17 December 2013

RIP, Peter O'Toole. Glad I Got to Review You in "Ratatouille"

Image courtesy of Picture Show Pundits
I was sorry to read of the passing of Peter O’Toole, the great old British actor I much admired in films like Lawrence of Arabia, The Stunt Man, The Ruling Class and My Favorite Year. But I was especially tickled by one film performance that many obituaries omitted: his icy Parisian restaurant critic Anton Ego in Pixar’s 2007 animated feature Ratatouille.

Aside from O’Toole’s vivid voice work, I loved the fact that -- six-year-old-movie spoiler alert -- the chef/hero, a rat from the provinces who improbably ends up running a Parisian restaurant kitchen, manages to win over Ego’s hard-hearted professional spoilsport with an artfully-prepared Provençal comfort-food dish that hits the critic’s nostalgia button.

When the film debuted, I was writing only restaurant reviews and food/drink features for alt-weekly Boston’s Weekly Dig; doing a film review was a lark. As it happened, I loved the movie, even though its depiction of restaurants critics is a bit problematic.


The Dig redesigned its website in the summer of 2007 and in the process accidentally blew up its online archives, so I’m running it again here.
RIP, Mr. O’Toole. It’s not the size of the life, but the size of the liver.

From Boston’s Weekly Dig, 27 June 2007

RATATOUILLE
There’s a rat in me kitchen, thank goodness
Review by MC Slim JB


When the Dig asked me to provide a Chowhound’s take on Ratatouille – Pixar’s new computer-animated feature about a rat who aspires to be a great chef – I thought, what business does a food writer have reviewing movies? But as a restaurant habitué and cinephile, I’ve noticed the worlds of film and food have much in common. They’re collaborative efforts: a film’s scenarist, director, actors and other contributors mirror a restaurant’s chef, maître’d, servers, et. al. Enjoyment of each requires a couple of hours’ time and benefits from comfy seats and boon companions. Whether dining or viewing is the main event, discussing it afterward is part of the fun.

As you might expect, I love food-themed movies. I went in prepared to measure Ratatouille against the greats of the genre. It’s up against some stiff competition. My all-time favorite is Tampopo (1985, Japan), in which a trucker helps a young widow save her failing ramen stand by guiding her to the quintessential noodle soup recipe. It both respects and satirizes genre films, movie lovers and obsessive foodies, and it features some jaw-dropping scenes that deliriously conflate the pleasures of food and sex.

Another standout is Big Night (1996), in which two immigrant brothers struggle to keep their authentic Italian restaurant afloat in philistine-saturated 1950s New Jersey. The climactic feast, prepared for a VIP who never shows, looks like the giddiest, tastiest dinner party ever, while the wordless final scene is a lyrical reminder of how cooking and sharing a meal can express love and forgiveness.
Does Ratatouille belong in this rarified company?

It certainly has the bona fides. The film got the foodie community buzzing by hiring Thomas Keller – chef/owner of The French Laundry and Per Se, two of America’s mostly highly regarded restaurants – as a consultant. Keller assisted the filmmakers’ painstaking efforts to realistically re-create the look of a Parisian haute cuisine restaurant, how its kitchen works, and especially its cuisine. Co-writer/director Brad Bird – of The Iron Giant (1999) and The Incredibles (2004) – has created a hero any food obsessive can identify with.

Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is a rat with a hypersensitive nose, a refined palate and dreams of culinary greatness. He admires human cooking and covets people-food, to the bemusement of his garbage-scavenging family. Separated from them during an emergency evacuation of their nest in the French countryside, he lands in Paris in the kitchen of Gusteau’s, a down-at-the-heels fancy restaurant. The ghost of the late Gusteau himself (Brad Garrett), whose cookbooks and cooking shows have made him Remy’s hero, pops up periodically as mentor and conscience.

Remy forges a symbiotic relationship with the kitchen’s garbage boy, Linguini (Lou Romano), a clumsy doofus utterly bereft of cooking skills. Like Cyrano turning an inarticulate hunk into a silver-tongued Romeo, Remy becomes Linguini’s literal puppet master, making him a talented cook by proxy. With the rat guiding his actions, Linguini earns acclaim for himself and the enmity of the gnomish, scheming Skinner (Ian Holm), the restaurant’s current chef/owner.

Remy and Linguini’s other antagonist, restaurant critic Anton Ego (imperiously voiced by Peter O’Toole) may cause food writers everywhere to squirm, and not just because he looks like a refugee from Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. The real affront is how the film misrepresents their profession. Ego’s a pompous aesthete, insufferably certain of his power and infallible taste. Wait, that’s not the error: it’s his announcement that he’ll dine at Gusteau’s the following evening to review it. I know that every local restaurateur recognizes the critics from Boston Magazine and the Boston Herald, ensuring they get fabulous meals, but good critics still cultivate anonymity, seeking the same treatment as their readers.

That’s a quibble in a film where the food looks so fabulous, the culinary technique so true to life. Ironically, another false note belongs to Keller, who designed the film’s dishes – most notably the titular specialty that Remy creates to impress Ego. Unlike most of Remy’s soulful, instinctive cooking, his ratatouille is a fussy, post-modern abstraction of the humble French peasant stew. Looking like a Bundt cake made of poker chips, ringed by a careful smear of sauce and crowned with a tiny sliver of basil, it’s the least appetizing entrée in the movie.

Mercifully, Ratatouille eschews the obnoxious pop-culture riffing that has plagued recent animated films, which should help it age much better than anything involving Robin Williams. The CG looks gorgeous: wet rat fur is a lovingly rendered as the sleek, Anna Karina-esque bob worn by Colette (Janeane Garofalo), the kitchen brigade’s feisty lone female cook. I’m grateful that Remy and his clan aren’t Disney-cute; they look especially rat-like when running for their lives, as they frequently must do, since most of the human characters loathe them.

Ratatouille features thrilling action sequences, abundant slapstick, nefarious intrigue, comic misunderstandings, a romantic subplot, lovely Parisian scenery, and ghostly homilies about daring to follow your dreams, however improbable. I particularly enjoyed Colette’s Anthony Bourdain-like description of Skinner’s dubious kitchen crew, as well as Remy’s musings on the ecstasies of well-matched flavors. Even non-foodie grownups should find Ratatouille funny, exciting and moving. With any luck,
it will also inspire them to cook better, and maybe eat a little less garbage.

09 April 2013

11 Reasons Your Yelp Reviews Suck, and 11 Things You Can Do About It


I recently appeared on Minnesota Public Radio’s “Daily Current” program in a segment entitled, “Everyone's a critic: Yelp reviews hold great power”, which examines the growing impact of amateur restaurant reviews posted to sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp and Chowhound.* In preparation for this interview, I gathered some thoughts about the flaws in many amateur reviews, the concerns I have with anonymous reviews, and some tips for amateurs on writing fair and useful restaurant reviews.

COMMON PROBLEMS WITH AMATEUR REVIEWS

I’m very wary of taking restaurant advice from anonymous reviewers online for the same reasons I wouldn’t trust a stranger who gave me unsolicited advice on the street. I don’t know anything about you; who knows what kind of awful food you like? But beyond this issue, which I’ll dig into more below, I often see a host of common problems in the reviews on sites like Yelp. Specifically, the reviewer:
  • Bases his opinion on too small a sample or an unrepresentative one: a single visit, or brunch, a Restaurant Week meal, or on what I call the Shitshow Days – New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving Eve -- where specialty menus and/or mobs of customers don’t reflect the typical dining experience. There are good reasons why pros always put in three or four visits before formulating an opinion. You should, too, though just two visits would still be better than one.
  • Is obviously making unfair judgments or poor decisions based on ignorance of the restaurant’s cuisine, level of formality, intentions, or audience. For example, he’s angry that he couldn’t order Cantonese dishes at a Sichuan restaurant, doesn’t understand why the dive bar serves poorly-made Martinis, or can’t believe the Michelin three-star place has no children's menu and won’t seat him while he’s wearing a bathing suit and flip-flops.
  • Clearly has no understanding of how restaurants work. She can’t tell the difference between a service error and a kitchen error, gets angry when she hasn’t made a reservation at a peak time and has to wait for a table, or gets upset that the restaurant won’t seat her incomplete party. (Even pros can be guilty of this last one, hard as that may be to believe.)
  • Has no sense of how to optimize the dining experience by speaking up to fix a problem. To do this, it helps to understand which errors can be fixed right away (e.g., the wrong order arriving, an underdone steak) and those that can’t (e.g., the dining room is too loud, there are no halal options). If you don’t bring a fixable problem to your server’s attention, they can’t fix it.
  • Makes unmerited claims to authority. “I have an Italian surname; I know Italian food.” “I did Spring Break in Cancun; I know Mexican food.” “I’m a foodie; I am very particular about food.” Sorry, but none of that has any bearing on your ability to write an informed restaurant review. Dave Andelman claims to have eaten every single meal of his adult life in restaurants: have you noticed the awful crap his Phantom Gourmet TV show heartily endorses? Maybe you just stepped off the boat from China, but favored American-style fast food there, and thus are a lousy judge of actual Chinese cuisine.
  • Betrays a lack of human empathy, often expressed by a condescending tone toward the staff. The reviewer doesn’t appear to have ever considered what it would be like to have strangers rating him on his annual job performance based on a single 90-minute meeting.
  • Reveals an undue sense of entitlement: she appears to expect special treatment at the expense of other customers, that the restaurant should bend the rules for her because it’s her birthday, or that no demand is unreasonable because “ the customer is always right” – in general, an attitude that a restaurant is obligated to cater to her every whim.
  • Has unreasonable expectations on whether the restaurant can accommodate special dietary preferences, allergies, restrictions, taboos, etc., and wrongfully assumed without calling ahead that it can and should be able to deal with every customer's gluten intolerance, veganism, aversion to onions, etc.
  • Shows a lack of deep contextual knowledge of the kind that informs really useful food writing. The reviewer has no experience working in restaurants, a shallow grasp of the local restaurant scene, limited perspective on its history, a poor compass on emerging local and national culinary trends and talent, little direct experience of international cuisines from travel abroad, meager knowledge of beer, wine, spirits, and cocktails, and scant home cooking skills.
  • Includes a raft of details unrelated to food, service and atmosphere under the mistaken belief that these will be of interest to strangers. I’m glad you were out with your dear Great-Aunt Margie and were wearing your favorite party dress and saw Jacoby Ellsbury at the next table and had a bunch of cocktails and were really lit by the time dinner arrived, but let’s skip all that. Only your closest friends care, and even they are probably bored with that story.
  • Has an obvious agenda behind an overtly positive or negative review. The reviewer is either a shill (an investor, owner, employee, public relations agent, friend or relative of the restaurant) or an axe-grinder (an investor, owner, or employee of a competitor, an unethical PR person angry the restaurant ditched him for another firm, a disgruntled ex-employee, the owner’s jilted ex-paramour.) Ever wonder why that one reviewer only talks about Seaport restaurants, and defends even the most mediocre ones to the death? Maybe she works in marketing for a developer in the neighborhood, or is trying to boost the value of her Waterfront condo. The problem of phony online reviews is growing, and the fakers are getting better at masking their biases.
THE OPACITY OF ANONYMOUS REVIEWS

As I said, I distrust any review from a person about whom I know nothing. At a minimum, I need to feel some confidence that the reviewer and I share the same sensibilities, that we like and dislike the same kinds of places. This makes reviews on sites where reviewers remain anonymous, like Zagat (now part of Google) and OpenTable, quite useless to me. With professional reviewers and bloggers, you can glean their point of view, expertise and trustworthiness by reading their published body of work -- for starters, by looking at places you’ve both been to and seeing if you mostly agree or disagree with their opinions on them.

With a little effort, you can make similar assessments of amateurs if they review under a consistent identity, as is done on Chowhound, Yelp, and TripAdvisor. By reading a dozen or so of an individual's bylined opinions about places you know, you can begin to gauge their knowledge, contextual depth and tastes. Finding someone you trust in this manner is far more likely to yield solid recommendations than taking advice from an online stranger, which is the equivalent of meeting some random nobody whose favorite restaurant might be Old Country Buffet, or that pizza place you stopped going to after you ate there sober once.

Aggregate star ratings are utterly suspect for the same reason: you know nothing about the people behind the underlying individual ratings. There are too many opinions from strangers rolled up in there, and many of them might be the sort who thinks waiting an hour for a table at The Cheesecake Factory is totally worth it.

It’s always useful to find reviewers with special expertise in or passion for certain cuisines, like the slow-smoke barbecue nerd, the oenophile with a Master of Wine qualification, or the woman who was raised on her immigrant mother’s Taiwanese cooking. Food bloggers often fall into these categories, but I count many amateurs, especially on Boston's Chowhound board, as valuable resources on this score, too.

Anonymity and aggregate star ratings thwart your ability to grasp the point of view behind opinions. Still, skimming a couple of dozen Yelp reviews can help, as long as you understand that at best these provide an approximation of the statistical mean. If you are satisfied with mass market oriented restaurants and national casual dining chains, that perspective might be adequate. If you’re one of those food geeks who considers a merely okay meal to be an avoidable tragedy, you’ve got to dig deeper than the so-called wisdom of crowds, and seek out individual voices that share your ardor for extraordinary food. That takes some work.

TIPS ON WRITING QUALITY AMATEUR REVIEWS

As an old-media restaurant critic for the last eight years, I've long understood that the value placed on professional opinions is dwindling. Three or four years ago, Boston diners could read two dozen professional restaurant reviews in local print publications every month. Now, there’s maybe half that, and I expect that number will keep shrinking. (My own longtime employer, The Boston Phoenix, the city's leading alt-weekly for nearly fifty years, ceased publication in March, 2013.) Professional critics are dinosaurs in a tar pit; the voice and weight of amateur reviewers is ascendant.

Given that you have the chance to exercise that voice loudly and often, here are a few pro tips on how to make your amateur reviews more fair, useful, and compelling:
  • Don’t review a place you’ve only been to once. I’ve published over 300 professional reviews: many places I reviewed favorably didn’t make a great first impression, and some of the harsher reviews were of places that wowed me initially. In light of how important consistency is to a restaurant’s success, accumulating a larger sample size is the only way to ensure you’re being fair and accurate.
  • Get your facts straight. I once called out a Yelper for slagging a ramen place (Cambridge, MA’s Yume Wo Katare) because he clearly didn’t understand the very specific style (jiro ramen) they were serving there, and defended his opinion with one erroneous assumption after another. He had some restaurant industry connections, had traveled in Asia, had visited a passel of famous, fancy ramen joints. None of this changed the fact that his comments were as ignorant as complaining that a traditional Northern Italian restaurant didn’t serve spaghetti with red sauce and meatballs. Don’t be that idiot.
  • If your restaurant experience was unsatisfactory and your server didn’t fix the fixable problems you brought to their attention, take up your unresolved issues with the manager after your meal, either directly or with a follow-up phone call or email. Give the restaurant an opportunity to make things right before you flay it online.
  • Skip the outline of your credentials. The fact that you are 100% Irish (meaning your great-great-great-grandparents emigrated 160 years ago in the Famine) doesn’t mean you can tell cottage pie from shepherd’s pie. Even if you did speak fluent Gaelic, you still might be a food ignoramus with lousy taste. Let your knowledge, passion, and discernment speak for itself. You may in fact be an expert on Irish cuisine, but it's not because of your genes.
  • Consider that your negative review has the power to affect people’s livelihoods, especially when the place is new. One bad review of ten that have been posted hurts far worse than one out of a hundred reviews. Professionals know to give a new place a few weeks to complete a shakedown cruise; consider giving that same benefit of the doubt to fledgling enterprises.
  • Recognize that the Internet gives an illusion of anonymity that is fleeting at best. Don’t exhibit “e-balls”, the bravado that arises from the imagined distance between your browser and the object of your criticism. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say in person to the host, bartender, server, chef or owner. Assume that your pen name or alternate online identity will eventually be revealed, because it will. (Do you really think that Google, Verizon, and the NSA don’t already know who you are, Foodie1992?)
  • Consider whether the restaurant’s failures are systemic or a reflection of an off night. Everyone has bad days and personal distractions to deal with. Most staffers are busting their asses to ensure you have a great meal. Last night’s fumbling server or overtired line cook may bounce back and be awesome the rest of the year, but your one-star pan based on a single anecdotal experience will persist online forever.
  • Learn to cook and to serve. If you really want to deepen your appreciation of what the pros are able to do at speed and scale every night, pile up some hours in your own kitchen doing some scratch cooking: learn how to shop for fresh, seasonal produce; clean, filet and cook a fish; truss and roast a chicken; make a basic stock and vinaigrette; bake a loaf of bread; grill and roast and braise different cuts of beef; steam a lobster; cook vegetables and grains perfectly. Then try pulling off an eight-person dinner party sometime. It ain’t as easy as it looks, is it, Monsieur Ego?
  • Travel, and don’t eat like a damned tourist when you do. Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations!”  is one of the few food-TV shows I have any use for because he eats abroad the way I always have done: by checking out the markets, eating the street food, avoiding anything considered the “Best Local X” in mass-market guidebooks, and finding a way to get invited to a local’s house for a home-cooked meal. You will find it mind-boggling (and usefully humbling) to discover how very much you have to learn about your favorite cuisines.
  • Back at home, seek out restaurants run by immigrant chef/owners whose primary audience is his or her fellow ex-pats. These places don’t dumb down the cuisine for American palates; it’s the next best thing to traveling to their homeland. If everyone in the joint but you is not speaking English, that’s a promising sign.
  • Make sure you don’t have a reason to recuse yourself. Don’t be a shill or a negative shill by reviewing a place in whose success or failure you have a hidden interest.
In short, before you lob an online dart that could hurt a small business, recognize how little you may actually know, do some homework, and act like a decent human being. The Internet has given you great power; try not to be a prick about it.


Other guests included Jack Yu of reputology.com, which helps businesses manage their reputations by monitoring amateur reviews, and Rick Nelson, a professional restaurant critic for the Minneapolis-St. Paul daily Star-Tribune. You can listen to the MPR segment here. I don’t show up until minute 26; the whole thing is worth listening to.

27 March 2013

From the Archives: Five-Drink Minimum at Vinalia


Courtesy of Boston's Weekly Dig
Once again, I'm reprinting an ancient piece of mine from Boston's Weekly Dig that disappeared when its online archive went kablooey sometime in the summer of 2007. Five-Drink Minimum is an annual Dig feature series that sends local writers to one or more Boston bars to document a brief binge. 

My assignment in March, 2006 was to bottom-up five drinks  one of the bartender's choosing, the rest mine  at Vinalia, a bygone, fairly fancy restaurant and wine bar in Downtown Crossing that sat in the spot currently occupied by Petit Robert Central.

I think this piece demonstrates that our drinks scene has made some progress in seven years: few Boston bartenders in 2013 at this price level would have no idea what American straight rye whiskey is, and the Sex and the City-style oversized cocktail glass is thankfully on the wane.

FIVE-DRINK MINIMUM: VINALIA RESTAURANT, LOUNGE & WINE BAR 
By MC Slim JB
101 Arch Street, Downtown Crossing, 617.737.1777, www.vinaliaboston.com 
From the March 15, 2006 issue of Boston's Weekly Dig

Vinalia is determinedly modern, chicly spare and hard-edged, a polished black-granite bartop reflecting a glowing, cobalt-blue wall. Bartender Christine says, “Vinalia gets insanely packed on weeknights with after-work Financial District types. We pour many specialty cocktails, but we’re a serious wine bar. Weekends are calmer, mostly couples on dates and event groups.”

Drink 1, Christine’s choice: dreading the kind of candy-flavored fauxtini they concoct for rookies, I’m relieved instead to get a Sidecar up ($9), a grownup’s drink. Successful Sidecars hinge on fresh lemon juice: fortunately, the centerpiece of Vinalia’s bar is piles of fresh fruit. Yikes, is that a 14-ounce cocktail glass? Five of these will coldcock me.

Drink 2, (the rest are my choices): Manhattan up ($9). At most joints, asking for rye – the original Manhattan base, not bourbon (look it up) – creates confusion. “I don’t think we stock rye,” says Christine. “Canadian whisky* comes close,” I offer. “Use Crown Royal.” The result sports just the right Angostura accent: smooooth.

Drink 3: Time to switch to wine, or I’ll be stumbling into the path of a Silver Line bus. The by-the-glass list is diverse and sensibly priced for a bar this swanky. Feeling magnanimous after two birdbaths of fancy hooch, I order a 2004 Contratto Panta Rei Barbera d’Asti ($11), a complex, hot Piemontese red served in a quality balloon wineglass. Under the eerie blue lighting, it looks like chocolate syrup. Drinking rich sure is easy when the boss is paying.

Drink 4: The bar is full of witty, gorgeous young devotees of Bacchus, or so the knots of friends at the lounge tables appear to my lubricated senses. I’m ready to jet to Tuscany with a 2004 Villa Vignamaggio Chianti ($10), from a winery I once visited on a holiday stopover in Greve, the very spot where Mona Lisa sat for Leonardo. Overcome with nostalgia and the realization that I haven’t had a real vacation in years, I decide this wine is both awesome and a little sad. 

Drink 5: The homestretch calls for something short and sweet, an Austrian dessert wine, a 2005 Weinlaubenhof Alois Kracher Beerenauslese Cuvee ($11), which I mistakenly fancy I can actually pronounce. It’s a viscous, flowery, golden little cup of nectar, and I feel ever-so-worldly for knowing about it. Pretty soon it’s done, and so am I. I grip the handrail tightly on the long escalator ride down and out of the bubble of ease and savoir-faire that Vinalia creates, emerging unsteadily into the windblown trash of Downtown Crossing.

* I included this aside to my editor: “Please note the spelling ‘whisky’ (no ‘e’) for Canadian and Scotch, not ‘whiskey’, the spelling used for the American and Irish spirits.” He ignored me.