Like every other food critic in town, I was terrifically excited to eat at Shanik, the subject of this week's review . The Indian restaurant


How Much Should a Critic Care?

Like every other food critic in town, I was terrifically excited to eat at Shanik, the subject of this week's review. The Indian restaurant seemingly had everything going for it: A trendy South Lake Union address, expertise in a cuisine that's underrepresented in Seattle and familial ties to Vij's, a Vancouver institution so beloved that its fans willingly bide away hours at border control for the privilege of dining there.

Although I was hugely enthusiastic about Shanik's prospects, I approached the assignment with the same clinical mindset I try to bring to every restaurant I review. No matter how I feel about a restaurant's premise - obviously, I have personal preferences, same as every diner - my job is to suss out what a restaurant's aiming to do, measure how well it succeeds and thoroughly scrutinize the areas in which it comes up short. It's neither responsible nor helpful to huff about what I don't like, since readers turn to critics for context, not unfounded opinions.

So when I noticed it was so noisy at Shanik that I could barely hear my server, I didn't scribble down notes comparing the dining room to a dog pound: I called up a decibel meter on my phone to objectively determine the loudness level (loud enough to damage hearing over time, but not as loud as a snowmobile.) And when I failed to detect much specialness in the restaurant's bland dishes, I worked Yelp to find the city's most run-of-the-mill Indian restaurant: I trekked out to Mehak for the sole purpose of recalibrating my perceptions of the local Indian food scene. The backstage tour of the tandoor room was an unexpected bonus.

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The end result of objective reporting, which also involves sampling a wide swath of the menu, is a verdict. And when I thought back over my experiences spending massive sums of money for humdrum food and sour service, it never crossed my mind that I'd just eaten in one of the nation's best restaurants. As conclusions go, that's not especially damning: I'm lucky to have one or two meals a year which rise to that standard.

But the James Beard Foundation's awards committee apparently feels differently, since it last week long-listed the restaurant for a prestigious "best new restaurant" award, an award that's previously gone to such remarkable restaurants as Next and Momofuku Ko. I noted Shanik's honor in a blog post, in which I wrote I'd "pitch a fit" if the restaurant triumphed over such restaurants as Ox, Underbelly and The Whale Wins, the sources of perhaps my most memorable recent dinners.

To clarify, my outrage was directed at the awards committee, which I believe undermines the credibility of our industry's most prestigious organization by arbitrarily thrusting laurels at undeserving restaurants - and unfairly slights the many great new restaurants which somehow didn't merit a mention.

It's hardly news that the awards process isn't perfect: As Pete Wells pointed out in the wake of the list's release, only one New York City restaurant was cited as a "best new restaurant" contender, leading patriotic New York diners to wonder whether the committee made too many concessions to geographic diversity. While the foundation has made great strides in cleaning up its awards system, debating its efficacy is part of the fun of competition (and this is a competition, much as the listed restaurants might wish otherwise); If you don't believe me, tune in to sports radio when college bowl match-ups are announced.

Still, the implication that I might have a strong reaction to the committee's decision didn't sit well with Shanik's owner, Meeru Dhalwala, or her fans, who tweeted and e-mailed that it was inappropriate for me to broadcast my feelings. Although the exact content of the messages varied, the most frequent complaint was that I was trying to "pick a fight."

Hardly. I honestly have no clue what sparring with well-meaning restaurant owners would accomplish. But I don't think there's anything wrong with caring deeply about our local food scene and the organization on which we rely to sanctify it. While I keep emotions out of my reviewing process, I don't believe critics should have to step aside after an initial restaurant assessment. We champion, we celebrate, we plead, we nudge and, yes, sometimes we rant. I'd worry about a critic who was so disinterested that she didn't.

What's important to remember is that our convictions are rooted in careful study, which doesn't stop when a review is printed. As I told Dhalwala, I stand by my contention that Shanik doesn't currently meet any of the criteria for a best new restaurant Beard, and have no problem saying so publicly. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have a national award in its future: I'm terrifically excited to return to Shanik in a year or two.

For more (there's more?), check out my Shanik review here. And don't miss Joshua Huston's slideshow of images from the restaurant.

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