Phil Stanford vs. Jim Dixon, The Salt Wars!

For those of you in the mood to argue today (there seem to be quite a few), we have Phil Stanford weighing in on the Jim Dixon “not salty enough” Castagna Restaurant controversy. You may remember, Jim reviewed Castagna and claimed everything was under-salted. The owners were so upset, they delivered a 50 pound bag of salt to the Willamette Week offices. Phil ties the review into the fact that Jim sells salt and olive oil on the side, pointing out that the Hebberoy’s get good reviews from Jim, and that he raves about the amount of salt they use.

” Unfortunately, however, as most food people in town probably know already, Hebberoy, whose company caters the Family Supper, is owner of Clarklewis and the Gotham Building Tavern — which, as Dixon notes on one of those Internet chat sites for foodies, are “two of my best customers.”

And not just for sea salt, as it turns out, but for olive oil as well.
It’s on eGullet.org if anyone wants to look it up,

“Clarklewis buys olive oil, and I mean a lot of olive oil, from me,” writes Dixon … “and of course I think that’s one of the reasons the food is so good.”

Connection? I think he’s reaching a bit here, but it is entertaining reading. What do you think? Here’s a link to the full article: Phil Stanford/Tribune, and a link the original review in Willamette Week: Perfectly Bland

I have eaten at Castagna many times over the years. My quick impressions FROM THE PAST is that the food is some of the most subtle and delicate in the Portland area – and some of the very best. I ate there twice, before, on the third visit, I sat up straight, this big light bulb went on over my head, and I realized I was having a fantastic meal.

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. Dave J. says

    I don’t know Jim, but I’ve read (and enjoyed) his website and reviews for a long time, and he strikes me as fairly trustworthy.

    My sense is that there is not a quid-pro-quo, but simply that the guy sells salt and olive oil, so he notices these two items at restaurants (perhaps more than other critics) and feels compelled to write about it. Let’s say, for example, that I sold what I considered to be a particularly exquisite line of imported chocolate. If I went to a restaurant and ordered a chocolate souffle, I’d definitely point it out if I thought it was made with inferior chocolate.

    I admit, though, that his business arrangement with the Hebberoys does trouble his reviews of clarklewis, Gotham, etc. I don’t know how he should resolve that, other than to be very upfront about the connection in his reviews.

  2. Marshall Manning says

    I found his WW article a bit funny simply because it was SO focused on the salt thing and he seemed to ignore the basics such as how his food was cooked, the other flavors, the originality and creativity of the menu, the service, etc. Any maybe he hasn’t realized it, but you can normally ask the server for a salt shaker if the restaurant doesn’t provide one and you choose to add more salt to the dish. Maybe he just likes way more salt (and if he’s used to putting lots of salt on things at home I can see his palate becoming accustomed to that) than most people?

  3. Food Dude says

    You are the third person I’ve heard from today that thought it was interesting he was so focused on the salt in his review. It is really most of what he talked about. Looking back, it does seem like he had a bit of an axe to grind. I taste over/under salted things all the time, but still talk about presentation, texture, etc.

    Very good point about being used to salt, and the posibility of this dulling his palate. I think quantity of salt is something your palate gets used to. I was brought up without a lot of salt, and so am easily put off by large amounts. On the other hand, I have friends that salt things before they even taste it (drives me crazy).

  4. Vapid1 says

    Mmmm salt. It’s the single most important ingredient in the kitchen and the most overused. What started as a necessary chemical for preservation has become our number one condiment. We’re addicted to salt. Most classically trained chefs, which are few and far between, will tell you that salt should not be noticeable in a dish, yet it should also not require additional salt. As we age our ability to detect salt decreases. One can build a tolerance to salt and an increasing affinity (I once dated a girl who actually salted already salty microwave popcorn). I have two seasoning levels. How I season food to sell, and how I season food that I’m going to eat. Food to sell has less salt, but is far more balanced. My own personal preference is towards salt, blood pressure be damned. Seasoning becomes an issue of personal preference. A chef/cook can only season to a certain level and then let the customer take over. Given the fact that it’s easier to add salt than it is to remove salt from a dish Jim Dixon is a twit. Gille Pudlowski-french food critic and creator of the Le Pudlo guide, quoted his mentor Christian Millau ”It was Millau who told me: ‘In this business, some people know how to eat and some know how to write. Hardly anyone can do both, and there are a lot who can do neither. If you can do both, you’re sure to succeed.”’ I’m still trying to figure out what most local reviewers (local blog operators excluded) can do.
    It seems as if there have been a number of ethical issues involving food critics and restuarants. I suggest a disclaimer be posted above every review, much like that on the side of cigarettes. Something like “This reviewer recieves free meals” or “This advertisement that looks like a review, but is actually a paid advertisement, should not be misunderstood to be a review because it’s not it’s an advertisement” Or “This reviewer sells salt. Subsequently he may only talk about salt. Or maybe Olive oil, he sells that too”.
    Mr. Dixon should also look into creating his own saline scale. The Dixon Scale, much like the Scoville scale used for chiles. He can educate us as to the appropriate seasoning levels using an easy index number and a striated salt shaker going from black to white and varioius shades of grey in between. The bottom being deep coal black representing the great salt void, and the top being pure gleaming salty white signifying wearing salt trunks while swimming in a sea of pure salty salt.

  5. Food Dude says

    Vapid1, once again you are out of control. Once again, your writing is terrific. I couldn’t agree more.

    That being said, I can’t wait until ExtraMSG get’s back. He’s bound to have some completely different viewpoint;)

  6. Marshall Manning says

    But doesn’t the Dixon scale need to be adaptable to the varying types of salt? I think we’ll need some type of conversion logarithm to determine what quantity of Portuguese sea salt equates to a 100 on the Dixonometer, and how this quantity changes when you use Hawaiin pink sea salt or Diamond Crystal Kosher salt.

    Looks like you’ll need a math whiz, too, Food Dude.

  7. Apollo says

    I saw the original review and thought it was a little odd being so focused on salt. It really must be a palate issue. My Girlfriend is from Hawaii, and likes a lot more salt than I do because that is what her palate is used to (she thought Adam Kekahuna cuisine at Saucebox was pretty good, while I was draining waters and cocktails like they were going out of style from the salt). This controversy kind of brings into focus how subjective reviewing food is. What may be perfect to one person is horrible to another. I guess you just need to find a reviewer who, through past reviews compared to your own experiences, agrees with your own personal palate. Food Dude, I guess your palate agrees with mine so far ;)

  8. ExtraMSG says

    It’s worth noting that WW cut down the number of words, so now context is not really in the hands of the reviewer. Honestly, because Dixon is such a good writer, he was able to give a review that actually did have a focus and theme in a short review like that. I expect most will feel like a splattering of quick comments and a laundry list of meals eaten.

    I often disagree with Jim Dixon’s palate, but greatly respect his reviewing and his integrity. He’s always been overly open, imo, about who are his clients. Anyone who ever hung out on eGullet while he was a moderator there should be able to attest to that.

    You know, this issue has been in my mind a lot lately because after Ken Gordon bought LOW BBQ, I went to his restaurant and watched Rodney and Kyle show him the ropes. I invited him to go on my BBQ trip to Texas, which I just returned from, and to my surprise he accepted. So now I’ve spent a couple days with the guy BS-ing and eating and arguing politics. So the question arises whether it’s ethical for me to report/review his stuff. And if I do, do I need to make a disclaimer. I actually got in an argument about this with my closest food friend, the one that runs http://www.dallasfood.org. My contention was that while Ken is now a friend of sorts, there’s never been been any suggestion of quid pro quo, that I don’t take money or food from him, etc. My friend was more concerned, not with my objectivity, but with the appearance of being a shill.

    I did some reading on eGullet afterwards because there are a lot of professional writers on that site and there were a couple threads specifically on this subject where professionals were arguing over issues such as getting free food, anonymity, and having relationships within the community that you write about.

    I’m most convinced by Fat Guy’s arguments in those threads if you go back. I don’t entirely buy into the Robb Walsh school of reviewing where you have to go out of your way to be anonymous. Basically, Fat Guy argues that disclaimers are a red herring. Either you can be fair or you can’t. If you can, then you should do the review, and if you can’t, you shouldn’t. If you give a disclaimer, it’s just misdirection, people will focus on that unimportant bit rather than the substance of the review. I think that’s right.

    I’ve written on this critique of Dixon over at Portlandfood.org and I wrote a email to the author. Here is an excerpt and then the email.

    I read Dixon’s review as both literal and metaphorical. My experiences there have been much like his, but I didn’t relate them directly to salt, but just in approach. I was talking with someone this weekend about the hullabaloo and his comment was that he finds the dishes just too restrained. I’ve always said that they’re good and well executed but just lacking, almost ineffably.

    In the Olea discussion, the term “souless” came up. In many ways, that might be a good descriptor here. The food just seems to lack that something that can make it more than the sum of its parts. Whether it’s just seasoning, I doubt. While the food is good, I don’t think it’s as good as the prices and not so good that I’d be burying my face in a plate or craving a dish a week later. In some ways, I prefer a place that’s more hit and miss, like Caprial’s, but that will often have something that just transcends words like “tasty” or “good”.

    the email:

    I found your attack on Jim Dixon’s credibility to be sorely lacking.

    First, the whole thing is a red herring. The issue at question is whether Dixon is right or wrong about Castagna. You don’t attack the veracity of his claims, but only raise suspicions about his motives. The same sort of fallacious crap could be flung your way: you write for a competitive newspaper so why should we believe anything you say about Jim Dixon?

    Second, did you do any checking to see if Dixon wrote that review of Family Supper before or after they became a client? From what I can gather on the Willamette Week website, the review was written in 2002. clarklewis opened in late 2003 or early 2004, correct? And Gotham opened in 2005, correct? Oh, so the conflict couldn’t have even existed.

    Shoddy journalism that belongs in a tabloid.

    Nick Zukin
    extramsg.com
    portlandfood.org

  9. Marshall Manning says

    But Nick, if Dixon felt that Castagna has problems with soul, cooking methods, presentation, quality of ingredients, etc., why not focus on that? Instead, he focused on something that he can adjust at the table. If he likes much more salt than the average person, shouldn’t he take that into consideration and simply adjust his meals accordingly instead of expecting restaurants to cater to his palate?

    FoodDude and I were discussing this via e-mail yesterday, and I wrote “I’ve found that Castagna doesn’t smack you over the head with anything, and you really have to like purity and simple accompaniments. While they use different ingredients (An addition: for example, they were the first place in town that I saw sea beans, and that was 5 years or so ago), it seems that everything has a purpose. In wine terms, it’s like an ethereal old Burgundy that just wows you with its compexity and delicacy as opposed to an Aussie Shiraz that wants to smack you over the head.”

    Whether food or wine, I think too many people expect to be beaten over the head with flavors, and somehow delicacy and purity are looked at negatively while 12 different ingredients and “BAM!” impact are considered positive.

  10. ExtraMSG says

    Well, I already said that I think that salt was an appropriate emblem for the overall problem with the restaurant, as I see it. As FD noted, salt is a special love of Dixon’s so using salt as the focus around which to base a review and give it coherence makes sense.

    Second, I disagree that salt can just be added at the table. The results of a dish salted along the way versus salted at the end can be striking. A great example is salting water before blanching vegetables or boiling pasta. With external, post facto salting, dishes can be overwhelmed by salt. It’s the first thing to touch your tongue. However, when cooked in salted water, the salt permeates the item and just helps highlight the flavor of the thing itself. It makes it more tasty, rather than making it taste differently. With some items, like french fries, it’s great that they’re salty, but with other things, like pasta or green beans, you just want them to taste better.

    For me, it’s rarely a question of whether something is bold or subtle, but rather if it’s well-balanced. A Thai dish hits you over the head with lots of flavors, but a good Thai dish properly balances these. A subtle dish is the same. Though personally, I don’t think I should have to meditate on the piece of meat in my mouth to notice that there’s something more interesting or better about it than an unadorned piece of meat. If nothing else, I should be able to notice that it’s more meaty than average or has a more interesting flavor, even if I can’t specifically detect that it was marinated with rosemary and olive oil.

    I do think you and I, from all our discussion online, have a different palate. You really like Fife, Paley’s, and Castagna and I find all three to share that same inadequacy, though in different degrees, that I thought Dixon’s piece nailed through what was for me the metaphorical use of salt.

    In the history of Western food after the middle ages, too, and this still exists, the tendency has been for subtle foods to unfairly be assumed to be better than bold foods anyway. How many Michelin starred restaurants serve foods from great cuisines like Mexican, Indian, Thai, Szechuan, Korean, etc? How many can break *** in Mobil? A mediocre French place is much more likely to be scored well even if on all the objective criteria a Thai restaurant is no worse. If anything, bold is finally becoming acceptable. No longer is the white button mushroomus maximus. People don’t look down on the more hearty crimini, eg. It’s retribution for the extinction of liquamen.

  11. Marshall Manning says

    Obviously certain preparations require salt to be used in the cooking process, but many items can be salted at the table. And the real question is “Who should they be cooking for?” Do they cook for the average food lover who enjoys balanced flavors or the person who expects things to be heavily salted? I wonder if he has desensitized his palate to salt, so that things that would appear normal to most people seem undersalted to him.

    I’m not talking about meditation, but there’s something pleasing about being able to taste a lovely scallop with just light adornment that both adds a flavor of its own and also lets you focus on the flavor of the scallop. Some heavy-handed preparations totally change the flavor to where you’re tasting more of the other flavors than you are the scallop. Those other flavors may be balanced in themselves, but when they are more prominent than the scallop itself, that’s a problem.

    As far as the Michelin stars, my guess is that many of their criteria simply go against what most of the restaurants you refer to are trying to achieve. How many white-table-clothed, 80-page-wine-list, three-waiters-for-each-person, Mexican restaurants are there? I’ve never been to Europe, but from what I’ve read there are some extremely impressive restaurants that only garner one or two stars simply because they don’t have the decor, the waitstaff, the wine depth, etc., of the top-notch places.

  12. says

    Nick, you say, “I thought Dixon’s piece nailed through what was for me the metaphorical use of salt.”
    But Dixon tells us, he is being literal:
    “So what’s my problem? In a word: salt.”
    “…So take this with a grain of salt. Or better yet, shake a little on the food at Castagna…”
    Seems to me, he means that (in his opinion), the food needs more salt.

  13. ExtraMSG says

    NANCY:
    I know. I’m saying that *for me* salt metaphorically nails the problem with Castagna. I assume that Dixon intended what he wrote to be literal, but I think it works as more than that. (Did I mention that I have a philosophy minor? Hermeneutics of food writing anyone?) The dishes lack something. Dixon pinpoints it as salt. I may approach the same problem differently, but come to the same result: the food lacks.

    Should the piece be longer and have more depth? Absolutely. But it’s hard to blame Dixon for that.

    MARSHALL:
    I once went through with a friend and did a little Mobil star comparison of ethnic versus non-ethnic places we’d been. It was hard to find a Mexican place that was getting above ** from Mobil at the time. And this was including Bayless’s restaurants, Cafe Azul, Fonda San Miguel, among others — places that use seasonal and regional ingredients, have wine lists, have quality service, nice surroundings, take reservations, etc, etc. Most recently, we were looking at a review of Lanny’s Alta Cocina in Ft. Worth, which the Dallas Morning News gave **** to after having essentially nothing bad to say about it and praising how wonderful and creative the food is. There was really only one explanation for why it didn’t get *****, especially after comparing to the other top restaurants: it’s Mexican.

    Also, note that Dixon actually takes Castagna to task for overwhelming the flounder with unnecessary ingredients and flavors. I’ve never eaten with Dixon, so I don’t know exactly how he approaches things, but it seems he’s more concerned with bringing out the flavor of the item in this case. And I know from experience with Cafe Castagna’s burger that it does indeed need seasoning. I think I said that on Chowhound or here a while back, but apparently it’s not in my burger review on extramsg.com.

  14. Joe Dixon says

    Full disclosure: Jim is my dad.

    That aside, I feel compelled to take to task some of what is being said on this board: Namely, the insinuation that he’s somehow trying to promote his salt business.

    Is ExtraMSG the only one reading this board with enough sense to do a little research into the “when did the Hebberoys become a customer” timeline? This seems like an obvious issue to look at, I’m curious why no one did (especially considering the quickness with which some of these allegations were put forth).

    Secondly, WW inserted the line, “So what’s my problem? In a word: salt.” This was an editorial decision (an issue again raised only ExtraMSG) that Jim was dissatisfied with from the start. He thought it slanted his review a little TOO heavily towards salt.

    And while he may have a slightly different palate than some of you, who doesn’t? It’s just food, people, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better reviewer of it in this town than Jim Dixon.

  15. Food Dude says

    Thanks for giving us the other side, Joe.

    PS. Under full disclosure, aren’t you supposed to tell us that ExtraMSG is your uncle?

    ;>)

    Seriously though, the thing I like about the people commenting here, is that the conversation has moved beyond the review and more into palates, ethics and everything in between. Sometimes I just have to start a fire, step back, and watch it burn. I usually learn a lot from other views.

  16. ExtraMSG says

    You didn’t start the fire. It’s always been burning since the world’s been turning.

    btw, people don’t know it, but I’m actually Jim Dixon’s father. In a freak accident where I was sent back in time in a DeLorian… Ah, it’s a long story.

  17. says

    clears throat…

    Intermittent reader, first time poster. I don’t have anything intelligent to say on the topic, but I did want to say you folks are fun to read. I don’t know how your site escaped my list, FoodDude, but it’s on it now.

    Is anyone else related to anyone here, or dating, or anything that will help me catch up? slyGrin

  18. says

    I take that back, I do have something to say.

    I write professionally and have had editors do things to my work that I would never have done; sometimes they insert a tone that makes the writing veer off in another direction. I think this may be one of those times. I scanned the review one evening when I was reading other stuff at WW but really gave it no particular notice; I’m not likely to get there–I live a couple of hours from Portland– and it wasn’t talking about some fascinating new place/technique/approach so I wasn’t particularly interested.

    Tonight, after coming across this thread and reading it in its entirety, I read the review. Except I skipped the line that Joe said the editors inserted. You should try it, it changes the tone a lot.

    Upon finishing my first thought was, what’s the big deal? He really doesn’t talk about salt all that much. I counted three “salt” and one “salted”–in a 468 word article. That’s really not all that much.

    Additionally, if you skip the inserted second paragraph, there’s no “What’s my problem?” to be answered with “salt” in the first place. In fact, there’s no apparent problem for most of another paragraph, a paragraph in which he praises the place before criticizing it. It’s actually rather jarring to go from lots of good things about the place/people to “what’s my problem?” (Ummm, I dunno, I couldn’t tell you had one…) Again, it changes the tone a lot.

    It would have been nice had Dixon added that his palate might also be jaded by his extensive exposure to and use of salt in his work to his line about eating out a lot. (5th par.) Especially since he dances around issues of subjective taste more than once; he could have addressed it better, more directly, and saved himself some grief.

    He seems to have not liked parts of the meal there for a number of reasons, not just salt; the flounder had *stuff* that got in the way, the lamb wasn’t so good. Other things seem to have been quite tasty.

    I guess what I’m trying to say (in far too many words) is that if you read it without that line and imagine he had inserted another bit about his salt business it’s not really problematic at all. The first was an editorial decision, which he had no control over, and I’m loathe to rake the guy over the coals simply for the lack of the latter.

    (now I shall shut up and leave, having babbled on far too long on a dead topic)

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