Ask Tom: Our food critic talks shop

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema gives his top tips for enjoying sushi.
Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema takes your dining questions on Wednesday, Dec. 16 at 11 a.m. ET. A veteran food writer, Sietsema has worked as a critic in Washington, Seattle, San Francisco and Milwaukee. He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns and the world at large in his Postcard From Tom series. He also moderates the Sietsema's Table discussion group. Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post writing at

Video: Tom Sietsema's TV Dinners: Episode 2 - Tom's sushi tips


Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan: Tom,

I am two weeks away from redeploying home after six months in Afghanistan. My wife and I are big fans of yours and I am anxious to get back to the Washington area restaurant scene. If you were away from the city for six months, what three restaurants would be at the top of your list to visit when you got back?

P.S. We have reservations at Restaurant Eve for the end of January--my wife's birthday.


Tom Sietsema: Greetings, soldier!

My list of must-eats right now would probably include J & G Steakhouse downtown, XO Taste in Falls Church and Bibiana on New York Ave.

Safe travels. X.O. marks the spot for tasty Cantonese: Restaurant is dashing, too


Orlando, FL: Tom, I saw this article today, and I thought I'd ask your take on it. (To paraphrase the article, Applebee's is using on-table buttons so customers can page servers.) Me, I think it's a terrible idea. I've been a server and a customer, and the buzzer would drive me nuts. I was a good server, and I can only imagine how many jokers sit there and just buzz you all the time because they can. What a pain.

Applebee's introduces device to contact servers from your table

Tom Sietsema: I had to check and see if this story came from the Onion. Unfortunately, it's for real!

Bad, bad, bad idea.

Quote from the piece:

"It puts the guest in constant contact with the server," said James Whyte, general manager of an Orange City Applebee's that got the system a couple months ago.

Why would I WANT to be in "constant contact" with my waiter?

Happy Wednesday, everyone. I'm off to a late start, I'm afraid. Bear with me. Let's rock.


Thank you holiday shoppers....`: Really, our restaurant is owned by experienced professionals. Run by experienced managers. Staffed by thoughtful servers and professionals. Why do you cubicle dwellers insist on telling us on how to run the business? Our policies are such as to allow us to serve EVERYONE. If you need so much personal attention, I might recommend spa treatments where you can have a dedicated professional at your beck. Thank you......

Tom Sietsema: Are you referring to gripes from paying customers this season? I'm not sure I'd be ignoring such if I were you ...

On the other hand, maybe you are tired of having people ask why they can't be seated as an incomplete party or some such?

Got an email from the owner of Eatonville earlier this week. I thought I'd post it as a reminder to diners to reconfirm/cancel/honor their reservations. Here it is:

hi tom..
i don't know if you have done much on reservation etiquette
i am having a hard time with dealing with reservations at eatonville

we always confirm reservations by a follow up phone call a day ahead (sometimes the same day)

people still don't seem to want to honor the reservations.
for instance, last night we had a reservation confirmed for 15. 2 people showed up! just 2.

no apology, no remorse, nothing.

we had to hold the table for nearly an hour and turn away numerous guests. serious revenue loss. with the margins of the business so tight - people need to be educated better on this issue.

please help to get the word out.
andy shallal

Consider the message spread, Andy.


Capitol Hill: Hi Tom, I'm just wondering if you have noticed a decline at Tosca? We were there for my husband's birthday on Monday night, and we both felt like our dinner did not live up to previous experiences, particularly with regard to service.

Literally the moment my husband sat down at the table, the waiter launched into a recitation of the specials before we even had a chance to say hi to each other or look at our menus, and he was similarly rushed with respect to service throughout the rest of the meal, with food dumped rapidly and unceremoniously on the table. We finished a three course meal in just over an hour, which seemed way too fast to me, and the food, while good, was not up to its previous level, if memory serves. Do you think our experience was an exception? If not, it's a shame, because we used to love eating there.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the field report. Sorry to hear about the rushed service there. I'm not as high on the restaurant as I was a couple years ago; there's a sameness to the menu and the cooking that leaves me underwhelmed.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Tom,

My husband and I tried Sou'Wester last night and were disappointed. The service was a bit unprofessional and not very warm. Our food ranged from good (the bread basket) to decent (the rabbit) to really bad (the monte cristo). Overall, we were less than enthused about the place and wished we had just gone to Palena.

Just wanted to share my thoughts!!

Tom Sietsema: Your experience mirrors my four visits there, unfortunately. The place is uneven. A Ziebold Venture Heads South


Rockville, MD: Love the videos, Tom! I sure hope you washed your hands before handling that sushi. What was the music playing in the fridge episode? It was great- reminded me of the old "Monk" theme (pre-Randy Newman). Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Ah, thanks. I *did* wash my hands, both before and after shooting my second episode of TV Dinners. Lemme check with my video producer about the music. Tom Sietsema's TV Dinners: Episode 2 - Tom's sushi tips


Bristow, Va.: Health inspection reports are not considered in restaurant reviews. Should they be a factor in a high rating?

Tom Sietsema: I'd say 99 percent of the places I write about have not been flagged for health code violations. And frankly, I think it would be strange to include inspection reports in a dining column if the restaurant is up to code.


Dupont Circle, DC: We have 6:15 reservations for New Year's Eve at Rasika, but are also on the waiting list at Obelisk. Should we just be content with Rasika? The advantage to Obelisk is that we could walk there and not have to deal with cabs on NYE.

Our plan is to stuff ourselves at Rasika (or Obelisk) and then head home to toast the new year in comfort. What are your plans? A meal out, or a cooking extravaganza in?

Tom Sietsema: I'd keep my plans at the Indian restaurant if I were you. It's a stellar experience.

I'm doing a very low-key and early dinner with close friends and maybe family. On the menu: smoked salmon and other seafood (mussels, maybe? Oysters, perhaps?) from the excellent Browne Trading Company in Portland, Maine. Throw in a salad, some great bread and genuine Champagne and what's to stop a party from happening? Rasika review


Bad, bad, bad idea. : This is an admission by Applebee's that they don't want the bother of training their waitstaff properly. It's disgraceful. I'd say most problems with servers these days are the result of managers who are out of touch. They'd rather make sure the servers state their name than teach the servers how to gauge a table, how to glance over when passing to find out whether anything's needed, etc.

Tom Sietsema: Actually, I think most managers do a pretty good job of watching over their underlings and customers. What's the benefit in ignoring patrons?

In my opinion, those pagers at Applebee's are a waste of technology and don't enhance the dining experience at all.


Washington, D.C.: Run, do not walk to Ris, yes, there are problems like the lunch when they didn't know how to unlock the front door or the weekend dinner where i waited an hour for an undercooked pork chop but the ambiance is so nice and the staff really tries hard, they need expediters very badly, or else, fulltime apologizers. Either one would work.

Tom Sietsema: Is this a slap or a bouquet?

I'll be previewing the new restaurant Dec. 30 in the Food section, fyi. An opening date for Ris Lacoste's new restaurant


Arlington, Va.: In keeping with other chats this week, do you have a list of best new restaurants in the decade ? Or how about your favorite restaurant that opened in the past 10 years ? Full coverage: Best of the Decade

Tom Sietsema: Just catching this question now, and it's a fun one.

While I tackle some other queries and comments, I'd love to hear from today's participants what restaurants *you* would nominate for this hall of fame of sorts.

Central Michel Richard would be on my roster. So would Rasika.


Eola?: Tom, is there a review on the way for this restaurant? Have you been there yet ?

Tom Sietsema: I've only done a preview of Eola. And honestly, I don't feel comfortable sharing other than immediately forthcoming critiques of restaurants in this forum.

Has anyone out there been? Anything to report? EOLA preview.


LeDroit Park: How does one deal with a server who won't let you talk to a manager?

I ask because the other night at Sei we had truly awful service. I mean they broke about every rule in the service handbook. We mentioned a few times to the head waiter and definitely made our feelings known in a tip. When we were getting ready to leave (i.e. being pushed out by the staff) we planned on talking to the manager who was standing next to the hostess on our way out. However, our server saw us leaving, dashed over and stood next to the manager, clearly in an attempt to prevent us from talking to the manager. And it worked, we were intimidated and soon the manager attended to other business. How does one deal with that?

P.S. Sei, you might want to instruct your busboys to ask people if they are finished before removing their plates/glasses. That bok choy looked good, I wanted to eat it!

Tom Sietsema: I would have ignored the server, looked straight into the manager's eyes and asked, "Could I speak with you for a moment, please?"

Unfortunately, you missed an opportunity to right a wrong and help the restaurant and improve the experience for other diners. Playful Asian At Sei, the food is inventive and so are the cocktails


Best of the decade: Zaytinya and Corduroy (in its current location) come to mind.

Tom Sietsema: Yes and yes. Reviews: Zaytinya; Corduroy


Bethesda, MD: Tom,

Going to new W hotel for Christmas dinner. Anything we shouldn't miss?


Tom Sietsema: I'm not sure what the Christmas menu is at J & G, but you definitely want to start out with one of the fab cocktails from the bar there.


Peking duck: On the Food Network "Best Thing I ever Ate" show, Duff of Ace of Cakes gushes over the Peking duck at Peking Gourmet Inn in Falls Church. He claims it's the best thing he ever ate, period. Been there? Would you get peking duck there, and if not, where?

Tom Sietsema: I can't get over my last image of dining at PGI, when the server carving my roast duck *sneezed* near the table. That was a few years back, but see how one incident can ruin a place for you? (Yes, I need to return.)

Best duck of my life was last year in Beijing. Postcard from Tom: Beijing


Adams Morgan: Hi Tom,

Have you visited Radius since it changed hands? I wasn't much of a fan of the old Radius (they put way too much sauce on their pizzas), but I stopped by recently to give it another shot and found it much improved.

I particularly like their "specialty" pizzas such as their local vegetable pizza - which features parsnips. The last time I was in, I was persuaded to try their "pumpkin" pizza, and I loved it! It is savory, and I was told the trick is that they mix marscapone and pumpkin for the base. Anyway, I am completely unaffiliated, but I do have an interest in seeing it succeed, since good pizza places in my neighborhood are in short supply.

Have a nice holiday!

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the update. Haven't been back to Radius since my initial review. (So many restaurants, so little time.) But I'm intrigued with the idea of pumpkin and mascarpone on a pie. Radius


Sterling, Va.: Best restaurant of the past 10 years: Komi. No question in my mind.

Tom Sietsema: Our list is growing, and quickly. Maybe we should make this a Top 20? (And yes! to Komi.) Komi


Washington, D.C. : Why would someone open another Belgian restaurant directly across from Et Voila? Was this a mistake? Did they not scout the area? With all the neighborhoods in DC, how could two apparently good Belgian restaurants wind up on the same block?

Tom Sietsema: The owner of Sur La Place told me she thinks there's room for two restaurants serving the same cuisine,in the same 'hood, provided both are good. I think she's right. And have you seen how busy even middling restaurants in the Palisades are? Sur La Place has delicious mussels and other Belgian standbys


Rockville, Md.: I just want to take a minute to compliment the Liberty Tavern in Clarendon. My in-laws were in town for Thanksgiving and they wanted to go out to dinner, which is hard with an active 4 year old. Liberty Tavern was excellent. They had an etch a sketch and crayons for him which kept him entertained and the food was excellent. And before anyone flames me, we went to dinner at 5:30 and were gone by 7:00.

It's hard to find good food with preschoolers!

Tom Sietsema: I've had drinks, but nothing to eat, at Liberty Tavern in recent months and agree about the welcoming attitude there.

Crayons and an Etch-A-Sketch? I'd be in competition with the kiddies over rights to use those.


Rockville, MD: Per your recommendation- we went to Woodmont Grill in Bethesda last night. Your review was spot on- loved the free parking, great atmosphere, good food. My only wish is that they had a few more choices for wines by the glass, at a slighter lower price point- I don't think there were any options for less than $10. Thanks for the review.

Tom Sietsema: You're welcome. Woodmont Grill doesn't have a long menu, but what it does, it does well. And as you mention, the charms consist of more than just food there. Easy to Like and Easy to Get To


Washington, DC: Hey Tom, I'm headed to Cleveland in January to catch my first NBA game -- who better to introduce me to the sport than Lebron and Shaq? In any case, I'm curious if there are any dining destinations that would make the trip even more memorable. Oh, and thanks for your past rec's -- you've never steered me wrong.

Tom Sietsema: Cleveland dining tips, anyone?


Washington, DC: More a cooking question than a dining one, but we figured that, with your refined palate, you might be able to brainstorm for us.

The husband made chestnut-mascarpone stuffed ravioli, but we're at a loss for a sauce to go with it. He's tried a brown butter-sage sauce, but he's unconvinced. What would you do? Brighten it up with lemon or berries? Pile on the fat with a cream sauce?

Tom Sietsema: Chestnuts are mellow and starchy. Mascarpone is buttery and rich. I think your mate should consider something acid or tart in his sauce. Lemon (zest) would certainly aid the cause. Chattes?


Best of the Decade: Komi, definitely. My experiences at that restaurant blow everything else out of the water. Nothing (Restaurant Eve, Volt, 2941) even comes close to the revelatory eating experience and beyond-excellent staff at Komi.

Central? Really? Every meal I've had there has been underwhelming, both in the quality of the food and the ambience of the place.

Tom Sietsema: Central was part of a delicious wave of casual spinoffs from top chefs. Love the gourmet treatment of the burgers there.

I *still* wish Komi had a shorter tasting menu, but I think I'm in the minority there. And it's not as if I didn't finish every singe crumb! Central Michel Richard


Cleveland dining tips...: Tony Bourdain did a show sometime in the last year or two about Cleveland on "No Reservations." Actually, he said he found pretty good food there...especially ethnic, Polish, German, Slav, etc. Anyway, your questioner should try to find that show...lots of good advice. No Reservations - Cleveland Part 1 of 5

Tom Sietsema: Here are some additional suggestions from chatters:

Cleveland recs: Is the Cleveland visitor staying downtown? If so, Johnny's Downtown is a popular spot. If he wants to get a very casual bite to eat on his trip, he should definitely go to Panini's: Huge slices of bread with french fries, cole slaw, and a choice of various meats, egg and/or cheese, all put together in a sandwich. It's greasy, wonderful, and just $5.

D.C. by way of Cleveland: I'm a native Clevelander and I get back about 3 times a year. The town gets a bad rap, but there is no shortage of great dining. Even my D.C.-born husband agrees! I would recommend:

Iron Chef Michael Symon's Lola, or the more casual Lolita. Also, one of his protoges mans Bar Cento and the Greenhouse Tavern, which are solid bets. Crop Bistro and Flying Fig are reliable and fun. For a taste of the Midwestern Eastern European culture, visit Sokolowski's (cafeteria-style) or Sterli's (live polka on Saturday nights).

Velvet Tango Room was mixing handcrafted cocktails long before the PX or the Gibson, and Lucky's Cafe as the best breakfast pretty much anywhere.


Alexandria, VA: Tom, what's your take on restaurant owners who rapidly expand the number of restaurants they own over the course of a few years (a la Michael Landrum with Ray's et al)? I always wonder: Is this going to spread them too thin, or are we moving towards a franchise atmosphere. Thoughts?

Tom Sietsema: Some owners do this well. Danny Meyer in New York, the man behind the Shake Shack phenom, comes to mind. I do worry that Mr. Landrum has taken on too much, but keep in mind, some of his new projects have been in the works for awhile and he's had time to train staff and finesse ideas. Ray's empire expands, big time


Silver Spring, MD: A couple of lunch options in Cleveland:

Sokolowski's in the Tremont neighborhood makes quality polish food, even if its served buffet-style(!). Be sure to check their Web site, though, they've got goofy hours and often only serve food at lunch.

The falafel itself (the toppings are pretty pedestrian) at Maha's in the West Side Market is, honest-to-god, the best you'll ever eat.

Tom Sietsema: Anyone else getting hungry (and changing his opinion about Cleveland)?


Speak up!: The folks unhappy with Sei must be really timid--not that you should have to be aggressive to have a good meal. But if someone's taking food you're still eating, say something: "Don't take that, please!"

Tom Sietsema: Fair point.


Washington, DC: Tom,

Have you any advice for approaching restaurants for customers with special dining needs (for health reasons, ect) such as low-fat and low-salt options?

Just curious on the ins and outs of it!

-Confused in Wash

Tom Sietsema: No need to be confused, Washington. The best way to handle special requests is to make them known AHEAD of your visit to a restaurant. That way, the chef and others can better tailor the experience for you. How to be a better diner Be prompt, complain politely and ditch the clown


Foggy Bottom, DC: I am heading to Bourbon Steak next week. I know that Michael Mina gets lots of good press and I had a dessert from Bourbon Steak at Taste of Georgetown that was very good. Any direction on the menu at Bourbon steak?

Tom Sietsema: Had there been more room in the fall guide, here's what I would have said about BS:

One of the many ways the steakhouse scene has changed in the past decade: Meat sometimes takes a back seat to the rest of the show. "Radishes from our garden with Malden Maldon salt from England," our waiter at the new restaurant in the revamped Four Seasons Hotel says with reverence as he sets the snack on our table. Bourbon Steak primes its patrons for the obvious, and though I'm fond of its thick, dry-aged rib-eye, I'm more drawn to what's not beef: tangy garlic soup floating nuggets of crisp confit; agnolotti strewn with sweet peas and edible flowers and brightened with carrot juice; a lobster potpie that's presented on a cart at the table and sliced open to reveal velvety seafood and baby vegetables lavished with a brandy-kissed cream sauce. Chef David Varley'sÖ elegant food and the staff's attentive service aren't the only enticements. The wine list is a beauty. And the sepia-toned dining room brings out the occasional star (in the next booth: Sen. John Kerry), as does the sleek lounge. (Can Owen Wilson really be drinking by himself?)


Other cities: With all of the Cleveland recommendations, what's your vote for the most under-rated restaurant town in the country?

Tom Sietsema: Portland, Maine?

Let's take this up next Wednesday. Interesting question.

Sorry about my slow start this morninig, folks. I promise to be a little more efficient (caffeinated) next week. Chow for now!


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