Grading Antipasti on a Curve
I'm getting bitch-slapped all over the place lately. I've gotten a slew of letters in the past couple of weeks suggesting I need to find myself another profession. I'm a mean-spirited misanthrope who wouldn't know a gourmet dinner if she fell face down in it. If I write a negative restaurant review, these letters suggest, I obviously have some personal, long-nursed grudge against the chef or owner. I've probably been slighted by, or kicked out of bed by, or been at the losing end of a fistfight with, half the cooks in town: Now, I've miraculously landed a job as a food critic! a golden opportunity for major payback. Worse, sometimes my assessments differ drastically from my colleagues at the dailies and glossies... which only goes to show that I'm a total spoiler/clueless hack/illiterate nincompoop.
I've been writing about restaurants for New Times for a couple of years now, and it's probably time I laid my critical cards on the table. I can bluff as well as the next chick, but this time I think I've got a full house. I don't believe I'm ever dead wrong about a restaurant, and I'll stand by my assessments. Which doesn't mean you can't disagree with me. I'm sure your mommy will totally back you.
Let's do this as a case study. Let's take Flavors of Italy, an elegant, expensive, and well-established restaurant in Coral Springs with a single chef/owner, highly praised in at least one other local publication (it was deemed one of that paper's 100 Top Restaurants in South Florida last year). I've never slept or fought with Guido Barisone, and I know nothing about his history except that he's owned at least one other restaurant locally. I'm going to visit Flavors anonymously, as I always do, with my dinner tab paid by New Times.
My first principle, "It's the Food, Stupid," is one I apply consistently. The chef might be famous or unknown, a big huggie bear or a vicious bitch, a corporate drone or a lonely maverick, but nothing matters except what he or she sends out of the kitchen. Let the tablecloths be frayed, the staff inexperienced, the view predictable, the music annoying, but if the food's sublime the rest, as they say, is silence.
Whether or not she happens to be physically in the kitchen, the chef is responsible for what comes out of it. There are a million mitigating circumstances moneyless budget, sucky suppliers, staffs on drugs that can affect the quality of a restaurant meal, but her job is to control all of those factors and turn out a consistently good product.
So how do I judge whether the food is "delicious"? Well, I ask myself some contextual questions. What's the culinary culture this menu springs from? At Flavors of Italy, it's Italian. How does it compare to the hundreds of Italian restaurants in Broward and Palm Beach County? Is it Tuscan, Venetian, Sicilian, "Jersey" Italian, or "Continental"? Is it a family place or a special-occasion restaurant? Anything noticeably new or unexpected going on here? How does it compare with the fare you might sample while traveling around the old boot? How does it stack up to Mama's?
At Flavors of Italy, the antipasti menu tells all: House Specialty antipasto pie, shrimp cocktail, roasted peppers, mozzarella with tomato and basil. And the hot ones: Clams in red or white wine or oreganata, escargot, mushrooms stuffed with crab, calamari, grilled portabella, fried mozzarella. There are three salads, minestrone, and pasta & fagioli, all priced from $9 to $13.
So we have here a traditional Italian-American menu with Continental flourishes (snails, shrimp cocktail). Nothing except maybe the antipasto pie is even slightly trendy or experimental. You could flip open six-dozen Italian restaurant menus in two counties and find the same line-up. Barisone is working within a tradition of well-loved favorites, as comfortable as a pair of old slippers.
This sharpens the focus. We know what the chef is not trying to do now, right? He's not back there concocting insane foams and sauces, making wild pairings of eerily disparate ingredients. He's evidently hoping to soothe a not overly adventurous clientele. The question becomes, what could make these familiar foods, prepared in familiar ways, taste "delicious"?
Which brings me to my second principle: "It's gotta be fresh."
And to my third principle: "It's gotta be balanced."
And my fourth: "The flavors of the ingredients should be clear and distinct, not dull or muddy."
And to my one disclaimer: "I eat everything."
There's practically no meat, vegetable, or fungus I dislike or if there is, I haven't tried it yet. I admit I'm probably no great fan of the Filipino hard-boiled duck embryos called balut, but frankly I have yet to run across one on a Broward menu. Whatever the cuisine, if a dish is well prepared, even exotic, I don't have any prejudices only against food that's stale, rotten, freezer-burned, rancid, off-flavored, or entirely flavorless from mishandling. No worries: I'm not a finicky eater. When I scan down the offerings at Flavors of Italy, from the lasagna to the salmone al forno to the scallopini saltimbocca, there's not an item I'd turn my nose up at and this is true of the overwhelming majority of menus I stick my nose into. To have antipasti enough to share, and to get a good idea of the kitchen's range, we order three of them plus a salad. We get mozzarella-basil-tomato: fresh cheese, red and juicy tomato, basil leaves redolent of cinnamon and pepper. It's a classic dish, prepared this way by many and forever, because the ingredients are ideal counterpoints to one another: texture, acidity, mouth-feel, and fragrance. It's not rocket science. You could make this at home in three minutes for $3, but you're not at home, are you? Give it a solid B. Clams oreganata are neither fresh (the clams are dry and dull), nor balanced (the oreganata coating is too heavy). Here's a case of a classic dish that's been mishandled and ruined by aging shellfish wrongly seasoned and overcooked. D-plus. The capricciosa salad ("house specialty, trust us") of romaine, radiccio, Belgian endive, olives, red peppers, mushrooms, and a heavy coating of blue cheese has problems. The lettuces are crisp but the mushrooms are canned, the peppers from a jar. There's way too much blue cheese (a strong cheese, which crushes even the aggressive, bitter, vegetal flavors of endive and radiccio like a jackboot) and vinegar. A lighter hand with the cheese and vinegar, some freshly marinated mushrooms, and this might have been interesting. What do you think? A "Gentleman's C"?
"Taste of Italy" antipasto pie is tougher, because it's more complicated. It's a thick, layered wedge made with crepes, thinly sliced cheeses like provolone and mozzarella, pickled artichoke hearts and red peppers, and nice salamis and salted meats. It melts in a pleasing way in the mouth, but there's a thick layer of something on top mayonnaise? salad cream? that tips the whole in the direction of cloying. Give it a B for effort, though; it's the only item on this menu that we haven't seen in a hundred other restaurants over the past 40 years.
After the apps, you come to a fork in your road. Because if the entrées that follow mediocre appetizers aren't stellar, your mood is going to go sour in a big hurry. If, that is, you're a regular diner. This never happens to me, because I'm just doing my job. As disappointing as I might find the food, the process of dining out is ever interesting, if only to demonstrate what new things can go wrong in which unique ways. Thanks to New Times, I'm not paying for this, remember? Not one penny of my own money is going into this meal. So I'm not feeling a pinch in my wallet, like you might be. I'm not buttering up my boss or celebrating an anniversary or planning to propose or even hoping to get laid later. Nothing at all is riding on this meal for me. But for you, reader, quite a bit might be riding. So I'm thinking about how I might save you some trouble.
Which brings me to my fifth consideration: "What do I owe my readers?"
How about a dead-honest assessment? One achieved without bribery or made under duress and one drawing on considerable study of food, foodways, and restaurant culture. What I want to know here is, "Should New Times readers go out of their way to eat at this place, of all the Italian restaurants in Broward County? And if so, why?" I'm thinking, "They probably get to go out only once a week or in some cases once a month; can I give them a friendly nudge in the right direction?"
The entrées at Flavors of Italy, which range from $23 to $40, answer this question for me definitively. My flavorless, mushy yellowtail snapper is swimming in a deep pool of unappetizing oil, and it's coated with way too much oreganata seasoning (not balanced, not fresh). I can barely eat more than a few bites. Veal Sorrentina, to my mind, is inedible too. It has a "restaurant kitchen" flavor that comes from the use of cheap ingredients, most likely the sherry and the wine, and it's overly sweet (not balanced). Same goes for the lobster ravioli, which bears no relation whatsoever to authentic, carefully made fresh pasta it's gummy, and the lobster is too assertively flavored (lobster should be a mild, buttery meat, remember?). The filet mignon is overcooked, tough, and drowned in a red tomato sauce that has no punch or complexity. In all four entrées, the flavors are dull and muddy too much oil or cheese or cream, too much or too little seasoning, no distinction of tones on the palate. By the time I get to dessert a lava cake with no lava ($9), a ricotta cheesecake with a crust made from fake shortening ($6.50) my expectations have been thoroughly subdued and my tongue is numbed and heavy. This is the gustatory equivalent of watching an entire evening of sit-coms and canned dramas.
Do I hate this chef? Not at all; I actually feel kind of bad for him. Would I recommend that you give Flavors of Italy a try when there are so many fine Italian restaurants within a 15-minute drive? Not hardly. I wouldn't send anybody here who cared about food. The couple heavy petting at the next table don't; that's why they come here. Nor do the folks who've drifted into the bar to sing bad '70s karaoke tunes.
The critical formula I've outlined here can be applied to anything from a hotdog stand to a $200 tasting menu. The more expensive, complicated, and creative the restaurant, the more exactingly I apply it but barring any blunders, I believe the results are relatively accurate. At least so much as one can depend on accuracy. You and I will still come away from any meal with unique memories and perceptions and judgments. In a discontinuous universe, after all, the observer always changes the thing observed.
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