Ask Tom: Staycation Meals, Anniversary Dinners and Dining With a Baby

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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, August 5, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema discussed his review of New Heights, staycation meals, anniversary dinners and dining with a baby on Wednesday, Aug. 5 at 11 a.m. ET

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Silver Spring, Md.: Tom, have you heard anything about the new Nicaro in Silver Spring? The Going Out ladies talked to the new chef, whose past work includes The Cheesecake Factory and Potomac Grill. I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. Any thoughts?

Tom Sietsema: I gotta be brutally honest. Neither the incoming chef's resume nor his description of his menu (fusion cuisine, drawing on European flavors along with Latin and Cajun accents) gives me much hope for the "new" Nicaro. The fact the chef, Luis Martinez, is keeping the same name also gives me pause. Doesn't he want to distinguish his operation from the original?

Good morning, all. Thanks for joining me today.

washingtonpost.com: Nicaro Opens: Same Name, Completely Different Restaurant

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DeeCee: I enjoyed your review of New Heights, especially since I've been wondering about whether it's held up well in the several years since I ate there. But why were the comments closed? I wanted to ask why you rated it they way you did -- the text of your review suggested a full three stars.

washingtonpost.com: Julia from post.com here. Comments automatically close on our site after three days because of spam concerns. If you would like to comment on New Heights, you can always do so through the Going Out Guide listing for New Heights, where commenting is always available. The tech-girl portion of this answer is now closed. I yield the floor to Tom.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks, Julia.

New Heights is very good, but it's not *yet* consistently "excellent" (which is how I define three stars). A couple of dishes, foremost a lamb dish, were off, and I think the desserts need fine-tuning.

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Silver Spring: Have you been to Four Sisters in their new location yet?

I went last week and the food was just as good, the layout nice, but the location is a bit odd: it's in the ground floor of a condo/office-plex near a Panera, not far off the Beltway.

I hope their business is as good as it was before when they were in the Eden Center.

Tom Sietsema: Have I been? I have!

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Review of Four Sisters in its New Location

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Amsterdam Bound: Hi Tom! longtime reader - love your chats.

We're headed to Amsterdam next week for 2 weeks. Aside from De Kas, can you recommend anything other must dos in Amsterdam? Have done a bit of research but wanted to throw it out to you and the chatters, as well.

We'll also be in Brugge for a couple of nights, anything to suggest there? Thanks

Tom Sietsema: Let me know how you like De Kas! It's one of my favorite places to eat in the world. I love the greenhouse setting and the truly local menu. You should be sure to book a table at what I think might be Amsterdam's best taste of Dutch cooking, Restaurant Greetje. If it's available, ask for table 7, overlooking a canal.

washingtonpost.com: Tom'S 2003 Postcard on De Kas, 2006 Postcard from Amsterdam and 2008 Postcard from Amsterdam

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Cava chef: Just a little side note, back by popular demand, the flame on the saganaki is back in the Cava Capitol Hill location. Enjoy.

Tom Sietsema: Hurrah! (I was told that the reason for warming the cheese in the kitchen rather than in the dining room was because of the latter's leather ceiling. Has that been covered up or treated with flame retardant?)

washingtonpost.com: 2009 First Bite: Cava

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Honeymoon Suggestions?: Hi Tom. Love your columns and chats. We have taken your postcard advice when we travel and have really enjoyed ourselves.

We are honeymooning in wine country Calif. in October. Where would you send us? French Laundry is out of our price range, but we would like to splurge on a few meals. I have your postcard, just trying to sort through our options.

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: The one place you must, must, must make time for is Ubuntu in the city of Napa. Meadowood in St. Helena should be your splurge dinner, however. For something casual, I enjoy Go Fish, also in St. Helena.

washingtonpost.com: Tom's Food Feature on Ubuntu's Jeremy Fox

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Dining with Baby: I know that in the past there have been many discussions about if one should bring their child to a fine dining restaurant or not. Well, sometimes we just don't have much choice! I am looking forward to turning 29 at the end of August and hoping to have dinner with my husband and daughter somewhere nice. Here is the catch, my daughter will be 3 months old at the time! Any recommendations on places to go? She is a VERY happy baby and I am not one to just sit there and eat while she cries or fusses, if she did start to fuss either I or my husband would excuse ourselves until she quieted down.

Tom Sietsema: The young parents I know all tell me babies are the easiest to bring to restaurants, because they tend to sleep through the meal. Kudos to you for making sure any fussing from your infant doesn't detract from anyone else's meal.

Places to consider for the three of you: 2941 in Falls Church, Blue Duck Tavern in the West End, Sei in Penn Quarter, maybe Majestic in Old Town, where the First Lady, her daughters, her mother and a few friends recently celebrated one of the party's birthdays. (Michelle paid the tab, sources tell me.)

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: 2941 and 2009 Review: Sei

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Eugene, Oreg.: Which restaurants were nominated for your Worst Web site Award?

washingtonpost.com: You can see the nominees in a box on the top of this page. It's on the right, next to the Ask Tom banner.

Tom Sietsema: The restaurant that scores so highly for its cooking also ranks No. 1 for its less-than-pleasing Web site: Rasika.

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Washington, D.C.: It was so hard to decide which is the worst restaurant Web site. I finally went with Sabores, for those stupid blurry boxes that I had to scroll through to find a menu. Rasika was a close second-worst with the design, but at least the concept is neat. I was really, really tempted to vote for Westend Bistro, though, because it was so pretentious. I like fine dining as much as the next girl, but the Westend Web site is really off-putting with how impressed it is with itself.

Tom Sietsema: Fodder for restaurant owners and the web site designers who work for them.

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Raise the Stakes: So I finally ate at Ray's the Steaks and it lived up to all expectations (and was surprisingly affordable for a steakhouse). But even after talking about it for years, and eating at Hell Burger, I JUST figured out the joke with the names (ok, Ray's the Classics doesn't really fit). Just wanted to admit how clueless I feel.

Tom Sietsema: Uh, what's the joke?

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Washington, D.C.: Not a question but a comment. I was in Glover Park the other day and I decided to pick up a pizza at Two Amys. I looked up their Web site on my iPhone to check out the menu and I couldn't see it because they use flash.

Please let restaurant managers know that we can't see flash on iPhones. Simplify, simplify, simplify!

Tom Sietsema: You are like the 108th person to make the suggestion. Thanks.

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Arlington, Va.: Tom,

I just wanted to publicly thank Liberty Tavern for a really wonderful birthday dinner last night. I called rather last minute for a group of ten and they accommodated us, and when a few members arrived a few minutes late it wasn't a problem.

The food was great. Their pork chops are wonderful, they are juicy and tender and so flavorful and the maple sauce paired with the greens and mushrooms that accompany it are the perfect balance. They also have a creamed corn they serve with the dish that is very good.

I appreciate that they bake their own bread and put a lot of care into their cocktails. Everyone was really happy and our server couldn't have been nicer I wish I knew his name.

Anyway I hope you publish this because it is really nice to have a very good and consistent restaurant that also has really great service. Thank you Liberty Tavern.

Tom Sietsema: I haven't had the chop, but I'll second your praise for the cocktails. The bar makes a great $8 Hemingway daiquiri.

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Food vacation in D.C.: Instead of going away this summer, I'm planning to take a week off to have fun locally. One thing I'd like to do is get around to some D.C.-area restaurants I haven't tried before. What three-four places would you recommend? I'm thinking of leisurely lunches, probably solo with a book. And I'm not going to wear a suit, so I need places that won't look down on business casual. Cost is not a factor (since I'm saving travel costs). Downtown, near the Metro, is preferred, but I'm willing to trek to the burbs if it's worth it (though if I drive I'll have to forgo wine!). Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Your idea of a "staycation" is one that a lot of locals are telling me they're doing this year. I think it's terrific, exploring one's home turf and spending dollars close to home.

Chatters, any suggestions? I'll start by nominating a (lunch) stool at the Market Lunch on Capitol Hill or C.F. Folks next to the Palm downtown.

washingtonpost.com: Market Lunch and 2009 Review: C.F. Folks

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Just Curious: When was the last time you gave a restaurant 4 stars?

Tom Sietsema: Last October, in the fall dining guide, I gave my top rating to Komi, CityZen, the Inn at Little Washington and Restaurant Eve's Tasting Room. (Rasika and Minibar came close; each restaurant got 3.5 stars.)

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Web Woes: Speaking of restaurant Web sites.... please, please encourage owner's and their site designers to either include a non-flash option or NOT use flash at all. For those of us who frequently access them from our mobile phones and PDAs flash sites are useless - which means the site with the readable menu, hours and other info usually gets our business - and I'm doing this on the fly at least a couple of times a week. Thanks for passing on this nit! Love the chats.

Tom Sietsema: Here's hoping the offenders see this.

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Staycation...: Lunch at Restaurant Eve. It is on my to-do list this summer.

Tom Sietsema: In the bistro, right? The tasting room is only open at night.

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Re: Dining with Baby: As a fellow mom, I have no problem with the poster's desire to bring the baby out to dinner, but I really think she should consider getting a babysitter anyway. After 3 months, you deserve a chance to get spiffed up for an adult night on the town. I'll bet if you ask around you could find a friend willing to babysitter for a few hours. My husband and I did that when our baby was about 3 months old and it was a WONDERFUL evening. (We went to Vidalia, by the way -- it was delicious!)

Tom Sietsema: No two parents are the same. Maybe the earlier poster feels as if she can't quite leave the baby with anyone else just yet. Or maybe she's new to the area and without support. You never know.

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Silver Spring, Md.: For the diner with the baby:

We took our 2-month old son to Rays the Steaks on Father's day, and it went great - plus, they have a changing table in the bathroom!

Tom Sietsema: I've noticed more changing areas in restrooms designated for men in recent years. That's a welcome trend.

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Van Ness-UDC: Ray's the Steaks = Raise the Stakes. I just got that recently myself!

Tom Sietsema: I was JOKING, kids. Of COURSE I caught the double meaning.

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Arlington, Va.: The "Raise the Stakes/Ray's the Steaks" think slipped by lots of people. At least I hope so, because I didn't get it at first.

It also took me a while to twig to "Clare and Don's Beach Shack," back when it was actually in Clarendon.

I'm probably too stupid to live.

Tom Sietsema: I remember eating there and saying the name aloud. A friend and I burst out laughing as we realized that there probably were no Clare or Don in the house.

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For staycation: If s/he hasn't tried Bistro Lepic on Wisconsin, do! We took your recommendation and ate there last Saturday--superb.

Started with pate de campagne, then beef medallions with risotto, and pear dessert. We're saving our money to go back soon!

Tom Sietsema: I agree. BL is a lovely place for French cooking.

washingtonpost.com: Bistrot Lepic

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Las Vegas: I'm going to Las Vegas tomorrow! Any moderate price range recommendations? All cuisines welcome!

Tom Sietsema: Do you like Japanese? One of the best meals I had in Sin City last week was off the Strip, at a charming little place called Raku. It's an easy taxi ride from the major hotels. Be sure to order the house-masde tofu and anything from the grill.

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Kid-freindly "fine dining" option: Eventide in Clarendon is really kid-friendly. They have high chairs, booster seats, kiddie cups and even a baby-changing room!

They even promote a kid's meal if you dine there early!

Tom Sietsema: Yet another detail at which the restaurant excels.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Eventide

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Shirlington: Hello Tom, do you know if the New York Times has decided on a new Food Critic? Thank you

Tom Sietsema: I have no insider information on who will replace Frank Bruni.

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Dining with baby: We took our baby to Four Sister's for his first restaurant experience. He was about three weeks old at the time, and slept through the whole meal. The place was filled with kids, all behaving beautifully.

Tom Sietsema: I was there recently and noticed three little ones, possibly relatives of the owners, lined up at the bar and eating happily through the lunch hour.

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Two birds with one stone: Ray's the Steaks => raise the stakes

Staycation: I don't think places are that busy at lunch time or that stuffy about appearance. Tosca is 1/2 block from one of the Metro Center Metro exits. Poste is not far from Gallery Place Metro and has a nice patio, no?

Tom Sietsema: Okay, okay, enough with the Ray's/Raise explanation! LOL

Tosca and Poste both sound like choice spots to me.

washingtonpost.com: Ristorante Tosca

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Baltimore, Md.: Anniversary emergency! We're heading to D.C. this weekend and I need to make reservations for a special dinner out. My husband, usually the planner, left it to me. I was thinking Oval Room? any other suggestions? we're staying near Dupont Circle. thanks!!!

Tom Sietsema: Yep, the Oval Room would be a fine choice. What exactly are you looking for, though?

washingtonpost.com: The Oval Room

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Old Anglers, INN: Haven't heard much chatter about the Old Anglers Inn recently? We live in Rockville, and would like a nice, easy place to get to, not in Bethesda or Downtown.

Is it still up to it's standards?

Tom Sietsema: I'm not a fan of anything but the Inn's outdoor patio -- hold the food and the service, please!

washingtonpost.com: 2007 Review: The Old Angler's Inn

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Arlington, Va.: Regarding Cathal Armstrong's "Things to do in Ireland":

I'd like to swim naked with Cathal. I'm just saying...

Tom Sietsema: I'm not sure his wife would allow that ...

washingtonpost.com: Last Week's Chat: Cathal's Tips for visiting Dublin (scroll down or search for "Dublin")

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you probably get this all the time but...: What's your favorite guilty pleasure restaurant?

Tom Sietsema: I find myself at the bar at Palena more often than I should, given other work deadlines.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: Palena

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Frank Bruni's Replacement: I'll be replacing Frank Bruni. I have 27 years of eating experience. Most of it's been professional, although the period before I had teeth could be considered "amateur."

Tom Sietsema: VERY funny.

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Eye Street: Hi Tom -- Husband and I are headed to Seattle for the first time. Do you have any lunch and dinner suggestions? Something that we can't duplicate here? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Yes: Tilth ... Poppy .... Quinn's ... Matt's in the Market (all, or most, detailed in past Postcards from Seattle, by the way).

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DCNW: Any impressive or authentic Greek restaurants in the area?

Tom Sietsema: Some dismiss it as formula-driven, but I have yet to have a bad meal at Zaytinya. I also like Mourayo in Dupont Circle.

washingtonpost.com: Review: Mourayo

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Back from Boston: Hi Tom- I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to cover other cities through your postcards. They are so valuable. I was in Boston and had a wonderful meal at Neptune Oyster. Truly a charming little place. Thanks again for all you do!

Tom Sietsema: Your post just made my week. Those Travel section columns involve a lot of time and money, and I appreciate knowing they have helped out readers.

washingtonpost.com: Postcards From Tom: The Archives

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Tom. On reading your 7/21 First Bites item on Bistro Bistro ("What's French for 'Dreadful'?"), it was clear from the headline on that this was a place to avoid like ptomaine poisoning. But I wondered how this crushingly negative mini-review squares with your stated policy of not fully reviewing a place until it's been open for a while and you've sampled it numerous times. I'm not debating whether your meal was any good -- clearly you were disgusted with the joint. But the write-up was so overwhelmingly negative that I suspect NONE of your readers will ever set foot in the place. In essence, you "reviewed" the place, not just previewed it, or announced its existence. Do you think you crossed the line? For the record, I've never eaten at Bistro Bistro, and have no connection with the place -- I was simply struck by the nature of the item.

Tom Sietsema: Fair point. I felt comfortable being so critical in that preview because the restaurant had been open awhile when I made my initial visit and also because I visited twice, which isn't often the case for First Bite (unlike my formal reviews in the Magazine, which are based on three or more meals).

If a First Bite column is mostly negative, chances are good that my preview will be the only time I bother to write about the establishment. In other words, unless it's a Big Deal Restaurant, I'm not likely to follow up with a full-fledged critique.

Was I too hard on Bistro Bistro? I think not. The experience there was simply awful, and I felt duty-bound to warn readers away.

washingtonpost.com: First Bite: Bistro Bistro

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Babies,: As a mom of 3, the 3 month age is a good one for restaurants. Do pick someplace with a lot of background noise (babies like that and usually sleep, and people are less likely to notice the baby), and enough space to fit the carseat next to your table. Kemble Park Tavern is in our neighborhood and is kid-friendly (changing table in the women's room at least -- haven't checked the men's). We like Chef Geoff's on New Mexico too (bonus when you can eat outside on the patio). Our restaurant standards used to be very high, but believe me, it will just be nice to be out of the house! And pick someplace that isn't too slow with service. My husband and I went out for a nice dinner without baby when #3 was a couple months old and I was so tired I almost put my head down on the table to take a nap between courses.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the tips, Mom.

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Local Reviews vs. Post Cards: Am I the only one who finds it odd that most of your local restaurant reviews result in an average rating (i.e., two stars), yet when you travel to a another city you always seem to stumble upon the three best hidden gems that that city has to offer. Makes one wonder.

Tom Sietsema: What do you wonder?

I do a ton of research/reporting before I head to a Postcard destination, so as to steer clear of bad experiences. And I tend to write about a city's best, not it's merely decent-to-good places.

My job here is different. I'm eating up and down the food chain, so to speak. "Good" is the norm.

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Anniversary Dinner: Obelisk or Cityzen?

Tom Sietsema: Obelisk if you want to taste some of the best Italian food this city has to offer; CityZen if you like an elegant setting and the kind of culinary finesse a few years at the French Laundry will impart.

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Brutal hangover!!!!: Tom, I'm still stuck in bed listening to Celtic Woman and dying! Any healthy comfort food recommendations still serving between 2-3:00 in Penn Quarter???

Tom Sietsema: The Cubano at Cafe Atlantico came to MY rescue once ...

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Alexandria, Va.: Spouse and I have a rare night out Friday away from the baby. Where would you recommend in the area of Old Town or Arlington? In the past, we've enjoyed Majestic, Vermillion and Bastille.

Many, many thanks!

Tom Sietsema: In Arlington, I like the newish Eventide a lot. The restaurant has the bonus of a rooftop deck when weather permits. In Old Town, I'd be inclined to go to the bistro at Restaurant Eve.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Eventide and The Bistro at Restaurant Eve

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom -- Adore your chat and just moved back to the city a few weeks ago. My sister will be visiting soon and I want to take her to one really good brunch place and one really good dinner spot, plus one or two quick bite suggestions. Any help? She's adventurous, so no restrictions other than moderate prices.

And I know it's frequently asked, but can you post again how your name is pronounced? Whenever I reference you, it's as 'the washington post food critic' because I know I'll butcher your name!

Many thanks!

Tom Sietsema: My name is pronounced SEET-suh-mah (and thanks for asking).

Here are some ideas I hope you'll find useful:

Brunch: Tabard Inn, in the garden of the Dupont Circle restaurant if the weather cooperates.

Dinner: Sushi Taro, hopefully for omakase at the sushi bar in the rear of the place.

Quick bites: A sandwich at Cafe Atlantico, a cocktail and a snack at Source, maybe a small plate or two in the wine bar at Two Amys.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Sushi Taro

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Arlington -- Miami Bound: Hi Tom,

I am heading to Miami in a few weeks and wanted to see what the hottest restaurants are that my friend and I should check out?

Thanks

Tom Sietsema: I need to get back to Miami. But food friends rave to me about Michael's Genuine Food & Drink these days.

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Adams Morgan: Tom,

Any surprises in store for the Fall Dining Guide? I imagine you've started (or finished) your culinary quest to find us the best the area has to offer. So how about a sneak preview? Where should we eat!!

Tom Sietsema: You know what's kind of disheartening at the moment? I'm discovering that some of my past favorites have slipped in a big way. My list changes from day to day, as I scratch off what I thought would be sure bets and add new names to the lineup.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Tom, I took my mom to Eatonville on Saturday night. The catfish was under-seasoned but once mixed with the jalapeno cheese grits and greens and tomato butter it was a good bite. My mom's crab burger was dry but once dabbed in the sauce on the bun was good (so were the fries). They switched the lemon pound cake to almond -- still good with ice cream and rhubarb liquor sauce! We sat in the rocking chairs (mom's choice) and though it added a bit of challenge to eat was kind of fun. So I will be going back most likely. My one gripe is that the server asked us if we wanted cornbread with our meals and didn't tell us it was extra. It gave me pause the way she asked and I even glanced on the list of sides to see if it was there -- and not seeing it I said sure -- cornbread is not something we necessarily wanted but wouldn't turn away. When it ended up on the bill I was annoyed and told the person who came to take our bill (not the server) that they should really make it more clear that the cornbread is extra.

Tom Sietsema: I agree: Extra charges should always be mentioned. I, for one, want to know if "Another soda?" is gratis or not.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Eatonville

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D.C.: How do you determine what restaurants to visit when you travel to other cities? Local critics and local press, I imagine. Is there some trade press you get that puts you in the forefront? Given the limited time of your visits, I have to think you do a lot of research.

Tom Sietsema: I call ahead and talk to critics/cooking schools/chefs and go online to see what's being talked about. But I've also learned to save a free day to visit places that I hear about, or discover, once I've landed in a city.

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silver spring: Another fabulous meal at Tavira this week, celebrating good health news (disaster avoided).

Why doesn't this place get the kudos it deserves?

Tom Sietsema: It does (and it will).

washingtonpost.com: More for Less: Tavira

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D.C.: What happened to that Chicago piece you mentioned a couple of months back?

Tom Sietsema: Honestly? I begged for an extension.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi, Tom. One of the reasons I enjoy your reviews is that usually they are spot on. My husband and I went to Present a few weeks ago and found that it lives up to every word of your review and more. Thanks for recommending it.

Tom Sietsema: You are too kind. Thanks, Alexandria.

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Richmond, Va.: I have a question on dining etiquette that I'm sure you've been asked before. I have a friend who occasionally chews with his mouth open (depends on what type of food he is eating). Usually I can just ignore it, but sometimes it does get of my nerves (apples are the worst!), and I can tell that it definitely bothers other people when we're at a restaurant.

How do I approach this person without hurting their feelings?

Tom Sietsema: That's tough. How's this:

"You know I love you, buddy, but can I share something with you? I'd love you even more if you chewed with your mouth closed."

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Arlington, Va.: Hey Tom,

My wife and I are headed to San Francisco for a wedding next week. We are looking for a good, moderately priced restaurant in the Union Square area (though we are willing to go farther afield for something good). We're amenable to any cuisine except Indian.

Do you have any suggestions?

Tom Sietsema: Funny, I'm heading out there later THIS week for the San Francisco food and wine festival, running Thursday through Sunday.

My research on what's good right now includes the wine-themed RN74, from star chef Michael Mina, on nearby Mission St. and Flour + Water on Harrison and 20th, with a menu created by Thomas McNaughton. He previously cooked at La Folie, Quince and Gary Danko -- three of my favorite SF restaurants.

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Springfield, Va.: I thought I'd share a funny experience. I called Mike's (a GAR) and tried to place a takeout order. I was told that they didn't offer takeout food due to the "high maintenance" nature of their food. What is so high maintenance about a meal consisting of ribs, fries, and coleslaw?

Tom Sietsema: I've reported on this before. In brief: The Great American Restaurant chain doesn't do takeout because it feels that its food suffers when it leaves the establishment, that takeout doesn't reflect the high quality the company believes it can only deliver in its dining rooms.

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still looking for news re: furstenburg: any update on what/where/when Mark is doing?

Tom Sietsema: Be patient. The bread baker is poised to open a place devoted to street food from around the world, G Street Food, come this fall.

Off to lunch, gang. See you next Wednesday. Eat well til then.

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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.

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