Have you read this weeks review by Karen Brooks of Cobras and Matadors in the Oregonian? [Note: the article is no longer available online]
Some people think the article was way over the top, and downright cruel. I haven’t been to the restaurant, so can’t agree or disagree, but was a bit surprised by the vehemence of the review. I’d be interested to hear comments. Do you think this type of brutally honest review is a good thing?
the food “critic” for the oregonian. anybody feel that this woman is a bitch as i’ve heard her described?
i wonder what motivates a full page review of cobra’s and matadors to just slam it with a d review. i mean after those words go ahead and give it an f. really i don’t much care for C&M but jesus that review was viscous and cruel… i think this woman is an awful joke of a food critic. this after the gush fest of the ripe empire, then this?
i wonder if she felt the need to prove her street cred and show she can still be critcal??? who knows… it is kind of like a mother backhanding a child though with that review, just cause you can doesn’t mean you should. really, with all the deserving potential reviews out there, she gives it to C&M and D’s them??? why full review in the first place? if it was not so great, give them a small blurb and get onto a good restaurant.
I loved it! I was pleased to see an awful review like that in the O. It seems sometimes like all they do is gush over places – and while it’s important to let people know where they should go to eat, it’s just as important to let people know where to avoid.
nancy, do you look in the mirror and see karen brooks?
worth their salt? high-concept? creds from la?
are you kidding me?
this should have no bearing on the issue I take with this review and if you can’t see that… i suggest you read reviews of restaurants in the nytimes and latimes (or hell maybe even the salem bee can do better) and get a little perspective of what responsible reviewing is about.
namcy are you being tricky here? is it that when you look in the mirror you see not nancy but randy cohen? because that was enjoyable…
however I disagree that people here would recommend the “dentist” simply because some feel the need to be uber-“nice” or at least I hope that is not the case. sad state of affairs if so.
regarding the article you raise some fine points for me to think about and I think I’ve concluded this… Karen Brooks dismisses and skewers this place with very little grace and it is her writing that I dislike and not the general message.
I suppose I also have also take issue with the O and the descions that their editors make or allow for… I also suppose I wish that the O would look for people who can write with eloquence in the praise or disgust of a place (or in general), which I believe she does not. It is rather subjective though so this is just my opinion… amidst yours, my humble opinion
live strong nancy
long live the free press
“Some restaurants are not just merely bad, they are triumphantly so.”
I think as the first sentence in Karen’s review this sets a certain tone. “Vicious” works for me. It seems like a hyperbole, more in the service of entertaining rhetoric than straightforward analysis.
I’d rather read criticism which is more temperate and less prone to Karen’s extremes of praise or damnation. Perhaps I’m just an un-writerly bore.
This post has been removed by a blog administrator.
I was so happy to read that review. It made my day. It seemed temperately and reasonably critical, and from it I entertained wild notions that the Oregonian had suddenly entered a new phase in criticism: That the small-town boosterism to which PDX is horribly inclined would cease to infect the daily. (I did, however, have difficulty squaring Brooks’ enthusiasm for the RIPE trinity with her newfound tough love – my own meals at each of the three ripe outposts have not brought me any epiphanies, and mistakes in service have indeed marred them.)
Nancy and Food Dude, please continue to write your opinions in the best traditions of informed criticism! And I raise my glass in hopes that Brooks and the other O staffers will dig in and write more critically.
Karen’s written reviews like that for years. It’s nothing new, she just hasn’t been as prolific lately.
While the review was certainly critical, I didn’t think it was too harsh or mean. If you were to personally attack the owners or chef (you’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny!) it would be out of line. But she just really, really didn’t think the food was good and provided what I thought was a fair analysis of her entire experiences there. It seemed to me to be an honest critique, not some sort of vendetta.
I am just hoping that this is more of a trend that the O is taking. I am so sick of all their reviewers basically being cheerleaders for local restaurants. After visiting many of their recommendations I have been extremely dissappointed and felt like I had been duped by both the restaurant and the critic. As for being upset by receiving a negative critique: If you can’t stand the heat…..well, you know the rest.
Marshall Manning says
Nick, don’t reviewers in LA, SF, or NY have the same power to make or break a place with a scathing review? Why should Portland be any different? It almost seems like you’re saying that reviews should be dumbed down for Portland residents, when instead they should take more time educating themselves to learn what good food can be.
And I don’t agree that Portland should be graded on a curve. If we don’t have any A+ restaurants, that’s fine, and I don’t think it’s better to inflate grades just to make the locals feel better. If you don’t point out how they can improve to be on par with other areas, they may never strive to be that good.
Marshall Manning says
Gotta agree with Moss here. If restaurants don’t strive to be better and be above the general quality level of local restaurants, Portland will never have a signature restaurant.
And Nick, under your “curve theory”, an Applebee’s could be an “A” restaurant in Malltown, USA if it’s above all of the other restaurants by a large margin.
From Cathy Seipp, of mean old LA:
“Perhaps I’m just an un-writerly bore….”
I loved that. And also the person who said that something “sux,” and the one who paraphrased Shakespeare.
The internet is slowly making the opinions of highly informed critics accessible. I like that, and am eager to relegate the role of writers with preposterous critical credentials to wordsmithing.
Marshall Manning says
Melts in your elk, not in your gun!
Since this is about Matadors & Cobra review, my two cents are the food was terrible, drinks not good (had to send back 2 out of 3 as mis-mixed) and expensive. THis is a Friday night at 900PM and the service was not good either.
So I guess I agree with the substance of her review, if not the manner it was delivered.
Just in general, is the Pearl district food getting lousier? We went to that new place that used to be Fuel and the service was so slow we left after 45 minutes and one drink. I guess my issue is these guys are starting to rely on decor rather than food quality.
Some of these posts are not just merely bad, they are triumphantly so. They are not simply inferior to other posts in the way that, say, vegan cheesecake is no competetion for a donut deep-fried in lard. These posts fail utterly, as carob fails to be chocolate.
Amy Alkon says
I’ve met Karen Brooks a number of times at newspaper conferences — conferences where I’m selling my column and many editors are not particularly predisposed to be nice to me — and she’s always been one of the editors who’s been kind and decent. I found her review to be honest and good writing. I don’t see an ax to grind there. It’s a reviewer’s job to tell the truth, not plant big kissylips all over the restaurant.
On a related note, I’ve been with Nancy Rommelmann when she reviewed a restaurant in LA, and I’ve been to many restaurants she’s reviewed, and find her to be honest and fair. Apparently, that’s a big problem for people in Portland. I was shocked by the vicious — vicious is actually an understatement — creepy, beyond immature letters she got from the owners of the Portland restaurant she reviewed…How dare she not just rubberstamp their alleged fabulousness?! Perhaps they should get out of the restaurant business and into the vitriol business, since they seem to have some natural ability there — in the vitriol spewing department, I mean.
And as for some of you here…all the courageous “Anonymous” people posting nasty little messages about Nancy and Karen…let’s see some bylines, you weenies!
Amy Alkon says
Charitable? Oh, you mean, what I said about the two restauranteurs?
I believe she gave it a D because, as she mentions several times, she likes the idea of having every wine offered by the glass. Also, the service was not bad (though I thought the quote from the waiter inane), so, that counts for something. Sort of like getting 200 points just for spelling your name correctly on the SAT.
As for “vicious and cruel”: where? She didn’t like the food; she described what was wrong with it; she described why the concept is not working; she was assiduous enough to know that it does work in LA. She did a thorough job. The job of the critic is to be honest; readable, knowledgable. Brooks was all these things in her review.
As for devoting word-space to a venue that does not get a good review: I find it tiresome that one would not understand that C & M was reviewed, in full, because it landed in town with something of a bang; it has creds from LA; it occupies prime real estate, and it’s high-concept, all factors that contribute to drawing a crowd. Any critic worth his or her salt is obligated to let this crowd know what they’re in for.
Agreed with Nancy, though it was a bit difficult to read about how poorly the place is doing in pretty much every way possible. I felt almost sorry for them. I would much rather read her do this sort of thorough review than the gushing of her Ripe spread, but that discussion has been done do death, so…
Nice to know you guys are readers;)
Hmmm, well, no, I don’t see Karen Brooks; I don’t even know her.
As I write for both the NY Times and the LA Times and am familiar with both papers’ ethics and styles, I am curious what anon. means by a “responsible reviewing.” Frank Bruno is always honest; so is Sherry Virbila. Sometimes the reviews are positive, sometimes not, sometimes mixed. One thing both papers have (which the O does not) is a budget that supports very long reviews, 1500 words and better, a good amount of space in which to develop texture and context. Both papers also have budgets for unlimited returns to the venue, as well as a readership that is accepting of both luminous praise and damnation. Not everyone will like everything that’s written–Jonathan Gold told me that after one unkind review in the LAT, he received 1000 letters that began, “Dear Fuckbrain.” But that’s fine, and he kept writing. The job of the reviewer is not to be everyone’s friend, but as fair a judge as he or she can be.
The issue of fair reviewing appears to be one that Portland diners, rest. owners, bloggers et al. feel an inelucatble pull toward examining: how critical do we want our reviewers to be? Who is their responsibility to: the industry or the diner? From what I’ve read and heard, a large (perhaps a majority) % of locals feel the reviewer’s responsibility is to be supportive. Or, if she cannot be, to balance the criticism with kindness. Brooks did just this by leading with the fact that she liked the wine. And if the food is lousy, what should she do?
Think about it: you’re the reviewer: the food takes forever, and when it arrives, it’s lousy. And it’s expensive. And the staff never clears away your plate. Oh, and the room is loud. You go back, and the same thing happens. What do you write? That maybe the chef was having a bad day? That everyone says he’s a really great guy? That maybe under different circumstances, it would be better? Is this what the diner from Eugene cares about? Is this what you care about when you get, say, a root canal? If the dentist mangles the nerve and charges you $2000, are you going to go back because you think he’s a sweet guy and you like his wallpaper? Hey, you’re free to do so. But what about when your friend needs a root canal? Can you recommend this guy in good faith?
According to some of the food boards I’ve read in PDX, the answer is, yes; you’d recommend the dentist, because you just don’t feel it’s okay not to be nice. And the dentist will keep doing the same job he’s always done, because no one wants to tell him, it might be done better.
Brooks has the duty to tell us what she thinks; we are fortunate to have the privilege to openly disagree. But to call for an end of opinions such as hers is a slippery slope, one that begins with boosterism and ends in the end of the free press.
Everyone who has followed this site for a while (Just see ‘Restauranteurs Run Amuck, All three Saucebox stories), know where I come down on this so I am deliberately staying out of the fray. I will say however that if Karen Brooks really found the restaurant to be this bad then she has an obligation to report the facts as she sees them. This is her job – Restaurant Critic. To say anything else would be to sell out her credibility. As Shakespeare said, ‘when you are true to yourself, you will be true to everything in your life’ (paraphrased). I think she probably had to dig to find something good to say. It would have been easy just to dismiss the entire thing as being terrible. She took the high road and dug for something good to say. There are occasions when this can be difficult, but I try to do the same thing. In the Saucebox review, Nancy found good things to say also. There is not much more that Nancy hasn’t written above – much more eloquently then I ever could.
After the letters that Nancy and I have both received after writing negative reviews, I can only imagine what Karen Brooks will face Monday!
Kai Jones says
I both enjoyed the review and found it useful. We don’t go out much, and I’d hate to waste a rare evening out at a place like that.
Where do you go for good tapas? We used to spend 3 or 4 evenings a year at La Catalana, but it’s long gone.
I’m a bit disappointed that C&M is so bad. I was looking forward to it and will still go to form my own opinion, but if it is as bad as Karen thinks, I’ll just pass it by and not review. Unfortunately I have enough bad reviews coming up without throwing more fuel on that fire. As far as tapas go, most of the critics seem to love Pantanegra though the Portland food group didn’t. I haven’t been there yet so can’t comment. If you are in the mood for more unusual tapas, I’d go to Andina. They have many dishes in three sizes and the bar specializes in tapas (make a reservation even for the bar).
Ruben Bailey says
I first read the review and thought to myself, “wow, that’s pretty harsh.” And turned the page and moved on.
On one hand it totally sux to receive a review like that (if you are the owner). Especially in a one-and-a-half horse media town like PDX. However, I think it is important and necessary for critics to be honest.
So I guess the debate for me is where do you draw the line between negative and vicious/cruel.
I don’t know K. Brooks, but I doubt she is a horrible, hate breeding, bitch (although I guess theoretically she COULD be). Unless the experience was truly that bad, IMHO it would take a truly awful person to be overly hurtful and vindictive. In my world those folks are few and far between…call me naive, but I doubt KB was being any of the above negative adjectives for spite.
Finally, I will say that I have friends in “high-paces” in the P-Town food scene, and they def. didn’t have great things to say about C&M.
If you want good tapas, I would def. recommend Patanegra. Colloso (sp?) is pretty good as well.
Good points all. However, I appreciate anonymous’ point regarding the juxtaposition of the ridiculous piece on the Hebberoy “empire” to this slashing of C&M. I’ve been to C&M and while it wasn’t necessarily “good” it wasn’t that bad either. After the Ripe/clarklewis/Gotham crap, I think she has to be taken with a few grains of salt.
“viscous and cruel”; love it. Karen Brooks, you are thick and sticky, also not nice.
I totally agree. It was not a good experience. My drink was poorly mixed, full to the brim, and got sticky gunk all over my hands and the table. The food was overpriced, very non-veg friendly–and that’s not necessary; tapas can be more universally eatable than this–and gunked up with all kinds of unecessary, poorly-melded flavors. It was not an experience I’ll repeat.
RE: RHunterB – Karen Brooks and the Oregonian Hebberoy story; as I recall she only wrote the review of Gotham, (not the other articles) and just gave it a B+. That suprised me and I thought gave a little bit of balance to the drivel they doled out in the rest of the issue.
While she was harsh, I tend to be the same way at times. Sometimes you have an experience that is so bad you just want to warn everyone and it is difficult to find anything good to say.
I happened to walk by C&M on Friday after the review came out. It was packed as usual. Go figure.
Thanks to everyone for the interesting comments.
That is a good point and should be made. However, the review (and reviewer) and the piece are all connected as far as the reader is concerned.
Nancy makes some good points, but I worry about reviewers such as her when they move “down” the culinary food chain from a city like Los Angeles to Portland. Expectations have to be tempered. Is it fair, eg, to compare Portland’s high end restaurants to those in NY or Chicago or SF or LA? On an absolute comparison, could Portland ever have a restaurant that reaches beyond merely pretty decent, above average, or pretty good?
There’s an infamous online food poster that some here may know about, Cabrales, who once posted on Chowhound, I think, a review of San Francisco dining where she kept on using the phrase “pretty good for an American meal” or some such. Nothing could ever compare to Paris and so nothing was ever great.
This happens a lot when people visit another country and then come back trying to find this Thai dish or that German dish and ultimately decide there is no good Thai or German food in the United States.
I think that for a review to be useful, it always must, to some extent, grade on a curve. Especially when it’s for a local audience. If you’re writing a review of a pizza place in Portland for the New York Times, you don’t want to exclaim how some place is so wonderful when it would just be, at best, above average in NY.
Criticism is a pragmatic enterprise. It shouldn’t be solipsistic and it shouldn’t be sycophantic either. It should take into account context and what will be most useful for the audience.
I do see Nancy as defending the solipsistic school of restaurant reviews a bit here: whatever the reviewer perceives is what the reviewer should report. That’s not what should be. The reviewer has an obligation to temper their perceptions. They may need to educate themselves, learn about the cuisine’s traditions and learn what makes this or that cuisine good. They may need to survey what else is available. Etc.
I think Brooks was wrong on the review, ultimately, and probably unfair. I don’t doubt her experiences, just question whether she contextualized them adequately.
eg, there have been several comments now about how people will not go to C&M now despite liking Patanegra and Colosso. Personally, I think C&M is better than both of these, plus better than Navarre or Bar Pastiche, though I think overall the food at C&M is just okay. So while C&M may just make okay food, it’s still the best in town. Somehow that should be taken into account. If she was doing a survey of tapas in Portland it would be and perhaps the D wouldn’t stand out so nastily.
I got no sense from the article if perhaps Brooks just doesn’t like tapas. I don’t know if she knows. I also wasn’t sure if her other experiences colored her food experiences.
Finally, Nancy, don’t you think because our reviewers don’t have as much opportunity to try a place or as many column inches to elaborate, that perhaps they should maintain some level of charity in their reviewing? Afterall, reviews, especially those in the Oregonian and Willamette Week, can make or break a place.
This is something I’m having to question myself on as my site becomes more popular, which is part of the reason I try to stick to surveys and emphasize the reporting aspect rather than reviewing aspect. FoodDude does a good job of updating his, which can temper those same issues.
But an article is essentially set in stone. And the O and WW have real power. I don’t think Brooks or any other Portland reviewers have devolved into London-style hacks, looking more to turn a phrase than provide fair criticism. But isn’t there a point between brutal honesty and gushing praise, that is fair, charitable, and useful?
Here here, Marshall Manning. Portland has access to stellar produce, wine, cheese, beef, fish; why in the world would local chefs not be able to do extraordinary things with them? Extramsg has resolved in his mind that they’re missing a key ingredient: ambition, which to me is very weird, because his site is extremely ambitious, and he clearly knows a lot about food. Why would he be doctrinaire about expecting less of everyone else?
Then again, maybe he drank the Kool-Aid: a Sunday article in the O, entitled, “Admit it: We’re mediocre and don’t care,” said, “[L]et’s just admit that economic, education and social mediocrity is what we want and quit whining when we don’t measure up. I don’t want to hear about the next “New York-y” restaurant opening in the Pearl. Oregon is not even a qualified “wannabe.”
Is there an organic reason for this that I don’t know about? Something in the water that makes a chef constitutionally unable to do make a symphony of foie gras? Frankly, I know this is nonsense; I’ve had truly great (Wong’s King) and imaginative (Lovely Hula Hands) and quirky (Fat Boy Falafel) food in Portland. I’ve been been served moldy bread in New York, and a cockaroach in my soup in LA, neither of which makes them catagorically good or bad towns to dine in. As diners, we must be optimists; if not, why go out in the first place?
As for grading on a curve: beyond telling a child that yes, the peanut butter balls she made are scrumptious, it’s a zero-sum game, one played to the detriment of all. But I don’t expect extramsg to see it this way; we just disagree.
Frankly, I think MSG’s comment is insulting. Because we are in Oregon we are incapable of cooking great food? Are Oregon chefs so stupid and incompetent, mediocre is the best they can do? I don’t think so.
If we are going to judge by these standards, and hold major cities far above, one has to remember C&M is a branch of a Los Angeles restaurant. Shouldn’t they be perfect?
It reminds me of the letter I got during the whole Saucebox saga. Remember the kids that had saved and did odd jobs to go out to what people had told them was one of the best restaurants in the city, only to feel totally ripped off? In my opinion a critic has an obligation to warn people away from such experiences.
Sorry, this is a long one, but I’m one against many…
Don’t start putting words in my mouth. It’s not a matter of whether Portland chefs can or can’t cook well. It’s just a matter of what is the case, part of which is a function of odds, part of which is a function of consumer demand, and part of which, is probably, talent. Portland is not, and probably never will be, a food destination city. Not a real one, like New York, Chicago, New Orleans, or San Francisco.
I’m not saying that NY and LA shouldn’t be restrained. And I’m not saying that Portland reviewers shouldn’t be harsh. It depends on the circumstances. If, as Nancy says, NY and LA reviewers get more column inches to flesh out a place and more visits, they have a better foundation and can add more context.
Nancy et al on Grading on a Curve:
Firstly, all reviewers grade on a curve to some extent. They have to. Food, unlike a spelling test, doesn’t have a perfect score from which one can easily subtract errors. Reviews are always exercises in relativism — relative to the tastes of the reviewer, relative to the cultural conventions and traditions, relative to the experiences and knowledge of the reviewer, etc. Why shouldn’t they also be relative to such things as the competition? If a college athelete wins the NCAAs in the 100m dash, should we only give him a gold medal if he breaks the world record?
I think grading on a curve is already an implicit part of reviewing, no matter where you are. It just may require a bit more self-consciousness in a town like Portland because the competition is weaker. Look at the Mobil guide, the closest thing we have to a Michelin guide in the United States. I don’t think any restauarant has **** and I don’t think any restaurant has ever had *****. And that’s probably correct. We clearly do not have a five star restaurant — a French Laundry, a Charlie Trotter’s, a Jean Georges. And I’m sure most here have been to at least a few four star restaurants, too, and know that they’re at a different level than most of our higher end places. Most of our higher end places aren’t trying to be that. Places like clarklewis are clearly shunning what’s necessary to be that. (I think restaurants would probably scare off customers if they tried to be that. Couvron seemed to. And anytime someone starts to take care in presentations, they’re called pretentious by the media and local foodies.)
I just went up to Vancouver, BC, and among the many places I ate was West, the most recently named best restaurant in Vancouver by the media. It came recommended by a local foodie and moderator at eGullet who likes it better than Lumiere, the most well-known possibly since Feenie is at the helm. You can see photos of my meal here:
Like most four and five star restaurants, they offered tasting menus that emphasized seasonal ingredients. Dishes were creative and interesting and everything was impeccably presented. Flavors were balanced and everything well-executed. Decor was nice. They had valet. Service was flawless. Etc, etc. It’s a **** restaurant and deservedly so.
But here’s my point: so with nothing better than a *** restaurant in Portland, does that mean that the Oregonian should never give out an A? How useful would that be to the readers?
By what standard should a restaurant be held? I’d say primarily the local competition, both among all restaurants and then to a lesser extent other restaurants in its class — by cuisine and by price, primarily.
So what does that mean? That means that until someone comes along and sets a new standard locally, grades will be more inflated. Hopefully there will be some recognition of what else is out there, what is possible, but it shouldn’t be the primary standard. We will probably never have the BBQ that Texas has. We will probably never have the pizza NY has. We will probably never have the gumbo that New Orleans have. We will probably never have the sushi that Tokyo has. But it’s rather useless for a reviewer who knows the quality available in these Meccas to hold all places up to them.
What would get an “A” in Portland? Nancy mentions Wong’s. Sure, it’s good. But does it really compare to the best of San Francisco, Vancouver, or New York? And what would it rate in Hong Kong, for goodness sakes?
I love a good food fight.
Did you know that the population of Yountville, CA, is less than 3,000? Granted, most of the French Laundry’s customers are from outside the city limits, but you can still do pretty well in a small town if you have what it takes.
Now it seems to me that a great chef, or a pretty damn good one, needs three things to make a pretty damn good restaurant: a variety of fresh ingredients, a good supply of cheap but teachable labor, and a discerning clientele.
Portland has the first two, so all this place really needs is some educated diners to have the whole package. In this connection, honest, critical restaurant reviews are vital, and namby-pamby, grading-on-a curve, you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch -yours reviews only set back the pace of progress.
Why write a review if you aren’t going to be honest, anyway? Many of the people who read these reviews are either new to town or visiting, and all a phony review does is put a bad taste in their mouth about the whole city, so to speak. And many others are relatively poor people who have to save up for a really nice meal, and it’s a shame if their money goes down the drain at some trendy crap house just because the local reviewer was “being supportive” or trying to curry favor with the chef.
Just be honest, that’s all it takes, and sooner or later it won’t be a chore.
This is tiresome, but here goes:
One does not compare a rib-joint with the French Laundry. We grade on whether we like the bbq. I’ve had awesome bbq in Okmulgee, OK; I’d give it an A. It doesn’t mean it’s as good as what Thomas Keller makes, it means it’s really great bbq. This is not grading on a curve, this is grading food and scene based on how well they succeed at doing what they have set out to do. I vehemently disagree and see only an endless road to mediocrity should critics grade according to what else is in town, as opposed to the merits of the restaurant itself. But it can be a phenomenal piece of pizza in a florescent-lit room. If you do a great job at what you do, humble as it may be, I’m with you.
Next, Wong’s is as good as the best Hong Kong-style restaurants I’ve been to in LA and better than the best I’ve had in NY. According to two people I know who travel to Hong Kong, Wong’s is as great as the great restaurants there.
But one does not need to know this to adore the food at Wong’s; one just knows. This point was brought up beautifully in an article in last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine, about Cryovacked cooking. One of the fathers of Cyrovacking, Bruno Goussault, has scietifically determined that the optimum water temperature in which to cook an egg “sous vide” is 64.5 Celsius (148F). He was in the kitchen of French chef Joel Robuchon, who was cooking eggs thus. “I tested his temperature, I put in my probe,” said Goussault. “It was 64.5. I asked him how he knew this, and he just said that was how he liked it best.”
I think, in the end, extramsg may not trust himself to give a stout opinion. Guess what? Critics have to. Putting aside that there are as many bad ones as there are frozen burritos at 7-Eleven: critics get and keep their jobs because they are not afraid to form and voice opinions; to deconstruct what they’ve eaten; to draw the scene; to tell you what works and what doesn’t. And they do this, week after week, year after year. The idea that a critic must never venture an opinion that isn’t informed by every other instance of this food throughout the world is ludicrous, to say nothing of impractical. One strives to be informed, but even if Jonathan Gold and I eat the identical number of meals in Bangkok, our reviews of a Thai restaurant in LA will never be identical; how can they be? Does this mean one of us is wrong? Or has been unfair?
Let’s apply this so-called fair standard elsewhere: You love your wife… but how can you be sure? Have you met every other woman in Portland? How about Paris? How about women in general? Are you really qualified to say, my wife is a great gal, if you haven’t loved 500 others? I say, yes, you are.
Like love, eating is and will always be a subjective experience; it must be. If it weren’t, we might as well bring back Space Food Sticks and call it a day.
You guys are creating strawmen, absurd positions that I haven’t claimed to have.
But I’m starting to think you’re taking an absurd position, the solipsistic position I warned about, Nancy. Eating and taste is NOT a subjective endeavor. It’s inter-subjective. Taste is formed through the prism of traditions and experience guided by others. And reviewing food should be even less subjective.
Imagine someone gets a tomato dish on a tasting menu, yet they hate tomatoes. Do they then criticize the place saying that they hated the tomato dish or that it was a bad dish? Hell, no, and I don’t think anyone here would claim that they should. Why? Because reviewing is not a masturbatorial pursuit. You review in order to inform others. It’s a tool for others. So reviewing must always take into account others, which includes the tastes of the audience, the expectations of the audience, the traditions of the audience, etc. It should also take into account the traditions of the cuisine, what the restaurant is going for, and so on. (Although here one has to be careful as well. If a place just wants to be a shitty dive with cheap out of the can food with enough salt to make someone buy a beer, do we say they’re good if that’s what they accomplished?)
While we certainly each have our inclinations and tastes, we also recognize that the standards for taste must not be wholly within ourselves. Your admonition that we must educate Portland consumers relies on that truth.
I can love my wife all I want, but if I was telling others that my wife was beautiful and she was, to everyone else, a total troll, I would lose all credibility. (Though hopefully they would give me some lenience for being blinded by love.)
It’s not a question of being honest or dishonest. It’s a matter of taking a charitable, careful, reflective, self-aware look at a restaurant that takes into account more than the reviewer’s own personal preferences. Believe it or not, that’s possible. It’s not as easy, but it’s possible. We do have language, do we not?
I’m not asking or expecting perfection, just effort. My original point in this thread was just that reviewers should be mindful of their audience’s expectations and experience and options and not feel like they’re on a mission to explode the “myths” or whatever of the Portland food scene. If a reviewer isn’t judicious in how they approach that, they may just end up alienating an audience who finds no use for their reviews which always seem out of touch with their experiences. (This is all hypothetical and not really directed at you Nancy or anyone else.)
A friend and I were talking about this issue recently. He’s doing a tasting of root beers, something I did recently with my little brothers. He noted that few if any root beers actually use sasaphras or sarsparilla as flavorings. They all use artificial root beer flavoring. Others, use a variety of other flavorings to create their root beers. However, he finds himself drawn to the national brands, the A&Ws of the world, because they taste like root beer (or what we’ve grown up with as the taste of root beer). Personally, in my tasting I found the same and my favorite was Barq’s. However, Weinhardt’s and Boyland were quite good, too, and he found the same, but neither tastes especially like root beer.
Now say someone who has grown up on sarsparilla or Boyland style root beers comes to Portland and does a taste test for the Oregonian. How useful would their review be? They might end up saying that Barq’s and A&W doesn’t taste like root beer.
For a review to be useful, not just entertainment like the food narratives of a Trillin or Bourdain, the reviewer MUST make some effort to know their audience and temper their expectations with their audience’s. Hell, sometimes that may mean a reviewer has to raise their expectations and be more critical. A person from Portland who moves to NY can’t give every decent pizza joint an “A”.
(And I thought people usually accuse me of being too opinionated and sure of myself, not not opinionated and deferential enough. Oh well, a first for everything.)
I just cannot agree with the last point. Reviewing anything – food, wine, movies – by the nature of opinion has to be subjective. A reviewer has to take his or her own preferences into account. What you find stunning, I may detest. A reviewer can never know his or her entire audience, there are just too many opinions out there. For example, I love truffles. Many hate them with a white hot passion. That’s subjective. What you may consider stellar service, I may find far too involved. It’s a reviewer’s job to make sure his or her audience knows his or her baseline or guidelines. Otherwise, what’s the point? If I know you like three waiters per customer, I’ll read your review with that in mind.
Frankly, the subjective nature of reviewing is the very folly of a review in the first place. And trust me, I’ve met plenty a wife (or husband) that one found beautiful where another utterly disagreed. That’s what makes us who we are.
And Nick, there’s no need to call someone else’s opinion “absurd”. Just take their opinions (like a review) for what it’s worth.
I wasn’t using absurd as a pejorative, but rather in the logical sense.
It’s a matter of taking a charitable, careful, reflective, self-aware look at a restaurant that takes into account more than the reviewer’s own personal preferences.
OK, cool; now is that charitable toward the restaurant or the diner?
That’s the crux, dude.
Mossback, charity isn’t a zero sum game. The answer is both.
I’m sorry, Nick, but in adult life we have to make choices. You can serve the people or you can suck-up to the restaurateurs, but you can’t do both. Whether the product is great, good, indifferent, or bad, you have to tell it like it is.
And if I eat all the cake, there really will be none left for you.
It would be great if we lived in some parallel universe where we were all pink bunnies with all the lettuces and carrots we wanted, where there were no fleas and no wolves, where Elmer Fudd shot chocolate bullets and we all lived forever, but we don’t.
Imagine someone gets a tomato dish on a tasting menu, yet they hate tomatoes. Do they then criticize the place saying that they hated the tomato dish or that it was a bad dish? Hell, no, and I don’t think anyone here would claim that they should.
Uh, no, Nick, no one would claim that, because I cannot think of one critic with two functioning brain cells who would do such a thing. Are you seriously telling me this is what you think of as subjective?
As for the “inter-subjective” concept, we are always the sum of our and others’ experiences. We wouldn’t even know how to cross the street were we not. But I disagree with you (again and again) about what, as critics, we offer to the reader. You seem to place your highest trust in opinion-by-consensus, whereas I find art by consensus to be less trustworthy. The Los Angeles Zagat rates Marie Callander’s as one of its most popular restaurants. Marie Callendar’s, of the frozen entrees and pie that tastes like vomit. By this measure, “The Titanic” is a paragon of filmic virtuosity, and “The Da Vinci Code” the best book of this century.
There are writers we love and trust; Malcolm Gladwell [www.gladwell.com] comes to mind. He’s been doing what he does for a long time; I trust him to walk into the world and tell me what’s what. I trust his brain and his integrity. I feel the same about restaurant critics, provided that, through their writing and humor and enthusiasm, they earn my trust, or make me laugh, or tell me where to get what they think is the best brownie.
As someone who’s contributed to more “Best Of” lists that I can remember, I’ll let you in on a secret: there is no best brownie; there’s a really good brownie that the critic loved, and next year, there will be another. The food world is fluid, it’s always changing; there is no one perfect review or reviewer. Food Dude does a great service by revisiting restaurants and keeping his reviews fresh, but even so, tomorrow the gnocchi at Paley’s will be undercooked, and on we go.
Turning of phrases aside, you’re wrong. Not everything is a zero sum game, thank god. A person can, eg, love a child and have a second, and still love it just as much. Americans can get richer even while everyone else on the planet does as well.
Charity in the sense I’m using it is a Christian sort of charity (though I’m not Christian). It merely means setting aside ones pride and selfish tendencies to do what’s right by another. There is no zero sum game there.
It serves neither the reader nor the restaurant for a reviewer to not inform themselves, to close themselves off from possibilities other than their own perceptions. Brutal honesty is rarely useful and should be meted out only in extreme circumstances. Careful and considered honesty is the approach I would hope that reviewers would try to take. It doesn’t serve the reader anymore than the restaurant to have a reviewer make one visit, have a bad experience, and then have that be the definitive conclusion of a place. It may be an off-night. The chef may have cut off a finger. Who knows. I think a careful reviewer would try to find out before drawing a conclusion. People may lose their jobs and diners may miss out on a good opportunity because of an inconsiderate (in the literal sense) reviewer.
(btw, charity doesn’t only mean giving someone or something what they want. I don’t find it charitable to give a druggie another hit. I don’t find it charitable to blow smoke up the ass of a restaurant just to make them feel good either.)
“You seem to place your highest trust in opinion-by-consensus, whereas I find art by consensus to be less trustworthy.”
Not at all. But with great power comes great responsibility, as Uncle Ben says.
I think polls are mediocre guides at best and have said so ad nauseum (an anonymous voice jumps in to say I do everything ad nauseum) elsewhere. But just because I don’t trust Zagat or Citysearch or Willamette Week polls to tell me where to go doesn’t mean that I trust a reviewer who says, “Well, that’s my opinion” and leaves it at that.
I have a hard time believing that you or many successful reviewers just go into a restaurant, sit down, eat, and blurt out what you liked and didn’t like with blinders on. Would you trust a review from a diner making their first trip to a Thai restaurant, not having bothered to even learn a bit about the cuisine going in or afterwards? Doubtful.
So what’s wrong with saying that I expect reviewers to make an honest effort to inform themsevles about the cuisine, the competition, others’ perceptions, etc, before setting their opinion in print. We want and expect them to have some basis for their opinion beyond just “tastes good (or bad) to me”. Reviews are a tool firstly, not entertainment, I hope.
I feel like people here are giving all deference to the reviewer, not willing to put any obligations on them, and also acting as if the best reviews are always the most harsh reviews, which just isn’t true. The best reviews are the most useful reviews. And any reviewer should be able to make a more useful review if they are more informed and more considerate (again in the literal sense).
I’m not a religious person myself, so I’m not sure what Christian Charity really means. There is this one Bible verse that I’ve always liked, however: Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.—Matthew 6:19-24
God and mammon, the people and the flim-flams.
Then I assume you also like this one: “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists,” by George Bush.
Me (even as a Republican), I disagree with both. Such binary statements only work if you believe that we live in a world of oppositions: black and whites, all goods and all bads, terrorists and patriots, restaurants and diners.
I don’t see Cindy Sheehan as siding with the terrorists just because she disagrees with the President. I also don’t see a review as siding with the diner just because it harshly criticized a restaurant or siding with the restaurant (against the diner) just because it didn’t.
A parent can punish a child and still love the child and still be “for” the child. A review can criticize a restaurant serving both the restaurant and the diner. But punishment should be proportional, judicious, well-considered, and well-informed. It shouldn’t be harsh for harshness sake because somehow brutality is the best thing to serve diners.
I’m all for cutting children as much slack as they need, Nick, but adults have to be accountable, especially when they take my money.
Of course not *everything* in the world is “binary”, but many, many things certainly are, and most other things are still finite.
And let’s not drag poor Cindy Sheehan, the Terri Schiavo of the left, into this discussion. She’s left Crawford already and we should let her become as obscure as she deserves to be.
With your talent for sugar-coating the truth you would do well to consider a career in politics (I don’t mean that as an insult, BTW.)
You make some very charitable remarks, Amy Alkon.
Amy, thanks for participating. Glad to have you here!
I mean you sound like a person who radiates the spirit of Christian Charity, as our spiritual leader ExtraMSG exhorts us to do. And stuff.
I agree with Karen C&M is a pathetic place. The waiter was rude and gave us something we never ordered the food was very very…..very oily
If you really want to have a fun evening refrain from entering this obnoxious place.Its really expensive since they waiter pretty much forces you to order more by standing on your head.
This review was mentioned by Brooks in her recent DOC review as the worst she’s ever written about. I was really curious, and hoping to read it, but the link no longer works. Does anybody have a copy they can post? Food Dude??
Food Dude says
It seems to have vanished from the Oregonian site. I guess someone made a new friend ;)