Ask Tom: Date Night Restaurants, Fried Chicken and a Food Critic Job in New York

Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, May 20, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema was all about good news on Wednesday, May 20 at 11 a.m. ET. Chatters wrote in with stories about restaurants who made amends for bad service and Tom discussed date-night restaurants, fried chicken and the now-vacant food critic position at the New York Times.

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Great service from the Majestic: Just wanted to share a great story from this weekend. We took my parents to the Majestic for Nana's Sunday Dinner. The cocktails were great, but the food was mostly so-so: fried chicken tough and dry, etc.... We were a little disappointed, but we didn't feel like it really rose to complaint level. But we got a call the next day from a manager, asking how the food was. They said they'd had some complaints about the chicken, and they were able to fix it later in the evening, but they knew we were there early and wanted to apologize. They're sending us a voucher to come back on another Sunday. They really didn't have to do that, and the service has so impressed us that I'm sure we'll be back soon.

Tom Sietsema: Good morning, everyone.

I'm just back from a quickie trip to Berlin (yes, there's a Postcard in your future), where my search for the best schnitzel definitely raised my cholesterol level.

I thought we could start today off on a bright note, or notes, beginning with the applause above, for Majestic in Old Town, and continuing with praise for two other local establishments.

Washington, D.C.: I have a quick Good Samaritan story: After a terrible day at work recently, I was walking home in the rain and decided to stop at ACKC on 14th to buy a really decadent piece of chocolate (I'd never been in, though walked past several times). I picked out a $3 crazy caramel/pecan confection, but when I got to the register, realized I was completely out of cash. I asked the cashier if they could put such a small amount on a credit card; he took one look at my wet hair and forlorn expression, and told me to just take the chocolate. Said it looked like I needed a pick-me-up. I don't want to get this guy in trouble with his manager, but that interaction made me a total ACKC devotee. I've been back twice in the past week and recommended it to several friends. Chocolate = good. Kindness = priceless.

Arlington, Va.: Comment about Tallula in Arlington. We went to Tallula on Saturday night. We've been there before, and love the place. We ordered our meals, but when the entrees came out mine didn't show up. I had ordered the NY Strip Steak, and for some reason the kitchen lost the order or the waitress didn't put the order in or something. Either way, my meal came 15 minutes after my friends' dinners. The reason I'm writing, though, is not to complain about this. Quite the contrary -- the restaurant (chef, manager, etc.) was just great about this. They didn't charge me for the steak (which tasted amazing, by the way) and gave us all free desserts. We didn't really care about the free stuff - it was the sentiment behind the free stuff that mattered to us. Mistakes happen, but the way a business reacts to those mistakes speaks to what kind of business they are. We were very impressed with this place - not only was our dinner great but their reaction to an unfortunate situation was even more impressive. Needless to say, we'll definitely be going back there.

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Chicago, Ill.: Love the chats, and appreciate all the Chicago recommendations you've given since I left D.C.

So, my question relates to the blogs.menupages.com posting regarding John Mariani of Esquire magazine. Seems he's either hated or loved, nothing in between. He apparently does not use disguises or dine anonymously, as I know you do. Can he possibly write believably and/or reasonably about restaurants when they know Esquire is in the house?

Tom Sietsema: I think it's always in the best interests of a critic and certainly his readers for the writer to 1) make reservations in a name other than his own and 2) make every other attempt to eat in a restaurant without letting the staff know. Because if you're a known commodity, a LOT of things can be done to make your dining experience better than that of the typical diner. An identified critic might get a choice table, the best server, food that has been fussed over (and over) by the kitchen. And so on.

The truth is, as much as some of my peers and I try to eat anonymously, we get recognized a fair amount. That's what happens when you spend any time at all in this job. There are ways to get around that -- ways I won't share here in a public forum -- but it can be tough!

FYI: The only time I extend a business card is when I eat out of town and hope to reach the chef or owner at a later date for a story or a review. And I only do that AFTER I pay the bill in full. I always decline freeblies, too.

washingtonpost.com: Chicago Menu Pages Blog on John Mariani and The Response from Mariani's Editor and The Response From Mariani Himself

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Rockville, Md.: Hi Tom! Any news on when Bob Kinkead's new Hell Point Seafood will open in Annapolis? I keep reading that it was supposed to open in April but that doesn't seem to have happened. Any updates? Thanks much!

Tom Sietsema: "We've had a heck of a time with the permit process" and Annapolis, says The Man Himself, who now hopes to have his restaurant open in the middle of next month. "But I wouldn't bet my house on it," adds the weary-sounding Kinkead.

washingtonpost.com: The February 2009 Dish on Hell Point Seafood

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Rockville, Md.: I need some offal help!

Tom Sietsema: To the rescue: the sweetbreads cooked in duck fat at the new Inox in Tysons Corner ... the sweetbreads spiced a la India at Bourbon Steak in Georegetown ...fresh beef heart marinated in cumin, garlic and red wine at the cheerful La Limena in Rockville .... liver with house-cured bacon at Majestic in Old Town ...

Anyone else care to add to the list of innards around the area?

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Inox

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, I saw on Craigslist that Art and Soul is looking for an executive chef, is Ryan Morgan leaving?

Tom Sietsema: It's true. Morgan left last week. I have a call in to Art Smith right now, but I understand that Travis Timberlake, the restaurant's chef de cuisine, is temporarily the top toque until a replacement can be named for Morgan. Stay tuned, as they say.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Review: Art and Soul

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Takoma Park: Missed your chat last week -- its absence totally threw me off.

Roscoe's pizza finally "opened" in Takoma (the sign said closed but they were serving, just not all the tables yet -- a "soft" open?). It was very popular! The pizza was very good, not quite Two Amys at their best, but give them time. The grilled mussels appetizer was excellent while the caprese salad could have used some less is more (too much pepper and red pepper flakes). They don't serve alcohol yet (the hearing is July 2) but people were bringing in.

Very excited development for an area that is underserved by restaurants.

Tom Sietsema: (Hey, that's Phyllis Richman's neighborhood!)

Thanks for the news and the early review. I'll wait until I can at least drink a beer with my pie before checking out the newcomer.

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Tom Sietsema: News flash: The Neighborhood Restaurant Group is launching another restaurant, this time in Old Town. And guess what flavor it's going to be?

washingtonpost.com: Dish: Planting a Steak in Old Town

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Re: Where are the spoons?: Restaurants that don't automatically give you spoons probably don't do so because 90 percent of their diners don't use them. If they were to include them, it would waste time, money, and water washing a bunch of silverware that most people don't use. Is it really that big a deal to just ask for a spoon?

Tom Sietsema: For at least one of my readers, it was!

washingtonpost.com: Ask Tom: Where Are the Spoons?

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Food planning: Finally making the big plunge and going to the Inn at Little Washington. A strategical question: Tom how do you prepare for a food fest (with a 9 p.m. reservation)? Small lunch, big lunch, late lunch, early lunch. Booze during the day (it's a weekend night)? Wait for the first cocktail at the Inn? Etc, etc.

Just want to make the most of the experience.

Thanks and don't go to NYC. We love you here.

Tom Sietsema: I ALWAYS eat breakfast and a light lunch. But that's because I tend to go to the Inn around 4:30 p.m. (Don't laugh!) I also try to squeeze in some form of cardio ahead of the splurgefest, if only to feel a little less guilty later that night, when I take one of each from the hors d's tray and polish off dessert. I try not to drink any alcohol ahead of dinner at the Inn, but I've been known to share a nip ahead of the celebration.

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Northern Virginia: Can you assure your faithful readers that you are not leaving us for the post being vacated by Frank Bruni in New York?

Tom Sietsema: There are two great restaurant reviewing gigs in the country. And I'm lucky/happy/grateful/blessed to have one of them.

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Springfield, Va.: My husband and I want to thank you for recommending Bistro L'Hermitage. We went two weeks ago for our anniversary, and had an amazing meal. The staff made us feel welcome, the wine choice was perfect, our food was delicious -- the mussels for an appetizer, and then the red snapper and roast chicken for dinner -- Yum. They even brought us their dessert special as a happy anniversary, along with our fantastic lemon tart. All in all, an evening to remember. And we will definitely be going back!

Tom Sietsema: That restaurant really surprised me, and in the right sort of way. I never thought I'd be typing about lovely French food in a dreamy setting in Prince William County.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Bistro L'Hermitage

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Arlington, Va.: Any chance that Blue Ridge will be open by this weekend?

Tom Sietsema: My colleague Julia Beizer informs me that the target date is now May 31.

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D.C. to San Francisco: Hi Tom -- I'm submitting early just in case...

I'll be headed to San Francisco next month to visit with friends. I'll be on my own during the day and want to make sure I sample some of the city's best food. I don't mind eating by myself and am happy to sit at the bar. I'd love to find a great oyster bar, too.

Suggestions?

Tom Sietsema: One of my fave places for knocking back a few local oysters is the counter at Hog Island Oyster Co. & Bar, which overlooks the Bay in the Embarcadero. The oyster menu at Zuni Cafe on Market St. is also terrific (but sans any view). On the haute end of the scale, you can't beat the seafood at Aqua; on the traditional side, Tadich Grill is always great, old-fashioned fun.

washingtonpost.com: Classic Treats: Tom on Taking in a Meal at the Tadich

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Washington, D.C.: I love Berlin! I hope it's spargal season right now. I was there once during spargal season and walked past a Pizza Hut with a big sign out front: "Spargal lovers' pizza!"

Tom Sietsema: Das ist lustig. (That's funny.)

Man, I ate more white asparagus last week than I think I have in two decades of writing about restaurants. But I love the stuff.

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Potenza at 14th and H: Okay, I've seen so many ads and reviews by all the locals except you. It looks fantastic -- a cleaner, tastier version of A.V. Any clues.......?

Tom Sietsema: I'm withholding judgement -- for a bit.

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NYC: As we New Yorkers quiver gelatinously in anticipation of the new New York Times critic, do you have any valedictory words for or about Frank Bruni?

Tom Sietsema: I'm friends with Frank. He's just as funny/clever/smart in person as he is in print, and I'll miss reading his food prose. On the other hand, I can't wait to see what he has in store for us in the Times' Sunday Magazine.

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Fairfax, Va.: My wife and I will be calling in -sick- to have a date day later this week -- without the kids. We would like to have a nice lunch somewhere in Northern Va. (Reston, Herndon, Fairfax, Tysons Corner). We were looking at the lunch special at Villa Mozart (we've never been). Good choice? What other options should we be looking at?

Tom Sietsema: Great idea! You gotta keep the home fires burning, right?

In Reston, I really enjoy PassionFish. I haven't been to Villa Mozart recently, but I enjoyed my last dinner there a year or two ago. Bazin's on Church in Vienna is also worth exploring.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Review: PassionFish

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Everett, Wash.: Hi! I'm doing a research project for my cooking class and me and my partner chose food critic. I can't find the information on employment outlook and was wondering if you could tell me. I would really appreciate it. Thank you!

Tom Sietsema: The employment outlook? I hate to break it to you, but full-time, paying reviewing gigs are few and far between, not to mention fewer and fewer these days. (Seriously, the best source for that kind of information would come from the Association of Food Journalists, which has conducted member/pay surveys over the years.)

All that said, I understand there's an opening at a small little publication a few cities up from Washington, DC ...

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Silver Spring: While we're complimenting restaurants, I'd like to say that Corduroy in its new location is every bit as tasty and pleasant and interesting as it was in its old location.

For a special occasion when Palena is just too much food, Corduroy is perfect. The new room is more interesting visually, too, than the old one.

Tom Sietsema: That was smart on chef Tom Power's part to ditch his old digs for the tonier townhouse across from the convention center. And the food -- simple, straightforward, often luscious -- remains very much to my taste.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

Where can I get a ridiculously good sandwich in Penn Quarter to go? Cowgirl Creamery has good sandwiches, but only three kinds and they don't appear to change.

Tom Sietsema: Are we talking carryout or sit-down options? Cafe Atlantico has five or so delicious sandwiches, ranging from a twist on the classic Cubano to a satisfying grilled cheese to roasted lamb with pineapple. Mmmmm.

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Washington, D.C.: Hey Tom,

Good to have you back! One of my dearest friends is coming to visit next week. When I asked what type of restaurant she wanted to visit, she picked my least-liked cuisine: Indian.

Oh well, that's what you get for asking. My question to you, though, which restaurant? And specifically, which one for someone who doesn't like Indian food that much? I like tandoori but that's about it (had a really bad experience with Indian food in London and never recovered).

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: A meal at Rasika or its sibling, the newly renovated Bombay Club, should change your mind. In fact, I've made converts out of several aquaintances who swore they didn't like Indian before eating at one of the two DC restaurants.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Bombay Club

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Reston, Va: Re: Passionfish--I keep hearing how great it is, but I've tried to make reservations four different times. No one -ever- picks up the phone, no matter what time of day I call. I'm hesitant to use OpenTable because I've had problems with it in the past, and I can't call to confirm. Is it worth it to keep trying? (And if anyone from Passionfish is reading, please answer the phone!)

Tom Sietsema: Here's your plea, Reston. Let's hope one of the bosses over there reads this.

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20008: Hey there - quick question. For some reason my friend decided he wanted to go to Russia House (Dupont) for a birthday dinner tonight. There's a group of about ten of us. I don't know how palatable Russian food is (no offense!). Should I plan on eating beforehand during happy hour somewhere else and stick with vodka at Russia House or have you had good experiences there?

Thanks!!

Tom Sietsema: The last time I had dinner at Russia House, a friend and I went to Bistro du Coin afterward -- for a second dinner. I think RH is a better place to sip than to chew.

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15th and L: Do you or your readers have any dining experiences in San Juan, Puerto Rico? My husband and I are heading there next week and I'd love to get some good ideas on delicious places to eat! Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Check out my Postcard from several years ago. There are some still-good ideas therein.

washingtonpost.com: Postcard From Tom: San Juan (2004)

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Gaithersburg, Md.: What makes butter "clarified"?

Tom Sietsema: Clarified butter is melted butter with the foamy milk solids removed from the surface. The result allows chefs to cook food at higher temperatures, without anything smoking.

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Newseum: Any scoop on the new Cedar restaurant in Penn Quarter?

Tom Sietsema: I don't know much about it, other than the opening chef at Redwood in Bethesda was hired to cook there.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, For a ridiculously good sandwich in Penn Quarter, thanks for the Cafe Atlantico tip, but I was looking for carryout. Any other suggestions?

Tom Sietsema: Chatters?

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Penn Quarter, D.C.: Le Paradou no more? There is a for rent sign up on the door and the Web site is down. It was just open yesterday. Things are that bad in the D.C. restaurant industry after all? Or they just couldn't sustain what seemed to be a wildly overpriced business model?

Tom Sietsema: Actually, Le Paradou closed the end of April.

I'm not totally surprised. Luxury dining has been hurt, hard, by the recession. And Le Paradou had a lot of competition. Last but not least, the restaurant's service was off-putting.

washingtonpost.com: Tom's Dish on Le Paradou's Closing

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Re: For the "date with spouse" poster: Re: going to Bazin's on Church - Just a heads up, I've never been during lunch (only during dinner) but both my spouse and I were really diappointed by the noise level there -- it was so loud, we spent our date-night practically screaming at each other. We won't be back -- just not worth it.

Tom Sietsema: And here I thought the noise problem there had been solved, years ago. Thanks for the news.

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Metro Center: Tom, I gotta say that the positive vibe in this week's chat has put me in a good mood. Maybe you should consider one "praise only" chat per year (after New Year's perhaps) where chatters can call out the best service/food/etc. that they have recently come across.

Tom Sietsema: Interesting idea. My only concern is that we'd get a lot of fake praise from "readers" with vested interests.

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Kid-friendly but nice: Any suggestions for a kid-friendly restaurant near Alexandria for a celebration dinner? We are in a bit of a rut with our usual ones -- Carlyle, Del Merei, etc. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Majestic and Vermilion both leap to mind. Anyone else care to weigh in?

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Swine flu: Tom, a kind-of-funny but at the same time, kind-of-sad story. I live in Shirlington and tried to order a meat calzone from a pizza place that just opened a few weeks ago. I was told that they were not serving pork products because of the swine flu. Talk about wanting your business to fail before you even get customers in the door. I called the health department and asked them to please educate this poor lady as we really want her to succeed...despite herself!

Tom Sietsema: Oh dear.

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Washington, D.C.: Reading your intro today, I have a master strategy for restaurant owners: purposely give crappy service, followed by self-flagellation and free dessert. All it costs is the price of a brownie sundae and you get a loyal repeat customer. Though I'm sure somebody's already thought of this, haven't they?

Tom Sietsema: You, my friend, are what they call a cynic! (But I have to say, I DID get a chuckle out of your recipe.)

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Hello Tom!! Have a friend who is coming in to town this weekend and I am looking for a nice restaurant in downtown D.C. (near the Verizon center)....Something mid-priced...Have any suggestions?

Thanks!!!

Tom Sietsema: I'd introduce your friend to the nearby Oyamel, Cafe Atlantico or IndeBleu, which just introduced some new menus. The dinner options include Turkish spice-rubbed steak frites, fried shrimp cakes, masala salmon and lamb sliders, among other dishes.

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Silver Spring Moto-Mouth: This is probably too personal a question, but it popped into my head while reading past chat transcripts -- I think it came up again in the last week or so. Many people post to ask how to become a paid food critic. Many people post to ask if you ever cook for yourself. I mix those two questions and the answers you provide together and it makes me wonder: is a full-time food critic's salary adjusted (downward) to accommodate the fact that he or she rarely has to pay for a lunch or dinner (and sometimes breakfast)? I'm thinking about all the money I pour into restaurants and grocery stores just to feed myself on a day-to-day basis, and how "rich" I would be if I suddenly didn't have to spend that money (money well-spent, however).

Just a random thought -- thanks for eating and writing!

Tom Sietsema: My expenses are not factored into my salary. Here at the Post, eating out for work is no more a perk than is covering the president if you're the White House correspondant or going to the Super Bowl if you're a sports editor. It's just what you do when you cover your beat.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, I hope you can print my public "thank you" to Co Co. Sala. Last week my girlfriend and I went there to celebrate our first anniversary of dating. My girlfriend had told them ahead of time that it was the site of one of our very first dates, and she asked if we could have the same corner table. Not only did they provide this (on a busy Thursday night), but, without our asking, the manager gave us each a free glass of prosecco and thanked us for our patronage during the early days of the restaurant (which also opened about a year ago). I thought I'd repay his generosity and courtesy by recounting it to you, in the hopes you can post it and encourage more restaurateurs to (a) open up creative/romantic places like Co Co. Sala, and (b) treat their guests with the same kindness with which we were treated!

Tom Sietsema: Here's a plug -- a Valentine, if you will -- for a fine and thoughtful restaurant.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: Co Co. Sala

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17th and M Streets: I just called Passion Fish and they answered the phone!

Tom Sietsema: No way! ;)

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Brookeville: Hi Tom - let me put you on the spot ...... of the retaurants around town that offer Fried Chicken is any of that fried chicken better than Popeye's?

Tom Sietsema: Consistently? No.

The search continues ...

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San Juan traveler: Last summer, I had a good, but pricey meal at the beautiful Pikayo in San Juan. Interesting space in an art museum, great cocktails. One tip though: the tasting menu is kind of a bore. We wished we had made selections off the regular menu.

Tom Sietsema: Gracias.

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Arlington, Va.: The Significant Other is a chain-restaurant devotee, much to my chagrin. While I am frugal in other areas, I am happy to save up to enjoy a quality night out at a local restaurant. How can I pry SO away from the Ruby Tuesdays/Cheesecake Factorys that all taste/feel the same and get him to experience a real dinner?

Tom Sietsema: I'd ease the SO into fine-dining by taking him first to a local chain that doesn't taste like a chain -- something along the lines of a Sweetwater Tavern or an Artie's.

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Arlington, Va.: As a fellow "foodie" I have always wondered how food critics get into the business. How did you end up working for the Post and what would your advice be for a hopeful young woman wanting to follow in your footsteps?

Tom Sietsema: Actually, I did it the hard way, by working my way through menial-to-great jobs at progressively bigger and better papers around the country. These days, if you have something to say, you can start a blog or a site of your own fairly easily and inexpensively, then hope to get noticed.

I could devote a book to your question, but I don't have the time for that here. Briefly, what you should do to get started to prepare for a job like mine is eat out as much as you can; write every day (keep a log or a journal); reach out to a person you trust to read and edit your efforts; travel as much as possible to experience food on its home turf; read great food writers, starting with M.F.K. Fisher, considered by many of us to be *the* finest; and learn to cook (I tested recipes in my early days).

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Penn Qtr sandwich: Walk a few blocks to Breadline.

Tom Sietsema: Of course. And several readers have also suggested Teaism's several branches.

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Russia House: Skip the food.

Tom Sietsema: Vodka doesn't constitute dinner, right?

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Dupont Circle: Re: San Juan --- Marmalade on Forteleza Street. Wonderful creative food and great wine pairings!

Tom Sietsema: Thanks. We're running short on time ...

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Kid-friendly restaurant near Alexandria : Generous George's, really, it's good.

Tom Sietsema: And on that note, I bid you all a fab lunch and a four-star Memorial Day weekend. I'll be working -- eating and typing -- for most of it. Gotta make up for four days in Berlin!

Ciao.

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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 every 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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