One of my most popular posts ever, and the one that put this site on the map. This is three posts over three days, all put together:
Over the past six months there has been a change in the food reviews in this town. Before that time you would see the occasional negative review, but 90% of them were darn positive. Even new big name places that were just terrible got good reviews. This was so noticeable that I’ve been having conversations with people in the food industry speculating about the reason behind this trend.
Keep on reading if you care to know my theory behind this grade inflation, and the heat that has erupted over Nancy Rommelmann’s recent review of Saucebox for Willamette Week.
We live in a town where one paper reviewed a restaurant ten days before it opened, where a restaurant gets a bad review one week only to be countered by a good review in another newspaper the next week, where a newspaper reviews the same place twice in one month with two completely different opinions, and a few admittedly terrible places get rave write-ups. Some Portland dining establishments had been sacrosanct: places like Bluehour, Saucebox, Papa Haydn, Esparza’s, Higgins, and Wildwood never have anything negative written about them. Then a new sheriff came to town named Nancy Rommelmann. Let’s take a quick look at her bio:
Nancy Rommelmann’s articles, covering culture, news and food, currently appear in the LA Weekly, Bon Appetit, and Willamette Week, among other publications. She just finished a cover story article for the LA Times on Morel mushrooms which will be published July 10th. She is a former monthly nightlife columnist for Los Angeles and Buzz magazines, and a bi-weekly restaurant critic for the LA Weekly. Her food and travel articles also appear in Bon Appetit and other publications. Nancy’s work has won awards from Association of Alternative Newspaper (AAN)/Best Feature, the Los Angeles Press Club/Best Feature, and PEN West (Best Feature/Runner-Up). She is also the recipient of an AAN for food criticism in the LA Weekly. Rommelmann is the author of several books, including Everything You Pretend to Know About Food, published by Viking/Penguin and currently in its eighth printing; and Rommelmann’s Bar & Nightlife Guide. She wrote for Bon Appetit for ten years.
These are pretty good credentials from reputable sources, but Nancy didn’t realize what a small town Portland Oregon really is. She was about to stir a hive of angry hornets.
In Stumptown it seems most chefs know everyone else in the industry. A visit by one chef to another’s restaurant means a deluge of attention with dishes spilling from the kitchen without a detail spared. It is a tight community, almost incestuous at times, but Nancy didn’t know this. She had come from Los Angeles, a big community with a huge amount of restaurants. With a newcomer’s naiveté, she made a huge mistake and took on two Portland institutions, looking at them from a fresh new perspective: Esparza’s and Saucebox.
When I read her review of Esparza’s I was elated. Finally someone was going to say out loud what many in the industry have been saying for years: once a great, groundbreaking restaurant, it was now past its time. I was surprised Willamette Week didn’t get a deluge of letters from angry readers. Then, a few months later, Nancy made another foray into sacrosanctity and wrote a review of Saucebox. It was not a kind article, but I applauded her conviction and waited for the storm to follow. It didn’t take long. Here are some excerpts from a letter received the same day from Bruce Carey, one of the owners:
What you wrote is deeply hurtful to a great many very dedicated, hard-working people who are very passionate and proud of their work. I am not being dramatic when I say this. Saucebox is very personally held. My partner Joe Rogers puts his heart and soul into his work everyday. He tastes everyday, he is obsessive. Chef Adam is also devastated and confused. Your words are totally contrary to what we are hearing otherwise. Your slam comes completely from left field From your other work which I have taken time to read, it is very apparent that you are much more capable and talented than you demonstrated so publicly this morning. Did you spend enough time and consideration on this piece? Our disagreement is not just about the food at Saucebox, although I will stand behind it. My sincere inquiry is about your motivation and your effort. Did you wish to cause harm to this extent? Was your work reviewing Saucebox commensurate with the work that my partner and employees put into Saucebox?
It seems that you simply wrote a review of your personal experiences (and your husbands, thank you) at Saucebox on two occasions. Simply that. Your defense is that you wrote about what you experienced. Simply that. There is so much more to the story. You did Saucebox a terrible disservice. You did Portland a terrible disservice. You shamed the Willamette Week. It was wrong and irresponsible.
For some reason, that I would love to know, you decided to take an antagonistic attitude toward one of Portland’s best restaurants (not bars – restaurants). I have a hunch that if you had taken more time and been more fair, you and I might find much in common. Instead you have set up a terrible, destructive, no-win situation. It was your choice. I live with the consequences, as does Joe and Adam, his sous chef Ryan, the fifteen crestfallen people in the kitchen and the 20 floor staff. Sleep well tonight, Nancy.
And don’t embarrass yourself by ever coming to Saucebox again. I will post your photograph at Bluehour also for the staff who will be instructed to refuse service to you, and when the new restaurant opens on 23rd Avenue the irresponsible disservice you have done us will be remembered there also. It’s all I can do.
Let me apologize in advance for angry words that might come to you from Joe Rogers. He is devastated. If the review had real criticism that we could work with, trust and acknowledge, he would be hard at work, and would likely thank you for your observations. But because we have been focusing on the food so much at Saucebox and because we know what we are doing, we cannot trust you. Nothing good comes from it. Joe cannot do anything about the truck that hit him this morning (with you behind the wheel). Instead he will likely lash out. I am furious, but I am calm compared to Joe today. Try to forgive Joe and Adam and me for being so angry. You have to accept the fact that when you sling shit (and that’s what your review was) you have to expect it back.
On a personal level, I like Bruce Carey. I’ve been to parties at his house and always found him to be an affable host. It seems to me Bruce wrote what he generally felt, but he made a major mistake. If there is one thing I’ve learned in business, it is never fire from the hip. Take time to calm down, write a response if you still think it is necessary, and then sleep on it for another 24 hours before you hit the send button. Unfortunately he didn’t do any of that, instead building himself up into a frothing, rabid, rage as he wrote more and more of the letter. Something tells me at this point he may be regretting firing his broadside missive.
It is easy to find strong issues with his email. Leaving out the baseless personal attacks, we’ll just skip to this: “What you wrote is deeply hurtful to a great many very dedicated, hard-working people…” Any negative review is going to upset people. Restaurant personnel have difficult jobs and work long hours. Does that mean they should get a positive review, just so feelings don’t get hurt? If so, what is the point of doing a review? Should we only give positive reviews and leave out any restaurants that are sub-par to spare feelings and jobs? If so, does a reviewer have an obligation to promote all restaurants regardless of their quality?
“Your defense is that you wrote about what you experienced… There is so much more to the story. You did Saucebox a terrible disservice.” I’m confused since every review I’ve ever read or written was about the critics’ experience. What are you supposed to write about? Is not the experience a huge part of the meal? “You did Portland a terrible disservice.” Do you mean that Portland has its first bad restaurant? Tourists will quit coming here? Thousands will lose their jobs? I think Bruce takes the role of Saucebox in the big picture of Portland a little too seriously. Industry friends tell me that it hasn’t been on the food radar for many people for quite a while now. “Sleep well tonight, Nancy”. If this is the type of prattle dished out anytime someone gives a negative review, I’m not surprised if some people roll over or give up entirely and move to a town that is more sophisticated about food. It seems from his threat to turn her away from Bluehour (where he is also an owner), that he is a bit nervous about the food quality there too. Finally, when you copy so many people in an email do you not expect it to get passed around outside of that group and just perpetuate the conversation you so desperately want to quash?
Coming tomorrow, Part 2 of our saga: the blistering letter from Joe. You won’t want to miss it.
Finally the promised letter from Joe arrived. Here are some excerpts:
riam-Webster Online Dictionary
From the Merriam Webster Dictionary
One entry found for saucebox.
Main Entry: sauce•box
Pronunciation: ‘sos-“bäks, ‘sas-
: a saucy impudent person
UPGRADE YOUR SPELL CHECK
I don’t understand your criticism except for the noisy dining room. That I admit is something I need to address.
Now the critique is yours. I would like you to look at the well written restaurant reviews in The New York Times today. Do you pick up that paper regularly? I don’t think so! How many restaurant reviews have you written? Are you a food critic?
“Javanese roasted salmon ($20) is lovingly seared, but its palm sugar-and-lime sauce is thick as honey and bright orange, the sort of syrup that’d be swell over ice cream.” The New York Times called this dish “quite possibly as good as salmon gets.” Who are you? Three to five restaurant reviews in your career and you think you’re Ruth “Nancy” Reichl.
(Ruth Reichl was a food critic for The New York Times, she is now editor of Gourmet Magazine.) If you remember her bio, Nancy Rommelmann has done food reviews for years.
“You don’t know Asian food – soy sauce is both sweet and salty and yes, some dishes are meant to be both. Your white palate is the one that is off! How dare you insult our Asian chef who’s been cooking with his mom in the kitchen since nine years of age. Who the hell are you girl?”
Just because the chef cooked with his mom in the kitchen for years doesn’t mean she was a good cook or that he learned anything, just as being Asian doesn’t make you a good cook. I used to like the ribs, but on my last few visits thought they were too salty. I do know a fair amount about Asian food. Just because soy is salty that doesn’t mean it should overpower the ribs. Asian food is all about balance, which is missing in this dish.
“CONSIDER THE SOURCE
I know you haven’t had the best of luck in town with your work; mainly due to laziness in your writing/fact checking. I called my friends in LA, imagine that, we have friends with great restaurants, restaurant owners and cookbook writers, who don’t know who the hell you are and who gave you any authority in food at all? We also have a friend that does a food show on NPR there who doesn’t know who the hell you are either :). That is what is wrong with this entire reviewing system at the Willamette Week. GET SOMEONE WHO HAS A BACKGROUND IN FOOD TO REVIEW THIS CITY’S RESTAURANTS. This is a serious food town and we have to deal with lame shit like this all the time. I can guarantee you we are all sick of it. Spend some money on your writers Mark! Nancy came cheap with this crap.”
If he bothered to spend 30 seconds with Google he would have come up with pages and pages of hits and accolades for Nancy. In addition, she has had very good luck in this town and others, and is still writing for the LA Times Magazine, Bon Appetit, Willamette Week, and LA Weekly. Try using Google for Joe and see what you come up with. He goes on to say:
” Din’s theory is the most sensible: “Maybe everything is so salty because he wants you to drink more.”” The fact that “Din” has anything to say about my restaurant in print at all is infuriating and irresponsible. Your review is flip and lacks journalistic integrity. It is embarrassing. And the above is cliché. Didn’t they teach you as a writer to stay away from cliché? It is a sign of bad writing! You get a C+.”
I always take companions when I am reviewing a restaurant because I want to know what the average Joe thinks. If an experienced food review says something is bad, that is one thing, but when the average person doesn’t like the food either, doesn’t that make for a pretty compelling set of opinions? As far as bad writing goes, I don’t think Joe should be one to criticize.
“The food they didn’t cook is better than the food they cooked,” says Din, and then takes a bite of “new wave” haupia ($7), fried coconut cream with roasted pineapple. His expression goes quizzical as he runs a finger through the dessert’s sake-caramel sauce. “It’s really salty,” he says. “Isn’t that weird?”
This is just made up bull shit for entertainment value. You really should change your line of work or figure out how to pay for your nails in another way. You are freelancing for 50 cents and it shows.”
Amateur time low blows. You can come to your own conclusions. Does he seem somewhat sexist?
“At Saucebox, no. Another cocktail, darling?”
That would be on the house and in your face! And why not? This has been all at our expense so far. But don’t worry, I’m working on your bill.
Just to make it clear, I had never met Nancy Rommelmann when her review was published. The same day Willamette Week ran the piece, I also happened to run a very similar review of Saucebox. Since I am just a little website with only a few thousand people having read my weigh-in, I was largely ignored. As a matter of fact it took several weeks before I received much ‘anonymous’ hate mail. A note for the writer: If you are going to send me anonymous mail, don’t send it from your restaurant. It is very easy to track it back to your mail-server from your IP address.
Then there was a strange sequence of events. One week after the WW piece, The Oregonian published a positive little re-review on Saucebox raving about the food and finding it as good as ever.
The next week they ran a blurb saying that the original Saucebox chef Chris Israel has come back on the scene to make sure the food is up to the quality he originally intended. Okay, I’m just reading between the lines here, but if the food at a restaurant is just great and everyone is happy… it is the local reviewer who is a complete idiot… why did they bring the founding chef back? Maybe I’m just reading too far between the lines.
Finally last Friday The Oregonian again ran a re-re-review, this time quite extensive and pretty much agreeing with everything Nancy had said. I can only imagine the first reviewer must have felt like he’d gotten a slap in the face as the new review made him look like he’d either been paid off or is a complete idiot. Of course the Oregonian, true to form, ripped the restaurant and then gave it a ‘B’.
Nancy may be banned from entering any of Bruce Carey’s business, but he doesn’t know who I am. I’ll be back to Saucebox in three months or so and will have a new review. If Balvo on NW 23rd ever actually gets off the ground, you can bet I’ll be there with a fair and honest appraisal. I try to be as fair and objective about my reviews as possible. If I don’t feel I know enough about a cuisine to write authoritatively about it, I’ll leave it to someone else. Every time I hit the post button on a review I think about the potential impact on a restaurant and its staff. This is not something I take lightly.
Personally I’m glad someone finally had the guts to stand up and shout it out: The Emperor has no clothes!. Note: On 928/05, a press release went out stating that the Saucebox chef had left to spend more time with his family, that Chris Israel was back permanently. Nice, but one can only hope Joe will follow.
The Emperor Has No Clothes – Just Fix the Food!
I am told if you wander down the employee hallway at Bluehour that Bruce’s and Joe’s letters to Nancy and Willamette Week are prominently posted. If this is true, it shows the arrogance of the owners. It shows they are proud of the money they lift from the pockets of Saucebox diners every night. Moreover, it tells a story of people who have lost track of the passion that originally drove them to create art – their cooking. I hope this rumor isn’t true. It is sad when the bitterness of arrogance seeps into the food.
Ruth Reichl was food critic for The New York Times for many years. She was known for the brutal honesty of her reviews, for the way she could bring a restaurant to life in the reader’s mind, and for the lengths she went to for anonymity. People in the industry hated Ruth and offered their staff rewards for spotting her when she came into a restaurant. It staggers me that Joe actually invokes her name in one of his letters to Nancy Rommelmann. I think Mrs. Reichl would be a bit offended as she is not a person that would ever have let a restaurant like Saucebox slide by.
In her latest book, Garlic and Sapphires, she talks about the many disguises she used over the years to get into restaurants without being recognized. It was of paramount importance to Ruth that her readers have exactly the same experience when they go into a restaurant that she did. Otherwise she would have no credibility.
The problem with being a food critic is that there is no glory. You sneak in using a fake name, try to order as much as possible without being obvious, attempt to memorize as much as you can, dash to the restroom to make notes, and hopefully manage to purloin a copy of the menu to use later when you write your review. One has to concentrate so hard on everything that you realize as you walk out the door that you really don’t have much idea of what the discussion was about, most of the time the entire experience is not all that enjoyable, the pay is usually lousy, and believe it or not, one really does get tired of eating out every night.
The temptation is always there to drop a hint to the server because you know he would fawn over you and you’d get a much better meal. On a busy night with friends in town you have the urge to pick up the phone and use your own name because you know that way you’ll get a table. Let’s face it; everyone likes to feel important. It is an almost irresistible pull. For some critics it is apparently too strong a pull to resist. It must be a sad life to have such low self-esteem that you must proclaim the loft of your profession to anyone who will listen.
Last week I picked up a local paper and noticed that it ran a picture of one of their reviewers. This must make it much easier for the chefs who keep snapshots of all the critics in town posted on their employee bulletin boards. Why would the paper do this? Where are the ethics? I have a lot of friends working in the food industry. Many of them tell stories of local food critics calling in advance for a reservation, stating “I am coming in to do a review”, or walking in the door and loudly telling everyone around that they are a restaurant reviewer. There is a local food group that gets together once a month for a special dinner. Sometimes they will call the chef, let him know who they are, and arrange a special meal. As the chef knows they will be posting about their experience on the local food chat sites, you’d better believe they get special service and extra attention. A friend of mine who knows the owner of one of the restaurants they went to said, “Obviously they got good food. I think it was one of the best meals they have ever produced.” Sure enough, the internet was full of praise for a month afterwards. I feel sorry for all the people who took their advice and ended up with a very average dinner. I’m sure it wasn’t their intention, but without realizing it, many members of the group became a pawn in that restaurant’s advertising campaign.
As one of my readers put it, “What do you think will be the outcome of this? Large efforts by owners/chefs to put economic pressure on the Oregonian and WWeek, or efforts to bar reviews and reviewers (since, in this town, they don’t seem to be anonymous – everyone knows what Sarasohn looks like).” Herein lies the quandary. Restaurant advertising must make up a pretty sizable chunk of change for the local papers. In these days of soaring costs, one doesn’t want to anger advertisers by posting a negative review, nor does the public want to read only negative reviews. There has to be some kind of balance. At the same time, I think it is important for the media to support their reviewers. Fact-check their articles, and if you agree to publish them, stand behind your writers. You will definitely take some heat from restaurateurs, but in the end your paper will be far more entertaining and you will gain reader loyalty which is why you went into the business in the first place. It was about journalism, remember? The internet has changed the game for every type of media. Where once commercial media reigned supreme, the power of the blog is rapidly sweeping its way into the daily routine of the populace, quickly exposing sham stories and patronizing, pandering reviews. You are going to have to be honest with your readers. Either call them Reviews or call them Entertainment News, but be true to yourselves and the public. Finally, make a big effort to preserve the identity of your reviewers, for once known, they are effectively neutered. It is possible with a little effort. I have credit cards in other names, spoof my caller ID when I make reservations, and have multiple emails and even fake blogs to throw people off the track. It can be done.
Out of hundreds of comments and emails I have seen over the last week, one in particular has stuck in my mind. I’ve reprinted it here with his permission:
Okay, here’s how it is. As a teenager, you don’t have much cash. So you scrimp and save, working the shifts you can during the week, and doing spare work around the house, all for that teenztravaganza, prom.
When everyone around you says that Saucebox is the best, and you go there with six people, and the food bloody sucks, how do you apologize for that? How do you say: “gee, guys, I’m sorry, all of Portland says this place rocks?”
The egotistical fucks at Saucebox needed to be put in their place. I spent (for me) staggering amounts of money there for disappointing results. As much as we would have liked to, though, we didn’t go for cocktails. But I imagine the result would have been the same.
Anyways, I’m sure that you’re getting a lot of hate mail, but I want to say that you do have some people who agree with you. Pop someone else’s bubble, PDX needs it.
I don’t think I could put it any better myself. I am ashamed for Saucebox. I am ashamed that Willamette Week had to put up with your vitriol. I am ashamed for Portland that these kids got stuck with such a bad experience, one that they most likely had looked forward to for months. Their big night out, prom night for Gods sake, and this is what they get.
I’ll make them an offer right now. Send me another email and I’ll arrange for you to get a meal at a good restaurant in Portland. Dinner is on me; the only thing I ask in return is a quick review that I can post on this site. I’m sure everyone would enjoy reading it.
As for Mrs. Rommelmann, you have an open invitation to write for my site any time you want. I’d be honored to run it.
“You did Saucebox a terrible disservice. You did Portland a terrible disservice. You shamed the Willamette Week. It was wrong and irresponsible.”
No Mr. Carey, you are the one that should be ashamed.