Undercover Dining

Who is Tom Sietsema?

The appointment was for 12:30 p.m. at a fairly new restaurant in Georgetown. The reservation was under the name of Fred, but the rendezvous was with Tom Sietsema, the Washington Post’s food critic. Depending on what he writes, Sietsema is either the most beloved or the most reviled man in the Washington restaurant universe.

Right on time, there’s a tap on my shoulder. “Hi, I’m Fred,” he says. “Nice to meet you.” Fred-slash-Sietsema is dashingly dressed, and not looking at all like a man who eats out 13 times a week. He is trim and fit, and not by accident.

“The day the Washington Post hired me, I hired a personal trainer to work me out three times a week. It is more a professional necessity than a personal indulgence,” he says. He also gives himself a break, sometimes skipping lunch on Saturday.

This lunch is one of what Sietsema calls his first takes, his first visit to a restaurant. He normally tests a restaurant at least three times before writing a review, believing anybody can have a bad day. But he also makes sure he sees restaurants at their worst and that is Monday, the slow day of the restauranting week. The dining room is virtually empty as we are led to our table.

In the 1990s Taiwanese movie, “Eat Drink Man Woman,” the best chef in the country has lost his ability to taste the food he cooks. I wondered the same of Sietsema. Can he still tell good food from bad? Doesn’t it get boring to eat out all the time? Like one of his reviews, which mixes considered praise with cutting criticism, his answer is a contradiction. He doesn’t get bored because “you have to love this to really do it well.” At the same time, “I eat mediocre food so you don’t have to.”

But when we pause to consider the menu, it is clear that familiarity hasn’t dulled Sietsema’s approach. At first glance watching him casually scanning the menu is like watching a rerun of “Colombo,” where you know the innocuous look around the room has revealed some hidden truth nobody else can see. But then as Sietsema continues to study the menu I realize I am actually watching a museum curator examining a newly found piece of the Dead Sea scrolls, relishing in the discovery of seeing something potentially wonderful for the first time.

Almost out of nowhere, a hyper-attentive waiter springs over to offer his advice and promote what he believes are the unique characteristics of some of the dishes. Sietsema orders. We order some of the recommendations but also a few “benchmark” dishes to check how the restaurant is on the basics.

It is said the best spies do not stand out. Sietsema has same low-key manner. But it becomes clear very quickly that this is not just a job most people would envy. To Sietsema, this is a sacred trust — keeping chefs honest, and serving the people. And despite the obvious thought that it would be fun to eat out all time, it is a job, “most food is generally somewhere in the middle. Some of it can be good, most just ok.” But he has to try it all.

It is a little ironic that in a town where power and perception are currency, one of its most powerful journalists doesn’t write about politics. There is no doubting Sietsema’s clout. When he wrote a wonderful review of an Indian restaurant newly opened in what had been a funeral plot for a number of restaurants that preceded it, it was suddenly impossible to get a table.

But when he dismissed the service at one of the most prominent restaurants in the city, taking away one of his impossibly hard-to-win stars, even people who couldn’t afford to eat there noticed.

“It’s the small mom and pop restaurants I feel most responsible towards,” he says. But it is not bad reviews he worries about. He is concerned that if he gives a good review, small restaurants will be overwhelmed by a wave of expectant — and often disappointed — customers. He generally gives his smaller reviewees a heads up a few days before the review comes out.

I have a very personal relationship with food. But when the first course arrives I realize Sietsema is in a different class. As I dive into what promises to be a tasty appetizer, I realize he is just isn’t here to eat. He is here to taste. To experience. He seems to have an almost cold analytical relationship with what sits before him. Our adrenalined waiter reappears concerned because Sietsema has barely nibbled. Sietsema is ready with a disarming reason: “Saving space, big breakfast.” In reality, he has what he needs.

“Where I grew up all the food was beige,” Sietsema, raised in rural Minnesota, says. His mother was a great cook but there was no history of gastronomy in his family, although he fondly remembers occasional visits to the city where his dad would treat them to great restaurants. His arrival in Washington is the classic D.C. story. He spent a semester interning here during college, fell in love with the city and decided to stay. A professor had a contact at the Washington Post that landed his first job, which led to being assistant to the legendary restaurant reviewer Phyllis Richman. His main job was to try out the recipes (“That’s when I learned how to cook”). Stints followed in Milwaukee, San Francisco, Seattle (where he was food critic for Microsoft’s Sidewalk.com) before returning to take over at the Post. Today he is a virtual one-man industry with his biannual roundups, video blog (which was just a whimsy that seems to have taken off), and a seemingly never-ending stream of other writing. He makes at least one trip out of town a month to add variety.

The first bite of the main course proves as disappointing as the appetizers. Sietsema is clearly not impressed. He takes several more bites and puts down his fork.

This experience unfortunately is not uncommon. While D.C. has been growing as a food town, Sietsema says it is a growth more of quantity than quality. Both Georgetown and Downtown are becoming, he says somewhat dismissively, like Bethesda, where there are a lot of restaurants, but not many are really good. He believes the most exciting areas gastronomically in the city are the up and coming Logan Circle and H Street N.E. corridors.

Part of the problem, he says, is that too many chefs try to be too fancy. Sietsema could be the personification of the food critic in the animated movie Ratatouille. In the climax of that film, the legendary and feared critic is wowed by the simplest of dishes. For Sietsema, likewise, a simple burger or well made roast chicken will impress more than rich and ambitious sauces, which he says are like a crutch.

Dessert is offered, promoted, encouraged. A house speciality, nothing like it anywhere else. Sietsema listens attentively and as the waiter heads off shares a glance to say he deserves effort points, if nothing else. Unfortunately, our waiter’s ardent proselytizing is once more undermined by the food. I suddenly realize Sietsema is going to have to endure this food at least twice more. Just as suddenly I am feeling slightly less envious.

When the bill comes, it raises another interesting question: how does he pay without revealing his undercover identity? And yet for a decade, Sietsema has been able to eat in anonymity. He credits eating with different people (the best part of the job, he says), 15 OpenTable restaurant reservation accounts and never calling from his office, since the prefix is identifiable as the Washington Post’s. On occasion he uses disguises, but he says they take over an hour to get right and he only does those rarely.

But there is still the point of paying. Cash is the obvious answer, but it turns out he also has a rather clever, but legal, credit card trick.

All the same, he has had some close calls, and he is certain he has been recognized by a waiter or two. But fortunately they tend to move on, he says. His biggest concern is leaving his dry cleaning, which has his name on the label.

As critic-for-a-lunch, I have assumed an air of authority and casually write off this restaurant. But Sietsema gently chides me. Everybody has a bad day, he reminds me. He reiterates a point made early in the meal that it is not just the food. People tend to be forgiving if the overall experience is good. He will be back, and I get the distinct impression there will be fresh chance to win those coveted but stingily awarded stars. But as Sietsema heads off, without a far more impressive second act, those stars are looking pretty dim.

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Sun, 26 Oct 2014 03:41:49 -0400

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