The Jew And The Carrot

Robert Sietsema's New York Taste Buds

By Anne Cohen

  • Print
  • Share Share
Courtesy of Robert Sietsema
Masked Man: One of the last anonymous critics, Robert Sietsema poses here in his signature quirky mask.

If you’re a person who spends their weekends schlepping to the outer-boroughs for a taste of New York’s best ethnic cuisines, or, if you are a dedicated reader of the Village Voice, or just a person who likes to eat in the city, you owe a debt to Robert Sietsema.

Sietsema’s taste buds have been New York’s flavor barometer for over 25 years. Starting with “Down the Hatch,” followed by a stint at Gourmet and finally serving as the Village Voice’s restaurant critic for 20 years, he has chronicled the city’s food scene longer than almost any other critic, uncovering hidden gems and whole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants one review at a time.

His memorable tenure at the Voice came to an abrupt end when Sietsema was somewhat unceremoniously fired in May, along with gossip columnist Michael Musto, and theater critic Michael Feingold.

Fortunately for readers, Sietsema has found a new home at EaterNY, covering what he calls his “natural beat.” As a regular columnist, he’ll continue his pursuit of the perfect dish through a series of “micro-neighborhood dining guides.”

The Forward’s Anne Cohen recently spoke with Sietsema about his take on the future of food journalism, his favorite New York deli, and what he really thinks of gefilte fish.

How did you first get into food?

It was kind of random. I’d been playing in a rock band, and I started doing this fanzine called “Down The Hatch” talking about food like I was talking about a rock band, especially cheap and ethnic food, which was rare in the ‘80s. It was kind of a great, invisible buffet that no one else was getting in on.

[This] was before the age of foodism, and nobody knew that they were supposed to be bat-shit crazy about food.

Do you have a favorite cuisine?

It depends on whether I’m making it or eating it. I would have to say that Italian is on my list. Italian is durable. I [also] love Haitian cuisine, with its mixture of African and French. [And] Yemeni cuisine with its weird roasted meats mixed with French soups and French salads. You also have the regional cuisines of Korea are just reaching the forefront.

I could just ramble on like this.

So you cook? Any favorite dishes?

I would say simple foods that are farmers market driven. That’s where Italian comes in. Of course the Jewish Italian cuisine with it’s emphasis on frying — fried artichokes! — is also in the mix.

What’s simpler on a summer day than putting together pasta with some fresh tomatoes and grated Parmesan cheese?

As a food writer, is there any one dish that you crave when you have taste bud overload?

Yes. A bologna and American cheese sandwich with mayonnaise on a Kaiser roll. How is that for lowbrow?

What was your favorite piece for the Village Voice?

I think that the cover story attacking one of those horrible food shows — the American version of Iron Chef. I just snuck into a taping and noted that everything they tell you on TV is a total lie. The food they feed to the judges is not the food you see being prepared on TV. The food network assistants recreate the dish. Everything is manipulated.

Are there any cooking shows that you do like?

I like the new Anthony Bourdain [show] on CNN. I think it’s really good. Politics to me is always an important part of any food story. Every story has its various ripples in other fields. For example, you can’t really go to a restaurant in New York without thinking about real estate. Food is one of the most fundamental human rights and yet so many people go hungry around the world.

While you were at the Voice, you were rumored to be the person behind the witty twitter account Ruth Bourdain. We have to ask, are you the phantom tweeter?

No. I’m glad I’m not Ruth Bourdain, it would be too long a joke to carry out. I could do it for a month maybe, but it would get boring fast.

Do you have projects for the future?

I’m trying to get some book projects going. I’m looking for projects. I have to find some way to make up at least part of my income and it’s going to take a while. There are so few jobs that pay a living wage; it’s very hard to make a living as a food journalist now.

What about your new column for EaterNY? How did that come about?

They liked one aspect of what I’d been doing at the Voice. They have a very interesting mix of things, dovetailing with real estate. In the field of what I do, which is kind of detecting outsider cuisine, 99% of the restaurants in the city are not covered and that’s kind of my natural beat. They looked upon that as a chance to expand. They are also one of the few websites that have very strict ethical requirements. They do not pretend to be reviewing restaurants.

Grub Street just announced they were shutting down their non-New York sites, and obviously, the Village Voice food coverage will never be the same. Where do you think food journalism is going?

I think it’s been grim for a long time. One of the reasons is that it’s so easy to become a food journalist. You just declare yourself one. It’s driven down the pay rate to almost nothing. Moreover, the ethical underpinning has eroded the extent that you can’t pick up a piece of food journalism, read it and fully understand where it’s coming from. Unfortunately, with the armies of people calling themselves food journalists, the whole area has become clogged.

The Village Voice in particular; I was marked for death. Why pay expenses and pay a food critic when you can get the same bounce making puffy descriptions of places that open? I’m hoping that once people start treating food as a normal thing and not some source of adulation, we’ll be able to go back to food journalism.

You’re considered one of the foremost experts on the New York food scene. How would you sum up New York food?

The most eclectic in the world. We have more types of cuisines, variations on those types of cuisine [and] more creative chefs here. New York is the most diverse. We have more access to more groceries and ingredients than anywhere else. Go to Kalustyan’s on 28th and Lexington and you’ll find an amazing range of herbs and spices there. It’s almost mindboggling. Not to mention like 80 different kinds of rice.

On to Jewish things: What’s your favorite New York deli?

Katz’s, even though it’s not kosher.

Katz’s has always been wonderful but it’s become so touristy. I was there the other day ordering a half-pastrami-half-corned-beef sandwich and I saw them make a pastrami sandwich for a tourist who insisted that they put American cheese on top. It was horrifying.

What do you think about the New-Age Delis and Jewish restaurants like Mile End or Kutsher’s Tribeca?

I actually like Kutsher’s quite a bit. I think there’s plenty of room in that cuisine that has slowly died, just like Yiddish in a way. Kutsher’s represented one of the great dynasties of ‘Catskilianism,’ and the fact that the food is embroidered upon without being ruined is good thing. I like their matzo ball soup, who cares if it has vegetables in it!

And Mile-End? Are you a smoked meat or pastrami fan?

I actually declared the smoked meat better, but only for the purposes of argument. I’d say if I had both of them in front of me right now, I would go ahead and eat them both.

Do you agree with Mimi Sheraton about the deplorable state of the New York bagel?

No. The bialy perhaps, is struggling, but the bagel is alive and well. [One] thing that hurt the bagel is the current obsession about diet and nutrition. I was at a deli on Sixth Avenue the other day and most of the people in line were having [the employees] tear the inside of the bagel out.

Who makes the best bagels in New York?

I like Ess-A-Bagel on First Avenue, although old timers will tell you that those bagels are too damn big. H & H [were] good but they’re too sweet.

I’m wondering why bagels have not been celebrated in the same way that other pastries like the Cronut are.

Any thoughts on gefilte fish?

I’m not a big fan. One of the beauties of Jewish cooking is that it brings little things from all over Europe and all over the world. Like gefilte fish is related to French quenelle, I believe. I like kishke and other things that people might object to, but not a gefilte fish fan.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Robert Sietsema, Katz's Deli, Grub Street, Eater, Best Bagel in NYC, Best New York Bagel

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.