The Mind of a Restaurant Critic

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When you like a critic, you trust his judgment not because he has a doctorate in food letters, although such things do apparently exist. He’s proved himself over a long period. You know what he likes or dislikes. You get him. Maybe you don’t always agree; but when you’re looking at getting a babysitter and maybe dropping three bills on dinner, you need to minimize risk. For that, the user reviews on Yelp are beyond useless….So there in that whirlwind of trends and fad ingredients and hype and backlash, are a few immense ancient trees, with sturdy roots and massive trunks to hew to. – Josh Ozersky

The two questions I get asked most frequently are, 1) How did you become a restaurant critic? and 2) How do you decide where to go…. and how do you critique a restaurant once you’re there?

That’s actually three questions, but for the purpose of this piece we’ll treat the last two as a single inquiry into the my machinations and methodology used when reviewing restaurants.

Regarding question #1: I’ve gone through the story of how I became a critic so many times even I am tired of telling it. The fastest explanation is best summarized by the axiom “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Vegas in 1994 was extremely near-sighted when it came to food, and yours truly was the only one urging our local press to wake up and smell the celebrity chefs. Thankfully, KNPR- Nevada Public Radio was hep to the idea of commentary on our burgeoning restaurant scene, and a (second) career was launched. Click here if you’re interested in some of my (now ancient) reviews.

If you’re interested in spending a few minutes inside the mind of a critic, read on.

Many ask if there is some sort of master plan in how I go about my reviewing business? A highly detailed outline of restaurants charted days, weeks, months in advance for possible exploration, delectation, and possible evisceration. In a macro sense, the first half of the year is spent scouting new territory; the middle three months (summer) is spent writing/updating EATING LAS VEGASThe 52 Essential Restaurants. Once the final copy is in around September/October, and once I weigh in on Desert Companion’s Restaurant Awards issue, I then spend a couple of months (November-December) trying to lose a few pounds (good luck with that).

On a micro-level, it’s much more ad hoc than you think — a mixture of ear-to-the-ground interest in what’s new, blended with a need to revisit old haunts to see if they’re still up to snuff.

These days my attention centers upon all the action downtown and in Chinatown. Kaiseki Yuzu just opened in its new digs on Spring Mountain Road, and another kaiseki joint is coming hot on its heels, soon to pop its doors on Decatur and SMR in the next month. Apparently there’s an udon noodle bar on West Flamingo that slipped through my attention cracks, and the just-opened ShangHai Taste needs a return since my initial visit only a few days into its run.

Such are the thoughts running through my brain at any moment.

Competing in this crowded space are sugar plums awaiting at the soon-to-open Main Street Provisions and the new Good Pie — two highly-anticipated, chef-driven joints just days away from boosting the Main Street dining scene.

And oh, by the way, someone told me to check out the food at Able + Baker brewpub, and Sheridan Su’s new concept…and isn’t it high time I gave vegetarian tacos a try at Tacotarian?

(Side joke that practically wrote itself: Me, walking past the almost-empty Tacotarian last night: “Why are there no customers in the vegetarian taco joint?” Friend of Me: “Because it’s a vegetarian taco joint.”)

Also swimming through these synapses are yearnings for return visits to tried and true favorites. I really don’t need to go back to Sage, Bardot Brasserie, Le Cirque, Bazaar Meat or Guy Savoy to remind myself how tasty they are, but their menus beckon me like the seductive song of a siren. Odysseus may have strapped himself to a mast to resist his temptations, but my only restraints are time and my waistline.

The older I get, the more I realize how my appetite for restaurants usually splinters into one of three shards when the stomach growls: there’s the curious (“I need to try check out _____)”), the complacent (“Let’s go to an old favorite”), and the conscientious (“Duty demands I revisit ______, even though I have -0- interest in doing so.”) Thus am I compelled, sometimes, to haul my ass to some far corner of the Vegas valley to check out a chef, or recheck that I either still like or loathe someplace. (It was this motivation that led me to embark on a cook’s tour of classic Las Vegas restaurants a few years ago….a trek for which my stomach still hasn’t forgiven me.)

Having decided on where, the next issue is how. As in: How do I size up the places I write about?

Before I go any further, let’s start by stating I am well aware of the subjectivity involved in judging anything that involves personal taste — be it food, fashion, music, or movies. If you like your burgers well done I feel sorry for you, but you are not wrong.

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I could argue with you that you’re not experiencing your burger’s inherent juicy, tangy, deep-roasted wonderfulness by eating it one step removed from a piece of desiccated charcoal, but if that’s how you like it, so be it. What I will do is explain that the full flavor of the meat is being shortchanged by a chef who either doesn’t know or care to lift the patty off the grill at the “right” time. In this sense, I am merely reflecting popular wisdom (and perhaps my own prejudices) about when beef tastes best.

But there are standards in cooking and restaurant operation (just as there are in music performance and movie production). All a food critic does is try to hold a restaurant to them.

All a restaurant review does is filter a consumer product through his own prism. A writer should never lose sight his own prejudices, lest the focus of the review become more about him than what is on the plate. I strive to remember this unless, of course, you are dead wrong about liking some shitty Italian restaurant, or gluten-free anything.

As for the standards I try to uphold, the criteria is much different for new v. old.

At an old favorite, I let my guard down and take a lot for granted. All I’m there for is to confirm that the place hasn’t lost its fastball.

A new joint gets the full once-over: from the lighting to the silverware to the taste of the water they pour.

How’s the greeting? Where is the greeting? Is it awkward? Polished? Sure, they might know me, but how are those three ladies right behind me addressed? Does it feel good in there? Do you get a feeling of comfort and warmth when you enter, or something more cool and aloof?

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What about the chairs? The booths? The depth of the seats? Their width? Do you stick to them? Slide off? Does the table wobble? (Iconic old eateries get a pass here; brand new ones, not so much.)

Is the design unique? (Hatsumi) DIY? (Elia Authentic Greek Taverna) Beautiful? (Lamaii, Weera Thai Kitchen) Hackneyed? ( Majordomo) Or does it fit the food? (Rao’s) (BTW: nothing gets graded on steeper curve than decor. Local joints hanging on by a thread get a lot more leeway than Strip hotels who pay millions to come up with the hideous cruise ship look (Lago), or a coffee shop/bus station (the otherwise excellent StripSteak).

Is the place too big? (Usually, yes, e.g. Mott 32) Or too small? Or poorly laid out?

Can you hear yourself think? Does the music intrude? How energized is the staff? Are they working in silent, satisfied synchronicity? (They should be.) There is a hum that great restaurants exude — it can be almost silent as in the case of a haute cuisine frog pond, or close to a cacophonous roar in some over-amplified gastropub — but you know it when you hear it, and it means the place is firing on all cylinders. (If you want to hear what I’m talking about, go to Cipriani sometime.)

What about the napkins? (Polyester? Paper? Real cotton?) The plates? How close are the tables? Does the bar serve food? Does it look comfortable doing so? Would a single diner be happy eating there? Did they spend money on the glassware, or do it on the cheap?

How uncomfortable are the bare tables? Are they naked as a design statement? Or because of an impecunious proprietor?

And while we’re at the table, how clean was it when you sat down? Still wet from a wiping? And how long has it been since those place-mats were steam-cleaned?

Does it smell like a restaurant? Or is the ventilation so good you could be in a library?

Is the staff alert? Young? Old? Happy to be there or biding their time until the Culinary Union calls? Snappily dressed or slovenly? (A staff in t-shirts can look sharp; frayed-around-the-edges formal wear is fooling no one.)

Is there an adult in charge? Or are a bunch of 20-somethings aimlessly looking for direction?

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Does that adult help with service? Busing of tables? If a table is in distress, does the manager, or another waiter offer to help, or give you that “it’s not my station, I’ll go find your waiter” look? How fast do the menus arrive? How chatty (too much or not enough) is the waiter?

Can they handle a corkscrew? (You’d be surprised how clueless some waitrons are. This is not their fault. It shows a lack of training, which shows a lack of caring….by management.)

While we’re on the subject: How seamless is the transition from water to cocktails to wine?

Then check out the least sophisticated table in the place. Are they happy? Being treated with respect? Frustrated? Acting intimidated? If the latter, how patient is the staff (or the harried bartender) being with them?

Lastly, and most importantly, is it a passion restaurant or a money restaurant? (Esther’s Kitchen is a passion restaurant; Ada’s – its offshoot – is a money restaurant.)

Then there’s the menu. Easy to read? All over the map? Too descriptive? Minimalist? Too cute? Full of cliches? Tourist friendly or gastronomically challenging? Or a little of both? Can you parse the  the food from the card before you, or will you require the assistance of a soothsayer, shaman, and a polymath’s transliteration to figure it out?

Automatic deductions for roasted beets, salmon, scallops, and chicken breasts. Bonus points for offal, strange birds, good soups and singular focus.

Believe it or not, I process most of this information in about 90 seconds.

I’ve usually filed away the answers in the Rolodex of my mind before the food even arrives.

And then it does and then it’s a whole new ballgame. But you’ll have to wait a week to hear about that process.

This is the first of a two-part article.

 

The Evolution of a Critic

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(Ed. note: People are always asking me” “How did you become a food critic?” Here is the answer.)

Food writer John Mariani once said there are 3 kinds of restaurant critics: “The slobs, the snobs and the oh goodie goodies.”

The slobs are professional writers who either get thrown into, or decide to write about food sometime in mid-career. Being writers by trade, their qualifications for the gig (when they start out) usually consists of being able to write a cogent paragraph and knowing what they like to eat. Ask any editor and they will tell you they prefer a real writer who wants to become a food critic, to a passionate foodie who wants to (try to) become a writer. Getting real writers to write about real restaurants is usually a lot easier than getting them into a collared shirt.

Mariani properly pegged me as a “oh goodie goodie” type of critic years ago. For the longest time, I ate everything in sight and was pleased as punch that Las Vegas was taking its place on the world’s gastronomic stage. Somewhere over the past decade, I shed my omnivorous obsessions and replaced them with unabashed epicurean snobbery, and therein lies the tale.

John Anthony Curtas was practically raised in American restaurants. As a preteen in the 1960s, I circumnavigated the United States with my family, eating in the best restaurants in town from Miami to Seattle, New York to New Orleans. My  parents were hardly “to the menu born,” but both had a healthy appreciation for good food, and wanted their children (me, two sisters and a brother) to experience the best of eating out. Neither parent was a gourmet; we never had wine or liquor in our house, and seafood was as foreign to our table as chopsticks. But what Mom and Dad loved was going out to a restaurant — dressing us all up and making a night of it. To them, dining out was about the experience of leaving the confines of home and seeking the thrill of being served good food in a fabulous place where they waited on you hand and foot. Wherever we traveled, they always sought out the best restaurant in town and the best table in the house —  the better to experience the theater of great dining.

As a young adult I started cooking more out of poverty than choice. My older sister gave me a subscription to Bon Appetit magazine in 1978 that I ate up, literally and figuratively. An early girlfriend and the second Mrs. John A. Curtas were both foodies before there was such a term, and they indulged my then passion for Chinese food. By 1980 I had pretty much cooked my way through The Chinese Menu Cookbook, (Joanne Hush and Peter Wong, Holt Rinehart Winston, 1976), and was seduced by the Szechuan food craze that was all the rage by then. (Yes, there was a Szechuan food craze in those prehistoric times, and I have the cookbooks to prove it.)

My ex-wife was even so kind as to compile a list of Chinese grocery stores for me, when we first moved to Vegas in 1981, so I could continue working my way through the various regional cuisines. Until around 1990, if you had asked me what my favorite food in the world was, I would’ve answered the strong, salty, sour and hot foods of the Sichuan and Hunan provinces of China. (Then and now, the textural nuances of Cantonese cooking, and the folderol of  Mandarin banquets, remain more of a curiosity than a keen pursuit.)

Wedged into all of this was a move back east in the mid-1980s — where I lived mere 50 miles from mid-town Manhattan. It was a seminal time for American food, and I consumed the New York restaurant scene wholesale, as Danny Meyer, Drew Nieporent, Larry Forgione, et al developed a food-centric, wine-friendly, customer-casual template that put baby-boomers at ease with sophistication without pretense.

In 1990, after five years of eating in places like Odeon, the Coach House, Four Seasons, Peter Luger, and the Union Square Cafe (not to mention enjoying the best seafood in America every summer on Nantucket), I moved back to Las Vegas and surveyed the edible landscape. It was not a pretty sight. The best restaurants in town were two chain steakhouses: Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s. Every hotel had five eateries: a coffee shop, a buffet, a steakhouse, and Italian, and a (not-very) “gourmet room” serving “continental cuisine” from some unnamed continent. All of them facing the keno pit, or so it seemed. Marcel Taylor — the Caesars Palace dealer who brought Ruth’s Chris to town in 1989 — told me the philosophy of every hotel back then was to capture the casino customer and never let them out the front door. As he put it, “…they figured we have every place anyone could ever want to eat in right here, what more could they (the tourists) want?”

But want they did, and when Ruth’s Chris realized its Vegas outpost was outselling all its other franchises, the word quickly spread to upscale chains and chefs everywhere that Las Vegas was the place to be. Late 1992 brought the opening of Spago, and soon thereafter, Mark Miller, Charlie Trotter and Emeril Lagasse planted their flags in the MGM. Suddenly, we had a real restaurant scene.

The only thing lacking was a serious critic to write about it. Hard to believe 23 years later, but in 1994, the only person covering restaurants in Las Vegas was the mother-in-law of a certain newspaper owner. She belonged to the “My friend Mabel had the chicken soup and she thought it was a bit salty” school of food writing, and was avidly followed every week by what few society matrons there were in town.

So, I stepped into the breach. It took a year of hounding media outlets, but finally, in October, 1995,  I got a shot at being the Nevada Public Radio food critic — a position I pretty much invented for myself and a gig that lasted until 2011. Did I know anything about radio? Absolutely not. But I knew a helluva lot about food, and could put two sentences together, and looked great in a button-down shirt. As I like to say: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. For five years I was the only game in town when it came to critiquing serious restaurants in a serious way. It would not be until 2001 that our main newspaper hired a full-time food writer, and in keeping with tradition, they made sure she was of the “My friend Edna had the steak and she thought it was a little chewy” school of food writing.

The Nineties brought multiple trips to France and Italy, and writing for all sorts of magazines and guidebooks. It was then that I honed both my palate and my writing. It took a decade plus, but only after all those meals, travel and reviews did I begin to appreciate my subject matter and my relationship to it. Food is the most intimate relationship we will ever have, and allowing strangers to cook it for us is an oddly perverse ritual which many struggle to understand. (It’s the reason so many people have a chip on their shoulder when they eat out.) Giving over our bodies, our health, and our mouths to persons unknown, and paying them for the privilege of feeding all three, is surrendering an inordinate amount of power to a stranger — and paying them money for the privilege of taking advantage of you. It is this curious dynamic that continues to fascinate me, as much as anything that I shove in my piehole.

As for the food, then and now the ingredient-driven Italians and technique-driven French have always fascinated my palate. French food — more than any other on earth — is driven by the extraction, concentration and layering of flavors. Italian cuisine — in all of its regional glories — celebrates the simplicity of the raw material, while a Frenchman tries to make it taste even more like itself. The yin and yang of these philosophies still hold me in their thrall, and, of course, they both make the best wine on the planet (sorry Spain and California).

Enter Japan. Japanese food is about the quest for perfection, and in many ways, eating Japanese food in America and Japan has refined my tastes even further and eliminated my helter-skelter insatiability. No longer am I a galloping gourmand, happily ingesting everything in sight. Now, in my sixties, I seek the unobtainable grail of the quintessential. Like a Japanese chef, I take interest in the details of the divine.  A wasted meal, or even an ingredient, puts me in a bad mood. I have eaten so much of everything that I now simply want the best of anything — be it in a street taco, a glass of wine, or a piece of fish.

I am no longer an “oh, goodie goodie,” and I am certainly not a slob. It is said that to become a gourmet, like becoming a first class horseman, you have to start young. I am an epicure and I started very young. But there are many more steps before me, and it is this mountain that I continue to climb.

Food is life itself, the rest is parsley. – Alan Richman

 

 

Definitions

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“In the lexicon of lip-smacking, an epicure is fastidious in his choice and enjoyment of food, just a soupçon more expert than a gastronome; a gourmet is a connoisseur of the exotic, taste buds attuned to the calibrations of deliciousness, who savors the masterly techniques of great chefs; a gourmand is a hearty bon vivant who enjoys food without truffles and flourishes; a glutton overindulges greedily, the word rooted in the Latin for ‘one who devours’. … After eating, an epicure gives a thin smile of satisfaction; a gastronome, burping into his napkin, praises the food in a magazine; a gourmet, repressing his burp, criticizes the food in the same magazine; a gourmand belches happily and tells everybody where he ate; a glutton embraces the white porcelain altar, or, more plainly, he barfs”. – William Safire

If we had to define the local food writing establishment, we at ELV would classify Max Jacobson as a the ultimate gourmet (may his palate and wit return sometime soon), Heidi Knapp Rinella as a gastronome, and Brock Radke and Jim Begley as gourmands.

FYI, BTW,  ELV is AOTA.

What are you?