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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.

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Visduh June 19, 2009 @ 8:26 p.m.

The job for you is the one at the U-T called Restaurant "Critic." Now held by Doug (Wolfgang) Verkaaik, it consists of writing a weekly column that extols the virtues of some restaurant that advertises in the U-T. "Never is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day." After reading his column a few times, you have to conclude that "Wolfgang" never saw a restaurant he didn't love. They are all great, with good prices, innovative menus, old favorites, and all have great service. The decor is superb, or homey, or . . . He never has to pan anything. No chef/owner will ever accuse Wolf of negative comments that might cost him his business or job. Nevah' happen. He writes a consistently upbeat column that supports U-T advertisers. And the column is presented in a way that lets you know, if you care, that is is promotional, not journalistic.

In a slightly different vein, a few years back, my wife and I tried out a well-established eatery in RB that is eponymous with the area and (I'm told) the first name of the owner. It is in a small strip center, rather crowded. But, heck, this is RB! The prices do not reflect being in a shopping center with a supermarket. They are high.

Our waiter was a real piece of work. His demeanor didn't fit the place, his attire was slouchy, and his manner of dealing with the job didn't please. In short, he didn't have the skills to go with the operation. But we did get our orders placed, and after some fumbling with getting us some bread, he brought out the first course, and in due time, the main course. About halfway through that course, the owner/host appeared, and went about the dining room warmly greeting the diners. He seemed to know many of them well, and there were displays of familiarity. (Remember, this is RB.) He worked his way through the place, stopping at all or nearly all the tables, but not at ours. Why did he ignore us? It seemed obvious that he knew we would comment about his misfit waiter, and he didn't want to be told what he already knew.

We haven't been back here, and don't intend to revisit. It is so easy to overspend closer to home and we don't need to drive to RB to be ill-served, ignored, and overcharged. You can find that sort of treatment right in your own neighborhood.


SDaniels June 21, 2009 @ 10:57 p.m.

Good observation on the U-T food critic, Visduh. There is one just like him in the Pennysaver. Nary a fly in the soup, and coupons are conveniently placed! :)


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