Ask Tom: Our Food Critic Dishes About Fish Sandwiches, Overdue Gift Certificates and More

Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, April 15, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema discussed fish sandwiches, overdue gift certificates and more on Wednesday, April 15 at 11 a.m. ET.

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Bethesda: Please help me out on a last minute dilemma. We just heard from some long-lost relatives who are taking their daughter to visit colleges and they'd like to get together for dinner tonight before they leave town in the morning. All told, there will be six or seven of us; and it would be nice if we we can at least hear each other talk. Upper Northwest, Bethesda or Silver Spring area.

Tom Sietsema: To the rescue: Mandalay (Burmese, with something for everyone) or Jackie's (modern American in a whimsical setting), both in Silver Spring.

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for showing up on this rainy Wednesday. Tell me where you've been eating, share some gossip, bring on your questions ...

washingtonpost.com: Mandalay and Jackie's

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Alexandria, Va.: I know this may be outside your area of expertise or two 'low rent' for the peanut gallery but I would love some help finding something. Is there a place in the D.C. area where you can get a good fried fish sandwich or platter? Back home in upstate N.Y. there are takeout places or even mobile food stands where you can get a good helping of fried fish (usually whiting) served on one or two slices of white bread for a few bucks. Nothing fancy but really good, especially with some hot sauce! I'm really not looking for Fish and Chips or anything like Eamonn's...can you or the chatters help with this down-to-earth dining option?

Tom Sietsema: No food question is too "low rent" for this hired mouth, but I'm momentarily at a loss for a carry-out idea.

Chatters?

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Tip Jars: Hey, Tom! Love the chats. Wanted to get your thoughts on tip jars in coffee shops. I used to resent them -- isn't it the person's JOB to hand me the coffee? But recently, I've started looking for part-time work and discovered that many shops pay pitiful wages and the employees really do rely on the tip jars to earn a livable wage. This revelation has made me a tip-jar convert!

Tom Sietsema: I understand where you're coming from. Tip jars can be annoying. I tend to leave something only if I feel I've gotten extra attention (as when the clerks at my regular coffee stand start brewing my espresso when they see me walk through the door). But by and large, the coffee joints I frequent have terrible, bordering-on-CVS service.

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Washington, D.C. : I've been thinking a lot lately about what I really appreciate in dining -- what makes me want to go back to a place or not.

-- Service matters. I don't need to be worshipped, just treated politely and like a regular human being. If you don't feel up to it, fake it like the rest of us do at work.

-- I don't care if you do a bread basket (or give me anything else free for that matter). If you do, though, put some effort into it. Cold store-bought baguettes -- bleh.

-- Make your salads worth eating. One or two extra, fresh, lively ingredients in a green salad go a long way.

-- When something looks or tastes like it was purchased at a grocery store -- even something basic, like french fries or chicken fingers -- it is a huge, huge disappointment.

-- Sadly perhaps, I have come to expect to be gouged for alcohol. I do NOT expect to be gouged for soft drinks or coffee.

-- A good burger bun (maybe toasted, perhaps a little butter, big and fluffy) can be as welcome as a good burger.

-- I am probably about 5 times as likely to order a special if you give it to me on a printout to me with the menu than if you rattle it off in three seconds when I sit down.

-- Buffalo wings are not that hard to do right.

Overall, I think I am just tuned to notice things that it appears that you haven't really put any thought or effort into.

On the other hand, small touches that you clearly have put some thought or effort into really can delight.

Places that delight consistently will be visited consistently.

Tom Sietsema: I love this post. In part, because it's carefully considered and in part because you lace your complaints with honey.

A couple things jumped out at me. Food that looks store-bought in a restaurant? I hate that, too. An investment in good buns (then toasting them) does indeed add to the enjoyment of a hamburger. And you're right about the wings. Even some of the worst kitchens can turn out decent wings.

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Fire and Sage: I noticed in the the transcript from the last chat that someone inquired about the newly opened Fire and Sage restaurant in the Marriott.

It is awful. Do not waste your time or money.

After being seated just after 8 p.m. on a Friday night, we waited for 15 minutes before my dining companion got up and went to inquire who our server might be. We were given a name of a server and continued to wait for an additional 5 minutes before a server (not ours) came over and asked if we had been waited on. She offered to get drinks for us and said our server would be over shortly. When she returned with our drinks she decided since we had waited so long she would take our order. Thirty-five minutes later we were still waiting for our food and had not seen our assigned server. The server who had taken our order happened to walk by again and noticed that we still did not have food. She said she would find our server to check on it. five minutes later the host who seated us walked by and I asked if we could speak to a manager. The server who checked on our food said it was being held up by the side of mac and cheese we ordered and offered to comp us a drink while we waited. A few minutes later our food arrived and was brought out by our "original" server. He said nothing about the delay or the fact that this was the first time we had seen him. The food was okay, but tasted like it had been sitting under a heat lamp for quite some time. The macaroni and cheese had lots of red peppers in it (not mentioned on the menu) and the bacon on the scallops was very under cooked. We wrapped up and paid our bill. The manager did not come over.

As we were leaving I inquired with the host again about seeing the manager. He responded that the manager must have forgotten, but he would get him.

I told the manager that I understood that this was a new establishment, but wanted to provide some feedback. He provided a half hearted apology and said next time we were in he would remember us and give us an appetizer. I had no interest in a comp for my meal -- I ate it, but wished that the manager seemed a little more interested in improving the experience especially since I told him we lived in the area and were frequent diners.

Summary: not worth it. Food was better on paper than the actual execution and the service is horrible.

Tom Sietsema: I've had service issues with Fire & Sage, too. I think part of the problem is multiple entrances; people can come in from the lobby or the side and there's not always a clear idea of where a diner should head.

The manager's response is kind of lame. A free appetizer in the future, after such inattentive service?

Stay tuned next Wednesday, when I detail my experience(s) at the hotel destination in First Bite.

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Foggy Bottom re: Fish Fry: The best fried fish I've had in D.C. has been at Oceanaire. Their "Fisherman's Platter" is awesome.

Tom Sietsema: Fine, but I think the poster was looking for something more casual, a take-out option.

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Mt. Pleasant: So many steak places...do you have one or two you recommend when one is feeling like a carnivore?

Tom Sietsema: And they keep coming!

Right now, I'm pretty high on Capital Grille and its dry-aged beef and top-flight service. But friends are raving anew about BLT Steak (which I haven't eaten at recently) and the newer Bourbon Steak (where the steak takes a back seat to the excellent seafood dishes, in my opinion).

washingtonpost.com: Capital Grille, BLT Steak and 2009 Review: Bourbon Steak

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Washington, D.C.: One of our clients had given my boss a $350 gift certificate to Cintronelle. Long story, but he lost it and then found it. Called Cintronelle and they said because he was asking THREE MONTHS after the expiry date, they would not honor ANY of it.

Now, I know times are tough, but Cintronelle only gives 12 months to use the gift certificate. We're a little shocked over here...I mean, what about just half? He'd likely spend more than the certificate was worth. Anyway, Citronelle has lost the visitorship of an entire firm. We're not impressed.

Tom Sietsema: What a shame. I can understand expiration dates on gift certificates, but three months late? I'm curious to know if you got that "no" from a person in authority or just whoever answered the phone.

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Thank you, thank you, thank you!: My friends and I went to Sei this past weekend after reading your review in the Washington Post Magazine. It was great and we were very happy with both the food and service. We had the tofu steak, the wasabi guacamole and the sun-dried tomato rolls that were vegetarian and very good. I also wanted to thank you for including vegetarian option in both Sei's review and this week's review for The Wine Kitchen. It is nice to read what you think of the vegetarian options and help us vegetarians know if a restaurant is worth going to! Would it be possible that you include a review of vegetarian option in all future reviews?

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the thanks. I already endeavor to include a meatless suggestion or two in my restaurant reviews and shall continue to be on the look-out for vegetarian-friendly dishes. Some of my best friends and favorite dining companions are herbivores.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Sei

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Bethesda, MD: Hey Tom, Just out of curiosity, if someone every decided to open a restaurant and asked you for the single, most important 'little thing' not to overlook, what would your advice be?

Tom Sietsema: Wonderful question.

"Treat every guest -- on the phone, at the door, in the dining room -- as if he or she is a restaurant critic."

People will forgive dim lights and even mediocre food if the service is good. But no amount of great food will fill seats if diners feel as if they're not appreciated.

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Fried Fish Sandwich: Tom -- For the chatter, looking for fried fish sandwiches, on the Hill, Horace & Dickies at 12th and H St. NE is legendary. I've also had good sandwiches at Market Lunch, at Eastern Market.

Tom Sietsema: Ah, yes, of course! Thanks for piping up.

washingtonpost.com: Market Lunch

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Sushi Convert: My boyfriend recently got over his fear of sushi and is now OBSESSED. We went to Sei for our anniversary (love, "fish and chips" were fun) and now I want to take him somewhere special for his birthday. Do you have another upscale sushi place in mind?

Thanks Tom. I appreciate your advice.

Tom Sietsema: The very small and very formal Makoto should be your next stop. The sushi isn't the most varied around, but it's of exceptional quality.

washingtonpost.com: Makoto

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"No" From Citronelle: He got it from the person who said they were the manager and they were "it" when it came to speaking to anyone else.

Very, very surprising. I certainly understand deadlines...but not even half? Citronelle just got $350 for providing a gift certificate.

Tom Sietsema: Can a restaurateur explain for us why a business might not want to honor a gift certificate that expired only three months earlier?

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-- A good burger bun (maybe toasted, perhaps a little butter, big and fluffy) can be as welcome as a good burger.: True, but I part company at the word "fluffy." A bread that is supposed to contain (in the sense of "keep within bounds") a juicy piece of meat and various vegetables should be more chewy than fluffy. I hate having burger buns fall apart in my hands, especially with today's super-sized burgers.

Tom Sietsema: Right. I should have caught that. Sturdy (but yielding) is better when it comes to hamburger buns, in my book.

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D.C.: I must have Italian, where is the best Italian in town?

Tom Sietsema: It's a tough call: Palena? Or Obelisk? I admire both.

washingtonpost.com: Obelisk

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Mystery entrees: Hi Tom -- I wanted to share a recent experience with you. I went to a very nice Dupont restaurant with friends (their choice); I had never been there because they don't have a vegetarian entree on the menu. For the record, I'm perfectly fine with that - it's the restaurant's decision, I simply won't dine there. And this time, I just planned on ordering an appetizer and an extra cocktail (or two!). But my friends checked with our waiter, who assured us that the chef could prepare something off the menu. I asked a few questions (mostly trying to make sure I was not going to get a dreaded "vegetable plate"), and he basically just named a bunch of vegetables and a main element (orzo, couscous, or risotto). Now, the dish that came out was great, and I was grateful that the chef took the time to do something off the menu -- but it was also nothing like what our waiter (sort of) described. So my question is: why do this? Why be so open to cooking a great vegetarian entree, but not put it on the menu? Or at least decide on something the waiter can accurately describe? It just puts the diner in a very awkward position. You have no idea what you're getting or how much it will cost. And really, I would have loved to have read a description of whatever I got, because it was great and I like to learn about the food! Any thoughts?

Tom Sietsema: I think more restaurants should have on their menus at least one terrific meatless dish that doesn't look as if it were just a bunch of carefully arranged side dishes.

Trust me, vegetarians would love the places that offered such. Also, there are plenty of carnivores out there who don't want to eat meat every single meal.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

A few weeks ago, I wrote a letter to the chef/owner of a restaurant (one that you think highly of), telling them about a not-so-great experience I had at the restaurant. The chef/owner has not responded to my letter. What do you think is a reasonable length of time for sending a response or acknowledgement of such a letter? I'm not looking for a freebie or anything like that; just a simple acknowledgement such as, "Thanks for taking the time to write. We hear you, and we will take your feedback and try to work on it."

Thank you.

Tom Sietsema: As someone who is inundated with email and other messages, I can sympathize with the chef who feels his first priority is cooking that day's menu. But I also feel that a certain part of each day or week should be devoted to following up on letters and voice mail from customers and others.

If you haven't heard anything after a week, I'd call or write again. Who knows? The chef may have been away. Or maybe someone else never bothered to show him or her the letter?

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Vegetarian plate: my problem is on several occasions I have been offered risotto, only to find it was made with chix broth or parmesan (which contains rennet). Not vegetarian. Chefs need to know this stuff, it is not hard!

Tom Sietsema: Good point. Just because there's no meat in it doesn't mean the dish is vegetarian.

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Toddler advice from my stepdaughter who raises kids for a living: When my granddaughter was a toddler, we'd always have a sheaf of old newspapers tucked into her stroller. We were, of course, careful about only going to kid-friendly restaurants, but we believe it's good to get kids used to restaurant dining early so we went often. When we'd arrive at a restaurant, while the high chair was being fetched, we'd spread out a few sheets of newspaper on the floor and put the high chair there. After the meal (at the time Josie was quite fond of pasta w/red sauce -- you can just imagine), we'd roll up the newspapers and the waiter was only too happy to dispose of them for us.

Tom Sietsema: What a clever idea! (Plus, added value for a dead tree product!)

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Fairfax City, Va.: Hey Tom,

I was wondering how much atmosphere plays into a good meal? Would you rather go to a place with great food but was a dive otherwise, or go to a place with so-so food and a better atmosphere? Does atmosphere effect where you bring guests out to dinner?

Every time my in-laws visit, I know I can bring them to the dumpiest place in the city, as long as the food is gooood!

Tom Sietsema: Honestly, I love dives with good food. Give me the old Stoney's on L St. over the spiffed-up replacemnent on P St. any day.

Does Whitlow's count as a dive, or at least dive-ish? I had a really enjoyable brunch there not long ago.

Come to think of it, let's start a list, "Dives That Deliver (the Goods)"

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Reston, Va.: I totally agree with the poster's great list, particularly the store-bought-looking food in a restaurant. If I wanted frozen, uniform french fries, I'll buy the bag of them for $4.99 at the grocery store and toss them in the oven at home. If I'm spending the time and money to go out (especially now, when so many of us are trying to cut back and really want to enjoy our nights out when we get them), then give me the good stuff that I can't or don't want to do at home.

On a separate note, I've got family coming into town for the dreaded grad-school graduation weekend (mid-May). I know the city will be packed with students and their families, so I'm planning to stay out in the suburbs. Is there anywhere in Fairfax or Loudoun County for a good brunch? Since it's a celebration, taste trumps cost this time. We'll be a group of five or six with no major dietary restrictions other than a general desire to avoid a whole plate o'fried. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: I've done brunch at Artie's and lunch at Coastal Flats before. Both good choices for groups.

washingtonpost.com: Artie's

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P.X.: Hello Tom hope all is well! This is Todd Thrasher I wanted to respond to last weeks chatter about the reservations at P.X. We are open from Wednesday - Saturday from 6:00 pm until 1:30 am. We take reservations 2 weeks out to the day. We have only 30 seats in P.X. so we reserve 18 seats only. We leave the 8 seats and the 4 seats in the velvet room open for people that did not make reservations. You can call 703-299-8385 or e-mail clinton@restauranteve.com to make a reservation. Lastly in about a week we will have an option for online reservations if you go to Eamonnsadublinchipper.com

Thank you Todd T.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for clarifying the policy for us, Mr. Thrasher.

washingtonpost.com: Tom's PX Review

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Sietsema,

Thank you for your postcard from L.A. We are having visitors from L.A. in two weeks. Any thoughts about Washington restaurants appropriate for diners who are used to the L.A. restaurant scene but want to try something that says D.C.?

Thank you for the wonderful chats.

Tom Sietsema: I'll start with a two-fer (a place that promotes both cities): The excellent Source next to the Newseum has a Wolfgang Puck connection.

Other restaurants that say D.C.: Palena, helmed by former White House chef Frank Ruta; Proof, the handsome wine-themed dining room whose name nods to the nearby National Portrait Gallery; and Bombay Club, a favorite with famous bylines and their govt sources.

washingtonpost.com: Palena

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13th Birthday: Looking for suggestions for my son's 13th birthday. Prefer quality over quantity. He enjoys well prepared simple foods -- thus light on the sauces and garnishes. Favorites include steak, rack of lamb, raw oysters and king crab legs. He's a cool kid so would like to make it special. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: You don't mention price or neighborhood, but a few thoughts come to mind: the recently relocated Ray's the Steaks in Arlington for the obvious (and very good, very simple sides) ... 1789 in the shadow of Georgetown University for its signature rack of lamb ... Johnny's Half Shell or Oceanaire Seafood Room for straightforward seafood.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: 1789

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Logan Circle, D.C.: Hi Tom, two of my very good friends are soon to bet married and I wanted to congratulate them with a nice restaurant certificate. One is a restaurant manager himself, and they truly appreciate good service and good wine. Unfortunately, I'm working off a grad student budget and have only budgeted $100 or so. First, do you think it'd be better to get a gift certificate that would only cover a portion of the meal at a really top notch place (like Restaurant Eve or CityZen), or would it be better to go for a good but more affordable place and know that they won't have to chip in (much) out of their own pockets? If the latter, where would you recommend? Many thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Restaurant Eve and CityZen are terrific ideas, but I like the creativity involved in picking a restaurant that is good and more moderately priced. If you're a good shopper, you might even consider buying two $50 gift certificates instead of a single $100 present.

I bet your restaurant manager friend and his soon-to-be wife would appreciate the likes of Johnny's Half Shell, Oyamel, Lima, Mourayo, Kaz Sushi Bistro, Et Voila! or Sonoma on the Hill.

washingtonpost.com: Oyamel and Kaz Sushi Bistro

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Arlington, Va.: Tom,

Devoting a Dish column to bathroom writing? Must have been a slow week.

Now to the question. I love pho and usually get it from Pho 75, Minh's or Huong Viet. My question is how do I know good pho from bad pho? I really enjoy it at all 3 places so maybe I just haven't experienced bad pho yet?

One last thing. Sorry to see any restaurant close, unless it is run by an arrogant chef who never put an emphasis on service. Bebo, you will not be missed.

Tom Sietsema: You didn't like the loo update? I thought it would be kind of fun, a change of pace from the usual straight food news.

Several details separate a good pho (beef and rice-noodle soup) from an ordinary one. They include the cut of the meat -- paper-thin is desirable -- and the clarity of the broth, which should be clear but also full-flavored.

The Bebo closing should be a lesson for chef Roberto Donna: Next restaurant, please don't forget to hire someone capable for the front of the house.

washingtonpost.com: Today's Dish: News From Some Loos and Thursday's Food Flash: Bye-Bye, Bebo

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Arlington, Va.: Tom:

Do you ever go out to eat when you are NOT in the process of reviewing a place? If so, where do you go? I would assume such a place would be worthy of my attention.

Tom Sietsema: I rarely dine out just for fun, maybe only five or six meals in a year.

Here's why: At any given time, I'm in various stages of reviewing a local restaurant (I average three visits per establishment for a rated review in the Magazine); checking in on an established player; exploring something new; following up on a tip or two; or working on a special project (the fall dining guide, a Postcard column).

All those work meals leave very little time to just eat where I would like, on my own.

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Re: Gift Certificates: The reason a restaurant (or some other business) might not honor a gift certificate after a certain amount of time might have something to do with accounting.

I'm not an accountant, and it's been a while since I took an accounting class, but as I recall, gift certificates are treated as liabilities, since the business owes a product for which they have already received payment. After a certain period of time, unused gift certificates are written off or otherwise removed from the books. By honoring the gift certificate after the expiration date, the books get thrown off.

Like I said, I'm not an authority on this. But it might be a reason.

Tom Sietsema: Wow, just as we're coming to the finish line, I'm getting tons of comments on this subject. Thanks for your thoughts on the matter.

Until next Wednesday, folks.

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A veteran food writer, Sietsema has worked as a critic in Washington, Seattle, San Francisco and Milwaukee and covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns and moderates the Sietsema's Table discussion group. Join his live Q& A each Wednesday at 11 a.m. ET.

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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