Besides Antica, I hit The Fishery in P.B., Meatmeister Matt Rimel’s Mesquite in Scripps Ranch, Indigo Grill in Little Italy, Mediterraneo in Alpine, and a pre-Borkum Laurel in Middletown. No total disasters, no complete triumphs, plenty of interesting bits and teachable moments. I made a beginner’s mistake when I criticized the cassoulet at Nathan’s at Michelle Coulon’s for lacking sauce. Of course, as the eventual letter of protest reminded me, cassoulet is not the sort of dish that gets sauced — it’s a stew. What I meant was that it lacked moisture, juice, jus. My complaint stood, but still, a critic should be more careful.
As I said, a beginner’s mistake, the sort that can be remedied by experience. That’s not what finished me as a restaurant critic. What finished me was “About the Chef,” the mini profile that runs in the Reader after the critic has rendered judgment. It is not uncommon for a newspaper to run a profile of, say, a film director, and then, a little later, a review of that director’s latest film. It is uncommon for the profile and the review to have the same author. There is some reason for this. A profile relies on a chat, on chumminess, on friendliness for the sake of drawing out candor. A review relies on cold, unemotional assessment — here’s how it is, folks. Pulling double duty has its merits — it helps to have a measure of human understanding before blasting a place — but it can be a tricky business. For instance:
I had written my review of a North County restaurant, one that had recently ramped up its ambitions. I had lots of good things to say, but I had also found some problems. I called the chef; we had a pleasant chat. I was thinking about how his personal history might make a good opening to the review itself. And then he said something very much like this: “Listen. This is how I support my wife and children — my wife just had twins. I’ve put my life into this place. Be careful what you write.”
That was it. I was done. Forever after, when I sat down to play critic, I would be haunted by those hungry, needy, newborn twins. Was I going to rob their father of his livelihood? Not a chance. I didn’t have the guts.