Introducing Adam Platt's periodic Internet musings, under the pseudonym of the Gobbler.
Restaurant critics are used to operating under assumed names (even if we're usually recognized), so let me explain the etymology of Gobbler. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary (online edition), "to gobble" means "to swallow or eat greedily." Likewise, a "gobbler" is "a male turkey," or "one that gobbles." It's as fitting a designation as any for someone whose job it is to sit in spangled, overpriced restaurants all night, and sometimes all day, sipping ridiculously festive cocktails, taking not-so-surreptitious notes under the table, smiling wearily as the sixteenth foie gras preparation of the week comes clattering down on the table.
In this space I plan to expound, intermittently, on the more personal aspects of my trade. How does a restaurant reviewer watch his weight? (Sporadically.) What's the most useless dish for a critic? (A tie between salmon and lamb chops.) And what is the problem with disguises? (If you happen to be six feet, five inches tall, and balloon, on occasion, to 280 pounds, they don't tend to work.)
This week's topic: What happens when a waiter spills red wine all over a critic's table, a situation related, briefly, in my recent review of Japonais, and expounded upon here.
During the course of the Gobbler's culinary rounds, he's had coffee poured on him by mistake and the occasional bread roll dumped in his lap. But as a general rule, critics and their messy friends will dribble more food on the table during any one week of dining out than a professional waiter or busboy will in a year. As my favorite food writer, Nora Ephron, points out, waiters exhibit all sorts of peculiar foibles and habits these days. But the quality of service in the restaurants the Gobbler visits tends to be pretty fair, especially considering that most of them have only been open for a month or two.
So it was a surprise when a waiter at Japonais, on his way to another table (ours was located perilously close to the kitchen door), tripped, showering the back of one guest and flooding the purse of another. The restaurant staff reacted with appropriate amounts of horror and sorrow. Bottles of fizzy water were procured, although the stains were so large it didn't matter. A manager appeared, waving his card, promising to reimburse all dry-cleaning bills. Eventually the meal proceeded as before, which is to say not very well.
Did this unfortunate incident affect the review of the restaurant? It didn't help. But it also led to the Gobbler's tentative new theory for predicting wait-staff screwups. Let's call it "the Godzilla Ratio." The Godzilla Ratio states that as the size of a dining room increases, so does the potential for disaster. Japonais is relatively petite compared to the great aircraft-carrier establishments operating now in the meatpacking district. But it's a crowded place, with a glut of complicated dishes on the menu. The larger the staff, the more likely some of them will be learning on the job. The more people learning on the job, the more likely it is that one of them will splash a peevish restaurant critic with Cabernet. Or possibly it was Pinot Noir.