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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, September 3, 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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Tom Sietsema: DID HELL JUST FREEZE OVER?: Her restaurant has been "in the works" for more than two years. Finally, veteran chef Ris Lacoste has signed a lease for Ris restaurant, which she plans to open in spring 2009 at 2275 L St. NW in the West End.

Lacoste's good news arrived Aug. 25 and was followed by martinis and dinner with her Kinkead's restaurant family. The merriment continued August 28 with members of the Ritz residences (in which her new venue will be staged) and a quick trip to see family in Massachusetts.

The details thus far include seating for 170 customers in Ris' bar, cafe and dining room ("as green as I can make it," says Lacoste) and a menu that will reflect "California freshness, pristine Australian simplicity, French training."

(Ris, for those who don't know, is short for Doris.)

Happy Wednesday, everyone. Bring on your stories, your questions and your comments.

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Washington, D.C.: Here's a helpful tip -- when someone sends you a request for restaurants in, say, Dubuque, Iowa, and you don't have any personal recommendations, put the request in the beginning of your chat. Sometimes you put in the query around 11:55, meaning that there's almost no chance for any useful reply from those assembled.

Otherwise, you do a great job. Keep on eating!

Tom Sietsema: Ah, but sometimes I GET those requests at 11:54!

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Rosslyn Cube: Tom, I don't eat out at fancy restaurants very often, but last week's discussions of wines left me curious: how do you get the sommelier's help? When my wife and I go to a restaurant, I get the wine list, I study it intently, pretend I know what I am doing, and then I make some guess and give it to the waiter. ("Give me your second-cheapest bottle of wine!") Should I say to the waiter: "Can I see your sommelier?" Should he/she come find us? Maybe we look too young/cheap to warrant attention? Thanks for the help.

Tom Sietsema: You want first to verify that there is a sommelier on staff. Then simply ask for him or her. In the absence of a dedicated wine steward, I'd ask for whoever put the list together or someone who knows the most about the liquid portion of the menu. Just be honest: Tell the person you don't know much about wine, give him or her a price range and maybe ask if the person has a particular favorite bottle or two in the collection. (Can you please identify yourself privately, at asktom@washpost.com?)

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Bakeries: Hi Tom,

Love the chat, always get great information from you and your chatters, so I thought I'd share some. Last week, a poster from Alexandria asked about a good bakery, and said she would be willing to travel a bit. Hopefully, Oxon Hill is a place s/he would be willing to travel, because that is where s/he can find the best bakery in the area, IMHO. Desserts by Gerard is a French Pastry shop, at the intersection of Oxon HIll and Livingston Roads, not far from the WW bridge. The cakes, pies and pastries are to die for. Gerard even makes lunches each day, if you get there early enough to get one. (The best idea is to order ahead of time) I am not an employee or owner, just an extremely satisfied customer.

Tom Sietsema: We welcome any and all tips here. Thanks for sharing.

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Penn Quarter: Hi Tom! Any updates on Asia Nine? I think you did a "First Bite" brief review when it first opened. I went recently for "bar snacks" and found the appetizers doused in sauces and was not impressed, but I've enjoyed full meals there...thoughts?

Tom Sietsema: I have yet to have a Second Bite. But I've noticed Asia Nine has added patio seating -- with a sweeping view of the FBI! -- to the equation.

washingtonpost.com: First Bite: Asia Nine

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Bethesda, Md.: Tom-- I loved Phyllis Richman's rant in the Post today about plate snatching. It' my peeve too. My nomination for the Bethesda Restaurant most likely to snatch your plate is Houston's Woodmont Grille. One lunch I put down my fork to look for something in my pocketbook. Three different servers tried to whisk the last bites of my entree salad away before I gave up.

Tom Sietsema: Some might call that team work.

washingtonpost.com: Check, Please: Phyllis Richman's rant on plate-snatching waiters

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Washington, D.C.: Returned last week from Napa Valley, and I must say, D.C. restaurants are absolutely terrible. While in Calif., we were treated to fabulous scenery or decor, delicious food presented beautifully and nice, knowledgeable and attentive staff. For the same price in D.C., you get mediocre food and surly staff.

I will no longer eat out in this city.

Tom Sietsema: Huh? While I agree that the wine country has some top-flight places to eat, I disagree with your assessment of Washington. "Mediocre food" and "surly staff" are not what I equate with Rasika, Palena, Komi, Restaurant Eve, Cashion's Eat Place, Vermilion, Blacksalt, Two Amy's or two dozen other places I can think of right now.

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Baltimore, Md.: We were at a restaurant where we were getting annoyed with the service. My son came up with an idea of having a tip jar on the counter where we would keep adding as the meal progresses and the wait staff would get to see it. I thought that it was bit tough but his argument was maybe the staff will have an idea and maybe improve their service.

Tom Sietsema: I'm not sure how a tip jar would go over in the dining room, but I like your son's clever thinking. The jar raises a question: Do you SUBTRACT money if the waiter does something you don't like?

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Re: Bakeries: Replying to the person asking about bakeries, if the people in Alexandria do not want to venture across the river, Heidelberg Bakery is great! We travel all the way from Gaithersburg to get the cakes and German "brotchen".

Tom Sietsema: Yep, HB is another foodie favorite.

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Plate snatching!: Oh, man, that makes me crazy. See, I'm a slow eater. Reeeeeaaaaallllllyyyyy sloooooooooow. So I usually wind up the lone eater left at the table, while the waiter hovers over my every bite. I feel like I'm a kid again, with my mom hovering and making sure I don't hide my Brussels sprouts in my napkin.

Also, worst case I ever had of a waitress making herself part of the show: was having drinks with friends at RFD years ago, our waitress SAT DOWN at one end of our long table and insisted we shout our orders to her, or walk over and deliver them to her personally. Sort of defeats the purpose of having a wait staff, no?

Tom Sietsema: My waiter at Granville Moore's did that, too. Only he sat on a TALL stool, so he was looking down at us when friends and I ordered. It was strange.

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Anonymous: (Ris, for those who don't know, is short for Doris.)

So it is pronounced Ris like the ris in Doris?

Tom Sietsema: Indeed it is.

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Houston, Tex.: Just moved here and not sure where to go? Do you or the chatters have any recommendations? I get scared when I look at the local paper's "Best of" list and national chains are listed!

Tom Sietsema: I'm not sure what paper or list you're reading. But if it's restaurants that I like (or liked) throughout last year, you might check out the link to my fall dining guide.

Also, can you be more specific about your tastes?

washingtonpost.com: 2007 Fall Dining Guide

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Washington, D.C.: Is age a factor to go out dinning in D.C.? I felt that it was last week when I went to Central to celebrate my anniversary. My reservation was for 8:30 p.m. when I arrived I was told they were behind in getting tables.. 20 minutes later and after others were being seated as they arrived and tables were open I decided to ask and was just told to wait. Later they sat me without an I'm sorry for the delay or enjoy your meal. I really expected more from Michel Richard's best new restaurant, but I was let down. I was somewhat younger than the rest and I felt probably this was a factor, however it should not be since I am a manager for one of the top restaurants in D.C. and I know when this happens. What do you think, Tom?

Tom Sietsema: You're a manager at a top restaurant and you didn't speak to a person in charge about your wait?! A delay of 20 minutes without an apology to someone with a reservation is not a good thing, as Martha might say.

The age thing reminds me of the gender thing and the race thing. Members of certain groups think they're not getting the same levbel of attention because they're too young/too old/too female/too gay/too whatever. I would hate to think such mass bias exists out there.

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Shepherd Park, D.C.: Tom,

Have you tried the Brightwood Bistro yet? It's in the space formerly occupied by Meridian at the corner of Georgia and Missouri Avenues. We ate there a couple of weeks ago and it was very promising (I posted a longer description at the time but it must have been below your radar).

Tom Sietsema: I've not dropped in yet, but I was pleased to see a new restaurant take the place of Meridian.

Let me amend that: I wasn't thrilled that Meridian closed, but happy to see the space promptly filled with another place to eat.

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Washington, D.C.: Top 10 fall restaurants IMO

1 Komi 2 Eve 3 Cityzen 4 Citronelle 5 Palena 6 Vidalia 7 Marcel's 8 Mendocino Grill 9 Makoto 10 Oval Room

Thoughts?

Tom Sietsema: Based on recent visits to all 10 places, I'd drop, or lower the ratings of, four of your picks. I admire Makoto, for instance, but the menu doesn't change much and I do tire of the sometimes-cranky servers.

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Washington, D.C.: Speaking of Granville Moore's ... I hadn't heard of it until I saw Bobby Flay do a throwdown there on TV a couple weeks ago. He said it was in NW, and I discovered it's actually in NE. Is it worth a trip across town? Sounded awfully good on TV.

Tom Sietsema: The place has been PACKED whenever I've been in. But my lat meal there was a bust. Sloppy, sloppy cooking didn't help.

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Washington D.C.: Hi Tom,

My husband and I celebrated our anniversary at 2941 this past weekend and probably won't be going back. The food was pretty underwhelming, but what really ruined the experience for us was the end of the night. We had finished up dessert and were sitting there finishing our conversation when our waitress said the chef loves to meet his guests and she offered us a tour of the kitchen. We said that would be lovely in about 5 minutes. Immediately after that someone else hurried over to us and said let's go do the tour. We walked into the kitchen and then right back out and he showed us the door. So what they were really trying to say was get out we have more people to seat!

Tom Sietsema: Ouch! Those tours should be taken at the diner's convenience, not the staff's. Did you say anything to your guide about wanting to return to the table?

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re Rosslyn Cube: Good advice Tom! Even restaurants without a sommelier has someone who is in charge of the wine list. That person should want to talk about wine with guests. At my restaurant I do this job, and I love advising guests on what's good to drink based on their budget, food selection, and personal taste. I'm happiest when I can recommend a good wine at a great value.

Tom Sietsema: I bet you sell a lot of vino, too. Your enthusiasm comes across in your comments.

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Arlington, Va.: And a plea for the Dining Guide - I am sure it used to be available in PDF. Sure, the new interactive dotcom version is flashy, but help a reader out - what if I need to print it? After spending about 45 minutes searching the website one day (could it be hidden in the printed version of the Post? NO) I gave up and READ ANOTHER REVIEWER.

Tom Sietsema: NO WAY!

Consider your plea passed along.

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Birthdayland: My husband wants to celebrate his birthday at Citronelle. He wants it to be a family dinner, including our 7-year-old son. While our son is a foodie (loves sushi, the real deal, not California rolls; comments on the texture of a mousse) and has reasonable table manners, I don't think Citronelle is a place he'd enjoy. I imagine that it's a longish dinner, for instance and he'd be bored. Your take? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Your son sounds like a trooper! If it's a big deal restaurant experience you want, I think the atmosphere and service at Restaurant Eve are more relaxed.

washingtonpost.com: Restaurant Eve's Tasting Room

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Downtown, D.C.: Will CityZen have a new chef when it reopens this month? If so, what do you hear/expect? I have a gift certificate, how long should I wait for things to settle before giving it a try?

Tom Sietsema: Eric Ziebold will be front and center (in the kitchen) when CityZen reopens after a short summer break next Tuesday. Missing from the dining room will be Mark Politzer, the popular general manager, who left recently to open the future Bourbon Steak in Georgetown.

washingtonpost.com: 2007 Fall Dining Guide: CityZen

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Tom Sietsema: Oops. The web site has CityZen reopening yet this week (Friday).

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Age/Race: Hi, Tom. Please let me tell you about my experiences with the age/race issue while dining out. I'm a brown-skinned, young-looking woman who often dines out alone at nice restaurants. I've never felt like I was treated less than anyone else. What's interesting, though, is that I -do- feel this way sometimes at fancy boutiques and at local brances of That Very Fancy Department Store Headquartered in Dallas.

So.... could it be that restauranters are less likely to be biased than retailers?

Anyone else care to throw in their experiences?

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for sharing. I'd love to hear from more readers about their experiences.

Part of me thinks going in with a smile and a bit of confidence gives a diner (of whatever age or gender or persuasion) an edge. That's the simple solution.

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re Washington D.C.'s top 10: Would you be willing to identify the 4 picks that you would not include from the poster's Top Ten list? What would be your Top Ten fine dining establishments?

Tom Sietsema: Sorry, but you'll have to wait until October 12, when the dining guide appears in print, for an answer. I don't want to reveal all ahead of publication, you know?

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San Francisco, Calif.: Diabetic desserts: Tom, As a recently diagnosed diabetic, I wanted to respond to the chatter and try to give you and others a better idea of what might help that person.

First off, diabetics have to count and watch all carbohydrates so not having processed sugar added helps but if it's replaced by a sugar alcohol - sugar free chocolates and candies for example - they still have to count that toward their total intake guidelines. Food made with Splenda or artificial sweeteners can cut the calorie and carb count a lot.

In my nutrition class meals for women were to be 45-60 grams of carbs, for men 60-75, the upper limit being for extremely active people only. A slice of bread is between 15-18 grams, a tennis ball sized fruit 30 so you can see that it's not a lot. We were told that if you were going to cheat with dessert you should wait a while after your dinner so that your blood sugar would not spike so much and to give your body a chance to process the carbs from dinner.

So what I think would be useful for a diabetic looking for dessert would be

a place where you can get dessert only, maybe one open late

places that do sugar-free baked goods - I think they're gross but some people like them

places that have great desserts in smaller portions

a dessert that is so extraordinary that it would justify a one-time cheat

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for taking the time to enlighten us. If there are any restaurants out there that offer sugar-free desserts, I'd love to hear from them. Meanwhile, the recently reviewed Co Co.Sala is a good source for all things sweet and miniature.

washingtonpost.com: August Review: Co Co. Sala

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Alexandria, Va.-The Plate Snatchers: Good Morning, Tom:

In your experience, do many diners (and waiters) observe the rules of etiquette when dining where the knife and fork are crossed in between bites, and finally placed beside one another in the 10 to 4 position when done? In other words, are diners not communicating through etiquette, or do waiters not understand utensil position or worse yet, not care? Thank you for your thoughts.

Tom Sietsema: I think a lot of people don't know, or follow, the rules you're typing about. But they're good ones -- unspoken signals to either "leave alone" or "take away."

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Bourbon Steak?: Huh...what will they be serving?

Tom Sietsema: Bourbon. And, um, steak. (Among other things.)

washingtonpost.com: Tom's Dish on Bourbon Steak

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701: I just need to second your comment from last week on the piano at 701. I was there for Restaurant Week and my table of four could barely have a conversation. The food was good - not amazing. And while I've given up on expecting wine be served at the correct temperature, the white was actually too cold to drink and the red was so warm it tasted odd. Given all the great restaurants in D.C., I won't be racing back there any time soon.

Tom Sietsema: Don't get me wrong. I like live music. But I could hear 701's piano all the way into the nether reaches of the dining room when I was there recently. It proved more distracting than entertaining. (The Prime Rib somehow gets the music thing right.)

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The kitchen tour to the exit: My husband had left his coat at the table thinking we would be coming back after the tour...conviently the hostess had gotten it for him and met us at the door.

Tom Sietsema: I see. Depending on your vantage point, that could come across as nervy -- or thoughtful. Did you happen to notice if your table had been rest or reseated when you were led to the door?

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, I need a cute and not too expensive place to take a girl on a date in Dupont tonight and I was thinking Cafe Odeon. Have you been there? Is it good or would you recommend somewhere else?

Tom Sietsema: Gosh, the last time I was at Odeon I didn't own an e-mail account. Maybe a reader with more recent experience can pipe up? Personally, I like Mourayo in that neck of the woods. It's small, charming and delicious.

washingtonpost.com: Mourayo

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re Bias: I'm a person of South Asian descent born and raised in the US and in my experience things are changing. I experienced alot more subtle and overt bigotry when I was younger and living in "red" states. One of the great values of that experience though was that I learned to distinguish stares that were fearful and hateful from those of people who were curious, having likely never seen someone like me before. I've had plenty of instances of people saying they couldn't understand what I was saying and could I repeat that. Since I speak with a Maryland/Virginia accent I'll put it down to that, but clearly there were times when people were expecting to hear "Apu". This has lessened and is much less in a city like DC. Nevertheless, I'm aware that in certain situations, I'm treated as if I were a foreigner and that sometimes this happens in places that are run by other minority groups. Usually all of this is cut short by my almost aggressively polite demeanor in such circumstances. So, in short, its out there, it is clearly out there. But, while it sucks that we have to deal with it, its worth not building up a fortress mentality against it. Sometimes people are genuinely dealing with someone like you for the very first time and in cases where rudeness is exhibited, whatever the cause, service industries should be made aware of the lost business. ie. Tom's frequent advice to "speak with a manager".

Tom Sietsema: I love the way you think.

And I totally get what you mean about people being curious vs. people being racist. I grew up in a lily-white farm town in the Midwest with exactly eight people who weren't Caucasion. Today, more than a dozen different languages are spoken in my hometown of 11,000 people. Things change. People mix.

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re: Bourbon Steak? : you know I was joking yes?

Tom Sietsema: I did. And I joked right back.

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Wine steward story: I just have to share this, esp. since the restaurant is now defunct. We were out to dinner in Maryland and after our poor waiter returned for the third time to tell my husband that the red wine he wanted wasn't available, he (the waiter) brought out the wine steward (if a restaurant in a shopping center can have a wine steward) who told us that they were re-doing their wine list and hadn't completed the changes so that's why none of the piano wires he'd ordered from the menu were available. Piano wires? After the third repetition we caught the N at the beginning of Nwire, and realized she was referring to Pinot Noirs. Several of us disappeared under the table to hide our snorts of bemused laughter.

Tom Sietsema: I'm laughing, I'm laughing.

Your story reminds me of the time a couple at the pizza joint I was working in stopped to tell me their pie had "cement" in it. I heard another word. Needless to say, I was greatly relieved to find small pebbles (from mushroom caps) rather than, um, well, you know ...

And on THAT note, I'm outta here. See you next Wednesday and thanks for your time.

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Arlington, Va.: Tom, I really appreciate your investigative work into the reasoning behind the recent changes to Jaleo's patatas bravas recipe that came out in the Magazine this past Sunday. My wife and I are self-proclaimed Jaleo lovers (we even had our rehearsal dinner there in 2005), and were disappointed with that change, as well as another: the apples and manchego salad. The apples and manchego used to be a simple, delightful dish that featured...apples, manchego, olive oil, and nothing else. On our most recent trip to Jaleo a few weeks ago, we were saddened to find that the salad was mostly filled with fennel of all things!!! The pieces of manchego and apple, which used to be generously sized, were minuscule at best, leaving us with only the strong taste of fennel with each bite. What's going on with Jose Andres?? We will still be loyal customers, but come on...I could have made the apples and manchego salad better at home. Hopefully he will change that recipe back to it's prior glory like he will with the patatas bravas in September.

washingtonpost.com: Ask Tom: Jaleo's Patatas Bravas

Tom Sietsema: I love that salad (the original), too -- and I'm not a big fan of fennel. I'm wondering if that's a permanent change or a fluke?

I always think major edits should be reflected in the menu description. Maybe Jaleo should start referring to the tapa as "Fennel with essence of apple and cheese."

In defense of the Spanish restaurant, Jaleo has hundreds of tapas recipes in its repertoire. I understand the kitchen's wanting to alter the routine now and then. But there's also the risk of disappointing fans of what used to be favorite dishes. It's a balancing act.

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