Ask Platt: On Amateur Reviewers, Struggling Restaurants, and Flavor Fatigue

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You’ve deluged us with excellent questions for Adam Platt! Of course, the man can only address so many of them at once, since the little time he doesn’t spend gorging for your benefit he (presumably) spends attached to a treadmill or a pillow. But he has kindly answered the best of the bunch. For our next round, e-mail us with questions for the magazine’s restaurant editors, Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfeld, whose cheap-eats column, the Underground Gourmet, you know and love. And now, over to Platty.

I have been a restaurant operator for a few years. I would like to know how you really feel about restaurant review websites like Citysearch, MenuPages, and Yelp. The idea that someone who may be having their first experience in a restaurant that uses metal silverware and cloth napkins has the right to put, in writing, in a public forum, their completely uneducated opinion, blows my mind. What are your thoughts, as a restaurant critic, on the impact these forums have on our business?
I feel your pain, sir. But in a discerning market like New York, everyone’s a critic, and it’s been that way for a long time now. As an eater, I think the restaurant sites are valuable. They bring all the information together (address, menus, etc.) and put it at your fingertips. As a reviewer, I don’t pay much attention to them. Maybe it’s a restaurant PR person who put up the post. Maybe it’s someone whose waiter had a bad night. Or maybe the chef had a cold. The quality of a restaurant meal changes not just day to day, but hour to hour, and the only way you can get a good idea of how well a kitchen functions is to go back several times and dutifully chew your way through the entire menu. I’m biased, of course.

Bloomingdale Road closed not long after your dismissive review of it. Do you feel any sort of responsibility, especially during these tough times, for a restaurant’s economic livelihood?
These are hard times for restaurants, but frankly, it’s a brutal business in good times, too. As a critic, you’re always aware of that. I think I’m a pretty forgiving critic, although some chefs would disagree. I don’t write a column every week, so I have to pick my reviews carefully, and in general, during the course of the year, I’ll write about the places I like more than about ones I don’t. I also tend to think that the power of a restaurant critic, unless he or she happens to write for the New York Times, is overblown. I’ve given plenty of glowing reviews to restaurants that have failed, and plenty of crappy ones to places that, for strange and mysterious reasons, still thrive today. I thought Bloomingdale Road was a disaster, but I gave its chef, Ed Witt, a very good write-up at his previous restaurant, Varietal, and it closed in a hurry, too. In both cases, you’d have to conclude it was the diners who rendered the final verdict, and not me.

Does eating meal after meal fatigue you to certain dishes or ingredients? What are you most jaded by?
You have to be an omnivore to function as a restaurant critic, but tablecloth fatigue is an occupational hazard. Certain dishes fill me with tedium and dread. Seared foie gras tends to be cooked by chefs in the same slavish way, it almost always tastes the same, and if you eat too much of it, it will kill you. Salmon is a solid dish to order in a restaurant if you’re dining as a civilian, but as a critic, what do you say about seared salmon that hasn’t been said a million times? What do you say about a lamb chop? These dishes have very settled, defined flavor profiles, and unless they’re prepared badly, they taste good in the same settled, predictable way. Desserts are another minefield of potential boredom and despair. It takes a great deal of effort and skill to get a critic’s attention after a long, rich meal, which is why great desserts are the sign of a truly great restaurant. I have a personal fondness for toffee, and crunchy peanuts, and anything that has to do with lemons. But whenever I see a molten chocolate cake, and I still see molten chocolate cake at least once a week, I want to run, screaming, off into the night.