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Readers react to taste and 'tasty'

By Andy Alexander

Sunday’s ombudsman column about Post food writer Tom Sietsema prompted questions from readers about how much a restaurant review really comes down to personal preferences of the food critic.

One caller Sunday noted that a Sietsema review several few months ago complained about the noise and “controlled chaos” at Potenza, a restaurant on H Street, NW. “That’s his opinion,” she said, countering that the din and the hectic feel of the place captured the “fun” of an Italian eatery.

Another caller this morning complained about Sietsema’s mixed review of Blue Ridge, a Southern-style restaurant in Glover Park. Noting that my column had said Sietsema is from Minnesota, the reader wondered whether Sietsema has the “sensitivity” to judge cuisine with a Southern accent.

“To some degree, taste is subjective,” said celebrated chef Eric Ziebold, whose new Sou’Wester restaurant in the District got panned by Sietsema. During an interview for my column, Ziebold noted how different newspaper food critics had reacted to Sou-Wester’s corned beef short ribs.

In his Nov. 15 review, Sietsema raved about the short ribs. Noting that they are prepared using a recipe from Ziebold’s mother, Sietsema said the “tender entrée raises the notion of home cooking to high art."

But a review three days later by Corinna Lothar in The Washington Times said: “Corned-beef short ribs are an interesting idea, but they fail. What comes to the table is a slab of dry corned beef lacking even the suggestion of the rich succulence of traditional beef short ribs.”

“So, who’s right?” Ziebold asked.

Food aside, Ziebold said he is more concerned with the reviewer’s “interpretation” of the restaurant. “Did they get the spirit, the feel, of the restaurant? If they didn’t, then you have to reflect for a moment and ask: What can we do to make a clearer impression?”

Of the restaurant owners and chefs I interviewed, most agreed that Sietsema wields tremendous power. A negative Sietsema review can mean that would-be patrons are less enthusiastic about trying a new restaurant. It removes the “pop” of a new eatery, said Ziebold.

But he said another, bigger, problem, especially for high-end restaurants, is that a bad review makes it harder to recruit or retain top-level staff. “Young cooks always want to go to work at the hottest or brightest restaurant in town,” he said. “Very few people want to work on a losing team.” Fortunately for Ziebold, his other District restaurant, pricey CityZen in the Mandarin Oriental hotel, received a four-star rave from Sietsema in The Post’s recent Fall Dining Guide.

Even a bad Sietsema review won’t necessarily dent business at an already-established restaurant. In a May review, Sietsema gave a low one-star rating to Founding Farmers, located at 19th St. and Pennsylvania Ave. NW. He noted that each time he had visited Founding Farmers, he encountered a “swarm” of customers waiting to be seated. But “with four meals under my belt,” he wrote “I’m eager to point the crowds in other directions.”

Dan Simons, a Founding Farmers partner, said he considered the review “mean.”

“I remember thinking he was actually sort of instructing people not to come to the restaurant,” he said. “He was almost offended that so many people liked the restaurant. It was like he was he was saying: ‘This place is crowded. I can’t figure out why. Don’t go there.’”

Finally, several readers complained about a part of my column that mentioned the range of good and bad food Sietsema must consume as food critic. I wrote that his dining “can include mouth-watering chateaubriand or tasty foie gras. But just as often, it’s brick-weight dumplings or soggy salads.”

A reader from Bethesda wrote that foie gras “is the swollen, diseased liver of ducks and geese who are force-fed just up until the point of death before being slaughtered. Birds suffer tremendously, both during and after the force-feeding process, as their physical condition rapidly deteriorates. In just a few weeks, their livers swell up to ten times their normal size, and the birds can scarcely stand, walk or even breathe. At this point, they are slaughtered, and their livers are peddled as a ‘gourmet’ delicacy.”

Another reader from Potomac wrote that “calling foie gras ‘tasty’ is quite surprising and deeply offensive to anyone interested in compassion toward animals.”

The fact that foie gras is on many restaurant menus and is widely sold in gourmet food stores attests to the fact that many consumers like it. That aside, complaining readers are reflecting a growing movement by some states and municipalities to ban the sale of foie gras produced through force-feeding.

By Andy Alexander  | November 23, 2009; 9:43 AM ET
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This is IT? This is all you have? Really?

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | November 23, 2009 11:21 PM | Report abuse

In discussing Sunday's column, won't you even address the many complaints about it? That you provided a feature with very little actual criticism of the Post's food critic, choosing instead to describe his difficult job?

Really, Andy, you're just phoning it in.

Posted by: TeddySanFran | November 24, 2009 3:52 AM | Report abuse

You have to read a food critic over time and go to the places to see if you agree with his assessments. Then you'll learn, he says "noisy" and you find "lively", etc. Same with the food. The biggest gripe I have with Sietsema is a good review makes the restaurant crowded from then on.

And foie gras IS tasty. And delectable, succulent, and all those other tasty synonymns. Don't like it? Then don't eat it, more for me anyway.

Posted by: ronjaboy | November 24, 2009 7:33 AM | Report abuse

What about his controversial preview of Commissary? Readers never recieved a satisfactory explaination.

Posted by: subwayguy | November 24, 2009 8:28 AM | Report abuse

Tom does a good job and has a lively chat every week. I appreciate his work - even if I disagree on some details. But that is the way things are. It would be very dull indeed if we had to agree on everything. But nobody shuld acuse him of not working hard and putting in a significant effort to get it right.

Posted by: gary4books | November 25, 2009 5:25 AM | Report abuse

I'm looking for work as a beer critic. You won't need to pay me, just pick up the bar tabs and tips. I'll also test hard liquor and do critical writing. This could be a contest. Thanks!

Posted by: Dermitt | November 25, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

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