The Unadorned Truth

A Restaurant and Wine Critic Debunks Her Own Mystique

Every few months I slothfully answer reader mail, instead of writing a standard review. Want to encourage this? Send questions or vitriol to the address on the masthead, or to


Dear Dara,

How about telling us how you review a restaurant? Do you always take the same group of people with you? And what's that like--do you take one bite and pass to the left, order two entrées per person, solicit opinions, take notes at the table? Do you visit a set number of times? Do you go incognito so you won't be recognized?

Jason Wolf

Why, Jason, this is an interesting question, because the very moment a new critic is summoned from the laity, things get very, extremely, somewhat, sort of rigorous and surpass any civilian's limited understanding. But I'll try to explain. The first thing that happens is you get the call from a council of 100 editors who meet in an abandoned Olive Garden in Des Plaines, Illinois, and they wear these fabulous ocelot robes adorned with slices of sopressatta, and they come and snatch you out of your bed and fill your ears with custard, and then they have you eat a duck stuffed with a rabbit stuffed with a Scud missile and make you suggest a wine pairing, and then whisk you off to a camp in the warm Caribbean waters of Nebraska, and you do a lot of basic training (stiletto pumps and elastic-waist pants for the ladies, Michelin-tire-mascot costumes for the men). They line up a bunch of tires and you have to hop through them. One is filled with crème brûlée, another with cassoulet, and another with raw foie gras. (You learn a lot by hopping through vats of cassoulet, I'll tell you that much.)

Next, you scale walls made of sugared violets, and then there's the part where you claw each others' eyes out, and then whoever's still alive gets issued these marvelous food-critic laboratory boots. They've got, oh, gas chromatography spectrometers and cold-storage pockets and poison darts and such. And whenever you see someone in a restaurant with their feet up on the table madly stuffing escargots into their boot heels, it's me.


Dear Dara,

As a fan, my number one fantasy is to someday be a member of your dinner party when you are reviewing a restaurant.



That's so funny, because my number one fantasy involves 'N Sync, the British House of Lords, and a pony I once knew by the name Prancing Elmer. It's interesting, how the human mind works.


Dear Dara,

Upon reading your latest Q&A column, I find myself yet again asking, "What about the common man?" If I have to hear about Aquavit, Lucia's, or D'Amico Cush-ina's again, I'll scream. People who get bad meals at expensive restaurants don't deserve a review to save them from the experience, they deserve to squander their not-so-hard-earned money to find out it stinks.


P.S.: I'm not sure who goes to eat with you at these places, but I'm really interested in what a critical dining experience would be like.


Fine! Okay, already! I give up. You're all a bunch of nosey parkers, that's what you are. You do realize the truth is very, very boring, right? I mean, the unadorned truth--it's dishpan dull. But here goes: Yes, I make reservations in other people's names. I usually go to a restaurant three times--and more often if it's turning into a negative review, because then I am really careful. I take whoever's available: Friends, co-workers, and visiting dignitaries. Like Andrea Immer.

That was fun. Oh, Andrea Immer. Why, she's probably one of the biggest wine bigwigs there is, she writes for Esquire, used to have a show on the Food Network, was the buyer for the Starwood Resorts--they own the W hotels and all and so she'd buy six million cases of wine a year or something. Plus she was longtime sommelier for Windows on the World and recently got re-affiliated with them, and she was here about two weeks after 9/11 talking about how if she stopped doing what she was doing, then the terrorists will have won. (Whereas for me, it's all I can do not to begin every day with an invigorating crawl under the bed for weeping and rocking.)

Immer was in town to promote her smart, easily understood book, Great Wine Made Simple: Straight Talk from a Master Sommelier in the basement of the downtown Minneapolis Marshall Field's, and also to talk to Target about her next book (out next May), about the top 350 wines sold in America. So I met Andrea Immer at eightish at her hotel, and we walked down to Vincent, the new restaurant on Nicollet Mall and 11th Street that I'll be reviewing any week now, and we ate some food (she's also a French Culinary Institute trained chef) and ordered some wine. I took notes at the table, and I agreed with her on every possible level, because she's really charismatic and brilliant and all that.

She said things like, "It's my mission to validate the popular taste. The problem with wine criticism is, it's largely done ignoring context, but the typical consumer never buys wine out of context. They're buying it with a number of things in mind: what they're eating; how badly they want to impress their guests; whether they've had it before. No one buys wine expressly because of [its] score without regard for any other factors."

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