How to write a yummy restaurant review: food – the main event? Part 6

In this article excerpted from the late Sam Worthington’s book, “How To Be A Savvy Restaurant Reviewer,” Sam announces the arrival of the food.

How to write a yummy restaurant review: food - the main event? Part 6

Most people go to a restaurant not for the food, but for the event.

But is this really the be-all and end-all of dining out?

Is it all about eating – or experiencing?

Food, glorious food – now the whole raison d’être for the meal has started to arrive – or has it? It is interesting that this is a book about restaurant reviews, yet we are now on chapter six and have only just arrived at food.

What is the main reason why people go to restaurants? Food, of course, you say. The food is important; the food is the reason as in ‘shall we go for a meal.’ But is the food really the main reason?

In some cases it is: but if a person simply requires sustenance, surely a sandwich would be just as good and cheaper, or, dare the thought cross my mind, why not get a burger? They are not as foul as is made out. Or a kebab. Or even a piece of flat bread with tomato sauce and other toppings on it (colloquially called a pizza).

The reality is most people go to a restaurant not for the food, but for the event.

They go to socialise, they go for a business meeting, they go to be romantic, they may go to get out of the house, and they may simply want to get away from the other half’s cooking. Rationally restaurant meals are seldom about food only – they are about the event.

In this era of the ‘celebrity chef,’ do those who want to pay fortunes to use those chefs’ establishments really go just for the victuals? Or is it to see and be seen? Or maybe it is to see the mortal whose name it was that enticed them there? Or maybe it is simply to have a night out they can talk about?

Catch up with Part 1, Part 2, Part 3Part 4 and Part 5 of this gourmet series – click on the green links

Even I, who often dine alone and enjoy it, do not go to a restaurant primarily for the food. I can, if I get off my butt, produce better food myself.

Over the many years I have been on this planet I have dined in thousands of restaurants. How many meals do I remember for the food and not the company, or the place? I am not certain; but not many. For sure I have had some marvellous meals which were truly magnificent and when that happens I go home thinking how lucky I have been. But in truth most meals, in terms of food, I forget within weeks. However I do not forget the company, or the surroundings.

So you think I am talking baloney – so be it – but think about it.

A restaurant reviewer at least needs to know why people really go to a restaurant.

My argument about the reason for a restaurant visit may, or may not, be right, but all the same the food has to be good – or more specifically it has to be up to expectations.

Some high end restaurants’ sole purpose in life is to provide truly outstanding dishes and that is what they expect to be judged on. Nevertheless they would freely admit that the surroundings and service need to be perfect: if not, why not simply serve the food that has been hours in preparation, in a canteen?

By the same token some of the best simple food in France is served in Routiers – a network of canteen style restaurants aimed at drivers. I always stop at one if I see one at lunch time. For what it is, the food is great, but it is not five star cooking. So the food standard has to match, or be better than, the perception of what the restaurant offers.

Most dishes will be known to your readers.

As a restaurateur back in the late 1970s I found that customers were considerably less educated in culinary terms, and we often had trouble with generic dishes – Bœuf Bourguignon, Coq au Vin and even Cottage Pie as opposed to Shepherd’s Pie.

That meant if they had a Bœuf Bourguignon in a specific restaurant they then thought that is how it should be, so any variant to how they ‘knew it’ was not, in their mind, as described. They did not comprehend that any oven cooked dish that included beef and red wine could be fairly called Bœuf Bourguignon.

How to write a yummy restaurant review: food - the main event? Part 6

Sam’s book makes a great little gift – available on all the Amazons. Click on this cover to go to the UK Amazon.

That led to all kinds of problems in restaurants, but I like to think restaurant users now understand that most dishes are generic in nature: and thus are as the chef decides how those will be cooked and presented.

George Lang – a well known Hungarian restaurant entrepreneur who made his name in New York – used to say to me, “there is no such thing as an original recipe … only bad research.” I am not sure he was right, but that was before the fusion of Asian and European food.

The point is, the reviewer may assume general food terminology is universally understood. But is it? Here is how I think food could be described in basic terms…

‘A piece of meat 7 inches by 5 inches and about ½ inch thick from the arse end of a cow’ is a rump steak and that is what it should be called.’

So when considering something a bit more elaborate to say that ‘I had a very good coarse pork terrine with strong hint of garlic served with crusty French bread,’ is more than an adequate description…

The first impression of a dish is the sight of it, and if it looks good the receiver will assume it is good. Of course if it is then found to be tough, under or over cooked, it tastes wrong or bad, it’s too small a portion or simply not as described in the menu, then it is not right.

The point is that food descriptions need to be accurate.

And as such, whatever was eaten by the attendees of the meal can usually be described succinctly with the minimum of words. The main thing the reader needs to know is: is the food up to the standard expected?

Sometimes the food is unusual and needs a greater description than a generic meal may demand. Excellent! Roll out descriptive words and where required, use superlatives and let the prose flow.

I have mentioned that destroying businesses is not really a reviewer’s job. However equally, it is not the reviewer’s job to paper over the blemishes.

If something is wrong it needs to be pointed out.

But it does not require a full song and dance act to do so. ‘The green beans were cooked al dente as they should have been; pity the carrots were not the same’ … explains what was wrong in gentle way which hopefully the restaurant will pick up on. And also it proves you were paying attention!

So a few brief words about each dish will suffice. That is as long as there is enough description for the readers to understand the style and standard of the food. By that I mean ‘man-sized portions of well-cooked food’ leaves an impression, as does ‘well-presented and crafted dishes.’ It is your review and your writing style, so decide how you want to present the food and providing the reader understands and enjoys reading it, that is all that matters!

To that end, notes are essential and photos can really help.

Just a word of warning on taking photos.

Most restaurants do not mind the odd swift discreet shot but other customers resent constant flashes. It is difficult to take pictures without using a flash (although many modern phone cameras and digital cameras can take quite decent pictures in very low light without flash – see below.)

Nonetheless flash pictures immediately draw attention to you. Some restaurants get very sniffy if photos are taken without first asking – I have always found once asked they have no problem. I say I dine round the world and like to keep a photo record of my more memorable meals – a little bullsh*t smooths the way nicely.

A serious reviewer might consider investing in a higher end digital camera that takes a good image even in very low light, so obviating the need for any flash at all. These may not work for publishing as the results can be too pixel-ridden but they are good for notes and capturing the menu. And such a camera will be good for food photos if used properly on the right settings.

Now for a pud!

Next time: sugar and spice

Questions? Drop Suze a note on suze@suzanstmaur.com

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