Ask Tom: H Street eats, Buenos Aires dining and host etiquette

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Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema dished about Buenos Aires dining, romantic restaurants, H Street eateries and the etiquette of being a host and a guest on Wednesday, Dec. 23 at 11 a.m. ET.

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Tom Sietsema: Sad news for Equinox, its staff and clients last week: A fire in the kitchen caused an estimated $300,000 worth of damage, co-owner Ellen Gray tells my colleague Jane Black.

The silver lining: The restaurant may be able to open within a month, according to Gray

We'll keep our fingers crossed for everyone.

On a much lighter note, Robert Wiedmaier tells me he's openning another place to eat, this time in Bethesda and this time, a Mussel Bar.

Happy Wednesday, all. What are your plans for the holidays? Share away.

washingtonpost.com: Update: After fire, Equinox's holiday plans and Robert Wiedmaier to unveil a Mussel Bar

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Got a hankering: for something exotic. I'd like to try Sri Lankan or Indonesian or some other Asian food I've never had. I love Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, etc... but I eat that all the time. Nothing fancy please. I want something spicy and authentic that I can dig into with both hands. Can you or your readers recommend a place. Oh, no car so must be Metro accessible. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: I never go to Malaysia Kopitiam that I don't ask myself why I don't make the underground dining room in Dupont Circle more of a habit. (Actually, I know why: So many restaurants! So little time!)

The "rotiwich" with either pork or beef and the shredded squid salad tossed with julienned green mango and a lemongrass vinaigrette are two of many dishes you will be pleased to encounter.

washingtonpost.com: Simple Yet Sublime: Tom Sietsema's sandwich roundup

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Hax advice -- your take: Carolyn Hax's column today advises a holiday cook to "table" her gourmet dreams and just make a simple/bland Christmas dinner for her picky guests. According to Hax, it's the host's job to make the guests feel comfortable and welcome -- particularly with the food they are asked to eat. Do you concur?

Tom Sietsema: I have a somewhat different take on the issue. If you're a guest in someone's home, and even if you're related, eat what's served to you and be quiet about it.

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Washington, D.C.: I am getting out of Dodge today -- off to Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. Can you (and the readers) chime in with some dining recommendations for those two places. I read your postcard from Buenos Aires; is Patagonia Sur still a good spot?

Thanks for taking time for the readers every week!

Tom Sietsema: Patagonia Sur is one of my favorite restaurants anywhere! Please report back here if you try it.

I've never been to Rio. Maybe a chatter can help out yet today?

washingtonpost.com: Postcard From Tom: Buenos Aires

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Fairfax: Hi Tom! Just back from Vegas and we took a suggestion from your August Postcard and went to Aburiya Raku (or just Raku on the door). We enjoyed the experience very much, though we found the experience unlike anything we had tried before: Who would have dreamed up a Japanese Meze! Small dishes, many extremely good, and the friendliest staff I have ever seen! The asparagus tempura was so good we ordered two more immediately! Chicken skewers exceptional. Only strange note: Be careful (or ask!) what Kobe beef you order. Thinking I had ordered the steak, I found I had instead ordered the Kobe tendon skewer -- and that was an experience I probably will not do again -- think fat and gristle on a stick. I will go again next time in Sin city, but will ask about dishes a bit more next time! Love these chats -- thank you!

Tom Sietsema: I'm thrilled to hear you liked (most of) Raku as much as I did. It's a hangout of sorts for some of Vegas's biggest chefs; my meal there -- and yours -- proved why.

washingtonpost.com: Postcard From Tom: Las Vegas

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Arlington, Va.: Instead of asking a question this morning, I felt that the space could be better utilized by wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas and a terrific start to the new year. Thank you for hosting these chats each week, and providing thousands of folks in our area with useful information.

Tom Sietsema: Your post just made my day.

But you know what? I couldn't do these chats without the participation of so many engaged/opinionated/helpful readers, and for them, I'm most grateful.

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Falls Church, Va.: Have you been to Sea Pearl? It's a relatively new restaurant in Merrifield. We're looking for an interesting brunch place. Thank you.

Tom Sietsema: I went shortly after the restaurant opened, but have not been back.

La Caraquena, next to a tired motel in Falls Church, certainly qualifies as "interesting." It's a little Venezuelan, a little Bolivian, and plenty diverting. Go for the fried arepas and tasty saltenas.

washingtonpost.com: Good to Go: La Caraquena

washingtonpost.com: First Bite: Sea Pearl

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Lincoln Park: Tom -- You've asked the question about the most significant restaurant openings of the past decade in D.C. Arguably, some of the most significant are not necessarily those you would list as the best. Case in point: Granville Moore, Taylor's and the Argonaut. One can disagree about the merits of the food at each, but together they revived H Street as a place where people would even consider going to eat. Another case: Montmartre often has made best-of lists, and even if it has slipped of late, it was perhaps the first restaurant to rise significantly above the food wasteland of the south Capitol Hill area. Again, merit aside, all of those changed how we regarded the food scene in their respective neighborhoods.

Tom Sietsema: What an interesting post! Short response to a comment that merits a longer reply:

Much as I like to see restaurants moving into "new" neighborhoods and filling dining voids, I'm not sure Granville Moore and company are drawing audiences much beyond the Atlas District. Not in the way, for instance, that Cork Wine Bar, Masa 14 and Birch & Barley are enlivening Logan Circle, or the way Rasika, Oyamel and peers have improved Penn Quarter.

Any viewers care to weigh in?

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Rockville, Md.: Hi Tom, I hope you have a great holiday. We are going to the national harbor in PG County to see the ice and light show the day after Christmas. What would you suggest as a good restaurant to take Grandma that would be interesting and not to noisy.

Tom Sietsema: Thus far, my best dining experience over there has been a window table at Old Hickory Steakhouse, where I recall eating a satisfying poerthouse and truffled mac and cheese, among other dishes.

washingtonpost.com: First Bite: Old Hickory Steakhouse

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Silver Spring: Hi, Tom. Our family does not celebrate Xmas, and we plan to go to a movie and then eat dinner out on Xmas Day. I know Chinese places are often open, but do you know of any other types of restaurants that might be open for dinner?

Tom Sietsema: We're talking Maryland, right? I did a quick check and discovered that Amici Miei (Italian) in Potomac, Levante's (Turkish) in Bethesda and Spice Xing (Indian) in Rockville are all open for dinner December 25.

washingtonpost.com: First Bite: Spice Xing

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Bethesda-ish, Md.: Another mussels bar and another Belgian restaurant. Eh. Belgian beer & mussels seems like an overdone fad these days. What's next? At least with the sliders fad, we didn't get whole restaurants dedicated to it.

Tom Sietsema: I hear you. But Bethesda could use a good place to eat, and Wiedmaier's idea is likely to see lines out the door.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

Just wanted to report back from a trip to Philadelphia, where a friend and I visited Chifa, one of your postcard recommendations. The food was amazing: empanadas, pork belly buns, chaufa, and lomo saltado! All delicious!! And the "bread basket" that preceded the meal... my friend and I likened them to Central's gougeres, but more dense and with, like, a pat of butter at the center of each.

The only glitch (I suppose) were the Pisco Sours: my friend had just spent time in Peru and said Chifa's version didn't quite measure up. I was blissfully ignorant though and thought they were de-lish.

And the service was great. Elliot, the bartender, was so welcoming we canceled our table in order to eat at the bar.

Anyway, thanks again for a great rec! Happy Holidays!

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the field report.

I'm returning to Philly next month to review some even newer places to eat there, for a Postcard column schedule to run in February. Stay tuned.

washingtonpost.com: Postcard From Tom: Philadelphia

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Rockville: I have to admit that I am curious about some of the expensive places to eat, but still have a budget to stick to and don't want to get in over my head. Is there a strategic way to go to -- say, Morton's the Steak House -- and stay safe. I was thinking just go for lunch and perhaps split a plate with my wife or get a salad or something. But why go there if you don't get a steak? Seems sort of silly to get a salad, I guess.

What would you do?

Tom Sietsema: You're on the right track. Lunch is a great way to experience a restaurant if you're on a budget. And guess what? The Morton's on Conn. Ave. makes a terrific hamburger, which it serves -- only at lunch.

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Cleveland Park: What is your opinion on portion sizes in restaurants? It seems to me that many people equate value with how much is on the plate. In my mind, I am more concerned with the quality of ingredients, care in preparation and overall experience. bviously all of this is relative to the price.

Tom Sietsema: I think most restaurant portions are too big, but then, I'm partial to smaller servings because I'm always eating out and I care about my health.

Like you, I prefer a small helping of something good to an Everest of something that's just okay. But a lot of people have come to expect heapin' helpin's when they're away from home. Do we blame the restaurant for doing that, or the customer for wanting it?

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Washington, D.C.: $20 Open Table gift card + babysitter + nobody paying attention at work today = rare opportunity for lunch with my husband. We've just moved back to town after five years away and would love a place that's newish, slightly out of reach for dinner, and Red Line-accessible.

Tom Sietsema: I like the way you think!

Bibiana downtown certainly fits your request. So does Siroc on 15th St. NW. For something serene and light, you should also consider the revamped Sushi Taro in Dupont Circle.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Bibiana Osteria-Enoteca, 2009 Dining Guide: Siroc and 2009 Dining Guide: Sushi Taro

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Old Town, Va.: Tom, I hoped you that in the holiday spirit you could post this heartfelt thank you to Chef Patrick O'Connell and the staff at the Inn at Little Washington. My husband returned from Afghanistan a few months ago and as a Christmas gift to ourselves we decided to take advantage of the Inn's generous active duty military discount. We arrived on Sunday -- the day after the Storm of the Decade and all. From helping with the snow and ice, to starting our meal with a complimentary glass of champagne to Chef O'Connell showing us the kitchen and talking with us for over five minutes about my husband's experiences in Afghanistan we were made to feel important and treasured guests. The food was, of course, amazing and wonderful. Our only complaint is that they made us want to return as soon as possible. Thank you for letting us know about the Inn's military discount and thank you to the Inn for making our Christmas gift so extra special!!

Tom Sietsema: Something tells me Mr. O'Connell would be more than happy to tackle your "complaint."

The Inn's discount for the military is definitely a win-win situation for all involved. Thanks for the feedback.

washingtonpost.com: Calling All Military Personnel: Patrick O'Connell Wants You!

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Arlington, Va.: Hey Tom, I was just reading another local food writer's chat this evening and stumbled upon a comment from a person who had a serious issue with the server picking up the check from the table before they left. They felt very offended.

I am in the industry, so I can attest to the myriad times when guests leave the restaurant without signing the check, taking both copies, taking the unsigned copy, etc..

I just hope that people understand that servers pick up the checks before you leave, not to rush you out the door, but to ensure that their financial obligations to the restaurant are squared away. (Unsigned credit card slips are very contestable to credit card companies...restaurants are individually liable for that.)

Why do you think that major grocery stores changed to the digital signing pads years ago?

Don't think of it as your server's rudeness...it is the restaurant's livelihood that is at stake.

And let's be real here...servers have to do what their managers make them do. It often goes further up the chain.)

Tom Sietsema: I encourage members of the restaurant industry to comment in this forum and your fine post is one reason why: It's helpful for diners to understand the reasoning behind certain policies. Thanks for taking the time to brief us on the matter.

(Speaking of checks, all of us should be vigilant about examining them. At a new restaurant last night, I got the wrong bill, which was $90 less than I expected. It turns out I got the check for the couple seated behind my party.)

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Arlington, Va.: Hello Tom,

I read all of your reviews and this helps me to determine how good a restaurant is and if I should visit. Usually you are 100-percent correct and an example is Present in Falls Church. However, your review of Bibiana is totally opposite of what I would have said in a review. My experience was horrible, the food was not great (also cold) and the pricetag for our group was a rip-off for what we received. I have to question your reviews now. Do you give favorable reviews to well known establishments just to stay on their good side, even if the food is not that great? Again, I repeat....Bibiana was horrible!

Tom Sietsema: You say I'm "usually 100 percent correct" but now, because you had one bad experience in a restaurant, you have to question my reviews? That's not exactly fair, is it?

I have never, ever given a positive review to a restaurant to "stay on their good side." Seriously, what would be the point?

You say Bibiana was "horrible," but offer minimal evidence to back up your statement. The best critiques are those rich in detail. By all means, share away if you wish.

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Frederick, Md.: Happy Holidays to you Tom,

I have a peeve which I don't believe I've ever seen addressed in your column before. Something from the other side of the fence -- RSVP's. What is it with people today who first off don't even bother to RSVP to an event and then just show up. I work at a special event facility where we only cook for the number of guests that we are told are coming. Last week we hosted a holiday party for a company that gave us a count of 75 people. 92 people showed up! And then some of these people had the nerve to complain that we ran out of certain items. I mean really, folks -- what are you thinking! How do you expect a business to have an extra 20 servings on hand for thoughtless you. Thanks for the vent.

Tom Sietsema: Not responding to invitations has become a big, big problem for countless (home) hosts I know, too. Let this serve as a reminder to potential guests everywhere: RSVP, folks!

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Washington, D.C.: I am going to see the National Christmas tree tonight and wanted to go to a romantic dinner afterwards at Two Quail. I unfortunately just found out that it is closed. Are there any quaint/romantic restaurants like it in DC?

Tom Sietsema: Two Quail is closed, but it's been replaced recently by Bistro Cacao, which gives you a choice of three different cozy dining areas to eat (French food) in.

Other "romantic" options: Bombay Club, Sei, the Tabard Inn ...

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: Sei

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Alexandria, Va.: We love Evening Star and Vermillion but haven't tried Columbia Firehouse yet -- thinking about maybe going there for NYE dinner. Have you been? Thoughts? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: After a change in chefs shortly after launch, the jury is still out on the venue. I certainly like the service there, and the feel of the place. But for New Year's Eve, I'd be inclined to go somewhere with a proven track record.

washingtonpost.com: First Bite: Columbia Firehouse and Columbia Firehouse Lets Chef Go, Fresh start: Chef Hitzig pops up at Creme Cafe

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Re: Hax: On the Hax post, I think the original chatter left out some key details: I think its one thing to be a guest and try the things made by the host, but when you are inviting people over to your house and you know before you invite them that they are fussy eaters, to deliberately make dishes they won't like makes you a TERRIBLE host.

Make extra dishes so you have what you want, or make new friends or tell your family to go someplace else.

Tom Sietsema: So smart: "Make extra dishes so you have what you want, or make new friends or tell your family to go someplace else."

Honestly? I find picky eaters are picky -- unadventurous, annoying -- in other areas of their lives.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom, my S.O. is visiting DC after a semester away at grad school, so I made a dinner reservation for us at J&G Steakhouse. They are having a tough time deciding what to get, though. What would you recommend? (and what should we get at the bar, too?)

Tom Sietsema: Um, did you catch my review? ;)

As for cocktails, I bet there are some new additions to the list, given the season and how cold it is right now.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Dining Guide: J and G Steakhouse

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BA Rest: Also, this is great in Buenos Aires: Te Mataré Ramírez

Tom Sietsema: Gracias!

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Strategic cheap: I'd love some ideas as to how to sample the finer restaurants without busting a budget. Lunch is one way. Restaurant week, another. But I also discovered Rasika when we (early) one night just walked in and found a little table next to the bar and ordered a couple of appetizers and drinks. We got the "feel" of the place, liked it, and when we're richer, plan to go for a "real" dinner. What other fine places offer a bar/next to bar experience?

Tom Sietsema: Palena certainly qualifies, as does The Source.

Anyone else care to weigh in with a fave counter around town?

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Dining Guide: Palena and 2009 Dining Guide: The Source

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Arlington, Va.: "Honestly? I find picky eaters are picky -- unadventurous, annoying -- in other areas of their lives"

Tom, I think you said it all. Happy holidays

Tom Sietsema: I'm bracing myself for an onslaught of venom from the "pickies" out there!

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Rio Rest: I just tuned in -- sorry. AMAZING rest in Rio -- in Sofitel in Copa. Restaurante Le Pre Catelan

Tom Sietsema: Happy to add this as we wind down here.

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Clifton, Va.: Sorry picking up the check before I leave is rude and unacceptable. As a former server, I never did it. Quality of servers in this area is awful at all price points in restaurants. Very unprofessional.

Do not pick up the check before I leave or I will ask for it back and stiff you!

Tom Sietsema: Ouch! And a Merry Christmas to you, too, sir!

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D.C.: In the last three weeks I have eaten at Minibar and Ray's the Steaks. Without a doubt, I am won over by Ray's. Minibar was almost $265 with wine and I realized that our menu was pretty much identical to a friends menu three months earlier. (I thought part of what I was paying for was a unique or more seasonal menu...where was the lamb?) I also was hungry a few hours later. How can they charge that and only serve ONE dish of red meat (waygu, very good though). Anyhow, Ray's was awesome, massive amount of steak and two glasses of wine...$60 including tip. Not really a question but a comment that a great meal doesn't have to cost a fortune.

Tom Sietsema: You're right: Great meals dont have to cost a fortune.

In defense of Minibar, however, part of what you're paying for is the intimacy (just six seats); the thought and effort (those two-temperature soups and nitrogen cloud snacks took time and money to develop); and the performance (the guys behind the line play the roles of cooks AND tour guides, right?)

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Picky Eaters: At the core, you and Carolyn are both correct about the ettiquette. You eat what the host serves you, but the host, as with the restaurateur, is entertaining, showing hospitality, to their guests. You don't challenge guests at holiday dinners, you comfort them. If you want to challenge guests, have dinner parties for that purpose. When I want to be challenged, I'll go to a restaurant and eat their adventurous dishes, but for Thanksgiving or Christmas, it's about comfort food. It was that way at Citronelle. A few years ago for Thanksgiving, they served TURKEY! Imagine that.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the chuckle.

Folks, time is up. Thanks for a lively hour today. I'll be back here next Wednesday, eager to hear what you ate for Christmas -- and how you'll be ringing in 2010.

Cheers to all.

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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. 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.

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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