Everyone's a Critic

Michael Dvorak

Hey, I'm thinking outside the box here, so welcome to a new couple-times-a-year feature, in which I'll run quotes from and responses to my voluminous mail, instead of a conventional restaurant review. Want in? Send letters (see very bottom of web page) or to [email protected].

Dear Dara,

As a teacher in the Culinary School at Art Institutes International Minnesota, I continue to advise my students to look your way for perceptive and entertaining treatments of the various hash outlets in this town. You are required reading for anybody who's serious about food hereabouts.

--Steve Lerach

P.S. I absolutely loved your review of a certain big-ticket Italian joint a couple of weeks ago. The last time I was there, my pasta was overcooked and cold. Quite a feat. No wonder the place is so expensive.

Dear Steve,

Ooh, I don't know how I feel about this at all.

Should you really be directing these restaurant reviews to the hands of impressionable youth? Who was it that said, "With great power comes great responsibility"?

Or was it "with great chowder"?

I can't remember.

You know who has great chowder? That place that reminds me of money, that's across the street from Shinder's. Oh yeah, the Capital Grille. You know what else? I love that the money-theme place is across the street from the porn vendor; it's so American. And right down the street from all that shopping and parking. You know what's really American? A big ball of porn, money, shopping, parking, and chowder. You know what's un-American? Letting impressionable youth read this column.

Why, anyone can see that porn and shopping have no place in a restaurant column. A restaurant column is a place for disembodied wisdom about where disembodied diners should spend imaginary anniversary dinners.

This ain't that.

The last time I was at the Capital Grille, I walked right in and found that the name of someone who annoys me terribly was inscribed right on a plaque on a wall, next to their private bottle of booze. Does that sound very disembodied or wise to you? Then I had a tedious meal with a great bore--the ass of whom I was obliged to kiss, owing to various non-restaurant-reviewing political situations of minuscule global import--and upon fleeing the meal I had a lovely conversation with the valet-parking kids out front, on whether there was any correlation between car value and tip size. (Sorta, but not really, say the kids.)


Dear Dara,

During your well-deserved vacation, please reassure me that you did not go to New York City. I live in fear that you'll quit your City Pages job and move East and I don't know what we'd do without you. Your column has guided me to some of the best food in the area (like your Dragon Court review--where my husband and I had the best Chinese food we've eaten in the Cities, and arguably the best we've had in the U.S.) Also, I have a question I've been wondering about since Valentine's Day: Where do you eat on special occasions? Do you have a personal favorite restaurant, or on special occasions, do you eat at home?


Dear Naomi,

Boy, do I not have a favorite restaurant for the purposes of this column. I mean, for the purposes of my life, I've got a couple, but they fit in closely with some other things I have: A house, a neighborhood, a schedule, a budget, a social circle--oh, all sorts of things like that. So here's my top favorite bundle right now, in alphabetical order: Auriga, La Belle Vie, the Loring Cafe, Lucia's, Restaurant Alma, Sapor, and Zander Café.

But here's what else I have: a constant working list of every restaurant in town and what's going on there. Even as I type that, I worry. I need to get back to Bobino and Café 128, and how's the new chef at Oddfellow's, and why can I never figure out what to do with Aquavit, Goodfellow's, the oyster bar at Oceanaire, and Punch Neapolitan Pizza? Surely, if you triangulate all the locations of that first list, you'll come up with the address of my house. Surely the addresses of other people's houses matter just as much. Surely issues of identity and objectivity are too complex for youth. Ack. I'm literally wringing my hands here. Truly, I'm doomed. These kids are going to tar and feather me when they get big enough.


Dear Dara,

My name is Caitlin, a 17-year-old Minneapolitan who's somewhat obsessed with food. Having abandoned the idea of becoming a chef (stress, alcoholism, a Coca-Cola-based diet, etc.), I've contemplated the life of a food critic. The only problem is that I have very little idea of what the job entails, or how one obtains such work.  


Dear Caitlin,

Aaaah! See what I mean? Not just youth, but impressionable minor youth. Is prison time given out for corrupting minors these days? Admittedly this one seems to be a little corrupted already: Obsessed at a tender age with stress, pop, and alcoholism. Though my guess is that she's taking Anthony Bourdain's book Kitchen Confidential a little too seriously. If one thinks one can avoid stress, worry, and alcoholism by becoming a writer, one has much to learn of the ways of sitting alone in the dark trying to spin experiences and doubts into smallish piles of cash.

One time, Star Tribune restaurant critic Rick Nelson and I were on the same airplane returning from New York. Probably the best way to obtain such work would have been one well-placed bomb. Otherwise, I bet there are more self-supporting astronauts than restaurant critics in the U.S.

For me, the path went something like this: born a writing nerd (you know the type, editor of the kindergarten haiku collection, pleased to get pens at Halloween), blundered into a restaurant job at 13 in Cape Cod (dishwashing!), and then was adopted by a ragtag bunch of lesbian chefs who whisked me through a series of kitchen jobs for which I had no formal training, landing me eventually in a sous-chef job in a busy bistro, whereupon I took all my knowledge of braising and garnishing and went off to study art history at Carleton College. There, they thrashed all the writing-nerd they could out of me, replacing it with the art-history mantra: "What do you see?" Not "What do you think," not "What do you think we want you to think," but "What do you see in the picture with your own eyes?"

So then I spent some summers as a pastry chef in the mornings and waitress in the evenings, and eventually my training in "What do you see?" came out as "What do you taste, what do you smell, what do you hear, who do you see?" And then, because of the Internet Boom prequel of 1996, restaurant critics were needed for the Internet, and I started there, and soon got here. So, Caitlin, do exactly that. Skip no steps, vary not one whit. Then your life will be a delight in every aspect, I assure you.


Dear Dara,

Are you in cahoots with Chino Latino or what? I just read your review of the restaurant off the City Pages Web site, as I ate there last Saturday. My whole party and I basically concluded that we would not go back there nor recommend it, as the food basically sucked. You, on the other hand, apparently believe it to be the Second Coming of Christ.

--Internet-Connected Kurmudgeon

Dear ICK,

I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.

You, personally--and quite likely your friends and family--are the specific reason the world is in decline. Where to even start? First, let me dust off the solid-gold desk supplied to me by Chino Latino. Ahem. You have a bad meal, so I'm corrupt. Fine. You like to peruse the Web site, and think somehow that year-and-a-half-old reviews are indicative of the current state of the restaurant, because everyone knows that every single thing you find on the Web is updated hourly. Fine. You can't read particularly well, taking away from a review saying Chino is a great place to people-watch and drink and "the food ain't bad" that I thought it was the Second Coming of Christ. Fine.

But I will never, ever, ever forgive you for introducing the thought to my mind of what restaurant critics would say at the Second Coming: "I've got to say I found a lot of this corny and predictable, but wielding the PR juggernaut they had coming into this, you almost had to expect a popular backlash." "I agree. I expected more. Loaves, fishes, great. But I feel like today, the American consumer expects more: Fresh pasta, foie gras... I mean, we've been to Europe, we've added the best of California, and I mean, get real. The whole pre-refrigeration-desert-nomad thing just isn't going to cut it anymore."


Dear Dara,

Having used your review of Arezzo as a teaching tool last week in my restaurant management class, I feel compelled to write to you again and thank you for unwittingly having become part of my curriculum. Lesson: Selected one student to act as Arezzo general manager, one as chef, three as cooks. Read review. Asked for reactions and an action plan. One guy was so into it that, as a cook, he threatened to resign. Chef (predictably) thought you were unfair.  

--Steve Lerach

Art Institutes International Minnesota Culinary School

Dear Steve!

Again! This is simply too much to be believed. If culinary students start acting out the restaurant column, what next? Will theater students begin to eat the theater column? I'm warning you, down this path lie dogs with the heads of cats, vegetarian wolves, and codfish marinated in broom-handles. I will not be held responsible!

And by God, you know what, the student playing Chef was right. Sometimes I could literally just take my head in my hands and weep with how unfair it all is. Do you have any idea how much easier it is to sit back and criticize than it is to get out and do? Holy cats, man, it's cush! Do you know how much mozzarella I hand-pull? None! Do you know how many tables of crabby, to-the-manner-born, rabies-infested idiots I successfully massage through a three-hour meal? None! Do you have any idea how many words I've written telling people how to do these things--and all sorts of other things I can't do--better, faster, and more correctly? Student playing Chef, Steve, everybody, it alarms me to say (I'm not even joking): I'm closing in on a good half-million words of pure unadulterated criticism.

May God have mercy on my soul.

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The Capital Grille

801 Hennepin Ave. S.
Minneapolis, MN 55402



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