Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Gods must be crazy.

Back from NYC. Two weeks of rubbing shoulders with the band of others, stepping up to what's new for us on the culture beat. Airbnb works and it landed us in the upper west side, a block from Fishtag, a restaurant that has drawn a lot of controversy.
The disconnect between what the "highly educated" professional food critics had to say (uniformly poor), and the comments on yelp or chowhound (exalting praise), provoked me to visit the restaurant's web site. There, the menu appeared set up to promote the idea that wine pairing was essential. Forget that. I hold to my belief that most wine pairing is a fraud and I am not interested in boosting a restaurant's bottom line. However, the same menu set forth such interesting options that I couldn't resist the temptation to blow the big one here. My strategy, for a restaurant unknown and potentially expensive, is to start small and see where it goes from there. That means an early walk in, before the rush, and ordering an app or two and see what happens. If we like what we had, we press on to other dishes until we are sated. In this case, we were so impressed and well fed that we hurried back the next night to taste out more of the menu. I'll spare you the details. But I do want to say that a lifetime in some form or another of the food industry does prepare one to make an informed judgement. I "know" how hard it is to source an ingredient, suss out a flavor, and prepare a dish with care. Others with similar knowledge would hold opinions I would trust when making a decision about where to eat. If I were a restaurant reviewer I would inform my readers of my baseline tastes. There is a world of difference between someone who likes food rich and spicy, and one for whom a twist of pepper is sweat provoking. So if you know that I like my flavor deep and obvious and I write that I enjoyed the food, you can surmise the place delivered a rich dining experience.

What then to make of the critics who are paid to opine and seem so consistently to get it wrong. I am beginning to think that reviewers (as opposed to critics of whom there are far too few) are calling it in. Film, book, or restaurant reviews often contain such glaring errors that I wonder did they actually see, read, or eat the products they write of. In one review of Fishtag the writer described a dish I ate, as mussels, prepared and served in a disgusting lamb broth. The truth is the dish is served in a tomato base with a smookie dark pork flavor. Others criticized this same dish as a stretch, showing off by combining strange pairing, when in fact a fish/meat combo is as common as paella, All of this is to say that I think the pros' days are numbered. I trust and use the social media far more than any professional big name reviewer and I believe their papers will dump them sooner rather than later. Not a minute too soon for me.

We chased the pig around the city. After a visit to the Secret Garden in Central Park, Chuck, Mary, Carrie and I "dared" to walk the 20 blocks through east Harlem in search of the perfect pork torta. I had heard this sandwich might be made at Taco-Mix.

We had the name of the joint confused with the name of a sandwich and thus just trying to confirm we were where we wanted to be turned into a form of street opera. However the welcome was so warm and the food on display so appealing it didn't matter. It turned out we had the right place.

We snuggled in among the jammed locals, Chuck found a surface in the back and spread papers upon it, and we began the process of ordering, and getting help from others and staff in selecting what we might enjoy. It was a riot of food and smell, and seasoning, and cultural exchange. They got crazy white people pigging out, we got the best mex you can eat out of hand. No professional reviews. Here's what the yelpers have to say.

I saved ten thousand dollars this week by not flying to Japan to get a plate of Takoyaki, octopus dipped in batter and cooked in special cast iron trays made for the dish. Otafuku on ninth street does the job from this tiny slot, no tables, no pro reviews.

The Japanese American woman about to graduate NYU in econ was engaging as we waited our turns and she bemoaned the limits of a curriculum that denied her "no growth" models, or steady state economic options. We also agreed that this was a fantastic dish, she added, "as good as it gets in Japan".

The bomb exploded in Xi'an Famous Foods
I found that Bourdain and others have explored this place and the opinions are universal: It is fantastic. A new twist in seating arrangements is expressed in the form of a sign that signals that three nearby bars will accept you, food in hand, to sit and eat while having one of their drinks.

None of the above are coming to a storefront near you. But I think I know what will. Rice to Riches has the formula: A perfect comfort food, great profit margin, easily replicated graphics and style, and too cute by half. The place was packed. Which doesn't really tell you anything other than a lot of people like rice pudding. The myth of the truck driver somehow knows where to eat, or perusing a menu from the street is info that might tell you what to expect, are really false leads. Observing what people are eating in the sidewalk seats, or walking through a restaurant ostensibly to wash before dinner and seeing patrons plates is a far better strategy.

These are my opinions offered with the intention of sharing a process of how to improve your eating experience. The flaw in a system of user friendly opinions is that we are learning how easy it is to fake entries on social media to either create buzz or blow off a competitor. Opinion spam is becoming endemic but you can learn how to spot it. Finally, there is no substitute for face to face sharing.

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