There is a certain Jorge Luis Borges twist to me, a restaurant critic, critiquing a show whereby average folks play restaurant critic. I’m talking of the first installment of Check, Please!, the PBS series that has met with great success in Chicago and Los Angeles, and hopes to do likewise here. Michelle Bernstein hosts the half-hour show, which premiered last night and will run through Thursday. It moves along quickly, mostly out of necessity as three restaurants get reviewed by each of three guests, plus a short plug of each eatery by the owner.
Episode one began with Beauty Pageant President Barbara Howard offering praise for her selection, Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant. Skydiver (?!) Robi Brian started off sounding a bit pompous as he criticized Sheba as not being up to par with Ethiopian eateries he has eaten at in other cities. He sarcastically noted that it was “the best Ethiopian restaurant in Miami” (it is, of course, the only one), and went on to suggest there having been a microwave in the kitchen. Ouch.
Worse (or, really, better) is that these comments, delivered in his English accent, could only remind viewers of Simon Cowell. In retrospect, meaning immediately after the show ended, I looked back at Robi’s critique as clearly being the show’s high point. Probably because it was the only critique leveled. Ms. Howard, and the third “critic”, library assistant Elaine Ruda, were impressed with virtually everything at all three venues – except, that is, for Elaine's meek complaint that Sheba was “a little expensive for me”.
Michelle is a humble host, which serves the show well. She lets her guests have their say, only jumping in to shift conversation to the next person or restaurant, or to clarify the meaning of foods such as “wat”, or to ask a few well-targeted questions -- like how they felt about portion size in relation to price.
The other two restaurant picks were Jeff’s Beach House Grill in Fort Lauderdale, and Café Maurice in South Beach. The food and decor at the former looked good on camera, though I’ve never been. The food looked good at Maurice, too -- better, in fact, than what I was served the times I dined there. The British skydiver got in the best two lines of these segments. First, in describing a six dollar soupe d’poisson that fed two at Maurice, he noted “That’s right up there in Happy Meal land” (hey Robi, want to write dining caps for us?). And after Elaine noted that everything about Cafe Maurice was French, and Barbara concurred that everything was, indeed, very French, Michelle asked Robi what he thought. “We’re talking about the French place, right?” he replied, quickly and dryly adding, “Yeah, it was French.”
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More guests like Mr. Brian and Check, Please! will surely find an audience. --Lee Klein