By Robin Garr
When a new friend or neighbor finds out that one of my jobs involves writing restaurant reviews, their first response is usually something like this: “Wow! You get to eat out at a different restaurant every week? That must be great!”
Why yes! Yes it is! It’s fun to try new eateries, and the older ones too. We’re fortunate in this food-loving city to have a restaurant culture that understands what diners want and knows how to deliver it.
I can hardly remember a place that really disappointed me. No, wait, now that I mention it I can remember a few, but let’s set that aside for now. I don’t think I’ve had to write a really negative review in the past five years or so, not since that short-lived Mexican eatery on the riverfront.
Every now and then, though, during an otherwise excellent dining experience, I’ll come across a dish that just doesn’t work. I’m not talking about something that I simply don’t like but others do … I’m looking at you, pineapple on pizza … but outright flaws or poor decisions on the part of the chef or menu planner. In short, I’m talking about efforts that defy the old saying, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”
I will absolutely tell you about blips like these when they happen, within the context of an otherwise positive review. Fair is fair. So, more out of sorrow than anger and in the spirit of offering useful advice, let’s use today’s space to talk about a dozen slips and slides that I’ve run into lately.
• If the first words out of the server’s mouth are an invitation to buy a drink, this gives me a hint about the restaurant’s focus, and it’s not about the food. Let me have some ice water please, and plenty of ice. Oh, and let’s have salt or pepper on the table, mmm-kay? I’m sure Chef knows best, but individual tastes vary.
• One of the most frequent, annoying, and easily avoidable issues comes on the salad plate. Please don’t just grab a handful of mixed lettuces from the big box labeled “washed and ready to serve,” dump it on a salad plate and send it out without picking over the greens first. Those slimy black bits of rotted leaves are there, whether you want to believe it or not, and they are distinctly unappetizing.
• Speaking of salads, if you want to make me cranky, just take a traditional dish that’s perfect in its simplicity – like a caprese salad – and drizzle balsamic vinegar all over it. As I wrote in a 2017 review of an eatery that I won’t name at this late date, “I’d gently suggest that less is more, particularly when it comes to classic dishes like this iconic salad from Capri. Caprese is perfect as a simple, balanced presentation of fresh basil leaves, juicy fresh tomatoes, and fresh, creamy mozzarella, drizzled with olive oil and a little lemon juice. [Redacted[ fancies it up with dabs of oily, tart pesto and a decorative criss-cross balsamic design … the culinary equivalent of a little too much eye shadow and mascara.” ‘nuff said.
• A lot of people get irritated when the menu discloses the farm of origin for meats and produce, but I like that. Support our local farmers! I’m not so smiley, though, when the menu goes on to enumerate all the interesting ingredients of the dish … without mentioning the main ingredient. Why describe a salad as “cucumbers, zucchini slices, cherry tomatoes and hearts of palm” without mentioning that it’s primarily lettuce?
• Speaking of menu annoyances: If the chef decides that it would be a good idea to add fiery spice to a dish that’s not customarily hot, I’m fine with that. Gimme heat. But some people aren’t as enthusiastic. Do it if you want to, but please let us know!
• According to Cornell University’a Alliance for Science, about 10 percent of Americans over 18 consider themselves vegan or vegetarian as of January 2022, and that number is growing. Restaurants are responding to this market, and that’s good. But it makes sense for the chef to devote the same creativity to one or two vegan entrees as to meat, poultry and fish. Offering a platter of side dishes won’t cut it, and neither will striping a grilled portobello with, yup, balsamic. Create a few actually interesting plant-based appetizers and main dishes. Ten percent of your clientele will thank you.
• If you’re going to offer risotto as a main course, do it right. This classic Italian rice dish is best if it’s cooked to order. Unfortunately, this is at least a 30-minute process, which is problematic at a restaurant. A good chef can make a decent risotto ahead and finish it to order, but I’ve seen pitiful risotto impersonations made with long grain rice and cream. Just say no.
• Speaking of main courses, it’s possible that some people like their savory entree made course made sweet, because America is in love with sugar. But really? Burgers slathered with tomato “jam”? Scallops in honey vinaigrette? Brussels sprouts in a peach juice reduction? Naah. Please don’t.
• Timing matters. It can be tough to stay on top of this in a business with labor issues, but please try to move the finished dish along. Get the steak out while it’s hot, and before carryover heat cooks it past that lovely medium rare. Get that ice cream treat out quickly too, before it melts into a sweet but gooey mess.
• Finally, when it’s time for dessert, why rush it out but then make us wait 20 minutes for coffee to go with it? Some people want coffee with dessert. Ask, please!
Okay, rant over. Don’t get me wrong: I still love this work and the good folks in the business. But there’s always room for improvement.