A week in food critic Tom Sietsema’s life

(Emily Robertson for The Washington Post)

If there’s a buzzword in the restaurant world these days, it’s transparency, especially as it relates to how workers are treated and what’s behind the many new service and other fees on diners’ checks.

Spring Dining Guide: Tom Sietsema’s 25 favorite new restaurants

The attention to clarity prompted me to think about my unusual occupation and what goes into it, details readers and strangers at parties often ask me about. Instead of a formal restaurant review this week, I’m pulling back the curtain on a week in my life — chewing and telling, if you will.

A coffee pot, timed to go on around 6 a.m., is typically the only alarm I need. The scent of Peet’s wafts through the house. There are better brews, I know, but I’ve been loyal to the California-based Peet’s since my writing days in San Francisco.

Off to the Bethesda Central Farm Market, where I’m in search of sour cherries for my partner, and where a grower tells me it’s too early in the season. Our dog — Henry, a whippet — makes out with some snacks made from every conceivable part of a pig, and I find Mesi Samuel dispensing Ethiopian takeout under a burgundy awning. I’m keen on the entrepreneur’s vegetarian preparations, which I keep on hand as snacks and sometimes for breakfast. Otherwise, the market is a tease. If only there were more time in my life to cook!

I’m not a huge fan of brunch — random food (and booze) at an odd time of the day, and a hunch that the kitchen’s A-team is off. Even so, I check out brunches because readers ask about them, and they can be an entry point to dishes on the dinner menus. I invite my friend Todd. He’s single, always hungry and game to try anything. Today’s destination is the Malaysian-themed Makan in Columbia Heights, where I get a prized table near the open doors — the comfort of inside with the benefits of dining alfresco. I’m pleased to find the food, including a fiery green papaya salad and nubby sheets of Chinese pork sausage, as delicious as I remember. Service is included on the bill, a detail flagged on the menu and again on the check. Thank you, Makan. Before I head home, I stroll over to Cinco Soles, a new Mexican restaurant that I plan to try Tuesday. There’s no menu posted in the window, but the interior looks inviting.

The perfect restaurant doesn’t exist. Readers helped me create one.

I send Todd off with leftovers — I hate to waste food — and he gifts me his latest home project: two small bottles of Key lime “limoncello” made with Everclear. “190 proof,” he warns me.

Following a power nap, I make a few reservations for later in the month and log on to my work email. A reader sends me a detailed account of Things Gone Wrong at one of the hottest restaurants in town. A colleague wants to know where to take his wife for Mother’s Day. Someone else wants crab cakes for their birthday. I try to answer in real time and wonder if my correspondents notice or care when I respond.

Dinner tonight is in Annapolis. I recently heard about a new restaurant there, Leo, run by a husband and wife who co-own Lost & Found and Free State in the District, and the place sounds promising. Leo doesn’t take reservations, so I want to get there early. The host is reading “Life of Pi” when we show up at 5 p.m., but the place fills as the evening wears on, and my initial tastes are positive. Here’s the rare restaurant to serve snakehead, an invasive fish that more places ought to serve, and I appreciate the friendly details: “Stay awhile,” encourages a neon sign.

The hour-long drive back home is spent listening to the audio version of “Remarkably Bright Creatures” by Shelby Van Pelt, a story that looks at a relationship between an octopus and a cleaning woman at an aquarium. Ever since I watched “My Octopus Teacher” on Netflix, I’ve looked at the popular menu ingredient differently. I still eat octopus, but seldom more than a few bites, solely for professional reasons and with a twinge of guilt. I can’t get over the fact they’re such smart animals.

Before I turn in, I remember Todd’s gift. I take a nip of the chartreuse-colored libation, and it goes down like liquid lightning. Is spring break a flavor?

I prefer savory to sweet in the morning. I also try to eat healthfully on my own time, given all the restaurant meals ahead. Today’s breakfast is Ethiopian red lentils, red and racy with berbere, and collard greens, shot through with garlic.

Typically, I’d spend the bulk of the day working on my Dining column, for which I visit places an average of three times. Instead, I’m wrapping up my spring dining guide, answering questions from editors, designers and others. This year’s collection of 25 new restaurants includes a sidebar with suggestions for how restaurants might become more customer-friendly. For deadline purposes, the bulk of the project was filed a couple of weeks earlier, so I’m playing catch-up on email and calls. Grateful to finally hear back from Dima Martseniuk, the chef whose Ruta replaces the beloved Montmartre on Capitol Hill and serves Ukrainian food.

I take advantage of a non-writing day to scout a suburban restaurant I’ve had on my to-do list for a while. The Turkish-themed Anatolian Bistro in Herndon is a reader suggestion, and a good one. I’m just one person, but what I try — an appetizer sampler that includes smoky eggplant dip and a plate of little beef-filled dumplings — is encouraging. Worth a full review? An appearance in my monthly round-up of favorites? Time — and additional visits — will tell.

Dinner tonight is at the new Planta Queen in Dupont Circle, where I’m catching up with my editor, Joe Yonan, who’s been away on parental leave for four months. The restaurant is a branch of the vegetarian-themed Planta that I reviewed in Bethesda, and while the menu tilts Asian, Planta Queen comes with a similar splashy interior and eye-catching presentations. Very South Beach. As happens all too often, everything we order arrives pretty much at the same time, crowding our small table, where the most successful dish is a riff on pad Thai, a heap of shredded green papaya, kelp noodles, coconut and peanut sauce. Joe and I cover a lot of ground between bites: story ideas, enhancements to my online dining Q&A and a possible theme for the fall dining guide, for which I start eating in earnest in June. We decide it’s time to stop including pandemic protocols at the end of my reviews, since the Biden administration has declared the end of the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic.

Wherever I am after a review, I like to take the pulse of the neighborhood. I decide to walk halfway home from Dupont Circle and take mental note of restaurants as I pass them. Firefly. Haven’t been in ages. Pembroke. Patio is packed, and rightly so. The space is dreamy. All Day by Kramers, the cafe inside Kramerbooks & Afterwords. Worth a fresh look? A lovely email invitation awaits at home: A woman I met at a fundraiser for N Street Village wants to cook for me. There’s Sri Lankan food in my future!

I start my day as I always do, with black coffee and a review of my credit card balances. I keep half a dozen credit cards in different names, and if they’re compromised, which they have been several times over the years, I’m in trouble, because they’re all linked to my actual name and account. A recent experience at a restaurant, where I spotted one of my pseudonyms on a host’s tablet, highlighted in a different color, reminds me I have to kill off a fake name that’s become too well-known in the industry. For the time being, I’m using the identity of a good friend — his name, email and phone number — to book reservations.

While I plot my dining schedule weeks out, I leave room to pivot, in the event of, say, a major restaurant opening or a trend story that might necessitate dining visits. Looking at the many new Japanese restaurant launches in town, I reach out to a friend at the Japanese Embassy to check his availability. One of the joys of living in D.C. is dining companions from around the world.

Would readers rather know about a Cajun-Creole source or a place that serves brunch every day? I end up opting for the former and making a lunch reservation at veteran RT’s instead of Del Ray Cafe in Alexandria. It’s been ages since I last tried the menu, and I want to know if I can recommend it. My to-do list of restaurants is dozens of names long, a mix of the new and the established. My lunch companion is an old friend who’s known me since before I became The Washington Post’s food critic. Ken is an easy date, someone I can zone out on if I need to concentrate on the details of a visit. My initial reaction to RT’s: The zesty gumbo alone merits a return visit.

Throughout the day, I try to keep up with communication. A retired internist and medical administrator with tinnitus emails about the challenge in getting restaurant noise “right.” NBC4 asks if we can reschedule a taping announcing my spring dining guide. A publicist reaches out to let me know of a new restaurant and says he enjoys my work in … Washingtonian magazine. Details, details.

As I’m eating tacos at the youthful Cinco Soles with friends at dinner, I can’t help but wish I were eating at the superior Chicatana less than a mile away. The service here is sweet, though, and someone has a sense of humor: a pink neon sign announces “tequila” as “soup of the day.” I plan to give Cinco Soles more rehearsal time before eating here again.

Show day! I’m logged on at 6:30 to review dozens of posts waiting for me ahead of my live online dining discussion. There are so many questions about where to eat outside Washington, I could easily host a travel chat. My audience is national, so in addition to addressing local queries, I try to include rants, raves and comments of broad interest — like how much to tip on takeout, which I decide will kick off my Q&A today. My goal is to pre-address at least 20 questions; I’m not the fastest typist, and some posts require more reporting than I can handle once it’s 11 a.m. and I go live. I need the buffer, in other words, so I can link to reviews, make quick calls (“Is your patio open yet?” “Did the chef leave?”) and, honestly, let Henry out the back door for a quick run in the yard. I host the chat without a producer, which explains the typos, jokes that might read like snark to some readers, and occasional lags. While the chats are fast-paced and informal, I still have to be mindful of Post standards.

On the dot at 8 a.m., my trainer comes to my house. I gave up my gym membership during the pandemic and hired Joe B. to keep me from turning into more of a blob than I am. As much as I don’t look forward to 45 minutes of squats, jumping jacks and planks, I’m always glad for having worked out — kind of like writing. The joy is in having written. Joe is a great guy, but he doesn’t let me get away with zip. I know we’re close to the end of a session when I hear the words “child’s pose.”

It’s a race between 11 a.m. and noon, as I respond to as many as 50 rants, raves and queries. I’m usually wiped out after the freewheeling Q&A, which feels like a public exam. I tend to eat a simple lunch at home — fruit and yogurt today, in advance of a review tonight — but when I come into the office, temptation awaits: How can I say no to an apple hand pie from my colleague Aaron Hutcherson? I rarely sample dishes from the Post’s test kitchen. I face bait enough in restaurants. Today is an exception, and the splurge is worth it.

Dinner is at Flora Flora, a splashy restaurant in the Pendry hotel at the Wharf. Four of us are seated at a big round table with a water view but under a speaker. Our server, who sounds just like Melissa McCarthy doing an impression of Sean Spicer, pretty much yells over the din. When she leaves to put our drink order in, a dining companion says, “I’m much more passive-aggressive than you are. Let me try something.” When the server returns to take our dinner orders, he quietly mouths, “I can’t hear you,” which prompts her to move to his side of the table, which prompts him to tell her we are trying to catch up and nobody can hear anyone. She nods in the direction of a flock of diners to the side (“We have a big party here tonight”), but the music goes down after my friend’s request. Good thing, too: It measured 82 decibels when we sat down, the equivalent of a running blender.

The drinks are solid, but the food is mixed. The guacamole looks like melting green ice cream, and no one wants to finish the grilled oysters topped with chorizo and too much onion butter. I ask the plastic surgeon at my table if there was a question he knew to expect when he met strangers. Mine, I told him, is “What’s your favorite restaurant?” (As if! I devote an annual fall dining guide to highlight my many picks.) The doctor said he didn’t mind talking shop with people, but he detested it when they pretended they hadn’t gone under the knife. “’I’ll have to look into it,’ they tell me. But I can see the scars!”

One of the great things about my job: It doesn’t matter who I eat with. I just need people to help me take a big bite out of a menu. My stable of regulars is dozens strong, and it’s important to me that they represent demographics different than mine. I’m a lucky sponge, soaking up information (and occasionally juicy gossip) when I break bread with talking heads, artists, lobbyists, the random couple I met at a friend’s party, my family, fellow Posties, a neighbor or pals who work for POTUS, who I always toast with “Tonight is off the record” — for their benefit as well as mine.

I go into the office today to write and report, but mostly to have lunch with executive editor Sally Buzbee. She hosts regular, intimate noontime gatherings of people from around the newsroom for agenda-free conversations. Today, it’s my turn. Some colleagues joke about what I think of the catering, and I let them know I’m grateful not to have to think about what I’m eating, which turns out to be a tuna wrap and some red grapes.

Afterward, I head over to NBC4 to record a segment about the spring dining guide. Tommy McFly of “The Scene” is my energetic host, and we’re taping in one of the station’s brand-new studios. He’s a pro, fascinated by my original sound meter, a brick of a device I found in an old briefcase. I’m just trying not to look like myself with the aid of a ball cap and sunglasses. Was I quick enough? Did I get my points across? TV is hard. I congratulate anchor Eun Yang on her promotion to the evening broadcast. “We can do dinner at 7:30 now!” she tells me in the makeup room.

For dinner, I return to Ellie Bird in Falls Church, a spinoff of the beloved Rooster & Owl in the District, this time with my friend Shallah, who can’t eat gluten. Our waiter is great about making recommendations and checking with the kitchen on questions from Shallah, who travels widely and is one of my best scouts, sometimes getting to new restaurants before me. I appreciate her discretion. Unlike some people in my orbit, she never ingratiates herself to restaurants by claiming to be a friend of mine.

My mom, who makes cameo appearances in The Post now and then, calls to let me know she got her Mother’s Day gift early: a Spanish tapas sampler by José Andrés, which I sent via Goldbelly, a national food delivery service that I started using during the pandemic. Dorothy Sietsema has met the chef and humanitarian, and I figure she would appreciate the Washington connection.

Black coffee followed by 45 minutes of training in the backyard with Joe. I am not bummed when he tells me he’ll be out of town all of next week. (Note to self: Take more walks with Henry to compensate.) Breakfast is a bowl of multi-bran flakes with sliced bananas, chopped pecans and bitter blueberries, which I throw in just for the health of it.

The owner of a new downtown restaurant, someone I’ve covered for years, reaches out on social media and more or less begs me to visit his place. His missive is disheartening, a reminder of the industry’s many challenges. The buildings nearby are only 20 percent occupied, he says, but parking is an issue. I let him know I sympathize, I’ll try to drop by, but I also visit places unannounced and never promise coverage. “Yes,” he replies. “But while we’re still in business, please.”

My spontaneous lunch at All Day by Kramers is a bust. The narrow dining room and bar is dark and smells like dishwasher detergent. No one greets me at the bar, where I settle in. The cafe’s website trumpets “a James Beard award-winning chef.” The printed menu flags the name of someone designated as its curator. I make a note to verify who’s actually cooking (and later find out the chef worked under a Beard winner). Everyone in my purview is eating burgers or eggs. I opt for a crab cake and a side of “citrus” broccolini. The crab cake is soft and smells off; the broccolini is a fistful of green that’s both oily and acrid, with zero spark. It takes me 10 minutes to get my check, and no one bothers to ask why so much of the food is uneaten. I’m disinclined to return. So many restaurants, so little time.

Late afternoon, I meet my partner at his office so we can drive to Annapolis together. Destination: Leo again. Our waiter turns out to be a veteran of the Washington food scene, so there goes any chance of anonymity. Before we leave, I inspect the restroom, both to verify whether it’s accessible to wheelchair users and because restrooms say something about a business.

Up at 6:30. Black coffee and 30 minutes with The Post and the Wall Street Journal, whose weekend section is must reading. Tonight, I’m returning to Saga, another shiny bauble from chef Enrique Limardo, but I plan to cook tomorrow — Mother’s Day, one of the busiest restaurant occasions of the year and not something I care to join, since the menus are invariably one of a kind. I scroll through my work email and catch up on writing this diary. For fun, I sketch out an idea for the fall dining guide, typically a variation on favorite restaurants, and mull a cooking story. I’m reminded of a recent interview with Judy Blume, in which the author encouraged writers to be passionate: “Unless the author really cares, the reader won’t either.”

I care about your time and attention, so I’ll sign off here. Stay tuned for my reviews of Ellie Bird, Leo, Ruta and Saga.

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