Ask Tom

Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, January 21, 2009; 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: Happy Wednesday, everyone. I've got a bowl of home-made chicken soup and YOU to keep me warm for the next hour.

So. We have a new president. Lots of good energy in the city. Tell me where you ate in the last few days, and if it was away from home, how the restaurants treated you. I was thrilled to see so many busy, busy dining rooms as I drove or walked around the city in the last 72 hours.

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Woodley Park: Hi Tom,

Any word on when Restaurant Week is?

Tom Sietsema: This just in, from Lynne Breaux, president of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington: The next Restaurant Week begins Feb. 16.

Breaux reports that "close to 200" member restaurants will be participating this time, a new high for the (winter) event. An official list of participants is expected to go up later today, at www.ramw.org

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Bethesda, Md.: One line at the very end of Jane Black's article today left me screaming for more details.

"There was a scare when Nathan started to choke on a piece of chicken and Colicchio performed the Heimlich maneuver."

What?! Did she have to be taken to the hospital? Did Nathan or Colicchio comment on the scare? Details, please! That could be a whole article on its own.

Tom Sietsema: I was at that party, but in another room when Joan started choking. It was over in what seemed like minutes. Tom was modest about his rescue ("I was just standing nearby."). I heard that Joan, who didn't have to go to the hospital, said something about Tom's strong hands.

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Springfield, Va.: A lot of the time we read negative experiences folks have dining here in D.C. I want to send out a great big "Way to Go" to the service I recently received at The Source. My husband and I took our soon to be 5-year-old son out for a nice New Year's dinner at The Source. My son has been dining in nice restaurants since day 1 so is a great young diner. Even though, we took the earliest reservation as sometimes fellow diners without children give you that "oh no, they have a kid look". Sometimes restaurant staff has that look too. Not the staff at the Source though. They went over and above to make our meal a nice one. Without asking, the server had the chef make some hot bread with olive oil dipping sauce for my son. They asked his age and when he said "4 and 3 quarters" I explained his birthday was 4 days away. At the end of the meal they gave him some great birthday cookies and really made him feel special. This was only my 2nd time here, the first was for a business lunch, but I will definitely be back. Way to go!

Tom Sietsema: "Way to go," indeed. Your son sounds like a lucky kid; kudos for showing him the ropes at such an early age and at an early hour.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Fall Dining Guide: The Source

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Tipping for freebies: I have a handful of establishments, both bars and restaurants, that I frequent regularly. Occasionally I get something on the house - no charge for dessert, a gratis wine refill, etc. How do you calculate the tip for the free stuff? I have three theories:

1) Tip nothing for the freebie. They are trying to give you a gift, no? 2) Tip on amount that the extra would have cost. It takes the same effort to prep, serve, and clean up as it would have had you paid for it. 3) Tip extra. You got something for free ... share the love.

Tom's thoughts?

Tom Sietsema: I can't (and don't) accept freebies myself, for obvious reasons. But I'd be inclined to tip 25 percent or so, depending on the gesture. There's a difference, for example, between topping off the wine in your glass and offering a fresh glassful of wine.

I'd love to hear how restaurant regulars deal with these situations.

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Washington, D.C.: Reading about the Obamas, it appears that unlike the George and Laura, they like to eat out. Are we going to be seeing them dining around town on Friday nights? If so where do you think they will go? And, most importantly, if they will be eating out how disruptive do you think it will be for us regular folk who like to hit the foodie hot spots as well?

Tom Sietsema: All good questions.

Mrs. Obama's spokeswoman told me the couple will definitely not be homebodies, as evinced by their nonstop activities in the last week alone. Dining out, and "date nights," will certainly be part of their schedule.

However, what's good for restaurants -- the enormous publicity they receive following a presedential visit -- probably won't be good for diners. I say this, having been stranded in traffic for 30 minutes while the streets were cleared so the Obamas could get into Blair House last week. The Secret Service has complete autonomy where civilian movement can occur.

Still, I'd rather have a First Family that likes to eat out rather than one that does not.

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Washington, D.C.: I was excited to finally try Good Stuff Eatery on the Hill this weekend, and checked out the menu online before leaving home to decide just what I'd order. When I arrived I was told that there was a "special menu" this week only (for the Inauguration). The menu was significantly scaled back from what I assume is the usual menu (found online). Not only that, but the prices had been raised for this "special menu" (the regular fries are shown online as $2.59, but I was charged $3.75, and the burger I chose was an additional $.70). So my meal cost an extra $2...Am I wrong feeling a little cheated? The Web site wasn't updated with the special menu limitations, and the price in store was more than online. I know it's a special event, but I feel a bit the victim of bait-and-switch. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

Tom Sietsema: Making some extra money on a special occasion is nothing new -- New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day dinners are always going to cost more than dinners on non-event nights. And I can only assume GSE's abbreviated menu was best for both the restaurant and the horde of customers (fewer choices = fewer decisions to make = easier planning). But it stinks that the news wasn't available online.

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Lets play a game: Bush II in his 8 years in D.C. only dined out 20 times (2.5 restaurants per year). Clearly Obama will be out in the dining scene more(Ben's and Bobby Vans already) than W. Let us speculate where Obamas might visit more than once?

Tom Sietsema: Where did you get the Bush figure? I've not seen that information before.

Speculate away on where you think the Obamas will go, again and again?

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Cubicle, Arlington: Tom, love the chats. I'm going to Shirlington for a play and only want to park once. I know Carlyle Grand is in Shirlington, but is there any other stand out restaurants? I'm open to all cuisines and price ranges. Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: Of all the places I've tried there, Carlyle is the most convenient and the most consistent. But I'd love to hear about some competition for the Great American Restaurant.

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The Obamas dining out: I would imagine that they are going to stick to places where they can sit in a private room, regardless of the size of their party and the size of the room.

Tom Sietsema: Private rooms are good, but not necessary. I know the Secret Service frowns on big plate glass windows, though (or at least seating POTUS near one).

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Inauguration: We ate at Marvin last night to celebrate the inauguration. The pork shank was amazing -- I would definitely recommend it.

However, I had a bit too much wine (also good!) and shorted my server $10 on the tip. I feel really bad about it. Would it be appropriate to give him cash if I see him again? Or should I call the restaurant/drop it off? (I don't recall his name, which complicates things.)

And btw, I plan on sticking to my calculator from now on...apparently the math skills decline faster than I thought.

Tom Sietsema: What a thoughtful diner you are! I'd gather as much info as you can remember -- the table you sat at, the time you were there, the waiter's appearance -- and call the restaurant to ask for a name. Then, I'd drop off the extra cash, in an envelope with the waiter's name on it, and give it to a manager.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, Love your chat and need your help! I am taking my board of directors to U Street for a performance at the Lincoln Theater. What are your top suggestions for dining before the show? There will be 11 of us. Would love Ben's Chili Bowl, but that won't work!

Tom Sietsema: What about the new Ben's Next Door? Or Marvin? Or Creme? Or ... has anyone else noticed what an exciting place the U St. corridor has become?

washingtonpost.com: Chef Rock Joins Ben's Next Door

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Washington, D.C.: Tom...Help Please! We worked real hard over the Inauguration and my boss has now charged me with finding a place for a celebratory dinner tonight. I don't want to pick someplace that will burn her wallet, but will make me look good. She wants us to all be "family," so no place too loud. I was thinking Matchbox, what do you suggest? Thanks

Tom Sietsema: Try the new Matchbox on the Hill. Or Brasserie Beck downtown. And what about the recently expanded Mourayo in Dupont Circle?

washingtonpost.com: First Bite: Matchbox on the Hill

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Baltimore, Md.: Hi, Tom.

Your last postcard from Madrid dates back to 2005. Have you visited since then, by any chance? I'm heading there next month and am looking for recommendations.

Thanks in advance.

Tom Sietsema: Time flies. I've not been back since that report. Maybe a chatter can help you out?

washingtonpost.com: 2005 Postcard From Madrid

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Washington, D.C.: Tom Sorry to say it, but your restaurant recommendations to the Obamas were for the most part downright snooty. This is a family that likes to get down on the floor with their kids. Please get real for the rest of us as well.

Tom Sietsema: Say what?

For the most part, I based my recommendations on what the First Couple liked in Chicago. I'd hardly call Comet Ping Pong, Surfside, Marvin, the Sunday supper at Majestic and the Hitching Post (the Hitching Post!) "snooty."

washingtonpost.com: This Week's Column: The Diner in Chief

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Chinatown, D.C.: Hi Tom -- happy first full day of the Obama administration! I'm still riding high from yesterday's events and am getting together to celebrate and catch up with two friends over a quick lunch in Chinatown. I'm recently out of grad school and they're still slaving away so cheap is good in this case. Recommendations?

Thanks so much!

Tom Sietsema: Burma, Matchbox and Nano's Peri-Peri all fit the bill.

washingtonpost.com: Nando's Peri-Peri

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Washington, D.C.: Tom: Love the chats. I know he gave kind of a non-answer in your Food Flash, but I'm wondering if you think it's a realistic possibility that Fabio Trabocchi will return to the area? It'd be great to have him back.

Tom Sietsema: A lot of us would love to see him return to Washington. But the great chef is also a loyal family man, and he relocated his brood, including two young children, to New York over the summer. I'm sure Trabocchi wouldn't want to disrupt their lives again so soon. But you never know!

washingtonpost.com: Food Flash: Got Work for Fabio Trabocchi?

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Old Town Alexandria: Hi Tom! Submitting early as I'm off to a playdate with my toddler. My husband and I had an amazingly lovely dinner at Firefly this past weekend. Wine, service, food, atmosphere -- all made us feel even better about getting the sitter for the night! My only semi-negative comment is regarding their vegetarian dish. On the menu they referred to it as a casserole - sounds yummy, comforting, right? And it was, but I was a tad disappointed once it arrived because it really was the equivalent of risotto with cheese melted on top. (Not a HUGE risotto fan.) Should I have known that casserole meant baked risotto?

Thank you for your chats and palate!

Tom Sietsema: How else was the "casserole" described? Did you know rice was going to be a significant part of the dish?

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Alexandria, Va.: My friend and I are finally getting a Mom's Night Out after giving birth to our daughters in January 2008. We've been so involved with diapers, bottles, and spit-up for the last year that we've completely lost touch with the dining scene in Washington, D.C., that we used to love and enjoy. We're hoping to try a newer downtown restaurant with great food and hip vibe. We're open to any cuisine and are willing to splurge (at least a little)! Can you help us?

Tom Sietsema: I very much like the relocated Corduroy near the convention center, although "sleek" is probably a better way to describe the modern American restaurant than "hip." The new, Asian-accented Sei in Penn Quarter, which I'll be previewing in next Wednesday's Food section, certainly has nice buzz. Mio is good. So is Westend Bistro, which I'm re-reviewing this Sunday in the Magazine.

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Joe D.C.: Tom, Have you ever eaten at the restaurant at Barboursville Winery (Palladio) or at L'Auberge Provencale? Love Barboursville's cab franc, is the food worth a trip (and the high cost) too?

Tom Sietsema: I've not been to Palladio, but I hear good things about it. I went to L'Auberge before the fall dining guide last year and left disappointed with the cooking and a lot poorer for the visit.

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Price Hike D.C., Va.: Hi Tom, Regarding the earlier poster who mentioned hiked up prices at DC restaurants...I had two experiences and was quiet ticked off. First, wanting to check out Himalayan Heritage after your review, we went Monday night where they had an 'inauguration buffet' no menu items were being served. The food was great - even at the buffet but still no MOMO. Second after standing in the cold for 7 odd hours and passing throngs of pedestrian gridlock on 18th street we made our way to Bua - where we were charged dinner prices for lunch portions and lunch hour. Im glad that restaurant want to make money but atleast publish such things on your printed menu or at least on your Web site

Tom Sietsema: A sign on the door would help, too, so people could reconsider before being seated.

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RE: Bush figure: Charlie Gibson from ABC News

Tom Sietsema: I know of only a handful of places Bush himself dined at while president. Were any restaurant names mentioned?

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Obama`s Date Night: They will probably like the cozy and romantic table 24 at corduroy. we had a great time there last friday which was my husbands birthday.

Tom Sietsema: A good suggestion.

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Great Falls, Va.: Longtime reader and admirer, first time commenter. Highway Robbery at 2941. Three couples dined at 2941 on December 28th to celebrate the birthday of one of the party. The evening began on a sour note when the reserved window table was not available and ended on an even more unpleasant one as all felt that they had been fleeced. The robberies involved the hidden and exorbitant prices of drinks - $21.00 for a martini and $39.00 for one scotch on the rocks. These prices were nowhere evident at the time of ordering and inquiries at the presentation of the bill were answered disdainfully as in, "We serve only the 21-year-old brand of that scotch." It was particularly egregious that nothing had been said earlier since the servers intruded into everyone's conversations when placing entrees and deserts before each party who you would think would have known what the dishes were since they had ordered them. The food was just okay, but the gouging so severe and delivered with such "attitude" that none of the couples or their acquaintances will be returning.

Tom Sietsema: Oh my. Nearly $40 for a cocktail?

Any time anything is unexpectedly high (this is often true of specials), diners need to be told, either on the menu or verbally by the waiter. I'm curious: Were you given a choice of scotches, as is typical, especially in a high-end restaurant?

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Tom, thanks for highlighting Burma Road this week! I've been going for lunch frequently; partially because I like the food and partially because there's generally not many people in there at lunch. I hate watching restaurants that are obviously a person's pride and joy fade away (sniff sniff Blue Mountain Cafe!)

Tom Sietsema: I hope that preview gives the place a little boost in business. It's food deserves a wider audience.

washingtonpost.com: First Bite: Burma Road

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Washington, D.C.: My teenage daughter was asked to help out at the food stand of a semi-famous restaurant during the Inauguration festivities yesterday. The owner was expecting to serve 8,000 to 10,000 meals. My daughter was sent home at 1:00 after she had served only 6 meals. The owner must have lost thousands. Have you heard similar stories?

Tom Sietsema: That's awful. Where was the restaurant located?

Your story sounds like the restaurant version of all of us city dwellers who thought we'd rake in thousands by putting our homes on the Inauguration market.

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Tipping on freebies: I usually give a generous (25-30%) tip on the freebie's value if I receive something on the house. Though sometimes at a bar I'll tip roughly the value of the drink, depending on how well the server has been working.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for stepping up.

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Chicago poster: Tom, after our heated discussion with the poster from Chicago I wondered if it was Obama. I know that he has better things to do than write in about food but wouldn't that have been funny?

Tom Sietsema: Well, he WAS using a Blackberry up until recently ...

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Madrid Dining Suggestion: For the chatter looking for good food in Madrid - back in July, we really enjoyed Pandelujo, a fusion restaurant (address: Jorge Juan, 20). The service was gracious, the food delicious and the decor was very pretty (a pool in the restaurant that changed with different colored lights). It was on the pricey side,but it was one of the best meals we had on our trip.

Tom Sietsema: That pool sounds like the "mood" wall at Citronelle. Only wetter.

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Washington, D.C.: re: Obamas eating out. I have a nightmare scenario of heading to the bar at Palena or Corduroy for a lovely dinner and being turned away at the door and the Obamas are eating all of the soup!

Tom Sietsema: Or the roast chicken, or the gnocchi, or the hamburgers ...

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Las Cruce, N.M.: Tom,

A concern about "tipping for freebies"! As a former restaurant owner, I was always on guard for employees who would give out freebies, especially drinks, in exchange for higher tips. I was always happy to reward regulars, but it needed to be my choice! With the small margins in the restaurant industry, many have quickly gone under because of employee theft. It is accepted wisdom in the industry that a dishonest barkeep is the fastest route to the poorhouse!

Tom Sietsema: I've heard that, too.

Okay, so here's the deal, diners: Only take what the OWNER or MANAGER gives you free -- and if that happens to be the bar keep, great. Because unless that drink or dessert is actually being paid for by the server, the boss is taking a loss on the "gift."

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Penn Quarter, D.C.: We escaped the inauguration mess and went skiing in New Mexico. We had some really great Mexican food there. Where can we get something similar around D.C.? Also, we did a fair amount of research and taking the advice of Bon Apetite magazine tried the green chile cheeseburger at: Bobcat Bite, 420 Old Las Vegas Highway, Santa Fe NM 87505; 505-983-5319. Burger was just OK and did not hold a candle to a Hell Burger.

Tom Sietsema: "Great" Mexican is hard to find here. But I like much of what they're serving at Oyamel in Penn Quarter. And my memories of the food at Guajillo in Arlington are positive as well (not so its sister in Adams Morgan, Casa Oaxaca).

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Obama's eating out?!?!: Gee, if I had my own personal chef PLUS staff serving me and really cool china; and then the run of a really, big, nicely decorated house (unlike my own) where I could eat wherever, I WOULD never eat out! Holy cow!

Hmmm, maybe I need to run for president!

Tom Sietsema: Ha!

But I suspect the Obamas, like a lot of us, enjoy different scenery now and then, too. I mean, 365 days of dining in regal splenor on gilt-edged china is going to get routine after awhile, right?

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Richmond, Va.: Tip a lot extra for the first freebie (thanks and keep 'em coming!) and a little extra for subsequent freebies.

Tom Sietsema: You could end up spending (and eating!) a lot more than originally intended. But I like your sense of generosity.

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RE: Drink Prices: Tom,

This is a perpetual headache for me. Why, oh why, do restaurants not list prices on their drinks? They may have a list of cocktails with no clue as to the price. So we have to hope that we're not ordering a $21 martini, or ask and look like cheapskates. IMO, this is just as obnoxious as the lack of prices on specials. Please make it stop!

Tom Sietsema: Maybe this post will help.

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Washington, D.C.: I know your advice just reflects the hollowing out of D.C.'s Chinatown, but it's sad that your answer to the person looking for a cheap, quick lunch in Chinatown didn't include any Chinese restaurants. I'd add Full Kee to the list, especially the shrimp dumpling soup.

Tom Sietsema: I like parts of some Chinese menus there -- Full Kee included -- but the Chinese places are for the most part forgetable. A shame.

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Falls Church, Va.: I sometimes get freebies at GAR locations. Especially when I am alone and at the bar, eating lunch. If I get something that is $10 for free, I will usually add at least $5 to the tip.

Tom Sietsema: Wow. I gotta start eating at more GAR locations!

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Dining in regal splenor on gilt-edged china is going to get routine after awhile...: Maybe they could get TV snack trays...

I dunno, I like the part about someone else doing the cooking too, in my own home..

Tom Sietsema: Nancy and Ron often dined on TV trays, as I recall.

As for the new First Lady, Mrs. Obama seems delighted to have a chef at her beck and call.

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Restaurant week: Now that we know when it is, where would you recommend we go? I bought a house so I'm on a strict budget and don't want to go somewhere that will leave a sour taste in my mouth. To give you an idea of what I mean: in the past we've gone to Oceanaire, Ruth's Chris and DC Coast and have found the options to be varied and the quality of food to be high. We'd like a similar experience. Any suggestions?

Tom Sietsema: How about consulting my fall guide, to see which names are on both lists? (Sorry for the self-promotion, but I'm running low on time here.)

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Fall Dining Guide

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Only take what the OWNER or MANAGER gives you free: So if the waiter shows up with a complimentary item, I'm supposed to quiz him about just who authorized it??? I don't think so. Policing the employees is the manager's job, not mine. I just say thank you and tip generously.

Tom Sietsema: Your post is more realistic than my comment. Thanks for sharing.

And thanks for showing up today, folks. See you next Wednesday for another round.

Chow for now.

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