Skip to content

The Impact of Food Critics

February 23, 2010

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?

Subsequently I have modified my tactics and have recently been focusing on larger issues that surround restaurant dining in addition to concerns about ingredients widely used in restaurant kitchens.

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.

If Ruth Fantasia’s job were reviewing our marvelous taverns, I would have no problem with this.  But aside from one notable exception she reviews the finer dining establishments in the region.

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.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    February 23, 2010 11:15 am

    I like Celina Ottaway’s reviews–more my style. I hadn’t noticed that Steve Barnes has a particular affinity for sushi. If Fantasia was a serious reviewer she would ask her husband to order calamari only when they are out eating on a personal date, not a review date, otherwise, the constant calamari undermines the credibility of her reviews. Fried calamari is fried crapamari at most places in any case.

  2. Sarah M. permalink
    February 23, 2010 12:37 pm

    Oh, then this probably explains the region’s taste for Healthy Choice (I’m a Lean Cuisine girl, myself). On the brighter side, one of her more concise and well-written postings! (Wow, Ruth, your Romaine was “crisp”? The prosciutto was “thin”?!)

    Next on FLB: in a stunning narrative reversal, Ruth Fantasia kicks my ass in a parking lot.

  3. February 23, 2010 9:24 pm

    Though her husband may always order fried calamari, it’s the nice lady who always chooses to remark on it. Write this off as shtick. Shtick starts off dumb, then familiar and pleasant, then back, and so on. Wouldn’t be my choice to persist with it, but whatevs.

    WRT sushi: my teenaged daughters like it indiscriminately. They didn’t learn that from me and don’t read Steve Barnes. It’s a full citizen in their rotation of snack and meal options; same for their friends, uniformly. Dunno how that happened — and we’re talking inexpensive middle-brow sushi — but I expect they’ll be old ladies one day, carefully driving to lunch with their friends, and sometimes they’ll settle easily on mainstream sushi.

    I don’t get excited about sushi either, never have — though I’m happy to come along if somebody else wants to spring for the nicer stuff. But I think sushi’s mainstreamed for many folks, and Steve Barnes is speaking to that audience.


  4. February 23, 2010 9:44 pm

    A former supervisor once told me to be sure to never bomb a conference presentation. No one remembers a so-so presentation. They remember great ones. They remember horrible ones. It’s OK to be associated with a great one.

    This is the review I think of when I think of Ruth Fantasia. It was for an Italian deli in Troy. I’ve never been to it.

    Part of her order included “a veggie sub with oil.” Later in the review when talking about the veggie sub, “It needed less lettuce, more cucumber and a splash of spicy dressing.”

    First, why you would include a veggie sub in a review of an Italian deli is beyond me. Especially if the review is based on limited experience at the place. And second, she ordered oil on it. They put oil on it. If she had requested a dressing, I’m sure they would have accommodated her.

    In one of Frank Bruni’s last pieces as the NYT food reviewer, he wrote about bringing people to dinner. He was often accompanied by 3 people. He told them what they would be ordering, then they all ate some of everything. The interesting part of that article was how attached people got to their orders. As in “My pork loin is much, much better.”

    Granted, Bruni had a bigger budget and got to eat at a place more than once before writing a review, but I think Fantasia should look over a menu and select the entire “review” meal herself.

  5. February 24, 2010 12:06 am

    Jon in Albany: +1, and very well put, but maybe you’ve broken protocol. Sounds like the proprietor here would let the nice lady fade away with no bruises, and I think that’s the right touch. There’s no future for certain legacy clichés. Tearing them down is often, at bottom, unkind.


  6. February 24, 2010 1:33 am

    Lou: I didn’t mean to break protocol (if I did – sorry Profussor) or tear Ruth Fantasia down too hard. But you are right, I did tear her down a little. She has reviewed a lot of places, and this is the review that lingers in my memory. For years. It was written in 2006. And for the record, I didn’t have the link on file or remember the name of the deli. I went and found it in the TU archives for the post.

    My point is that people, or maybe it’s just me being negative, remember when something goes wrong. This review made me question her judgment/abilities as a critic. Probably because I would argue this review shouldn’t have been published. I haven’t read anything she has written since without this review in the back of my mind.

    A reviewer has a lot of responsibility and power. A positive review could mean a surge in business. A negative review could lead to a restaurant equipment sale on Craigslist.

  7. February 24, 2010 10:59 pm

    Jon in Albany: Toothpaste’s out of the tube, so what the heck:

    When I was a kid, the newspaper for southern Washington County was a weekly called the Washington County Post, “America’s Oldest Weekly Newspaper, Since 1788.” It’s gone now.

    Weirdly — to me, as a kid transplanted from downstate — each little burg in the WCP footprint had a contributed piece. It was maybe four inches and two columns, packed with items like “So-and-so was a recent caller at the home of so-and-so,” and “There will be a church supper at …”

    Seemed crazy to see these items in a newspaper. They were uniformly calm, positive, without dimension, and they presumed familiarity, presumed everyone was interested in the same things.

    Likewise, bigger papers in the Albany metro have a recent past in which “restaurant reviews” were done in generally calm, positive and familiar tones. It was nearly useless information, because the upshot was always “You should certainly go there. We (‘constant companion and I’) liked the fish better than the veal.” It simply wasn’t criticism, more a light filter, plus voyeurism. If mom could ever get dad to go to a restaurant — let alone a new one, let alone thirty minutes away — she’d have left the paper out and folded to a soft restaurant notice. For months.

    TU, I think, preserves this channel cuz it has enough print subscribers who value a nostalgic rhythm. It’s the job of us moderns to let it be. That’s what I meant.


  8. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    February 25, 2010 9:40 am

    The Saratogian long ago stopped restaurant reviewing because it was just too bitter and divisive in this small community.

  9. February 26, 2010 12:03 am

    I am over from Table Hopping, largely because I found you supposition to be so incredible.

    Do you actually think people who run restaurants plan their menus around critics?

    Do you have the kind of experience that would lead you to believe that?

    I think you vastly overrate the power of the T-U. Many, many chefs in the area would not know Ruth or Steve (or Celina) if they got bitten by them.

    I think it’s fabulous that we have so many sushi choices, but Steve has nothing to do with it.

  10. Raf permalink
    February 26, 2010 1:48 pm

    So your premise is that your local restaurant critic likes sushi, therefore Albany has many sushi restaurants.


    You didn’t even claim he that he REVIEWS sushi restaurants more than other restaurants or that Albany has more sushi restaurants than other comparable size cities.

    “Sophistic” does not get you out of it. That’s a blogger bs word for when you pull an idea out of your ass, deep down you know it’s silly, and want to give yourself plausible deniability. Plus, you didn’t even use sophistic in that way. You basically said, the idea may *seem* sophistic, but then conclude that there’s no other explanation for the situation.

    I’m going with the Donald on this one. You’re spreading inanity.

  11. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    February 26, 2010 1:56 pm

    It may be sophistic to portray Steve Barnes’s commenter fans as humorless and angry, but maybe it’s just a coincidence.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: