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Monday, July 30, 2007

Reviewing Reviews

Posted By on Mon, Jul 30, 2007 at 3:54 PM

My review of La Gra Italian Tapas prompted food blogger (and frequent Gut Check commenter) Jason Clevenger to ask some interesting questions. Here's his comment on a previous post:

When I read Ian's review of La Gra I was reminded of G. Harold Carswell, Ricard Nixon's second unsuccessful Supreme Court nominee to replace Abe Fortas. Carswell's legal stature was so unimpressive that it prompted one of the all-time great under-endorsements, "Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they?"

I am curious why Ian bothered to review such a place. Perhaps this is a glimpse into "evil" Ian, in response to a charge made in a letter a couple of weeks ago about too many "soft" reviews.

But to those who think that restaurant reviewing should be a blood sport, there is a conception of the job where the main thing is to seek out what is good and share it with everyone else. This is far far different from merely writing puff pieces that keep the ad desk happy.

To see an example of such an approach, one only need turn to Jonathan Gold, food critic for the alternative newspaper Los Angeles Weekly. Gold won a Pulitzer Prize earlier this spring -- the first food critic to do so.

Characterizing Gold's approach, Elliot Feldman wrote, "Like fellow Los Angeles writer Raymond Chandler, Jonathan Gold's words and descriptions soar far above his genre. And I especially appreciate that he's never used his considerable skills with words and descriptions to completely savage a restaurant's food and/or service. If there are dishes on a restaurant's menu that he doesn't particularly like, he always seems to make an effort to find that one specialty of the house that will draw a foodie inside. I also suspect, to his credit, that he won't review a restaurant that he hates. I never read a completely negative review from him ... and I read Gold religiously."

The "charge" to which Jason refers in his second paragraph is this letter from the July 18 issue of the RFT:

Has Ian Froeb ever eaten at a place he didn't like? The RFT restaurant review section used to have very descriptive, critical (but fair) reviews that ran the gamut of the St. Louis scene. Now we have a critic that has a "good enough" attitude, and gives restaurants far too much leeway when the food or service is not up to par.

Plus he leaves the St. Louis area for effectively half the summer to give reviews on Illinois restaurants in towns that are not only outside your circulation area, but in towns that readers have barely heard of?

I'm used to reading this sort of "this is really a promo for the restaurant but in the guise of a review" crud in the Post-Dispatch, but not in the RFT. Tell Ian to grow a backbone and call a spade a spade. Until then, I guess I'll have to go to Sauce for my fix.

Dean Berry, Clayton

My response to both is after the jump.

I'll deal with Mr. Berry's letter first.

Have I ever eaten at a restaurant I didn't like? Well, yeah. Feel free to read through the archive of my reviews dating back to August of last year, when I became the RFT restaurant critic. I'll give you a head start.

At any rate, Jason asks the much more interesting questions.

Actually, one of his questions isn't so interesting. Did I review La Gra in response to Mr. Berry's letter -- to prove that there is, in fact, an "evil Ian." Absolutely not. Coincidence, nothing else. To review a restaurant solely to show that I can be "evil" (a characterization of my tone in this review I'd dispute, anyway) would be unprofessional.

The larger question Jason raises is whether a food critic should review anything less than those restaurants that excite him or her the most, even if just a single dish is the object of affection. As an example, he points to the incomparable Jonathan Gold at L.A. Weekly (like the RFT, part of Village Voice Media). Gold's column almost always focuses on "cheap eats," especially ethnic restaurants. As the quote Jason included points out, Gold tries very hard to avoid outright negative reviews.

Should this be the m.o. for restaurant critics, in general?

I believe not, for two reasons.

The first is practical. If a critic wished to follow Gold's method, would he or she be able to do so anywhere but Los Angeles, New York and a small handful of other cities? Los Angeles is home to an extraordinary array of ethnic communities. A critic there could probably spend six months or longer reviewing nothing but Thai or Korean restaurants, for example -- to say nothing of the cuisines less well known here in Middle America: Armenian, Cambodian, Yemeni, etc.

To do something similar in St. Louis would be difficult. The spectrum of ethnic cuisines here isn't as broad (though broader, I think, than some might realize). The columns would eventually become repetitive. Also, in the case of the RFT, at least, I would be reviewing places that might already have been reviewed only a few years ago.

Gold also benefits from the glut of serious publications in Los Angeles that review restaurants. He does his readers no disservice by ignoring (more often than not) the restaurant "scene" or telling them to avoid this or that place. In contrast, St. Louis has few publications that review restaurants on a serious basis. The RFT and the Post-Dispatch do so weekly, Sauce Magazine and St. Louis Magazine do so monthly. If either the RFT or the Post-Dispatch undertook Gold's approach on a regular basis, that would leave St. Louis readers with only one outlet for -- and, essentially, one opinion on -- new restaurants.

Which leads me to my second reason for disagreeing with Jason: A critic must be critical. Even Gold rather frequently will compare a dish at one restaurant to a similar dish at another restaurant. Considering his encyclopedic knowledge of restaurants in Los Angeles, it would be astonishing if he didn't make these comparisons. That doesn't mean a critic can't lead readers to what is good, as Jason suggests, but I don't think most critics can afford to do that exclusively.

Added Monday, 4:05 p.m.: I forgot to mention that Gold often writes a column called "First Bite" in which he writes very short blurbs about new high-end restaurants. Though the length prevents much scope, these sometimes have a much more critical tone than his reviews proper.

Readers want to know about new restaurants -- for the same reason readers want to know about new movies, plays, albums, etc. If they are foodies (or, if you don't like that term, frequent restaurant-goers), chances are they or someone they know will suggest trying this or that new place eventually.

Another way to put it: Would you ask a movie critic why he or she reviews bad movies?

Also, I disagree that negative reviews must be a "blood sport," though I've probably gone overboard myself. Negative reviews sometimes identify a problem or trend that affect or could affect a city's restaurant scene in total -- just as, for example, a negative review of a movie might point out the inherent flaws of the romantic comedy genre or the cop-buddy picture or whatever. These reviews give both the critic and (I would hope) the reader something to consider when they dine not only at the restaurant being reviewed that week, but also at other restaurants.

-Ian Froeb


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