Have you seen the review that British restaurant critic Jay Rayner wrote for The Guardian recently? You should, because it’s very funny. Rayner is a very good writer. He’s got a sharp sense of humor, and more importantly he’s excellent at describing how food tastes. You might think that’s an easy thing, but try doing it for a year or three, and see how many different ways you can describe a roast chicken.
Much of what Rayner writes, however, is not really about the food. Apropos of roast chicken, here’s how he described the décor of a restaurant in east London that specializes in roast fowl:
In the case of the Holy Birds, this is literally so for it contains a big open kitchen. Being Shoreditch it is occupied by chefs with fearsome beards, intensely basting birds on the rotisserie, as though the very meaning of “now” is embedded in this relentless activity. The room in front of that kitchen is orange. Very orange. It’s like they’ve broken Donald Trump down for parts and used them to kit out a dining room. There’s an orange counter, orange dangly lights and orange banquettes, plus various bits of midcentury modern furniture and wood panelling. If the art director on "Mad Men" had got completely off their tits on Fanta and then set to work, it would look like this. I can’t pretend. Their “hip” and “stylish” is my “exhausting” and “Can I go home now, please?”
It’s evocative, isn’t it? You’ve never seen the place, but if you’re in the mindset to appreciate this sort of writing, you may get a sense of what it feels like to be there. It feels like being in a place that’s trying to be hip, but just missing it. And it makes you feel like you’re superior, like you know something the owners of the restaurant don’t: that they’re tacky. The word for that feeling is “smug.”
Further to the point, here’s the opening paragraph from Rayner’s review of the London location of Aquavit, chef Marcus Samuelsson’s New York restaurant:
Earlier this year I interviewed the New York-based Chef Marcus Samuelsson about his London venture, due to open next spring. He promised not to stride into the capital like some conquering hero. This, he said, would be a “humble journey”. This is a sentiment we can all get behind. It doesn’t seem to be one shared by Aquavit, the Swedish-inspired restaurant also from New York where it happens that Samuelsson – Ethiopian born but adopted by a Swedish couple – first made his name. The award-garlanded Aquavit has now opened in London. And, oh boy, check out that swagger.
The first four paragraphs of the review are similar. It’s not so much a description of the place, or the chef, or the food as much as an exercise in setting the mood. And what I find fascinating about Rayner is that his pique with chef Samuelsson’s “swagger” isn’t an indication that he found the food bad. The next several paragraphs of the review are a glowing recommendation of the smorgasbord course, a selection of small plates that Rayner seemed to enjoy. A sample:
Best of these dishes is a roughly chopped mackerel tartare, sweet and lightly salty, with a brilliant green sorrel purée with that citrus edge which makes it taste like newly mown grass smells in the spring. And then, to make the whole concoction go off with a bang, there is a scoop of shiny, black lumpfish roe, all salt and fish oils. It is utterly engrossing.
That’s good food writing. It is not, unfortunately, indicative of Rayner’s review overall.
I will never go to Aquavit in London, and I have no idea whether I’d have the same experience Rayner had if I did. A kitchen can shine one night and hit the skids another. Cooks don’t show up; deliveries aren’t delivered; equipment breaks. Things happen, and sometimes those things lead to an otherwise good restaurant having a bad night. Sometimes those things aren’t aberrations, and the restaurant doesn’t last.
None of us are likely to visit the restaurant Rayner recently reviewed either. It’s called Le Cinq, and it’s in Paris. A meal there costs about $650 for two.
Here is a very funny paragraph that tells me nothing about Le Cinq:
The dining room, deep in the hotel, is a broad space of high ceilings and coving, with thick carpets to muffle the screams. It is decorated in various shades of taupe, biscuit and f*ck you. There’s a little gilt here and there, to remind us that this is a room designed for people for whom guilt is unfamiliar. It shouts money much as football fans shout at the ref. There’s a stool for the lady’s handbag. Well, of course there is.
You really should read the whole thing, and if you like Rayner’s style, his columns are available online. Be warned, however, that many of his reviews are not negative, and not all are as funny as his piece on Le Cinq.
I am not a critic, as I write semi-annually. When I do write about restaurants, here and in New Orleans Magazine, I write about places I like. My policy is that if I have a bad meal somewhere, I’m not going back. Why would I? But as I suggested above, there are many reasons why a single meal shouldn’t be the measure of a restaurant. That’s one reason you don’t see me writing negative reviews.
I couldn’t write quite as wittily as Rayner, but I promise you I’ve never had a meal I couldn’t criticize. The key is that it wouldn’t have to be true, or accurate, only witty. Let me give you an example using one of my favorite restaurants, August. My actual opinion of the place is that it’s an example of quality from soup to nuts. Décor, service, food, wine and everything in between is outstanding. But while I could say that the main dining room looks like someone threw a hand grenade into a Laura Ashley showroom from 1986, and used the leftovers to make curtains. Or I could say that it’s nice that the bar has that warm, intimate, “clubby” feel you usually get only while waiting for the funeral director in establishments of a certain quality. I could go on making observations that I don’t believe, and which aren’t true (to me). But that’s the key; if I did say anything of that nature, how would you know I don’t believe it? How do I know Rayner writes much of what he writes purely for effect?
I don’t, and as I said, I will never be able to verify or contradict what he said about Le Cinq. My solution is to read his work occasionally, enjoy it, but never mistake it for useful criticism. I suspect that would be my feeling even if I lived in London, and could investigate a place he covered for myself.
About 10 years ago a chef complained to me that there weren’t any real critics in New Orleans. I understood what he meant, but New Orleans is a very small town, and even with the proliferation of restaurants these days, it’s unlikely we’re going to see someone like Rayner any time soon. I see how that would trouble some folks, and perhaps I’m part of the problem.
If you feel the need for more “objective” criticism, though, may I suggest you try engaging in it yourself? I’m not being sarcastic. I’ve been surprised for years that we don’t have more foodblogs in New Orleans. We’re a town of eaters, but at least as far as I’ve seen, we don’t have the foodblogging culture that exists in most other metropolitan areas. You can set up a blog for free, or you can engage on any number of food-related message boards and websites. Hell, you can even comment here, if you like.
If you do, please share your thoughts about restaurant criticism, and any local foodblogs you find entertaining. I’m on the lookout for both.