Ask Tom: Mike Isabella on 'Top Chef', Portion Sizes, Bring-Your-Own-Bottle Etiquette

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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, August 26, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema discussed Mike Isabella on "Top Chef," his review of Hell Point Seafood, portion sizes and bring-your-own-bottle etiquette on Wednesday, Aug. 26 at 11 a.m. ET.

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Top Chef: Tom, So did you manage to catch Top Chef last week? (Go Bryan Voltaggio!) I was wondering if you would ever decide whether or not to eat at a restaurant based on a knowledge of the personality of the chef? For example, there were some egregious personalities on last week's show (i.e., the sexist chef from Zaytinya) that would really make me not want to support their career, no matter how good their food was. I am just appalled by the egos out there, and would not enjoy a meal at a chef's restaurant knowing he/she feels so superior to others (another example: a fairly successful Top Chef contestant trying to start a fist fight with Michael Chiarello because Michael called him "young man" -- come on!).

Thanks -- love your chats!

Washington, D.C.: Tom, After watching last week's Top Chef, I was really put off by Zaytinia's Mike Isabella. His statement regarding the oyster shucking competition that "there's no way, no offense, that a girl should be at the same level" was way out of line. My wife and I have vowed not to patronize his establishment based on his comments. Do you ever use these types of judgments to avoid establishments for your personal dining? Thanks.

Baltimore, Md.: Did you see Top Chef? I have to say, Mike Isabella is not winning me as a fan. I love Zaytinya but now would need to think twice about going. How do the restaurant owners feel about their chefs behaving themselves on national TV that could damage the reputation of the restaurant? Being a woman, I'd have a hard time going somewhere that I know its chef appears to be sexist.

Washington, D.C.: Do you think appearing on Top Chef can negatively impact a chef's restaurant? I was so turned off by Michael Isabella's attitude on the show last week that I can't imagine eating at Zaytinya anytime soon.

Washington, D.C.: I was really horrified watching Top Chef that a local chef said "no offense, but a girl shouldn't be at the same level I am" in relation to a female chef shucking clams as quickly as he. I've heard from people in the field that it can be extremely difficult for women working in kitchens. But to hear this on national television from a young chef was extremely disheartening. I've already informed Zaytinya and Think Food Group I won't be eating at any of their restaurants until there is a public apology.

Tom Sietsema: And so reads my in-box this morning ...

"I'm a very sarcastic person," Michael Isabella told me this morning. The news that some viewers are upset with his comment (to fellow contestant Jennifer Carroll of Philadelphia) is "disheartening," he says. "I've been friends with Jen since before the show."

He thinks "Top Chef" producers wanted to "hype it up" in advance of tonight's segment, which pits the male and female chefs against one another.

Did he mean what he said, though? Isabella says he doesn't. "Half my staff is female," he says.

His boss's advice: Focus on the challenge and "don't read the blogs," counseled Jose Andres.

Happy Wednesday, everyone. Fasten your seatbelts. It's poised to be a roller coaster hour!

washingtonpost.com: BravoTV.com: Mike Isabella's Comment

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Great American Restaurants, Va.: I do not go to the restaurants you write about very often. We're more of a Chik-Fil-A family. But my wife and I do get a decent restaurant a few times a year. We live in Fairfax, and our favorite place is Artie's. I know you're a fan of the Great American Restaurant chain.

I've had two recent opportunities to eat at GAR restaurants, once with friends, and once with my dad, who took me to Sweetwater Tavern. Both experiences reaffirmed my admiration for the food at these restaurants. For what it's worth, I had fish dishes both times. But both times I lustily dug into the entrees and was surprised to find myself finished quickly.

I didn't go hungry either time, but I was surprised on both occasions to discover how soon I found myself staring at an empty plate. In one of the two instances, we weren't brought any bread before the meal. I requested it AFTER I was finished, and the waiter brought it promptly. I have a vague memory that I read some time ago that GAR restaurants provide the bread only upon request, although I don't remember having to request it during our other recent GAR outing.

My question is, Have the portions at GAR restaurants gotten smaller? It had been a while since my recent visits, but my memory was that the food went a little further in earlier visits. I'm okay with smaller portions, but am wondering if my memory is playing tricks on me.

Tom Sietsema: Has GAR cut back on portion sizes? "That would be a dumb thing to do, especially now," says Randy Norton, the local restaurant group's CEO. Fish entrees at all his places typically run 8 to 8.5 ounces, he explains, give or take a half-ounce or so if a dish has multiple accompaniments.

Bread is not automatically delivered to the table, although customers should be asked if they want a basket, Norton adds. The practice dates back a few years to the Atkins Diet craze.

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Washington, D.C.: Happy Hump Day Tom! So, I have a reservation tonight at Taberna del Alabardero for Restaurant Week. I have a very nice bottle of cab that I have been meaning to drink for a while and wanted to bring it along. I know they have a $15 corkage fee and that bringing your own wines is permitted, but, do you think it is impolite/cheapskate-ish to bring it during Restaurant Week? I can't tell if it would be terribly gauche of me given we are already getting a bargain...Your expertise is desperately needed! Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: As long as the wine is indeed special and it isn't on Taberna's list, I see no reason for you to feel reluctant to enjoy the bottle with tonight's dinner.

Tip: Send a half-glass to the chef, or share a bit with the sommelier. It's considered a gracious touch.

washingtonpost.com: Taberna del Alabardero

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McLean, Va.: To what extent was your reaction to Hell Point Seafood colored by your familiarity with Kinkead's? For example, you mention that the swordfish is smaller and lacks an accompaniment. You also mention the absence of the wood-grilled squid with polenta and turn the owner's description of the restaurant as "Kinkead Lite" into a diss. I'm wondering if the context turned your review more negative than it otherwise would have been. The vast majority of the customers (i.e., those from Annapolis, Baltimore, Philadelphia etc.) will judge the restaurant on its own merits, not in comparison with a D.C. institution. I have not eaten at Hell Point and am not a fan of Kindkead's. This is really a question for you and not a criticism of your review.

Tom Sietsema: I think the fact the owner himself described his new restaurant as "Kinkead Lite" begged for some comparison to the high-end seafood venue in Washington, no?

Kinkead's is an institution in Washington. Hell Point Seafood was envisioned as a lower-priced version of that. When I was working on the review, Bob Kinkead gave me specific examples of how HPS was like-yet-unlike Kinkead's. They included references to smaller portions and less complex dishes. I didn't have any problem with any of that.

My Kinkead Lite "diss" was in reference to a flawed carpaccio, by the way.

washingtonpost.com: This Week's Review: Hell Point Seafood

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Burke, Va.: Tom, I just wanted to thank you and my fellow chatters for the Eventide recommendation. We went last week and the food, service, ambiance were spectacular. The best part was the acoustics that allowed us to catch up with old friends over dinner without a megaphone. I truly hope this place survives the recession, 'cuz it has become my go-to dining place.

Tom Sietsema: Eventide is indeed easy on the ears. My sound check for the restaurant averages 70 decibels, which means "Conversation is easy."

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Eventide

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Dining with Baby: I was the poster who asked for dining options for a birthday celebration with my three-month-old daughter. I just thought I would give you an update.

We ended up going to McCormick and Schmick's (Reston) a couple days before my birthday with my whole family AND baby. They were fairly accommodating (although they have no baby changing table in the men's room). The food, however, was not good at all! I got a filet oscar that was terrible. The meat was basically flavorless and the crab was watery and grainy. Yes, I know that getting steak at a seafood restaurant is a bad idea, but it was their special feature for the month so I assumed They would make an effort.

For my actual birthday we left the baby with my parents and my husband took me to 2941. I must say that this was maybe the BEST meal I have ever had! Way better than my trip to Inn at Little Washington 2 years ago. I got the six-course tasting menu and was BLOWN away! Every dish was fantastic (favorites being the foie gras and the tuna carppacio). The service was also excellent and the ambiance so romantic. I also appreciate a fine dining restaurant that does elegant without being stuffy.

Thanks to all for their advice and recommendations! We do plan on trying Eventide with baby soon.

Tom Sietsema: Ah, I'm glad you enjoyed your celebratory meal at 2941.

Now, about that sound reading for Eventide .... (see post, above)

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Kudos to Tosca: Tom, My husband and I had dinner at Tosca for restaurant week last night. We were treated like royalty. First off, they offer RW diners all the dishes on their regular menu; secondly, the food was -- not a surprise -- fabulous as usual; but mostly their service has no peer: it's attentive, competent and efficient. Tosca found a way to make return customers out of RW diners! Thank you, Tosca!

Tom Sietsema: I love to hear about restaurants that offer their entire menu (or *most* of their selections) during the promotion. Provided the quality is good, it's one of the best ways to win repeat business.

washingtonpost.com: 2007 Dining Guide: Ristorante Tosca

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Tom. I am looking for a recommendation as to where to take my boyfriend for dinner for his birthday. He is a foodie. We've done the Inn at Little Washington and L'Auberge Chez Francois, which will both be hard to top. Looking for something preferably in the city this time, and with a nice romantic ambiance. I'm willing to splurge. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: I'm a big fan of the reliably romantic and luscious Marcel's in the West End. Be sure that one of you orders the signature boudin blanc and save room for a proper souffle for dessert (a billowing strawberry model impressed me on my last visit).

washingtonpost.com: Marcel's

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D.C. to Vegas: Tom, I'm headed to Vegas over Thanksgiving and wanted to know if your Feb 2005 Postcard picks still apply? Any recommended "don't miss" attractions?

Tom Sietsema: I've actually been to Vegas more recently than 2005. The one place you shouldn't miss is off the Strip (and Japanese), Raku. And the most elegant dining room may well be Robuchon's in the MGM Grand.

washingtonpost.com: Postcard From Tom: Las Vegas

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Virginia: Went to a Lebanese Taverna branch the other night. I gotta say, my last few visits have been very underwhelming. I used to be a huge fan of the place, too. Interestingly, our server told us that there are only two people from Lebanon working in the whole restaurant. I said, "Well, the owners are Lebanese" and the server replied "Yeah, but they're almost never here." Is this another restaurant that's become a victim of too much growth? It's almost corporate food now. For my money, Mi Jana is the place to go now. (No, I'm not affiliated with them.)

Cheers.

Tom Sietsema: I don't necessarily agree that just because a staff isn't primarily Lebanese/Chinese/French/whatever, a restaurant serving Lebanese/Chinese/French/whatever cuisine can't be good. But I think an *understanding* of those flavors and techniques are crucial.

P.S. Me Jana wasn't great on my visit there last week. Bummer!

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Washington, D.C.,: Tom, not to belabor the issue, but Mike Isabella's statement regarding his sexist comments doesn't answer your question. Saying that half his staff is female is not saying that he didn't mean what he said on Top Chef. Whether women work for him or not does not mean he is or is not sexist. One could use it as an example of his sexism since he probably thinks women could only work for him and not be his boss.

Tom Sietsema: Good point. What I got from that statement -- and what I should have stressed -- was that he is surrounded by females he was impressed by, and happy to work with, at Zaytinya.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm sorry, but Mike Isabella's excuse doesn't cut it for me. Count me in the group of those who won't be patronizing Zaytinya anytime soon.

Tom Sietsema: Really? I honestly don't believe he thinks females are less adept in the kitchen.

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Arlington, Va.: I just want to agree with the first poster on Top Chef today, go Michael Voltaggio! I worked with Michael last year at Jose Andres Think Food Group and he was one of the nicest and most thoughtful chefs I've met. On the show last week he seemed to be macho-ing it up a bit, but he is a very professional and talented guy. I got the same impression from his brother; we will see.

Tom Sietsema: Mr. Voltaggio, you've got good karma coming your way today.

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30th Birthday Dinner: Tom,

Longtime fan who needs your help. I turn 30 Labor Day weekend and my parents are coming down to take me out to dinner. There will be four of us. Here are the parameters: nothing too ethnic (my father won't eat Indian or Ethiopian or Thai or the sort) so basically American, steak, seafood, Italian. Has to have real vegetarian options, not just the side vegetables on a plate and looking at $50-$60 a person not including wine and drinks. Does not have to be Metro accessible. And we're looking for Sunday night the 6th. P.S. We'd be happy to make it dinner for 5 if you'd like to join us as your very thoughtful birthday present to me.

Tom Sietsema: The Westend Bistro is open that Sunday, as are the fledgling Siroc downtown and Blue Duck Tavern. All are festive enough for a celebration (congrats!) and all have meatless options on their menus.

Thanks for extending the invitation to join your merry group, but I'm committed to another meal that night.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Re-Review: Westend Bistro and 2009 Review: Siroc

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Anonymous: Hi Tom! I'm considering Taberna for Restaurant Week. Good choice?

Tom Sietsema: I was not bowled over by my last meal there (about 9 months ago).

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Top Chef: The comment made by Mike Isabella is consistent with the way many women I've known were treated while working in a kitchen. It is surprising to many people to realize that the kitchen is dominated by the XY chromosome and the females are often subjected to ridicule simply for being female. People don't realize that cooking is really science, and science is dominated by men. So is professional cooking. To say "half my staff is female" probably includes the hosts and servers.

My sister was once refused an interview for a job b/c the man had never known a "girl who could lift 50 lbs." Right or wrong, it's a part of life in the kitchen.

Tom Sietsema: I'm thinking Mr. Isabella is wishing he had the option of a time-delayed response ...

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Still Love Zatinya...: I'm sorry -- I am a female and I can tell you that I will continue to go to Zatinya! I love the food -- and I am not going to let some silly comment made in competition ruin my favorite restaurant.

Tom Sietsema: It's not ALL bad news today, Mike.

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Top Chef: Whether the producers hyped it or not, it doesn't take away the fact that he made the statement. I don't care how he tries to spin it, he meant what he said.

I won't be going to Zaytinya unless there's a public apology.

Tom Sietsema: Folks, we should all keep in mind this is reality TV, not the nightly news... or?

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Silver Spring: I find it interesting that women are expected to do the cooking at home but not in a professional restaurant.

Tom Sietsema: Interesting thought!

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GAR and Bread: Whoa! 8 or 8.5 oz is a LOT of fish, seriously. People have come to expect so much food, it is pretty gross, actually. Also, why do people think they need bread with dinner? Do people serve bread with every meal at home? Yeah, I understand soup with cheese and bread or a salad and some focaccia, but really, do you "need" bread with anything else, especially when you no doubt have a starch already with your main?

No wonder America is fat.

Tom Sietsema: I was at Artie's last week and left half my fish on the plate -- not because it wasn't good or I didn't like it, but because I thought it was food enough to feed a second diner.

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Grossed Out in Washington, D.C.: A plea to coffeehouse frequenters: Please keep your shoes on and your feet off the furniture! I'm not sure why it's become popular at places like Tryst and Starbucks for people to put their feet on the couches and coffee tables, with or without shoes, but it's gross. To paraphrase "Project Runway" star Tim Gunn, if you want to behave as if you're at home, stay home!

Tom Sietsema: Amen, brother (or sister)! I am SO tired of seeing feet on chairs and banquettes and walls (yes, walls) of restaurants.

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I just don't get it: Palena lost a customer the other day. Not me; I adore the cafe and eat there often. But on a recent night we arrived at opening time. The door was unlocked so we walked in, but were told they weren't ready yet. I asked if we could just wait in the vestibule; one of the women putting together the menus hemmed and hawed before saying something to the effect of "I guess so."

The man who arrived right behind us was not pleased by this response. He looked at us, said, "That's not the kind of hospitality I'm looking for," and left.

So two things: people under stress need to take a deep breath and think before opening their mouths, and people need to be a little more forgiving.

Yeah, it was graceless, and she's a hostess, but really, is anyone's public behavior perfect all the time? Would you have walked out of there, Tom (assuming you'd never been to Palena before), just because a flustered worker slipped up? We just rolled our eyes and went on to enjoy another wonderful dinner.

Tom Sietsema: The big lesson here? First impressions start at the door.

People in the hospitality trade need to remember why they're there: to serve people. The man who followed you into Palena may have been hasty in his decision to turn around, but I can sympathize with him, too. Restaurants should nurture, not torture.

Knowing what I know about the food at Palena, I would not leave. But Frank Ruta is being done a real disservice.

washingtonpost.com: 2008 Dining Guide: Palena

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Top Chef: First of all, I love Zatinya and the chef! The show, Top Chef, is a competition and the people are pretty over-the-top. With that in mind, I think the Zatinya chef was trying to psych-out the competition with his comments, as do nearly all the cheftestants over the years. It's a serious show for the cheftestants but for the viewers it's entertainment...and the chef was entertaining us.

Tom Sietsema: We aim for balance here (most of the time). Thanks for sharing an opposing view.

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It wasn't just one comment: It is not editing, it is not 'hyping' for the show. Mike Isabella is a chauvinist. His other comment: "To me, this is like one less old lady I have to worry about."

Tom Sietsema: Ah, I didn't catch that ....

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Falls Church: Hi Tom-

General question for you...have you noticed a decline in the quality of D.C. restaurant food? I don't get out much (three kids -- date nights are precious!) and my last two eating-out experiences were blah. New Chef Geoff's in Tysons and Oceanaire for Restaurant Week. Though the night out was wonderful, the food and service at both was just okay. Oceanaire screwed up our drink orders, but we were thirsty and didn't complain...wasn't a big deal. The food, though, I expected better from two well-known usually dependable places. Thoughts?

Tom Sietsema: My thoughts?

I'm making no apologies for either place, but Restaurant Week is probably not the ideal time to assess an establishment. The demands are higher on the staff, the room tends to be more crowded, etc. I asked my colleague Candy Sagon to review Chef Geoff's for Sept. 6, by the way.

Have I noticed a decline in quality of late? Unfortunately, I have. I don't know how to account for the slippage, either. (Summer heat? Recession malaise?) The restaurants I'm having the most fun in nowadays tend to be lower on the price scale.

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Sarcasm?: So its okay for Isabella to make sexist comments as long as he just considers it a sarcastic remark? If he made a racist comment then that would be okay, too?

And I don't like the fact that he's trying to blame other people for being too sensitive about his comment -- its the easiest way out of an owed apology.

I don't care how many women he has working beneath him -- the fact that he made the comment, refuses to own up to it, and then tries to blame people for being upset over the comment has turned me permanently off Zaytinya.

Good to know that sexism is alive and well in the food industry.

Okay, rant over.

PS: So if you were in the mood for some French food after seeing the new Julia Child movie, where would you go? Extra points for restaurants in D.C. or Va.

Thanks Tom!

Tom Sietsema: Regarding French cooking: Bistro Lepic, Marcel's, Petit Plats come to mind ...

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Olney, Md.: Tom, I also love the Great American Restaurants. When, oh, when will they open one in Maryland. Reston and Fairfax are just so far away. (My husband's problem, not mine!)

Re: Las Vegas. I wonder if you knew anything about Mario Batali's new restaurant Carnevino. Rachael Ray raved about it on Rachael Ray's Vacation in Vegas. I know the food establishment doesn't care for her, but she could be right about this.

Tom Sietsema: I've heard good things about Carnevino, too, but it's VERY expensive.

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Mike Isabella: It wasn't just the sexist comment. He also made an ageist comment about the "old lady" who I think is in her early 40s. Nope, not going to Zaytinya.

Tom Sietsema: This could easily turn into the Mike Isabella Hour today.

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Arlington, Va.: "no wonder america is fat."

Definitely spoken by a person with skinny genes. Seriously. And kind of nastily!

Clearly someone with that mentality can't possibly ENJOY eating. America is fat because of unequal distribution of wealth, poor food choices and information provided to those making them, expensive produce and healthy options....

And the reason the zaytinya comments can't be tolerated is because they perpetuate a subtle sexism that is become so subversive it's taken as natural.

That's my soapbox. Hope Rasika treats me well at RW tmw!

Tom Sietsema: Years ago, I did a story on fat acceptance. All the advocates for the overweight told me "fat" was a PC term.

But I hear you.

Lucky you, lunching at Rasika Thursday!

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cheftestants: can we ban that word from this chat?

Tom Sietsema: I laughed when I read that!

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Frank Bruni: So I bought his book and of course the first thing I did was look at the back flap to see what he looked like. Not at all what I was expecting. Do you often get that reaction from people who meet you for the first time?

Tom Sietsema: The reaction I get most from strangers is: "I thought you'd be older" or "I thought you'd be heavier" (or sometimes both).

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Tosca: What is the dress code here again? I can't find it online. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Business casual (jacket but no tie, or at least a nice shirt).

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Tom Sietsema: This could easily turn into the Mike Isabella Hour today.: Well, I certainly hope he's reading this!

Tom Sietsema: Fame. Be careful what you wish for.

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"That's not the kind of hospitality I'm looking for,": I agree with the man who walked out. I pay A LOT to eat at fine restaurants, I don't have to, I could cook a fine dinner at home. If the restaurant doesn't appreciate my patronage and ACT that way, I'd rather spend my money elsewhere, or cook at home. They need me, I don't need them. Give me my money's worth or do without my patronage. That makes it sound like I'm a difficult customer -- quite the opposite. I like my service good and invisible and I'll be the same way: undemanding and a high tipper. But a sense that I'm bothering you and I"m out the door. Forever. There are too many other restaurants that will apprecite me, not act like I'm bothering them.

Tom Sietsema: I hope this serves as a reminder to restaurants: Details matter. Be SURE the staff at the door are making guests feel wanted.

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Hee hee: Poor Tom. Reality TV. Sexism. Fat-ism. Ageism. rough day to be a food critic!

I have a food q. If you could eat lunch anywhere in NYC, where would it be?

Tom Sietsema: Right this moment? Eleven Madison Park (which just got four stars from the NY Times), The Modern next to MOMA or Sushi Yasuda near Grand Central Station.

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McLean, Va.: "america is fat because of unequal distribution of wealth, poor food choices and information provided to those making them, expensive produce and healthy options..."

...and overly large portion sizes that are devoured in one sitting.

You can blame other factors but nine times out of ten a weight problem is partially due to the amount of calories people shovel into their mouths.

Signed, A former obese person who learned to eat less but still loves food, and is now skinny -- but it has nothing to do with genetics

Tom Sietsema: I think both of you are right. Thanks for, um, weighing in.

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Adams Morgan: Tom, give us some dish on the Dining Guide. When is it coming out? What are the big surprises? Where should we eat?!?!?!?!?!

Tom Sietsema: The fall guide comes out October 18. I think the big surprise (for chefs as well as readers) is which restaurants WON'T be in this year's collection. A lot of my previous favorites are no longer favorites.

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Rockville: When I was the assistant science librarian at North Texas University in Denton, Texas, I was in charge of all of our student assistants. One was an Iranian student who had been the cook at a Chinese restaurant in Chicago for a year or so. I always wondered if anyone ever wanted to meet the chef. He did not remember it ever happening. I guess the Iranians can cook rice, too.

Tom Sietsema: Actually, Persians make some of the best rice-based dishes in the WORLD. (And some of the best French food I've eaten has been from the hands of a West African native.)

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IF IT WAS GENETICS: The obesity rate wouldn't be increasing! It's food. It's portion size and processed food, and a sedentary lifestyle.

Tom Sietsema: Uh huh.

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Top chef comment: The guy should have said: "I'm from Jersey, I can't believe I'm getting schooled at schucking clams."

I'll cut him a little slack on the sexist comment. I can't tell you how many times I get compliments from a guy with the stated condition or unstated subtext "for a girl...."

Tom Sietsema: Maybe you can become Isabella's on-set coach?

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No love for Me Jana?: I'm sorry you had a bad meal there, Tom. Please try again. It's our favorite neighborhood spot so I feel a little upset on its behalf. Plus, the owner always treats us like family. I think it's worlds better than Lebanese Taverna.

Tom Sietsema: I wanted to like it to, but seven dishes into dinner, I realized the best thing I was eating was the pita bread ...

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Washington, D.C.: Not to belabor you with too many Restaurant Week comments, but a plea out there to the masses: Act like a civilized person!

Tuesday night of RW, I found myself face to face with a disgruntled patron. We were running behind on their table, but this was my first interaction with this particular person, so I was not aware of the specifics of their wait (were they partially arrived, etc.) I apologized and let them know that I would check on the availability of a table that should only take moments. I won't exaggerate, they had been waiting, but this fellow went back out the open door to the patio, and in front of all the tables, waved at me and gave me the middle finger.

Really? Is that how your mother raised you to treat a person (let alone a woman?)? If he had accepted my statement at face value, he would have found himself at the receiving end of a fantastic table in a mere four minutes. Had he been the slightest bit cool, I may have even bought them drinks or an appetizer to express my appreciation for their patience.

But no, he chose to go the uncivilized route. People like this are why RW gets a bad rap from so many industry folks. Thankfully the vast majority of folks who dine with us during this time are very nice, but a bad apple can sure wreck a person's night.

Tom Sietsema: Giving you the finger because he was delayed in getting a table? Unbelievable. I hate reading about incidents like this one. I can only imagine what this guy must be like to worth with.

Moral of the story: The squeaky wheel doesn't also get the gratis cocktail. And here's one reason why.

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Sexist comment: Here's a good test for that sort of thing: So if he'd used "Black" or "Asian American" or "Indian" or "Handicapped" or whatever we'd all be saying it's ok, it's just a show???

I've enjoyed the restaurant, but there are plenty of places to patronize that don't feature such oafs.

Tom Sietsema: Hanging in there, Mike?

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Montgomery Village, Md.: Hi, Tom! It's the person who wrote in two weeks ago about her upcoming "staycation" filled with delicious area restaurants. I wrote about all of them on my blog (normally about books) and thought I would share the link even if you may not be able to post it. I tried to be as detailed as I could without pretending to be you! Thanks for the help in choosing the list!

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for following up, Montgomery Village. It sounds as if you had a delicious week off from work (and reading).

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Washington, D.C.: Hey Tom -- Just a quick comment on your post regarding a Sommelier not using the correct stemware for a guest's bottle of Pinot Noir. First of all: shame on the somm; if you have varietal-specific stemware, any sommelier worth their salt should use it and do so correctly. Second of all: shame on you for referring to the sommelier as a He. There are a number of fine female sommeliers in this city (I'm counting me and at least 4 others...). Traditionally it's a male-dominated field, but we're cracking the ceiling. (Or maybe you just knew that it couldn't have been one of us wine mavens who made such a mistake and had to be the work one of our brothers ;) )

Tom Sietsema: I stand corrected! I know and APPRECIATE the talented women of the wine-pouring trade here in Washington. Diners are lucky to have you, (Kathy? Nadine? Caterina? The new grape nut at Komi?)

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B'ham, Ala.: I travel a great deal, frequently to D.C., but often to cities I don't expect to get back to often, if ever. So it's not uncommon for me to find myself at table in a fascinating restaurant, looking at a menu that I might never see again, trying to figure out what to pick. Since I'll eat anything, there's next to nothing that is automatically out of the running. So if, once we're halfway through cocktails, I'm still down to no fewer than six choices, I'll ask the waiter, "So what do you think the kitchen is having the most fun fixing this evening?" Not, what would you recommend, or what is selling well tonight, but what are the cooks having the most FUN with.

The first time I did this, the friends I was with were highly amused (they are often highly amused with me anyway, although for other reasons). Then they saw what I ended up with and were quieter. The next time it happened (when I was with some of the same crew), they waited to hear the answer before they ordered. I've never been disappointed when I've tried this. I'm curious about what other decision-making techniques your chatterers use when faced with this dilemma.

Tom Sietsema: What a great line! I'll use it some time.

In search of a great meal out of town, it's important to ask people the right question. "What's the best restaurant?" might lead you to a city's fanciest, or most popular, place. But "Where would you go if you had one last meal in town?" is likelier to lead you to something more original or personal.

Chatters, how do you tend to phrase a request for the best?

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Williamsburg, Va.: I recently read about the sale of the Watergate Hotel and I regret not ever dining there during its heyday. Do you have any similar regrets?

I am now committed to making time to visit some of the country's great restaurants while they are in their prime.

My new mottos is Carpe Diem and Semper Ubi Sub Ubi.

Tom Sietsema: I assume you're referring to the legendary Jean-Louis at the Watergate?

I have few restaurant regrets, primarily because I've had the great good fortune to have eaten in many world-class establishments over the decades. One exception: I never got to Jamin, Joel Robuchon's jewel in Paris, and I sorely wish I had.

I like your motto. Which restaurants are on your list?

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Clarendon, Va.: Hi Tom, I'm really hoping you can help me out with a little etiquette problem. I'm headed to New York on Sunday and will be lucky enough to have free choice of whatever restaurant I can get into for dinner. Problem is, husband will be at a business dinner so I'll be by myself. Normally when this happens I just take a book and sit at the bar, but I'm looking at some pretty high-end places and I'm just not sure what my options are other than to sit staring into space between courses. Suggestions?

Tom Sietsema: Let me clarify: You're looking for a high-end restaurant for a Sunday night? And you're wondering where to sit and how to behave?

The second question is easy. Sit where you feel comfortable. In my experience, high-end restaurants typically go out of their way to make solo diners feel welcome. (At the Four Seasons here in DC, I was once offered the option of not just newspapers, but a laptop!) Like you, I like to catch up on my reading when I'm dining alone. There's nothing wrong with that, even if you're not supping at the bar.

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Syracuse, N.Y.: Re complaints about people making lemonade out of lemons and water. My partner is diabetic, and most restaurants have NOTHING besides water that she can drink. The only diet soda is caffeinated, which she must avoid re doctor's orders. Plain ice tea has caffeine. It's too hot for decaf coffee. Beer has carbs, etc. So ice water with lemon and artificial sweetener is the only way she can have something to drink besides plain water. When she complains and asks for diet ginger ale, diet sprite, something!!! she gets managers sympathizing but never doing anything. You would think restaurants with bars would at least have diet ginger ale! Comment please?

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for writing in, Syracuse. Let's hope restaurateurs see this and make sure to stock at least one non-caffeinated diet drink.

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Bethesda: Have you been to Raku in Bethesada in a while? They are doing everything they can to pack as many people into the place as possible. Tried to eat there tonight but what they offered as a table was so small that we would have been an extension of an already expanded table crowding into the aisle. Their attitude has always been "take it or leave it." The food is good but not worth sitting in a loud, crowded subway experience. We left. They barely blinked as we explained. Too haughty for these economic times!

Tom Sietsema: "Take it or leave it" has never been my service experience at the convivial Asian restaurant. I dropped by a month ago, however, and found a slight dip in the quality of the cooking. A shame. Raku has long been my go-to place in Bethesda.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom,

I hope this makes it! You were not the surprise last week, my new engagement was. Wish you could have been there!!!

Tom Sietsema: Congratulations!

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WOW- Brickbat City today!!!: Where's the conversation about food? It's Restaurant Week, for Pete's sake!!!

As to Top Chef -- Isabella came off as a caveman.

My money's on Eve Abronov of Ann Arbor's Eve the Restaurant -- class and elegance in her establishment, I hope she hits her stride on the show. She really is an incredible chef and a really nice person!

Tom Sietsema: Is this who I think it is? (It was a real treat seeing you over pizza this week ...)

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Washington, D.C.: Great experience at Teatro last night for rest week.... Tom why do you keep avoiding the restaurant? Goldoni is, in my opinion, far better and superior food then Tosca and yet I have not seen a single word of credit for the restaurant. I think the chef has done an incredible job since he took over and every single paper has credited his work but you....??????? Do you guys do not like each other or did you get in a fight? That would be the only explaination I could think of. Thanks, Jeff

Tom Sietsema: To do this job right, you have to keep an arm's-length distance from the people you cover. I have absolutely no beef with the chef at Goldoni (or any other restaurateur or chef, for that matter). I have not completely ignored the Italian restaurant, by the way.

washingtonpost.com: December 2008 Dish Column: Where There's Smoke, There's Flavor

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Gaithersburg, Md.: We have gone to The Flaming Pit in Gaithersburg/Germantown for years. However, the last time I was there, I asked for a to-go box at the beginning of the meal. The waitress said she'd bring one at the end. I repeated that I wanted one with my meal. She really gave me a hard time about it. I just read again on Weight Watchers that you should ask for a to-go box before you start eating. Put half away for another meal.

Tom Sietsema: Did the server give you any reason why she couldn't bring a to-go box out earlier? No big deal, really; you could have put half of what you wanted to reserve on a side plate

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Morgan Hill, Calif.: Our 18-year-old, high-school senior is quite an interesting writer and has expressed an interest in becoming a food critic. We really want him to pursue a four-year degree, rather than a culinary school. What are your academic suggestions to a youth interested in becoming a food critic?

Tom Sietsema: The broader the education, the better. (I took language, economics, political history and more at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.)

If I had to do it over again, I'd take an additional foreign language and art history course, maybe even some music appreciation. And I would have rounded that out with serious culinary instruction at a *small* local school like L'Academie de Cuisine. In reality, my training consisted of testing thoussands of recipes for the Food section during my first tour at the Washington Post (1983-1988).

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Petworth: "Why do people think they need bread with dinner? Do people serve bread with every meal at home?"

Yes. Or at least, those of us of German descent do. My gramma would never have served dinner without bread on the table, and it is very difficult for me to serve dinner without bread on the table.

Tom Sietsema: I belong to a bread-has-to-be-on-the-table-family myself. (Es schmeckt gut, ja?)

Is anyone else out there hungry? We barely got to talk about food today. Here's hoping those "cheftestants" on TV play nice tonight.

See you all next week. Happy dining, everyone.

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washingtonpost.com: Vote in our poll about the Mike Isabella comment.

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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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