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Fine Dining Turns To Familiar Favorites


Now, it's time to open up the pages of the Washington Post Magazine. That's something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now. The Post's Fall Dining Guide is out this week and that means food critic Tom Sietsema has been going all over town, eating and drinking up a storm, trying to narrow down his list of favorite restaurants.

And we figured, even if you don't live in the D.C. area and have a chance to sample from his list, it would be interesting to find out just what does tickle the fancy of a food critic who has access to the best of everything and what might be coming to a restaurant near you.

So, Tom Sietsema, thank you for your sacrifice.


TOM SIETSEMA: Oh, thank you for having me. Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you and welcome back.

SIETSEMA: Pleased to do it.

MARTIN: How do you decide what is a favorite? That must be hard.

SIETSEMA: Well, first of all, this is a process that I start in May or June and I eat up right until deadline in late September. Every year, early in the spring, I sit down and think about, you know, the questions I get from readers and what I want to do and what I see on the scene.

You know, the question I get asked all the time is, what is your favorite restaurant? You know, my favorite changes from day to day, from season to season, from hour to hour, sometimes, you know, depending upon my mood and how much money I want to spend and who I'm with. And so I thought I would address this question and come up with 40 different favorites.

MARTIN: Forty? You have to have 40 different...

SIETSEMA: Forty different favorites. Right.

MARTIN: Well, but for most of us, a favorite is something that we're going to go back to time and time again, particularly when we don't want the uncertainty. Right?


MARTIN: When we don't - we say, look, you know what? I don't get to eat out that often and when I do, I want to be sure that I have a good experience. That's not your life.

SIETSEMA: Well, no, it's not. We're always chasing the new restaurant critics. You know, it's - once we've reviewed one place, we're off to the next hot place and this was great fun because I do have a history with most of these restaurants. In other words, I've been to them at least three or four times, so I can call them favorites, I think.

MARTIN: But how do you know you're not getting special treatment?

SIETSEMA: Well, good point. You know, I've been doing this for 12 years now here in this market. In the first year, I could go anonymously to a lot of places. What I do do is, for every restaurant that is star rated, I'll go at least three times and, you know, you're not always going to get people who know you there. Waiters move around. Managers move around. It's a game of cat and mouse quite a bit, I would say. What I'll do is make a reservation in someone else's name. I'll pay in cash or with a pseudonym on the credit card and, you know, obviously, never announce when I'm going to be in a place.

MARTIN: A lot of people still are struggling, so the whole idea of eating out is just, you know, not part of their lives right now.


MARTIN: So let's say you're kind of in that middle. Are there some trends or things that you think people should really try to tap into right now to make it a good experience and to feel that they're kind of caught up with what's going on in the world of food?

SIETSEMA: The recession is still very much on people's minds and even if you have a lot of money, what do they say? Every millionaire loves a baked apple. You know, everyone likes a bargain, no matter how much money you have. And, you know, one thing that I see now is, even in the highest levels in the upper echelons of restaurants, I see comfort food. It might be comfort food with a certain refinement. You know, it'll be a chicken pot pie with a beautiful sail of puff pastry or something.

But people tend to gravitate toward those familiar flavors when times are tough. You know, I don't think - now is not a time for champagne and caviar. Now is a time for pot roast or mashed potatoes or biscuits or, you know - whatever your background is. I think, high and low, a lot of places are offering tasting menus, and this is sort of a way for a chef to show off in a few courses.

This started at the very, very top, at the upper echelons of dining, but it's trickled down now, so you can go out and spend, you know, as little as $25 on a tasting menu from a chef.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're talking about the season's dining trends. My guest is Tom Sietsema. He is the food critic for the Washington Post and his annual Fall Dining Guide was featured in this week's Washington Post Magazine.

I notice that, you know, you were saying in a number of your columns that Washington used to be known just for - as kind of a food backwater. It was a steakhouse. That was what you were going to get or...

SIETSEMA: It was a steakhouse town.

MARTIN: A steakhouse town because that was something that everybody understood. But that is no longer the case. So are there certain sort of trends and styles of food or genres or cuisines that you think either other people around the country are going to be experiencing, or maybe already are?

SIETSEMA: Sure. Well, I think Korean is really hot. We have a number - we have some really good ramen places. I think Ethiopian is really hot. It's food that you eat with your hands, which is kind of fun. Ramen - bowls of soup are really hot right now. It's just a very convivial way of eating, you know, whether you're eating with chopsticks or with other people or, you know, tapas continue to live on, too; Spanish small plates.

But every cuisine has its own version of tapas or small plates. You know, the Chinese have dim sum. You know, you can find any kind of nationality that does small plates.

MARTIN: The holidays are approaching and, for people who are being frugal the rest of the year, the holidays are a time when many people do eat out a little bit more or they entertain, go to parties or enjoy being entertained. Are there some food trends that you would suggest that even maybe a home cook might want to attempt, you know, for the holidays to try to jazz it up a little bit, be a little - make it a little sexy?

SIETSEMA: When you're eating out, you know, you can still splurge, but there are certain questions that you want to ask, for instance, of the sommelier or the wine captain, you want to say, what bargains have you run into recently that you really like? Or what do you love under $45? It's sort of a way of getting at bargains without saying, like, I only have this much money to spend. You know, it's a more gracious way, and I think it sets - it's fun for the sommelier to sort of, you know, dig into his cellar or, you know, it's a nice way of interacting with the sommelier without sounding as if you're cheap.

MARTIN: Is there anything that's making you crazy in restaurant world right now that you just want to go, stop it? Just stop it.

SIETSEMA: Oh, there are lots of things. There are lots of things I like, too, but one thing - you know, bacon is ubiquitous. I've had bacon in cocktails. I've had bacon in dessert. I've had bacon in vegetable dishes. It is the food staple that will outlive Cher and cockroaches.


MARTIN: Oh, stop. Ew. So enough bacon. Tom Sietsema is the food critic for the Washington Post. His annual Fall Dining Guide is featured in this week's Post Magazine. It's certainly available online now and he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Tom Sietsema, thanks so much for joining us once again.

SIETSEMA: Always good to see you. Thank you.


MARTIN: Coming up, weddings are supposed to be filled with joy and excitement, but Artie Goldstein had mixed emotions when his daughter Jill was engaged to another woman. That trip to the wedding became a journey that father and daughter decided to share with the world.

JILL GOLDSTEIN: I was blown away that my father was just so receptive to sharing that part of him.

MARTIN: We'll find out how this personal moment became an internet sensation. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.


MARTIN: Whether he's onstage doing standup or in appearances in sitcoms or movies, comedian D.L. Hughley is used to making crowds laugh. Now, though, in his new book, he wants to make them think about politics.

D.L. HUGHLEY: Nobody in governance right now is really exceptional and there used to be a time when people were.

MARTIN: D.L. Hughley is with us next time on TELL ME MORE.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.