Ask Tom

Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, June 13, 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, First Bite and the 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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Washington, D.C.: Had another lovely meal at Komi last week. We got the wine pairings with our meal and I wanted to mention a nice touch: the sommelier explained that the pairings amounted to about a bottle and if someone wanted less, they should say so and she would pour less. Then she asked if anyone was driving. I can't recall that happening before, but what a great idea!

Love that place--going back on my birthday.

Tom Sietsema: Nice touch, indeed -- and responsible, too.

Good morning, everyone. No major news to report today. Just bring on your questions and comments.

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Washington, D.C.: not sure what to do but eating at a local 17th street bistro last night and asked for dessert to go, found a white pushpin in my pistachio ice cream. Lest you write it off, a lot of media people go to this place, including a major celebrity from NPR.

Tom Sietsema: And did you show white push pin to anyone at the restaurant in question?

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Washington, D.C.: I am part of a group of mothers who get together for dinner once a month. We are all in our mid 30s and early 40s.

I am in charge of planning our dinners for the coming months. Would you suggest one or two restaurants in each of DC, NOVA and MD? Our requirements:

1. Able to accomodate 6 to 10 people at one table.

2. Metro accessible.

3. Main courses in the $10-22 dollar range. Per person cost in the $25-45 range (with apps, drinks, etc.)

4. Any kind of food.

Thanks so much, Tom.

Tom Sietsema: I hope this helps:

DC: Matchbox in Chinatown, Zaytinya in Penn Quarter

VA: Vermilion in Old Town, Guajillo in Arlington

MD: Jackie's in Silver Spring, Black's Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Tom,

Just curious: Are there any restaurants in the area that you simply won't go back to, for any personal or professional reason? They are just SO BAD that they deserve none of your resources, ink, or time. (And, I guess I understand if you can't name names...) Also, how many "chances" do you give a place before making such a decision? By "chance," I mean each go-around of review visits. Thanks! Really enjoy the chats!

Tom Sietsema: What a great question! And the first time it's ever been asked, if memory serves me right.

I'm constantly checking out restaurants, based on reader tips and my own curiosity or research, and I tend to give a place -- especially if it's far away or under the radar-- a single chance if it's not very good. But keep in mind, I'm probably eating with several people and eating a fair amount of food in the process. And after doing what I do for as long as I have, it's pretty easy for me to distinguish a bad night from a bad restaurant.

If I go to a restaurant I've heard about in say, Beltsville or Manassas, and it's not very good, the chances of my returning just in case I hit it on an off night are mighty slim. There are simply too many restaurants competing for my attention -- and that's a GOOD problem to have, I might add.

I try really hard to separate the personal from the professional, but there IS in fact a restaurant with an employee who posted something so awful (and untrue) about me online that I'm disinclined to return. But you know what? The job of a critic is to transcend personal taste (and feeling). So I'll be back -- and open of mind.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Tom. Are there any "romantic" steakhouses in the area? I love Ray's, but it's not exactly a place to linger over dinner and a bottle of wine. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: I admire the sleek, ocean liner-esque interior at Charlie Palmer Steak on the Hill a lot, though I have to report I haven't eaten there in many months. And you can't beat the Prime Rib for old-school charm, from the Art Deco appointments to the live jazz at dinner. The lighting and colors at BLT Steak on I St. are welcome, but the place gets LOUD at prime time.

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Tricky One: Looking for an inexpensive restuarant to celebrate a 27th birthday on a Saturday night. A place where 8 girls can have a fun dinner. Any thoughts?

Tom Sietsema: Downtown's new Brasserie Beck (mussels 'n' suds) comes to mind, and it has the added advantage of interesting people-watching. Cheaper and just as much fun: Comet Ping Pong up on Connecticut Ave. Cafe Saint-Ex is another idea, but keep in mind its small size.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, Tom. I had brunch at Hook this weekend and enjoyed everything about the experience, especially the desserts and doughnuts. Now, I need to return for dinner. Have you been? If so, what are your first impressions?

Tom Sietsema: Stay tuned. My review runs in the Magazine June 17.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi Tom,

I'd like to take my father out to a great Indian meal for a long over due gift. We would go sometime later this summer. I was currently thinking Rasika, which I've been to, but do you have similar suggestions that may be slightly less expensive? I believe last time I went, it was about $125 for two people at Rasika.

Thank you!

Tom Sietsema: Less expensive, closer to you -- but also more traditional than Rasika -- is Passage to India in Bethesda. It's a very good restaurant with an interior that gives you a real sense of place.

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SW Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

Two working girls. Only an hour for lunch and need a bit of privacy and relative quiet to catch up on the goings on in our personal lives! Meeting at Chinatown Metro Stop. First choice is Matchbox but it can't be done in an hour. Suggestions? Mid-range or lower budget ($30 each). Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: ("Working girls," huh?)

Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Try Kanlaya Thai Cuisine on 6th St.

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Tom, why do you like Casa Oaxaca?: I am asking this b/c first of all - I admit - I do question if a restaurant that pops up in Adams Morgan is more interested in its liquor license or its food license. I would say the former, in this case; it seems to want to cater to the drinking crowd. Too bad - b/c a restaurant that could showcase authentic Oaxacan food would be out of this world. It would be one way for Washington DC to strut its foodie feathers by highlighting one of the glorious cuisines from Mexico - and to also illustrate that Mexican food is not of just one variety.

So, are the fun and fanciful drinks what get you?

Thanks,

Tom Sietsema: Not at all. The moles and meats are also very good, reminiscent of what I ate in Oaxaca last year.

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Arlington, Va.: Tom,

Is it fair to ask the waiter to tell the chef to not over salt a dish? I've noticed that as I've been getting older I'm becoming more aware of the amount of salt being used. I've been to several restaurants where the meal would have been perfect if it wasn't over salted.

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema:"Go easy on the salt, please" is a fair and easily honored request, I think.

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emerging food critic, Washington, D.C.: tom--

I've started to freelance as a local food critic and would love some pointers from you, my hero.

thanks.

Tom Sietsema: Is this Eve Harrington?

(Seriously, feel free to contact me at asktom@washpost.com. I'll be happy to help you out if I can.)

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Washington, D.C.: Hey Tom! You brought back some yummy memories last week when you mentioned 1789 "not as tasty as when Ris Lacoste was there". I agree and have been waiting anxiously for her to re-emerge. Where is she? Is she playing "ghost chef" in some restaurant where the food is great, but we don't know she is there? Thought she was opening her own place, any buzz?

Tom Sietsema: Actually, those words weren't mine. A CHATTER thought Ris Lacoste ran a superior kitchen to Nathan Beauchamp. I disagreed with the assessment; Beauchamp is cooking just fine.

As for Ms. Lacoste, I think she still hopes to open a casual (bistro) concept in the West End sometime this year. But I've heard nothing new on that front.

washingtonpost.com: Review of 1789.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Tom,

We plan on dining at Chez Panisse on our way to Sonoma from San Francisco in Sept. Have you been there lately? Gourmet ranks it #2 but on-line reviews are mixed. We're definitely going to Cyrus in Healdsburg (based on your postcard and other's thumbs-up.) Any favs in the town of Sonoma?

Tom Sietsema: Honestly? I actually prefer the upstairs cafe at Chez Panisse to the ground-floor restaurant, which has a set menu. I'm glad to hear you landed a table at Cyrus (say hi to Nick for me) and you can glean additional tips for Sonoma from my fairly recent Postcard column.

washingtonpost.com: Postcard from Tom: Healdsburg

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Arlington, VA: Tom, this is more of an FYI for chatters looking for the best "slow-fast-food" burger. My husband and I carefully analyzed Urban Burger, Five Guys, and Elevation Burger, and found the following with pluses and minuses:

+EB has potato rolls

-FG "controls" their napkins at some locations

+FG gives you TONS of fries

-EB doesn't give as many fries, a minus

+FG is metro accessible!

+FG has peanuts!

+EB has milkshakes!

+UB has a great variety of burger options with cute names and yummy toppings (like avocado)

-UB is more expensive than the others

+UB also has fried twinkies! Plus!

Do the math, think about what's important to you in a burger joint, and enjoy! Yes, I have too much time on my hands.

Tom Sietsema: I'm not sure I'd count fried Twinkies as a plus, but ... thanks for doing some math for all of us.

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Reliable Sources: Amy, Rox!

Tom Sietsema just revealed that he can't resist "working girls"!

Tom Sietsema: Oh, Lord.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Tom, what do you look for in a perfect french fry? I ask because you seemed to have liked the fries at Central, but I was not that impressed. I liked the flavor, but the texture was lacking.

Tom Sietsema: I tend to go for fries that are thin, crisp, lightly salted and as grease-free as possible. Also: the interior should taste of potato, and a good one. You'd be surprised how often french fries DON'T taste of the tuber!

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Washington, D.C.: When I complained to my waiter at Casa Oaxaca about the food, he said that management's priority was the bar area rather than perfecting food, but you liked it?

Tom Sietsema: I find that very hard to believe, based on the service I've received and the generally good quality of the food at Casa Oaxaca.

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Arlington, Va.: What's your favorite place to get Moroccan food?

Tom Sietsema: Pyramids, a little dive of a place on Florida and Sixth. The fancier places are all about style over substance.

washingtonpost.com: The Dish on Pyramids.

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Off to New York this weekend...: Anyplace I shouldn't miss that doesn't require a months-ahead reservation or spending $100 a person for a meal? Thanks for the great chats!

Tom Sietsema: I adore the serene Sushi Yasuda near Grand Central Station; Momofuko Saam Bar for late-night Asian and other fare; and Inoteca on the Lower East side for Italian snacks and sips.

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Clifton, Va.: SInce the outer burbs are such a burden and chore for you maybe you should consider psotcards like you do for places out of town.

Willing to bet a larger portion of your readership lives outside and works outside the beltway and may only get inot DC maybe 3 times a year.

Tom Sietsema: Whatchatawkin' bout, Willis?

I think I get around a lot, and even have a rule about doing two suburban places every month in the Magazine PLUS my first impressions of new restaurants every Wednesday in the Food section. (Last week alone, I was in Gaithersburg, Arlington, Vienna, Bethesda and Annapolis!)

Geez, I'm only one mouth ...

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Alexandria, Va.: Tom: Good morning. I thought I would share my opinion on getting good service. Just a little background, I've been a waiter for 22yrs. I've taken care of you TWICE in one day; Palette and CP Steak, and most recently creator of the tablecloth shaw. Be PROACTIVE. Letting the server know you have time restrictions, you want to take your time or have any special needs alleviates many of the complaints I read about. Being accommidating is a core part of our job. If I could read minds I would be headlining in Vegas. Paul

Tom Sietsema: Got that, everyone? Thanks for chiming in, Paul.

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Washington, D.C.: Best cupcakes in this area can be found at ??????????????????

Tom Sietsema: Baked & Wired in G'town are pretty good ....

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Rockville, Md.: Last Wednesday, while seven of us celebrated a birthday al fresco at Addie's, a loud noise (backfire? gunshot?) was heard as we sipped our beverages and indulged in a newly delivered basket of warm breads.

After a lull of about 20 minutes, our waiter appeared. telling us that the loud boom was the sound of a transformer sizzling out of commission - taking with it Addie's electrical system.

The waiter assured us that our food would be delivered shortly despite the power outage.

After another 35 minutes, down to the last crumbs of bread lingering on the table, the waiter came to serve up the news that indeed, we would not be fed before quickly retreating to prepare our bill.

We patiently waited another 30 minutes for the bill (for a few cold drinks,one glass of wine, and a few salads) before insisting that we had to move on (after all, it was a birthday celebration for one of us). Although we recognized that the power outage was not Addie's doing, some among us felt that we should have been told far earlier of the situation so that we could move on.

Some among us felt that if Addie's could not produce a bill in a timely manner, they should have excused us so that we could move on.

My question: Should Addie's have absorbed the cost of the minimum amount of food delivered up until that time, or should we have had to wait until they got their act together?

Regardless, we all agreed the waiter would be tipped.

Tom Sietsema: If your account is accurate, Addie's should have comped your drinks and food because 1) you were promised that food would be forthcoming and 2) your wait to be told "sorry, there won't be any food after all" was rather long.

Obviously, Addie's can't be faulted for a power outtage. Stuff happens, right? But giving away a few drinks and salads would have engendered a lot of good will -- and kept this unfortunate tale private. (Good for you for tipping the server, by the way, who was likely getting his information from the kitchen.)

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, have you ever gotten, what you believe to be, food poisoning from a restaurant? I'm not asking you to name names, but if so, what did you do about it? My roommate and I got what we believe to be food poisoning from a local restaurant but we didn't call them. But we both ate the same thing and had to call in sick to work the next day. Just wondering if we should have told them.

Tom Sietsema: I've had food poisoning three times before: in Paris, in Old Town (bad oysters in '88) and in Barcelona. But come to think of it, I fell ill in Barcelona after a 13-course meal that had a different alcoholic drink with each course, one of which involved perfume. So maybe it was NOT the fault of the kitchen.

Yes! Report illness to a restaurant. It's the responsible thing to do.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, as a restaurant manager I would like to take this opportunity to let diners know that although Open Table is great way of making reservations, do not rely on it when special instructions need to be followed for the reservation. Always call the restaurant and speak to someone directly in those cases.

Customer notes can easily be missed, especially if it is busy or if the reservation is made right before the next shift. Recently we had a guest make a reservation through Open Table and when they arrrived they were upset that we could not honor their requests. In this case it was two highchairs, one of our two was broken. They claimed to have added the request to their reservation, but we had no record of it, we even checked Open Table's back up at the main office. No requests were noted. A simple call to the restaurant would have prevented the problem. As it was they decided to eat elsewhere. We are in the hospitality trade, give us a chance to work for you instead of leaving writen requests that you hope we will read.

Tom Sietsema: Perfect timing. I was JUST ABOUT to call your restaurant regarding the problem you write about. (Yes, the diners in question beat you to the punch in contacting me.)

Diners, take note: It still pays to speak to a human if you need something special from a restaurant. Further, be sure to mark down the name and time of the person you speak with.

Thanks, Mr. Restaurant Manager, for weighing in on this forum. I always welcome feedback and comments from industry insiders.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

Headed to Santa Fe on vacation in a few weeks.

Don't see a postcard, but was hoping you may have some recommendations.

thanks in advance

Tom Sietsema: Can you wait until July 1, when my Postcard from Santa Fe appears in the Travel section? (If not, email me at asktom@washpost.com and I'll share some recent tips.)

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Arlington, Va.: I know this is an odd request, but my fiance and I are planning on throwing an engagement party for our immediate family and close friends, no more than 25 people. However, we're going to surprise everyone and actually have an officiant there to marry us after our orders are taken. (I'll excuse myself for a business call and quickly change into my dress.) I've already contacted Restaurant Eve, but they unfortunately cannot accomodate my request. We would really like a restaurant that has more atmosphere and better food than a chain restaurant like Maggiano's. Any suggestions?

Tom Sietsema: For such an important occasion, you want to pick a restaurant that has legs and will probably be around for future anniversaries. I'm thinking 1789, Vermilion (upstairs), Zola, the Oval Room, the Occidental, Tabard Inn?

Great idea, by the way. Congrats!

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Re: Addies: It's possible they couldn't produce the bill because of the power outage.

Tom Sietsema: Right, but the group still had to wait and wait to be told no food was forthcoming.

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Baltimore, Md.: Not sure if you addressed this before, but I was curious: do you write your reviews from memory or do you secretly try to take notes in restaurant you're planning to review?

Tom Sietsema: I'm pretty disciplined about typing up my notes as soon as I get home or back to the office. If a waiter says something odd/amusing/important, I sometimes sneak off and jot down a quote or two, but the deal is, I don't want to look like a working critic.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom, any plans to check out the new chef and menu at Lavandou in Cleveland Park?

Tom Sietsema: Do you really think I plan to answer this question?

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Ashburn, Va.: Regarding the suspected food poisoning...you definitely need to let the restaurant know. More than one case is considered an "outbreak" and they need to investigate it.

Tom Sietsema: Two is an outbreak? I just learned something new.

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Casa Oaxaca: Tom, listen to your readers. I also had very poor service at Casa Oaxaca. The servers were dancing around th restaurant (arm-in-arm) while I waited 30 min for my food, they handed me a can of beer without a glass, and my food during both trips was lukewarm at best. I really wanted to like it, but I was very disappointed.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the feedback, but it's not the Casa Oaxaca I experienced. Has anyone else had a good/bad time there? Please speak up.

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Beltsville ain't Manassas: FYI: Beltsville is basically right where I95 and the beltway intersect. Folks who don't travel to Prince George's think everything is far away, but it's not. We're right here, hugging the city just like Bethesda and the other burbs.

Tom Sietsema: I'm listening already!

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom, love the chats! I'm wondering if you've been back to PS7's since last November when you reviewed it. The menu sounds delicious and fresh, but as a believer in Tomism, your less-than-stellar rating makes me hesitant. So?

Tom Sietsema: I've only been back to PS7's for the bar food, not for a full meal in the dining room. Has anyone here in the chat been to Peter Smith's modern American restaurant lately?

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Charleston, W.Va.: Hi Tom,

Any suggestions for out-of-town visitors with a 13-year-old? We're staying on Capitol Hill near the Banana Cafe, which we've had before and liked, so we were thinking we might try that.

Tom Sietsema: I'm not a big fan of Banana Cafe. More my style: Sonoma, at 223 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. Anyone else care to weigh in with family-friendly eats on the Hill?

washingtonpost.com: Review of Sonoma.

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NY, NY: Tom - You are way out of the loop in terms of New York food.

Reader: Check out Momofuku, Nagomi, Morimoto, Mas Farmhouse, The Little Owl, El Maguey y La Tuna - all good ones! not too expensive.

Tom Sietsema: Uh, I MENTIONED Momofuko, pal. And the other two places I listed, per the chatter's request, are both very good (if not exactly brand new) destinations.

Thanks for bringing up Little Owl. We agree on that, too. But it's VERY hot right now, and likely hard to get into.

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Lavandou: What is the inside issue with your rresponse? Just curious!

Tom Sietsema: Simple: I don't want to tip off a restaurant that I might be visiting.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom- 2 couples desperately deadlocked so we submit to you a our restaurant choice under binding arbitration: Komi or CityZen. Quick off tip of you discerning tongue vote is good enough for us.

Tom Sietsema: Yikes. The pressure!

The restaurants are two very different venues, with highly respected chefs and widely admired menus.

What's the occasion? How much do you want to spend? That might help me arrive at a helpful decision.

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Across from the Zoo in Woodley Park: Tom,

Going to San Francisco tomorrow and want to get awesome dim sum lunch on Friday. Where do you recommend? THANKS!!!

Tom Sietsema: Yank Sing is where you want to land.

Over and out for now, chatters. Thanks for another lively hour. See you back here next Wednesday.

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