The Unadorned Truth
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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?
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.
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.
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."
Immer rejects the idea that critics have to browbeat the public. "Consumers should be told that their pleasure is valid," she says, noting that most wine writers' problem with white zinfandel is its sweetness, "but most popular chardonnays have just as much residual sugar. Sweetness is something people pursue in everything we do--we love sweet corn, shrimp, tomatoes, things with natural sugar. And if a food doesn't have sweetness, we bring it in by process: roasting and caramelizing coffee, toasting barrels, talking about wine with vanilla and cinnamon flavors." And so I sat there going, "Oh yes. Absolutely. You're so right."
And while this went on, we drank wine served--as Immer delicately put it--"piss warm." There's something wrong with the bar at Vincent, I think. The red wine must be kept on lights or on a dishwasher or something. That's the kind of thing that can seem especially prominent on a single visit. I'll get to feeling bad for Vincent, because not only is the local restaurant critic noticing the hot wine, but Andrea Immer is noticing the hot wine, and dollars to doughnuts she'll end up writing about it sometime, and if Vincent is particularly unlucky, she'll end up writing about it using the restaurant's name.
The critical experience for me is sort of like having your attention be a spotlight, and I often find myself completely dropped out of my own conversation, so intently focused am I on some question of whether the taste of shrimp in a dish is coming from the presence of shrimp or the use of shrimp stock, some hazard at the next table, some detail of hot wine. And so on that visit I could tell you exactly how many servers visited our table, in what order, when the silverware was dropped, what was wrong with the seafood cappuccino, and what was perfect about the haricots verts. Over time that chain of hypercritical reactions will be mediated by reflections on the whole of the experience and comparisons with other Twin Cities restaurants, and the hot wine might end up an isolated stumble not worth noting in the review.
But that night I mostly was thinking about how much I would like to be like Andrea Immer, just super-smart and super-focused and relentlessly on-message, and how much better that would be than being me, and being endlessly distractible and jokey. And so I sit there applying ice to my wine and wondering whether if I try hard enough I'll slowly shed my corporeal form and evolve into a wise and enlightening beam of light. A pure beam of light. Like Andrea Immer. But by the time I sit down to write, it never comes out as a pure beam of light, and always comes out crumbly and jokey and just like me, just like this.
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