You would think restaurant critics could agree on whether a restaurant is good or bad. No such luck. A restaurant gets raves, then it is panned. And if you wait long enough it will get raves again.
There are lots of reasons for this; some having to do with the critics' relative competence and some with their liking to be controversial -- or at least distinctive. But most often it has to do with the difference between discovery and verification.
Here's an example of how it works: You are driving through North Dakota, hungry as a bear and despairing of getting anything more than a Big Mac, when you spot a small restaurant advertising home cooking. As it turns out, a young couple heading for California fell in love with the countryside, so they unpacked their sourdough starter, set out their yogurt maker and their pasta machine, and opened a little restaurant.
Such a restaurant might be lost in the crowd of taste-alikes in San Francisco. But in the plains of North Dakota it would be an important discovery. If you happened on it, you might remember dinner there as one of the great meals of your life. And if you were a restaurant critic you'd shout your raves from coast to coast.
Now imagine you're a restaurant critic who has read these raves as they reverberated between New York and California. So you set off for North Dakota. Discovery has bypassed you. You are going for verification. Finally you find that North Dakota highway, after hours of dusty, dreary navigation. You have to wait for a table, and the host-owner is now so full of himself, that he treats you as if you are lucky to get a table at all.
The sourdough bread is, as promised, homemade -- but not well made. The pasta is fresh, but lumpy and overcooked, its sauce an amateurish pesto with yogurt stirred in as a personal touch. You find the staff cocky and the cooking erratic. A rave becomes a sneer.
That's the difference between discovery and verification.
I was reminded of this process when I visited Fleur de Lys in San Francisco recently. Before I went, I reread some rave reviews: " ... hands down the finest meal I had in San Francisco, comparable to some of the best French cuisine found in New York City," said Bryan Miller of The New York Times. The maitre d'hotel "is a warm and savvy field captain who makes sure no minor details go unattended," he continued. Caroline Bates in Gourmet magazine described the "seamless service," "tremulous little duck liver flan," "meltingly luscious cre`me brule'e." Michael Bauer chimed in similarly in Food & Wine magazine.
The restaurant had been thoroughly discovered. The maitre d' was hardly warm and savvy when I arrived. Three times he insisted I had no reservation, then he found it right there in front of him. He announced that my guest hadn't arrived, and turned away, neither offering to seat me nor suggesting I have a drink at the bar. He had been confirmed in print as a consummate maitre d', he didn't have to try any longer, I thought. As for the meal, there were highlights. A clear snail soup with a jungle of vegetables, lamb chops wrapped in mousseline of vegetables and caul fat. But more dishes fell flat, from an over-refrigerated egg-and-foie-gras hors d'oeuvre to bland canned black olives on the duck. The highly touted tiny corn pancakes with salmon and whitefish caviar tasted like a pancake version of canned creamed corn. The "tremulous" duck liver flan was rubbery, while the "meltingly luscious" cre`me brule'e was tough and unpleasant. Overall the food had too many flavors and not enough taste.
What had happened? Were the other critics wrong?
Probably not. The restaurant may have changed under the pressure of its popularity. Warmth had turned chilly, attention was diluted. Second, the thrill of discovery had been replaced by the harsh light of verification. The dazzling menu, the luscious decor, the marvel of each plate's array of garnishes were no surprise to me. I was noticing instead the sloppy details -- over-refrigeration, second-rate garnishes -- which might have been eclipsed if I had come with no expectations. Rather than marveling at the collection of wines, I noticed the 1955 Cha~teau Margaux was not only priced at $900, it was spelled Marggox.
The first critics to find a restaurant are likely to keep their eye on the half-full glass. Those of us whose pens and palates follow are likely to call it half empty. And indeed some of it may have evaporated before we ever saw it.
Tabletalk As if wine coolers weren't enough of a watering down of tradition, a new diluted-alcohol drink is being test marketed, this one a combination of beer and iced tea. At last the beer drinkers and teatotalers will have something in common, either a beverage or an enemy.
Waiting for our delayed flight out of San Francisco, we were talking to a woman from Zimbabwe, who told us the main crop of her country was tobacco. So we told her about our dinner at Chez Panisse, where smoking is not allowed in the restaurant. She was astonished. "I thought restaurants were required by law to have smoking sections," she marveled. No, we explained, the tobacco lobby hadn't gotten that far yet.
It is probably the strongest coalition mankind could devise, the agreement between a rock group -- the Grateful Dead -- and an ice cream manufacturer -- Ben and Jerry's. The result of this combination of powerful forces is bing cherries and chocolate flakes in vanilla ice cream, called "Cherry Garcia" after the rock band's guitarist Jerry Garcia.
FRESH CORN CAKES (Makes about 20 1-inch pancakes
Fresh corn retains more flavor if added raw, scraped from the cob in a way that leaves the kernels' chewy husks behind.
1/2 cup scraped raw corn (3 to 6 ears)
1/2 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste
Smoked salmon or caviar with sour cream for serving
To scrape corn, run a sharp knife down the middle of each row of corn kernels to split the kernels, then scrape each row to extract all the milk and pulp.
Beat all the ingredients together, either by hand or very briefly in a blender. Spoon batter onto a hot, well-greased griddle to form tiny pancakes about 1 inch in diameter. Brown on both sides and serve as a side dish or as an appetizer with smoked salmon or caviar and a dollop of sour cream.
1987, Washington Post Writers Group