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Ask Tom
Hosted by Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Food Critic

Wednesday, March 26, 2003; 11 a.m. ET

In a city loaded with diverse restaurants, from New American chic and upscale Italian to sandwich shops and burritos on the run, finding the best places to eat can be a real puzzle. Where's the best restaurant for a first date or an anniversary? Father's Day? What's the best burger joint? Who has the best service?

Ask Tom. Tom Sietsema, The Washington Post's food critic, is on hand Wednesdays at 11 a.m. ET to answer your questions, listen to your suggestions and even entertain your complaints about Washington dining. Sietsema, a veteran food writer, has sampled the wares and worked as a critic in Washington, Seattle, San Francisco and Milwaukee, and can talk restaurants with the best of 'em. Tom's Sunday magazine reviews, as well as his "Ask Tom" column, are available early on the Web.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Bethesda, Md.: What do you think would be the proper response by a restaurant to a diner's finding a bent nail in her hamburger? It was in her mouth when she discovered it, but she wasn't hurt. (This is a serious question.)

Tom Sietsema: Utter horror followed by profuse apologies and a chat with the kitchen staff, perhaps?

That is indeed a problem. Given the mental anguish on the part of the diner, I'd say a comped meal wouldn't be out of line.

Good morning, everyone. Feels like spring today.

Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: Have you been to Mie N Yu yet? If so, what would you recommend on the menu? Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: At this point: a cocktail at the bar.

Bowie, Md.: Hi Tom, love the chats. I'm headed to Santa Fe this weekend. I searched the "Postcards" first and didn't see anything on Santa Fe. Any places you can recommend? Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: There should be a Postcard from Santa Fe lurking around the site, because I've been there, done that.

In a nut shell, my advice is to get in line at the terrific Café Pasqual's on Don Gaspar Ave. for a southwestern-style breakfast or lunch and splurge on dinner at Geronimo on Canyon Road, one of the city's most handsome places to eat.

RE: Nut Allergies: There are two groups in the restaurant business, those who understand nut allergies and those who do not. Once at Four and Twenty Blackbirds and another time at Grammercy Tavern, I had enlightening conversations with my servers regarding this issue. Both servers told me of horrific instances of when they have actually seen diners die before their eyes (both at previous jobs, not at these restaurants.) Both diners passed away from eating peanut products that were in unassuming dishes. In one instance, peanut butter was used as a thickening agent in a tomato based soup. Who would have thought of it? Furthermore, a lot of restaurants use specialty oils such as walnut, almond, and hazelnut. The best course of action is to have a server check with the kitchen for the use of not products. Just calling the host or hostess may be good to see if they can accommodate dietary requests, but it is less than likely they will know what the chefs and line cooks are using behind the scenes. I do not have any allergies to nuts, but I have dined with people who do. At some restaurants, such as Big Bowl in Reston, they actually have a binder notebook separated by allergy that will guide people to "safe" dishes respective to their allergy. And no, not all people will drop dead if they come within a .000001 micron range of nuts. However, asking to exclude whole peanuts from a dish isn't putting the kitchen in a compromised position or questioning the integrity of a chef or dish.

Tom Sietsema: Lots to digest there. Thanks for taking the time to elaborate on a topic from last week.

Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom, Just love your columns. When is your Spring Dining Guide coming out? Just a note to tell you that we enjoyed the newly opened Zaytinya and Indique so much that we have been back to both these places quite a few times. Hats off to chef Jose Andres and the owners of Indique(Indian Tapas!). Hope more and more good restaurants come up in DC so that we are in no way behind San Francisco.

Tom Sietsema: Sorry to report, there is no spring dining guide this year, in part due to budget cuts here. (Those recent promotions in the Magazine referred to the March 23 Capital Cuisine spread of paid advertisements, which I had nothing to do with.)

Washington, DC: I've been craving fish and chips recently. Where should I go?

Tom Sietsema: Not long ago at lunch, I had a really nice model at Signatures at 801 Pennsylvania: melting cod in a crisp golden batter, served with little logs of fried potatoes.

Arlington, Va.: Tom - From work I received an award for a 4 hour limo ride and $300 to use for one meal at any restaurant. With those two combined, do you have any suggestions as to where my fiancé and I should go to use it? I'd love to do the Inn at Little Washington, but know 4 hours is not a long enough time to get there and back. I'd love a place where we could eat great food and maybe even have a little time left over to travel around town in the limo. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Now THAT sounds like a fun place to be working at! I'd opt for the charming Inn at Easton in Maryland followed by the Ashby Inn in Paris, Va.

Chicago, Illinois: Tom: I thought I read that you were going to do a review of Chicago dining. I'd love to have your perspective, but I haven't been able to find the story on-line. Is it coming or have I missed it? Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Tom's Postcard from Chicago. And, while we're at it, all Tom's Postcards.

Tom Sietsema: This should address a number of other out-of-town queries today.

Washington, DC: No question, no complaints, just a thanks for steering us toward Zaytinya. It lived up to the positive press it's getting!

Tom Sietsema: My only gripe is that it doesn't take reservations after something like 6:30. I can't tell you how much that bugs people, myself included.

Kosher Dining: Hi, Tom - Please help! I have a friend who keeps kosher coming into town -tonight- and I want to take him to dinner -I heard that there is a new restaurant - Archives? Is it open? What's the word - is it any good? Thank you so much!

Tom Sietsema: Until Archives reopens (long story there, discussed here before), you'll have to settle for the more casual Stacks, adjacent to the place.

Rockville, Md.: I asked the question last week, but you didn't get to me, so I'm trying again -- I am going to Atlantic City for business, and my husband is going to join me for the weekend, it's his b-day. Would like to take him to a very nice restaurant, cost doesn't matter, just need fish or veggie options, I don't eat meat. We are staying at the Sheraton by the convention center.


Tom Sietsema: Chatters? I've never been to Atlantic City myself.

Low Country Cooking: I'm heading to Charleston next week and was hoping that you had some suggestions for some good low county cooking. I am aware of Jestine's but was wondering if you had other suggestions in and around the city.

Tom Sietsema: Two words of advice for you: Hominy Grill.

Germantown, MD: I had a very weird experience this weekend at a NY diner and wanted your view of the situation...
My mom and I had gone to breakfast at this dinner on Thursday morning. We ate, paid, left the tip, and headed on our way. The next morning, we went to the same diner. As the host was seating us, we see the waitress we had the previous morning shake her head a vigorous "No", so he would not seat us in her section! Now, my mother and I are good tippers, good patrons, we didn't cause any trouble, and it was a non-incidental meal! We were flummoxed and a bit pissed. SHE was the one that we had to call over a few times just to get a 2nd drink. How would you have handled this? I was very tempted to ask to be seated in her section out of spite.....

Tom Sietsema: I need more information. Maybe the server was swamped and you two just happened to be the straws breaking the proverbial camel's back?

Dover Sole at Finn & Porter: Question - is it possible to get fresh Dover sole in the U.S.? I was under the impression that the true stuff comes from the other side of the Atlantic. (Not sure why the fish can't swim over here, that's just what I've heard). The reason I ask, is that my fiancé and I went to the new Finn & Porter on Sunday (it was fabulous!) and he ordered the Dover sole, which was equally as fabulous. The waiter (once again, fabulous) told us that all their fish were fresh, but I started to wonder because they had the sole on the menu. BTW, I hope you are reviewing that place soon, we plan to go back again and again, especially because it is near our house. Thanks!!!

Tom Sietsema: The true stuff does indeed come from the other side of the pond, generally from as far north as Denmark on down to the Mediterranean, and its cost reflects that fact.

You had a better time at the new Finn and Porter than I did (but the restaurant IS brand new, so I feel duty-bound to give it another chance later this season).

Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom -- Is your most recent Dining Guide available on the Post's Web site? If so, will you provide a link. I haven't had luck finding it.

washingtonpost.com: The most recent Dining Guide was out in the Fall. It's here. Or may be found on washingtonpost.com's Restaurant front.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks, Ms. Producer.

Alexandria, Va.: Tom, thanks for all of the advice you provide in your column and online in these chats. I can't tell you how invaluable it's been in exploring Washington. I have a question I hope you can help me with. I'd like to take my boyfriend out to a nice, romantic dinner for his birthday tomorrow. I'm looking for a place with culinary expertise that will make the night memorable, but being a recent graduate, cost is still a concern. Any type of food is okay, but it would be especially helpful if the restaurant was somewhat metro-accessible in DC, VA, or MD. We've been to and really enjoyed Zaytinya and Bombay Club. Can you think of any suggestions for us along those lines?

Tom Sietsema: I continue to steer people like yourself to the underground Little Fountain Café in Adams Morgan --- and continue to hear good feedback about the cozy restaurant. It's not as glam, but I like the intimacy of the room, the sweet service, and the simple but delicious American cooking.

Dulles, Va.: Hi Tom -- I really enjoy your chats every week, and hope you can help me out. I'm meeting a friend for dinner next week, and the halfway point is the Rockville area. Would you recommend some moderately priced, casual restaurants in the Rockville, North Bethesda area? Almost any cuisine is fine (except Asian, I seem to be allergic). Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Book a table at the popular Addie's on Rockville Pike. It's a mere 48 seats spread around several rooms of a former bungalow, with charming service and an interesting American script.

Fish and Chips: I've had really good fish and chips at the 4 Courts in Arlington.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for weighing in with a second option.

Washington DC: Hi Tom. Can you talk about some of your favorite seafood restaurants in the area?

Tom Sietsema: It depends on what you're after. Lots of places offer good crab cakes, for instance. For good regional fish cooking in general, I'd be hard-pressed to find anything better than (drum roll, please) Johnny's Half Shell. I'm also a big fan of Pesce, also in Dupont Circle, and Black'sBar & Kitchen in Bethesda.

Major Craving, Va.: I went to school in Montreal and fell in love with the local dish known as 'poutine' (french fries, cheese curds and gravy). Do you know of any places in the Washington met area that serve this? I've been trying to find it since I moved here.

Tom Sietsema: Funny you should ask! I spent the weekend in Montreal, and the last thing I ate Saturday night was that very dish. Delicious, no?

Unfortunately, I've not encountered it locally.

A bent nail?!: Tom, that calls for more than a comped meal. The owner should do some really fancy groveling here, because that person is on the road to owning his place via a lawsuit. Unbelievable.

Tom Sietsema: I thought I implied that in my response. Yes, yes, groveling would be in order.

Food Allergies...: A helpful hint for those that have them. Type up your restrictions/allergies, print them out on note cards and bring a card with you when you dine out. Give the card to your server to take to the chef so there is no confusion about your needs. A friend of mine does this and it works well for him.

Tom Sietsema: Clever idea.

Falls Church, Va.: Hi Tom, Twice this month a server at a chain restaurant (Olive Garden and Outback) brought our bottle of wine to the table already opened with the cork gently replaced in the neck. They said this speeds up service, but I'm concerned about the possibility of getting more than bargained for, like someone's else's leftovers. Am I being paranoid? (What said that??) Or am I bucking a new trend? Thanks.

Tom Sietsema: Frankly, I prefer seeing a bottle opened before my eyes myself. I'm in your court.

Washington, D.C.: Tom! To prevent me from making a fool of myself, please tell me how to pronounce the following: coulis, ragout, confit, crudités. Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: 1) coo-lee
2) rah-goo
3) kon-FEE
4) crew-deh-tay

Now go forth with confidence!

Downtown, Washington, D.C.: Top 3 sushi places in DC-metro area?

Tom Sietsema: Kaz Sushi Bistro
Maybe Makoto

Arlington, Va.: Tom - Quick question. What would be your suggestion for a romantic restaurant for an engagement. Mind you I won't be getting engaged in the restaurant itself, but more of a starting point for the evening...Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: A booth at Palena? A table overlooking the lake at 2941?

Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom; I hate to quibble, but I think your list from last week of best restaurant cities in the country missed an important one; Providence, RI. Anyone from New England will tell you without hesitation that the restaurant scene in Providence is far above that in Boston. Al Forno's, Cappricio, New Rivers...the list goes on. And even the second tier Italian restaurants are better than the best in most cities. Please consider revising your list.

Tom Sietsema: Having dined around Providence a lot in the last two years, I have reason to leave it off the list. (A lot of people think Al Forno is resting on its laurels these days, by the way.)

Washington, DC: Diners! There is no need to sue a restaurant just because something was found in your food. Mistakes are made. Just relax and kindly tell the server. No need to make a big production out of it. I was at Cashion's and found a piece of the whisk in my mashed potatoes. Even the best restaurants make mistakes. Now the manager and staff know me and treat me very well because I kept things under control. Now I get a good table every time I call!

Tom Sietsema: I agree. A little understanding goes a long way. And thank goodness the nail wasn't consumed.

Pick me! Pick me!: Tom -- Please do a Dining Postcard from New Orleans!!!

Tom Sietsema: It's on my "to do" list.

Sushi: Hi Tom, I've checked the archives but I don't seem to be able to find your write up of the new sushi place near (on?) New York Ave near Metro Center. Would you provide the name please? Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Sushi Aoi.

Tom Sietsema: Your wish has been granted.

Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: I'm entertaining a group of 8 adults this weekend, ranging in age from 25-50. What group-friendly restaurants would you recommend - preferably ones that take reservations and is located in Washington, DC? Thanks - I'm a huge fan of yours.

Tom Sietsema: While you mention neither cooking style nor budget, I'd seek out the communal table at Greenwood up on Connecticut Ave., Perry's in Adams Morgan (it just might have its roof open), or the bar room at Two Amys pizzeria up near National Cathedral.

Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: I'm looking for someplace in the district to bring a party of 12. We are welcoming some new board members to our organization, so I would like it to be elegant, but we also plan on conducting a brief meeting, so it has to be expectable to talk and discuss. The final twist is that one member is a vegetarian, so it has to have quality vegetarian options. Any thoughts?

Tom Sietsema: Places that leap to mind include Tosca (Italian) downtown, Bis (French) on the Hill and the Oval Room (new American) near the White House.

Washington, D.C.: Tom - I'm a consultant working on federal contracts in various places around DC (12th and K right now). Every time I switch to a new project I have to start a new search for good lunch places. Is there a website that has a good mapping of lunch spots around the city? Have any suggestions for this neighborhood? Also - for those of us working on weekends down here... anywhere good for breakfast or lunch that's ACTUALLY OPEN on weekends? Thanks!

Tom Sietsema: Right on 12th & K, you can't beat chef Tom Power's Corduroy restaurant for solid contemporary American cooking. I also like the menu at Sushi AOI, on New York Ave. and 11th, which I reviewed in the Magazine a couple weeks ago. For something more casual, do as a lot of cabbies do, and make a run for the kebobs at (is it?) Moby Dick's. I'm not coming up with any breakfast ideas, alas.

Charm City: Tom, I am heading to Baltimore next week and am looking for a moderately priced restaurant to go with my boyfriend. I am looking for a different kind of place/can be somewhat trendy. I like all kinds of food. I know you have recommended the Helmand before. Also considering some places in Federal Hill. Can you provide any insight on "places to go" in Baltimore?
Thanks, Love the chat!

Tom Sietsema: One place I always look forward to returning to is Black Olive on S. Bond St.: great fresh fish, simply prepared, and best washed back with a Greek wine from the family-owned restaurant's extensive list.

Worse than a nail:: Not that long ago, my wife found a used band-aid in her salad, when she had almost finished her meal. The manager immediately comped the meal for the whole table, brought extra drinks, and gave us a $ 50 gift certificate. While I thought this was handled professionally, we were still grossed out.

Tom Sietsema: Tales from the Dark Side!

Washington, D.C.: While I agree that there's no reason to sue over every mistake, a bent nail is quite different from a piece of a whisk. Think about it for a minute: the piece of a whisk most likely came from the normal preparation of food in which a minor accident occurred. On the other hand, where had that hamburger been in order to come into contact with a bent nail?

Tom Sietsema: "Would you like a tetanus shot with dessert?"

Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: Hi Tom, An avid eater with three questions for you: Is there a place that you could recommend for wine by the glass and small plates of food? Maybe something casual or lounge-y. Do you have a favorite Ethiopian place in the Adams Morgan/14th Street/U Street area? Do you read the questions that you do not have time to answer online so as to get an idea of what your readers are interested in?

Tom Sietsema: 1) Try Bardeo, the chic wine bar next to sibling Ardeo, in Cleveland Park

2)Dukem, at 11th & U streets, serves good kitfo (raw ground beef spiked with herbed butter and hot red pepper) and vegetarian plates.

3)Yes, I make a print out of the questions I don't have time to address t get a sense of what readers are thinking about and ponder them over lunch.

Alexandria, Va: Tom, As you just mentioned Sushi-Ko is one of the top places for sushi. It consistently has been THE place (or in the top two) for twenty years now. Are there other restaurants that have held their positions like that for such a long time ?

Tom Sietsema: Interesting question. Certainly L'Auberge Chez Francois and the Inn at Little Washington both continue to uphold standards. 1789 would be another obvious inclusion on such a roster.

Black Olive in Baltimore: Please warn the reader, who wanted a moderately priced meal, that Black Olive, while good, is incredibly expensive.

Tom Sietsema: Oops, good point. As casual as it is, Black Olive can be sort of pricey. But any god seafood restaurant tends to be that way, and this place is worth any splurge.

Arlington, Va.: Is there anything you absolutely won't eat? On an unrelated note, how is Maxim's?

Tom Sietsema: So far, no, although I'm not sure, after watching "Fear Factor" on TV, if I could down some of the stuff the producers make their contestants eat.

Maxim's is entertaining. Unfortunately, t never seems to be very busy at prime time (the action heats up late at night, on weekends, I'm informed).

Alexandria, Va.: Dining mishaps--not gross, more funny. At the Summit Grill (not sure I have the name correct) in Gaithersburg, just after it opened. I ordered a chicken sandwich. When I took the top of the bun off, I noticed something missing. The chicken.

Tom Sietsema: Ha, ha, ha!

Atlantic City NJ: AC is a gastronomic wasteland, full stop. There is truly nothing to recommend, and I'm not kidding. They cater to the lowest common denominator. I would just go ahead and join the rube-fest at Hooters at the Tropicana.

Tom Sietsema: Thanks for your honesty.

Washington, D.C.: Do you have a favorite website for info on dining/critics/etc. in other cities?

Tom Sietsema: I've logged on to both chowhounds.com and egullet.com in the past, as well as various newspaper sites. Their usefulness REALLY depends on who is dishing up the suggestions.

One way to see if your taste matches that of a given poster's is to read his/her responses to others' requests for the best places to eat in their cities. (I'm amazed, for instance, at some of the dated recommendations some local posters offer on regional food sites, as if Washington were stuck in 1989.)

Washington, DC: Tom, have you ever thought of auctioning off a "Meal with Tom Sietsema"? I know I would pay big bucks to dine with you on one of your assignments- it could be a great fundraiser for some worthy cause!!

Tom Sietsema: I do about three or four of those types of meals every year, with the caveat that the buyers not be connected to the restaurant industry. They can be really, really fun -- I've met some fine people that way -- or really, really scary, as in rich people who just want to tell you where they ate in Paris and Tokyo and blah, blah, blah. (Hmm, will I regret typing this later today?)

Atlantic City, NJ: Au contraire! I beg to differ on the AC comment earlier. You just have to know WHAT to look for. You want I should point you towards a good plate 'a pasta like Mamma used to make? Try Mama Motts. Best carbonara I've had on the east coast.

Tom Sietsema: To the rescue!

Re: Atlantic City: I would suggest the Temple Bar and Grille in Caesar's Palace. It has a great setting as well as outstanding food and service.

Tom Sietsema: And again!

Dining Mishap: Denny's: Turkey club. They forgot to take the wax paper off of the pre- sliced turkey.

Tom Sietsema: That's ONE way to add more fiber to the ol' diet.

Washington, D.C.: Re. Limos and Sushi: Aren't your 2 recommendations to the limo rider as far away as the Inn at Little Washington? How about something closer - L'Auberge Chez Francois or Old Anglers. As for sushi, the best outside DC is Tachibana in McLean.

Tom Sietsema: L'Auberge would be a good choice, too.

I think one could get to Easton and Paris in the allowed time frame. I've done both before.

Federal Hill: Ten-O-Six for Thai, Blue Agave for Mexican, Vespa for Italian, Ropewalk for bar food, Bicycle for eclectic French, Corks for a great wine list.

Tom Sietsema: You got that down, Baltimore traveler?

Bethesda, Md.: Tom: Just curious, when you were a boy, were you an adventurous eater -- veggies, foreign cuisine? Or is there hope for my sons who are prime examples of how one can lead a horse to a broad range of cuisines but he'll still only eat his oats, no veggies ?

Tom Sietsema: I was pretty adventurous, but there wasn't much that was "foreign" in the farm town I was raised in, except for the occasional trip to Nanking in Minneapolis. I do remember my sibs and I oohing and ahhing when Mom pulled chicken Kiev out of the oven, though.

Washington, DC: I just got a new job in Georgetown. I would like to meet some friends for lunch. We will only have an hour or so, but we want some interesting and/or healthy food. What restaurants do you recommend.

Tom Sietsema: Congrats on the new gig there. My picks would be Bistrot Lepic on Wisconsin or the nearby Heritage India.

That's it for this Wednesday. See you here next week, everyone, and thanks for tuning in.

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