The Critic

2005.Jul.24 Sunday · 0 comments

in Life, Restaurants

Buenos Aires – The off and on drizzle continues here, my houseguests have been asleep for nearly 12 hours, and I’ve decided that reviewing needs reviewing. Maybe it was seeing The Simpsons episode this week where Homer becomes a food critic (great fun by the way). More likely because Anu Garg sent me his weekly missive, the AWADmail Issue (A Word A Day) which sent me off to look at a piece in the Times Online (UK). While I was there I poked around to see what Giles Coren, one of my favorite food writers, was writing about this week. Why is he a favorite?

My editor says Hollingsworth has not forfeited his right to a balanced restaurant review and that I have to do one. So here one is: The estimable Mr Hollingsworth, whose other gastropub has won prizes, won a Michelin star at Quo Vadis working under Marco Pierre White, and at The Bull he serves an appealing menu of gastropub standards including poached haddock with bubble and squeak, fish soup, châteaubriand with chips and béarnaise, and tiramisu. There is a two-course express lunch menu for €14.95. The redecoration of this traditionally difficult (some would say cursed) site is light and airy. There is plenty of parking. The staff do not have visible boils.

On my visit the clientele comprised a large table of chattering mums and assorted elderly couples, who seemed to be eating the food happily enough. Eat here if you want.

It’s because when he has something negative to say, he doesn’t, as the term goes, pussyfoot around. (I was shocked to find that neither Anu Garg nor Michael Quinlon (Wordsmith) had this word in their archives and I have to send you off to an ordinary online dictionary.) The rest of the review that led up to this summation is worth reading…

Compare and contrast, as college entrance exams say:

But that doesn’t mean 20.21 is perfect. The tables are so close together, you’d never want to have a private conversation here. It’s not romantic, either – the room is too loud. And if you want salt or pepper, you’ve got to ask. – Kathie Jenkins, St. Paul Pioneer Press

The main dining room looks like an attempt to create the world’s first wine mausoleum, with empty bottles stacked high along the walls and illuminated from behind by an eerie, elegiac blue light. An adjacent dining area has a low ceiling and terrible sight lines, affording views in one direction of off-white drapery and in another of a very dark wall with very ugly sconces. The special problem with this solemn décor is the way it underscores the food’s intermittently withholding quality and amplifies Mr. Conant’s frequent rejection of the lustiness of his splendid baby goat at L’Impero. – Frank Bruni, New York Times

Curiously, the tasting menu is not the way to go at Water Grill. Tasting menus are designed to show off the chef’s best cooking. It’s the chance for him to orchestrate a meal from start to finish, to find a rhythm and flow that doesn’t necessarily happen when customers order willy-nilly a la carte.

But it can also show up the chef’s limitations. Course after course, in this case, it’s easier to see how similar, except for the embellishments, so many of the dishes are. And it’s not just because the menu is limited to seafood. – S. Irene Virbila, Los Angeles Times

Under pressure, the service also becomes uneven. My friend asks three times for a glass of water, our menus are whisked away before we’ve finished ordering and harried waiters repeatedly bump my chair as they pass between the kitchen and restaurant. These minor shortfalls betray Industrie’s aspirations. – Pip Cummings, Sydney Morning Herald

Now, I have no doubt that the above, Pip, Frank, Kathie, and even S. Irene, are perfectly delightful folk to dine with. They might be charming conversationalists, then again, perhaps not. What I’ve noticed in most restaurant reviewing is a strong attempt to “make nice.” After all, one doesn’t want to become known as the dread ogre of the restaurant world – that mythic figure that is portrayed in various movies and television sitcoms – “The Critic.” So even when there is something negative to say, the usual approach is to come up with a witty comparison or cute turn of phrase (Ms. Jenkins in particular appears to sit with thesaurus at hand in order not to repeat adjectives and attempt to make wooden writing, umm, less wooden.)

I’d rather just hear that something that’s wrong about a “dining establishment” is wrong. Not “veering off track,” nor “not as good as it might be,” nor “an odd note,” just plain wrong. And the same should be true about the good stuff. Giles doesn’t stint in his praise when he likes something either:

For this was quite the most extraordinary pie I had ever known: deeply porky without any nagging gaminess, spicy without being peppery, firm and insistent in its flavour and very lean, with just enough fat to lard the mouthful but not grease the palate. I hopped around and giggled and offered it to my friends, who dug in the crusty tub and scoffed fat meaty mouthfuls dripping with gold and rolled their eyes and begged for more. Which is what led to my finishing the pie unsated and deciding to buy another one, and so to my eating the ultimate pie.

It also doesn’t hurt that he can be extraordinarily funny and may be why he’s been named as Food & Wine Writer of the Year over in Jolly Old England… Needless to say, for myself, I am inspired to say a bit more of what I mean and mean a bit more of what I say… as the saying goes.

By the way, I do tend to like writers who inject a bit of fun into their writing – my favorite for many years has been Terry Durack, whom I originally encountered in his writings in Australian Gourmet Magazine, later in person when I was working at Felidia Ristorante, and who is now writing for The Independent in London. I’ll leave you with an excerpt from him:

The flavours are generally bland, the textures uninteresting, the overall effect steamy and muddled. Where are the juicy limes, the chilli hits, the fresh cheeses, the ripe tomatoes, the sparkling summer produce? Where’s the freshness and the fun?

. . .

Get-me-out-of-here is the Mexican chorizo and potato (£4.50), a wan, sludgy dish with no burn, no bounce and no point. To finish, the nieves, camomile and tequila and lime sorbets (£3.50 for two scoops), are powdery, crumbly and unthrilling.

Maybe it’s something about working in London?

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