The Impact of Food Critics
In the first months of the FUSSYlittleBLOG I spent a lot more time and energy writing about the state of food criticism coming from the Times Union. After seeing the disparity between the paper’s most lauded restaurants and their readers’ favorite places to dine, I wondered aloud, “What if nobody is listening?”
But the longer I am here, the more I suspect that our two most prominent food critics do indeed have an impact. However it would seem their impact has less to do with shaping people’s perceptions about food than it does with shaping the kinds of food restaurants decide to serve.
Allow me to explain.
The primary restaurant reviewer for the Albany Times Union is Ruth Fantasia. I recently met her, and she seems like a perfectly nice woman (and brave too I might add for inviting me to participate in the Wing War.)
I am not going to delve into the paper’s review archive and count the number of restaurants where she tries the calamari. Suffice it to say it is a lot. Enough for the dish to become a running joke among the commenters on Table Hopping. Eventually she confessed in print that it is her husband, not her, who insists on ordering the fried delight everywhere they go. You can see the commentary on the Table Hopping blog here.
Restaurateurs want a good review in the paper. So when the menu is being created, you can be damn sure they will try to include a kick-ass version of the primary reviewer’s favorite dish. One brazen restaurant in Albany even named the dish “Crispy Calamari Fantasia.”
So I thought I would give it a go. If, for better or worse, fried calamari is what our region’s top chefs are staking their reputations upon, one should have good luck ordering it at the finer restaurants in town. I tried this once, and after a dreadful experience with the dish at Creo I quickly changed my strategy.
And it’s not that she is alone in perpetually gushing about a singular dish from restaurant to restaurant. Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s food critic, infamously did the same thing throughout the late 1990s with tuna tartare.
Speaking of raw things, the other major food critic and writer for the Times Union has a deep love of sushi. I have nothing against the cuisine. Brilliant sushi, expertly prepared by a well-trained and skilled chef who takes special pride in procuring the best ingredients is divine.
But most sushi doesn’t get me terribly excited. I got over the irrational exuberance for the stuff a long time ago. Honestly, I’d rather not have it than have a mediocre preparation.
Yet there are more places to get sushi in Albany than you could possibly imagine. And while it may be sophistic to suggest that Steve Barnes’ love for the cuisine drives the Albany sushi boom, it’s certainly a remarkable coincidence.
Otherwise I’m at a loss to explain the phenomenon.