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.

And then there's me. In this light, it seems clear enough that I'm the servant you pay—by glancing at the ads that surround this page—to tell you which cook is good, which restaurant is good, which pie is worth eating. I'm not exactly a kitchen servant, but I'm definitely one of the modern conveniences that arose to replace them: I'm more like the employment agency that screens your applicants, and sends out the ones I think you might like.

I do this in a number of ways: I visit a restaurant repeatedly, and, as you noticed, go to absurd lengths to try to find the place's best face. For instance, I just extracted from my file cabinet a copy of the dinner menu from a place I reviewed a few weeks ago, B.A.N.K., and I am now noticing that out of 31 items on the menu, I personally tried 27, while spending more than $1,000 of my employer's money. So, when I tell you that the best things B.A.N.K. makes are their tomato soup, their Caesar salad, their salmon, and their banana chocolate cake, I am not just being a blowhard at a cocktail party—I mean it, from the bottom of my (saturated fat-saturated) heart.

So what about you? Should you go to restaurants other than Alma and Origami? It kind of depends on what you want out of life. Do you want a quiet life of well-made toast, or do you want a lively parade of interesting and various toasts?

I would venture that one of the nice things about having a servant—or, taking into account other local food writers, a handful of servants—who does nothing but scurry around and taste the local offerings, is that it makes your life easier: A well-reviewed restaurant by a critic whose tastes line up with your own is as close as you're going to get to a sure bet in this life.

But of course there are some pitfalls to the reviewing process. Part of the job description of a restaurant critic is that we review the new restaurants. Or, in the now-infamous words of a local restaurant owner, reported in the Star Tribune last January, we review "the new girl in the whorehouse." But what about the old whores, like the one owned by that very restaurant proprieter? Well, if there's no news attached to these not-new restaurants, they just kind of fade from view.

Where does this leave you, Kristin? If you are sitting there wondering who in all the city will provide you the best possible toast, are we, your critic-servants, presenting every possible option? No. We are presenting the newest options. But why does the information have to flow the way it has been? If there's one thing that considering food life between the wars has shown me, it's that our habits of eating are far more changeable than they might seem.

So, I am introducing a new project, which I am calling, for lack of a better phrase, "Essential Minnesota." This might take all year, and 2008 too, but I am hereby soliciting all readers, restaurant owners, eaters, and so on to nominate your own Origami and Alma. What are the restaurants (or other food suppliers, be they coffee shops, bakeries, delis, or what have you) on your short list of places that make life in Minnesota worth eating? And yes, let's make it all of Minnesota, not just the Twin Cities. It might take me longer to get to your more distant nominations, but I'll try. Heck, if you feel that there are places in Wisconsin that are Essential Minnesota (Hudson? Alma?) by all means, send those in, too; if we try hard enough we might even kick off a war of aggression. Relinquish thy cheeses, ye 'Sconnies!

Send in your answers (to dmoskowitz@citypages.com), and I, your humble servant, will visit your individual nominations. If I find something that I feel is worth your collective time, I will write it up, perhaps alone, or perhaps with another of your fellow citizens' nominations. I'll try to run one of these "Essential Minnesota" nominations every month or so, and then we'll see where we are. Will we have a restaurant culture less oriented toward the new, hot thing? Will we have better toast? Will we have servants that serve our, or rather, your needs more precisely? I don't know, but it seems like an experiment worth undertaking. Let the new revolution begin!

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