Friday, 14 June 2024

Foodie Freak: How I review restaurants

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When I started to do restaurant reviews, the idea wasn't to hurt any restaurants’ reputations with scathing reviews. After all, food, like humor, is a very subjective thing, and many people might not be as thrilled with monkfish liver or be as disgusted by refried beans as I am.


So the decision was made to only write reviews on my great experiences and omit the bad ones; and trust me there have been bad ones.


For every good review I write, I eat at two other restaurants that I didn’t enjoy. Not that they were necessarily really bad, but they weren’t the experience I was looking for at the time, perhaps because the chicken was overcooked or the hostess smelled funny, etc. I’m actually in a pinch right now because I haven’t eaten anywhere that I have enjoyed recently.


When deciding what restaurant to review I try to eat at every corner of the map of the county, so I don’t appear that I am only eating in one area and I want to review places local for everybody. So if it appears that I am not eating at your favorite place it’s just because I ate at someplace else nearby recently and am writing about it, so next I’m going to another area of the county.


I could easily write reviews using phrases like “inedible,” “the chef must have a lobotomy scar” and “I think I know what happened to my missing dog,” and I’m sure many people would love my Don Rickles-inspired humor in that kind of review. But while articles like that are fun to read (and write!) they wouldn’t serve much purpose or help you choose a new place to eat. I put enough humor into every column as is … I think.


I don’t let any restaurant know that I am there as a reviewer, and I pay for every meal just like everyone else. I’m a good tipper too! If I need to make reservations I do it under a fake name. So even if I know someone on the kitchen staff or am completely smitten by the waitress, every restaurant gets the same treatment. I also admit my personal relationships or biases to a place up front anytime there is one, so you can rely on the integrity of the review.


I also try to keep in mind that people have different tastes. That’s why I don’t like the star or points system for rating a restaurant, because without a common standard or regulated idea of what the terms mean there will always be disagreement of opinion. It’s like trying to define what a “beautiful woman” is.I, of course, would make my wife the standard. She says I’m a Barbie chaser, though she is not a Barbie type. (A note from Ross’ wife: Ross’ “type” is “gorgeous.” Don’t let him try to tell you he has a “type.” Anybody even remotely good looking isn’t safe from his flirting.)


But sincerely I think that you can learn more by reading detailed descriptions about my experience and then see if you agree rather than quickly scanning the name of the restaurant and seeing “Ross gave it four stars!”


I sit there, smiling and nodding when people tell me, “You have to eat at this place, it’s my favorite in the entire county!” Meanwhile in my head I’m thinking “I’ve eaten there six times and never had a good meal yet!” But I do try to eat everywhere and several times so I really get a good feel of a place.


Here are some of the notably bad experiences I’ve had that I think you would enjoy hearing. Of course, I’m leaving names out!


I’ll admit menus give me the most entertainment. Reading descriptions of items that say it is a “classic recipe” but then go on to tell how it is a very nonclassical version makes me giggle – wondering why they call it that if it isn’t going to be the traditional recipe? Does the word “classic” allow you to add a dollar to the price? Or is it “classic” because that’s the way Mom always made it?


Then there are the ones that say “braised” when it isn’t. I think chefs just like the sound of the word “braised” and throw it out anytime they can.


I went to one restaurant where the house salad consisted of iceberg lettuce, a slice of tomato, a slice of cucumber, a slice of radish, croutons out of a package and a salad dressing that came out of a one gallon jug (I could see them dress it from where I was sitting). I felt almost insulted that they would serve anyone a salad that was more appropriate for a minimum security prison food program than for a moderately priced restaurant. I was dreading the rest of the meal and whispered to my wife, “I hope the salad isn’t foreshadowing of what’s to come.”


It was.


While still eating our salads the waitress brings our entrées and desserts – so if you like to eat and run this was the place to go! There was no room on the table to fit everything so my wife finished her salad while holding it in her lap.


The baked potato that accompanied the entrée was cooked several hours ago and then reheated in a microwave oven; the color and texture was a dead giveaway. In case you have never cooked a baked potato, let it cool and then rewarmed it in a microwave, let me tell you that it is like eating warmed Play-doh ... with potato flavoring, of course. When the potato cools the starches crystallize, and then when reheated you get the awful pasty texture (my apologies to the people at Play-doh). So the potato sat untouched on my plate.


My order of “prime rib, rare” was raw – not rare, raw – and had grill marks on both sides. Technically that meant that it wasn’t an undercooked prime rib but an undercooked rib eye steak. It also was only a quarter of an inch thick! Between the grill marks on the meat and how thin it was, it looked like I was eating the sole of a tennis shoe. All I could think is that the chef must be relying on the idea that his diners are so desperate for food that this will appear to be manna from heaven.


From the prices on the menu I had high hopes for the meal (dinner for the two of us cost about $75) but by the end of it I told my wife, “I will never set foot in here again.”


I’ve since cooled off and have eaten there again. The salad and potato were the same but the prime rib was much thicker and excellently prepared. I’ll return again in a few months to see if there are even more positive changes.


Then there is the little off-the-beaten-track restaurant that had amazing food, but the service was like calling for the concierge at your local high school cafeteria. All of the staff members were chatting among themselves in the back room, leaving me to wonder when I was going to get my drink. I went back a couple more times for lunch, hoping the service would improve but it never did.


I did enjoy the waitress describing one dish saying, “and topped with capers, but I don’t know what those are.” I even went to it one morning to pick up some coffee for my wife and the person attending the coffee bar asked me how to make a macchiato. Sorry, it’s all burned beans stewed in hot water to me, I don’t do coffee. She eventually found a cheat sheet and made the cuppa joe.


I also wonder what to do if I go to a place that has fantastic dinners but terrible lunches (or vice versa). What do I say about that? If I recommend it should I say “But don’t go there for lunch”? I’ve been to several places like that, and as of this moment I haven’t written about them but I want to. If they have good dinners they should get their bon mot. Still working that process out.


In one certain place I probably looked like the most finicky eater ever, even though it was completely accidental – I promise!


The soup was quite good but there was a lot of it and I didn’t finish it all as I wanted to save room for the rest of the meal. In retrospect, I wish I had finished the soup.


The entrée came and all I could think was, “You have got to be kidding me!” I was so disappointed that after a couple of bites I just pushed it away. The waitress must have been watching me because she immediately appeared to remove the plate. She asked if I wanted some dessert and my thought was, “Of course, I’m starving!” She mentioned a cobbler that sounded good so I requested it.


When the cobbler arrived I could see that the berry compote was a bit dehydrated and looked a little leathery, as if it has been in the refrigerator for a day or two. I thought, “Oh, what the heck,” and started eating.


The moment I started to bite down I could feel the unmistakable texture of a walnut (to which I’m allergic, and which the waitress never mentioned) and I immediately spit the mouthful out onto the plate and pushed it aside.


Again, the waitress must have been watching me as she walked up right away, and with a sheepish look on her face asked, “Are you done with this?” I said yes, as I was licking my napkin trying to remove any remnants of walnut in my mouth.


My waitress asked me no questions about my meal; she just gingerly slid my bill on the table and snuck away. I would have happily given her a large tip since she was so attentive, but since she seemed more interested in getting me out than trying to discover just what it was that displeased me, I only gave her 10 percent. I then walked a few doors down to another restaurant and started over, all the while wondering how awful I must have looked to the waitress.


I don’t get bothered when people don’t agree with my reviews. As I said, the quality of food and service are very subjective. Some people like the wait staff to be standing at their elbow, while I prefer them to be invisible; neither of us is correct, it’s just personal preferences. Just like my humor – some people love it and some people don’t get it, and that’s totally OK with me. I just want to let people know when I have a great experience so they can be confident that they probably will also.


So please feel free to disagree with me, suggest your favorite place for me to try, or just tell me I have the palate of a zombie on crack. I’m always interested in hearing from you, whether you agree with me or are wrong.


Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community. Follow him on Twitter, http://twitter.com/Foodiefreak .

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