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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, May 7, 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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San Diego, Calif.: Tom, imagine my surprise when I was searching San Francisco restaurants in The Chronicle for an upcoming trip. I clicked on "Fino" to read the review, only to find it written by you! I did a double take on the date, only to find it written in 1991! I then thought about the ethics of keeping a review posted on a restaurant review that long. Could it possible have any relevance?

Tom Sietsema: The Chron does a pretty good job of updating its restaurant database. I'm surprised (and amused) to hear my take on Fino lives on!

Something to keep in mind: Restaurants, like milk, have freshness dates. I'm wary of anything I read that's more than a year old.

Good morning, everyone!

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Carrboro, N.C.: Server peeve of the week... last week I was in a pizza place. Many of the salads have an option to add chicken for an extra few bucks -- the obvious logic is that this is the "entree salad" for those who want it, while the base salad is more of an appetizer/side.

I and my dining partner both ordered a pizza and a salad, and in both cases the server tried to up-sell us to the salad with the chicken. (Over the course of the meal we saw him do this to other tables in the vicinity as well.)

A hint for servers and management: someone who orders a salad and a pizza is going to have the salad as an appetizer. There is no need to try to up-sell them to two entrees.

Tom Sietsema: Yeah, the up-selling can get a little annoying, I agree. Last week, I had a waitress pushing cocktails at me, when it was clear I didn't want one. She proceded to detail three of her favorites. Argh!

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Thai Basil: Just a note to say that your recommendation for a place to eat out by Dulles is still right on. My husband and I were out that way last night and we had a nice dinner there. I considered it a success when my husband said "This looks like a dumpy place in a shopping center that I never would have picked to go to, but it's excellent." Thanks Tom!

Tom Sietsema: You're welcome! I'm glad to hear the place is still cooking strong.

washingtonpost.com: Review: Thai Basil

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Northwest, D.C.: Hello! Going down to Silver Spring to meet a friend for lunch on Saturday!! I looked past transcripts; where do you think is a good place to grab a bite down there? A few times I've been there, it has been a disappointing experience. That area is blooming but not the dinning side. Can you please help me? I love to eat good 120 percent of the time.

Tom Sietsema: I'd opt for either Jackie's or Nicaro myself.

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Mother's Day in Pa.: I read your column with delight each week, yet I cannot recall if you've ever discussed your mother's homemade cooking (or the cooking of any significant woman in your life (sister, grandmother). Seriously, do you find yourself "reviewing" someone's homemade cooking or is it "apples vs. oranges" and you'd never comment on anyone's homemade cooking regardless?

Tom Sietsema: I actually penned a tribute to my Mom last year (or was it the year before?) She's an excellent home cook.

Which reminds me. I've got to get her a gift today! Thank goodness for Fed Ex.

washingtonpost.com: My Mother, My Chef

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom, I'm taking my honeymoon in San Francisco the week of Memorial Day. While dinners we're looking for nice places, lunches we want to do a "cheap eats" sort of thing; places that are inexpensive but have something special to offer. We'll probably spend each day in a different neighborhood, so if you had any recommendations for such lunch pages and/or could point me in the directions of your counterparts on the West Coast, it would be greatly appreciated!!

Tom Sietsema: Two places leap to mind: Hog Island Oysters, in the Ferry Terminal Building, for good, fresh seafood and Yank Sing for some of the best dim sum in the city.

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NoVA Vegetarian: I wanted to throw out a recommendation for people looking for vegetarian options in Northern Virginia: Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant in Chantilly. Not sure if it opened earlier this year or late last year. Very casual atmosphere (decor looks like it may be leftover from previous tenants), pleasant service, and good food. The menu is primarily Chinese, but there are sandwiches and veggie/tofu burgers, too. Ate there on Friday night and enjoyed a green curry dish while my husband had a really delicious eggplant dish. Portions are big. It was so exciting to have options when ordering rather than the lone vegetarian dish on most menus!

Tom Sietsema: I'm always happy to pass on word of a good meatless restaurant. Thanks for sharing. I wasn't aware of the place.

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Year-old reviews?: But you often refer to ancient "postcards" as being valid when readers inquire.

Tom Sietsema: Well, that's because I hear from trusted friends, colleagues or readers that such-and-such in Paris/Shanghai/New York/wherever is still as good as when I wrote about it. Or because I know first-hand.

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Washington, D.C.: Al Tiramisu experience this past Sunday evening. I set up a small dinner for my office. They were late for their reservation but did call ahead. My colleague in charge was pulled aside and dressed down and yelled at by the chef/owner. It was totally inappropriate. The restaurant was never even full during the entire time they were there on Sunday evening. Needless to say, we will not be sending over any more of our members/staff to dine there.

Tom Sietsema: Just how late was the party?

Regardless, I can't condone a chef or owner dressing down a tardy guest. I mean, what's the point of making someone feel uncomfortable for the rest of the night?

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Richmond, Va.: I think it's great you're including noise levels in your reviews now. After reading about some of the complaints about noisy restaurants in your chats, I thought I'd share a unique experience I had on the opposite end of the noise spectrum.

While at a conference in Boston in 2005, I met up with my cousin who was living there at the time for a quick dinner. She's a vegetarian, so we went to a restaurant of her choosing in the Harvard Square area. I can't remember the name of the place, but it was a completely vegetarian restaurant that also had a small theater attached to it through a set of glass doors. While we were there, a live guitarist was playing in the other room. Well, while shows are in progress, the restaurant apparently implemented a "whisper only" rule that was STRICTLY enforced. My cousin and I tried to chat quietly, and were shushed by wait staff. So we lowered our voices to library level -- a very light whisper. If we forgot ourselves and raised our voices to, say, waiting-room-at-the-doctor's-office volume, we were shushed (loudly). My cousin accidentally laughed a little too loudly, and was shushed. The staff was downright mean about it, and each new infraction brought other servers into the "SHHHH!!" chorus. To boot, we were seated at kiddie tables. I'm 5'6", and my knees were nearly at my chin. The food was actually delicious, but the attitude of the staff and the humiliation of being shushed 7-8 times throughout the meal (though we weren't the only rule-breakers, thankfully!) lead me to leave my lowest tip ever -- 10 percent. Had I been alone I might not have left anything.

Thought you might enjoy that story. I guess everything has its extreme!

Tom Sietsema: Indeed it does. Thanks for the good laugh there.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom! Love the chat.

I really love authentic Korean bbq, the kind where they grill right in front of you -- but I've only found good places in Annandale. Is there anything in the District or closer in?

Tom Sietsema: I seem to recall that Yee Hwa, on 21st St., offers table-grills, but only at night.

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Karl Rove . . . : is doing a discussion at the same time as this one. Is he remote or can you hear him snacking on puppies and kittens in the next room?

Tom Sietsema: I guess we know which party YOU'RE votng for in November.

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Waldorf, Md.: Hi Tom, I saw the question posted last week about L'Auberge Provencale in White Post, Va., and I just had to respond.

My husband and I had the pleasure of staying a couple of nights in April at the L'Auberge Provencale and had dinner there one night. The food was amazing. It was innovative, fresh and delicious. I highly recommend the foie gras appetizer, with truffle ice cream and vanilla bread pudding -- it was a combination that initially sounded strange (at least to us), but it was perfect. We both loved our entrees. I had the braised pork cheeks with pearled barley and my husband had the wagu beef. Since it is a B&B, I should mention that breakfast was amazing as well. Our favorite breakfast item was an amazingly light egg flan with mushrooms.

The B and B had hospitality and service that you don't find everyday. The staff, from both the Inn and the restaurant, were great. The accommodations were warm and welcoming -- cookies and fresh fruits were provided each night and made for nice late night snacking (not that we needed it after the dinner there). It is an example of a B and B done right and then some. You really can't go wrong by going to this place -- it was the perfect getaway.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for your review. But I have to wonder: What's pearled barley?

washingtonpost.com: 2006 Review: L'Auberge Provencale

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Tom,

My friend and I made a reservation to eat at Tallula last night. Because it was such a beautiful night, we were very excited to see that there were a few outdoor tables open when we arrived.

When we requested to sit outside, however, the hostess told us that there were no tables available. I inquired about the open tables we saw and she explained that those tables were for four people, not two, and suggested that we either dine indoors or wait for one of the recently sat outdoor two-tops to finish their meal.

Tom, am I crazy to be annoyed by this? I know no one had reserved those outdoor tables as they are sat on a first-come, first-serve basis.

It just seemed strange to me -- and like a bad customer service decision -- to refuse an outdoor table to two people with a reservation who are already there in the hopes that four people might show up and request to sit outside.

What do you think?

Tom Sietsema: I think I agree with you.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Tom,

I'm leaving D.C. at the end of the month, and one of my friends is hosting a going-away dinner for me. She's letting me pick the restaurant, and I was hoping you could offer some suggestions for a restaurant in D.C. that could accommodate a group of about 15, either in a private room or in the main part of the restaurant, but we obviously wouldn't want to be someplace where we would greatly disturb other diners. We're all in our mid-20s and work in politics, so we can't go some place where the meal will cost a week's salary, but at the same time it's a special occasion. Any great ideas?

Tom Sietsema: What about the balcony platform at Zaytinya? The patio at Two Amys? The roof at Perry's? The second floor at Curry Club? The side room at Regent Thai? The new Corduroy on 9th Street?

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Yer mom: Your 2006 tribute to your mother was wonderful -- and accompanied by what so many posters (and restauranteurs) want -- a photo of -the- Tom Sietsema!

Tom Sietsema: You know what I said earlier about trusting old restaurant reviews? The same rule applies to photographs -- as anyone who has ever dated on Match.com or Eharmony might attest.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

I think you mentioned your Amsterdam postcard is coming out soon. Can't wait as I visit there often! If I were you, I would have mentioned Bordewijk (amazing everything), Zuid Zeeland (great fish), De Kas (everything's organic/local), and Da Noy (amazing Italian). How'd I do?

Tom Sietsema: I'm familiar with Bordewijk and De Kas, both of which I've eaten in several times now. GREAT choices there. My Amsterdam column comes out this Sunday in Travel, by the way.

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4 for 2: Tallula is not the only restaurant that does this and it baffles me. The new crepe place in Old Town also does this. I requested a four-person table when there for brunch recently, but was told they couldn't do it. The table was never taken and our table was so full of dishes, they were draping over the edge.

If the place is busy, I can understand. But when it's slow, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth and is something I remember. Even if the rest of the visit was all right.

Tom Sietsema: I agree: If a place is slow, why not let a couple of diners sit at a four-top?

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Alexandria, Va.: Is there anything worth eating at Gordon Biersch, or just stick with the beer?

Tom Sietsema: The garlic fries are good.

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Shhhhh!:"The food was actually delicious, but the attitude of the staff and the humiliation of being shushed 7-8 times throughout the meal (though we weren't the only rule-breakers, thankfully!) lead me to leave my lowest tip ever -- 10 percent. Had I been alone I might not have left anything."

Had she been alone, she wouldn't have been shushed! (Unless she is in the habit of chatting aloud with herself...)

Tom Sietsema: Good point!

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Washington, D.C.: I know you've mentioned your dislike of waiters "auctioning plates," but I'd like to raise the issue again -- with a twist.

My boyfriend and I eat at restaurants pretty regularly -- 2-3 times a week, at a mix of price points. But one thing that's become pretty constant lately is waiters delivering our food and automatically assuming the salad or the fish goes to me -- when 9 times out of 10, it's what my boyfriend has ordered.

He's the health nut. I'm more apt to order something involving pork belly or red meat.

It would be funny if it wasn't happening so often.

Tom Sietsema: Restaurant Rule No. 234: Never assume! The same goes for who gets the wine list and who gets the bill. A good server will ask who the host is.

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Washington, D.C.: Maybe you're not the best person to ask, but I trust your reviews!

Where should I go for a great steakhouse in NYC? Or if you don't know, whose reviews of NYC restaurants should I look for?

Tom Sietsema: Frank Bruni is my guide to New York. He famously (and favorably) reviewed a gentlemen's club that serves great meat a year or so ago. Strip Steak maybe?

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Washington, D.C.: Regarding noise in restaurants . . . restaurants used to have carpets. Isn't that the obvious solution?

Tom Sietsema: Carpets help. So do linens on tables and fabric on chairs.

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Washington, D.C.: I think your comments about dining in Silver Spring are a bit snobbish. No. There may not be any four-star restaurants, but come on. The Vietnamese Pho place is more than adequate, as is McGinty's Pub, Mandalay, Lebanese Taverna etc. Sorry. But the world doesn't begin and end with Jackie's or other restaurants like it. The ambiance of Silver Spring is wonderful. Where else can you get a pedestrian mall and a wholly inclusive demographic enjoying themselves. That makes the dining nice, too, you know.

Tom Sietsema: Didn't mean to come across as elitist there! I, too, am a fan of the food (if not the service) at Mandalay -- and Samantha's, the family-run Mexican-Salvadoran joint.

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Washington, D.C.: Lunch in Silver Spring: for a more casual place than Nicaro or Jackie's that always turns out impeccable food, the poster should consider Adega Wine Cellar, which has great salads, even better fries (eggplant and sweet potato), and of course terrific wine-by-the-glass selections.

Tom Sietsema: I've not been myself. But the place sounds fun.

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Bethesda, Md.: Two questions -

#1 - Do you pick and choose the questions you answer? Several times I have submitted (pretty early into the chat) questions to you and never seem to make it to the chat; however, I see people's questions/comment that mention your recent answers (so they have posted after my question).

#2 - For my birthday, I would like to do the "triple crown" of dining -- one restaurant of apps, one for entree, and one for dessert. I would like to stay at or near the red line. Marvin for the one of the stops. What other places would you suggest??

Tom Sietsema: Yep, I select the questions and comments (though I see everything that comes through the transome -- albeit late in the hour sometimes). I choose what I choose based on a number of factors, one being if I have an answer!

I'd add (the bar at) Palena and either Buck's or Tosca to your stops.

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Pick Me! Pick Me!: Please help me figure out a good spot for dinner on Friday night. My cousins from N.Y. will be in town and are staying at the Pooks Hill Marriott in Bethesda. We will be a party of eight - four adults and four kids ages 5 through 9. We don't want them to drive too far, so suggestions in Rockville or Bethesda are best. The kids are good eaters, but we don't want to break the bank on dinner.

Thoughts on where to go?

Tom Sietsema: I'd aim for Jaleo or the new Gaffney's in Bethesda or the recently reviewed La Canela in Rockville.

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McLean, Va.: I am sure that you never would accept, but have you ever been offered some sort of bribe for a good review? My friend and I were discussing this the other day -- he had just read some book about being a food critic in which the critic described various things she was offered (since I didn't read the book, I don't know the book or who the critic was). It made me wonder if you had ever received such offers. Especially since being here in D.C.!

Tom Sietsema: No bribes here. I've received gift certificates in the past, but I've either returned them to the restaurant or donated them to a worthy cause.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

Love the chats. So these days, where would you take the birthday boy for the best steak around?

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: It depends on the birthday boy's preferences.

Does he like American wine? A modern environment? Engaging service? Good meat, cooked just the way he requests it? I found all that, and more, during a recent dinner at Charlie Palmer Steak on the Hill.

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Middle America: Tom - reading your tales of disguises and anonymity remind me this true story from my childhood. My father used to review restaurants for our small local paper. The restaurant in question would call and ask him for a review and the whole family would troop down and eat a meal compliments of the establishment, after which my father would write a glowing review. Dad said he never felt he could be negative since the restaurant was after all giving us a free dinner. Eventually, he had reviewed all the restaurants in our small town and his days as a food critic were over.

Tom Sietsema: Your story, while dated, underscores the need for anonymity --- and healthy expense accounts --- in my industry.

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College Park, Md.: Tom-

As a waiter, I have always appreciated that your default tip is 20 percent as we in the service industry expect between 18 percent and 20 percent from patrons whose meals go smoothly. It always frustrates me, though, that customers are so reluctant to tip more than their usual tip.

In the three years I have been waiting tables, there have certainly been times where I deserved less than 20 percent, but there have also been a good number of times where I have gone above and beyond the call of duty.

Do you tip above 20 percent for superlative service? It has always bothered me that I don't seem to get rewarded for truly exceptional effort.

Best,

College Waiter

Tom Sietsema: I have, in the past, tipped 25 percent for superlative service. But that's rare. Twenty percent is my norm.

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9th and M Streets NW: So excited about Corduroy moving steps away from our condo -- but I think Tom Power owes us a beer for the practically pre-dawn hammering over the past month or so which you can hear in stereo from our window! (Just kidding.) We are heading there tonight and the menu looks reasonably priced and the locale much much more beautiful than that hotel lounge.

Tom Sietsema: Yep, the big (food) news of the week is the launch of Corduroy. I bet if you bring this post in, and identify yorself as the neighbor, the chef will treat you to a brewski. Just a hunch.

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Washington, D.C.: Have you tried Asia 9 in Penn Quarter? It's on E Street near the Landmark Theater. That immediate area has been in need of some reasonably priced restaurants for pre-and-post movie dining. Any early opinions?

washingtonpost.com: First Bite: Asia Nine

Tom Sietsema: There you go, Washington.

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NY Steakhouses: Bruni reviewed, Penthouse Club, but there is a Strip House in Union Square. If you want the best, go to Brooklyn, Peter Lugar's. If you want to stay in Manhattan, Wolfgang on 33rd and Park is a Lugar's spinoff thats great. There's also Bobby Vans (nothing like the ones in D.C.) great porterhouse. Places to avoid, Smith and Wollensky's, Post House, Michael Jordan's and Kobe Club.

Tom Sietsema: Penthouse Club! That must be it. Lugar's is bestknown for its porterhouse steak and gruff service.

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Washington, D.C.: No place for a Karl Rove snipshot in a restaurant discussion.

Or are all topics fair game on your chat now?

Tom Sietsema: We welcome a variety of opinions here.

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Fairfax, Va.: I know you recommend Restaurant Eve frequently so I was especially disappointed by the experience my husband and I had there for our first anniversary. My husband made reservations 10 days in advance and let the restaurant know that I am a vegetarian. They said they could accommodate me. When we arrived, I did not see any vegetarian entrees on the menu so I spoke to our server and he described a "green plate" the chef could prepare. I ordered that entree. Imagine my disappointment when the plate arrived and it was no more than an assortment of the various side dishes being served that evening. To make matters worse, I was charged only $2 less than my husband's entree.

We filled out a comment card at the table before leaving but never heard anything from the owner or manager. Needless to say, I will not be back.

Tom Sietsema: It sounds like you ate in Eve's bistro. If there's one thing I hate in a restaurant, it's a vegetarian plate that is no more than a collection of side dishes. But that doesn't sound like the creative kitchen I know.

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Alexandria, Va.: Tom,

I saw your piece on cupcakes from this weekend's Washington Post Magazine. Given the cupcake trend, I wanted to let you know that a new cupcake place is coming to Old Town, Alexandria. It's owned by Chadwick's and is next to Grape + Bean on South Royal Street. By the way, if you haven't visited Grape + Bean yet, you definitely should check it out. It's a retail wine and coffee shop but will also have a wine bar component coming soon. It's a warm and cozy neighborhood place with a great and really interesting wine selection, fresh breads from Restaurant Eve, specialty cheeses, and the only Clover coffee machine in the Washington DC/Metro area.

Anyway, hope you make it to Old Town soon. There is some new great stuff to see and Old Town is slowly getting a little hip.

Tom Sietsema: Good to know. But I think Old Town has been a little hip for a few years now, thanks to the addition of places like PX and Majestic.

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Washington, D.C.: I enjoy this chat but often find the complaint posts tiresome yet...here I am sending one myself!

I recently took my folks out for dinner at Al Crostino and, while the food and service were fine, the atmosphere was seriously dampened by the presence of two TVs with the volume on. There is really no reason whatsoever for a fairly nice place like Al Crostino to have TVs. What are owners/managers thinking?

Tom Sietsema: I hate TVs in dining rooms, too.

True story: I went to a new restaurant earlier this week and walked into a long dining room that had a TV on either end of the bar. The host asked me: "ESPN or Food Network?"

HaHaHaHaHa

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College Waiter: Perhaps your expectations of above-and-beyond tipping is why you receive less than 20% from time to time. Your tone is really irksome, it implies that for doing your job well you deserve EXTRA money. No offense, but the sign of a great server is one who seamlessly blends in with the whole meal experience, not who stands out to receive extra attention and thanks. Your job is to provide excellent service, every time. As a former server in several D.C. restaurants, I speak from experience.

Tom Sietsema: Pearls of wisdom there.

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Richmond, Va.: How the heck do I get to your other columns from the WaPo Web site? I can never find them! I have your regular review column on my personalized home page.

washingtonpost.com: Hi Richmond! All Tom's recent columns are linked from the top of this chat page. If you have more questions about how to find Tom's reviews and other articles, please shoot me a line at restaurants (at) washingtonpost.com

Tom Sietsema: Your wish is our command

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No, really, it was me.: How many people do we now think will be bringing copies of the chat to Corduroy and identifying themselves as the neighbors? (Call me cynical.)

Tom Sietsema: I considered that very question JUST as I hit the send button.

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Sushi D.C.: I went to Sushi-Ko for the first time last night and I think that Spices is infinitely better. What do you think?

Tom Sietsema: I think I need more information, such as: What did you order?

washingtonpost.com: 2007 Dining Guide: Glover Park Sushi-Ko

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom

We ate at Mio the other night, with high hopes based on your positive reviews, and I have to say that we were disappointed. While the service was very good, the food was mediocre. We had the due of hamachi to start, which simply lacked flavor, as did my cod with red wine sauce (not sure where the red wine was). And the portions seemed very small. The chocolate dessert, however, was delicious. Have you been back recently?

Tom Sietsema: I've actually been back twice since my review. If anything, I think Mio has *improved* since then, so I'm sorry to hear about your less than delicious experience.

washingtonpost.com: Review: Mio

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Rockville, Md.: Tom: Just a comment. We went to the Peruvian restaurant the night before you reviewed it. What a great place. The food was terrific and the service equally as good. The prices were also reasonable. And right down the street from Gifford's!!! I can't imagine a better dining experience.

Tom Sietsema: That's good to know about Gifford's, since dessert is one of the very few weak links at La Canela.

washingtonpost.com: Review: La Canela

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Vegetarian plates. . . : are not necessarily any cheaper than "main dishes" -- just because it's a vegetable, doesn't mean it's going to cost less than a meat.

Tom Sietsema: Good point. Truffles, for instance, aren't meat -- but they're dear.

Gotta run, folks. Thanks for a lively hour. See you next Wednesday!

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