This is Ambrose Martin. Rich food makes me gassy.
Juvenile? Sure. But it’s not like I ever intended it to see print. For the two years that I pounded out pinch-hit restaurant reviews for the estimable Ms. Wise here at the Reader, that tagline lived only as a silly in-joke between myself and my partner in food criticism, aka The Wife. It was one way of keeping ourselves grounded — for me, airy, acrobatic food writing gets dull even quicker than trudging, “I ate this, and then I ate this” food writing. It was also, I realize, most of the reason I selected such a hifalutin’ pseudonym — the boys in Monty Python weren’t above mixing fart jokes with aristocratic English reserve, and neither was I. What I didn’t realize was that it was funny because it was true — at least in this sense: when it came to restaurant criticism, I just didn’t have the stomach for it. Or maybe it would be better to say I didn’t have the guts.
What I did have was a deep and abiding love of food — and restaurants. I spent the evening of my 16th birthday in the company of my family, enjoying the only thing I wanted that year: seven courses over five hours at L’Auberge de Cochon Rouge in Ithaca, NY. I can still remember my first lobster, my first sushi, my first really excellent barbecue. I can’t tell you a thing about Easter 1993, except that I had dinner at the Red Fox Inn in Middleburg, Virginia, and that it involved filet mignon topped with a round of foie gras and resting in a puddle of sauce made from brandy and wild cherries.
In 1995, I moved to San Diego. I liked it here, and I rarely felt inclined to defend my new home against the naysayers and culture vultures — let ’em laugh, the poor sods. And then, sometime in the late ’90s, Jeffrey Steingarten sharpened up his pen and went after San Diego restaurants in the pages of Vogue. Quite suddenly, I found myself as sputteringly outraged as the most boosterish local booster — how dare this man roll into town and mock us before the world? You can so eat well in San Diego!
If I recall, my biggest beef was that he wanted San Diego to develop a local cuisine based on local produce. He had a point, of course, but it irked me that we were scolded for importing fancy foodstuffs — as if anyone complained when some high-end NYC eatery brought in French foie gras or Russian caviar. I felt like we were being made, unfairly, into a one-horse town. If you’re going to Kansas City, try the ribs, and maybe the steak. If you’re going to San Diego, try the Pacific lobster, and maybe some Chino veggies. After that, don’t bother. What about the rabbit done three ways that had so dazzled me at the WineSellar & Brasserie? What about the napoleons at Extraordinary Desserts? What about…
When The Powers at the Reader tapped me for restaurant duty back in 2003, I was thrilled. A great wave of (positive) change was sweeping the city’s culinary scene, and I was going to surf it. Or learn to. I had the passion for the job, and I had some measure of experience. I had a decent palate, too — conditioned by years of wine tasting to isolate individual flavors while simultaneously gauging their relationship to the whole. And I had The Wife. If I was good, Deirdre was better, partly because, while I was a careful and appreciative audience for her cooking, she actually cooked. She knew how dishes were constructed, the way flavors could be fixed and textures achieved. With her across the table, I could spend a little less time analyzing and a little more time luxuriating, sinking into the experience of the meal. Also, she was, you know, charming — something to give sparkle and fizz to the story part of the review. Oh, this was gonna be fun.
I started with capsules. Usually, you make a capsule by reducing a full review to its essence. But Naomi, the new sheriff in town, had inherited a great mess of capsules from previous critic Eleanor Widmer — many of them deeply outdated. My job was to find out as much about a place as $75 could teach me, and sum it all up in 150 words. I wasn’t hitting the hotspots, so eviscerations were to be avoided — why go ballistic on a neighborhood joint? Accentuate the positive, mention the negative only if necessary, and hit your deadlines.
It was a good gig, if not exactly remunerative. Between babysitting and food costs, I sometimes ended up losing money. Still, it made for a good time and a mostly free meal. Swooning over grilled ham steak at Tyler’s Taste of Texas in El Cajon. Nodding as I made my way through a dictionary-thick pork chop at Dakota’s down in the Gaslamp. Grinning with an odd sort of pride when my capsule for Barnes Bar-B-Que got Xeroxed and posted inside the restaurant. (Don’t know if it’s still there — it’s gone from the Reader website, replaced by a newer piece from Ed Bedford.)
After a few months, I started in on the full-length reviews. I actually got to La Mesa’s Antica Trattoria a few years before Naomi did, though I sort of doubt my two-and-a-half star review is still on the wall, now that she has graced the place with four of her own. (I tried to dig up my piece for comparison, but the issue seems to have vanished from the Reader’s archives.) I don’t feel too badly about the discrepancy — for starters, Naomi had me on both experience and context. As she joked, she was eating in Manhattan’s Little Italy “back in the Eocene, when Mario Batali was in knee pants.” For her, Antica hit just the right note of delight in and nostalgia for “full-flavored food that gladdens the heart with a warmth and joy you can taste in every bite,” and “that lyrical Italian sense of the fullness of life, somehow speaking through the food.” What did I have to compete with that? A sense of wonder at the ribbons of homemade pasta in the Lobster Fra Diablo special — so tender! No contest, and no wonder she was so much more enthusiastic.