Ask Tom: Tom Sietsema's 10th Annual Dining Guide
Wednesday, October 21, 2009; 11:00 AM
Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema discussed his 2009 Dining Guide on Wednesday, Oct. 21 at 11 a.m. ET.
Tom Sietsema: THE STATS, PLEASE
Restaurants that have appeared in every dining guide since 2000: One (Michel Richard Citronelle in Georgetown).
Meals eaten for work since 2000: 4160, give or take a dozen
Number of restaurants rated "poor" since stars were introduced in 2003: Five (counting two places that received a 1/2 star)
Single most expensive restaurant visit, per person, for the 2009 guide: $351.50 at the Inn at Little Washington *
My annual dry-cleaning bill: $700 (Typical conversation with clerk: "I don't know if that's veal demi-glace or peanut sauce on my tie.")
Cost of a three-days-a-week personal trainer (a.k.a "health insurance"): $7,200
Weight gained by Significant Other: 25 pounds in two years
Calories consumed in the interest of science: Who's counting?
* Thanks to a $120 bottle of wine that I did NOT charge to my employer ....
Good morning, everyone. I researched the above numbers for my tenth annual dining guide and thought it might be fun for you to see them, too.
Lots of questions and comments this morning. Let's get started.
Annapolis: Before you start responding to all the "Why did you downgrade my favorite restaurant?"s and the "How could you not review my neighborhood?"s and the "You obviously are friends with"s ... congrats on accomlpishing the guide once again, and I wonder if you could give us a taste (pun intended) of the time and work that goes into it, so those people may perhaps lower their superhuman expectations of one guy trying to just do a good job.
Tom Sietsema: God bless you, Annapolis!
This was by far the most challenging guide I ever put together, in part because my work load has increased here at the paper and in part because I was working with a fresh set of editors on the project. The 2009 guide was my biggest yet.
I started visiting restaurants in earnest in late April and didn't stop until the end of September, to be as up-to-date as possible. Obviously, I did all the eating, the writing, and most of the researching myself. There are dozens and dozens of places -- high-end dining rooms and faraway joints -- that I scouted but didn't include in this issue featuring places I like the most.
There is no perfect dining guide out there -- I'd have to be a mind-reader for that -- but I really wanted this anniversary issue to be useful/entertaining/enlightening for readers.
D.C.: So no Sushi-Ko? Why?
Tom Sietsema: Because Sushi Taro is better.
washingtonpost.com: 2009 Dining Guide: Sushi Taro
Washington, D.C.: Enjoyed your August review of New Heights...it was inspirational. Did just what you suggested and reacquainted myself with a fave restaurant that I had frequented over the years but that had fallen off my radar. My return visit lived up to your August praise. The new chef stands out in D.C. with his delicious, innovative American dishes and the place has more finesse than ever. Thanks for the tip. So impressed was I that it was surprised not to see New Heights on your 50 favorite. Curious about why it wasn't. Thanks.
Tom Sietsema: New Heights is indeed a very good restaurant (again) and appeared on my original list; I even wrote up a mini-review for the place. But I removed it at the last minute, in part for the sake of diversity in the package. This happened to several restaurants, actually.
washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: New Heights
Fairfax, Va.: Re: the new dining guide
You really think Rasika is at the same level as the Inn at Little Washington? Really?
The last time I went to Rasika, one of my dishes was barely warm, and the service bordered on surly. I can't imagine that happening at the Inn. In the past I've found the food at Rasika to be excellent, but by no means up to the standards of the Inn, and while Rasika's service is USUALLY very good, it simply doesn't come close to the perfectly orchestrated service of the Inn.
Tom Sietsema: Yes, I think Rasika is a "superlative" place to eat, mostly in terms of its cooking but also because few other restaurants of its kind provide the kind of attention to drinks and service and style that this one does.
washingtonpost.com: 2009 Dining Guide: Rasika
Washington, D.C.: Tom,
Thanks for the excellent dining guide and all your help over the years you have led me to many great meals and saved me a lot of time and money in the process. I just have one question about the guide. A number of the places listed have two stars. I assume that you are not saying that the D.C. Metro area does not have 50 places that rate higher than two stars. I assume that the guide was put together with an eye for balance, covering different areas, cuisines, and price ranges. Is that true or are there really not 50 places in our area that rate higher than two stars?
I was also wondering if you could let us know some of the places you went to expecting to put them in the guide and discovered they were no longer any good. It is really helpful to know because your warnings are almost as valuable as your recommendations.
Thanks again for all that you do.
Tom Sietsema: I'm a pretty conservative grader. In my book, two stars is considered "good," and that's where the vast majority of restaurants in this market seem to fall at the moment. There are establishments that *have* been rated higher in past seasons; in some cases, they are not currently living up to those past high scores. I'm ever hopeful, however.
You are right, by the way: I was aiming for a mix of locations, cuisines and price ranges as I was mulling what to include or leave out.
Dining Guide: Hi Tom, (I'm submitting early since I'll be in a meeting during the chat)
Thanks, as usual for a thoughtful and lovely dining guide. Your hard work is certainly appreciated by those of us who never enter a restaurant unless it's been praised by you.
One question, however. In leading up to the guide's publication, you mentioned that there'd be some surprises, but by and large, everything seemed to tick along normally. What did I miss? Citronelle earned half a star back (no big surprise, other than, "why?" when they treated you nicely but your friend got a bit of a brush off). Was it more shocking who got left off the list? Do tell!
Tom Sietsema: Rasika earning four stars, my top rating, might have been a "surprise" to some readers. Also, the inclusion of a few fairly new restaurants (Trummer's/J & G steakhouse) and a few obscure places (a German restaurant in Hagerstown) might not have been expected. For various reasons, I also left off a number of high-profile establishments and a few previous favorites.
Not really a question... : ...but a comment about your discussion this week regarding the Guide. I'm surprised and disappointed by some of the disrespect shown for you and your work by some of the posters. Do you think it's the anonymity they feel by posting their opinions online, or do you think these people are the kind to give any restaurant (and their friends, family, strangers) hell for little reason?
I understand the freedom and rights we have in expressing our opinions, but I'd wish upon all of us the ability to show respect for others for the roles we play when it comes to our jobs. Do people forget you're a real person out there, even though your characature shows otherwise? I enjoy your work, and enjoy the fact that you do, too. It shows, and that's rare -- especially in a world filling with more and more complainers. Thanks for sharing your talent and thoughts with us as you start a new year!
Tom Sietsema: I really appreciate the show of support and appreciation.
As I wrote in a previous chat, I've developed a pretty thick skin in this job. But that comes with the territory. I have no problem with people disagreeing with me -- hey, I give them voice in this very forum! -- but I am sometimes disappointed by the incivility. Not just here, but everywhere online.
Alexandria, Va.: I enjoyed reading this year's guide, but some of the recommendations were rather specific. Minibar instead of Cafe Atlantico, okay. It has to be the tasting bar at Restaurant Eve. Wouldn't a meal at Eve cut it? Only the chef's table at Volt? Either Eve and Volt merit a spot on the list or they don't.
Thanks for listening.
Tom Sietsema: Cafe Atlantico is good, but I like some of Jose Andres's other restaurants -- Oyamel, Minibar, Jaleo, Zaytinya -- better. And I also felt like I needed to spread the love around a bit. Jose Andres and company are not the only people doing great work in Washington, right?
Washington, D.C.: Tom, I visited Black's Bar and Kitchen last night after it received some good press, and while overall I thought the food was good (the scallops, I admit, were awesome) I thought it was incredibly over-priced.
I eat out often, and don't mind paying for a good meal, but it seems like most restaurants which are considered "middle of the road in price" are creeping upwards of $50/person with tax and tip. Has this been your experience?
Tom Sietsema: Interesting question. In an informal poll of some D.C. friends recently, I asked them what they typically spent on a non-special occasion night out for dinner. For two people who like to drink, the average was very close to $100.
That's not inexpensive in my book.
Thanks: for the stats at the beginning of the chat. Those are fun!
Tom Sietsema: Glad you like it. I was going to include my cholesterol count, post-dining guide research, but I didn't have time to see my doc.
Arlington, Va.: Are you easily identified when entering a restaurant and do you think that fact effects the meal & service you receive ?
Tom Sietsema: Am I recognized? After 10 years in the job? Of course. But I have several ways of getting around that little problem. Plus, it's hard for a chef to tailor a meal just for me, especially on a really busy night. That extra caviar flourish I might get? I'm going to write about it -- so readers will expect the same.
Tasting Menus: Thank you for yet another fabulous Dining Guide!
You say in this year's edition that you "dislike epic tasting menus" (Komi review), but go on to give Volt's Table 21 three stars. What, in your opinion, makes or breaks a tasting menu? And, do you think it is ever worthwhile to order a wine pairing with a tasting menu? If so, under what circumstances?
Tom Sietsema: I had a great time at both Komi and Table 21 at Volt but I really and truly prefer a few great dishes to a lot of great dishes. That's just my personal preference. One of the problems I have with lengthy tasting menus is this: I can't remember every morsel! Or fully appreciate them for all the competing bites.
I've done the wine pairings and not done the wine pairings at most places offering tasting menus. Some are better than others and sometimes, I'd really rather just enjoy a single fine wine or two than sip a few ounces of something different every course or so. My mood has a lot to do with which strategy I follow.
Rockville: Top 50 -- No Ben's Chili Bowl?
Tom Sietsema: Gotta be honest (and with all due respect): I appreciate Ben's more for its history and its political and social importance than for its food.
Friendship Heights, Md.: Hey Tom,
Have you seen this yet?
It looks like CNN is hot on your trail trying to pick up your trade secrets. Let me know if you need me to sit in for any of your reviews! I'm a frequent reader -- you keep bringing me back with your humor and taste buds! Keep up the good work.
Tom Sietsema: Darn that Frank Bruni!
Thanks for the kind words.
Bethesda, Md.: Hi Tom,
Thanks for all the hard work you put into the Dining Guide!
I have only one quibble -- the four-star status of Restaurant Eve. I know you've been a big fan of the Armstrongs, and I really admire the energetic infusion they've brought to the local restaurant scene. Love PX, The Majestic and Eammonn's.
But I've been to Restaurant Eve a couple of times now, and I've been underwhelmed. The service was so-so, the food was very good, but not outstanding, and the whole experience has left me flat each time. While it may be a case of overinflated expectations, given the praise you've given them in the past, I didn't feel that way at CityZen, for example, which I think more than deserves its top rating.
I've had enough mediocre experiences at Restaurant Eve so that I don't think I'll be going back. I'd rather spend my special occasion, high-end meal dollars elsewhere. Just my two cents! Thanks, Tom!
Tom Sietsema: Thanks for your feedback. I experienced some little oddity at all the places I rated four stars this year, so I understand where you're coming from. But in most cases, the slip was not serious enough to warrant mentioning (or a down-grade).
At Eve, I had a server who kept asking how we liked everything -- seemingly every chew! It was kind of annoying. But the food was really exceptional.
Vienna, Va.: "...I also felt like I needed to spread the love around a bit. Jose Andres and company are not the only people doing great work in Washington, right".
We are not asking you to evenly distribute your "love", we expect independent reviews of the restaurants.
Tom Sietsema: I was just having a little fun there. Geez!
Arlington, Va.: I can't believe you posted on your Significant Other's weight gain. You might want to bring home flowers tonight!
Thanks for another wonderful guide, Tom!
Tom Sietsema: I asked for permission before posting that figure, you should know. (I'm not THAT foolish!)
Your Stats!!: Tom, Is WP ever considering letting you go since you cost the company a lot of money ? Or are they cutting back on your expenses ? Very curious because it seems like WP is not doing great with finances.
Tom Sietsema: I've been told by higher ups that restaurants are an important part of our coverage. I'll leave it at that.
Olney, Md.: Tom, while I enjoyed your Guide, one thing I felt was superfluous was the list of the 10 best tables. How many of us are good enough customers of any of those restaurants that we would even dream of being seated at one of those tables? I think I would have preferred 10 Best Appetizers or something similar. Maybe 10 Best Ambiances (and, yes, I know it wasn't listed, but my vote goes to Ruth's Chris in Arlington).
Tom Sietsema: (See? There IS no perfect guide.) I just thought it would be fun to feature tables that offered something different -- a view or greater comfort or whatever. None of them are necessarily reserved for VIPs.
Clifton, Va.: Many Clifton residents who have dined at Trummer's wouldn't give it even one star. We have laughed and laughed about your review at the Clifton P.O. Consensus is you were either recognized or their public relations firm coreced or pressured your editors.
They can't grill a rib eye to medium rare and they love to over cook flounder and scallops. Peterson's Ice Cream Depot ahs ebtter service and the Clifton General Store better food and service.
Tom Sietsema: Happy to provide you with a chuckle, Clifton. But trust me, no one coerced or pressured me or my editors on that review. You sound like -- a competitor, maybe?
Washington, D.C.: Tom, how many of the five restaurants that you have given "poor" ratings are still in existence? Which was most recent?
Tom Sietsema: Two.
Accounting Dept.: Thanks for the reviews! We only audit bottles of wine over $99.
Tom Sietsema: Ha!
Logan Circle, D.C.: Hi Tom, love your chats! My former high school journalism teacher is bringing a group of students out here in November for a conference, and she's asking for restaurant recommendations. I've suggested places like Old Ebbit, Matchbox or Lauriol (even though I'm not a huge fan of the food except at Matchbox) -- places I think might give a taste of different dining scenes while also being decent for high school kids -- but am wondering if you have good suggestions. (They're staying in Cleveland Park, so places there or on the Red line would be great.) Thanks!
Tom Sietsema: Moderately-priced and student-friendly on the Red Line? I'd suggest Spices, with its wide range of Asian dishes, and Lebanese Taverna, both in Cleveland Park, and Paradiso (for pizza) or Malaysia Kopitiam (for the obvious), both in Dupont Circle.
washingtonpost.com: 2006 Review: Malaysia Kopitiam
Formerly Alexandria: Hi Tom,
Thanks for all your hard work on the guide! I was a bit surprised to see that Alexandria only rated a single listing (Eve's Tasting Room). Have the other big names in Old Town slipped that much?
Tom Sietsema: I was disappointed not to be able to feature Majestic Cafe and Vermilion this time around, too.
I had several woefully salty dishes at the former, and even mentioned the problem to a server who didn't seem to take the issue very seriously. Vermilion was shockingly inconsistent from visit to visit.
Old Town, Va.: I read last week that the Inn at Little Washington is still offering 30% off for active duty military. My husband and I would love to take advantage of it (both officers in the Army) but need a better idea of what to expect -- 30 percent sounds like a great deal but what does dinner cost? I haven't been able to find prices out there.
Thanks, love your chats!
Tom Sietsema: The usual prices (excluding drinks, tax and tip) are $148 per person Sunday through Thursday, $158 Friday and $178 Saturday.
washingtonpost.com: 2009 Dining Guide: The Inn at Little Washington
Eastern Market: Love love love your dining guide! As always, so helpful and interesting to read - and so fun! Thanks so much.
Can you tell us which "surprises" were NOT included in the guide? You alluded to that last week, but I couldn't think of any restaurants I expected to see, but didn't. Thanks much!
Tom Sietsema: I was thisclose to including Buck's, Oval Room, Bourbon Steak, New Heights and a few other places. But I also really wanted to keep the list to 50 restaurants.
I thought I'd include Kinkead's, but the service was really absent (and the meal was not worth the $250 for two).
20782: fun reading and good to see Zatinya get three stars-btw, sitting at the bar is a great way to go there! BUT no Dino was a serious omission, IMO. I've had lesser meals at several of your choices. Thanks!
Tom Sietsema: I really, really, really want to like Dino as much as its (many) fans do. And I fully expect I will on my next visit.
Restaurant Employment: Lots of people ask you about becoming a food critic. I would like to know how one can get a job in the restaurant/dining industry. I don't want to be a chef, server, host, etc.
More of the behind the scenes business. Any suggestions?
Tom Sietsema: Wait, what do you want to do in the industry if you're not cooking, delivering, greeting or somehow *in* the restaurant?
Cabin John, Md.`: Tom: Superb 2009 Dining Guide! You are spoiling your fans by making it too easy for us to choose restaurants. Have you considered telling your loyal subjects what you consider to be the best restaurants where you have eaten in the world?
Tom Sietsema: Off the top of my head, I still dream about De Kas in Amsterdam, Le Cinq in Paris, Ubuntu in Napa Valley, Le Bernardin in New York, Il Tordo Matto outside of Rome, Duck de Chine in Beijing, Chun in Shanghai, Pizzeria Mozza in LA, Patagonia Sur in Buenos Aires, Frasca in Boulder .....
Ellicott City, Md.: Hi Tom! Why is Table 21 in the dining guide, but not the restaurant Volt as a whole? Are the two completely different experiences?
Tom Sietsema: I think Table 21 is a much more memorable evening than Volt proper (which I enjoy, but not as much).
Alexandria, Va.: I recently noticed that a new restaurant is opening or has opened on K Street...Kellari Taverna. Do you know anything about it?
Tom Sietsema: I sure do!
washingtonpost.com: Kellari Taverna to set sail
Washington, D.C.: Tom, I just wanted to say thanks for posting all the crazy or unflattering comments as they make me laugh every time. Having read your column and chats for a long time now I have found your take to be helpful and, more often than not, spot on. But, man alive -- you are not a soothsayer. You're but one man with a fork. And, I love you for it.
Tom Sietsema: And I love you right back, Washington. Thanks much.
Actuary: What is the average life expectancy of a food critic? How's your cholestorol?
Tom Sietsema: Well, Gael Greene is still going strong up in New York, and I *think* she's over 70 now.
I think it's hard to do this for very long. In New York, the average for Times' critics seems to hover around four-five years. I have no idea how long I'll be in this job, given the many new demands and 24/7 news cycle theses days. BUT -- I'm still loving what I'm doing and have ideas for projects I'd like to persue.
Bethesda, Md.: Again, here's the problem with just having four rating levels (or eight, if you count "half stars"). There is no knowledgeable diner who would ever place Rasika on the same rating level as Inn at Washington.
Tom Sietsema: Well, this (hopefully knowledgeable) diner just did.
Going to Amsterdam: Tom, we're going to be in Amsterdam in December and want to go to De Kas. However we will have a well behaved one year old with us, do you think this establishment welcomes children or save it for when we go as a couple? Thanks!
Tom Sietsema: Go, go, go with your child! I've seen kids in the place before, and Europeans rather welcome that, I think.
re: Dino: Tom, I'm with you -- I'd love to love Dino. But it's overrated, in my opinion. People always praise it, but the four or five times I've been, I've received lackluster service and mediocre food. My fondest memory is the proscuitto plate -- but it's not like they're making it in-house.
Tom Sietsema: I really appreciate the owner's obvious passion for what he's doing, but that passion doesn't always translate in the eating.
D.C.: Tom -
Your Dining Guide is always interesting, but ... (there's nearly always a but in comments this morning!), I was surprised that there was only one steak house on your list. While Ray's the Steaks is very good in my opinion, there are other, nicer places that I like spending my "steak" money. Charlie Palmers? BLT? Given the popularity of steak houses in D.C., and the prices that patrons (okay, expense accounts) are willing to pay, I would have thought you would have selected more than just one.
Tom Sietsema: You forget J & G!
some info about "Clifton VA": hi Tom, I read quite a few WashPost chats and see that person posting as "Clifton VA" on multiple chats each week. That person lives to post inflammatory comments in order to get a reaction. Not a "competitor", unless the competition is Ann Coulter.
Love your work -- I'm an acolyte. Thanks.
Tom Sietsema: Hmmmmm.
Capitol Hill: Tom -- Today I took a friend to a lovely birthday lunch at Bibiana. We had a reservation for 12:45, and arrived about 5 minutes late. The restaurant was having a bit of trouble turning over tables at that hour, and we were asked to wait until a table was freed up. We were hungry, but sympathetic to the restaurant's dilemma. What can you do when everyone who arrives at noon wants to linger? They can't throw the people out. But, to our delight, once it was clear that one table had just called for the check, the maitre d' brought us menus in the lounge and offered to deliver our orders to the kitchen before we were seated, so that we would be served promptly. What a great way to cool the heels of impatient diners, and, I wondered, why haven't I experienced that kind of treatment elsewhere in the past while I've waited for a table? Hail, Bibiana!
Tom Sietsema: What a smart restaurant, thinking ahead like that. At lunch in particular, people need to get in and out of a place in a timely manner. Bibiana also addressed your hunger. Applause all around for the newcomer.
8th and I: Tom,
Heading to London in a couple of weeks. Checked out the most recent postcard, but it's not very recent. Do you or the audience have some suggestions? Thanks.
Tom Sietsema: Dining advice for London, anyone?
Just Curious: Have you ever considered a "hall of fame?" Once a certain place has received x number of stars for x years (like the Inn at Little Washington), it goes into the hall of fame, freeing up room on the list. Looking at the comments on the discussion board, lots of people think there are more restaurants out there that are worthy. Maybe free up a few slots. Keep up the great work!!
Tom Sietsema: Interesting idea there. But even the top restaurants need to pass muster -- earn their stripes -- from year to year. Just because I think a place merits four stars now doesn't mean it gets four stars for life.
Reviewing Lunch: Frank Bruni's recent book (which may have been mentioned in chats that I missed) says that he ate dinner only at restaurants he reviewed. I see the reasoning, but do critics leave us on our own for lunch? How good a guide are your reviews for the less expensive daytime meals that are more likely for me?
Tom Sietsema: In this market, lunch is every bit as important as dinner and I generally visit a restaurant (especially one in D.C.) at least once in the aftenoon.
Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,
I was surprised to see J&G appear in your 2009 Dining Guide after you gave it a less than stellar "first bite" review a couple of months ago. I understand that you can't form a complete opinion about a place on the first try alone, but it seems odd that a restaurant that didn't leave a great first impression would make it into this elite group of 50. Were the improvements that you noticed on subsequent visits that vast?
Tom Sietsema: You must have missed my subsequent formal review of the place, which explains its inclusion.
washingtonpost.com: Tom's formal review of J and G
Thai food in Wheaton: Hi Tom, I always enjoy your annual restaurant report. As a Wheaton resident, I'm glad to see Ruan make the cut, but I wonder if you have ever been to Nava Thai, just a couple of blocks from Ruan? While Ruan remains as good as ever, Nava has consistently surpassed Ruan over the past couple of years in terms of both ambiance and authentic, excellent Thai food. I'm guessing you haven't been to Nava, or else it would have made the magazine -- so I urge you to add it to your no-doubt long list of places to visit!
Tom Sietsema: Actually, I have been to both the original and the relocated Nava Thai. The latter is good, but I prefer the homier cooking at tiny Ruan Thai (where I think the service is also friendlier).
washingtonpost.com: 2009 First Bite: Nava Thai
Washington, D.C.: Wow -- NO restaurants in the Dining Guide from Capitol Hill? Why is that?? On the surface, it would seem to have the clientele and the location. Why do you think the Hill cannot attract or retain good restaurants?
Tom Sietsema: Why no inclusions from the Hill? Most of the places I tried for the guide there -- Cava, Matchbox and Montmartre, among others -- were just not that good or consistent this year. And Locanda closed, unfortunately.
Crystal City, Va.: Someone asked last week why some people drink more water, soda, or iced tea at a restaurant than they would drink at home. I must admit, I'm one of those people, I'll easily drink three or four glasses of water or tea in a meal out. This has puzzled me for years, but I think I've discovered the culprit: salt.
Either restaurants use much more salt than I use when cooking at home or I just happen to order saltier dishes when eating out. Either way, I actually am much more thirsty when eating out. I've noticed that at "healthier" restaurants, where they use less salt, I drink less tea. When I bring carryout home from a "regular" restaurant, I'll end up drinking half a pitcher. Q.E.D.
If the servers mentioned by last week's chatter are being run ragged, they may want to talk to the chef. Diners can always add salt if there's too little, but just try to get the salt out of a dish if there's too much.
Tom Sietsema: Thanks for helping to explain the phenomenon. Your explanation makes good sense.
Note to chefs: Don't forget to taste, taste, taste your food as you go along.
Bethesda, Md.: I'm sure you will get many variations of this question about any number of restaurants around the area, but if a restaurant was not included in your dining guide this year, does that mean it is no longer one of the better dining establishments in town, in your opinion? I am referring to specifically to Vidalia, which you often seem to recommend in these chats, yet you did not include.
Tom Sietsema: I've dined at Vidalia three times this year. The service has always been first-rate, but the cooking has been wildly inconsistent: Great dishes and serious disappointments, sometimes even at the same meal.
I think RJ Cooper is a talented chef, but the loss of his veteran sous chef and some problems with food sources have not helped him this year.
Silver Spring, Md.: I was surprised to see Citronelle listed because you seem to be steering people away from that restaurant this year (I think because you said that Michel Richard was changing the format). So, is Citronelle just as good as it was?
Tom Sietsema: The *cooking* at Citronelle is as thrilling as I remember it from years past, but I still think the restaurant has a problem with its service. (It's markedly better if they think you're somebody.) And of all the top restaurants, this is the one most in need of a face-lift.
washingtonpost.com: 2009 Dining Guide: Citronelle
Silver Spring, Md.: Good morning --
Word is Yannick Cam's Bistro Provence is set to open in Bethesda any day now. I only made it out to Le Paradou once... but it was among the best dining experiences I've ever had. I realize this is a completely different setting, but I'd be interested in any of your insights regarding the chef and the new digs.
Tom Sietsema: I think it's terrific that Cam is returning to the stove and offering a French menu that's more affordable to the masses. Dinner entrees at Bistro Provence will be in the $18-$26 range, the chef told me earlier this week.
His simply designed, two-story restaurant is expected to open late next month at 4933 Fairmont Avenue. The upstairs dining room has a balcony and a fireplace, and will be used primarily for private functions. The chef says he is aiming for "a relaxed ambiance" and "a young staff" to keep it informal.
Cam and his No. 2 from Le Paradou, chef Vincent Arnaux, will be offering seafood stew, rice-stuffed zucchini with rabbit sausage, sweet potato ravioli, pigeon and the like.
Bethesda, Md.: Tom, thank you so much again for the Dining Guide. You're the best!
OK, now for the criticism -- why no restaurants in Bethesda? What happened to Black's?
You would think Bethesda would have at least one restaurant in your top 50 list. Bethesda has lots of restaurants, lots of customers, lots of money... in short, all the ingredients for successful and good restaurants. Yet, I repeat myself, why no Bethesda restaurant in your top 50?
Thanks for taking my question.
Tom Sietsema: Lots of money and lots of customers don't necessarily add up to lots of good eating. It's really a mystery to me. Trust me, I was pretty disappointed to find *no* favorites in Bethesda this year. Even the usually reliable Raku under-performed the last time I was in.
What do *you* like there?
Baltimore, Md.: Hi Tom: Was in Minneapolis this past weekend for the Ravens/Vikings game, so took your advice and tried Craftsman restaurant...a really nice find!! It's definitely off the beaten path (no one from my hotel had even heard of the place, even though they have been open for 5 years), but worth the effort to find it. A special that night was seared duck breast over an agnolotti pasta, which was filled with a cauliflower puree, with leeks and braised cabbage mixed in. Very nice, as was the brioche bread pudding served hot with the plum jam. My question is this: your postcards normally have two to four places in any city, but the Minneapolis postcard only had Craftsman reviewed. Was there a reason for just one place?
Tom Sietsema: I now have a great deal of flexibility with that column, thanks to Travel editor Joe Yonan. So I can write 60 inches about a trip to Las Vegas or 15 inches on just a single restaurant in Minneapolis.
The reason I featured Craftsman all by itself? Despite my advance research, I endured some pretty mediocre food in the Twin Cities on my recent visit. The exceptions, including Spoonriver near the Guthrie theater, were restaurants I had previously written about.
washingtonpost.com: Postcard from Tom: Minneapolis
Washington, D.C.: Tom, One year ago you wrote an article titled "Just Too Much" about tasting menus and your overall dislike for them. Now they are making your Dining Guide -- both of which are over 20 plus courses. Can you please explain the inconsistency in your reviews and Dining Guide selections?
Tom Sietsema: A critic has to transcend his personal taste. Just because I don't much care for an ingredient (licorice, or anything tasting like it) or a style of eating (lengthy tasting menus) doesn't mean readers do.
washingtonpost.com: Just Too Much: Tom's Story on Tasting Menus
Annapois: "You're but one man with a fork" ... there's the title of yur autobiography ... "One Man With a Fork"!
Tom Sietsema: I love it.
Gaithersburg, Md.: Thank you for letting us get a sneak peak at the Dining Guide on Thursday. It meant we could have lunch at Tavira on Friday before the masses descended. The food was really good (I had to use most of the contents of the bread basket to mop up the lemony, garlicky juices from the grilled calamari) and the service was excellent. The waiter was friendly in a truly genuine way, and very professional. It had been years since we dined there. Thank you for putting this restaurant back on our list.
Tom Sietsema: Thank *you* for the kind words. Tavira is a keeper.
washingtonpost.com: 2009 Dining Guide: Tavira
Chevy Chase, Md.: How can you be so off the mark with Two Amys? I have been to Two Amys numerous times (nine to be exact) over the past three+ years. Once or twice the pizza was no better than okay; most of the time it was limp, undercooked, and flavorless. The last time I ate at Two Amys, the pizza was so bad that my group left half of it untouched.
On top of this, service is slow and inattentive and the noise level is astounding.
Tom Sietsema: I hear you (pun intended!) on the ongoing noise pollution at Two Amys.
Otherwise, what can I say? My last two meals at the pizzeria were terrific. Great wine list, small plates, charcuterie -- and pizza, of course. My favorite place to sit is at the wine bar, where I received abundant attention from the server(s).
washingtonpost.com: 2009 Dining Guide: Two Amys
Takoma Park, Md.: Tom: a methodology question, inspired by your Dining Guide leading us to a delicious dinner at Ruan Thai on Saturday night. (The fried watercress was amazing, by the way. Pork belly was a bit salty, but reminded me, in a good way, of Indonesian rendang.) Anyway, the question: how do you find these places? Not the "big deal" places with the famous chefs and million dollar kitchens. I mean the holes in the wall like Ruan Thai. There must be hundreds of such places, whether Thai, Vietnamese, kebabs, pupuserias or BBQ joints. You can't eat EVERYwhere, can you?
Tom Sietsema: Some places come to *me,* via tips from readers, food friends or industry types (flaks, chefs, etc.)
Other spots, including Han Gang and Burma Road, I discover while I'm out and about reviewing or scouting other restaurants.
As for Ruan Thai, which is indeed tucked away from the action, a trusted food source turned me on to the joint several years back.
Incidentally, I check out many, many (usually small) places that sometimes never see the light of print because they're not very good or worth a million people reading about.
washingtonpost.com: 2009 Dining Guide: Ruan Thai
22305: Tom -- I was at a loss of where to go with 14 people for my 30th birthday dinner this Friday night that would be good and memorable but not too extravagant. The dining guide came out the day before I wanted to make a reservation, and the choices became much clearer. Thanks! I'm going to Jaleo in Crystal City. I hope it lives up to your praises :)
Tom Sietsema: I hope so, too! I actually lunched there within the past five months (for the guide) and found the spinoff to be as delicious as the original.
washingtonpost.com: 2009 Dining Guide: Jaleo
Rasika: I have been to City Zen, Rasika, Komi, and the Restaurant Eve Tasting room, so four of your five four star people. I have also eaten at Per Se. Though Rasika is a different experience, I think the food there is excellent, and, for that type of restaurant, is absolutely four stars. So all the Rasika haters out there who think no well-palated diner would give it four stars can just go elsewhere. Jeez. Everyone I know who has been there has been blown away. I can't say the same for all the other four star places.
Tom Sietsema: Thanks for weighing in.
Alexandria, Va.: I hope people understand something -- everyone's palate is different, and some people are more sensitive or less sensitive to sweets, salt, spice, etc. than others. When you eat a meal, it may not taste exactly the same to you as it did to Tom, even if it was prepared the same way, so before you give Tom a hard time keep in mind that it's really just one person's opinion and doesn't mean you'll experience the same food the same way. That's not even allowing for the fact that not every single plate that comes out of a kitchen is 100% identical and every restaurant has off nights. The only thing that really matters is whether you like a restaurant or not -- not whether Tom is right or wrong.
Tom Sietsema: Well said!
Let's end on that note and head out to lunch.
Thanks for a lively hour. See you again next Wednesday.
Herndon, Va.: If the Clifton poster about Trummer's had the audacity to disagree with your rating, they MUST be a competitor, right? Talk about arrogance...
Tom Sietsema: I'm not being arrogant. Just curious! And skeptical.
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. Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post writing at washingtonpost.com/tomsietsema. Join his live Q&A every Wednesday at 11 a.m. ET.
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