Ask Tom

Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, August 20, 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.

For more restaurant chatter, join Sietsema's Table, Tom's new discussion group about dining experiences.

The transcript follows.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, wanted to rave about RW at Charlie Palmer last Saturday. The choices were varied, the food was delicious (especially the chocolate peanut butter dessert), and the service was impeccable. Can't wait to go back.

Tom Sietsema: Here's what some of your fellow chatters are saying about their experiences from last week's promotion:

Dupont Circle, D.C.: I just wanted to give a Restaurant Week shout-out to Tosca, who were very very gracious when we showed up 30 minutes late to our scheduled reservation because I really and truly believed it was at 6:30 despite even receiving an Open Table reminder with the correct 6pm time. They seated us anyway and this was on Saturday night of RW. Loved the olive oil ice cream on the chocolate semifreddo, the veal and all the pastas. I would highly highly recommend for any future RW diners, it was quite the bargain compared to their regular menu and service was lovely.

Downtown D.C.: Hi Tom, I was out of town for Restaurant Week, but I was happy to see so many of them extending. I tried Co Co Sala's menu with a group of friends last night, and it was just terrific. Between the three tasting menu selections and the three-course dessert menu, we all left totally stuffed. Plus they actually had a good-quality decaf coffee (French press even), which is pretty hard to find in my experience. My only complaint is that my bleu cheese beef slider was quite well done, but it tasted good enough that I couldn't be bothered to send it back. Also, you weren't kidding about the noise level in there. Still, it was a great time and now I want to go back to try their brunch menu.

RW POSTMORTEM: Hi Tom -- I had a number of great meals this past Restaurant Week. Two stood out in different ways, and I'd like to share those two experiences with you and your chatters:

(1) I'm a huge fan of Rasika. They never let me down. I can't afford to go there often enough, but the maitre d' always treats me like Indian royalty and as though I had just dined there the week before -- even though it may have been many months. This RW was no exception, even though the RW stress factor was obvious. Before being seated at our table among the many patrons that night, we took our appetizers at one of the bar tables, but the server tripped as he served us our magnificent Palak Chaat (fried spinach) and spilled it on the carpet next to me. A little bit of it grazed my briefcase, but that was all, and it was all removed from the floor immediately by the server. None of it touched my clothes. After we were reseated, the maitre d'came to our table. He apologized with great seriousness and said that he recognized me as a loyal patron (even though I can barely lay claim to that distinction), gave me his business card, and told me to send him my dry-cleaning bill for the mishap. Of course, I never would. It was the kind of class act I have become accustomed to at Rasika whenever I walk out the door at the end of a wonderful meal, and the management bids me adieu with the kind of words that should be reserved for a movie star.

(2) Vidalia got a bit innovative this time with its RW menu. It offered a couple of tasting options: $35.08 for 2 tastes and a dessert; $50.08 for 4 and a dessert. We opted for the first. When we left, we wondered: When other restaurants are offering an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert, why did we settle for a couple of tastes and a dessert? We left feeling a little hungry.

To us, the trusty restaurant that spilled the spinach got it right; the innovator left us a bit empty. Who knew?

Washington, D.C.: Feedback on Restaurant Week at Willow in Arlington...we had a great dinner there Sat night. First time there although I'd been wanting to try it for awhile. They were serving only a Restaurant Week menu, with or without the wine pairing. We had filet mignon and the salmon. The portions were just right and very flavorful. Ask about the cake of the day! We had chocolate with hazelnut frosting. It was decadent. We also witnessed an issue with the table next to us. One of the diners asked the server, after his appetizer arrived, whether the dish had dairy in it because he was lactose intolerant. It did. And the server immediately brought him something else. I didn't think it was particularly noisy, but we were in the back room. Willow made a great impression on us with the food and the service. It was good experience and I'm looking forward to going back to check out the regular service.

Happy Hump Day, everyone. Thanks for logging on for today's food chat. We're off!

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, Any thoughts yet about CommonWealth, Jamie Leeds's new gastrobpub in Columbia Heights?

Tom Sietsema: I attempted to get in during what was billed as a "soft" opening a few weeks back, just to see what the place looked like and maybe grab a beer and a snack. But the guy at the door said "No, we're completely reserved." I asked if friends and I could just sit at the bar, where there were five empty stools, and his response was the same.

Here's what my colleague Jane Black wrote about the newcomer in Dish recently:

washingtonpost.com: Dish: CommonWealth's Pub Grub

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Montsouris?: Just coming into town on business and looking forward to a nice steak frites at Montsouris, one of my favorites on travel, only to find the number has been disconnected. What gives?

Tom Sietsema: The restaurant closed earlier this summer. I wrote about it (here) a few chats ago. You might try Montsouris's sister restaurant, Montmartre, on the Hill or Bistrot Lepic in Georgetown for a solid bistro experience.

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Washington, D.C.: Lets just say you're having an awful day. Close to tears, and you really need a food hug. Meaning, there's no one around to give you a real hug, so the best you can do is go sit at a restaurant by yourself, and get some really great comfort food. Where do you go?

Tom Sietsema: "A food hug." What a GREAT notion. I totally know what you mean by the phrase. My food hugs would probably involve a lot of calories. Of the places I've eaten in recently, I'd certainly seek out the pork shank at Schmankerl Stube in Hagerstown, the mac and cheese at Tackle Box, chocolate cake at Comet Ping Pong, a burger at the bar at Palena, the obvious at the Prime Rib .... gosh, where do I stop?

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

I have some older family friends coming to town in November. They are staying at the Madison hotel, and suggested we have dinner at the hotel's restaurant, Palette, unless I had other recommendations.

I'm not sure how Palette fares as compared to other restaurants in that area. I was just at the Oval Room for Restaurant Week and was very impressed, so am considering that as an alternative, but would be interested to see if you had any recommendations for another place that might wow my guests.

Thanks for your time!

Tom Sietsema: Palette looks better than it tastes. I'd steer your guests instead to the recently relocated Corduroy on 9th and M streets. It's a terrific American restaurant where you don't have to raise your voice to be heard (one of the restaurant's many assets).

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Review: Corduroy

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It's funny that you reviewed Enology ...: Since I was there over the weekend and had the same response as you: lovely wines, terrible food.

Here's how I summed it up in a letter to the manager (which won't make a bit of difference, I suppose, but if I owned a restaurant, I'd want feedback):

"What was less than charming, however, was the food on the menu. Your descriptions are appealing, but what appears on plates is much less so. Clearly, Enology is a wine bar, so the food is mostly an afterthought, but it could really be so much better. My husband ordered the fresh tomato and mozzarella salad, and we were both struck by how the tomatoes tasted like they'd been purchased at the Giant super market across the street (and a bit dirty besides), and the mozzarella was dry and mealy. I had the "Puget sound" salad, and while the frisee and the mango were fine, the chicken was so salty, and had such a "Lunchable-esque" quality to it, that it could have been chicken, it could have been ham, it could have been turkey -- and I think that's a problem. We also tried one of your flatbreads (the "Isle St. George"), and the first thing that struck me was how un-flat your flatbread is. In fact, your flatbread had the crust and consistency of a pre-made pizza crust (and not even as good as a Boboli crust either). It was soggy in the middle, the mozzarella had sagged, rather than melted on it, and the "olive oil cured tomatoes" on it were added in such a slap-dash manner that we ate a slice or two to be polite, finished our wine, paid the check and left, afraid that your chocolates at the end of the meal would bring even more disappointment."

Sounds like we missed what would have been the good part of the food menu.

Keep up the good work Tom! We can't wait for the Fall Dining Guide.

Tom Sietsema: You and I agree: Enology is better for sipping than for supping. Those flatbreads in particular are dismal. Co-owner Adam Manson told me "We're not going for a culinary masterpiece." Boy, was he ever right! (Unfortunately.)

washingtonpost.com: First Bite: Tom on Enology

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Washington, D.C.: Tom -- Your column in today's paper reports that Adour is going to open in D.C. What can you tell us about the NYC Adour?

washingtonpost.com: Searching for the Shape of Things To Come: Tom on NYC's Ardour Alain Ducasse

Tom Sietsema: There you go. My pal Frank Bruni of Brand X awarded the restaurant a coveted three stars earlier this year.

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Washington, D.C.: My boyfriend recently tried hush puppies for the first time on a trip to Charleston, and now he's determined to find some here. Do you know of any restaurants in the area that serve the fried goodness?

Tom Sietsema: I've had good examples at Vidalia downtown and Tim's Rivershore (crab house) in Dumfries in seasons past. Anyone care to add to the honor roll?

washingtonpost.com: 2006 Dish: Tom's Rivershore

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Where Has All the Bibb Lettuce Gone?: Tom,

Please help me solve a mystery. I can no longer find Bibb lettuce in local restaurants or markets. Where has it gone, and are you aware of any eateries that still feature Bibb lettuce in their salads?

Tucking in my bib in anticipation,

Hopeful

Tom Sietsema: First, my colleague Gene Weingarten reports the disappearance of squid tentacles. Now, a reader wants to know where Bibb lettuce has gone. Frankly, I've not noticed the absence of either ingredient during my restaurant excursions. Has anyone else?

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VOLT Report: Hi Tom--

We had the pleasure of dining at Volt in Frederick on Saturday night. The restaurant, according to one of the owners, has been open for the past 2 1/2 weeks or so, but for the most part, you wouldn't know it. The service was generally quite good, the building is terrific, and the food was enjoyable. I had the duck, which was prepared perfectly and my husband had the steak. As with any new restaurant there are things that can be improved on and we shared a few comments with an owner on the way out the door. She was quite warm and welcoming and accepted the comments graciously. We were a bit early for our 8:00 reservation and passed the time in the bar/lounge area, which has a sleek, modern look to it and serves an interesting array of cocktails. Oh, the sommelier, whose name I forget, was quite helpful and spent time discussing the extensive wine list and his thoughts on how he chooses the wines the restaurant will serve. We really appreciate the emphasis on local foods and think that Volt and Chef Brian are a great addition to the Frederick dining scene!

Tom Sietsema: Frederick is quite the colorful scene these days, isn't it? Chef Voltaggio, late of Charlie Palmer Steak, has clearly put a lot of thought into his handsome new home. I wish my service had been as good as yours, however ...

washingtonpost.com: Dish: Volt

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Bethesda, Md.: In the past when this chat discussed annoying things that servers do (OMG!, you told me your name -- stop infringing on my personal space, servant!) I always thought that people generally needed to chill. Then, this weekend, we went to the new Redwood in Bethesda and discovered a truly annoying server habit that I have never seen (heard?) before. The waitress said everything in the royal we -- e.g., "have we ever been here before?", "how do we like the wine we selected?", "will we be going a show after dinner?" It was so odd and annoying. Please make it stop.

The food was interesting (in a good way) and the wine (Malbec, which we selected ourselves) was fine, though the by-the-glass list was overrun with pinot noirs.

Tom Sietsema: Consider your rant passed along to Redwood. (But hey, at least your server knew to check in with you, right?)

washingtonpost.com: First Bite: Redwood

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Logan Circle, Washington, D.C.: Your review of Co Co. Sala on Sunday promised to but didn't answer the question of whether someone who absolutely detests chocolate can go to the restaurant with chocolate-eater friends and still find something to munch on. I dislike chocolate so much that I cannot eat my vanilla ice cream if someone scooped it with a spoon that had previously been in the chocolate container. Should I just take this restaurant off my list?

Tom Sietsema: There are some nice savories on the menu there, but I assume you're wondering about sweets. Unfortunately, just about every dessert offering involves chocolate in some form or another. The exceptions are the house-churned ice creams.

washingtonpost.com: Sunday's Review: Co Co. Sala

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Capitol Hill: I just moved to the Hill after five years in Adams Morgan...any advice on inexpensive but fun places to grab a bite?

Tom Sietsema: The bar at Sonoma? Mussels and fries at Belga Cafe? A crab cake at Johnny's Half Shell?

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Anonymous: Would an older crowd fit in at Central? I was thinking of taking my parents there. They are about 60 and definitely not hip (but very fun-loving!). I've never been to Central, and would like for them to try something new, but don't want them to feel out of place.

Tom Sietsema: I think your parental units would get a kick out of Michel Richard's lively French bistro. Go!

washingtonpost.com: 2007 Fall Dining Guide: Central

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What happens in Vegas...:: Did you do an updated Postcard after your recent trip to Vegas? I cannot seem to find it. Should we go to Mix (Alain Ducasse's place) when there or Daniel Bouloud's Brasserie? Any other tips (especially cheap ones!)?

Tom Sietsema: I ended up NOT writing about Vegas because, quite honestly, my meals there weren't good enough to share with readers. The highlight of my quickie trip (just three days) was dinner at Bartolatta, but the experience also set me back more than $600 for four of us.

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Hungry in D.C.: Tom, do you know of any restaurants which have continued their Restaurant Week specials into this week? Thanks!!

Tom Sietsema: Among the many restaurants that are extending the bargain are Jaleo, the Oval Room, Mio, the new Darlington House, Oyamel, Notti Bianche, Il Mulino, Cafe Atlantico, Spezie (for dinner only) and The Prime Rib. Dino in Cleveland Park is also offering free corkage on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Lots of choices there, huh?

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Dupont Circle: Hey Tom!

I just moved to an apartment near Embassy Row in Dupont Circle. Being a graduate student and working full time, I don't have a lot of time or money. Do you have any suggestions for places to go in Dupont Circle that are good values and provide good food? I'd love to try some new places but I don't even know where to start! Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Easy on the wallet in Dupont: Regent Thai, Pizzeria Paradiso, Straits of Malaya, Banana Leaves, possibly Bistro du Coin.

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NYC Seafood: Hi Tom - What's on the top of your list for seafood in NYC these days?

Tom Sietsema: Le Bernardin is amazing. Four stars in my book. Considerably less grand but still worth seeking out is Esca (the name is "bait" in Italian, but don't let that scare you) near the theaters.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Report on the newer Sushi Ko. Went last night with two other women, all of us older.

Food great. Service overly attentive at the start (they were rushing us, or it felt like that) then nonexistent once the first food had been delivered.

Grabbed for the check about 45 seconds after it was laid down (and the person paying was away from the table). Then it took ten tries to get them to come back and pick it up.

I'll go to the one in upper Georgetown next time.

Tom Sietsema: Having eaten at both restaurants lately, I agree: Service at the original is better. (But I'm glad to hear you enjoyed the food at Sushi-Ko 2.)

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Review: Sushi-Ko Chevy Chase

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Ridgewood, N.J.: Hi Tom!

My former college roommate is still in D.C. and single again... any recommendation for singles and foodie events?

Tom Sietsema: Marvin on U St. is loaded with good lookers. So is the recently reviewed Co Co. Sala. Both are also incredibly noisy, I should add.

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Re: good food in Dupont:: I always have a good food at Nooshi. It's cheap, but good quality, and they have good drink specials.

Tom Sietsema: I always overlook that place. Thanks for the memory jog. And I'd add Zorba's Cafe to the list of cheap eats in Dupont Circle, too.

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Sioux Falls, S.D.: TWS - How are you?!?! Just thought you would like to know, Michaels Steak House from Worthington is now over here in Sioux Falls on Russell (by the arena). Same menu, similar prices, very competitive and Larry's Onion Rings have maintained their divine splendor! If you get out this way let me know, first large O's are on me. Jacque

Tom Sietsema: Wow. Is this Jacque Cole from Worthington High?!

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L' Enfant Plaza, D.C.: For the person who just moved to the Hill, I would think it depends on which side of the hill they're on. On the South side I would highly recommend Banana's and not really recommend the Turkish place nearby who's name I just blanked out on. Banana's is kinda pan-Latin American and really exceptional. They don't forget the vegetarians out there either. Big selection.

Tom Sietsema: Hate to disagree, but Banana Cafe is not one of my favorite restaurants. Not by a long shot.

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Raleigh, N.C.: I can top the royal we. We had dinner with a large group at (insert nice-enough family style Italian place) last weekend, and our server kept referring to the women at the table as "mi'lady"

Back to the Ren Faire with thee!

Tom Sietsema: You're kidding me. That's a hoot. And so is your kicker.

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Request: Belga Cafe's Web site isn't working and Montmarte doesn't have one. Restaurant owners, please get your Web sites up and running so diners can see the menu if they have special needs or interests! Oftentimes, I really would skip places where I can see the menu and pick a place where I can.

Tom Sietsema: Not having a Web presence is like, um, not having a telephone.

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Washington, D.C.: Montsouris will not be missed by this neighbor. Consistently decent food that wasn't worth the price tag, and even more consistently unpleasant, "you're lucky to be here"-esque service.

I'm sure others will disagree, and many have surely had better experiences, but it was a place we (who eat out a lot in that neighborhood) just stopped considering as an option.

Tom Sietsema: I'm not disagreeing with you.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom - looking for a nice restaurant for a Saturday night meal. Would you suggest Source?

Tom Sietsema: "We" dig the Source these days. The restaurant has really hit its stride.

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Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Tom - Any recommendations for Croatia from you or your well-traveled audience? All parts of the country would be helpful.

Tom Sietsema: Croatia, anyone? I have no plans to visit anytime soon.

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Ballston, Va.: Hello, Tom! I'll be staying home over Labor Day weekend so I thought I'd take the opportunity to try some new restaurants while the crowds are thin. I was thinking maybe the bar menu at CityZen for an early Friday night dinner. Could you suggest some places for Saturday lunch? I'm wide open as far as price, location, and cuisine. Thank you.

Tom Sietsema: Alas, Cityzen is closed now until Sept. 5. For Saturday lunch, I'd try Me Jana in Arlington for Lebanese or Tutto Bene, also in Arlington, for saltenas and guitar music.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Review: Me Jana, 2004 Dining Guide: Tutto Bene

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Lex Park: Why have restaurants stopped peeling and seeding cucumbers? Are saladmen an endangered species? Also, even in very expensive places you seldom find stems removed from spinach and skins removed from beans. They order things differently in France.

Tom Sietsema: They also have a lot more people to seed, de-stem and skin in the better French restaurants. (But I agree. I appreciate a place that takes the time to make my food as appealing as possible.)

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RW Fan, Va.: Tom, I wrote to you in January after RW to tell you about getting a whole lobster at McCormick and Schmicks Penn Quarter. Well, my husband and I returned Sunday night for RW and they offered that deal again! We were thrilled. All three courses were just as tasty as January. Note to food enthusiasts: M&S has extended its RW thru 24 August! Go and Enjoy.

We also tried the RW menu at Tabard Inn (near Dupont Circle) last Thursday night. It was our first time there, it came highly recommended, and we thoroughly enjoyed that meal as well.

(Not to annoy the chatter from last week who complained about people who must specify they are submitting early, but I am! I'm at the gym working off all the calories from last week. Sigh.)

Tom Sietsema: So far, the reader reviews of Restaurant Week seem to be mostly raves. I think this reflects well on both the participating restaurants and the dining public. Experience counts, in other words.

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Bibb, squid, corks: Bibb can be found in Fairfax anyway at both Wegmans and Whole Foods; squid tentacles for sure at Wegmans.

Tom Sietsema: I think Gene was looking for the COOKED tentacles rather than RAW ones. In a restaurant as opposed to a food store.

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Washington, D.C.: Here are a few places for the person looking for "inexpensive but fun" on the Hill:

Market Lunch at Eastern Market, especially for seafood

Argonaut at 15th and H NE -- great American pub food.

Bistro Italiano at 3rd and D NE -- Standard red-sauce Italian, but dirt-cheap and very friendly.

Cafe Roma at 18th and D NE -- You wouldn't expect to find it in this neighborhood, but this comfy new coffee shop has homemade pastries and nice paninis.

A couple that are might be cheap by Tom's standards, but are expensive by mine: Granville Moore's for mussels and beer (12th and H NE) and Montmartre (next to Eastern Market).

Tom Sietsema: I second the Market Lunch suggestion. And I hear there's a good crepe maker at Eastern Market (who shows up every other weekend, reportedly)

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Memphis?: Tom,

You post a request for restaurants in Croatia but not mine for Memphis? I'm hurt!

Tom Sietsema: Okay, okay, okay. Geesh.

Memphis, anyone?

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Washington, D.C.: Where's your favorite place for lobster in the Metro area?

Tom Sietsema: Right now? Probably the "spicy" lobster at Johnny's Half Shell on the Hill.

washingtonpost.com: 2006 Review: Johnny's Half Shell

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Arlington, Va.: Tom, Where else did you eat in Vegas? I was out there last week and enjoyed Burger Bar in Mandalay Place (excellent burgers, milkshakes and service) as well as Picasso in Bellagio (perhaps a little overpriced, but the food, presentation, service and ambiance was spectacular).

Tom Sietsema: I've loved, and reviewed, Picasso in the past. Burger Bar was a disappointment. Why is a well-known French chef serving factory fries with his other good sandwiches? Plus, the place looked, and felt, like a Johnny Rockets, only darker.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom: Quick question...my wife and I had our first date five years ago at Ristorante Piccolo in Georgetown, our anniversary is next week and we were thinking of going there again...How is Piccolo these days? If you don't recommend it, I think we are going to try Agraria. I hope you answer, you are going to be our anniversary "decider"!

Tom Sietsema: Gosh, I haven't been to Piccolo since, since ... since Ronald Reagan was in the White House. As for Agraria, I like the way it looks. What kind of food do you like? Let me help you come up with a better spot.

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Washington, D.C.: RE: Hush puppies in D.C. -- I'm a big fan of the version at the Argonaut over in the Atlas District or H St NE area. The hush puppies have little bits of chipotle in them and are served with a really good smoked tomato relish.

Tom Sietsema: I understand the sweet potato fries are mighty fine, too.

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Arlington, Va. : Ooh, I have Memphis recommendations.

For elegant dining with some Southern hints, try Jarrett's. It's in a random shopping center, but really good.

For classic Memphis barbecue, of course go to Corky's (but be prepared to wait if you go to the original location at prime time).

And for a simple but tasty and filling lunch, try Huey's. It's just sandwiches and salads, but they're really good and the atmosphere is fun. There are a few locations.

Tom Sietsema: To da rescue! Thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: My office is having an off-site retreat in the Dupont Circle area (kinda in between Dupont and Thomas Circles) in a few weeks and I've been charged with picking a restaurant for dinner. There will be about 30 people. Any suggestions?

Tom Sietsema: I'd buy out Mourayo, the charming Greek restaurant.

washingtonpost.com: Mourayo

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Me Jana: Tom, I have to disagree about Me Jana. I've been there a few times and I am just not impressed. The baba ganouj tasted like cigarette ashes. When I asked the server to take it back, the owner/chef came out and argued with me that the dish was fine and that the menu said it was "smoked". I calmly explained that "smoked" should not equal "tastes like cigarette ashes" and he would not let it go. I'm Lebanese - I know my baba. I'm also a pretty good cook and I would never serve someone something that tastes that bad. The rest of the food has not impressed either - and at lunch they trade out the good house-baked bread for run-of-the-mill pita. Lame!

Tom Sietsema: The owner shouldn't have disagreed with you. And why is the restaurant offering lesser bread at lunch?

All that said, I've eaten at Me Jana six times now, and really think it deserves its stars.

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Washington, D.C.: I traveled along the Croatian coast six years ago. I don't remember any specifics, but it was hard to go wrong anywhere with a simple grilled seafood platter with garlic, lemon, and olive oil (or if you're on a budget as we were, just the grilled squid, which was then around $4 a plate).

Tom Sietsema: That's a ... start. Thanks.

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Arlington, Va.: Tom: Did you notice if Enology had any Virginia wines in its list?

Tom Sietsema: I did. They include a petit manseng and touriga from White Hall Vineyards in Monticello.

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Silver Spring, Md.: My husband's birthday is in early September, and I'd like to take him to Ray's the Classics, if it's still up to par. What have you experienced or heard about it recently? Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: I've not heard a peep about the place for months. Chatters?

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Washington, D.C.: Do you give a "heads up" to restaurants before your reviews appear in print? I like to try places you review but sometimes feel they are overwhelmed after a review comes out. (E.g., Et Voila: Might have liked it more but for crowd, noise and feeling rushed.) Do you ever think your review changes a place? The dining room if not the kitchen? What effect do you think you have/or should have on a restaurant?

Tom Sietsema: Generally, the only advance notice I give a restaurant is when my editor or I call to fact-check certain details (hours, names, etc.), typically two or so weeks ahead of publication. For small restaurants with non-English speaking staff I sometimes explain where and when the review will appear, so they can be properly staffed (for a rave).

From what I hear from restaurateurs and readers alike, a (glowing) review can drastically alter a restaurant. Regulars can get squeezed out by the newly curious and the staff can't always handle the spiked interest. If I were a reader, I'd probably wait a few weeks before venturing out to a well-reviewed place.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, is there anyway I could e-mail you a situation that a friend of mine and I were involved in very recently at a restaurant in northern Va. as opposed to posting it publicity? They have gone out of their way to be helpful, but I don't want to make it sound like I am badmouthing them by using the name of the place because it was a negative that has turned into a positive. Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: Sure. You can reach me at asktom@washpost.com.

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Eye Street: Hi Tom -- More on Restaurant Week. We tried Le Mistral in McLean for the first time and were disappointed. The menu was very limited (chicken or fish) and the service was rushed. The entrees were very predictably prepared and the fish was almost greasy. Huge dessert portions, however.

Also went to Rasika for the first time and LOVED it. Everything about it was wonderful and we will definitely return. We snuck into Oyamel for a cocktail pre-Rasika and one complaint: I am a 5 foot 5 inch woman who weighs 145 lbs, evenly distributed (not much junk in my trunk) and I found the barstools to be ridiculously tiny and uncomfortable. Please Oyamel, invest in comfy barstools!!

Tom Sietsema: I'd give Le Mistral a little time. George Vetsch, the former talent at Etrusco (and about a dozen other Washington kitchens over the years), recently came aboard.

Oyamel, you catch that?

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Croatia & Restaurant week: Had a lovely meal at Tiffany's in Split. Right in the center of the old city, they have a lovely patio with great views. The places I tried in Dubrovnik were all about the same; the food was fine, not spectacular and seemed like rustic Italian (which to me was a good thing). Just follow the crowds, and stay near the water.

Finally, just wanted to pass along that Ceiba is having a "Wine Week" this week, with certain bottles at $20.08 at lunch and other bottles at $35.08 at dinner - I thought it was a fun idea...

Tom Sietsema: A two-fer. Thanks.

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Cleveland Park, D.C.: I am a regular at Mie N Yu during the week. I took my mom there for brunch for RW. She ordered from the RW menu, I did not.

I will never go back there after the service I received that day. If I could have found a manager to complain to, I would have.

It wasn't even busy!

Tom Sietsema: Details, we need details ....

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Piccolo questioner: Tom - thanks for making me feel great about taking her to piccolo! Just Kidding! We have gone to the Inn at Little Washington the past two anniversaries but wanted to do something decidedly low-key, local, and non-gourmet...So we thought hearty italian

Tom Sietsema: Ah, that easier. What about Al Tiramisu? Great fresh fish, lovely pastas --- and a single cozy booth if you reserve it in time.

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Rockville, Md.: Turned away?

I would like to hear the conversation later today. "Guess who you turned away...?"

Tom Sietsema: See, I'm NOT recognized on every restaurant visit (nor would I want to be).

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Tom,

I know its late... but for the person looking for hush puppies - they must try Steamers in Bethesda. Amazing and served with powdered sugar and a raspberry sauce.

Tom Sietsema: Hmmm. That's gilding the ol' lilly if you ask me.

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Thank you!!: Tom,

I just wanted to say thank you very, very much for recommending Ubuntu in Napa!! We went last week and it was really amazing! I am an avowed carnivore and our entire party needed about half the menu explained to us (which the server did with charm and humor), but it was an incredible meal. A knockout setting, as well. We would go back in a heartbeat!

I hope you'll continue your Postcard series (although, since it comes out of your pocket, I understand why you might not). It's so great to have someone you trust's reviews when you're traveling! Thanks again!

Tom Sietsema: The amazing thing, or one of the amazing things, about Ubuntu is the chef: He's a carnivore!

washingtonpost.com: Postcard From Tom: Napa

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Glover Park: I just wanted to write in about the newest place to open up in my neighborhood-- Surfside. I went last night for dinner, and although it was PACKED, my food came quickly and there was ample seating. The menu is pretty simple- tacos, wraps, salads, a few entrees- and nothing is over $20.00. My BF and I were able to get our food for about $20.00, and two beers for $13.00.

My shrimp tacos were amazing. The two tacos were stuffed with three large, perfectly cooked shrimp. There was some sort of spice on them that really worked with the pineapple salsa. My BF ordered the flank steak tacos, and it too was perfectly rare-medium rare. I'm really excited to have a new place in my neighborhood, especially with the disappointing Ceviche taking over beloved original Austin Grill. The food is excellent, inexpensive, and the atmosphere is perfect for a quick weeknight dinner.

Just had to write in and share the good news!

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the update. I noticed an open door on my way home from Sushi-Ko last week.

Over and out, gang. Thanks for a lively hour.

washingtonpost.com: Dish on Surfside

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