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Big Menus and Mixed Experiences

May 3, 2016

Let’s not beat around the bush. This weekend, the big story in local food circles was Susie Davidson Powell’s scathing review of Parish Public House. Yes, the review is behind the TUs paywall. I have no idea how paywalls are supposed to work, when Google has a cache of almost everything, including this story.

Because this was a review of a more casual restaurant, and fell under the “Order Up” banner, the reader is left guessing is this would have been a one star or a two star review. The TU only hands out stars for “fine-dining reviews” which are filed under “Matters of Taste.”

But that’s neither here nor there.

Some people are upset with the tone that SDP took in this review. Others went after her scathing negativity. A few readers bemoaned a lack of constructive criticism. None of these things particularly set me off.

I don’t doubt that the TU critic had an abysmal experience at this downtown Louisiana-themed restaurant. But here’s the thing, it’s possible to have a horrible meal at several of my favorite local joints. That’s why I make a big shift when reviewing a casual place verus a fine dining one.

If you’re having dinner at The French Laundry, there is no such thing as “ordering wrong”. When I went there what felt like a million years ago (before Per Se opened in NYC), there were some dishes that sounded magnificent on the regular menu that weren’t included in the chef’s tasting. So pretty much everyone at the table assembled their own multicourse meals.

And everything was fantastic. It has to be. Fine dining should never get a pass. You should be able to order something that sounds absolutely vile, and it should be divine. Period.

At a casual place? Most of the menu at one of my favorite restaurants in Albany is pretty much a lost cause. At Ralph’s Tavern you get mozz and melba, the pizza with double pepperoni, and maybe an order of the wings, hot and extra crispy. Should you order anything else, you’re on your own.

I mention this because I’ve actually been going to Parish Public House a lot recently. A lot? Well, two times in the last two months. That’s almost unheard of for me. But I had been told that the kitchen was importing its po boy rolls from Louisiana, and a food-loving friend who had relocated from New Orleans was very specific in his recommendation, “stay away from everything except the shrimp po boy. And you have to order it with extra shrimp.”

When you get that kind of detailed guidance, you go with it. And so I did. Perhaps if I were more familiar with the po boy, I would be more impressed with the sandwich. It was good. But then again, I had no deep craving. No longing or loss that I was trying to satisfy. All the same, it was a perfectly fine lunch.

Nothing at all like the horror story from the Times Union review.

My second visit was during my diet when I was avoiding fried foods. So I had the blackened catfish sandwich. It was a little salty, but also perfectly serviceable. The waitress gave me no grief about substituting a cajun cole slaw for the deep fried chips that would normally come on the plate. And it made for another tasty meal.

Nothing we were served resembled the greasy and unpleasant mess of the trainwreck in the paper.

Sometimes you order wrong. And sometimes, even an expert eater has a lapse in judgement. One of my favorite dishes from Louisiana is red beans and rice. I’ve been known to make a trip to Adventure in Food Trading to pick up some tasso ham and legit andouille sausage to cook a proper version at home. Oddly, Parish Public House describes their take on the dish as a “pureed mixture of red beans, sausage, and spices.” No thank you.

I don’t need to order it to know it’s not the red beans and rice that I’ve been looking for.

Alligator bites are often a crapshoot and ordering a dish called boudin balls is definitely daring. I’m not trying to make excuses for the restaurant. They served bad food, and charged good money for it. A critic ordered it, ate it, and told her story.

However, I would contend that a truly bad restaurant is one that has no redeeming value. I’ve been to a small handful of those in my life. Fortunately, I’ve tried long and hard to block them from my memory. One that I can’t seem to shake is Dunkin’ Donuts, but more on that later.

I also understand how a long barrage of bad food can sour your attitude about a place, and make you consider giving up. That pretty much sums up my first few years in the Capital Region. Who would have figured the donuts would be the saving grace of Bella Napoli? Or that the sausage sandwich would redeem Gus’s hot dogs?

Some restaurants are victims of their own menus. They are just too damn long. And instead of offering a few solid choices, like the po boy and the catfish sandwich, Parish Public House has clearly overextended itself.

If you read Sunday’s review, try not to let it dissuade you from a visit. After all, a place that goes through the effort to import its rolls certainly has some redeeming value. My Yelp review (with pictures) can be found here.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. tom permalink
    May 3, 2016 11:15 am

    how about starting an essentials for the local eateries, so people know what to steer towards or avoid?

    • RogerK permalink
      May 3, 2016 12:18 pm

      Interestingly, the Times Union does also publish an annual 50 Essential Restaurants in the capital region, but that is also only available behind their paywall.

      • tom permalink
        May 3, 2016 12:38 pm

        i was going even further, i meant what to order/what to avoid at the “essential” regional locations.

  2. Jack C. permalink
    May 3, 2016 12:56 pm

    The boudin balls I had at PPH weren’t at all what SDP described. My problem was they were overly dry. The flavor wasn’t awful (didn’t amaze me, but I didn’t expect them to). The collards didn’t have splotchy black spots or anything, but they were undercooked. I really liked the shrimp in the shrimp po-boy and the French bread was from Leidenheimer’s in New Orleans (at least, it was when I went). The nostalgia is what did it for me. It’s important to have the shredded iceberg, sliced tomato, thinly sliced dill pickles, and mayo (as we natives call it, the sandwich must be “dressed”). Absent that, I think you’re not going to have the right experience.

  3. May 3, 2016 9:05 pm

    My first impression from the review was that it would be a tough one for the restaurant to bounce back from. I’ve never been so I can’t speak to the food but “used diaper” and “phlegm” in the descriptions of the food seemed over the top to me.

    Maybe the scathing review is becoming an annual thing. I believe the Jack’s review was just about a year ago.

  4. May 3, 2016 9:16 pm

    I had dinner at PPH a few months ago and found it to be suitable. Didn’t blow me away, but wouldn’t stop me from going back for another try.

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