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The Splurger

November 13, 2013

The FLB was created with a category called Fussy About Criticism. The idea behind this isn’t some nefarious plan to take down the Times Union. It’s just that when I first arrived in Albany, I thought the major metropolitan newspaper was largely to blame for the sad state of food I found in the region.

Over time, layer by layer, I discovered that the issues were much more complicated. And that’s usually the case. Things are never quite as simple as they may first appear.

Still, when I believe the food coverage of the newspaper is a net detriment to the community, I’m compelled to speak out. It’s not that I expect the restaurant reviewers and journalists at the paper to be flawless superhumans. No. Rather, I’d like to point out where I see them going astray, so that hopefully they can get on a better path.

Maybe I should give up. But I’m just not a giving up kind of guy.

That brings me to the new fellow who is writing restaurant reviews for the paper. His name is Bryan. You may remember him from Lettucegate, or perhaps you’ve been following him on Twitter. Actually, don’t do that. I did, thinking he might share some thoughts on food and what makes it good. Instead I got pictures of buildings in which somebody was just murdered. That was pretty grim. But I suppose it shouldn’t have been unexpected since he’s primarily the paper’s crime reporter.

Anyway, Bryan’s not so new anymore. He has six reviews under his belt. And when you put them on paper, one begins to see a very clear trend line.

Let me reiterate why I care about what I’m about to show you in particular.

One of my long standing complaints about food in the Capital Region is simply that it’s just more expensive than it should be. As it turns out, the elevated prices of restaurant food can not be simply blamed on lobbyists with expense accounts.

That popular misconception is just one contributing factor. Another is that a large local population that simply expects restaurants to be expensive. Not only that, but I have argued eaters in this region take pride in the fact they can afford such an experience. And for these folks, it is the experience they are buying (as opposed to valuing truly great or innovative food served without the pretense).

For a long time, there were not a lot of inexpensive ethnic restaurants serving truly great food at low prices. In markets that have a lot of these places, better restaurants generally have to get more aggressive with their pricing or risk losing a greater share of their patrons’ meals to these incredibly delicious bargains.

Yeah? So what?

Well, one of the sources that consumers get their sense of how much a meal out should cost is from the local paper. At least those people who read the restaurant reviews. I’ve had similar criticism in the past after reading Ruth’s review of Creo, and being amazed at just how much food she and her dining companion had ordered over the course of the meal.

Given the portion sizes at local restaurants, she was either eating a week’s worth of food in one sitting, or bringing home leftovers that would keep her fed for days.

I am not the first to suggest that Bryan orders a lot of food when he reviews restaurants. One way to put his reviews in context is to look at the past eleven reviews in the paper. The six most recent ones on the list below belong to him. For your convenience, I’ve organized it by date, restaurant, reviewer, total price, number of diners, and the type of review.

Remember that “Order Up” reviews are supposed to be for more casual joints and are not rewarded with stars. I was pleased to see that Steve Barnes is now calling them “Casual-dining reviews” on Table Hopping and has moved beyond the phrase “Cheap eats.”

Because, holy cow, these are getting less and less cheap by the day.

Aug 18 – Tea House Asian Bistro – Cheryl – $114 +T&T (for four) – Order Up
Aug 25 – J&A Prep Kitchen – Cheryl – $56 +T&T (for three) – Order Up
Sep 1 – DownTown City Tavern – Cheryl – ($???) – 3*
Sep 22 – Ocean Palace – Steve – $50 (for three) – Order Up
Sep 29 – Cask & Rasher – Steve – $62 (for two) – Order Up                                     .
Oct 6 – Jack Dillon’s – Bryan – $240 (for three) – 3*
Oct 13 – La Mexicana – Bryan – $65 (for two) – Order Up
Oct 20 – The Hollow Bar & Kitchen – Bryan – $110 (for two) – 2.5*
Oct 27 – Dave & Busters – Bryan – $280 (for five) – Order Up
Nov 2 – Fish & Game – Bryan – $320 (for two) – 4*
Nov 10 – Kim’s Vietnamese – Bryan – $85 (for two) – Order Up

In his third review, Bryan when addressing the size of his tab for two at The Hollow wrote, “That could be considered splurging here.” And then he goes on to describe how two people could eat at the same place for around $30.

But this wasn’t a one time splurge.

His “dinner” for two at La Mexicana included five appetizers, three entrees, a dessert and two sodas. Yes, it makes sense to try as many things on the menu as possible. And yes, given how low the prices are at La Mex, you can go crazy. But nowhere does Bryan stop to mention that this is an unreasonable amount of food for even the heaviest eaters.

Maybe my readers will be able to read between the lines, but I’m sure that there are Times Union readers who will read Bryan’s review and say, “No way am I going to go to a Mexican restaurant if dinner is going to cost over sixty bucks.”

And there is something about the line, “If you can spring for the extra $10.99, order a tlayuda to take home for lunch the next day” that really doesn’t sit well with me. Here are just a few reasons.

1) It implies that a meal at La Mexicana may already be taxing your financial resources.
2) That would place the cost of an evening at La Mex to an almost comical $77.
3) If you can’t, perhaps your income is too low to get full enjoyment from the place.
4) If you did order that much food, you already have a hefty sack of leftovers.
5) Bryan is endorsing bringing home fresh food and eating it after it’s sat around? Gross.

Seriously, at La Mexicana, I’ve fed a family of four for under $30.

Look. I get the importance of trying lots of things on the menu. I do. And really, truly I’m glad that Bryan was able to sample and write about the depth of their offerings. However, it’s important if you do that to remove them from the context of a single meal. A better approach for the story would be to list the top few dishes, suggest how many people they would comfortably serve, and calculate the total tab. By my estimates, you could get five great dishes, that would satisfy three hearty appetites, for a mere $30. Easy.

Remember what I said about a trend line? In addition to the above, Bryan splurged at Dave & Busters by treating his softball team to drinks and games. He splurged on a bottle of wine and three cocktails at Fish & Game. And in this past weekend’s article on Kim’s he splurged on Vietnamese food too.

He’s welcome to spend his expense account any way he likes. Personally, if he access to the funds, I would prefer to read about multiple visits to the same place over several days. But the main point here is that these splurges help to legitimize the notion that a night out at even inexpensive restaurants should cost a lot of money. And that’s a problem.

I’m also curious about how many of you out there trust this fellow’s judgement?

When I read his review of Kim’s and it mentioned culantro in the pho, I was initially suspicious. It’s a distinctively shaped relative of cilantro. And I’ve talked with friends who have eaten there but received no such herbs. But I found a picture on Kim’s Facebook page that indeed shows culantro on the side. Perhaps they only serve it when they can get their hands on it? I believe that much more than I believe anyone put lettuce on a taco at La Mex. But it’s also a question that could be answered by the reviewer with multiple visits to the same spot.

Bryan also seems to have also had quite a contradictory experience at Kim’s with their soup broth than those of people who I know and whose taste I trust.

One is Jeff (aka The Masticating Monkey), who coincidentally wrote on the strength of Kim’s broth on All Over Albany yesterday. The other is Chopsticks Optional, who grew up with Vietnamese parents, eating Vietnamese food, and is highly particular about Vietnamese food. She considers Kim’s to be the best pho in the region and had a few choice words about Bryan’s review. But my favorite story from her is how her parents took one look at the My Linh menu and walked out. Anyhow, she says this is the best broth in town. And then there is Juliet S. (despite being a dreaded Yelper, she is actually a real person I know in real life) who wrote, “I can’t get the amazing and rich taste of their broth out of my head!”

For what it’s worth, I also think Kim’s should have been given a starred review instead of the “Order Up” treatment. Dave & Busters too. But that’s a battle for another day.

Tomorrow I’m moving on and will try to catch up on a rather daunting pile of questions.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2013 10:49 am

    I am glad to see you wading back into the fray on this, Profusser, and with both creme brulee torches blazing. I predict interesting times ahead.

  2. DEN permalink
    November 13, 2013 12:41 pm

    I agree that if the budget is that high for a single visit, then it should be spread out over multiple visits.

    • November 13, 2013 12:56 pm

      Absolutely right here. I thought the TU’s claim was that they didn’t have the budget for multiple reviews. It seems pretty obvious that they do, so long as they don’t go crazy each time they visit a restaurant.

      It’s just the norm for any newspaper that wants to be taken seriously. Too bad many readers of the paper (who don’t follow things closely online) aren’t aware of the way the TU does things and how their practices aren’t common in other cities, to my knowledge.

  3. November 13, 2013 1:20 pm

    I heard an interview on WAMC with the chief editor of the TU two afternoons ago. He spoke of his paper’s review process and stated that a smaller establishment might not profit from a full on star review. If it is a bad review it could put them out of business. If it is a great review it could put them out of business too. He said he believed that the influx of business from a positiive review could be more then any particular place could handle. He also said that if a resturaunt has a great reputation and the reviewer goes on a bad night, they will give that place a second visit. My question is does this criteria help the TU’s readership make adventurous and well educated decisions about where to dine, or does it just prop up the status quo ‘established good rep businesses’. I mean…. if your going to wait for a good night to review a place, why not call a head and make a reservation. Save the money from your second check.
    While I am at it, I would rather see a SCCC professor judging some of these food competitions then a local food critic or blogger (present company excluded). I have lost faith in the ability to be impartial.

    • DEN permalink
      November 13, 2013 4:59 pm

      While I can understand and appreciate the TU being respectful that its reviews may have consequences to a restaurant’s business, I think there is a fair argument that such considerations should have no place in a professionally produced restaurant review.

      • November 17, 2013 7:48 pm

        I’m not sure I buy Daniel’s argument about the money spent by critics influencing diners; anyone can look at the menu and get a sense of what a real meal would actually cost. But concentrating a huge budget on a single visit is a real problem. And to the extent that it contributes to the pretty much indefensible policy of refusing to publish negative reviews, it’s an even bigger problem.

      • DEN permalink
        November 18, 2013 3:21 pm

        I agree, Scott. Although I can understand the policy, I was not persuaded by Steve Barnes’ justification a few weeks ago for why the Times Union does not print certain negative reviews. It runs the real risk of destroying the credibility of the reviewer.

  4. November 13, 2013 2:44 pm

    This guy clearly doesn’t know much about food, which ought to be one of the two major requirements to be a reviewer (that and “know how to write decently well”). And you definitely don’t have to order that much food, or bring that many people, to write a review: You need two people, each of whom orders an app and an entree, and then you need at least one dessert. (And for god’s sake, if you’re going to review food, REVIEW the FOOD — actually spend more of your word count on the food, and if you’re not sure what you’re talking about, find out, don’t just write whatever you THINK you might know about the food. But honestly, yeah, find somebody who actually knows a lot about food.)

  5. addiesdad permalink
    November 13, 2013 3:49 pm

    I think at the very least they could break the cost down to say, “this is what an average family would pay” or “price before the $85 bttl of wine…” or something to give a sense of what a more average diner should expect.

  6. November 13, 2013 4:41 pm

    I agree that places within 10-15 miles may best be reviewed by sampling a couple of items over two visits, thus bringing the total check for each meal into a more realistic realm. Maybe that is something that the publisher of the TU might consider? Saying that Bryan doesn’t know food, though, is stooping pretty low. Can he possibly know everything about every cuisine? Probably not. Has he done time in a professional kitchen? Yes, indeed. In his short tenure he has introduced me to a couple of places I’d never even heard of before and increased my interest in a destination restaurant I’ve been wanting to try. Plus – he doesn’t smoke between courses. I’ve waited on (or witnessed the dining of) every single TU food writer in the past 25 years and they each have had their strengths and weaknesses. You know why? Because they’re all human. Aren’t we all?

  7. November 13, 2013 7:10 pm

    All good points. But everyone seems to have skipped over the part where this guy can’t write at all. If your writing is this bad, it doesn’t matter what you order…

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