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Ask Tom -- Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema discusses the DC dining scene

Aug 17, 2011

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema entertains your dining questions, rants and raves.

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at washingtonpost.com/tomsietsema.

Are restaurants not concerned about the noise level? I've eaten at great places to which I won't return because the noise level was so high, I couldn't carry on a decent conversation with my dining companion. While I understand that, to some restaurants noise = positive energy, to this xx-something woman, noise is a serious obstacle to my dining enjoyment. And thank you, Tom, for posting decibel levels in your reviews - it does help!!

When I launched sound checks for restaurants in 2008, there were just four ratings, broken down into the categories "Quiet," "Conversation is Easy," "Must Speak With Raised Voice" and "Extremely Loud." 

 

A spike in restaurants that are louder than the now-loudest category are making me rethink my system, however. Both the new Hill Country Barbecue Market in Penn Quarter and Lincoln downtown fell into "Deafening" territory: environments over 100 decibels, which are sound levels you equate with motorcycles and power saws.

 

Did you complain to management  in the offending restaurants? They aren't inclined to lower the buzz unless sufficient numbers of customers make themselves, um, heard.

 

 

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining me for another 60 minutes of food and restaurant discussion.

Posting early because I really want to know your thoughts on the rogue 24 reservation contracts. At their prices, a last minute emergency could really set you back. I frankly am just not willing to sign their "reservation agreement.". Thanks Tom!

As someone who makes upwards of 50 restaurant reservations a month, I love a business that makes it easy for me to book a table.

 

Rogue 24 does not.  Granted, it's a special kind of dining experience. And granted, some of the questions it asks on the two-page contract are no different from those posed by some other high-end venues.   But the process boils down to way more work than I want to invest in a dinner for pleasure.

 

Thoughts from today's assembly?

Can I start with the 19, yes 19(!) reservations we had last weekend announcing they were in for Rest Week? (They all canceled when we called them back of course, but at leasat 2 berated and swore at the hostess because we are already booked for the PROPER weekend nights) And it's awesome that even when desserts are included that people still request birthday cake from us! Or the 2 groups on the 1st night that even brought their own cake! Or the girl who demanded that we comp her boyfriends Mojito since he doesn't eat sweets! And day 2 hasn't even started for me yet. Can we have an hour just to hear industry perspectives of this "hallowed" event?????

Vent away, restaurant workers!

 

 An idea: What might keep away the riff-raff  during RW is asking would-be diners to sign a two-page list of rules and share credit card and other information.  Just a thought!

My 102-year-old neighbor loves going out for steak and frequently invites me to join him. His favorite spot is Ruth's Chris. I'm looking for some other options, but given his age, it would be better if I could find places that are not too noisy. We prefer to stay in the city. Any suggestions? Thanks in advance.

The Prime Rib on K St. offers live music at dinner, but it's played at such a level that it doesn't detract from conversation. (The name of the restaurant is what you want to order, by the way.)

 

Any other suggestions from the crowd today?

For some time many restaurant reviews, yours included do not let readers know the cost of a dish. The L.A. Times does. I cannot afford to dine at 80% of the restaurants you review as dinner for two (app,main,desert,bottle of wine, tax, tip) is over $100 Your readers won't crucify you if the price of a dish goes up (or down) So how come?

As far as I can tell, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times display food prices the same way: at the end of the review, with a price range for appetizers followed by a price range for main courses. 

 

For what it's worth, I think listing the price of a dish right after it's mentioned in the review junks up the page. 

I know you've addressed this before but I can't find the info. In short, we had an awful restaurant experience on Sunday morning, sent an email Sunday afternoon to a generic mailbox (only one listed on the restaurant/restaurant group website) and have not yet heard a thing. How long should we wait until we try contacting them again? By the way, we did talk to the manager when it happened - you would have been proud! Although, given that it was Sunday brunch I don't think they had their A-Team at the helm. The apology was perfunctory for something pretty egregious. We didn't ask for anything - we were on our way out (before we even had a chance to order). But an email reply with a better apology would be nice.

I'd love to know exactly what went so wrong at brunch that you didn't even stick around to order!

 

You did the right thing by bringing the matter -- whatever it was --  to the attention of a manager. I think a week is a fair amount of time for a restaurant to reply to an email complaint, but I give a business some wiggle room during holidays and other special occasions. (FYI:  We're smack in the middle of  a Restaurant Week promotion.)

I agree with last's week chatter who thought that Mechelle Armstrong's response to criticism about their new Virtue restaurant didn't answer the question. What more, her response sounded haughty and elitist and made me wonder whether she was completely out of touch with the views of today's average restaurant goer.

I appreciate passion, and I'd like to think Ms. Armstrong was simply sharing her side of the story:  Some folks "get" Virtue, or at least are receptive to something other than an Eve-like experience from the owners of Restaurant Eve, and other diners are looking for something in the new eatery that was never intended to be there.

I have never had a dish with truffles before, but I want to try them. Can you recommend a dish and/or restaurant that would be great for a first-timer? Thank you!

 For those who might not know, food lovers prize the mushrooms known as black truffles, typically found in France, and white truffles, associated with the Piedmont region of Italy, the most. The delicacies are expensive in part because of the way they're harvested by specially-trained animals (dogs or pigs). 

 

Personally, I prefer the earthy pungency of the white truffles, which I love to eat simply, shaved over scrambled eggs or a plain risotto. The fresh variety are usually available from late fall to mid-winter. My last encounters with truffles were at two Italian restaurants, Galileo III and Al Tiramisu.

My husband and I are expecting our first child in a few months. Before the little one arrives, we are hoping to make a final tour of some of DC’s best restaurants. We have been trying to compile a list of our top 5 choices. What would be your top 5 restaurant choices if you knew it was your last chance to get out for several months (or more)? Remember that I have the (very sad) prenatal restriction of no raw meat. This eliminates sushi and also makes me wary about tasting menus because I’m not sure if chefs can accommodate the restriction.

Right this moment, and keeping your restrictions in mind, I'd start dialing Palena Cafe, Rasika, Bibiana, Vidalia and ... any readers care to finish my thought?

There's a few quiet corners at Hill Country. The tables in the back corner by the smokers on the main floor, as well as the downstairs dinning room before, say 8 pm. It's not going to be "quiet," but the difference in the noise level in those spots is amazing.

Good to know. My ears thank you.

Do you think Fabio Trabocchi should have opened in a more manageable, intimate space?

I think the biggest problem with Fiola was (is?) the mixed signal he sent to his audience. On the one hand, he wanted to democratize the dining experience; on the other, he was serving food that reminded some of us a lot of his golden days at Maestro. I got the sense the chef was conflicted as to his new restaurant's direction once it actually opened.

Any insight regarding the lack of salt and pepper on restaurant tables that I've been noticing? Is it rude of me to ask for some? I requested salt and pepper at Estadio the other day because the tomato bread was crying out for it (so were the fried squash blossoms, but I let that pass) and the usually friendly staff seemed rather put out. Is it to be assumed that everything is seasoned perfectly and I am offensive for implying otherwise? I like salt!

Even though I rarely reach for it myself, I like to see salt (and pepper) on the table. It's a sign of hospitality, a gracious touch. Asking for extra seasoning isn't rude.

Tom, What are restaurant options in the DC/Penn Quarter area for a private room for 40-50 people with a casual atmosphere. We will have out-of-town and wedding party guests and do not want a formal seated dinner.

You can't get much less formal than the basement at the new Hill Country Barbecue Market on 7th St. NW.  Dressier, but probably able to accommodate your group: the nearby Carmine's

 

While not as  close to a Metro stop,  Birch & Barley in Logan Circle has a fun upstairs bar called Churchkey.

Hey Tom, I heard a radio interview with the chef of Harth, in which he talked about the jam he's making from the very hot "ghost chilis" that he grows himself. I wonder what you think of the restaurant overall, and also if you've tried anything there with these peppers!

Ghost peppers are reportedly three times hotter than habanero chilies. I've not yet dined at Harth, but Candy Sagon, my occasional fill-in in the Magazine, has.

Wegman's usually has them for sale in the produce department in their Fairfax store under lock and key.

Good to know (and good for Wegman's).

Vidalia? Haven't seen that on your radar in years. What's changed?

Food that tastes truly southern, for starters. (As chef-owner Jeff Buben recently said to me, "I'm never giving away the keys to the car again.")

Hi, Tom, I wanted to share a Restaurant Week experience. My husband and I went to Adour last night and were very, very underwhelmed by the food. We did our best to temper our expectations by 1) remembering this was, after all, Restaurant Week, a time when restaurants must manage both crowds and costs; and 2) reading yelp and actual critic reviews, which are mixed to positive---with reservations. I told myself going in that I would be satisfied with a good meal, even if it didn't blow me away. Well, it didn't blow me away, nor was it very good. If our meal was any indication, Restaurant Week is very low priority for Adour. Our appetizers, dorade ceviche and oxtail salad, were both odd and an unappealing combination of flavors. My ceviche (recommended by our server) came on a bed of avocado puree and was topped with corn kernels and popcorn. The flavors were muted, and some of my fish was vaguely fishy-tasting. My husband's oxtail salad was bland and just...strange. Essentially, it was just a neat pile of cold pulled meat. Neither was very tasty, but we held out hope for the rest of the meal. Our entrees were the most disappointing. I had the short rib with polenta, and while the flavors of the braise were good, the sauce pooled around it was very greasy. Not only did it not appear to have been defatted, it seemed to have been thickened with even more butter. The accompanying polenta also fell flat. It tasted of heavy cream and nothing else. The short rib and polenta together were much too rich and greasy-tasting. My husband ordered the "summer vegetable bolognese" with the additional half-lobster ($14 upcharge). He received a small dish of penne in bland tomato-vegetable sauce topped with 3-4 bite-sized pieces of shelled lobster, some of which were quite rubbery. A disappointment, for sure. Dessert was mixed. My husband enjoyed his coffee-chocolate bar, which was similar to a dense brownie and topped with crispy cereal, served with a side of nougat ice cream. I had the bruleed pineapple with coconut sorbet and coconut foam. This turned out to be a thick, cold slice of pineapple, barely browned, topped with a decent sorbet. It was hard to cut with the provided spoon, and with basically no seasoning and very little brulee crunch, it didn't win me over. I didn't bother to finish it. Did we complain about our meal? No. What would we have said? "We're here for your cut-rate dinner and it's not up to our standards?" Or maybe, "The food is just OK, could you send us something better?" There was nothing really ostensibly *wrong* with what they sent out, but there wasn't much to praise about it, either. And to be fair, none of the staff ever stopped by to ask how the food was, although our sommelier did inquire about the bottle we ordered. I've enjoyed Restaurant Week meals at 1789, Rasika, Ceiba, and Black Salt in the past, and Adour's was definitely the weakest of the pack. I wanted to love--or at least like it, but the food was very middling.

You know what I dig about your post? It's full of details that explain why you didn't care for the RW menu at Adour.  Your reaction to dinner there is not a mere two-sentence rant but a richly-layered report that hopefully will find its way to the French restaurant.

Just a warning to the poster, a friend tried to book with them and they said they would only allow 2 hour room reservations so they could reserve the right to multiple parties in a single night. A little too short for many rehearsal dinners.

Useful information. Strange policy, though.  In general, the larger the group, the longer they take to eat.

Tom I could use your help. I've just been given tomorrow off *and* my boss is kicking in for lunch anywhere I want to go (a reward for a long and grueling project coming to a good end). So where would you dine solo for lunch, in DC, with price as no object? I'm open to cuisine, and lately I have been to Rasika, Poste, and the Oval Room. Thanks!

What a cool boss you have! I'd be inclined to drink in the pleasures at Palena Cafe, Bombay Club, BlackSalt, Vidalia or The Source.

Is there anywhere to get a clam roll in DC? Other than Legal Seafood? Can we make this a new trend?

 Clam rolls, anyone?

I am getting a little sick of hearing diners complain about all of the "riff-raff" that come out for RW. I can't believe people are being so openly snobbish and condescending. As a twenty something working at a non-profit who enjoys great food but simply can't afford to go out to three course meals at many of these restaurants, I enjoy the chance to try so many dishes over the course of a week. I understand it's not perfect and there are many places that aren't that great of a deal or don't have a ideal menu, but I have had a great time at many places by just doing a little research before reserving. I just think some people should think about how pompous they sound before making these comments. (btw, this is not a reflection on the hostess who posted earlier, I'm sure RW is not the best time for the staff and I always tip pre-discount!)

I like your attitude.  Your post gives all of us something to think about this week.

If a restaurant isn't enthused about Restaurant Week, then don't participate! I'd think far better of a place that decided to forgo the event than I would about the many, many places that do a half baked job. I still use this , fairly or unfairly, as an audition for places I haven't been to, and if you're not putting your best foot forward, it would be better not to do it at all.

Well said.

I wanted to get your thoughts on an incident at Lost Society this past Friday. 8 of us were having dinner. With the arrival of our food and side dishes, the table was fairly packed. My friend picked up his wine glass and the bottom of the glass caught the edge of the dinner plate. This caused the glass to tap back on the table which was unfortunately enough to make it shatter into his plate. The waiter asked us if we wished to purchase another steak. I indicated that I though the steak should just be replaced as my friend hadn’t even take his first bite. The waiter said it was our fault but that he would check with the chef. The waiter never returned until after our table had been cleared at which time, and only because we asked, did he state that the chef agreed that this was our fault so we would have to pay for a new steak. We then asked for the manager. As we started to explain how the glass broke she asked, “Oh, are you telling that the glass broke all by itself?” I said that we understood that we had broken the glass, but that after years working in restaurants it was customary for the restaurant to simply replace the meal. After a bit of back and forth she grudgingly agreed to take my friend’s meal off the bill. What would be the norm here?

First thought:  Accidents happen. Lost Society should have replaced your friend's steak.

Second thought:  Your friend never got an entree and the rest of you ate without him?

I don't want to beat a dead-horse here, but Jaleo seriously has problems. I've been a fan for a long time and have always found it fun for a group, so I chose to celebrate my birthday there at the Penn Quarter location this past weekend. I wish I hadn't. The service was atrocious -- we repeatedly had to ask for a server to visit us because there was 15-20 minute breaks between when we saw her -- and the food was lackluster. Nothing worse than making friends go eat somewhere and it turns out totally "eh." Jaleo has long been a staple and I'm not sure when I'll be back.

Hmm. This is the fourth week in a row in which I've received concerns regarding Jaleo. One reason for my difference of opinion *may* be that I tend to eat solo there, at the bar and at lunch.

I had the complete opposite experience at Adour last night for RW. My watermelon gazpacho was well watermelon gazpacho. Nothing to rave about but still nice and summery and refreshing. I too go the braised beef and loved the sauce. The polenta was super creamy but I didnt think too rich. The bed of peppers and onions under the meat was a little over cooked, but the combo of polenta, sauce, meat and veggies was amazing. The meat just melted in your mouth. I had the pineapple as well. It was perfectly seasoned and warm just from the braiser. There could have been a bit more coconut sorbet and less foam but it was amazingly tasty. My dining companion who got the rice pudding kept trying to steal more of it. It was a nice experience at a place I normally wouldnt go. Christina I recommended hitting up the Oval Room it totally blew me out of the water for RW! They definitely hit the mark!

Thanks for sharing. We aim to be fair here.

Had a spectacular (and simple) fresh black truffle pasta with sheep cheese at Fiola about three weeks ago (was a special). That would be a wonderful introduction if it is still available.

Ah, yes. Thanks for the reminder.

What do you think is a reasonable amout of time to wait for your table? Recently I arrived early for a reservation, checked in and then proceeded to wait 45 minutes past my reservation time before I was shown to my table. To his credit, the manager kept informing us of the delay and paid for a round of drinks. When we were seated, we saw several tables that appeared to have arrived while we were waiting at the bar. I am not bothered by a short (15-20 minute) delay, but this was unexpected. Is there something I should have done while at the restaurant?

Sounds as if you were pretty patient and the manager was good about keeping your party informed and free of thirst. 

 

Forty-five minutes is still 20 minutes too long to wait for a reservation, though. It would have been gracious of the restaurant to throw in a gratis starter or dessert.

 

Had I seen what you reported -- others who came after you being seated while you were still waiting -- I might have (gently) inquired as to why. 

Luke's Lobster in Penn Quarter has great clam (and lobster and shrimp) rolls.

Doh. Thanks.

Yes, I have complained to management at a couple of the restaurants - actually mentioned it in an Open Table review of one and got a very nice response from management. But in some cases, unless they completely redo their decor (wood floors, glass windows), I guess there's not a lot they can do.

As I've said before, it's  easier (and less expensive) to add sound-proofing *before* a place opens rather than after the fact. Linens, carpets, curtains and noise-absorbing panels can help mute loud restaurants.

Steakhouses are always my last choice when selecting a restaurant. I can go to the butcher, buy a great piece of steak, season it, grill it and serve it with a baked potato as big as my head and a wedge of iceberg lettuce - and for less than 1/4 of the price I'll pay at a restaurant. When I eat out I want something that can't be reproduced easily at home, and I don't mind paying top dollar for creative, delicious food. So pardon me for not getting all whoop-de-doo about yet. Another. Steakhouse.

Is Washington over-stocked with beef purveyors?  You bet. But I still find something appealing about the subject of today's First Bite column, Lost Society.

I had a great dinner there recently. Sweetbreads and waffles. Yum.

A great combination, I agree. Like chicken and waffles, only richer.

Hi Tom! I read last week's chat too late to respond to the person asking about dining in Albuquerque, but I have a few suggestions if they are lurking here this week. My mom relocated to Albuquerque from the midwest several years ago, and we've had an opportunity to establish a number of favorites in town. No visit to ABQ would be complete without a trip to the Frontier Restaurant, on Central Ave just adjacent to the University of New Mexico campus. Among the many diner-ish delights are giant, buttery, sweet rolls, and huevos rancheros with green chile and house-made flour tortillas. My family also likes La Placita, in Old Town ABQ - New Mexican fare in an historic home/hotel. They serve awesome sopapillas for dessert. Also, Flying Star for a lighter and widely varied menu, with emphasis on the fresh and local, and excellent baked goods. There are several locations around the city. (Also, if the chatter will be in town into October, the hot air Balloon Fiesta is not to be missed!!)

Thanks for the additional recommendations. Let's hope our New Mexico-bound poster hasn't left yet and sees your post.

As someone who has a reservation for Adour during RW, thanks to the poster for the review. I just went to their website and see that their RW menu is entirely different from their regular menu. None of the entrees are their usual fare. Should I even bother going? I understand they can't always offer their entire menu (although many places do), but why give me food you don't usually serve?

The above posts -- and the fact the regular menu is so much different from the RW script -- would certainly give me pause.

What do you do during Restaurant Week? Are there enough places that don't participate that you can check out? Or do you spot-check some of your favorite places to see how they are handling it? Or do you pretty much stay away from the scene for that time?

Excellent question. In years past, I've certainly participated in RW promotions (part of my job, right?), but this season, I'm mostly eating outside Washington. 

 

This is a tease, I know, but I can't help but feel sad that  the dinner I had at a Big Deal Restaurant last night was thisclose to four stars, save for the cool and unwelcoming service I received.  Food is not everything!

Tom- What is your feeling about restaurants/bars that don't list drink prices on the menu? I'm not cheap, but I like to know what I'm shelling out for a fancy concoction. Is it appropriate to ask how much? Or should I just keep flying blind?

When cocktails in some part of the city are going for $15 and higher, diners need to see prices before commiting, don't you think?

Ha. No. I shared my meal with my friend since we had order the same thing. I didn't add that fact an effort to be succinct. That will teach me

Ah, so you each had a half-portion of steak.

I dined at the Oval Room for RW. It was one of the best meals I have had in D.C. (yes, that is a qualifier). I use RW as an opportunity to try new restaurants or go back to restaurants I have not been to in awhile. It had been three years since I had been to the Oval Room and I will be back soon.

Tony Conte thanks you for your endorsement.

Also want to give some love to Vidalias other half, Bistro Bis. This is an amazing restaurant that gets French food right. Ive been to lunch, dinner, and brunch there. All amazing. Definitely suggest there brunch becuase then you can get a nice selection (monte cristo, french toast, and anything with their brown butter sauce is great!) Becuase of the great experience there I ventured over to Vidalia and was just as impressed. Jeff does it right!

I haven't been to Bis in ... well, too long.

I am your biggest defender, Tom, but you've been basing your Jaleo love on lunch at the bar? I'm really surprised that you didn't either think to mention that, or think that dinner on a weekend night might be significantly different than lunch on a weekday (I'm assuming). I know you don't have the time to be everywhere at primetime, but that's a significant difference, I think.

Let me clarify: Lunch at the bar is my general habit, but I've certainly experienced the dining room -- and dinner --- at the original Jaleo.

Hi Tom, Am turning to you out of desperation. Husband's birthday is next Tuesday, we just bought a house in Brookland (NE) and he just got a raise at work. Yay for all three things happening this month! Celebrating the first and latter but keeping in mind that we're officially broke because of the middle, any suggestions on where I can take him for a quiet dinner Tuesday night? We are adventurous eaters and willing to go anywhere within DC/Northern VA. I promise to give you a review of where you send us in next week's chat! - A loyal fan

Congrats on everything but being broke!

 

Masala Art in Tenleytown recently added sound-buffers to its dining room. I, for one, can't wait to see how well they work. In Falls Church, La Caraquena might be fun --  as long as the owner stays away from the bongos he keeps in the corner.  Another idea: Villa Mozart and its three-course Italian deal for $39  in Fairfax.

That's it, I ain't going to that restaurant. Arguing about the amount of the bill is one thing -- that can certainly be left to the end, with a good faith dispute on both sides. But, leaving one person at the table with no food when his entree was ruined by broken glass? There's no way that should happen. You bring him another entree. You might charge him double, you might charge him for the glass, but you don't make him go without food at a restaurant.

The matter was poorly handled by the restaurant, I agree. It wasn't as if the diner wanted to break the wine glass into his meal, after all.

Hello Tom. I am feeling like the "small plate"/tapas concept initiated in these parts by Jaleo has now reached a point of food cliche similar to past fads, like "deconstructed" entrees or plates with vertical towers of food. As if chefs think they can take otherwise unimaginative tasting preparations, put them on a small plate in shareable slices, and get credit for being special. For specifics, I am talking about Lincoln (i.e., lobster beignets that do not taste of lobster, steak served over a cafeteria slop of creamed spinach), Clarendon's Cava, and a few others. Chefs, please: stop being sheep.

I hear you. I'm a little (ha!) tired of small plates myself.  Maybe we should all rise up in protest and demand ... medium plates!

 

Other stuff I'm over: charcuterie plates (unless they're really good); burger joints from celeb chefs (I'm talking about you, Bobby Flay); Obama's repeat visits to burger joints, as if there's nowhere else to find a quick lunch in this town;  chefs who tell us they're using "fresh and local" as if that's supposed to be special rather than the norm ...

I am unconcerned about the reservation process. I have previously had other restaurants require a credit card to make a reservation. Your credit card is charged even if you have an emergency. If the time comes that they no longer have more people that one to dine there than they have tables, than likely the policy will disappear. Untill then, do not go if you do not care for the policy.

Fair point.

Most home kitchens and cooks acan not duplicate the fare in in first clas steak house. they can't get the same quality of beef and they dont ahve a grill or broiler that reaches temps of over 1000 degrees F. Sorry home cant duplicate it. I can come close on my Weber and with beef rom The Organic Butcher

Oh so true.

Hi Tom! My college-age nephew will be visiting in a few weeks with his girlfriend. We'd like to take them out for dinner downtown, show them around a bit. I was thinking something fun, not a formal sit-down dinner. Zaytinya? I'm open to suggestions. Thanks!

Zaytinya would be appropriate, certainly close to the many attractions on the Mall. If the weather is nice, also consider the patio at Poste.

 

It's noon, folks. Time for me to go to work! See you next Wednesday, same time.

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Weaned on a beige buffet a la "Fargo" in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. In thinner days, he was a critic for Microsoft Corp.'s sidewalk.com and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and a food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the '80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section's recipes. That's how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns and keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom. His video series, Tom Sietsema's TV Dinners, pulls back the curtain on a critic's life -- in and out of the dining room.
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