else to ask, please help. When dining at the "chef's table" in or near the kitchen of a great restaurant with a well-known chef, what's the tipping etiquette? He's doing most if not all of the serving, explaining the dishes, filling wine and water glasses, etc. However, bus people are clearing plates, grating cheese and doing whatever else needs doing. Is it still the customary percent? more? less? I'm so confused...

Tom Sietsema: Tip as you normally would for good service. Only in rare cases do chefs get tipped (unfortunately for them, huh?)

For good-to-great service, by the way, 20 percent is now customary. I know some frequent diners who shell out 25 percent for extraordinary service.

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Arlington, Va.: Tom, I may be asking the impossible, but you had an article that mentioned a small restaurant in Arlington, Clarendon area, that only served empanadas (or something like them) on Saturdays. I have looked through all the archives and it is my last gasp effort that you might remember what the hell I'm talking about. Thanks

Tom Sietsema: Are you thinking of Tutto Bene? The Italian restaurant has Bolivian owners who make saltenas on the weekends.

washingtonpost.com: Review of Tutto Bene.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

I need your help! If you were going out for your birthday which place would you choose:

1: Makoto

2: CityZen

3: Charlie Palmer Steak

4: Ray's the Classics

5: The Inn at Easton

We've done Kinkead's, Minibar, Eve and Kaz. Perhaps you have another suggestion? Thank you so much and please keep up the good work! Your chats are a bright spot in an otherwise dreary workweek!

Tom Sietsema: Quite the variety of choices there! I'd probably opt for either Cityzen or the Inn at Easton.

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Washington, D.C.: Upon recently being seated at a table in the streetside window of a relatively upscale DC restaurant, I remarked, somewhat facetiously, to my dining companions that we should all be flattered, since they always put the best looking patrons in the front window. This touched off an unexpected debate over whether this practice really occurs. Your thoughts?

Tom Sietsema: I once had a well-known maitre d' tell me he put the best-looking diners at the best tables, and the window seat of a restaurant certainly qualifies as prime real estate, right?

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Atlanta, Geo.: Tom, I am heading to Paris and Rome in a couple of months for an 8-day vacation. Do you have any suggestions for relatively affordable restaurants that are not tourist traps?

Tom Sietsema: Altogether now: CHECK THE POSTCARDS LINK!

I always try to include at least one bargain restaurant in those Travel section columns.

washingtonpost.com: Postcards from Tom.

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mmm steak: Hey Tom-

What is your favorite steak house in the district? Ruth Chris is my usual go-to but I was thinking of changing it up. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: In the city? Right now? I'd probably head to Capital Grille for my slab of protein.

washingtonpost.com: Review of the Capital Grille.

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convention center area, D.C.: Four of us are heading out to dinner on Saturday night, trying to pick a place walking distance-- of the two, where would you go Corduroy or Acadiana?

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: It depends on what's more important to you. Acadiana has a livelier setting; Corduroy has superior food.

washingtonpost.com: Reviews of Corduroy and Acadiana.

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David Moran, Clyde's Restaurant Group: Dear Tom,

Fair to say, we saw the post from last week's on-line chat and yes it was brought up at a general staff meeting in addition to individual meetings with those who worked on that particular shift. I know no one likes reading anything like that about their own operation but it certainly gives us the feedback we need to hear in order to improve. On behalf, of the entire team at Clyde's of Gallery Place we offer no excuses to the poor experience that "Capitol Hill, Washington DC" had last Sunday. We simply failed to live up to their expectations as well as our own standards and we are truly sorry.

The fact that all of these miscues took place late on a quiet Sunday brunch, demonstrate the need for vigilant supervision of service especially during the non-peak business hours. We obviously took our eye off the ball and paid the price.

We pride ourselves on providing an all around great dining experience including the food, service and ambiance. From the details provided in their comments, it shows we still have a lot of work to do in each area. I do want you (and your readers/our guests) to know remain committed to solving these and other issues and becoming the destination for all when dining in the Chinatown/Gallery Place area.

Sincerely,

David N. Moran

Managing Director

Clyde's of Gallery Place

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for taking the time to respond, David. I think readers appreciate knowing that their complaints (and praise!) get passed along and acknowledged by the restaurants in question.

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

I wanted to share two of my recent experiences at Bistro Bis regarding "water snobbery." Due to business plans, I have had lunch at Bistro Bis three times in the last week. Sadly, the table service has gone from mediocre to poor to bad over the course of the three visits. At the first two luncheons, my guest and I were asked if we wanted "sparkling or still." When we replied that tap would be fine, we got a curt sniff (we also ordered rosemary lemonades). We were not served water until we asked for it again before our desert course. At the third luncheon, which occurred yesterday, my guest and I were given the same options, we made the same reply, but water never appeared at all. The front of the house staff has always been great at Bistro Bis, however, the recent attitudes of the waitstaff have been annoying. I know, I know... you are going to ask, "Hey, did you say something?" I get the feeling that BB simply doesn't care about the comments of the lowly non-Congressperson/non-CNN/FOX/CBS personality. Am I wrong? I also dined at Bistro Bis during Restaurant Week where a waitstaff person joking confided in me that he "hated this week with a passion." Then don't do RW! I hate to think that Bistro Bis is becoming such a snob... Sad, because even though the menu has been getting mixed reviews as of late, it's still got the most delicious, craveable onion soup in these parts.

Tom Sietsema: I bet if I post this, owner Jeff Buben will hear about it. And Jeff Buben cares as much about we little people as he does about bold-faced names. Few top chefs work as hard as he does to make his restaurants work.

That said, why IS Bis a lesser experience than Vidalia these days?

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Alexandria, Va.: Tom- I am a huge fan! and I a problem. My parents are coming to town this weekend. They do not come often. I have taken them a number of places for dinner in DC, Tosca, Zola, Corduroy, etc and they have enjoyed them. This visit I need a Sunday brunch location. Please help!

Tom Sietsema: How about Ardeo, near the Zoo? Or Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan?

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Washington, D.C.: Since when did servers get the idea they can tell their customers how much to tip? 20% pretax in the District is still more than 18% post tax. I know many people who tip between 15-18% (although I only go under 20% when service is poor).

If a server does think the tip was too low, the nice reaction is to ask the customer if something was wrong with the service. That way the server learns if he/she needs to improve and the customer may be made aware if a calculation mistake was made or if they tip under par.

Tom Sietsema: I had a hard time believing that scenario (a waiter running out after a guest paid 20 percent on the pre-tax total, and in a Thai restaurant at that).

I like your diplomatic suggestion, by the way.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom! I just thought I'd throw out a suggestion on a cold day for a great bowl of soup (that's vegetarian too). Last week I stumbled upon the Vegetarian Hot Pot at Ten Penh. It's made in a mushroom broth with chunks of crisp vegetables, tofu, and noodles. At $13 I can't get it everyday, but I wish is could. It's enough for two meals, and worth every penny. I'm always thrilled to find vegetarian soups on the menu, and I hope someone else is too. Thanks Tom!

Tom Sietsema: You've just made the restaurant's publicist -- and possibly some non-meat eaters -- very happy.

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French Culinary Institute restaurant: It's named "L'Ecole" and it's in SoHo in lower Manhattan. Food is excellent; service may be a little erratic, but it is a school and you are in a classroom.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for filling in the gap there!

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15&L,Washington, D.C.: I read your mixed review of Famoso in the magazine but when I looked at the review online, 3 people added some pretty unacceptable experiences. Is Famoso really that bad, or am I just not hearing the good reviews as well as the bad? I have reservations there this month and am nervous.

Tom Sietsema: Who knows?

This much I'll share: I went multiple times and based my review on eating most of the menu and seeing the place on busy weekends and slow weekday nights.

You (and I) have no idea who posted the negative reviews and whether or not they're based in reality.

I'm not saying the online comments aren't accurate, just that they don't have a byline to back them up.

washingtonpost.com: Review of Famoso.

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Washington, D.C.: Had dinner at Al Crostino on U St. last Saturday and quite liked it. Good food, pleasant surroundings, good service, and reasonably priced. However, one aspect did grate. In addition to the regular menu, the waiter recited a long list of appetizer and entree specials. Not only was it hard to keep track of them when considering what to order, but he only told us the prices when asked. And the prices were far higher (like twice as much) as the regular menu items. Why can't restaurants in the US do what many overseas do, and print as menu of daily specials that the diner can consider carefully while ordering? Surely with modern technologies that wouldn't be too hard.

Love the chats, by the way.

Tom Sietsema: If there are more than two or three specials, restaurants should put them down on paper, along with their prices. Any more than three mentions of dishes and all I can recall are a few ingredients ("almonds," "goat cheese," and "meringue" being among the words that most seduce me).

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Majestic:"Shuttered"? As in "closed for good"?! Wha hoppen?

Tom Sietsema: I just found out from one of the owners (talk about good timing!) that the space will be closed for six weeks and reopen as something completely different. Stay tuned for details.

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washingtonpost.com: Review of Al Crostino.

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Anonymous: A party of four is going to minibar in a week. Is there anything we need to know or do ahead of time? None of us has food allergies or aversions. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Bring an open mind. You'll be seeing and eating things that you've never experienced before.

Of all the chefs in America who are doing this style of cooking, no one does it better than Jose Andres and his hard-working team, including Katsuya Fukushima.

washingtonpost.com: Review of Minibar.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Tom,

I think I am getting broken up with tomorrow. I get to suggest the restaurant. Can you recommend an ideal place for such a situation in Dupont? Preferably dim lighting and good food.

Tom Sietsema: Oh dear!

Let's see. Last dinner. Dupont Circle. Good food (you might as well get SOME satisfaction from the evening, right?)

I 'm thinking the alcove booth at Al Tiramisu is where you should head, or the softly lighted Mourayo.

washingtonpost.com: Reviews of Al Tiramisu and Mourayo.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom, Quick anecdote: Long and short, I was waiting tables in college. One time a couple came in at 9:50 (closed at 10) ordered three courses (and the guy hit on me in front of his g/f, ew). I was gracious as ever, it's my job, right? I was closing, so that's the way it goes. Things kept going wrong. The price of juice wasn't on the menu, it should be free... The steak was too small for that price, it should be comped... Anyway, hour and a half later the guy left me $0.50 in change for a tip. IN CHANGE! I was so upset I gave it back to him, "It's okay, it's been a long night, you can keep the fifty cents." He flicked me off and threw the fifty cents on the floor. Was it wrong? Yes. Did I get in trouble? Yes, kinda. Was it worth it? I felt a heck of a lot better, I can tell you that much.

Tom Sietsema: And it's such a funny story in hindsight!

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Chevy Chase, Md.: I am going to be in the Twin Cities with friends in a few months and wanted a few recommendations. There will be 3 little kids (all under 4), but we are hoping to get a sitter once or twice. Where should we dine with and without them? One night should be fairly nice, perhaps steaks another? I know you will have some good ideas. Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: Minneapolis is becoming a seriously good place to eat. One of the best places for steak there is Manny's (or is it Murray's?)

washingtonpost.com: Postcard from Tom: Minneapolis

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Tom's love life: Tom-

Can you finally clear the air and let us know who you're currently dating? I hear so many rumors these days about your love life. It's tough to keep track of you!

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Is this Page Six?

In answer to your question: You'd be very, very, very, very amused. (That's four stars' worth of amusement.)

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Arlington, Va.: What's up with Circle Bistro? I went there for lunch the other week and the service was, as is all too common, painfully slow. The food is still good, but there hasn't been much innovation on the menu. The fact that the building is cloaked in scaffolding didn't much help, either. Could Brendan Cox be persuaded to hire a good manager? Train his staff better? Take his act elsewhere?

Tom Sietsema: I'm not sure how much authority Mr. Cox has over his dining room staff. But I really enjoy (most of) his cooking. And he's about to get much busier (see below):

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Washington, D.C.: Regarding placement of patrons in window seats.....

It is also common for some restaurants to seat patrons away from windows during busy periods, and at windows during slow periods so that the restaurant looks like it has room during rush hour and does not look shuttered during slow hour.

Tom Sietsema: Indeed!

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washingtonpost.com: The Weekly Dish

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Tom,

I'm a very big fan of yours and thoroughly follow your reviews of all restaurants that I dine at. I don't know if this is appropriate or not, but how does one become a food critic? I am a very big diner with lots of thought, I work for a paper, but I don't know what it takes to get me to do what my passion is: food and wine. Any thoughts/suggestions?

Thanks

Tom Sietsema: These days, EVERYONE is a critic, and I'm only half-joking when I type that. Have you noticed how many food and restaurant blogs are out there?

A lot of wanna-be food scribes hope to start at the top, but the fastest way to set sail these days is to write online and get yourself noticed (smart writing and clever ideas help toward that end). If print is your goal, you'll have to start small, writing for a neighborhood newsletter or some such. The big publications won't give you the time of day if you don't have relevant clips.

Are you a member of a dining club, a wine tasting group or other food-related community? You should think about that, too. You'll want to learn as much as you can about the subject of food and drink -- and you never know where a good story (idea) might pop up.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Tom - We dined at 2941 on Saturday night. Nice restaurant, great food, small portions, good service and no couth. Approximately 4 minutes after paying for our meal, which we provided the credit cards immediately upon receipt of the bill, we were approached to receive a tour of the kitchen. Immediately puzzled. Feeling obligated to accept but curious about why we were receiving the offer, we accept, only to find out it was their way of making us leave our table only to seat another customer at our table. This was incredibly rude. 2941... Shame on you! Offer someone a drink with some honesty about needing the table. I will never dine there again.

Tom Sietsema: But the bill was paid, right?

You might be over-reacting. It's not uncommon for diners to be offered a kitchen tour at 2941.

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Anonymous reviews: Hi Tom, thanks for all you do! I've noticed that you're quite skeptical of online anonymous reviews. Is this something that has developed over your time in the industry (like have you heard about/seen people praising their own restaurants or criticizing competition) or are you just generally averse to no-name reviews? Why? I don't usually pay much attention to 2 or 3 reviews, but if there are many user reviews for a restaurant (on sites like the Post, menupages, etc), I find them so useful to get a feel for what it may be like. Just curious.

Tom Sietsema: You're right. I don't much care for anonymous posts, in part because I've encountered more than a few situations where hostile parties with ulterior motives have tried to attack restaurants, chefs and even me. In the most recent case, a former employee of a well-regarded restaurant (someone who was fired from her job) was sending darts to me and washpost.com. You just never know if a poster is a real patron or a publicist or an angry ex or an investor or a rival or ...

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Bethesda, Md.: Hola Tom,

What do you think of Hank's Oyster Bar? Last night it was featured on the Food Network and I was very impressed with how the dishes looked. I have never been there before, but in a way it reminded me of seafood restaurants in New England. What do you think?

Tom Sietsema: My thoughts, embedded below.

washingtonpost.com: Review of Hank's Oyster Bar.

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Alexandria, Va.: Tom,

Really like the chats. I made V day reservations at Pesto Ristorante in Woodley Park. Have you ever been there? Has anyone else? If not, can you suggest some place around $60-70pp, we are not big drinkers so wine not included. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Is that the space that used to house the much-missed Mrs. Simpson's? If so, it's ... OK.

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Washington, D.C.: I know you get thousands of "where should we go to lunch?" requests, but I think I have a good one:

My boyfriend and I want to celebrate Valentine's Day next weekend. We're young and relatively broke, but we spend all of our extra money on food. We're looking for someplace nice and fun but not exorbitantly expensive; preferably in the District or northern VA; our current favorites are Zola, Jaleo, and Matchbox; we'd prefer dinner but if we could get a good deal at a fancier place for lunch, we'd do that too. Ideal price would be $50 for both of us (not including wine). Thoughts? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: For dinner next weekend (psst: you better book NOW, because a lot of people are celebrating the holiday before Feb. 14) you might try the softly lighted Cafe St.-Ex in Logan Circle; the stylish, Asian-acented Simply Home on U St.; or the neighborly Mark & Orlando's in Dupont Circle.

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Ipswich, Mass.: Hi Tom,

I just saw a fascinating chef on food network whose restaurant is in Chicago. It's called Moto. I looked in your postcards and didn't see a review. Have you ever been there? He cooks with lasers and liquid nitrogen and power tools. I guess it's the new age of cooking. What do you think?

Tom Sietsema: I want my $600 back from the dreadful dinner I endured there a year or so ago!

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K Street, Washington, D.C.: Yum! I just had some truffle fries at 21P. What other places in the area serves these delicious treats?

Tom Sietsema: Both Poste (in Penn Quarter) and Firefly (off Dupont Circle) offer similar spuds.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Several times lately as I have been seated and menus given to me, the waiter will stand there and ask what wine I would like to order. I find this strange because I like to know what I am going to eat first and then decide on wine. I get annoyed looks at times when I say I want to choose food and then wine and a need a few minutes. Am I missing something? Is it normal for people to order wine as soon as they are seated? Just curious.

Tom Sietsema: Are you sure the waiters aren't asking you if you want something other than water to whet your whistle? I'm used to having servers ask if I'd like to start with a cocktail.

If they're asking about wine specifically, you can subtly relay your gripe: "I don't know. I haven't had a chance to look at the selections yet." Or something similar.

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Washington, D.C.: Would you be excited about reservations at Charlie Palmer, if you've been before and it's a rare treat to be dining out?

Tom Sietsema: Knowing what I know and tasting what I've eaten since it opened, I'd be more excited if it were 2005 than 2007.

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Washington, D.C.: The other "Washington DC" made a very good point, one that really resonates with me, on the matter of service.

We also were incredibly annoyed at the frenetic service we received during restaurant week. Yes, the pressure to turn the table is annoying, but also, it seems that some folks don't recognize the difference between "attentive" and "helicopter".

My water glass does not need to be topped up every time I drain it by an inch. One inquiry per course about "how everything is" will suffice, thank you. Don't interrupt our conversation when it's clear that we're eating happily. PLEASE wait til everyone has finished to start clearing plates. This is my biggest pet peeve in restaurants these days, that a busboy will lean over my unfinished meal to take my companion's plate away. I've even been offered dessert while I was still eating, because one or more dining companion had already finished.

The key to good service is to be attentive from a distance, (I'll let it be known if I need something) and to remember that we're there to relax and enjoy the company we brought with us.

Bon appetit!

Tom Sietsema: And with that, I bid you farewell for today.

Stay warm, eat well, and let's meet again next Wednesday.

Over and out -- and off to lunch.

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