Food critic

A periodic look at my communications with readers.

Uncomfortable chairs and banquettes became a sore subject during a recent online discussion, and as someone who spends 20-plus hours a week in restaurants, I wanted to high-five Frank John Schmidt when he weighed in afterward with a novel idea. Restaurants can't predict the measurements of every diner who crosses their threshold, but they can certainly make the effort to research reasonably comfortable seating, even if only to secure pads or pillows for those who might need them.

"I think that every restaurant designer and manager should have to eat a four-hour multicourse meal in whatever seating they devise," emailed the reader from Columbia, Mo. "To add to the list from your hard-chair posters: chairs that are too deep for short people (and no supplementary cushions available); chairs small enough to fit on a racing bike; banquettes with tables spaced so closely that my size 2 spouse can't get out until time to leave; rooms arranged so that a trip to the bathroom requires the geospatial skills of a London cabdriver; bars where every touchdown cheer floods into the dining room."

Schmidt isn't taking the issue (ahem) sitting down. "I now check a new place's website for pictures before booking and have written off some well-regarded places on that basis alone."

A meditation of sorts

A reader recently submitted a question I hadn't addressed in 18 years of Ask Tom online chats: What's the best way to offer prayers of thanks in a restaurant?

"My family and I say grace, and we realize that makes us outliers," the chatter posted. "The waiters are always polite, sometimes embarrassed, which matches my own feelings in those moments. So I guess I'm asking: Do you or readers have recommendations on when/how to squeeze in a quick grace before the meal arrives? I want to stress that we don't say long, drawn-out graces, and we try not to make a scene of ourselves."

I put the question to Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, senior pastor at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, who says she prays before 80 percent of her meals, depending on her company. If she doesn't know the comfort level of her companions, "I'll read the situation and often ask" if anyone minds. ("Some clergy pray too much," she says, her laughter implying she's joking.)

The person Gaines-Cirelli eats out with most is her husband, a Catholic. They cross themselves, say a one-sentence offering of thanks, then cross themselves again. "It's short," she says, "and I'm not asking anyone to do anything." While Gaines-Cirelli says they've been interrupted a few times by "Want pepper?" type questions, servers generally pause what they're doing or discreetly set a request down and leave.

It pays to be exacting

Note to servers: Diners expect exact change after paying their bills.

Barbara de Garcia is the latest reader to complain about what she calls a trend: restaurants rounding up the amount. "If my check is $23.30 and I give the server $30.00, she only gives me $6 change," the Silver Spring reader writes via email, making an example of Le Pain Quotidien on P Street NW. "Servers say they don't have change, and in fact their aprons have no pockets. How can this be legit?"

Asked about the policy at the chain restaurant, assistant general manager Haleta Gerra says, "We give the right change." Servers starting their shifts are expected to have $20 in bills, plus coins, she adds.

Ultimately, some servers will pay the price for shortchanging diners. De Garcia's response to her attendant at Le Pain Quotidien? "I told the server I was shorting her on the tip and gave her what I had in exact change."


One for you, one for me

An anonymous chat participant was surprised to order a bottle of wine at a "prominent" Washington restaurant, only to have the sommelier open the bottle away from the table and taste the contents before pouring anything for the diner.

"We're not that well-versed in sommelier protocol," the poster wrote, "but we thought this was strange, as sommeliers in the past usually open the bottle table-side, present the cork, and pour the customer a taste for approval. Have you encountered this before?"

Increasingly, I have, especially in high-end restaurants, which view the practice as a form of quality control, says Magda Gilpin, a sommelier at Masseria in Washington. "It's safer, basically," for people who know what the wines should taste like to preview them and make sure they're what they're supposed to be. "Wine is a living thing," Gilpin says, and can change from bottle to bottle. A first taste by a trained professional can ward off wines that might be corked or oxidized or otherwise different from the norm. Sommeliers aren't helping themselves to a glass, by the way, but more of a sip.

Georgia on my mind

When readers ask me what Washington lacks, my wish list often includes the cuisine of Georgia, as in the bread basket of the former Soviet Union. That's about to change with the expected arrival in October of Supra, whose name refers to a Georgian feast, at 1205 11th St. NW.

Lawyer-turned-restaurateur Jonathan Nelms, who developed a taste for the food as an exchange student in the former Soviet Union, has hired Malkhaz Maisashvili, the former chef of the Georgian Embassy in Washington, to make some of the signature dishes of the region. They include cheese-stuffed breads (the popular khachapuri), walnut-sauced chicken and vegetable pates, but also chakapuli, a tarragon-laced stew that will swap in mussels for the traditional lamb. Nelms describes the cuisine as "an incredible combination of Silk Road food" that borrows from Asia, the Mediterranean and the Middle East: accessible, he says, "but not like anything else you've had."

While the food at Supra is expected to be traditional, Maisashvili is also working on a few dishes without flour; his last job was at Senza Gluten, a gluten-free Italian restaurant in New York.

A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the owner of Supra.

More from Food: The latest trend I loathe in restaurants: No space between tables A waiter spills beer on them — and expects them to pay for it Got a question for Tom? Join his live chat with readers at 11 a.m. Wednesdays at live.washingtonpost.com.
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