30 December 2012

Friends of Eater Boston 2012 Year-End Questions: MC Slim JB's Responses

Anyone who follows Boston’s restaurant scene ought to be reading Eater Boston, the local affiliate of the national Eater network of city-based blogs covering restaurants, bars and nightlife. In multiple postings each weekday, editor Aaron Kagan manages to vacuum up every significant story on our scene – restaurant openings and closings, chef comings and goings, worthwhile upcoming one-off events, happenings in food TV and other media, what the critics (professional and amateur alike) are saying, interviews with food-world personalities – and report them all with a sly, often satirical edge.

As part of its annual December summing-up of the preceding year, Eater Boston poses a series of questions to the “Friends of Eater Boston”, a group of professional restaurant critics, noted food bloggers, industry insiders, and food-scene personalities. I’m happy and honored to be a part of this group. I’ve collected my answers to the 2012 year-end questions here; click on the questions to go to the original Eater Boston articles to see how other Friends of Eater Boston answered, too.

Eater Boston: Name your top restaurant standbys of 2012 -- the restaurants you returned to most.
MC Slim JB: Strip-T’s, Coppa, Dumpling Café, Estragon, Island Creek Oyster Bar, jm Curley’s.

EB: What are the top restaurant newcomers of 2012?
MC: Gustazo Cuban Restaurant & Cafe, Thai North, West Bridge, China King, Casa B, Shojo, Yume Wo Katare. For bars, I’d add The Hawthorne, Brick & Mortar (though technically speaking, both opened in late ’11), backbar, and First Printer after Brother Cleve was brought in to revamp its cocktail program.

EB: Describe 2012 in one word
MC: Ramenmania!

EB: What was the best Boston-area dining neighborhood in 2012?
MC: Allston. For the nth year running, it presents the highest concentration of worthy budget restaurants in Boston. Particularly enjoyed the new Kaju Tofu House, which specializes in sundubu jigae, a Korean spicy tofu soup that is a great morning-after restorative; JoJo Taipei, an excellent traditional Taiwanese restaurant; and Lone Star Taco Bar, the terrific border-food joint from the Deep Ellum folks.

EB: What was the biggest dining surprise of 2012?
MC: Seeing Mad Men’s Jon Hamm at Taberna de Haro, along with Tom Werner, Larry David, Michael Keaton, and Patrick Lyons. I try to be cool around any celebrities I see around town, so I didn’t look at them as I walked by on my way out. But I’m a huge Mad Men fan, and so I had to steal a glance at Hamm through the front window from the sidewalk. He caught me, gave me a big, bug-eyed, goofy grin, as if to say, “Yeah, I know you’re gawking.” Love that man: as an actor, a style icon, and off-camera, a very funny guy who seems genuinely humbled by his fame and success. For me, the real, ongoing surprise is that most celebrities that visit Boston are seen dining in stupid tourist-trap restaurants, not great local places like Taberna de Haro.

EB: What and where was your single best meal in 2012?
MC: Always hard to pick one, but I had a memorable multi-course dinner at Thai North, which features the rare-in-Boston cuisine of Thailand’s Chiang Mai province, though you’ll only taste it if you order off the specials board. I went with a bunch of my food-geek friends, and we went to town, though the check didn’t crack $20 a head with a nice tip. Highlights included dressing fish, duck larb, khao soi, and mango sticky rice. A criminally overlooked place.

EB: Were there any restaurants that you broke up with in 2012, i.e., places you stopped going to?
MC: I guess it’s hard to have a breakup when you never really got past the flirting stage, but I’ve been singularly unimpressed with most Seaport restaurants and bars outside of standbys like Drink and Sportello. In my book, the lovely harbor views don’t compensate for mostly underwhelming food and drinks. I’m hopeful something there will wow me in 2013, but for now I’d rather give my affection to non-chain, independent restaurants in less touristy neighborhoods.

EB: Dining world headline predictions for 2013?
MC: Humanity’s heavy footprint on the planet will continue to adversely affect how we eat: drought, floods and violent storms will contribute to famine and higher food prices. We’ll see more big outbreaks of food-borne illness due to our over-reliance on antibiotics and factory farming. I expect we’ll see more and more seafood species disappearing from overfishing. The swelling ranks of the newly-prosperous middle class in places like India and China will drive up oil prices, in turn driving up food prices, and their accompanying rise in the consumption of meat, wine, and luxury foods will make those things more expensive, too. I hope this will serve as a wakeup call for us to get more serious about sustainable energy, fishing, and agriculture, as well as global warming, but I’m not optimistic on that score. Okay, I need to go eat a locally-grown turnip now. Happy New Year!

16 April 2012

Who Is Kyle Melrose and Why Is He Trying to Poison Professional Critics Against Your Restaurant?

As documented in a recent post on Eater Boston, some local character going by the name of Kyle Melrose has been emailing local professional restaurant critics and editors to talk trash about certain restaurateurs around Boston, and apparently has been doing so for years. I got my first email from Mr. Melrose a couple of months ago:

"From: Kyle Melrose, bostonwriter2010@gmail.com
Only becuase [sic] I like you and what you are doing, you should know I overheard Joe Casanelli [sic], the owner of Posto and Painted Burro really bashing you BIG TIME and very publically [sic]. Was not cool.  KM"

I quickly replied: "Kyle -- Thanks for the tip! Seems kind of ungrateful, as I've said very nice things about Posto. But it's to be expected: not everyone is going to love you when your job is trying to paint an unbiased picture of restaurants on behalf of consumers."

At first, I took the message at face value, having initially confused “Kyle Melrose” with another Kyle I know casually. Also, it’s easy to believe a restaurateur might be cursing a professional restaurant critic: maybe I had reviewed their place harshly, or hadn’t reviewed it yet (which is the case with Pizzeria Posto and The Painted Burro), or perhaps dissed a previous employer. (For instance, Cassinelli once worked at Stella and Mistral, two venues I’ve occasionally criticized.) As a reviewer, you strive to be fair, honest, thorough and accurate. Earning the enmity of some industry folks is just part of the job.

Then I had an email exchange with Cassinelli’s public relations people at 451 Marketing in which I recounted the Melrose story, which they protested wasn’t true. That got my antennae up, and when Aaron Kagan at Eater Boston mentioned getting a similar email, I decided to poll a few other professional critics and food website editors in Boston. Sure enough, one prominent local reviewer also got a “Joe bad-mouthed you” email from Melrose. Another responded, “That guy? Haven’t heard from him since 2010 -- he was bad-mouthing MET Back Bay then -- but he’s supposedly a local PR guy who trashes competitors and their clients.” The jig was up: I was actually late to the party in recognizing this Kyle Melrose as a fraud.

Most of the time, I have fairly sensitive radar for this kind of “negative shilling”, a slam from a bogus source. It's inevitably someone with an ax to grind: a competitor (like the Harvard Square pub owner who is notorious for posting one-star Yelp reviews against his neighbors), a disgruntled former employee, an ex-paramour. And as I said to The Painted Burro's PR people, I wouldn't let a hostile owner affect my impartial assessment of the restaurant; his or her opinion of me is irrelevant to whether my readers might enjoy the place. But until this incident, I hadn’t considered that such a story might be the invention of a rogue PR person trying to prejudice my perceptions. I routinely work with PR professionals in my day job outside of the restaurant industry, and have never seen this shady tactic used there.

Judging from Melrose's targets, I have a pretty good idea of who he is, though I haven't any proof. Further, many of the industry folks I've talked to about Melrose, both on the restaurant and PR side, suspect the same culprit, though nobody will go on the record about it. Any way you slice it, it's sleazy, unethical, possibly criminal behavior. At the very least, it would be extremely damaging to the reputation and business of any PR firm proven to be engaging in it. What restaurant would ever hire an agency that was known to slander its former clients?

To be fair, some anonymous sources turn out to be reliable: a self-described insider's predictions that Kingfish Hall was closing imminently proved to be true, despite the adamant denials of Todd English’s PR team. But thanks to Mr. Melrose, I’ll be a bit warier of anonymous tipsters with bad news from now on, wondering if in fact the source might be an ethically-challenged PR agency that is bitter about being dumped and not above some lowdown backstabbing. When it comes to anonymous bile, whether spewed on Yelp or poured into your Gmail inbox, caveat emptor.

22 February 2012

Boston Goes Berserk for a Bowl of Noodles: Thoughts on the Recent Ramen Craze

Boston has been buzzing lately about ramen, thanks to a couple of chefs from famed modern Japanese restaurant O Ya who recently decided to start a pop-up called Guchi's Midnight Ramen. Their bright idea? Serve a beautiful bowl of ramen late at night every couple of weeks to a small group of aficionados, using the idle kitchens and dining rooms of friendly local restaurants. The concept took off, so much so that its first event open to the general public sold out online in literally 30 seconds. In the wake of this frenzy, Ken Oringer's Uni Sashimi Bar announced it would start serving late-night ramen on Thursday through Saturday, and Myers + Chang started serving ramen at lunchtime.

In the runup to Guchi's premier event (by invitation only, held for friends and media types at Bondir), its second night (the fast-sellout one, held at Sportello), and afterward, the local food press had a field day. Would-be attendees who got shut out of the Sportello event vented their frustration at length on Chowhound. The Boston Globe ran a follow-up story today, and their reporter interviewed me at length for it. As my comments didn't end up in the story, I'm running them here.


PEGGY HERNANDEZ, BOSTON GLOBE REPORTER: The area has restaurants which serve ramen, including Sapporo, Myers & Chang, Blue Ginger, but, looking at Chowhound, blogs, etc. it seems many believe Boston is in need of "real ramen". You say on Chowhound: "Bostonians are dying for good ramen: it's clearly a hole in the scene." What isn't real about what's been out there? Why do Bostonians want it so much? Is it a Momofuku thing?

MC Slim JB: I think it's fair to say that the core of regular Boston Chowhounds is a bit worldlier, better traveled, more adventurous than many online amateur reviewers. They’re also value-conscious (which is not the same thing as cheap), and suspicious of media hype. When I say there's a hole in the scene, I'm speaking to that audience, which I think is pining for what is essentially high-quality Japanese fast food at a low price point without much concern for ambiance. Think Tampopo (the movie) more than Momofuku. They’re not hostile to Joanne Chang doing a $12 bowl of ramen, but I think the craving is less for upmarket interpretations, more for a traditional ramen experience.

PH: I ask that because, wow, there is so much excitement/hype on social media about Guchi’s Midnight Ramen. What was behind that? The upscale chefs? Also, is interest still strong after so many people were unable to get tickets to the second GMR at Sportello?

MC: I think the GMR folks did a great marketing job there, starting with their invite-only, press-oriented debut event at Bondir, which netted them a lot of food blog and lifestyle magazine coverage. With clever use of Facebook and Twitter, they skillfully built buzz and demand. The O Ya pedigree didn’t hurt, but I think the excitement was pure food-nerd curiosity combined with the mystique and fun of doing an event at midnight in a pop-up setting. And Chowhounds aren’t above I-got-there-first bragging rights, though few would publicly cop to it.

There will definitely be some backlash, folks who will stay miffed that they got shut out of an unexpectedly tiny event. GMR might do the events more frequently, or do them at larger scale, but that strikes me as unlikely given that this is a labor of love, a side project for already-busy chefs. I think the way to address the issue is simply to be more upfront about the number of seats to be made available to the general public. Then prospective diners can better gauge whether it’s worth the effort to hawk a Twitter feed for hours waiting for the ticket-buying starting gun. *

* N.B. Based on an announcement today for Guchi's next event, it appears they have opted to take this exact advice, not only specifying the total number of available tickets, but also announcing exactly when the tickets will go on sale well ahead of time.

PH: I think you're correct, that GMR is a "quixotic" effort. Do you think GMR and Uni are creating a new kind of energy around a particular food? These two efforts certainly attract younger crowds.

MC: I think in the case of Uni, you’ve got Ken Oringer’s hard-earned reputation for delivering quality dining experiences across a spectrum of cuisines, as well as curiosity about the Clio/Uni physical makeover and growing awareness of Todd Maul’s superb cocktail program. And the cost is sure to be in reach for more diners than Uni’s traditional menu, which ranks among the most expensive in town. 

By contrast, GMR doesn’t have comparable brand loyalty yet, so they will have to work harder to avoid the perception of being another overhyped shallow-foodie trend with the durability of a mayfly. But I think that anything that gets a conversation and some excitement going about an underserved cuisine is a good thing. And getting something delicious in the wee hours remains a tough task in Boston, so there’s big pent-up demand there, too. It’s just a little odd that something so inherently humble in its original form has created such a frenzy here. I imagine it would be like diners in Tokyo suddenly going crazy over diner-style American pancakes and sitting down to eat them in a swank venue at $30 a throw. (Okay, that probably has already happened in Japan.)

PH: Any comment on the price points ($25 for pork bun, ramen and cookie at GMR; $8 for pork bun, $10 for ramen, $3 for dessert at Uni)?

MC: Yeah, that’s not exactly your subway-station bowl of ramen, is it? Then again, there’s a reasonable expectation that the chefs involved are going to be doing a luxury version, with loving attention to broths, tares, and noodles. Me, I want a range of ramen options, in the same way I sometimes want a Craigie burger, sometimes a Gallows burger, sometimes a Flat Patties burger.

There’s nothing wrong with chefs taking a humble street food and elevating it with gourmet ingredients and technique, a topic I expounded on at length here. But I think it’s easier to appreciate the gourmet version when you’ve experienced a great iteration of the truck-stop version first. So by all means, let a thousand bowls of ramen bloom, including ones with slices of pork from Kagoshima Kurobuta that lived their lives reclining on unicorn-down pillows. But please, let’s include a fabulous $8 one in there somewhere, too.