Ask Tom: Nightmare tables, new forks and celebrations

Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; 11:00 AM

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema discussed nightmare tables, new forks for appetizers and entrees and birthday/anniversary celebrations on Wednesday, Feb. 24 at 11 a.m. ET.

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Silver Spring: Saw the news about Frank Morales teaming up with Michael Landrum, but any news on who Jackie's next chef will be? Have been a fan of Jackie's since it opened and would hate to see the quality decline or worse, that they close up -- it's slim pickings in SS as far as interesting/non-chain restaurants. Thanks Tom!

Tom Sietsema: Jackie Greenbaum tells me that a former sous chef, Lawrence Semanyk, is holding down the fort for now. But, she says, "I'm very much on ther hunt for the next rising star." Interested parties should buzz her at the restaurant: 301-565-9700.

Happy Wednesday, everyone. Thanks for showing up.

washingtonpost.com: Michael Landrum taps Frank Morales to raise Ray's

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Alexandria, Va.: Some friends and I are going out to dinner in Arlington on Saturday night. What are your recommendations for restaurants with good American fare in a moderate price range? Thanks so much.

Tom Sietsema: I've had some nice meals at Liberty Tavern, and it's near the Clardendon metro.

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D.C.: Thanks to the top-notch staff at Addie's for making my wedding anniversary dinner (celebrated with our two-year-old) happy and memorable. They seated us early, played peek-a-boo with my kid and quoted lines from "Dora the Explorer," and painted "Happy Birthday" in chocolate on our dessert plate. It was the first restaurant experience I've had in a long time where the staff were not only great, but actually memorable!

Tom Sietsema: I love to post these kinds of reviews. Take a bow, Addie's.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Dining Guide: Addie's

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Present: Have you eaten at Present lately? We have inadvertently discovered this restaurant a week or so after it opened. It was love at first bite. By the time your review came out we have tasted and were addicted to the most of the dishes on the menu.

After a long hiatus, (we spent a few months out of town), we rushed there for dinner and were unpleasantly surprised. The food lost its sparkle. The after taste of every dish we ordered was sugar, sugar and sugar... plain white sugar, not even palm sugar or rock sugar. All sauces heavy, heavy, heavy and way too sweet. In the past we devoured every morsel and wondered it we should order another dish, this time we could not finish any of the dishes and did not want to take the leftovers home. We asked if they changed chefs and were told: "NO, why do you ask?"

Tom Sietsema: And were you honest with the staff?

I sure hope you hit Present on an off night, and that your meal was a bump in what I've always found to be smooth riding. Has anyone else noticed a decline in quality there?

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Dining Guide: Present

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Re: Addies: Wait, they painted "Happy Birthday" on the plate for their wedding anniversary? Am I missing something here?

Tom Sietsema: Oops! I think the poster meant to type "anniversary." Poster, can you clarify?

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Denver, Colo.: Hi Tom! A couple weeks ago someone asked about places to eat in Denver. If they or others are still interested, the Denver Post had a nice feature today on "Where to Eat Now":

I also wanted to vouch for Vesta, a "dipping" restaurant that is as gimmicky as it sounds but also really delicious.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for providing me with some reading material for lunch today.

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Washington, D.C.: What are you lunch recommendations in the city on a Saturday? All the places that were on my list (Rasika, Central, Bombay Club, to name a few) do not have Saturday lunch service. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: I've been known to gravitate to both the Tabard Inn and Zaytinya for lunch on Saturdays. Another place you might consider is the always-appealing Bistrot Lepic in Georgetown.

washingtonpost.com: Bistrot Lepic and 2009 Dining Guide: Tabard Inn

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Short Hills, NJ: Hi Tom! I've been reading everything I can to help me plan a trip to the region, but now I am getting more and more confused. I will be coming to Washington/Arlington on business with a coworker the end of March. I am a female foodie, she is more cautious -- nothing too spicy or too "ethnic." Since we are on the company dime we can't go crazy -- we should stick close to $71 a day for food -- but we tend to only eat 1 other meal a day and do that one cheaply.

I have been making lists of restaurants -- but the more I read the longer the lists become. We have 4 or 5 nights. Here are my choices - what do you think and what do you recommend? Top of my list: Central Michel Richard, Jose Andreas either Jaleo or Zaytinya, Dino, Liberty Tavern (Arlington Va.), Bistro Bis, Bibiana or Michael Mina.

Maybes: Cafe du parc, J&G Steakhouse, Circa, PS 7, Churchkey, Blue Duck Tavern, and The Oval Room. Thanks for your help.

Tom Sietsema: You have a respectable list going there, NJ, although a few otherwise good ideas -- J & G, Bis, Mina's Bourbon Steak -- are probably too expensive.

Quick thoughts:

Cafe du Parc: Cheerful setting, solid cooking, close to the sights

Bibiana: Sit at the bar and order off the menu there

The Oval Room: The place to splurge and see why Tony Conte has become such an important chef in DC

Central: Love those burgers, any of them (fish, seafood, chicken)

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Silver Spring: Maybe this is better for Miss Manners but I am taking a chance that you will know what to do. After eating an appetizer that required a fork the server took the small plate away and handed me my dirty fork. The napkin is already in my lap so what exactly am I supposed to do with this fork while waiting for my main course? Love the chats BTW...

Tom Sietsema: Ask for a clean fork and return the used one.

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Addie's...: ...painted "Happy Birthday" on the plate for your -anniversary- dinner?

Not that I'd complain about anything written in chocolate on my plate. Just askin'.

Tom Sietsema: Reminds me of the time I splurged with a significant other and stayed at the George V Hotel in Paris.

For SO's birthday, I had a cake delivered to our room. It read: "Happy Anniversary, Mr. and Mrs. Sietsema."

I still laugh when I think about it.

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Washington, D.C.: I want to be a restaurant's worst nightmare. That is, I have an evening coming up where as many as eight people will be arriving and departing at different times over the course of about five hours. Some will want to eat, some will just drink. Can you think of a restaurant or tavern where this wouldn't be too obnoxious for the staff? We'll be in downtown D.C.

Tom Sietsema: You WANT to be a nightmare or you THINK you'll be a bad dream? Whatever, I don't expect a lot of restaurants to volunteer their services for this situation. But I'd love to hear suggestions from today's assembly.

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St. Paul: Tom, thank you so much! I went to Craftsman here in town the other day and the charcuterie plate has haunted me ever since. That salami...the pate...the chorizo...And what I didn't understand from your review was that it was a total deal -- $15 is not too much to pay for something that was elegant, substantial and tasty. So thanks for sending us there -- we rarely cross the river but the trip was absolutely worth it. We'll be going back ASAP.

Tom Sietsema: Glad to get the feedback, St. Paul. I totally dig the Minnesota restaurant's way with cured meat.

washingtonpost.com: Postcard from Tom: Minneapolis

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Nothing too ethnic?: All food is ethnic, FYI.

Tom Sietsema: Those were someone else's words, not mine. I try to avoid using "ethnic" in my writing for the very reason you offer.

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Present: To answer your question: Our server was efficient and very very nice. She recognized us and must have noticed that we were not devouring our food with usual zest. She asked if everything was okay. We told her that our food tasted differently and asked if they changed chefs. She said that they have the same four chefs they had from the beginning and that all of them were there that night. As we were leaving she told us the she conveyed our comments to the chefs and to the manager.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for following up (and let's hope they heard you).

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Happy B'day or Anniversary: In either case, nice gesture, chocolate and the stuff that happy memories are made of! (Tho' some patrons would probably be demanding a comped meal or free drink!)

Tom Sietsema: The Grinch might, you're right! lol

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Baltimore: Any hints about who might be taking over after Elizabeth Large (Baltimore Sun critic) retires this month?

Tom Sietsema: I do not. But whoever follows the veteran critic has big pumps to fill. Large (who isn't) has been covering the scene there for decades.

washingtonpost.com: The Baltimore Sun: Elizabeth Large retires

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Two Forks?: Do you really need a new fork after eating an appetizer? Really?! Put the used fork on your table and use it when your main dish arrives. Don't be such a snob.

Tom Sietsema: In the poster's defense, I can see all sorts of situations where you might want/need a clean fork after eating an appetizer. Some starters can be kind of messy.

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Happy anniversary, Mr & Mrs Sietsema: In French "anniversaire" means birthday.

Tom Sietsema: Right. But the message was written in English. And only one of us had a birthday.

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Vienna, Va.: Looking for a place to eat solo tonight with good food and atmosphere. Any recommendations in NOVA? Bonus points if it is in a reasonable price zone.

Tom Sietsema: The bar at Bazin's in Vienna? Restaurant Eve in Old Town? Willow in Arlington? Passionfish in Reston? Four Sisters in Falls Church?

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Falls Church, Va.: Have you ever had cat stew?

Tom Sietsema: Nope. Have you?

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Nightmare: I've worked in restaurants. I know how they feel about this sort of thing.

To clarify: I WANT to see all my friends, on their schedules, but I KNOW our logistics will be unpleasant for a restaurant.

New question: can you recommend a bar with nice tables and good food?

Tom Sietsema: How about PS 7's, which makes some of the best cocktails (and snacks to go with them) in town?

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For Washington, D.C.: A decent pub seems to fit the bill for the group. Perhaps the Brickskeller? Just make sure to do your own accounting and don't expect the waitron to juggle multiple checks. And tip well!

Tom Sietsema: Or the equally beer-serious ChurchKey, above the new Birch & Barley.

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K St. : I did something similar for my girlfriend's birthday to what "Nightmare" wants to do. We went to PS 7's bar/lounge and I can heartily endorse Tom's recommendation. Everyone had a blast and good drinks and those who ate enjoyed their food. The service dealt with us amazingly well and as a bonus they have pretty decent happy hour specials.

Tom Sietsema: There you go, Nightmare.

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Comfort Food: Tom --

I am craving comfort food -- something with meat, vegetables, gravy, topped with maybe some crust or starchy goodness. Shephard's Pie. Pot Pie. etc. Any ideas?

Tom Sietsema: You want to go to Ris in the West End for its chicken pot pie, or Againn downtown for its fish pie, a layering of mashed potatoes and the obvious.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 First Bite: Ris and 2009 First Bite: Againn

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re: The Brickskeller: Good beer, but hands down one of the least friendly places in town for folks with "logistical" issues.

Tom Sietsema: Oh yeah? Good to know.

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Arlington, Va.: Hello Tom. I know that you use disguises and pseudonyms to protect your identity when dining out. But I wonder if a really inquisitive or observant server can ever catch other cues in your or your guests behavior that lets them know something's up. Is it hard to communicate with your guests and take notes knowing that you aren't just out for a meal? Also, do you find that the caliber of restaurant contributes to how clandestine you must be? Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: I can be my own worst enemy. Since I do radio (WTOP on Thursdays and Saturdays), my voice sometimes gives me away. Friends sometimes slip and call me by name, or bring up restaurant reviews I've written. Otherwise, I hope there's nothing about my behavior that tips off the staff.

Generally, I have no problem juggling table conversation and retaining the details of a meal, but some restaurants are more challenging than others. The details about burger joints, for instance, are easier to commit to memory than are restaurants where every dish has 24 ingredients.

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Mojitos as fashion accessories: I made the Sunday Post! Woo Hoo!!! Actually my manager recognized my "handwriting" and forwarded it to me. True stories: After two failed attempts and being lashed at by a young lady for not knowing how to make a Mint Mojito (it IS a specialty of our establishment btw...) on a busy Saturday night, we established that, in reality, she wanted a Mint JULEP and obviously assumed that because it involves a stick it MUST be a Mojito. Or the innumerable people who ask if that's all SALT I'm pouring into their drink! And the many (including one liquor salesperson!) who turn out to be diabetic upon finding out that it contains SUGAR!!!! I don't think it's so much the labor involved in the drink (other than a busy shift), rather it's the naivete of the guests who think the drink makes them "cool"... Thanks for a secondnd rant today!

Tom Sietsema: So, so true: "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

washingtonpost.com: Miss some chats? Tom's round-up in the Sunday magazine

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Laurel, Md.: Submitting early to tell you about a great experience tonight at Facci! We wanted to try something new, and had read your review -- we were not disappointed. My pizza was delicious and the veggie fries a nice starter. The only thing I would mention for other diners heads up was that we took our 16-month-old daughter with us and around 6 p.m. the lights got dimmed waaaay down low. We were the only couple with a kid there, even at 5:15 when we walked in it was mostly after-work crowd. She was great and the manager came to gush over how cute she was, but I did feel a little uncomfortable -- next time I would only take her for lunch. I do want to stress that at no time did anyone make us feel anything less than welcome, just my personal observation! But at less than $40 for an app, glass of wine, and two entrees -- we will definitely be back!

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for the feedback. I ate there during lunch -- and shared the bright room with lots of young families. So your hunch is probably right.

washingtonpost.com: 2010 First Bite: Facci

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Hungry in Woodley Park: Tom - I've got a friend visiting next week who'll be staying at the Omni Shoreham in Woodley Park. We're meeting for dinner within a walkable distance of the hotel and I'm stumped as to a place to take her. New Heights is only place that comes to mind. Eaten their recently? Any other recommendations? Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: Yes, I've eaten at New Heights recently, even more recently than my August review (just because I like Logan Cox's food so much).

Other ideas nearby: Afghan Grill if you want to keep it cheap and casual and Petit Plats if you want French food in a townhouse setting.

washingtonpost.com: 2009 Review: New Heights

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Yes, 2 Forks: If the server takes the appetizer plate away before bringing the main course, yes, the fork should be replaced.

Who wants to set their fork on the table top, which is almost certainly not that clean, and look at for the next 10 minutes? (The table will be even less clean if dirty forks are set there routinely.) They wipe tables with a rag between customers; they don't disinfect either table or rag.

Tom Sietsema: Another vote for fresh forks.

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Brickskeller: Probably too late to post this, but as much as I love the Brickskeller, the service is TERRIBLE. I don't recommend it for a large group where different parties need different checks. And why would I tip well for bad service? As an example, once the waitress berated my friend when she brought my friend the wrong beer, claiming that she "pronounced it wrong." (Unlikely since my friend is a native of the place they make that beer). Just a word to the wise.. Love your chats, Tom!

Tom Sietsema: Ouch! Sounds like Brickskeller needs to take a cue from Addie's.

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Petworth: " Do you really need a new fork after eating an appetizer? Really?! Put the used fork on your table and use it when your main dish arrives. Don't be such a snob."

It's not being a snob. It's not wanting to mix your foods, and get food all over the table, and wanting to have the correct silverware for the food.

Tom Sietsema: So far, the assembly here seems to favor clean over used forks before the main course.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

Have reservations for Central for my birthday, and want to know what is a must have on the menu!

Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: I haven't been in since Arthur Cavaliere replaced Cedric Maupillier in January, but if the online menu is current, you should gravitate to the goat cheese Caesar salad, steak tartare, the lemony chicken burger or the decadent liver and onions.

washingtonpost.com: Top chef says adieu to Central Michel Richard

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Arlington: How can you recommend PS 7 after the debacle with the waitresses being fired? Any manager that treats their employees like that does not deserve to be endorsed on this forum.

Tom Sietsema: Because one of them ultimately fessed up and the others were invited to return.

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Rosslyn, Va.: I need to send a grand "merci" your way, Tom. Unknown to me, my now-fiance had contacted you a while back, asking for restaurant recommendations in Paris. One month ago, he told me we were going to Detroit/Canada for the weekend but instead surprised me with a trip to Paris (I found out at Reagan Airport, causing a petit scene where I jumped up and down in excitement at the news). Instead of two days in Michigan, we stayed in France for five and got engaged at the Eiffel Tower our second day there. Turns out he had been in touch with you and based on your wonderful advice made reservations at Cinq in the Georges V Four Seasons restaurant.

This was the most memorable meal of my life...everything from the elegant champagne cart rolled out to celebrate our engagement to the keepsake picture with "Congratulations!" written on the frame to the box of chocolates they sent us home with. I felt like a queen dining at Versailles and began to tear up halfway through dinner as I took everything in.

I know you had guided him to Cinq and later to Restaurant Drouant, and thanks to you we indulged in a foodie's dream come true that weekend. Thank you for helping make our engagement trip so special and unforgettable...you really went above and beyond. Merci beaucoup!!

Tom Sietsema: Your post just made my month. Thank YOU for writing. Le Cinq is where I sent my parents for their 50th anniversary and I remember them raving about the meal forever after. My meals there have been nothing short of glorious.

CONGRATS on the engagement.

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Alexandria, Va.: Tom, I'm not too sure if this is a low brow question for someone like you or if this even falls into your area of expertise but I'll ask anyway. Is there a chef or person in the food industry (either locally or nationally) that you think does not deserve all the positive press they receive? The one person I have in mind is Warren Brown of Cakelove. I'm constantly seeing him written up in magazines as well as the Post and I have to say, I think his baked goods are awful. This guy has a PR team to rival any A list celebrity but his cakes taste no better than what you get from Hostess or Little Debbie. Not to get snarky here on the chat but who's too overexposed?

Tom Sietsema: Interesting question (and answer)!

My opinion: If Mr. Brown didn't have such a great back story (lawyer turned baker) and wasn't so easy on the eyes, I bet he wouldn't pop up seemingly everywhere you look. I've heard the business described as "Cakehate."

The other local who gets far more attention (nationally) that I think she merits considers herself Washington's answer to Alice Waters.

Other nominees, anyone?

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Washington, D.C.: I know this is getting in late but have you tried Ping Pong Dim Sum yet?

Tom Sietsema: Yes. Unfortunately.

washingtonpost.com: First Bite: Ping Pong Dim Sum

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Fairfax: I've got a suburban recommendation for you to try. I started a new job a few months ago, and there's an Indian restaurant in the bottom of the building that's just to DIE for. Lunch buffet, great dinner menu, and the staff is extremely friendly. It's a little place in Fairfax (near Fairfax Circle) called Jaipur. Ever heard of it? If you're looking for dining partners, I'd be happy to take you. I'm in there at least once a week, so I could even be your cover -- you'd just be a friend in from out of town! ;-)

Tom Sietsema: Thanks, but you are the nth reader to write me about Jaipur in recent weeks. Seriously, does the restaurant have some kind of campaign or contest going on? I've heard from dozens and dozens of purported fans of Jaipur.

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Boston: Posting a restaurant etiquette question in advance. I'm having a local restaurant cater a family event on Friday. They will drop the meal off, not stay and serve. I always tip the delivery guy (and it's always a guy) when I order from a restaurant, but am not sure what amount is appropriate here.

Should I tip a percentage (the bill will be about $300) or just give the driver $20 or so? In the past you've dealt with this for takeout, but this is delivery. Please let me know what would be appropriate.

Thank you.

Tom Sietsema: I think the size of the tip depends on a few details. Is the guy bringing the order up six flights of stairs or just one? Will there be multiple trips to the house from the food van? Rain or snow would also help determine the tip. (I offer more in bad weather.) Your hunch is mine: $20 or so, since no one is sticking around to serve.

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re: restaurant's worst nightmare: Why don't you just order in and host at your house?

Tom Sietsema: Another option! (But maybe not possible.)

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom, Chad Smith from Urbana. In reference to your chatter who thinks he'll be a "nightmare table," we're flexible and happy to handle the logistics. He can call me at the restaurant -- 202-956-6650.

Tom Sietsema: To the rescue! And so helpful, including a number even. Thanks, Chad.

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Most talked about. . .: without really seeming to deserve it: Barton Seaver

Tom Sietsema: I can see how we might begin next week's chat ....

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For the worst nightmare: Vapianos. Everyone can eat and drink whenever they want and no staff has to rush them along.

Tom Sietsema: Good idea.

Gotta dash, folks. See you next Wednesday.

washingtonpost.com: Vapiano

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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. He's on video now as well, with his Tom Sietsema's TV Dinners series. 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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