17 June 2007

Restaurants & critics & peppermills & bling

If you don't already know about the case of the reviewed restaurant, The Guardian headline's take is typically journocentric: Critics up in arms as restaurant review judged defamatory.

Why just critics?
Of course the write-up was defamatory. If after two visits, he came to the same conclusion, he should hang up his fingers and his tongue if he doesn't do precisely what defame means: attack the good reputation (of in this case, another overpriced, and if the pattern persists, overpraised restaurant, over here, in the land where the typical restaurant goer acts like a lamb with its brains removed, and the reviewers, like touts).

Awarding the restaurant only nine points out of 20, he concluded that "more than half the dishes I've tried at Coco Roco are simply unpalatable", and that the food was overpriced.

(read the whole review here: "Coco Roco" by Matthew Evans)

Australia has come a long way from the time I had to host two elderly guests at a Sydney restaurant for a business lunch. It was supposed to be special for them, so we went to the place my boss picked out. The Grape Escape it was called (it was where he took his mistress, just around the corner from work). It was one of those French restaurants where the scallops are cut from shark fillets, but the waiters, authentically rude. The sliced French bread in its little basket came before the mains, and when my female guest, a nice, old-fashioned lady who was embarrassed about being given this free lunch, picked up a slice of bread, she disturbed a cockroach, and if you don't know Sydney cockroaches, they are nimble as roaches the world over, but the Sydney ones are the size of cruise ships. My male guest, a gentleman of the old school, crashed his hand down on the roach just before it leapt into the lady's lap. I picked up the basket and left briefly to have a quiet word with the waiter. He returned with another basket of bread, but there was not a lot of interest in it until the last minutes of the meal, when the man began to eat bread out of nervousness. As he reached for the second to last slice, he and I looked into the basket at the same time, and he quietly replaced the slice over what we saw: another cockroach, this one on its back, its legs folded over its breast. When it was time to pay, I told the waiter about this in a lowered voice so that the now green-tinged lady would not know. The waiter was incensed. "Whad'you complaining about?" he yelled. "It's dead, isn't it?"

That was not an expensive restaurant, but Coco Roco was. Restaurants are too often in Australia, reverenced. There's a kind of cultural cringe that Australians have toward eateries in general. This is a country where, for instance, if you think of having breakfast in the increasing number of places that serve breakfast and you order, say, a coffee and toast, you can easily wait 20 minutes for the coffee and another 15 for the toast. If you order from your table, add on another 10 minutes in many places, minimum. But again, I haven't approached the topic of expensive restaurants. Let's not dally any more! The only reason I haven't talked about this previously is because I've been stewing about it so much, that I was worried that if I ever did dish up my feelings, they'd come out acrid, when I really want to be constructive, just as that reviewer above was. Even if no one should feel sorry for anyone with the kind of money Coco Roco charged, he prevented many innocents from wasting their money on something that was good for theatre only, and if economic theory is true for critical theory, there must be a trickle-down effect.

On my last trip to Sydney, it was my turn to take out a friend I rarely get a chance to see. We always go to some place different, and since I'm out of touch with Sydney now, every place is chosen at her suggestion. On a previous trip, we had gone to Neil Perry's XO, and I must say that, though Perry gets slagged for being a brown-noser to the R & F, I had the best meal I've ever had at a restaurant with pretensions (though XO was slumming it for Perry compared to his high-end joints).

The service was as brisk, cheery and non-intrusive as at an American diner. And the food was – magic, that personal magic that very rarely occurs, but when it does, is unforgettable – an exact recreation of something wonderful and thought to be lost, remembered from childhood. In this case, the food in the very un-upmarket Railroad Hotel, Tainan, Taiwan. Not everything, but enough of it to flood my mouth with nostalgia. And what didn't do that was a pleasure in other ways. The sticky rice dessert was almost as perfect as the top dessert I've ever had in a restaurant, the incomparable ma'amoul* in the Lebanese House Restaurant in Russell Street, Melbourne. This little cake or big cookie was served warm and fragrant as it should be, and the cup of coffee with it was exactly right, down to (to my taste) the perfect amount of cardamom. And with both, the glass of cold water, not any of your bottled mineral waters, but a glass of cold water, unasked for. This ma'amoul was made in the restaurant, and would have been excellent cold, but the serving of it warm, the coffee with it and the water with them both makes a mockery of the most famed and expensive restaurants in the world. Service and quality can always beat them when someone cares, as at a place like the Lebanese H0use, you are more valued, and when someone cares in the kitchen, the ambience beats those swankeries, too. A great restaurant makes you feel relaxed.

Places like Lebanese House and XO are places where eating is fun, where you can take your truest friends. And desserts like the ma'amoul at the Lebanese House and the sticky rice at XO should be a lesson to all the execrably over-sweetened puds that are the majority of what Australia's desserts still are. The balances of flavours at XO were perfect in everything that came, and the green beans were the best vegetables that I have ever had in an upmarket restaurant. Sure, Neil was schmoozing, and sure he's an international star, and he's made so much money and exported himself so much that knives are sharpening at this very moment. Many would love to smear his liver on toast! But he ran XO right. It wasn't however, expensive. And it didn't have the upmarket schlockiness that Rockpool and his other, more theatrical ventures do, so it closed, and closed again.

By comparison, the ingredients are all in place for a Melbourne success story. Rockpool Bar & Grill is serving something for everybody willing to pay the price. It's in the casino, where customers already queue for over an hour to eat lobster mornay at Waterfront.

RIP a great little place – closed because it wasn't crassly pretentious enough?

Where giant peppermills still roam
But I promised that I would write about expensive restaurants, so here goes. On my last trip to Sydney, XO had already closed so we went to another place that my friend warned would be 'expensive'. That's okay, I said. I was staying at her place, and besides, who cuts corners with friends they almost never have a chance to see? When we drove up, I had a twinge of worry. It's on the waterfront, actually over the water. I don't know about you, but I have found that unless the place is a shack and the workers barefoot, a seafront eatery is something to take people to who are into sales - people of no intrinsic taste but lots of need to be seen.

I have one friend who adds to that list: anything that revolves, and double doors. He has suffered many dinners at places that bear these features, as he has had to meet sales types around the world and pay for their meals. He tells me that they always pick these places, tops.

Sydney harbour is beautiful, so I prepared to grin and bear it. Though my friend had booked an unfashionably early hour, we were seated in the middle of the room, not by the windows.

The hospitality professional who met us first had a Star Wars/Nazi uniform on similar to that worn in Sydney's Hilton. Nice smile, though. One review of this restaurant mentions in particular the nice smile.

We also like the fact that when you enter the restaurant, the first thing you are greeted with is a smile. The staff seem pleased to see you.

Why shouldn't they seem pleased? At the prices here, and the wages the staff get, why shouldn't they be any less than pleasant? Why, indeed, wouldn't you walk right out if you meet anything else? Smarmy though, is something else. Our second hospitality professional gave us our menus and my friend asked about the specials. They were explained in that way they are in all chichi places now, with a kind of reverence for the 'chef', and an ode to the more ingredients the better, but of course, with no mention of prices. My friend was interested in two fish specials, both featuring truffles, and this at a fish restaurant known for the freshness of its fish. "The catch is really frighteningly fresh . . . There's no better place to enjoy the fruits of our seas," says Gourmet Traveller. "I've never had truffles," my friend said. I'm not putting her down. I hadn't either, not that I wanted to there. Frighteningly fresh fish, really good fresh fish with character, needs truffles, in my opinion, like chocolate ice cream does chocolate sauce. You can't, however, have an impressive menu nor charge an arm and a leg for grilled fish with a twist of lime, and you certainly can't impress the kind of diner who needs to know, "I ate truffles."

A fool without gooseberries
We ordered every course without looking at the menu again, and in one of those stupid decisions that I make when I don't know how to get out of something I really don't want to do, I got one of the truffle specials so that she felt free to get the other. Otherwise, she wouldn't have ordered it as she was too shy, and I would have felt guilty if I'd shown my prejudices. I don't know about you, but I have always had a vision thing about truffles, and a pretty snobby one it is: only to be eaten for the first time in the same kitchen that I see the cook prepare them from the gloriously dirty globs themselves, and to be eaten in a simple omelette of eggs laid by chickens that I can see, scratching out the window. Somehow I've never gotten around to it, but eating truffles in Sydney on frighteningly fresh fish isn't what my virgin tongue wanted as its first truffle experience (and in my opinion, unless it be bland and characterless shark, is a waste of the taste of frighteningly fresh fish). However, I won't pan it, nor any of the food. I would be the first to condemn me for going into a place like this. We suited each other as well as a clove of garlic in a chocolate cake. And I admit to my own snobbery. As for the food, it was forgettable (not horrific like the crunchy lentils in another high-end waterfront eatery in Sydney that I got roped into on another insane occasion, and the ignorant way many restaurants still treat vegetables) but what I do condemn is:

1) The giant peppermill. $100 should have been dropped from the bill for that alone, and at least one star from the rating. For anyone with tables so expensively dressed to impress, and a menu so supposedly sophisticated, whaaaah? "Would you like pepper with that" is a question that no self-respecting H.P. should have to ask anyone, as it's so tempting to be rude back. And have you ever thought of the age of the peppercorns in a giant peppermill? Are these giants used because the owners think we'll steal a normal pepper mill, or that they would have to replenish the peppercorns more than once a century if they put, for instance, a little dish with a few on the table (just as restaurants do with salt now, that have too much pretension to put a salt shaker there but not as much yet as the restaurants that ban salt from the table altogether on the basis that the chef has prepared everything to perfection). On my next foray to Sydney I'm carrying my own fresh peppercorns (of my selection). One handwhack on the butterknife's flat blade, and, voila! A lovely mess of cracked peppercorns on that white tablecloth. But that's only for when they're needed, and how many times is that? **
(That reminds me. Aren't the best meals and the best times you've ever had always in places with no tablecloths, let alone white ones?)

2) The amuse-gueule, that little shotglass sized taster of corn soup. I admit that both my friend and I did the usual thing. Ooohed (though I couldn't tell the difference between the corn in the soup and the canned corn soup that I grew up with) because, you see, it's free! I condemn us. It's like people jumping up with glee when the car ad says, "Free air!"

2) The white gloves on the hospitality professional #3, apparently hired to do nothing more than hover around our table and smile at us. When she wasn't hovering she was asking "And how is everything?" At one point when my dinner companion left the table, H.P3 rushed over and folded her napkin into a mitre again and stood the napkin upright. Then she smiled at me, bowed, and left.

3) The bill was gulpingly high when it finally came, but I expected the bill to be high, so it would be wrong to whinge about that. But, we'd been watched for so long that it was remarkable that I had to go to the front counter to ask for the bill, after waiting almost a half hour past our last coffee. I paid the tip in the modern Australian way, regardless of the fact that restaurant staff get good wages and do not need to work for tips any more than a person in any other service job. The staff didn't do anything more than the minimum, except where they annoyed. In this case, I condemn me. Tipping used to be un-Australian. Now we're sophisticated and international, so we tip. Why? There is a sense of, I think, pride, that we have become so much a part of the international scene that we can forget: the pride in being paid a fair amount for a job, and not having to smarm to anyone, is one of the great achievements of Australia's working class.

Bling for food
Places like this are as common as people who fork out huge amounts of money for clothes that make them look cheap – and getting commoner. This quote says more about this type of restaurant and the people who push them, than any review called 'defamatory'.

Our only minor criticism was that the asparagus had been halved lengthwise which we think reduces the 'mouth-feel' and hence reduces the eating experience somewhat.

Fresh fish
I'm sure the fish was fresh as they say, but in a city like Sydney, there is no excuse for fish not to be flippingly fresh – especially in a fish restaurant. The time when fresh fish is something to be remarked upon is when it's served in a little place that is not a fish restaurant, has small custom and cheap prices. This is the case with the best fish meals I've ever eaten in Australia – at a little Italian restaurant on Parramatta Road, Lilyfield, right near the cinema. You might recognise the restaurant if it's still there, though it looks like a zillion others: brick façade with curved windows. Inside, bricks go halfway up the wall and wine bottles hang from fishing nets, and the wall above the bricks is aflutter with hundreds of tradesmen's business cards. I don't know if it's still there (I last ate there before the next-door suburb, Annandale, got culture).

Upstairs, it was rumoured that the owner ran a gambling house. It could have been true, because I never saw more than one table occupied. The food was nothing short of divine. Our mother in heaven, that woman (the owner's wife) should have been called. Her fried sardines with a salad of fennel that she probably picked by the railroad tracks was what I hope to have after I die. I think the menu listing was: Fried sardines. Sometimes she would come out from the kitchen, and we would smile at each other, in bliss. She deserved to be bowed to.

Where do you go for the real thing?
The court case that I started this diatribe with, and others, put the emphasis on what's said by professional critics in mainstream media, but the internet has made criticism a game anyone can play, and many do. I think this can be only a good thing. This comment (indeed, the whole thread) in ChowHound can refresh more than a breath mint.

(about Tetsuya's) When we were there they ONLY did their 'special menu prepared just for you'. There wasn't even a printed menu. We tried to order different items but struck out - best we could do was feign allergies so as to at least get separate ingredients.
Then when we checked other peoples reviews, we found that our specially prepared menu was almost identical to theirs - even 6 months later (or earlier).
He's coasting and it shows. Food is competent, some dishes good but absolutely not worth the money.
The emperors clothes are getting shabby.
But the service was excellent.
I probably won't talk you out of going there as it's so 'famous' but we had FAR better meals at Bécasse (in Surry Hills and quite formal) and Seans Panaroma [note spelling] in Bondi Beach (less formal).
And Rockpool wasn't even trying. Passable food and arrogant service. Just awful.

Criticism in all creative arts and entertainment has become democratic. Of course this free-for-all can be malicious and corrupt and downright ignorant of 'good taste', and when a reviewer bags a dish for having too much butter, and the dish had in fact, no butter at all, then there's a question of competence, but that's no different than a book reviewer who gives a book a stinging review and furthermore, spills the end (an apt term: spoiler) but the end is wrong because the reviewer didn't read the book to the end – and we could go on and on about this cruel world, but I still think that the job of the creator is to create and to cop the criticism. If it's ridiculous, in the chaos that is now the world of media – where everyone can be a commentator and there is no One Whose Word is God – good might triumph in the end.

But back to restaurants. There are some pretty savvy critics out there, and if they're harsh at times, excuse my hash, but caveat restaurateur! Sites like eGullet can make the scene better for everyone. Take, for instance, some further comments there about Tetsuya's (arguably, Sydney's top and one of the world's top restaurants). Tetsuya Wakuda, known as "one of the world's great chefs" could, if he'd a mind to, sue for defamation, at "I wasn't too endeared with the overly sweet floating island dessert", but then he might be laughing too much at the same amateur critic's final statement, as it mirrors the private taste of most professional chefs, the fancier, the more so:

Isn’t it ridiculous? Amongst all the joy of the food served at Tetsuya’s, my favourite was the bread and butter.

* See Mahanandi's excellent posting on Ma'amoul.

** Further on the question: "Would you like pepper with that?"
For me, there are two times I crave pepper, sloppily broken Piper nigrum to be exact: on eggs and with strawberries. Otherwise, it's just one of many choices, and nothing to pedestalise. I think that the reason pepper is chosen to ask this question about is that it goes stale so quickly that it gives diners a cheap false impression that they have adjusted the taste to suit a discriminating palate when in fact, they have changed nothing. But pepper has a long history of being used more to impress the mind than the mouth.

To dine, if we're going to get the taste just right in every place we pay, maybe we should carry little bureaus filled with whatever's needed because the kitchen didn't finish the dish correctly. Depending upon the person and the time in history, this bureau would be heavy with cinnamon bark, ginger root, dried sumac fruits, seeds of caraway, cumin, cardamom, sesame, fenugreek and fennel, fresh almonds, nutmeg of course, flower waters and sugar of various kinds . . . and the equipment to pound and grind and grate. And oops! I forgot that this is for a special eating place, so, if they haven't asked you already if you'd like any, you'll need to carry your own pearls.

It is surprising, though, that in so many places that ask That Question, there is no thought any more, of a diner dressing a salad. Thus, the diner's portable bureau would also include a selection of oils and vinegars and citruses and leaf herbs (fresh, of course) and flower petals, at which point the diner needs a porter service, and may decide instead, to dine at home.

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