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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, April 9, 2008; 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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Capitol Hill : Tom,

One of the posts from a few weeks back about the corked wine at Vetri in Philadelphia reminded me of a very unfortunate experience I had at Montmatre, one of your faves that you recommended on another recent post. As a resident of the Hill, I am saddened that I cannot in good conscience return to this establishment. Here's why:

My fiancee and I showed up late one Friday evening a few months back and we ordered, in addition to our entrees, a nice bottle of wine ($60+.) Upon bringing the bottle to the table, the waitress attempted numerous times, unsuccessfully, to open the bottle. After roughly manhandling the bottle and sticking and re-sticking the wine opener into the cork one too many times, she left the table, embarrassed, and took the bottle back to the bar where she continued to fail miserably. She eventually handed the bottle over to the bar manager who finally got the bottle open. The wine was poured into our glasses at the bar and when served to us, we were not surprised to find it completely corked.

When we objected, citing how we even watched the wine getting corked by way of its handling, the manager came over and began to berate us. "Are you kidding me?!" she screamed, in her French accent. "The wine is fine. The sommelier tried it and said it's fine. And, if you don't drink it, you're still going to be charged for it and it's $70."

I was stunned. Not only because she embarrassed us in front of other patrons (yes, people turned to stare at the commotion she was making) but because the sommelier had poured himself a glass to try, knowing full-well it was bad by that point, prior to us being served.

When we calmly explained that, no, we had no intention of drinking the wine and, as such, would like it removed from our bill, she walked off in a huff, only to congregate the waiters around the bar area so that, as a group, they could drink our (corked) wine, whisper and point at us while we ate our entrees. Their intimidation tactics didn't work but, by the time we left, I was so stunned at their treatment towards us that I walked out in tears.

Tom - I know you are a fan of this French "gem" but the experience was hands-down the most rude and offensive showing on part of a restaurant establishment I ever hope to know. I wanted to share my story as a warning to others. The food there may be delightful but the service is vulgar. We have shared our experience with all of our Hill friends and they, too, are shocked, vowing never go to Montmatre themselves again. The restaurant not only lost us as patrons that night but many of our neighbors as well.

Tom Sietsema: Ouch! Definitely NOT a way to win friends.

I hope I'm getting the full, true story here. The thing with corked wine is, the faulty product can be returned by the restaurant to its distributor, so the restaurant isn't losing any money by taking a wine back from a customer. Or so I always believed.

Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining me today.

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Alexandria, Va.: Le Paradou has to get a grip (or maybe I do). We went for a business dinner last month, and were embarrassed to have to chose a moderately priced wine, for which the client was paying, only to find only two below $100. A phone book of wine, and $250 was the typical price, while the fixed-price, three-course meal was $100. Is there a ratio of bottle/meal prices that is respected around D.C., with which I am not acquainted, or is Le Paradou off the charts?

Tom Sietsema: Le Paradou is "off the charts." But it has some competition for the dishonor, trust me!

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Vidalia, ew, part 2: Hi Tom,

Your article about noise in restaurants was great! I hope it makes a difference. One question: how do you measure the decibels of the noise and still stay under cover as a critic? I picture you wearing HUGE headphones waving a megaphone-like detector around, and that can't be right, can it?

Thanks again for letting me air my thoughts about Vidalia last Wednesday. You'll never guess who called me last week before the chat was over: the general manager of Vidalia. He identified himself, and asked many questions about my disappointing experience, and expressed deep regret and distress about our terrible dining experience. He apologized profusely, seemed interested in my feedback and promised to send me something in the mail so that (in his words) "we'd be willing to give Vidalia a second chance." I was pleased by this response, as you may imagine, and in the week since, I've been checking my mail looking for whatever it was that he sent. As of today, there's been nothing, and I think that says more about the quality of the restaurant and its management than anything else. Sad, isn't it? You expect better from a three-star restaurant. I did, anyway.

Tom Sietsema: The device I use is not that big and can blend into crowds pretty easily. That's all I think I'll say about the equipment for now.

I called Vidalia this morning. Your gift certificate did indeed go out last week, according to a manager. Keep an eye out for it. (And let me know when you get it, OK?)

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

What's a great restaurant in the U Street area that you enjoy?

I have some friends in from out of town who are thinking of moving to area I would like to show them how much D.C. has changed over the past few years, and everything that it has to offer.

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: You have to try Etete for Ethiopian, Marvin for its soul-meets-Brussels cuisine and Simply Home for its smart design and fun pan-Asian accents.

washingtonpost.com: Review: Simply Home

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Boston, Mass.: Hi Tom, please help me settle a debate between my husband and me. My sweetheart has a habit of drinking the remainder in his beverage glass after standing up to leave a restaurant. I think it's rude and looks tacky, he thinks he's just grabbing one for the road . . . who's right? Love the chats, thanks!

Tom Sietsema: I'm in your camp.

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Penn Quarter, Washington, D.C.: Tom - enjoyed your Sunday column about noise, with two caveats. First, I did not understand your repeated reference to us mature adults as being hard of hearing and confused by noise. I am in sight of the goal posts of 58 and a have been a proud card carrying member of AARP. I have taken care of my hearing and am certainly better off than many teens who have been to overly loud rock concerts or who play their mp3 players at high volume. I regularly go out to restaurants without doddering or special needs. Your article contains numerous ageist remarks that are beneath you. Second, I'm upset that you put in noise ratings without also adding bathroom cleanliness ratings. I bet you and your followers could have some fun coming up with the appropriate symbols. :-D

Tom Sietsema: I'm sorry if I came across as ageist. That was not my intent. The point I wanted to make in my intro was simply that many of the people complaining about restaurants are quite young.

As for adding bathroom ratings, I'm not sure I want to go there (yet).

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Dulles Airport: Tom - We're looking for an early dinner near Dulles Airport before catching a flight down to New Orleans (yay!) - any tips? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: My standard response to that question -- Thai Basil in Chantilly -- has yet to be challenged by anyone who has taken it. The restaurant remains a delicious pit stop on the way to the airport.

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Tom Sietsema: This just in from Vidalia: It turns out the gift certificate was sent on Friday, April 4, but was returned due to an "incomplete" address -- although the address (an Orlanda one) was in fact complete, according to the restaurant. Stay tuned. A manager will be calling the party waiting for the gift certificate.

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Red Velv, ET: Hi Tom,

On my travels I've recently discovered the joys of red velvet cake. I was wondering if you, or the chatters, know of a good place in D.C. that serves this delectable treat?

Tom Sietsema: I'd call Majestic in Old Town and Johnny's Half Shell on the Hill, two places where I've enjoyed that old-fashioned dessert in the past. Have any chatters since a red velvet anywhere else lately?

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Rockville, Md.: Tom, thanks again, especially for the noise feature.

Any news on Corduroy or the Maestro space?

Tom Sietsema: Chef Tom Power told me last week that Corduroy is expected to open "around" April 23. I don't have any update on the Maestro space.

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Kostas, Greek Deli: NEXT ON THE LINE!!!

Tom Sietsema: I hear that's what he says (or barks)!

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Silver Spring, Md.: Tom,

Can you please explain how mishandling a wine bottle as described in the first post can led to "corked" wine? I thought corking(?) was something that happened over time, not five minutes of failed attempts to open a bottle.

Tom Sietsema: I should have addressed that part of the post. Corked wine is damaged over time, or by improper storage, not by simply trying to open the bottle.

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Bethesda, Md.: Our couples book club is meeting this Saturday at our place to discuss Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried (about the Vietnam war). I want to serve authentic Vietnamese food and wonder which restaurants you recommend where I can pick up (or if they deliver -- better yet) a Vietnamese dinner for 12 with guests arriving at 7:30 p.m.? Thanks for your help. (We live on Massachusetts Ave. just two miles from the D.C. line at Westmoreland Circle.)

Tom Sietsema: Nam-Viet in Cleveland Park is probably your best bet. Sadly, there are few Vietnamese restaurants in the District. Good luck. And say "hi" to Tim. I think he knows my little brother, John. (We're all native Minnesotans.)

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Kudos to BLT: Last week I met a colleague at BLT for lunch at 11:45 a.m. Our soup came and was wonderful, but unfortunately, our entrees did not come until 12:45 pm. Her tuna tartare was good, but my poor crab cake was ice cold in the center. I sent it back and the waiter profusely apologized and offered to get me something else. I declined, having already been there an hour and needing to get back to work.

I then mentioned to my lunchmate that a few years prior when BLT had just opened I had gotten cold onion rings, but I had since been back for many good meals. Suddenly, the manager swung by and again apologized and said the whole meal was on them; our waiter appeared and said he was sorry this was the second time I had a problem with the food's temperature. Wow. . . . I have had many great lunches and happy hours at BLT and with service like that, I will surely be back. So I just wanted to say kudos to both the manager and waiter for a situation handled so well...

P.S. I do have over 10,000 points on Open Table, so sometimes I wonder if that affects a restaurant's response . . .

Tom Sietsema: Good for the server and the manager for picking up on your comments. I'm sure your status on OpenTable couldn't hurt, either.

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NW, DC--- Good Customer: On the last chat, one chatter mentioned that Dukem is the best Ethiopian Restaurant -- and he mentioned that he was Ethiopian?? Give me a break -- As an Ethiopian, that restaurant dosn't respect the Ethiopian customers. The service is poor and you get seated or treated last if you are an Ethiopian. Not sure why. It has occured a few times and I had mentioned it to the manager as well as the owner. But still the same situation. The funny part is when I go there with a friend or clients who are not Ethiopian the service is divine. And I refuse to eat in an establishment who shows no respect to a buying customer. I believe all should be equally treated. One more thing that place is dirty and nasty, but again that is the only place that has outside steating. I'll recommend Habesha. That is sort of a carryout joint, but at least they treat everyone equally. Not even at "The CUT" you get such treatment. Unless you are the owner, as an Ethiopian one will not recommend that dive in unless they change their act.

Tom Sietsema: I'm wary of your post. I've spoken with many, many Ethiopians who have sung the praises of Dukem -- and not one has ever mentioned profiling guests.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Truthfully -- what do you think of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern?

Tom Sietsema: I like the "old" Anthony Bourdain. Before he became a household name. Something happens to people who get too much press -- they start to believe it. I don't have an opinion about Zimmern.

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Logan Circle, D.C.: Not a full restaurant, but Baked and Wired in Georgetown sometimes has red velvet cupcakes. The best red velvet cupcakes in the entire world. Not, you understand, that I'm biased or anything. (Nor do I work there!)

Tom Sietsema: Mmmmm. Thanks for the tip.

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Bethesda, Md.: Bless you for drawing attention to the noise issue. Not long ago, my wife and I were dining in a moderate restaurant on a busy Saturday night. An adjacent table had a large group that was very loud -- so much so that we couldn't hear each other talking. Though they had finished eating, they lingered with their drinks -- even ordering another round to the benefit of the restaurant's bottom line. Eventually, we complained and asked for another table, and fortunately, things has cleared out enough that they moved us to an empty room in the back. We must have started something, because within about five minutes, we were joined by three other parties of two or one -- one carrying their half-eaten dinners with them. We all realize that the restaurants have to find the right balance between too quiet and too noisy, and that it's in their interest to cater to the bigger spenders; but a "quiet room" may be the 2008 version of the non-smoking room of a couple of decades ago. Your noise ratings will help to steer us away from those places that either can't or won't keep things bearable.

Tom Sietsema: "Quiet or loud?" I like your seating idea!

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Springfield, Va.: Do you have any guilty pleasures as far as food-related TV watching? I can't resist Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and anything with Gordon Ramsay in it.

Tom Sietsema: My guilty pleasure is "The Biggest Loser." (And "Cops.")

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Vinoteca-food-blech: Late post, but just saw the First Bite. We went to Vinoteca about 2-3 weeks ago. First of all, we found the lighting in the whole place, but particularly in the bar, glaring. Not at all conducive to cozy and intimate. Second, we took a look at the food the couple next to us had ordered, which included the sliders. While I was excited by the thought of the variety of the little burgers, they looked terrible -- dry, flaccid, old. We ended up, because we were hungry, just ordering a cheese plate instead of "real" food, and even then were a bit disappointed. Overall, given the plethora of wine bars around town now (quite liked Veritas), don't think we'd return to Vinoteca.

Tom Sietsema: The food at Vinoteca is waaaaay better than that at Veritas. But I hear you about the design at the former. My problem wasn't bright lights (the lighting was fine when I dropped by) but the red tile on the bar, which reminded all of my party of something a fast-food joint would use.

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Noisy Restaurants: I've found that life has gotten noisier in general. People crank their iPods so loud that everyone can hear, they scream into their cellphones in enclosed spaces, they can't shut up and listen to their own thoughts. Loud restaurants are just part of the problem.

Are people so afraid of their own company? Is quiet so terrifying?

For what it's worth, I'm 31.

Tom Sietsema: You're preaching to the choir, my friend.

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LOVED the article on noise!: Tom-

My husband and I appreciated your article VERY much. We're often disappointed in a place due to the noise level above anything else. Another complaint -- TVs in the dining rooms!!! Hopefully this phenomenon is on the decline, but even mid-level restaurants were starting to install them in dining rooms. VERY distracting, even with the noise off.

Tom Sietsema: I'm no fan of TVs in restaurants, either.

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Arlington, Va.: Georgetown Cupcake makes Red Velvet cupcakes with cream cheese frosting. I believe the pastry shop by Rustico does, as well.

Tom Sietsema: There you go, red-velvet seeker.

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Din Din: Hi Tom, I'm curious what the response has been from restauranteurs since your article came out. Do tell!

Tom Sietsema: I've heard from exactly ONE restaurant owner -- and about 400 readers. I'm not sure what that means.

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Bethesda: I loved your piece in the magazine this week and I totally agree with you (27-year-old/female), but I thought you were overly harsh on Zaytinya.

I agree that it is really loud there, but why did you keep going back to them again and again as the quintessential example when there are dozens of other restaurants in town that are as bad, if not worse? For me, Zaytinya is worth putting up with the noise because the food is amazing.

Tom Sietsema: For starters, I opened the story with Zaytinya, which is one of the most popular restaurants around. I didn't feel as if I was picking on the place. A number of other popular restaurants certainly came in for a little spanking.

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RE: I've been checking my mail looking for whatever it was that he sent. As of today, there's been nothing, and I think that says more about the quality of the restaurant and its management than anything else. : Really, it might say more about the quality of mail delivery in D.C. I wouldn't hold it against the restaurant. On numerous occasions I've gotten mail very late, and it seems to have gotten worse lately. I've sent notes to local friends that took two weeks to get to them! And one of my in-laws was all up in arms about me not thanking her for a gift card she sent. It did eventually arrive but a few weeks later than it should have. By then the surprise was spoiled and I'm sure she STILL thinks I'm making up the late mail delivery for not thanking her right away.

Tom Sietsema: At the risk of offending my pals at the US Postal Service (Hi, Eddie!), I can sympathize with you.

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Vienna, Va.: Tom,

Thanks for your article this Sunday. A little noise is fine in a restaurant, but I hate when I can't hear a person across the table.

My father (who is a vegetarian) has his 70th birthday coming up in May. Any ideas for a very special restaurant to take him?

Tom Sietsema: Are you planning to splurge? Most of the starrier restaurants offer vegetarian tasting menus; among the best is the meatless parade at Cityzen in the Mandarin-Oriental Hotel.

washingtonpost.com: Review: CityZen

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom-

We just got married in New Orleans (yay!) and had a great pre-wedding dinner at Cochon. It was amazing and not to be missed if you're down there. But now we have a problem. My in-laws are coming in a couple of weeks and want more upscale southern food. You said last week that you'd been hearing bad things about Vidalia, so are we better off at Georgia Brown's?

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: How adventurous are your in-laws? I ask, because some of the southern cooking at the recently reviewed Marvin in the U St. corridor is quite good, but the clientele skews young and urban. Georgia Brown's would be my last pick. It hasn't been good in a long time.

washingtonpost.com: Review: Marvin

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Clinton, Md.: Hi Tom,

I've read and enjoyed your chats for years, and found you to be witty and intelligent over the years. However, I was very disturbed about your comment last week about the restaurants coming in to the new National Harbor. I realize they are chains, and not your favored GAR, but you dismissed as "Bad food coming in" without even trying them. I thought journalists where supposed to be objective! These restaurants aren't even open yet, and you have given them their first bad review. For the record, I live in the area of National Harbor, but have no connection to them, except as a diner hoping to never have to travel for good food again. You usually have a policy of not commenting on restaurants you haven't eaten in or reviewed. You should have stuck to that policy this time!

Tom Sietsema: Not so fast, Clinton. I wasn't reviewing yet-to-open restaurants. I was simply commenting on the quality of what's to come -- based in part on my past experience and/or my knowledge of the businesses and chefs. It's a shame, for instance, that so few local restaurants aren't part of the mix.

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Downtown: Hi Tom -

This is a rant rolled into a question, I think. What is your take on the price of soda and charging a patron for each soda refill? It seems to me like this is just crazy. I'm willing to pay good money in restaurants for food and service, but to charge $2 a soda and then charge for each soda, I don't know...it just seems like too much of a mark up to me. I also have noticed that take out lunch places in the city are marking up their sodas and chips so high that it makes me think twice before going to certain establishments. For example, I bought a $6.50 sandwich at the brown bag downtown and checked out at $10.50 because I bought a CAN of soda and small bag of chips....who do these people think they're kidding???

Tom Sietsema: You can always vote with your feet -- and buy lunch from a less expensive competitor.

Just curious: Can any restaurateur out there tell the crowd how much money is made off a glass of soda?

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Downtown: A few weeks ago, I wrote in asking for advice on locating a private room. You recommended Tosca and I must thank you. Not only was Suzanna and the rest of the staff incredibly helpful and professional, the food was fantastic and the room was great as well. Everyone seemed pleased and I was asked if we could hold another event there in the future.

Tom Sietsema: Add another restaurant with room for private functions: The recently tweaked dining room at Equinox on Connecticut Ave., whose curtains are used to divide the front space into two private "rooms" for 20 or so guests each.

washingtonpost.com: Dish: Equinox's Expansion

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Formerly of St. Paul, Minn.: Dear Tom,

Why was your recent postcard from the Great White North only abut Minneapolis? Are there no good restaurants in St. Paul, only cheese curds at State Fair?

Tom Sietsema: I happened to be staying in Minneapolis, hence the mini-reviews from there. However, one restaurant I like across the river is Heartland in St. Paul.

washingtonpost.com: Postcard From Tom: Minneapolis

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Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: Tom -

In recent chats, there have been several complaints about Two Amys. Have you had a chance to check it out and see if they're not living up to their reputation?

Tom Sietsema: In the course of reporting my article on restaurant noise, I ate at Two Amys. My meal was splendid -- no problem with a burned or soupy pie, as some chatters have groused about. But the downstairs room was deafening! Upstairs is much easier on the ears (if a little boring).

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For the book club: Don't forget to put out a bowl of M and Ms. One of the characters, a medic, always has them for injured soldiers. An original footnote to the story said that M and M was shorthand for a painkiller. After receiving letters from field medics who served in the war, the publisher corrected it -- in fact, when a soldier was injured too badly to be saved, the medic would give the soldier a few M and Ms and promise that they were pills that would take the pain away, because nothing else could be done, and it gave the soldier relief.

Not restaurant related, but a good addition to your discussion!

Tom Sietsema: I learn something new every week from this smart crowd.

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Alexandria, Va.: Shout out to you! Thanks to these chats, I've visited two local restaurants I had initially dismissed: Rustico and Farrah Olivia, and liked them both. I had assumed Rustico was just all about beer, but the food and service are both first rate; and Farrah Olivia is a great choice when I'm feeling adventurous and need some experimentation on my plate. So thanks Tom!

Tom Sietsema: You're welcome -- although I've never formally reviewed Rustico.

washingtonpost.com: Review: Farrah Olivia

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Noise.: A simple solution to turn down the volume would be to go back to tablecloths. They absorb a lot of sound and give the place a more elegant look.

Tom Sietsema: But the current design trend is all about undressed tables .... ;(

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Noisy: You've given me a great idea for an invention. Headsets like helicopter crews use to talk to each other for rent in restaurants.

Tom Sietsema: Bravo!

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Red Velvet Cake: Carolina Kitchen -- Largo Town Center has pretty good velvet cake.

Tom Sietsema: Again, thanks. I guess the dessert isn't as rare a sight as I thought it was.

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Cascades, Va.: Hi Tom! I really could use your advice: my father-in-law and his girlfriend will be coming to visit us from the Midwest. They'll be taking a tour of the White House on a Sunday afternoon and afterwards we'd like to take them to dinner in the District at a nice restaurant that isn't too trendy or loud, will have food that isn't too adventurous (ethnic fare is definitely out), and is kid-friendly. Any suggestions? Thanks much!

Tom Sietsema: That's a pretty tall order: nice but not trendy, nothing "ethnic," open on a Sunday AND suitable for children. I'm thinking Comet Ping Pong or Pizzeria Paradiso for pizza, maybe the Occidental in the nearby Willard Hotel for traditional American. The Oceanaire Seafood Room is also a good downtown choice. Reviews for each are online, by the way.

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Tipping Etiquette: Hi Tom,

Just curious - what is appropriate tip at a place like Fogo de Chao? I had the full menu, and my girlfriend only the salad bar.

We couldn't decide what was appropriate for our waiter, but decided that they must pool tips for all of the "gauchos" running around like crazy, so we left 20 percent. I believe that diners tip less at buffets. How did we do?

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: I'm with you. I would have tipped 20 percent as well. Those meat runners work hard, and they're very diligent. And somebody had to help you out with wine, correct?

washingtonpost.com: Review: Fogo de Chao

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Hagerstown, Md.: Got reservations to Minibar! Going next week for a birthday present to myself. I know you've answered this before but can't remember your thoughts. Should I go ahead and get the wine tasting as well? Which one? If not what else would you recommend to drink? Thanks. Oh, just to throw it out there, what do you or other readers consider "dressy casual".

Tom Sietsema: I prefer to drink champagne throughout the feast (you'll thank me in the morning). Dressy-casual is nice top or shirt, pants other than jeans, optional jacket.

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Sushi: Tom, what's your favorite sushi place in NW? On the laid-back, not super expensive side (i.e., not Makoto) is preferable. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: For inexpensive raw fish, I gravitate to Kotobuki (above Makoto in Palisades). If I want to splurge, I aim for Kaz Sushi Bistro downtown or Sushi-Ko in Glover Park.

washingtonpost.com: Review: Kotobuki

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Silver Spring, Md.: Tom,

Is Makoto in the Palisades with the cost for a special occasion? Whenever I swing by the sushi place upstairs, I'm intrigued.

Tom Sietsema: I adore Makoto. But those women-servers can be might intimidating some nights! My favorite place to sit is right in front of the open kitchen.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

The description of the wine service the chatter had at Montmartre seems like the chatter let his or her mistake about how a wine gets corked (which has aboslutely nothing to do with how a bottle is opened -- it's a comes about from a fungus that is randomly present in about 3 percent of all natural corks used to close wines) affect his judgment of the wine's taste. Simply put, I'll bet our chatter watched the poor waiter's dismal attempt to open the wine and simply expected the wine to be corked. The staff probably enjoyed the bottle of wine -- if it were corked it would have tasted like a combination of cardboard and wet leaves, and certainly not anything anyone would drink, even for free. Having said all of this, it sounds like the staff compounded the problem by not remembering that in the hospitality business you take your customers as they come -- even if they are as not as well informed as the sommelier.

Tom Sietsema: You know what? You may be right. And I think I read the opening post a little too quickly.

Let me be clear: While it's not a great thing, getting pieces of cork in one's glass or bottle, the mess isn't the CAUSE of corked wine. Those little pieces of cork shouldn't affect the flavor of what's in the bottle, unless something is wriong with the stopper.

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Washington, D.C.: Regarding tables without table cloths:

I imagine part of the reason for this, other than being "in" is the razor thin profit margins of operating a restaurant. Adding table cloths to a restaurant can cost thousands a week . . . .

Seriously.

Tom Sietsema: So restaurant owners tell me. Laundry ain't cheap!

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Bethesda, Md.: I was surprised and disappointed to see the the popular Louisiana Express had closed in Bethesda. What happened?

Tom Sietsema: You are one of many readers sorry to see the venerable restaurant shutter. For details, check out my Ask Tom column April 27. (Sorry, I don't want to scoop myself.)

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Georgetown, D.C.: Dear Tom -- Desperately need advice..

While grappling with a buyout offer in this tanking economy, I'm taking my financial adviser to lunch near Vienna/Tysons on Saturday. We've only communicated by phone and e-mail (he's pretty festive and savvy for a financial type). Lunch will precede a session of number-crunching. I'd love someplace smart, with good food and wine. My treat. Maybe $100 for two. Don't ask why I'm picking up the check. I offered. His job is to make such generosity possible well into my dotage.

Tom Sietsema: What a nice client you are!

I think you'll find what you want at either Bazin's on Church in Vienna or Lebanese Taverna in Tysons.

washingtonpost.com: Review: Bazin's on Church

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McLean, Va.: Tom, a comment on menu design and lighting. Restaurant owners, please remember that if you are going to pick a fancy font and use a tiny point size your menu becomes almost impossible to read if you choose to also dimly light your rooms. Thank heavens for bright cellphones.

Tom Sietsema: One reader told me she bought a little lantern to use in dim restaurants . . . .

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Bethesda, Md.: Dear Tom,

This is actually a comment rather than a question.

I just read the article in the Washington Post Magazine about noise levels in restaurants and I am ecstatic.

I can't agree more with those who complain about the noise in restaurants. The annoyance is beyond the pale. I love dining out, but it has become an incredibly painful experience to have to shout to the other person to be heard above the din. Who needs that after a stressful Washington day or when you're trying to have a relaxing weekend evening?

Compounding the problem, is that my boyfriend, a veteran of the armed services, has lost some of his hearing. It is not only non-romantic to have to try to communicate at such restaurants, it has actually become an emotionally devastating experience for him that he can't enjoy a simple evening out with me or a few friends because of it. Similarly for another friend who has lost a lot of her hearing and must wear a hearing aid. These aids work well. But the loud din, coupled with the clanging of plates and utensils, which the hearing aid picks up as louder and more reverberating that normal hearing, has made it an incredibly difficult experience for her. She has all but given up.

Keep up the good work. From now on, the FIRST thing I'm going to look at in a restaurant review is the noise level and the decibel rating that you'll be providing. I would TRULY rather eat a less than spectacular meal in a much more comfortable atmosphere. And to me, a low noise level is the #1 criterion of what I look for in comfort.

Thank you again.

From Bethesda

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for sharing your comments.

I was overwhelmed by the response (which continues to flood in) from that article. An estimated 28 million Americans suffer from hearing loss, and not all for the same reason, as you point out. I really hope the offending restaurants take action on the issue.

Small plug, if I may: I was interviewed for All Things Considered on NPR yesterday. If all works out, a segment on noisy restaurants should run today during the program's regular broadcast.

washingtonpost.com: No Appetite for Noise

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Washington, D.C.: Would you recommend The Monocle for dinner? Does it have a specialty? I enjoy reading your reviews and love your recommendations. Thank you!

Tom Sietsema: Gosh, I haven't been to the Monocle since --- the Reagan era! Maybe we can ask someone with more recent experience. Chatters?

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Tangential question: I love both your chat and Michael Dirda's, but recently when I recommended Ruth Reichl's "Garlic & Sapphires," he scoffed, saying he bet she was known far & wide at the end of her first week on the job. Can he really believe that? You might want to have a word with him.

Tom Sietsema: Well, she certainly TRIED to dine anonymously. It's not easy when you're as attractive (that mouth! those eyes!) and distinctive (those curls!) as Reichl is.

I remember running into Julia Child at Le Cirque one night, when a bunch of food types were gathered there, and her saying that "Everyone is here tonight, including Ruth in that awful wig!"

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

I'm trying to find the best Bloody Mary in town. One that's available all the time, not just for brunch. Can you help? I've been to too many places with the pre-packaged junk.

Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: I haven't sampled enough to declare it "best," but the Bloody Mary at Logan at the Heights is a real eye-opener, nicely kicky. I can't say the same for the restaurant's huge portions of dreadful brunch fare, alas . . . .

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Tom-

I have been searching for a store or market where I can buy fresh fish. I've been to one in D.C. and have not been impressed with the quality/selection. In addition to a fish-market recommendation, do you know where I could buy octopus? I'd love to grill some and can't get over to Laconda often enough to have theirs (which is as good as what I had on Santorini!)

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: My pals in the Food section swear by Blacksalt in the city and River Falls Seafood in Potomac. (I don't do much food shopping, as you might imagine.)

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom! Here's question I've not seen discussed here. Why is it fashionable to serve a dish with a scatter of spices or herbs all over the rim of the plate? I find it incredibly annoying, as the tiny crumbs of parley, cinnamon, or pepper usually end up ground into my clothing, and it doesn't actually flavor the food. I realize some chefs think it looks nice against a white plate, but truly, it's just inconvenient. I was at a favorite restaurant yesterday, enjoying a truly great sandwich, but every movement on my part sent a shower of oregano bits onto the table and my lap!

Tom Sietsema: You're right. This is the first time a reader has complained to me about seasonings as decoration on a plate.

One way for a cook to keep the flecks and snips in place is to rub a bit of butter on the rim of the plate before adding the seasonings. The butter acts like glue.

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Alternative for Louuisiana Express, Md.: Fans of Louisiana Express might want to gravitate a few blocks over to New Orleans Bistro on Cordell Ave for their N'awlin's fix. I recommend their fried green tomatoes topped with shrimp remoulade and their seafood gumbo.

Servers can be a bit inexperienced but they are friendly. Prices are moderate.

Tom Sietsema: Reader to the rescue! Thanks.

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An observation: I have little sympathy for the chatterer who complained last week about her dining experience at Vidalia. First, she complains in a public forum without addressing her complaints to the restaurant's management. Then, the restaurant goes through the effort of tracking her down (presumably contacting you, Tom, to get her info). The manager calls her, asks for her feedback, and then says s/he would like to send her a gift certificate because of her supposed troubles. Now, she's aghast that her freebie hasn't arrived within a few days of the conversation. My question, Tom, is why restaurants go through this trouble. It seems like they would be better off without patrons like this.

Tom Sietsema: Actually, Vidalia's team saw the post last week, tracked down the chatter themselves and immediately called me to say they were addressing the problem. Kudos to Vidalia for following up. Repeatedly. (And patience, patience, gentle readers.)

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Herndon, Va.: Your octopus-seeking reader can find several sizes of frozen (not fresh) octopus at our region's larger Asian markets.

Tom Sietsema: Any one in particular?

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Ageism? Please.: Tom, I did not find your remarks ageist.

Some stats from NIH:

Hearing loss affects approximately 17 in 1,000 children under age 18. Incidence increases with age: Approximately 314 in 1,000 people over age 65 have hearing loss and 40 to 50 percent of people 75 and older have a hearing loss.

Your remarks are based on facts and should not have been taken as rude by anyone who is "older" and still has terrific hearing. They should just consider themselves lucky.

Tom Sietsema: And that concludes another hour of chat.

See you back here next week, gang.

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The butter acts like glue. : Yeah, but I end up with on my sleeves.

Tom Sietsema: You can't win, folks, I'm telling you!

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