Tom Sietsema Doesn’t Hate Bethesda, Just Bethesda-ness
Bethesda diners, brace yourselves! This weekend, The Washington Post's Tom Sietsema has a Sunday restaurant review on Food, Wine & Co. If you read Carole Sugarman's "Why Washington Food Critics Hate Bethesda" piece in the current issue of Bethesda magazine, you'll probably assume that Sietsema will automatically hate the place. In fact, Sietsema kicks off the piece detailing how Francis Namin's restaurant "devolved into something akin to a melodrama," including Carole Greenwood's 48-hour stint helming the kitchen. A sign of a bad review?
Not exactly. Sietsema awards the place two stars, outlining the high and low points. He sings the praises of the bar snacks, including the deviled eggs and fried artichokes. He declares the burgers and pizzas are decent, while the sandwiches are underwhelming. The rockfish, meanwhile, is "wasted on braised fennel and an almond pesto that sound better in print than in the mouth." But he says the ribeye is "pound of pleasure, cooked as you wish, served with a thicket of hand-cut french fries that leave you wishing for more."
Two stars? That's pretty decent for Sietsema. And certainly better than the half star he gave Robert Wiedmaier's Mussel Bar, an October review that ruffled plenty of feathers in the Bethesda dining community. From Sugarman's view, "it seems to me that he has been particularly tough on Bethesda restaurants in general." But is that the case?
Some key takeaways from Sugarman's article:
Sietsema says "that he’s no harder on Bethesda eateries than he is on Capitol Hill restaurants. Both neighborhoods are dense with places to eat, but sparse on kitchens that serve quality food, he says." Former Post critic Phyllis Richman says Bethesda dining lacks "passion": "Where is the restaurant where the chef is young and idealistic and wants to make his own mark? Where is the chef who is an immigrant who is proudly presenting the food of his youth?" Also, there's better ethnic dining in Wheaton and Rockville. (Y&H agrees!) Washingtonian's Todd Kliman on Bethesda dining woes: "It’s amazing how underwhelming a dining scene it is." Then again, it's hard to please Kliman, who recently said about 60 percent of what he eats falls into "the not-great category."
One of the most fascinating lines came from Sietsema, who says that most of the dining complaints he gets related to "wealthier Maryland suburbs" deal with service, not food quality. Diners don't want to venture into the District, so there's a captive-audience dynamic. "It’s almost as if people have lower expectations," he tells Sugarman, who later notes the biggest complaint she hears about is about—drumroll—parking!
As Y&H contributor Tammy Tuck discovered, it can be difficult to be in the Montgomery County restaurant business, especially if you're a restaurateur or manager trying to do something interesting with a beer list. Thor Cheston, who manages Mussel Bar in Bethesda, as well as D.C.’s Brasserie Beck, told Tuck recently: "I would rather rip my eyeballs from my skull than open another restaurant in Montgomery County," he says. "A case of beer that would cost us $60 in D.C. costs $90 here. It’s bad for business."
Restaurant owner Jeff Black tells Sugarman: "Montgomery County can be a difficult place to do business," citing difficult and "arbitrary" permitting, among other county-related issues.
Those issues, however, don't directly interact with diners. But they do influence what a restaurant serves and how it serves it. And a discerning food critic—and knowledgeable diners—can often detect how those factors can drag a place down. And that's an overarching theme for Bethesda.
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