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Eating Out With Mr. Big
by Barry Lazar
I know food. I write about food. I cook food. I have eaten food all my life. But I've learned that, when it comes to the food department, I'm not a real pro. I used to think I was and then I met Robert Sietsema.

Sietsema is the food writer for the Village Voice. He is also an un-named reviewer for a well known food magazine.

He's the kind of food critic you'd never pay attention to in a restaurant. Unassuming, tall but not especially heavy. He is in his mid-fifties and carries himself well. When he walks, he moves quickly with a balanced rolling stride and leans a little ahead of his body. It gives him the agility to follow his nose and change direction with the speed of a bird-dog.

We might be on the trail of real southern fried chicken or great freshly roasted coffee or the world's best Italian spleen sandwich but the aroma from a great sausage could turn his head and take us down a different block. I've been with him a couple of times. Let's start with the most recent.

We were in New York this past Christmas. Sietsema took us to Coney Island. "I have to take you there," said Sietsema. "This is where Nathan's hot dogs began." We walked down from the Stillwell Avenue subway stop into a glacial wind, the bitterest weather of the year. Nathan's had four people in it. The first order of fries was as cold as a loan shark's heart. We asked for a fresh batch and they were great, sliced from potatoes with a broad rippling cut. "More surface area for the fryer," said Sietsema. The hot dog had a nice mix of spices and garlic and came hot off the grill. "Don't eat too much," he said. "You have to leave room for pizza." There were three of us. We got one bite each.

Pizza was at Tottona Pizzeria Neapolitano, over 70 years in business. The oven is coal fired (not charcoal but bituminous) and reaches 800 degrees Fahrenheit. It cooks a pizza in four and a half minutes. Ours had a thin crust, good pepperoni, and a slightly peppery sauce. "Look at the sign on the window," said Sietsema. There was a pizza wedge with a line drawn through it.

"Here's the story," said Sietsema. "It seems that Al Capone had some dairy farms in Wisconsin. He was going to sell his mozzarella to pizzerias in New York City. The local hoods didn't want him to mess with their places. His cheese was lousy. So they got their favourite pizza restaurants to put up signs that said "no slices" which meant they shouldn't be firebombed if they didn't buy Capone's cheese." I looked at the cheese on our pizza. It was fresh mozzarella with a dusting of grated Romano. I looked back at Sietsema. "Anyway, that's the story."

I first met Sietsema in Montreal last May. He had been sent by a major food magazine to check out our best restaurants. He also wanted to try food that you can't get anywhere else. We met in front of Schwartz's and within a few minutes had a plate of medium-fat smoked meat, typically superb French fries and an order of assorted pickles. We were sucking on cherry cokes when the waiter came by with some speck which is paprika spiced fat, a grace note to the smoked meat.

Sietsema tried everything and smiled. He said it was better than New York pastrami. We spent the afternoon tasting our way down the Main with poutine at one place, fresh apple cider from a corner market stand near metro St. Laurent, and ended the jaunt at the Montreal pool room with a steamé and more fries.

I knew that the pro from the big apple was my kind of guy.

The next night we met for dinners. Sietsema had been in Montreal for four days. He had eaten at 12 of Montreal's most prestigious restaurants and checked out another dozen. This was his next to last day and he was just hitting his stride.

We started at Les Caprices de Nicolas with a round of appetizers and some very good chardonnay. "This is great value for Americans." said Sietsema. I glanced at his wine list. $100. The deer tartar was superb, the steak perfectly crusted and rare. The fish and soups were sublime. With such great food and wine, I drifted into an easy pattern, my fork moving like a metronome from plate to plate. The cheese course was reputed to be the best in the city. The meal went by in a blur.

Sietsema occasionally glanced at his watch. There were four us, he tried everything. Another bottle of wine. "This is great stuff," he said. "I have to finish this wine." We left at 10:30. "Time for a quick walk," said Sietsema. We had reservations at Ferreira, two blocks away.

OK, this time, I was going to eat seriously. No more tasting of the appetizers and pacing myself for the final course. We ordered at least two dishes apiece and an extra order for the table. We tried several ports after dessert. We rolled out of the restaurant at one-thirty in the morning. I was so wired I couldn't fall asleep until four.

Three hours later it hit me. I had promised to take my daughter on the March to Jerusalem. This is an annual fund raiser for the Jewish community, 26 kilometers over Mount Royal. It's a tough jaunt even if we were going by bicycle. I prayed she wouldn't want to do it. I was wrong.

I hoped my body would hold together. We were back home by noon but I had promised to make my father a birthday dinner: aged rib steaks, good burgundy, Caesar salad, the richest chocolate cake I could find, and a few non-pasturized cheeses that oozed onto the plates. We raced up to his country place to cook dinner for 10 people. The food was great. The meal was a success and we were back home by midnight. I got out of the car and threw up.

I could hear my system laughing. "Think you are 25? I'll show you." OK, smoked meat, poutine, steamé, incredible meals at two of the best restaurants in Montreal, no sleep, a mini-marathon over the mountain followed by thick steaks, great wine, unctuous cheeses and sumptuous desserts. What could possibly be wrong here?

I sent Sietsema an e-mail thanking him for a great evening. I didn't mention the repercussions. He sent back a note saying he had tried some Vietnamese soup restaurants for breakfast and found them quite good. He then went to another couple of places for lunch and was at Toqué! for dinner. He was sorry, he had to leave. He only had five days to check out Toronto.

Robert Sietsema's new book "The Food Lover's Guide to the Best Ethnic Eating in New York City" is published by City & Company.

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