Like many white Midwesterners, I learned to drive before I learned how to eat sushi. Although my hometown was fairly sophisticated by Michigan standards, its first Japanese restaurant didn't open until the 1980s - and it took about a decade for my friends and I to screw up the culinary courage to eat there.
Since that initial sashimi date, I've eaten in countless stateside sushi bars, izakayas and noodle shops. But, at this rate, it's unlikely I'll ever catch up to an eater who lived in Japan or was reared on its cuisine. Even if I ate ramen every day for the rest of my life, I'd probably still understand the dish differently than someone who couldn't recall his or her first bowlful. Such is the nature of memory and taste.
While I can't retroactively forge a lifelong relationship with various global cooking styles, I can cultivate relationships with folks who grew up eating ramen or mantoo or cuy. The conundrum for critics is whether to invite these friends along to reviews of restaurants specializing in the dishes of their childhoods.
I visited Miyabi, the subject of this week's review, three times. On the second visit, I was accompanied by Voracious contributor Jay Friedman and his partner, who was born in Japan. We had a lovely meal, and I enjoyed hearing how a native Japanese diner would assess the dishes which landed on our table. But the experience underscored my belief that matching a reviewing companion's cultural background to the restaurant under review is a pretty silly exercise. That's because my job is to give readers a good idea of what it's like to eat in a particular restaurant, not whether its food stacks up against grandma's cooking.
"I thought it would be interesting to ask a Mandarin person to go to a Mandarin restaurant," he said of his early reviewing days. "Not only were they honored, they loved the role. But a lot of people who come from the country of the food you're eating, you'd be surprised now narrow their perspective is."
What's more interesting is to bring a "Mandarin person" to, say, a Oaxacan restaurant. That's the strategy endorsed by the L.A. Times' Jonathan Gold, who explained in the latest issue of Lucky Peach that he's more familiar with most cuisines than their native eaters anyhow. While Gold is one of the very few critics in the country who can honestly make that claim, it's not the only rationale for his approach.
As critics, we strive to approach restaurants as objectively as possible. That's a task which can be complicated by a highly opinionated dining companion -- especially when his or her opinions are rooted in nostalgia or tainted by inherited culinary bad habits. I'm not sure how many American eaters I would trust to advise a Russian critic charged with sizing up a burger joint in Moscow.