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A Grain of Salt

September 15, 2017

Even before it was my job, I read Yelp reviews like it was my job. They are an amazing resource for keeping up with not just the food landscape of a region, but the ongoing output of a restaurant.

There are some people who believe that Yelp is a better tool than the Michelin Guide for staying on top of the world’s best restaurants, because while the guide is amazing in its meticulous attention to detail, it only comes out once a year. On the other hand, if a three-star temple of fine dining starts to slip, it will be all over Yelp long before the next Michelin Guide is published.

But today I want to talk about something else inspired by a Yelp review. Review might be a little generous, because it was one of the less helpful write ups and more of a bitter screed about something off at the business. But before jumping into the pool of negativity and getting to use all the fun words that come with it, the reviewer prefaced his write up with a line that got me thinking.

“Take this with a grain of salt.”

There are idioms we use all the time, and never really think twice about. But when seeing this phrase before a few hundred bitter words about a recent restaurant experience, I was struck by a simple truth.

Salt provides balance.

Now I know that this isn’t the origin of this phrase. The origin stories of idioms are fun, but it’s not what I care about. One can find inspiration in all kinds of places. Sometimes ideas spring froth from an ancient phrase, a piece of art, or even the smell of a cookie. So let’s talk about salt for a moment.

Salt softens bitterness.
Salt counters acidity.
Salt is a foil to sweetness.

The three quick examples for these functions of salt can be found in:

Salt added to beer.
Salted rims on margarita glasses.
Salted caramels.

A great example of the power of salt comes from the Capital Region Wing Fest that I judged last week. There were three judges. Some of the originally scheduled judges weren’t able to make it. So Jimmy Marlow wasn’t there, which was a bummer, because he’s a fellow food explorer. The other two judges at the table weren’t really food people.

And that’s okay. We just had a difference of opinion on one wing in particular.

The judging was blind, so we had no idea which wings belonged to which restaurants. All we knew was the number, and whatever we could ascertain about the wing in front of us. We weren’t even given a description of the wing.

Well, the contentious wing was an interesting specimen. It was fried really well. This was one of the very few wings we received that was actually crispy. Props for crispy wings. And the other judges really liked the sweet and sticky sauce that coated the chicken.

For me, the flavor just delivered one note: sweet.

Salt would have saved the day for this wing. Had the chicken received a salty brine, the sweet glaze would have something to give it deeper complexity. Heck, even a sprinkle of salt on the top would do the trick, even if just on the surface.

What’s surprising about the lack of salt in these wings, was that they came from Ninety Nine Restaurant & Pub. Generally speaking, restaurant food is salty food. But chain restaurant food is almost always aggressively salted.

Fortunately, the other judges gave my top pick their second highest scores. So even though I was out voted, my low score for these one note sugar bombs took them out of contention for the top spot, and my top choice took the prize. Which is how Brown’s Brewing took home the judges award for best wing.

In some ways, I feel like I dodged a bullet. But I suppose now I’ve learned to take results from food competitions with a grain of salt. That said, I’m very much looking forward to judging the food competition at The Enchanted City tomorrow with two members of the Yelp Elite Squad. Because while we might always agree, Steve and Juliet are always thoughtful in their evaluations.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. EPT permalink
    September 15, 2017 1:28 pm

    Salt is indeed, in my opinion a necessary ingredient. It doesn’t have to be Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (my go to choice) or Himalayan pink (my second choice). It can be soy sauce, fish sauce or some other “salty” ingredient…Parmesan cheese comes to mind. Salt is one of those ingredients that the lack of is equally as bad as an excess of. Opinion DB?

  2. Benjamin permalink
    September 19, 2017 1:33 pm

    My wife attended the wing event and thought that the 99’s wings were the best. They had two flavors though, and I think she liked the sweeter one more. It was good, but not great.

    I love using kosher salt from a shaker at the table and for cooking. The larger crystals make salty “pockets” that add interest to the food, as opposed to table salt which makes everything one-dimensionally salty.

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