Essential Minnesota

What’s the Difference Between a Flash in the Pan and a Restaurant Worth Your Time? No, Seriously, I’m Asking

Dear Dara,

Is there a difference between how many chances you, a food critic, give a restaurant versus how many times you'd advise non-critics to try a place? Is it a case of "to each her own" or "hit or miss"?

In some of your reviews, I've seen that you've had to go back several times and go pretty deep into the menu to find the gems among the duds. For me, though, I've got limited funds and ability to dine out, so I'm more inclined to go with sure things than to give second or third chances.

A few examples: I finally went to [Well Regarded Expense-Account Seafood Restaurant] after years of living in the Twin Cities. Our server didn't bother to find out what we knew, and proceeded to patiently (and needlessly) explain the characteristics of salmon. Later, he leaned his body into mine as he refilled my water glass. Our meal was good, but expensive and not remarkable. I've never gone back.

My husband and I went to [Minneapolis Chef-Driven Bistro] to celebrate our anniversary. The appetizers arrived in a timely manner and were excellent. The entrees were slow to appear. The tuna special I ordered was better in theory than in practice—sushi-grade tuna was overwhelmed by the autumn preparation of roasted onion and mashed potato. My husband's steak was overdone, which wasn't obvious till he was partway in. Our server never returned to check; he was barely in range to wave down. We gave up and ate the entrees, then told him when he finally did return. He briefly apologized. Desserts were slow to arrive but good. As with [Well Regarded Expense-Account Seafood Restaurant], though, the combination of inconsistent service and food quality has not prompted me to go back.

A few weeks ago, I went to Origami on a Friday night. We were able to walk right in and get a table. Our server was enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Our orders were completely different once he'd described all the specials. And the sushi was fantastic—fish we'd tried before, fish we hadn't. All of it was good, though I fretted about why it was so unbusy on a Friday night at 8:00.

Earlier this week, I went to Restaurant Alma, and had a great experience. The small dishes were exquisitely prepared, the service was knowledgeable and helpful, and everything from first course to dessert was a delight.

If I have reliably pleasurable experiences at places like Alma and Origami, is there a compelling reason for me to gamble my time and money at places where I haven't had good experiences? As a critic, how many chances do you give a place, and how many would you advise everybody else to give?

Best regards,

Kristin in Northeast

Dear Kristin,

Hmm. So many good questions! Short answer: I visit every place I review at least three times, though I will go as many as five times for a negative review. However, I will often pull the plug on a potential review of an obscure restaurant after one visit if I think the place is too awful, too ho-hum, or simply stands a good chance of improving if left alone. A rule of thumb for non-critics: I would never bother visiting a restaurant you didn't like twice—in ten years of doing this, I've noticed that restaurants seldom change dramatically from one visit to the next, unless there's big news such as a chef or management change.

So, now the long answer—and hold on to your hat! I mean: Kristin, have you ever thought about having a personal chef? Or rather, as they used to call them back in the day, a cook?

I have. I have been particularly thinking about it the last few weeks, because I just finished an odd, plotless, utterly charming book from 1939 by someone called Monica Dickens. One Pair of Hands is about a young, bored, upper-class girl who takes a series of jobs as a cook in England between the wars. Some of these positions are as a "cook-general"—one who prepares every single meal for her household, from toast in the morning to dessert at night, as well as doing all the housework. Some other jobs she takes are purely as a cook, with scullery maids, butlers, and whatnot doing the rest of the family's work.

Can you imagine? Having someone in your house making your toast?

As strange old books will, this strange old book has given me a whole new way of looking at life.

The thing that struck this 21st-century food writer about this portrait of food life between the wars was how uncommon it was just a few generations ago for well-off, or as we call them today, upper-middle-class people, to do any part of their own cooking or grocery shopping, or even to go to restaurants. Not that long ago, food was something that servants made happen.

Obviously, in the space of 70 years, everything has changed—the idea of someone else making the morning toast is more foreign and weird than the idea of heading to work on a jet-bike. The forces that have flooded into the space once occupied by servants are uncountable—there's Lund's deli counter, Birds Eye frozen vegetables, paper towels, the entire cleaning-product aisle at Target, every time-saving appliance at Sears, every coffee shop and restaurant.

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