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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, February 25, 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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Arlington, Va.: Tom, thanks for this chat (is the highlight of my Wednesdays) and for all your columns. I know from a very good source that in recent days you were at Brabo, the new restaurant at The Lorien in Old Town. What were your impressions?

Tom Sietsema: Can you wait a week? I'll be writing about Robert Wiedmaier's latest project in next week's Food section.

Speaking of Brabo, someone made a reservation there TWICE in recent weeks and failed to show up both times.

Just for the record, I never, ever make local restaurant reservations under my own name.

Never.

Ever.

I hope any other restaurant that gets any such request from anyone claiming to be me, or speaking for me, knows I just don't work that way.

And on THAT odd note, I wish you all a happy hump day! Let's get rolling.

washingtonpost.com: Dish on Brabo

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Washington, D.C.: Goodmorning Tom,

I recently visited a California-themed restaurant/wine bar in Capitol Hill to have dinner. I ordered a glass of red wine with my meal. The wine is okay. But I was surprised to see that with about 1/3 to 1/4 of the glass remaining there was a lot of sediment in the glass, so much that I could not finish the glass. I did not ask for another glass or bring this to the attention of my waitress. But I thought this was a faux pas, if a wine bar/restaurant is going to serve red wine with sediment in the bottle shouldn't they strain the wine? I would strain wine I was serving guests at my home, and I assume any respectable wine bar would have strainers and decanters. Am I wrong?

Tom Sietsema: The server should have noticed what sounds like a LOT of "sediment" in the glass, but you should have taken the opportunity to bring the problem to the bar's attention, with the news that you hadn't noticed the problem until you were half-finished drinking.

What say the wine mavens out there?

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Mini-reviews after weekend getaway: Dear Tom,

My husband and I just returned from a weekend getaway to DC, and we wanted to share some mini-reviews of our dining experiences:

Friday dinner at Jaleo. A few ordering and food delivery snafus (was the waiter just not listening?), but at least the food was good. One error on the bill was fixed immediately.

Friday dessert at Red Velvet. Wow. Cupcakes of the gods.

Saturday lunch at Booeymonger's in Georgetown, for nostalgia's sake. We are happy to report that the turkey Manhattan has not changed in 12 years.

Saturday dinner at Sei. We were so impressed with Sei. The service, starting with the hostess, was completely unpretentious and friendly. Our waitress was pretty knowledgeable about the menu (apparently they make everything in house, down to the syrups in the fascinating cocktails), and when she didn't know how one dish was prepared, she checked with a manager for the answer. Even when the room was full, it was not too loud. Excellent sushi and the small plates were good too--we highly recommend the wasabi guacamole (!) and the Asian pork buns. Definitely a splurge.

Sunday brunch at Matchbox. We appreciated that they opened the doors early to let the people waiting in the rain come inside; the process of taking names and getting seated went pretty smoothly. Food and service were good, not great.

Sunday drinks at Minibar/Cafe Atlantico. Overpriced cocktails, plus the bartender was stressed about getting ready for the evening. Understandable, but don't complain to the patrons and don't bully your assistant. Instead of sticking around in that negative vibe, we went across the street for...

Sunday dinner at Teaism. Cozy, peaceful, and delicious. Ochazuke on a cold day is highly recommended.

Then back to the airport.

Tom Sietsema: (But where are you checking in from?)

Thanks for filing such a fun field report. Sorry to hear about Cafe Atlantico. But the mention of Booeymonger's made me smile (I'm a GU grad who LIVED on some of those sandwiches) and I'm pleased to hear that the newish Sei is performing so well, so early.

washingtonpost.com: First Bite: Sei

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Arlington, Va.: Tom -- have you noticed that 2 Amys pizzas have gone downhill? The past two times I have been there, the crusts are too thin and limp and cannot withstand the toppings. Just curious if you've noticed the same thing at this popular place.

Tom Sietsema: I didn't include Two Amys in my fall dining guide last year, because of what you've discovered: The crusts are inconsistant. (But I continue to dig the small plates and vino selection.)

washingtonpost.com: Tom's Thoughts on Two Amys (and Other Pizza Joints) From 2008's Dining Guide

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Breast feeding: It should be perfectly acceptable to breast feed a baby in public. Should the baby have to wait to eat? Should the mother have to feed her child in a dirty bathroom? People against it need to get over themselves. It's not a sexual thing. The baby has just as much right to eat as you do.

Tom Sietsema: The reader is commenting on a topic that arose during last week's chat. I'd like to know what others think. (I'm fine with discrete breast feeding myself.)

washingtonpost.com: Last Week's Chat and Sietsema's Table on Breastfeeding

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Breastfeeding in restaurants...: Just to pick up on that discussion at the end of the last chat...I'm a huge fan of breastfeeding, wherever and whenever. I've done it in church, restaurants, movie theaters, etc. I know from experience that it can be done with nearly zero boob showing. Folks see more of my "assets" when I have a sexy blouse on! Any mother who has a hard time latching her baby without giving bystanders an eyeful should visit a La Leche League meeting to get some tips, and make an investment in breastfeeding tops that can help with discreetness.

Women who feel the need to "make a statement" with boobs flung far and wide should be flogged with a wet diaper.

But fellow diners should recognize that, especially for newer moms, it can be harder to be discreet, so they should simply be polite and avert their eyes. "But I shouldn't HAVE to look away" my fellow chat participants will whine. But you know, we all do it when necessary in lots of other situations. Do you stare when a fellow diner comes across something unpalatable that they need to expel into their napkin, or when men unconsciously scratch themselves? How about when somebody has a displaced contact lens? Do you stare when they have their finger whirling around on their eyeball? I could come up with 100 examples of situations when good manners come reflexively, and people take the pressure off and simply look away.

Tom, the bottom line is that people enjoy feeling indignant and breastfeeding in public is an easy target. But with genuine efforts of discretion from nursing mothers and a little bit of "live and let live" by fellow diners, I think we could all put the issue to bed.

Tom Sietsema: You and some of your sisters (see below) make some great cases for letting infants nurse in public.

Adams Morgan, D.C.: I exclusively breastfed my daughter for a year and went out often for meals. My two cents -- I did nurse in casual restaurants, but always discreetly with a cover-up. I never would do so in an upscale restaurant because I would not bring a baby to such establishments, I would save that for babysitter nights. I don't feel nursing mothers should have to feed their child in a bathroom unless there is a nice lounge with a chair.

I think some women just like to make a statement about breast feeding by being obvious about it, and that is unfortunate. I figured out a way to have a life outside the home while breast feeding for a whole year -- I just tried to be discreet and not make others feel uncomfortable. It is possible with just a little effort.

A breastfeeding mom in Alexandria: I had to respond to the poster last week who expressed concern/shock over a fellow diner breastfeeding her child. I have been nursing my son for the past year in public. When he was very little, he let me nurse him under a nursing cover -- as he's gotten older -- he doesn't want something over his face -- much like I'm sure none of the rest of you want to eat under a napkin. Nursing is actually very discrete -- your shirt meets the baby's face and the baby's body covers your stomach.

Regardless -- her child has just as much of a right to eat in the dining room as every other diner. I wish that people would stop making mothers feel bad for doing the best and most healthy thing for their children -- anywhere you can eat, a child should be able to as well. Conversely, if you don't want to eat there -- i.e., a bathroom or a dark, empty room by yourself -- you shouldn't ask a baby to either.

Sincerely,

Looking forward to the day when Americans can de-sexualize my child's food source and instead look askance at people who feed their children manufactured, imitation breastmilk!

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Tom -- I finally had the opportunity to eat at Four Sisters and I loved it -- every bite. It's not often that I find myself in that part of Virginia -- is there anything approximating their food (besides the pho) in Maryland?

Tom Sietsema: No Vietnamese cooking I've had in Maryland comes close to what I've slurped and sliced in Falls Church and "Little Saigon" (otherwise known as all those Vietnamese restaurants in and near the Eden Center). Maybe a chatter can help out this morning?

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Review: Four Sisters

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Fairfax: Just a note to say that we had a very good Restaurant Week experience at Vermilion on Sunday. Food and service were both great; there was no suggestion that RW patrons were anything other than first-class, and service pace was about right. The RW menu was being provided along with the regular menu at all tables we saw seated. RW menu had a good sampling from the regular one. Bravo!

Tom Sietsema: Vermilion is getting lots of praise these days, most recently from a couple I had dinner with just last night. Earlier this month, the Old Town restaurant's chef, Tony Chittum, was one of 20 names to appear on a slate of 20 chefs being considered for the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic honor. (The gala is in May in New York.)

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: Vermilion

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Rockville, Md.: Tom, Ages ago I printed out "Tom Sietsema's Mother's Chicken recipe," and finally got around to making it. I had a hunch that in order for your palate to be discriminating, she had to be a great cook. The recipe was terrific! Two questions: Is the "folding the chicken onto itself, like an envelope, essentially rolling it in a cylinder, and 2) do you ever serve it with a sauce or condiment? Feel free to send along more of your Mom's recipes.

Tom Sietsema: I'm so glad you enjoyed that 70s-era staple of my youth.

The "folding" involves tucking in all the chicken parts, creating an envelope (or bundle or cylinder) of sorts. Each finished breast should look like like a rounded package.

I don't recall a side dish or condiment that routinely went with that entree, I'm sorry to report. But something green -- green beans or broccoli -- would certainly balance the beige of the chicken.

washingtonpost.com: Tom's Mom's Chicken Recipe: Breasts for Guests

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Arlington, Va.: So is there going to be a big battle over public breastfeeding today! Woot! In most places, it is legal for a woman to nurse anywhere the baby is allowed to be. I realize that Americans tend to be suspicious yet intrigued about breasts performing their intended function, but people, get over it. It's a baby eating what babies are supposed to eat. It's no more wonderful and miraculous than a baby having a bottle, but it's no worse, either. And hush up about doing it discreetly. If it's not the glory of true womanhood, it's not some shameful little secret, either. Besides, some babies won't cooperate. They are not, as a rule, a cooperative group.

Tom Sietsema: Something tells me we're going to get more breast-feeding comments before the hour is up ...

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20851: Hey Tom, In your review of Baci you did not mention the service. My wife and I have only eaten there once, given the hit and miss on the food, the service quality was poor. Did not come around to see if we needed more wine, etc. The kicker was my wife ordered off the menu and I ordered the four-course meal being offered. They only brought three courses and almost forgot the dessert if I didn't mention that I ordered the four-course meal. Should we go back again? I would need some persuading.

Tom Sietsema: Baci is nice to know about if you live nearby and know what to order. But I wouldn't race back there on my own. And I think it's misleading to promote a chef who really isn't doing the day-to-day cooking.

There's a funny side story to my review in First Bite today. When a copy editor called to fact-check the spelling of the actual chef's name, the owner's wife (!) wasn't sure and had to call back to the kitchen.

washingtonpost.com: First Bite: Baci

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Clarendon: Tom, what's with all this derision about molten chocolate cakes that I've seen in your last few chats? I consider myself somewhat of a foodie, but I have to say that a properly made molten chocolate cake is one of my favorite desserts. Properly made, meaning freshly baked - the best I've had in recent years is at Roy's Restaurant in Baltimore and Hawaii, although Morton's and Shula's do a pretty good version too. These stand in sharp contrast to the premade type that's simply warmed up when the order is placed and is invariably overcooked, such as the one I had at Willow last night. (Sorry, Willow, but yuck!) Is it the premade versions that everyone looks down on (because I could understand that), or is it the concept in general?

Tom Sietsema: I've taken shots at molten chocolate cakes in the past, simply because they've become the tuna tartare of desserts in this country. They're EVERYWHERE. And too often mediocre. To me, they can be a sign of a lazy or unimaginative pastry chef.

That said, I've enjoyed many warm chocolate cakes over the years, including at the source, Jo Jo in New York -- still the best (or at least in the top tier) in my opinion.

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Washington, D.C.: Ate dinner for the first time out at the National Harbor, and if my experience was any indication, that place will be a ghost town in the not too distant future.

My wife and I met a friend staying at the Gaylord Hotel at their seafood restaurant Moon Bay. We ate at the bar, and it honestly started off on the wrong foot right out of the gate. They were "out" of their lower priced wines by the glass, forcing my wife to pay double for her two glasses of wine, my steak frites was overcooked and tasteless, my wife's pork chops were rubber, and our friend's fish looked EXACTLY like it had been in a Gordon's box 20 minutes before. The ice cream that accompanied our desert had ice chips in it, like it had been in the freezer for a month without a lid, and to top it all off (even though it isn't in chronological order -- so sue me!) was that we paid $14 for three(!) shrimp in the shrimp cocktail appetizer.

Honestly, I've had better meals at McDonalds, and matching that with the price and service, I am not sure you could pay me to go back.

Tom Sietsema: Ouch! Thanks for taking one for the team.

washingtonpost.com: Moon Bay Coastal Cuisine

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Washington, D.C.: Submitting early because of a meeting.

From your review of the Bombay Club on Sunday: "The waiters at the Bombay Club sport yellow ties with dark vests these days, but they still go about their duties with a kind of hyper-attentiveness that summons the days of the Raj. The service is old-fashioned and courtly; anything you say is likely to prompt a "Yes, sir" or "Yes, ma'am" in response."

I thought this was insensitive, at best. Pining for "the days of the Raj?" You mean when the white Britishers were waited on by brown Indians? Would you state in a review of a Southern restaurant that the service was reminiscent of the Pullman porters in the pre-Civil Rights movement days?

Otherwise, a nice review!

Tom Sietsema: How do others feel about this? I meant no offense.

washingtonpost.com: This Week's Review: Bombay Club

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Alexandria: Tom, I'm hoping you and others can help me out. I will be in Beijing and Hong Kong next month. I am looking for THE BEST restaurants in each location. Cost and cuisine types are no concern. Any assistance you and the chatters can provide would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!!

Tom Sietsema: I haven't been to Hong Kong, but here are some ideas for Beijing:

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Postcard From Beijing

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Washington, D.C.: Good morning, Tom. I know you think that Washington has some great restaurants (and I agree), but what would you consider the area's "significant" restaurants in terms of contributing to the larger food scene.

Citronelle strikes me as one. Michel Richard seems to be copied fairly widely even though he might not have the name recognition as a Food TV star.

Minibar also, maybe? The recent review of L.A.'s Bazaar made me think that Chef Andres is a pretty important chef.

Who else? Is PX driving a custom-cocktail trend? Is Five Guys responsible for the gourmet burger fad? Are there past local restaurants/chefs that have made contributions that I'm forgetting?

What do you think?

Tom Sietsema: Wow. I could write for an hour on this subject.

I agree with your assessment: Michel Richard is a giant (although he really needs better support from his team and I can't for the life of me understand why he lets some of his staff drag him down).

Jose Andres is a terrific restaurateur.

I've had trendy cocktails all over the country -- New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Minneapolis, Miami, you name it -- and very few mixologists can approach the level of fnesse achieved by Todd Thrasher at Eve and PX in Old Town. The guy's dedication and skill are mighty impressive.

Vikram Sunderam at Rasika reminds us, year in and year out, how wonderful and varied Indian cooking can be. More people should follow his lead.

Gosh, I could go on and on. There's so much talent here! And so little time. To be continued?

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What say the wine mavens out there? : What I say is it drives me nuts when people complain about something they didn't bother bringing up with the staff. Give them an opportunity to correct it. Sometimes things don't go perfectly, oversights happen. If they refuse or act snippy, by all means complain away. But don't just sit there expecting someone to notice something that's irritating you. Speak up, and do it as nicely as you can. Most businesses would like the chance to make you happy.

Tom Sietsema: Indeed.

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Herndon, Va.: Tom,

Looking for a suggestion for a place to take my sister out for dinner on a Saturday. The caveats: 1) She lives in Silver Spring and I don't know the area and she doesn't want to go too far (no D.C., Va. or Annapolis) 2) She doesn't eat most meat, only seafood 3) There will be 5-6 of us

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Good morning, Herndon.

Among the restaurants in Silver Spring that I find to be the most reliable are Mandalay (Burmese); Ruin Thai for the obvious; and Samantha's (Mexican/Salvadoran). Ruin Thai is TINY, however. Whichever place you choose, you should definitely make a reservation.

washingtonpost.com: 2005 Dining Guide: Samantha's and Ruan Thai

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Breasts for Guests : Who knew we'd have 2 issues about breasts today!

Tom Sietsema: Both edible!

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D.C.: "How do others feel about this? I meant no offense."

Tom, I am sure you meant no offense, but that doesn't mean you don't need to plug in a little bit! ;-) D.C. is a multicultural area, which means more opportunities to inadvertently give offense.

For the record, I am from South Asia, and while I cringed at your ignorant allusion to the days of the Raj, I shrugged it off as poetic license on your part.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for weighing in. Sorry to have made you cringe.

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Oakton, Va.: Regarding sediment in the bottom of a wine glass:

Some wine is unfiltered, and it increases the chance there will be sediment.

Sometimes the sugars in the wine will crystalize as well.....

Either way, the sediment is harmless, but if it affects your enjoyment of the wine, simply bring it to your server's attention and they'll bring you another glass of the same wine (perhaps making sure that it's not the last glass in the bottle, where all the sediment lays), or they'll bring you another wine you find acceptable.

Tom Sietsema: Right. My thinking is that the poster got a nice mouthful of sediment from one of the bottle's last glasses (this has happened to me before. Not pretty. But harmless.)

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Boston, Mass.: I'll be back in D.C. for a weekend after moving away a few years ago and would love your suggestion for a fun, new restaurant to try. We'll be a group of 20-something women and would like a place with good food and good ambiance but not super fancy or expensive. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: I like a lot about the new Posto (although it needs to work on its pizzas). Hook can be fun, too. And if you haven't been you really need to check out Cork Wine Bar.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Posto

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Vienna, Va.: Hi Tom. My husband and I have discovered a fairly new Vietnamese restaurant in Falls Church...Present. ( I swear I am not affiliated with them). I think the food is excellent...the appetizer of minced clams ("Smoky Petal" I believe) is outstanding as is the service. The outside is deceiving because it's in a strip mall , yet is lovely inside. Just hoping to get your take and support a new local restaurant.

Tom Sietsema: You are about the, oh, HUNDRETH person to speak well of Present in my presence. I really need to get out there ... (Must. Have. Minced. Clams.)

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White House: Tom-

Which downtown D.C. restaurant most deserves a boost from the new guy in town? Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: Hmmmm. I'd love to see Frank Ruta get that honor at Palena. In part because of his White House history and in part because his food is exquisite.

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Author of the mini reviews: We flew in from Omaha, where we've just moved after 9 years in the San Francisco Bay area. We wanted an experience that would rival our SF restaurant outings, and Sei definitely fits the bill. Plus, it's not a steakhouse and there's not a crayon in the place, which were our other two criteria (this was a child-free getaway!).

Tom Sietsema: Ha! Thanks for identifying yourselves.

How's the scene in Omaha, by the way?

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They still go about their duties with a kind of hyper-attentiveness that summons the days of the Raj. : I'm sure you meant no offense, but perhaps "hyperattentiveness that summons the days of old-fashioned club dining" would have expressed what you meant without summoning the days of imperialism.

Tom Sietsema: Gotcha.

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Lincoln Park: Tom--"Ruin Thai" could be the name of any of the Thai restaurants on Capitol Hill!

Tom Sietsema: Yikes, what an unfortunate typo! It should be RUAN Thai. (Thanks for catching that, Lincoln Park.)

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Alexandria: Hi Tom,

I find it difficult to get around to all these great restaurants, how do you do it, do you eat out everyday? Albeit one of my hang ups is the lack of an expense account, but do you ever just miss home cooking? Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: Do I miss home cooking? I do. A friend saw my refrigerator last week and looked at me with wide eyes. Except for some coffee beans and wine bottles, "It's bare!"

I'm fortunate to be paid to do what I do even if I wasn't on an expense account. I love restaurants. I'm passionate about the people who feed me so well. And I can't imagine NOT going out to eat everyday. That may change, but I'm digging my work life these days. So much to write about, you know?

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What Diners Want!: Tom, your "Ask Tom" blurb in this Sunday's Magazine was right on. Another tone setter comes at the end of the meal if you pay by credit card. At one of your dining guide choices, the pen offered to sign was from the Marriott. In my opinion, this looks unprofessional. Restaurants should either have nondescript pens, or do what Proof does, and have pens with the restaurant's name on them! Not to be nit picky, but for some reason the use of random pens with other businesses' names on them looks bad to me.

Tom Sietsema: Details, it's all about the details, isn't it?

washingtonpost.com: Ask Tom: What Diners Want

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re: Bombay Club comment: I'm Indian and I was not offended by your comment. The British did a lot of good for India and Indians and there was no master-slave background that the Washington D.C. poster implied by the analogy to the Pullman porter.

Tom Sietsema: Whew. Thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: This has been bothering me for a few days and I am curious what you think. We had a pretty good RW dinner Friday night at a well-regarded Italian restaurant. We were meeting friends and brought a not inexpensive, hard to get, highly rated bottle of red wine with us. It was not on their wine list. I think we got lackluster service because of it. As they took our coats, they young lady at the door offered to hold it and gave it a suspicious once-over. At the table, the waiter pulled a similar move and then immediately offered the wine list. He poured nearly full glasses of wine for all 5 members of the party at the first pour and used up the bottle except for a drop. Later a second waiter came, poured the last drop out of the glass and took the bottle to the waiter's station with him. As we were seated next to the waiter's station, I also saw him studying the bottle and making a face (not a good one). Then the manager came over and took the bottle. We like to bring our own bottle of wine, not because we are cheap, but because we have stuff we like and have been saving and want to enjoy with a good meal. Maybe it was because it was Restaurant Week that they were put-off by it? Are we the ones being rude?

Tom Sietsema: I have some questions. Did you call ahead to determine the restaurant's corkage policy? Were you charged a fee? (But good for you for not showing up with something that's on the establishment's wine card.)

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PULLMAN CARS: were known for their unparalleled level of customer service. The staff were treated well and fairly compensated. The complaint that lead to the famous strike was not racism, but a cut in hours because of the recession. It was union organization, not the MUCH later civil rights era that helped the workers get more rights. But it was never an 'Uncle Tom' job with unfair racist treatment! Pullman porters were very respected for thier exemplary service!

Tom Sietsema: I've heard that, too. (My late grandfather was a railroad engineer.)

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Veitnamese in Md.: Siagon Noodles in Fort Washington is a great Vietnamese restaurant on Oxon Hill Road, about a mile away from National Harbor. Its in a strip mall, by the 7-11.

Tom Sietsema: Good to know. Thanks, VMD.

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Seriously?: Seriously? Someone is upset about the business name on a pen? Wow...and I thought I dealt with a lot of minutia...kudos to you Tom. I think I'm way too snarky to ever do your job.

Tom Sietsema: Who says I'm not rolling my eyes right now?

JUST KIDDING! JUST KIDDING!

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Railroad buff: Being a Pullman porter was one of the best jobs a black man could get back then. That ain't saying much, it -- like all jobs black folk could get back then -- required hard work, long hours and low pay. But that was a product of the time, not specific to Pullman porters, who were -- again -- in a much better job than most of their peers. And they came together and unionized to get more rights, so a Pullman porter is an example of a highly recognized worker, not 'master/slave.' Now I'M insulted, lol.

Tom Sietsema: You are a smart bunch here.

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GU: Had no idea you were a GU grad - good to see a fellow alum make good. What year were you?

Tom Sietsema: Let's just say I got to help cover the Reagan assassination attempt as an intern with the Chicago Sun-Times. (My big question to the first lady's pres secretary: "Was Mrs. Reagan crying?")

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RE; Bring wine to a restaurant : I have a simple rule, if i bring a bottle of wine into a restaurant i order AT LEAST one bottle off their list. Offering the waiter and chef is also a smart move, IMHO.

Tom Sietsema: My kind of diner.

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Arlington, Va.: Tom, you shouldn't keep your coffee beans in the fridge/freezer - they pick up nasty fridge smell. (Even if there's nothing else in there!)

Tom Sietsema: I know, I know.

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Brookeville Md: Hey Tom - I'm so confused! All this "tit for tat" is making me hungry. Only problem is I can't decide on whether it should be Good Guys or Mickey D's? Please help.

Tom Sietsema: VERY funny, sir, VERY funny.

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What Recession is Everyone Talking About??: Tom, posting early due to late morning meeting....

My wife and I like to go out to dinner every Friday OR Saturday night and usually we do a pretty good job of planning ahead to ensure we get a reservation at the restaurants that we like. This past weekend, however, we failed to plan ahead, and so around 1 p.m. Saturday afternoon I started searching OpenTable.com for openings at some of our favorite places. I must have looked at at least a dozen places -- Proof, Vermillion, Brabo (Robert Wiedmaier's brand new place in Old Town), The Source, The Majestic, Central, Me Jana, Al Tiramisu, etc. -- and every single one of them was booked solidly between 5:30-9 p.m. I even telephoned some of them directly to see if they had openings that weren't reflected on OpenTable's Web site. Zero luck.

So there you have it next time someone asks you if you've noticed a dip in restaurant business lately: proof positive that there is no recession in Washington, D.C. I'm not sure whether I should be happy or sad about this. Happy, well, for obvious reasons, but sad, too, because while the rest of the country is suffering, we Washingtonians seem to be living high on the hog from the all the federal tax revenue we earn and spend and which fuels the local economy. I keep getting visions of Marie Antionette and her "Let them eat cake" callousness. For what it's worth....

Tom Alexandria, Va.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for sharing your observation. I've been really happy to see so many busy restaurants in the past few months. And there seem to be no shortage of candidates for my First Bite (restaurant preview) column, which is a professional as well as personal relief.

What I *do* see, on occasion, is one or two tables that might go empty during the course of my visit. And people ordering less expensive wine or sharing food. If you take a look at cocktail prices, though, they are still sky-high -- and getting takers.

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Washington, D.C.: Re: Corkage

We called ahead (we always do). They did charge a fee, about $30.

Tom Sietsema: You know, legally, a D.C. restaurant can't charge more than $25?

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Silver Spring, Md.: My party of 4 had a nice but not stellar dinner at the IALW. Why does the Inn (or any resto) charge an extra $30 for a holiday weekend (2/13 : Friday). It is the same menu as the previous week. Why did the sommelier suggest a $300 bottle of wine and not ask us what our range was. The next bottle suggested was $225. And lastly when we wanted to take our desserts with us (it was 11:15 by now) and we told them we were staying at a house in the neighborhood with a fridge they still left all the ice cream off the desserts. For a bill of over $1,000 with tip, they could of packed us a pint of ice cream. It is just not worth the price, imo. However our friend who was out of town and left us the use of their house, that was a cool experience!

Tom Sietsema: Like a lot of restaurants, the Inn charges more for Valentine's Day because it can. The holiday is a popular one for dining out, obviously, and tables are in high demand. I do not begrudge a restaurant making extra money on a very busy occasion, provided the restaurant offers a suitably rewarding experience.

I sympathize with you about the wine service, however. Restaurants should never assume what price range is comfortable for customers. A good sommelier is likely to ask: "Is there a price range or a particular style you're interested in?" The customer's response will give him or her the information he or she can use to select an appropriate wine.

Finally, I can understand why the Inn didn't include ice cream in your doggy bag but also why you were disappointed not to find it among the treats you paid for. (I'm betting the inn thought the ice cream might melt on the way home, or go unchecked or whatever, thus ruining the other desserts. Still, I also know what it's like, as a diner looking forward to leftovers from a restaurant meal, not to find one of the items you were looking forwarding to enjoying in the privacy of your home away from home.)

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: The Inn at Little Washington

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Restaurant Week: Morning Tom,

I'm sorry for all the poor Washingtonians who had bad experiences during Restaurant Weekend. I, on the other hand, had a perfect experience and one of the best dishes of my life at VOLT in Frederick. Service, food, ambience, wine pairings, butter, bread -- all darn near perfect. You get your choice of sparkling or non-sparkling, in-house filtered water at no extra charge. A lovely taste of cold beet soup and bread sticks. Lovely selection of house made rolls and biscuits that are continually offered to your table. A pat of room temperature butter with sea salt enhances the buns -- I would have been happy if it stopped right there. The service was always there but unobstrusive. Smiling and bringing the requisite silverware for the next course on small trays -- very sort of old fashioned but so lovely and so missed today. Padded and clothed tables, lovely choices for each of the three courses. And the good news is I just read on their blog that they are offering their Restaurant Week lunch menu until the end of March. And the lunch menu was almost identical to the dinner menu except about $15 less expensive. It was a lovely dinner and it was great to see the place hopping. Hope some of your DCers made the long trip up 270 to enjoy.

Tom Sietsema: Sounds as if we should all make our way up to Frederick before the end of next month! Thanks for sharing.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Fall Dining Guide: Volt

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Kingstowne Alexandria: Tom,

I'm submitting late (as opposed to all the posters who always claim they are submitting early) because I was traveling and just got around to reading your last couple of chats today. Maybe this is a dumb question, but are you always "working" when you go out to eat? I assume that you are, but if and when you ever hit restaurants, not because it's part of your job, but rather you just feel like trying the place again, do you always include it as part of your ratings/reviews. I guess the question goes more to whether you can go to a restaurant and not be wearing your food critic hat, or whether you're always on the job. I would think if you're always working, you would be compelled to remember as many details as possible, take notes, and all the extra hassle that entails. I think it would making going out to eat "just for fun" a little less so.

Thanks, and keep up the good work!

Tom Sietsema: What a great question, Kingstowne! And thanks for the kind words.

The reality is, almost all of my meals away from home are for work. Given my schedule, there's not much time to visit a place purely for pleasure. There are a few exceptions -- hitting up a favorite bar after a rough work week, attending someone's birthday party in a restaurant -- but they are few and far between.

Most recently, I took a friend to CityZen, where we ordered the bar menu to celebrate his birthday. I paid for the meal myself and regretted not eating any dessert (we were STUFFED, I swear) but because the dinner wasn't on the paper, I didn't feel obliged to eat any more than I truly felt comfortable eating. I also LOVED not having to file any mental or other notes afterwards.

Please don't think I'm a laggard, though. While I was in Chicago reporting a story last week, I managed to squeeze in four separate dinners one night. (Burp.) Thankfully, the hotel had a treadmill.

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Proposed Resolution for Tom Sietsema During Lent: "I will steer clear of chats about women's breasts, pullman cars and educational credentials and stick to food and restaurants."

Tom Sietsema: Hey, now, you got a few restaurant suggestions today, didn't you?

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Franklin Square: I've seen for several months on the bottom floor of a building on L Street at, maybe 24th St., a sign announcing "Ris is coming". I assume it must be a restaurant. Know any of the details?

Tom Sietsema: The Ris in question is Ris Lacoste, the former veteran chef at 1789. Her long-awaited restaurant in the West End was supposed to open in spring, but she told me recently that summer is now the target.

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McLean, Va.: Good Guys serves food? Who knew?

Tom Sietsema: LOVE those Caesar salads!

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Foggy Bottom: Hi Tom, I have plans for this Saturday on GW's campus and need a recommendation for dinner in the area. I couldn't get a reservation at Westend Bistro or Blue Duck Tavern, so I made one at Circle Bistro. I noticed your review of Circle Bistro is from 2005 -- would you still recommend it, or do you think there are better options where it's still possible to get in around 7:30 on Saturday? Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: I have not been back to Circle Bistro since its very good chef, Brendan Cox, left the hotel restaurant for DC Coast. If you're looking for reliability, you might consider the bar at Marcel's or Kinkead's at this point.

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Bethesda, Md.: Dear Tom;

I'm posting early as I don't want to get jammed up on Wendesday.

We have an exchange student who's birthday is this weekend and we would like to treat her one of her favorites -- sushi. What would you say is the best bet in Bethesda-Chevy Chase-NW D.C. area?

I'm not a piker, but I'd rather not have to take our a loan or something.

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: You can find good, affordable sushi at Spices in Cleveland Park; Perry's in Adams Morgan; and Raku in Bethesda.

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Washington, D.C.: Today's article about Red Apron charcuterie referred to a new restaurant, Birch and Barley, opening up on 14th St. Do you know where on 14th St.? Dare I ask when?

Tom Sietsema: Here's the scoop:

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dish on Birch and Barley

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Crystal City, Va.: I usually read the chats later, during my lunch hour, but I just finished reading your article on Jeremy Fox and had to chime in. Who knew that the man who writes little blurbs about restaurants each week was such a wonderful writer? Your descriptions were so exquisite that I felt like I was actually there, smelling the food he produces. Thanks for providing me with such a wonderful break to my morning!

Tom Sietsema: Thanks (I THINK.) But I do more than "blurbs" for this newspaper, no?

washingtonpost.com: Tom's Story on Jeremy Fox in Today's Food Section

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Really quick re: random pens: As a former waitress, I can tell you that we generally put the cheapest pens we had with the credit card slips because good pens are apparently on one-way tickets.

If you can promise not to steal my pen, I'll make sure it's a pretty one. Deal?

Tom Sietsema: Deal!

And that concludes today's chat. Thanks for the laughs and the pointers and the participation today. See you next week.

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washingtonpost.com: Top Chef lovers, make sure to check out finalist Carla Hall. She's chatting at 2 p.m., but you can submit your questions now.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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