Tom Sietsema: Cotton balls won’t work, but human billboard may


(Edwin Fotheringham)
September 27, 2012

A periodic peek at the Post food critic’s e-mail, voice mail and inbox.

“As an audiologist,” writes Patricia Greene, “I was alarmed to read about the sound level at Bandolero [Magazine, Aug. 26].” A check at the spirited Mexican restaurant in Georgetown averaged 105 decibels, the din associated with a power mower.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, says Greene, who works for Kaiser Permanente in Gaithersburg, an individual should not be in an environment with these readings for more than an hour without the use of ear protection — and she nixed my joking solution, cotton balls, as worthless.

“Exposure at these levels (even for relatively brief periods of time) can cause damage to the hair cells in the inner ear, which leads to permanent hearing loss. I hope the employees are using ear protection since they are exposed to these excessive levels for an extended period of time. Even the diners are at risk.” Green encourages consumers to buy noise-reduction earplugs, commonly available at hardware stores.

Steve Uhr, director of operations for Bandolero and its sibling in Chinatown, Graffiato , says the well-being of his staff and guests is of the “utmost importance,” and if they raised any concerns about the environment “we would attempt to rectify that.” But he hasn’t heard a peep.


(Edwin Fotheringham)

“In my work, the primary factor leading to the request for a hearing examination is difficulty hearing in restaurants,” says Greene, who has a clinical doctorate in audiology. “More and more patients are complaining about this and are not going out as much as they did in the past. This is not only noted with my older patients but also for my younger patients,” who “are now using hearing aids and avoiding loud restaurants.”

The silver lining in the cloud, rues Greene: “I will have work for a long time!”

* * *

After I complained in my online food discussion about the many middling restaurant meals I’ve experienced in the past several months, one follower suggested I pack my bags.

“While I believe term limits to be a plausible solution to our political mess here in D.C., I am starting to think they should also apply to food critics,” submitted the anonymous participant of my Wednesday chat. “Do you think it’s wise for a food critic to serve the same market for many, many years?”

I do! I do! Because in most cases, it takes time (and money) for a restaurant critic to eat around his market and really understand it. And because a reviewer with some age on him can put his subjects in better context, thanks in part to historical perspective. In other markets where I’ve worked as a food journalist — Milwaukee, San Francisco, Seattle — I believe my best work was in my last years in those cities.

My online challenger came up with a fascinating idea involving my peers: “I think critics should be traded to other cities so we can get fresh opinions on the local dining scene.” Maybe the reader doesn’t know I regularly eat away from my home base for the Travel section and report from the road for my Postcard From Tom column, the archives for which are at www.washingtonpost.com/travel.

* * *

I encountered a human sign during a recent brunch at the Tabard Inn: a bar patron with a placard on her back pointing to the restaurant’s restrooms. So I did what social media demands and snapped a photo of the stranger on my iPhone, which I promptly shared on Twitter and Facebook.

Sara Kim swiftly identified herself. A Saturday morning regular at the Dupont Circle destination, the Arlington reader prefers a stool at the end of the bar, she says, since “it’s closest to the server station” and she can chat with people. After more than a few customers asked her where the restrooms were, Kim jokingly offered her back to a manager for “tasteful signage,” which led to “laminated yellow paper with red Mardi Gras-type beads” as part of her brunch dress.

Kim’s reward? “The staff provides suggestions of things I might enjoy, whether it’s something new on the cocktail or wine list or menu, and also shares the occasional sample. For me, it’s less about perks and comps and more about being in an environment with intelligent, interesting, dedicated people, be it the staff or other people at the bar.”

Kim says she has received more than a little exposure and hardly just from me. “I’ve lost track of the number of pictures that have been taken of my back.”

* * *

Ralph Edward Dimmick took me to task for not responding to his request, via the U.S. Postal Service, for a good Cantonese restaurant. “You write regularly for the Post, you talk on the air, but you do not answer written mail,” the Arlington reader chastised me i. Making me feel guiltier by the sentence, Dimmick added, “I enclosed a self-addressed, stamped envelope, but got no reply.”

I rediscovered his note — dated, I’m embarrassed to admit, July 28, 2011 — in a folder of unanswered reader requests recently and remember why I didn’t reply immediately: I could not think of a “good” Cantonese dining room in the area, and I didn’t want to brush him off with anything less. I was waiting to give him something perfect.

Readers, can you come to our mutual rescue with a recommendation sent to asktom@washpost.com ? Time isn’t on our side, as Dimmick let me know: “I am 94 years old and I would like this information before I die.”

The regular Dining column will return next week.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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