Other than the New Yorker 's annual food issue, which I haven't read yet, not much piqued my interest in the nation's food sections this


The Food Section: September 5, 2007

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl's essay on criticism, accompanied by some navel gazing.

Other than the New Yorker's annual food issue, which I haven't read yet, not much piqued my interest in the nation's food sections this week. Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes, zucchini, zucchini, zucchini. It's almost as bad as Thanksgiving time. But the marvelous Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, who has reviewed restaurants for the Twin Cities' City Pages for a decade, recently answered a reader who wrote in to say: I know you visit restaurants several times to pass judgment on it, but am I expected to?

In short, Dara tells her dear reader no. She sees herself as a servant of the people, visiting restaurants obsessively to make a decision that helps out people who don't have her expense account—she can spend up to $1,000 on five visits to a restaurant, a budget I could only dream of. 

I agree with her...sort of.

Visiting a restaurant several times (I generally try two or three, depending on how expensive it is) produces its own challenges, since in effect, not only am I evaluating the restaurant's consistency, I have to average out my experiences. 

It's always interesting to compare notes with people who've come with me once to a restaurant I'm reviewing after the article comes out. Sometimes my other visits yield a completely different experience from the one I have with them, and they either chastise me for being soft on the place or get self-conscious about their memories of an enjoyable meal. And also, when I eat a dish that knocks my socks off, or a server who makes me feel completely taken care of and welcomed, it tends to hike up my overall impression of a restaurant, even if other dishes or subsequent meals fall short of excellent. That's what happened to me at Opal, for instance. The thing I need to keep reminding myself is that a restaurant that's charging me $50 a person or more is designed for special events, and if its meals aren't special, then it's falling short.

I generally get the most consistent impression of a place six months down the line, when a dozen people have said to me, "So, I followed your recommendation and went to X, and it sucked/you were right on." (Of late, I've gotten the best feedback about Steelhead Diner, Shun, and Dahlak.)

That said, expensive restaurants know that they're only as good as their last meal, and if they screw up on your first visit, you have every right to refuse to spend money there again. The exception is anyone who goes in the first few weeks a restaurant is open, when the place is still getting their act together; you get bragging rights, sure, but the cost is that you're not getting to see the place in its full glory.

My own exception to this rule is moderately priced restaurants with big menus—especially Asian and Mexican places. If I'm not 100 percent familiar with the cuisine, and it takes me a few meals to figure out what the place does well, that's just part of the hunt for good food. As a critic I do what I can (research, cajoling the staff) to help steer myself and readers to better dishes, but there's no way I have belly space, time, or money to exhaustively check out a 100-item menu. Should these places edit their menus to remove the dreck? Yes. Should they train their waiters to point outsiders to the restaurant's true specialties, not "gringo-safe," crappy dishes? Hell, yes.

However, should you give up on a Sichuan, South Indian, or Oaxacan restaurant after only four dishes?

Hell, no.

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