Ask Tom: Tipping the valet, tasting menus and sea urchin

Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic
Wednesday, March 17, 2010; 11:00 AM

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema dished about tipping the valet, tasting menus and sea urchin on Wednesday, March 17 at 11 a.m. ET.



Have you heard that Againn is expanding to the suburbs? That Casa Nonna, an BLT extension, hired a DC chef? That Masa 14 is poised to open its rooftop to diners? (Oh yeah, there's this little TV show that's going to start filming in town next month, too. Something involving chefs and competitions.)

Happy Wednesday, everyone. Let's get rolling. Againn expands to Rockville; Casa Nonna hires a chef; Masa 14 opens a rooftop


Washington, D.C.: Tom -- I'm curious as to where you think the new "hot spots" for restaurants will be a few years from now. Last week you talked about new restaurants and what kept them afloat -- location being a common factor. Is "H Street NE" going to be the new destination of choice? Or locations near the ballpark? Perhaps National Harbor in Alexandria? I'm always excited for new parts of D.C. to be built-up and give rise to fantastic new places to dine!

Tom Sietsema: The million dollar question.

There's lots going on in the Atlas District. Unfortunately, the restaurants there tend to be more about entertainment (you can golf at the H St. Country Club) than about quality cooking.

I'm pleased that Michael Landrum is expanding his beefy empire into Anacostia. Maybe he and a Ray's are what the area needs to grow more places to eat?

As for National Harbor, a couple new developments there encourage me about serious food taking root. One is the arrival of a popular New York restaurant, Bond 45. The other change is a new top toque for the two upscale restaurants in the Gaylord complex. But Michael Harr, late of Butterfield 9, definitely has his work cut out for him.

I think Logan Circle is getting more delicious by the month, thanks in part to the efforts of the owners of Cork (who now have Cork Market); the Neighborhood Restaurant Group (who created Birch & Barley); and Proof owner Mark Kuller, who plans to open Estadio, a Spanish eatery, this summer.

Note to Anyone Wanting to Open a Place: There are a few vacant storefronts on 14th St!

I'm curious to hear what today's audience has to say about the subject. Michael Landrum's expanding empire and Michael Landrum taps Frank Morales to raise Ray's

Gaylord National snares Chef Michael Harr

Estadio adds a Spanish accent to Logan Circle


Washington, D.C.: Are you related to the Sietsemas from Rochester, Minnesota?

Tom Sietsema: Funny, my mother's family is from that part of Minnesota, but my father's family is from SW Minnesota (Worthington, to be exact).


Arlington, Va.: How do you decide which places you will critique?

Tom Sietsema: I aim to review a variety of places each month. If I'm lucky, they will include two places in D.C. and one each from Va. and Md.

A lot of factors go into deciding which places to review. New establishments are obvious choices, but so are old restaurants that have experienced significant changes.

The most fun restaurants to review are the ones that no one has heard about, or written about extensively. But in an Internet era that's increasingly difficult to do. "Secrets" don't remain secrets for very long.


Rockville, Md.: A comment on perspective: My wife and I have been around long enough to remember Tiberio, Lion d'Or, Rive Gauche and the others of D.C.'s rich dining history. We also admired the skill and focus of Michel Richard and Roberto Donna before they branched out, and we welcomed Komi, CityZen, and the Inn, each in its turn. Lately we've become admirers of The Source and of Bibiana because they've brought great food and drink coupled with an unerring sense of 21st Century style and service new to Washington. And one other thing -- the infusion of Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese and the other Asian and Pan-Asian cuisines has been a great stimulus, thanks largely to the skills and spirit of Germaine Swanson.

The Washington region's dining scene remains a healthy one and the contribution this weekly forum and your other articles make is a major reason why. Thank you.

Tom Sietsema: You rock, sir. Thanks for the kind words and the nice trip down memory lane.

It would be interesting to revive Tiberio and see how it would compare to the high-end Italian places we have now, wouldn't it? I was lucky enough to eat at Germaine's in its glory days and remember how good that Vietnamese food was. Phyllis Richman on Germaine's


Arlington, Va.: Tom, I've recently had my eyes opened to eating foods I don't already love. What restaurant(s) would I look to for excellent Sea Urchin in the D.C. area?

Tom Sietsema: Sea urchin, which some food lovers like to call "the foie gras of the ocean," is usually available at better Japanese restaurants. Just this week, I tried uni (sea urchin) at the just-opened Kushi on K St. Divine stuff.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom, Parents are visiting soon; they haven't been here in a couple of years. We took them to Jaleo for an early dinner the last time they visited, which they loved & still talk about. Thinking maybe Rasika for this time. Any other ideas in that budget range? We're open to any cuisine. My hard-of-hearing dad would find a quieter place a bonus. D.C. is preferred, Silver Spring & Bethesda are ok, too. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: The back table at Et Voila! in the Palisades is fun and different (Belgian food). Way up on Conn. Ave., Buck's Fishing & Camping has lowered its prices and introduced a terrific new menu. Either should fill your needs. 2009 Dining Guide: Et Voila!


National Harbor...: is in PG County, Md., not across the river in Alexandria.

Tom Sietsema: Did I type that? NH is on the river ACROSS from Alexandria.


Glover Park girl: On Friday night a few friends and I tried a recently reviewed restaurant. While we were waiting at the bar for our table, we saw a waiter come to the bar with a carafe of wine and a glass of wine. The waiter poured the glass into the carafe and handed it to the bartender. We were shocked to see the bartender then pour the carafe into the wine bottle. Assuming the wine was not touched (I HOPE!) is this common practice? Needless to say after seeing this, my glass of wine was suddenly less appetizing. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: I'm confused. Why would the server be handing the BARTENDER the wine? And how are the glass and the carafe related? Same wine?


Petworth: "I'm pleased that Michael Landrum is expanding his beefy empire into Anacostia"

Deanwood. Anacostia is a different neighborhood entirely. I know to many who are unfamiliar with East of the River Neighborhoods, it can be confusing, but if you can lead the way in getting it right, maybe others will too. Thank you.

Tom Sietsema: My bad. Thanks for setting the record straight. I'm still recovering from that time change (and New York!) from the weekend.


Tom's Sage Advice Needed: Planning dinner party for 8-10 friends for my husband's 40th birthday in the late fall. Would like to begin researching private rooms/chef's tables for a wonderful, memorable celebration of great food and wine. Money not really an object as this is in lieu of a trip. Just want a really relaxed, enjoyable evening. Your suggestions are greatly valued!

Tom Sietsema: My brother celebrated his 40th in the private dining room at Rasika and still raves about the experience (in part, because Bill Clinton dropped by to say hello to his former social aide). What about the garden at Poste, or the chef's table at 2941 or at Tosca downtown? 2009 Dining Guide: 2941 and 2009 Dining Guide: Poste


CityZen -- fantastic!: Last night, I finally tried CityZen. Thanks to my wonderful wife for a birthday treat. I was expecting to be wowed by the food and the atmosphere, and I certainly was! What I didn't expect was the value -- $80 for a superlative 3-course menu and some canapes, and a broad wine list, that included great offerings and some good values.

Will try the tasting menu in the future. The octopus confit was hearty and the poussin with foie gras was to die for!

We left VERY happy, and with a check less than half the cost of our last birthday meal at Citronelle. We will DEFINITELY be back, CityZen!

Tom Sietsema: Music to Eric Ziebold's ears!


Cabin John, Md.: Tom: Hope you can enlighten me regarding an issue that has been bothering me. I know the rule of thumb for tipping servers is plus or minus 20% depending upon how satisfactory the service was. But how much should one tip valet parkers and the host or hostess who checks your coat? Should you give a tip to the valey person who takes your vehicle or to the one who brings it to you? Or both? $1 seems much too chintzy in this day and age.

Tom Sietsema: Questions I have myself sometimes!

I tend to give the coat check a buck or two, depending on what I have him or her stow away (luggage, for instance, merits more than a coat).

With valets, I tend to tip the person who retrieves the car. I tip anywhere from three to five dollars, depending on the circumstances and service. (I've seen some guys RUN to get my car, and then for BLOCKS.)


Washington, D.C.: I'm new to the area and need to pick a restaurant for my husband's birthday next Wednesday. It will be us and my parents going out. We'll eat any kind of food (but have one vegetarian), mid-range prices, happy to go downtown or to the Maryland side. I'm trying to think of somewhere that would be festive, but won't be too crowded (or takes reservations) and not too loud for my parents. I'd appreciate your advice!

Tom Sietsema: I'm inclined to send you and your merry band to the wine-themed Proof in Penn Quarter; the refurbished Poste in the Monaco Hotel (maybe in the garden?); or 1789 in Georgetown, which has an interesting fixed-price menu provided you order by 7 p.m. 2009 Review: 1789


D.C. and shaking my head: Dear Tom, At first was Minibar at Jose, then the now defunt Enzo's Chef's Table at Teatro Goldoni, after that we got Table 21 at Volt with Voltaggio that has just expanded, now 24 course at Vidalia.

Does chef Cooper feel left out? Does he have to feed his ego? How can you possibly eat 24 course? And for $150 per person?

He should concentrate on doing what he does best at Vidalia instead copying the only real original tasting tables in town

Besides, I don't really think Chef Cooper has the talent to match up with the above mentioned chefs. In any case good luck to him

Tom Sietsema: The poster is referring to a recent blog item I wrote about Vidalia "24," a tasting dinner created by RJ Cooper and minions and served at a communal table in the restaurant's lounge.

$150 doesn't sound excessive, considering the sweep of the ever-changing menu and the fact beverages are included in the cost. Throw in a well-known chef -- a recipient of the James Beard Foundation's award for Best Chef/Mid-Atlantic a few years back -- and you've also got dinner theater built into the package. Vidalia cooks up a 24-course tasting menu


Palisades: Tom Love your chats, thank you. What do you make of Goldoni's chef fired last week? I am mosly disturbed on learning they breached the contract and refused to honor the severance package. Do you have any idea of what the restaurant new concept is? What the new menu is like? Is the chef really opening his own restaurant and where? I really wanted to try the Chef's Table but I guess I am a little too late alternatives? Thank you

Tom Sietsema: Tim Carman reported the news in the Washington City Paper last week. I'm including a link to his story here.

I never made it to the chef's table, either, partly because very little that was served to me, by dour servers, in the main dining room encouraged me to go back and spend even more money on something so exclusive.

I bet Enzo lands on his feet somewhere interesting. I know he has talent. Enzo Fargione Fired from Teatro Goldoni


Mid-level foodie: Tom, I read your chat often and wanted to tell you a short but true story. I have seen posts before about people having bad dining experiences and not doing anything about it. So, when my husband and I (mid-level foodies) were dining at one of our go-to spots downtown, about a month ago. While there were a few highlights, there was also some serious mistakes made by the kitchen and we had a very disappointing experience. I really enjoy this place, so I decided to e-mail the owners (who have their e-mail address on their Web site, which quite frankly all places should!). Anyway, I emailed them about my experience just because I knew what the restaurant was capable of, and what we ended up experiencing. I didn't want someone to come once and think that was general operating procedure. It was my chance to raise the red flag to the people who's money was on the line, and to make sure one of my favorites continued to be successful.

Less than 24 hours later, I got a profuse apology followed up by a promise for investigation. It was followed up by a real letter (in the mail) again apologizing and explaining what went wrong that night. They also were incredibly generous in providing a gift certificate to "right the wrong". Just wanted to let you know that there are restaurants out there who care about their customers. Also, to let readers know to speak up, and you might be surprised at the positive response...

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for sharing your story.

Now, which restaurant are we talking about? It deserves some love for following through, not once but twice, and being so generous.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom,

For an upcoming date auction for breast cancer, we're looking for potential cooking lessons from local chefs or restaurants as donations for the dates. We're checking with Adour, CulinAerie, but wondering if you have any suggestions for chefs that might be willing to give a couple a good time for a good cause.


Tom Sietsema: First, let me tell you that most good chefs (and critics!) get hit up A LOT for events such as yours. So don't be upset if anyone turns you down.

Second, I hope the following chefs don't hate me for suggesting them as potential donors, but I, for one, would pay to see them in action (teaching me what they do best):

Bertrand Chemel from 2941

Cathal Armstrong from Restaurant Eve

Vikram Sunderam from Rasika

Tony Conte from Oval Room

Nobu Yamazaki from Sushi Taro

Scott Drewno from The Source

... and about 25 other talents who I don't have time to list right now...


Mid-level foodie: It was DC Coast. Thank you again, to David Wizenberg, who really made a point to follow through!

Tom Sietsema: Hats off to DC Coast and Mr. Wizenberg!


Florida Chick: I respect valet efforts but -- $5 tip? seriously? Man. you are in a recession bubble up there.

Tom Sietsema: Five bucks is on the high end, not my typical gratuity and offered for extra-special service.


5,000 OpenTable points!: Tom, I now have 5,000 OpenTable points! If you were going to save $50 on a restaurant in D.C., which would you choose?

Tom Sietsema: Right this moment? The Bistro at Eve.


Washington, D.C.: Tom, I know that some chatters give you grief for recommending the same restaurants over and over...BUT...I want to say, I now know this is done for good reason. Recently, I took a family member to Proof for dinner and it was a wonderful time. Great, informative service but by no means pushy or overbearing. Our server explained different menu items and helped with some great pairing suggestions. I had the sablefish, and quite frankly, I think I could eat this every day for the rest of my life. Really was a wonderful time. So long story short - you clearly recommend what's good.

Tom Sietsema: Bless you, my dear!

(Hey, do I get extra credit for not mentioning the E-word this morning?)


Food : Hello Tom!! Question? If you had to go to a resturant in Silver spring ONE only one -- which would it be?

Tom Sietsema: That's easy: Jackie's.


Washington, D.C.: Re: parents & dinner ideas - thanks!

Speaking of seeing high profile folks out, a few friends and I were seated next to VP Joe Biden (& Beau) at Ella's Wood Fire Pizza several weeks ago. He (and they) were headed to the Syracuse-Georgetown game to cheer on Syracuse. As alumni, we were thrilled as he commented on their alumni status & support of our alma mater. As diners, we were pleased by the food. As spectators, we felt bad for the poor guy, as people kept walking by the table just to see him -- but at least they let him eat without interruption. Now you see that the pressure is on to have similar luck with my parents!

Tom Sietsema: Speaking of celeb sightings ...

On the train up to NYC last Thursday morning, I sat next to this petite, middle-aged woman. Except for her brief cell phone conversations, she was very quiet.

When we got to Penn Station, I saw she was too small to retrieve her Tumi bag from the overhead compartment and got it for her. At this point, a guy next to us says to her, "I've been a life-long fan of your work."

I turn around, look the woman in the face, and realize I've been sitting next to SALLY FIELD for THREE HOURS.


Curious about questions: About how many questions do you field for this chat weekly? Seems to me you would be inundated and hard-pressed to answer every query. What say you?

Tom Sietsema: Out of the hundreds I get here, I think I average between 45-50, depending on the day. Pressure to answer as many as I can is ... HIGH! But only because I want folks to eat well in Paris, tip the correct amount, show their parents a good time, make a vegetarian happy, file complaints in a civil manner, enjoy the company of children at the table, understand sushi --- you get the idea.


Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich.: We're visiting our 24-year-old son in D.C. this weekend. He has his first real job after college and lives on a tight budget. We want to take him out for some great food and fun. Can you recommend some good places to dine, lunch and dinner?

Tom Sietsema: What wonderful parents.

For lunch, consider the first-rate Rasika (contemporary Indian) or Zaytinya (Middle Eastern small plates). Both are located in Penn Quarter and close to the Mall and sight-seeing.

For dinner, try the new Birch & Barley (for amazing brews and mostly terrific contemporary American cooking) in Logan Circle or Obelisk in Dupont Circle. There, you can feast on some of the best Italian cooking in the Mid-Atlantic. Birch and Barley/ChurchKey and Obelisk


Va.: I've been bitten by the Groupon bug and today's deal is for Layalina in Arlington. I'm a Lebanese Taverna fan but that's pretty much my only exposure to the cuisine. Where does Layalina fall in comparison?

Tom Sietsema: I used to be a fan of the place, evinced by the restaurant's inclusion in several past dining guides. But the cooking can be hit or miss there, and other Lebanese restaurants now compete for my time and money. 2006 Dining Guide: Layalina


D.C. NW: Ref: Sally Field. Does not speak well about your situational awareness :))

Tom Sietsema: But the papers I was reading were REALLY engrossing. Plus, I never got a straight-on look at her face until we all stood up.


Friendship Heights: I need a good brunch place to take my girlfriends, they took care of me when I was having a big operation and I would like to thank them for their help. Thanks a lot.

Tom Sietsema: Birch & Barley began serving brunch recently. That would be a fun place to spend a few hours on a Sunday. You might also consider the Bombay Club downtown for its regal Indian buffet or Creme on U St. for something more casual.


Washington, D.C.: Tom:

Et Voila! is not for someone who has difficulty hearing. Here is what you said about the restaurant in your Dining Guide:

"Sound Check: 74 decibels (Must speak with raised voice)"

Tom Sietsema: And that's why I recommended the back table at the restaurant!


The Fourth Estate : Speaking of Bill Clinton dropping by at your brother's event, yesterday he walked out of the elevator on the 13th floor at the National Press Club as we were leaving after an amazing lunch.

As you know, The Fourth Estate has a new chef who is making changes. When are you going to review it? Would love to know your take on food.

Tom Sietsema: I've been there, once for a preview, a second time for something more formal. Fourth Estate taps new chef


Chefs and good causes: Chefs/restaurants get "hit up" all the time for charitable events and contributions. If you're running the auction/event this year, remember that a "connection" (be it cause, neighborhood, personal acquaintance) will better your chances of getting a donation. And don't be too disappointed if the chef/restaurant says no to your request as great as your cause may be. He or she is dealing with more of them than you can imagine.

Tom Sietsema: Uh huh.


Gaithersburg, Md.: I'm going up to New York next weekend, and will most likely see some Broadway show on Friday night. I found two recommendations in your postcards that are in that area, but is there anything else I should consider for pre-show dining? Maybe something a little more casual?

Tom Sietsema: You're in luck. I just spent three days eating around the Big Apple, where one of my goals was to find something new and different for pre-theater dining.

Mission accomplished: Seasonal, a lovely Austrian spot, on W. 58th St.

I'll be reviewing it later this month, in the Travel section.


Washington, D.C.: Tom - I completely adore your chat, which is awesomely entertaining and insightful on many fronts. But, as a FOH restaurant professional for 15 years, sometimes it seems like people don't understand when they post that they are blithly criticizing people when their livelihood depends on it. I think it would be interesting and informative if you had a session where servers and managers were encouraged to (anonymously, of course) tell stories about rediculous and crazy things that customers do -- and you wouldn't believe what we have to put up with sometimes. It might be helpful to make this chat feel more balanced (not that you don't rock!) but also maybe get customers to see what we have to deal with each day (I assure you that every day I get a bunch of tables of wonderful, gracious and kind people and one table, without fail, of mean, nasty nuts who I am convinced only go out to dine to spread the misery which is their lives.) And, it would be totally entertaining, there are some great stories out there.

Tom Sietsema: I welcome all viewpoints in this forum (the more detailed, the better).

So. Tell us a funny/sad/useful/enlightening story from the trenches.


Sally Field!: Just think, Tom... If you'd show your face to all your fans, she could be saying, "I just sat next to Tom Sietsema for 3 hours!" :)

Tom Sietsema: Yeah. Right.

I do remember her being sweet when I returned from the cafe car with coffee. She picked up a bag of dried apricots I dropped. Sweet, sweet Sally.


PLEASE OPEN RESTAURANTS!: In Rosslyn. Please, please, please. Even a good bagel place like Breugger's would be a start, but we all we have is cafeteria style takeouts, Chipotle, Chop't, Cosi, Starbucks. We need go out to lunch with coworkers not fancy places, as are in abundance along King St. in Alexandria. Just good, not to pricey food. Alexandria, just in Old Town and off the top of my head, has three Thai places, an Indian place, a Lebanese place, two Spanish places and then stuff like Lighthorse, Columbia Firehouse, Overwood, even Bittersweet (which I beg to open a branch here, just for their noodle soups, egg salad on multigrain, and cranberry lemonade). Right now, there is nothing to pull us out of our towers at lunchtime, so we all just bring lunch, or go get a burrito and eat at our desks. There are a LOT of people who work here, so how about treating it as a real place?

OK, rant over.

Tom Sietsema: Restaurateurs, are you listening?


Al Fresco in D.C.: I love dining out of doors, but sidewalk seating can sometimes suffer from traffic noise and fumes. Other than the Tabard Inn, what restaurants offer either interior patios, rooftops, or other off-the-main-road dining options? Metro accessible, a plus.

Tom Sietsema: The nice weather (finally!) has me thinking about al fresco dining spots, too.

What about the garden at the venerable L'Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls, the rooftop at Perrys in Adams Morgan, the second-floor balcony at Morton's downtown and the off-the-street patio at Johnny's Half Shell on the Hill?

Feel free to weigh in with some of your favorites, gang.


Outside the Beltway: Been wanting to ask this a long time -- is there a way to politely decline the "wine sample?" I'm referring to when a bottle is opened tableside, and a sample is poured for either the one person who ordered the bottle, or for everyone intending to drink the wine. Then the diners are supposed to...what? Decide if it's appropriate? Compliment the bottle? Taste-test it to see if it's corked? I find this whole deal awkward -- having my dining companions and the waitstaff, standing there while I sample the wine and presumably nod my approval. My husband and I don't get to dine out much (3 small children), but when we do go and share a bottle, it's really not necessary to go through this charade. Certainly if the wine was off, we'd alert the waiter and send it back. Am I missing the whole point of this practice? Your thoughts?

Tom Sietsema: Gosh, I love that gesture, in part because it gives me a chance to have a little conversation with the sommelier (if I want to) and in part because you'd be surprised how many bottles I encounter that are corked or otherwise off-tasting.

All you have to do after tasting the first pour is nod in approval (if in fact you like the wine). It's quite simple, really, and it takes but a few seconds.

How do other diners feel about the practice?


Olney: Tom

Love your chats. First time asking a question.

My family goes to Red Lobster on occasion. I know, not a foodie restaurant, and a chain at that. About a year ago, the restaurant changed its shakers to the kind where you twist the top to grind the salt and pepper. At home I use the McCormack brand to do this, with no problem.

But the Red Lobster shakers are very difficult to twist, especially if one has arthritis in the hand or wrist, as I do.

I've complained to the waiter, who brought over the manager, who gave me a vacant stare and said that's what the company has decided and he can't do anything about it. I e-mailed Red Lobster with my complaint. They sent me coupons to go back and said all their kitchens have the regular shakers and I should ask for them.

Last week, while there, I asked for the regular shakers. The waiter told me the kitchen does not have them. I asked if they'd had other complaints about these shakers. He said they've had many. I ended up having the waiter grind the pepper for me as the salt was easier to twist.

This is supposed to be a family restaurant. Does Red Lobster expect the over 60 crowd to bring their own pepper, which is what I'm thinking of doing? I'd go elsewhere, but it is close to home, not so expensive, and accommodates kids.

Any thoughts?

Tom Sietsema: I'd write to Red Lobster and tell the company you're STILL having problems. Be sure to list time/place in your complaint.

In the future, you should also carry with you the letter from the company that claims its units stock regular shakers. Show it to the manager when he gives you that "vacant stare."

The hour is up, folks. Thanks for tuning in. See you next week.


Sightings - Jose Andres at Balducci's!: OK, so you sat next to Sally Field. I ran into Jose Andres and his daughter one Saturday morning at the Bethesda Balducci's. I didn't recognize him at first, but when he ordered from the meat counter in Castilian Spanish I was intrigued. A few minutes later we bumped into one another in an aisle and I figured out who it was. I told him in Spanish I loved his food at Jaleo and Oyamel and he was gracious.

Interesting to see a chef shopping wearing a track suit (he had been at his daughter's basketball game).

Tom Sietsema: Funny!


Lent: Tom, a reminder to restauranteurs, if you have a restaurant that serves a seafood or vegetarian dish on Fridays for Lent, make sure to stock up on enough so that we're not left eating a side salad.

Tom Sietsema: Good point.


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 Join his live Q&A every Wednesday at 11 a.m. ET.

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