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May 7, 2002 01:15 PM


  • j

So, What's everyones opinion of the Post reviewer Tom Sietsema?
How about other newspaper or magazine reviewers in Washington?

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  1. I think Tom Sietsema knows a lot about food and very little about writing. His prose is clunky and his organizational skills are poor. Full marks for his enthusiasm and gastronomic range. But he ain't a patch on Phyllis Richman.

    I have been rereading "Consider the Oyster" by M.F.K Fisher. If Sietsema were to do the same, he would jump in the river.

    19 Replies
    1. re: StephenB

      I do agree that Sietsema's writing is somewhat conversational and definitely too full of colloquialisms. However, unlike Richman, I think Sietsema is brutally honest, almost acidic. His scathing review of Jordan's is testament to this.

      1. re: Jeffrey

        To my mind, there is no such thing as being too conversational or colloquial. To the contrary, the problem with Sietsema's writing is that it lacks rhythm, acuity and drama. Richman, above all, had a sense of what was going on in the rest of the paper and her essays had social as well as culinary value. As for being "brutally honest," it takes no courage to write a negative review in a big city newspaper. Perhaps you are thinking of weeklies in small towns.

        1. re: StephenB

          I love to read MFK Fisher...curled up in a chair on Sunday morning with a cup of tea, or afternoon with a glass of wine. But when I want a suggestion of where to go out in the next half hour (or more important, where not to go), I want an opinion from someone that I know has half a palate and I don't care how they write. The Post has plenty of room for more considered prose, but that isn't the crucial thing in a restaurant review. By the way, check out Patricia Unterman and Jeremiah Tower in the San Francisco Examiner on-line, or Corby Kummer in the Atlantic online for more leisurely but still informative food writing. DB.

          1. re: StephenB

            Mistake in communications here: I was trying to convey that it was a GOOD thing that Sietsema was brutally honest in his reviews. :) I found Richman's reviews to be more politically influenced than Sietsemas.

        2. re: StephenB

          NO ONE can write like MFK Fisher....would that we had someone of her grace and common sense guiding us to the current food scene. I've read everything she wrote and it is all wonderful.

          1. re: Lois G

            Fine. If you can recognize it, emulate it. MFKF is/was a fantastic writer with the privilege of being able to take the time to think about what she was going to write. What do you think she might have churned out if she was pushed by an editor to dine at Obelisk, Rio Grande, Red Sage and Bistro Francais in four days, and have her copy in by the weekend. Frankly I'm offended at the prospect, and I think that the charm of dining out might have been partially removed for her. Applez and orangez, eh?

            1. re: dbutcher


              Funnily enough, I can respond to that. I interviewed her at her Napa Valley home in 1979. She spoke extemporaneously in lovely, well-parsed sentences, flavored with humor. Her conversation took into account the full context of the situation -- the weather, what was happening in the garden and, at that point in her life, her arthritic pain. While we spoke, she was making a salad for us to snack on in the middle of the afternoon.

              I don't know how much she labored over her writing, but I can tell you that even on a casual level she was incapable of anything but graceful language (in English and French). Yes, she could have handled Sietsema's job, if she'd wanted to.

              1. re: StephenB

                I became a HUGE fan of hers in the early 1970's and had to search long and hard for out-of print work that wasn't in the library, in the small Vermont town where I lived. It was quite a chore back in those pre-Internet days, but I eventually read and owned all of her published books. My favorite has always been _With Bold Knife and Fork_. The title says it all, eh. chowhounds?

                1. re: StephenB

                  Of course you're totally right. The last thing I meant to imply was that she wouldn't have been up to the task. What I wanted to convey is that the considered nature of her writing is far removed from the frenzy of modern restaurant reviews. I also wanted to defend Sietsema because I think he does the job he's asked to do. I like to read the food pieces R W Apple comes out with, but I wouldn't criticise him for not being Henry James. What other food writers do you (or anyone else) like?

                  1. re: dbutcher

                    Have you ever read L'Assommoir by Zola? Or seen a movie called La Grande Bouffe?

                    1. re: Joe H.

                      No, but I rented from a Quebecois landlady known to all as La Grande Bouffaint in honor of her towering lacquered coiffure. Her husband was dubbed Hugothe Magnificent after he lifted the back end of a '63Buick off of a palm stump. By himself.

                      1. re: flavrmeistr

                        Trust me, La Grande Bouffe with Marcello Mastroianni. Find it. You won't be disappointed. It's not what you might expect.

                        1. re: Joe H.
                          flavrmeistr,a.k.a. L'Digresseur

                          I'm sure it's great, Joe. I haven't seen a Mastrioanni
                          flick since they tore down the Circle theatre. With the
                          Blockbuster in my neighborhood stocking mostly Spanish-
                          titled slashers, I doubt if I'll have the chance any time soon. I can see that you're a man of expansive
                          tastes. I'll trade you a bootleg of Zappa's Yellow Shark Tour for any old Goon Show masters you might have
                          laying around. Oops, I'm doing it again! Gotta go.

                          1. re: flavrmeistr,a.k.a. L'Digresseur

                            In this movie three men decide that life is no longer worth living and decide to eat and ... themselves to death. They hire the greatest chef in France and a number of prostitutes. What they don't know is that next to the farmhouse they've rented for the occasion is a schoolteacher who is a great cook and has had many unfulfilled fantasies over the years. She lends herself to their noble effort which she has a great deal of sympathy for.
                            This is actually a very dark comedy that, in its own way, is every bit as funny as, say, "Animal House." But it makes a statement while telling the story.
                            Worth searching out if you enjoy this type of excess. John Waters would have approved.

                            1. re: Joe H.

                              I think I may have seen this one. There is another one that came out a few years ago called Big Nightthat's pretty good. Don't watch it hungry, you'll go nuts. Is John Waters no longer with us? I hadn't heard.

                              1. re: Flavrmeistr

                                He's still around but Divine passed away. Le Grande Bouffe is far beyond Big Night Out. Far beyond. Catherine Deneuve left Marcello Mastroianni because of what he did in this film.

                                1. re: Joe H.

                                  Hmm...maybe I haven't seen it. I'll make some inquiries. Before we get busted, let me suggest thesetwo: Le Belle Americain (early 60's) and Belle Epoque(early 90's). Both are hilarious and say a lot about continental sensibilities toward food and life in general.

                2. re: dbutcher

                  MFK Fisher's father was the owner and publisher of the Whittier (Cal) News. I guess she knew something about newspapering.

              2. re: StephenB

                MFK Fisher! I feel the need to weigh in...
                Fell in love with her in '92, made plans to go visit her (something I'm not sure she would have welcomes) and then, in my search for her address, came across her obit. Broke my heart, but I have remained a devotee. A lovely boyfriend (alas, an ex) has gifted me with a number of first editions, including one inscribed by a youthful MFK to Julia Friede, who I believe was related (probably the mother of) her third and last husband Donald. See, I told you I was obsessed.

                Anyway: a tid bit for you about Consider the Oyster, in case you didn't know: Mary Frances wrote CtO specifically for Dillwyn Parish, to entertain him as his pain got worse (he had Bruegher's disease, a very painful disorder that resulted in the amputation of his leg, which "phantom leg" continued to hurt and ultimately forced him into suicide.) He shot himself under a chesnut tree on their ranch just a few weeks before CtO was published, which always made Mary Frances wonder if he would have hung on had he known how close it was to being printed. Very sad. He was just one of three husbands but the one she always meant when she wrote about "her husband."
                They had arranged the location of his suicide in advance so when the pain became to much to bear she would know where to find him.
                Some of this is captured in The Gastronomical Me, but mostly I got it from biographies and interviews with her I have read. She wrote so mysteriously about her life, always telling just enough to get the story out but not enough so you knew what the hell was going on. It drove me to try to piece together a timeline.
                One essay in TGM explains the tumult where she finally decided to leave Al for Dillwyn (Timmy) took me several re-reads to fully understand what was going on.
                Anyway: there it is.

              3. What bugs me about Tom is that I don't get the sense that he is thinking about the needs of real people. In his chats he tends to recommend super pricey places to folks asking for something basic, and while he claims to, for example, like hot dogs, his idea of a good hot dog is at Johnny's Half Shell. It's just not news I can use. I don't have however many weeks to get a reservation at Citronelle and I don't need every meal to be crazy over the top gourmet. With Richman I felt like she really explored the gamut of places and there was always a review of hers that I could use in making my choices.

                He also bugs in the way he recommends the same places over and over again. He also has few good things to say about the area where I tend to eat (Alexandria - with the exception of the Majestic Cafe.)

                While he may be brutally honest, sometimes I feel like he's being negative just to be negative. Somehow he comes off as very elitist in his reviews. Bugs.

                13 Replies
                1. re: TerriS

                  I agree that he tends to recommend the same places over and over, and they're often not any good. E.g., Guajillo's in Arlington -- I've been there 3 times with different combinations of friends, and none of us have ever been able to finish a meal there -- the food is worse than Chi-Chi's. Plus, the service is usually slow and indifferent. But Sietsema recommends it constantly -- I think he must either own a piece of it or owe the owners money. And I've written in to his weekly chat about it several times, and he never posts my comments! Considering there's a great Tex-Mex place a block away that's comparable in price but has far better food and service (the Santa Fe Cafe), it's amazing he keeps pushing this dog of a restaurant.

                  On the other hand, he's steered me to a few good places (Penang, Ten Penh), so I shouldn't complain!

                  1. re: MMSS

                    I'm now confused about Guajillo's - I'm going there with a group of friends on Friday based on the recommendation of Sietsema, a friend of mine and the attached post by Joe H. from a recent discussion on NoVa and pho. I'll see who I agree with after all that!


                    1. re: Nancy

                      Please see my post above and note their specialties as well as their margaritas. This is the restaurant to order a margarita with a good Tequila on the rocks. Someone at the table should order their ceviche or order one that everybody can share. Also focus on their specials of the day-try flavors that you might not typically have found elsewhere. Enjoy and please post your thoughts afterwards. Thanks for the mention.

                      1. re: Joe H.

                        Thanks for the recommendations, Joe. I will post my amateur review (striving to the levels of Bryan Miller and Ruth Reichel, not Sietsema or Richman!) on Monday.

                        1. re: Nancy

                          The most recent time I ate at Guajillo, the mole sauce was tasty but the chicken was quite dry and overcooked. Pork dishes tend to be best there, as pork is more forgiving of too much time on the flame. Tamales and chiles rellenos are good. Tortillas are homemade, although with masa harin, not fresh masa. I continue to assert that DC needs a reasonably priced Mex-Mex gourmet restaurant, with FRESH MASA used for tortillas, tamales, enchiladas and sopes.

                          1. re: zora

                            I actually haven't had a pork dish there. A great reason to return soon. Thanks, Zora.

                    2. re: MMSS

                      Your thoughts about Gaujillo are interesting. It's mole is excellent, carne asada is extremely flavorful and priced fairly, the ceviche is delicious and with the variety of tequila they have available their margaritas can be as good as the best in Juarez.
                      I've found their Tex Mex food to be mediocre but that's not the purpose for going to Guajillo. You can find the same, as you mentioned, at Chi Chi's and it really might be better. (Rio Grande Cafe still sets the standard for Tex Mex here.) But for their specialties
                      such as the ones noted above Guajillo is excellent and probably the best of its kind in the D. C. area. I think this is what he focused on in his review.
                      Guajillo is not a Tex Mex restaurant. It has the feel and the taste of Juarez not Fort Worth.

                      1. re: Joe H.

                        Juarez? Tequila and the donkey show, maybe. On the whole, I'd rather eat in Arlington. Do you remember a Mexican place in Clarendon calledSpeedy's? Still some of the best Mex I ever had. Everything made from scratch. On the weekends, they would barbecue a few goat in the back yard. Itwas said that Ladybird used to order out for their stuff.Speedy's is long gone, as is the whole neighborhoodand all the shabby Wilson-era homes it comprised. One day after ordering some take-out, I looked up to find the whole place deserted. It seems the Border Patrol had arrived out front and the entire staff ran out the back door and over the fence. They never shutdown completely, so I figured it must have been a routine thing.

                        1. re: flavrmeistr

                          Speedy Gonzalez' was great. I would drive from Silver Spring to the old wooden frame house off of Wilson Blvd. in Clarendon just to go there. I still miss it.
                          But back then I also used to drive to the original Anita's to sit at a table in their parking lot in the summer. I remember her having a cadillac with steer horns at the end of the hood. It was parked literally next to the table we were sitting at. I thought it was great that Vienna could feel just like the tackiest part of Albuquerque.
                          Somehow, over the years, as Anita's has grown and the quality of Tex Mex/New Mex Mex has improved in the D. C. area the "romantic appeal" of this one time great converted Tastee Freeze (it's original purpose) has disappeared.

                          1. re: Joe H.

                            I used to live behind Anita's (and a few blocks weston Windover) and remember when Anita was something of a dish herself. We would chow downthere and then head to the Vienna Inn up thestreet for further beers. There were a number of great places on Maple Ave. back then (20-25 years ago).A Sicilian place across from Beulah Rd. that made adeep-dish pie (I wouldn't even call it a pizza) the sizeand shape of a cheesecake that was just excellent.Two pieces would put you down for the count. And,of course, the ol' Amphora and the little gyro standnext door that made killer souvlaki and gyros. I wasan addict. At Maple and Nutley, there was an Afganiplace that had superb marinated lamb and samosasthat were light as a feather. The bad part was thatI could walk to all these places. I bet there are places there now that I never dreamed of.

                    3. re: TerriS

                      He probably feels that non-super pricey places are somebody else's bailiwick--because they are. Don't forget that the Post has more than one restaurant reviewer. The less expensive places are usually reviewed by Eve Zibart in Friday's Weekend section. Her column is called Fare Minded.

                      I read both hers and Sietsema's on a regular basis. I take from each what I can use and discard the rest. I also faithfully read the reviews in the regional inserts in Thursday's paper. Those are usually non-Post staff written. Those are the common folk eating and writing, and I really like that.


                      1. re: TerriS

                        I agree with TerriS on Mr. Sietsema being VERY repetitive. However, in a city where most new restaurant openings are new/suburban outposts of successful ventures, I think it would not be too easy to come up with something new to recommend. But, he could do a much better job of trying to recommend more than his 8-10 usuals! I swear he must get some kind of kick-back from Johnny's Half Shell, Spices, Two Amys/PP, & the SeaCatch.

                        In fact, I prefer that he does not let the cat out of the bag on many of the great places that I and fellow Chowhounders have stumbled across. I think that is why most of us are drawn to the Chowhounds find food related things that you may not read about or trust from other sources.

                        If you asked me what I thought of him 5 years ago, I would have raved about him. When we was at (the now defunct city guide from Microsoft) he had such a fresh take on the DC food scene from that of Mrs. Richman. He had a very interesting perspective coming from SanFran/Seattle. He was also very accessible and I had spoken to him numerous times via email regarding the DC dining scene. However, it seems that he has not changed his M.O. too much from 5 years ago.

                        1. re: Moe Green

                          Most food critics, sooner or later, resort to a form ofpetulant snivelling that doesn't seem to have much todo with the food. Jaded tastes and a jaundiced eyemust be hazards of the craft. The only critic I really enjoy is Calvin Trillin, mostly for his humor, obectivityand passion for delicious food. He is also a damned fine writer and it was through his piece in the New Yorker that I first learned of Chowhound. For that alone, I would gladly cover the man's bar tab for a month.

                      2. I much prefer Sietsema's writing style to that of Richman's. His reviews are much more balanced, in both style and location (urban vs suburban), and looking back on the chats, he's recommended plenty of cheaper eats, something I can't recall Richman doing much. Instead of getting an elaborate, episodic lead-in and just tacking on a few clever barbs at the end (Richman), he gives a straightforward introduction to the restaurant/style of cooking and spends more time on the food itself as well as atmosphere and service. His writing isn't in love with itself, a crime that a lot of critics are guilty.

                        However, probably the best food writer in DC was the one who was with the City Paper until last year (forgot his name; think he moved to New Orleans). He made you want to read his work, and not just because you were interested in the restaurant. It was always an interesting vignette as well as a readable and usable review.

                        Oh, and I think Richman's "culinary mysteries" suck as well. "The Butter Did It?" Jesus, worse than those idiotic cat detective books.

                        1. I agree that Tom recommends the same 10-12 restaurants over & over on his weekly chat. Ever notice that 75% of the chat questions are always "What restaurant do you recommend for...?" REPETITIVE!!

                          However, I was no big fan of Phyllis's either, and I must agree the titles of her cooking mysteries are lame. Pass the Butler indeed!!

                          The first thing I look for in a Seitsema review is the price range. If entrees are $11 & above, I don't even read it.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: Lauryn

                            $11 or higher you don't even read it?!
                            You must not go out often in the Washington area.

                            1. re: joe

                              Oh yes I eat out plenty in the DC area! Many delicious ethnic restaurants have entrees of $8 and thereabouts. In fact, the majority of MD/DC restaurants I've driven by or sampled these past 30+ years I've lived here have most entrees under $10. And I don't include chains.

                              Last night I had a delish dinner at Thyme Square in Bethesda - entrees $13-20. One reason why we went there was I had a "2-for-1" card in the mail. That saved us a good amount right there. I use coupons & my Entertainment 2-for-1 card all the time.

                              I can't imagine that the majority of DC-MD-VA residents can really afford a meal for 2 & lodging at Inn at Little Washington. Not everyone here makes $60K & up, not everyone can afford a house of $500,000 & up...

                            2. re: Lauryn

                              Forgive me but what is wrong with recommending the same restaurant over and over if the question is essentially the same very time? I personally will recommend Obelisk, Tosca, Citronelle, Jerry's Seafood and a number of others over and over when someone asks where is the best..., where is a good..., etc.
                              If a person is looking for really good Tex Mex I honestly believe there is one place that is better than any other: Rio Grande Cafe. I also know that several others such as the Austin Grill are decently good. But I am going to answer what I believe to be the best every time if I am asked the same question. If the question is for a good restaurant in, say Tysons, I am also going to answer similarly each time.
                              Unless I am misunderstanding several posts I don't believe the name of a restaurant should be given in response unless the reviewer or anyone else believes it would be the best place to go. Recommendations need to be earned by excellence. When they are there recognition is appropriate.
                              I personally enjoy reading Tom Sietsema a lot. I am still learning his taste and biases but so far I think he's doing a good job.
                              The only critic that I have a problem with is the Washingtonian critic who goes to restaurants by himself. I can't imagine he's ordering a representative sampling of dishes for himself alone without calling an awful lot of attention to himself. Assuming he isn't doing this then how many times does he have to go before he's really able to judge the restaurant, let alone the consistency of a particular dish? Unless I'm mistaken I've also seen pictures of him published and I'm not so certain that this type of recognition is preferable.

                              1. re: Joe H.

                                Bravo. I was going to write that, but you got to it first.