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The Faceless Critic


fedelst
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For what it's worth, QdC made Forbes list of ten most expensive restaurants in the world for 2007.

Correction... The list was published in 2007, but is titled "World's Most Expensive Restaurants 2006". However, this list features restaurants serving meals priced from $368 - $62 for a meal for one???? This makes no sense, as Without having the experience of Zagat, I could easily name 10 far more pricey seats around the world. The fact that each restaurant listed also includes a number for reservations, makes me suspect this is more marketing than factual content.

Come to think of it, I spent more at Gibson's in Chicago, and Charley Trotters in Vegas on a steak dinner than the Queue. For a steak house, the Queue's prices are in line with the industry. Considering that there is a market for what Mr. M is serving, I believe he successfully created a business to meet a market need. And, it is not geared towards everybody.

If you go to the Queue and complain about prices, perhaps you should not have gone to the Queue. As it seems we are quoting old adages perhaps 'if you have to ask the price, you probably can't afford it' might be fitting. If your perspective is that 'there is a sucker born every minute' then clearly, the whole concept of dining out must be considered as a challenge, as it must pain you to pay more for anything you could prepare for yourself at home at cost.

When dining out, you are paying for the experience, this includes everything from the decor and ambiance, to the food, to the feeling you have from the beginning through to the end of the meal. As an example, look at any of the feature restaurants in Vegas, and ask why people flock to these places, when so many other less expensive options exist? Yes, the food may be good, but it is clear from their investment in the restaurant that the ambiance and decor, as well as the location and the celebrity chef name score highly in contributing to the experience.

Many years ago at a presentation in the western part of the US, just before a break in the event, a list of benefactors was being announced to the audience listing some very generous sponsors. All were greeted with applause, until they reached Bill Gates, who was heartily booed by the audience. A bit surprised, I asked a number of folks at the event why they would boo Mr. Gates for sponsoring this event. I got a variety of replies, and ultimately and inadvertently formed a large group of folks standing around during the break pondering the reaction. In the end, we, to our own surprise, determined that perhaps the actual reason for the boo's was out of envy than disdain.

As with Mr. M and the Queue, love him or hate him, he and his team have built a successful presence in the Montreal restaurant scene. You may not wish to dine there, and it may not be your cup of tea, but respect it for what it is. It is a successful steak house that caters to a client base who appreciates the experience.

Except that I can afford to eat at the Queue. When I say it's for people with more money than sense, I'm talking about me six years ago and the people I hung with and the people I saw around us while eating there. It seems to me now that we were there to lap up the flattery as much as the food. That the food and wine were not expensive because they were good, but rather we thought they MUST be good, because we were paying so much for them.

My tastes and my priorities have changed a lot since then. I care a lot more for the creative side of cooking. I've come to see that in Montreal, there are better, more interesting dining options. So I no longer regard the "experience" the Q offers (a generic luxury steak house experience that, by your own admission, can be had in Vegas, Chicago, and doubtless in hundreds of other places) as good value for money.

I don't think anyone here is criticizing Mr. M for the success he enjoys feeding the bellies and the narcissism of the nouveau riche, but rather for his attempts to buy or bully his way into the consideration of people who are serious about food.

Edited by rcianci (log)
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If you go to the Queue and complain about prices, perhaps you should not have gone to the Queue.

The price is not an issue. The value of what you get is. I’ve eaten there often enough (reluctantly I may add). One does not go there to enjoy the food, one goes there to be “in”.

The experience of eating there is akin to an Outback steak house with better décor. It has never been memorable and has bordered on the awful. I expect some puffery in advertising from restaurants, but Queue seems to mistake it for quality – and worse actually believe their own tripe …

So you say they have “outed” Mrs. C. Wow,how childish of them. Did it make them feel good playing the role of a bully?

I can assure that I feel no “envy” towards Queue – it’s just a sub-par restaurant masquerading as a good steakhouse.

“It is a successful steak house that caters to a client base who appreciates the experience.”

Gee, the same can be said about “Baton Rouge” and “Scores” – it does not make them good. I don’t “hate” or “love” Queue de Cheval, it’s just not that enjoyable and leaves me indifferent.

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"outing" Lesley seems a bit of a stretch. Most places I worked at before, people all knew what she looked like and when she was sitting in the dining room, the kitchen was all "hey, this table is Lesley C, make sure it's perfect". Sure the principle behind "outing" her is really sick, but it probably doesn't do too much that wasn't done already, at least for a large number of restauranteurs.

"Bells will ring, ting-a-ling-a-ling, ting.... the bell... bing... 'moray" -John Daker

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Wouldn't it be nice to live in a world where everyone gets a perfect meal rather than only those who look like the restaurant critic?

sure would, but you have to be living in a utopia to realistically expect that to happen in every restaurant you go to. i mean, if you know that thousands of people are going to read about the foie gras you just cooked because this woman who is eating it will write a widely published article on it and the rest of the food you cooked, then the foie gras has to be perfect. wherever i worked, i tried my best to do everything as well as i could, but something kicks in when you know it's going to a critic, or a former chef, or your mom & dad or sister, or coworker. it's just the way it is, and it won't change any time soon.

"Bells will ring, ting-a-ling-a-ling, ting.... the bell... bing... 'moray" -John Daker

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You know what's great? It's great when I go to a restaurant, nobody knows who I am, I have a great meal and the restaurant gets a good review. Happened to me at O Chalet back when Alexandre Gosselin was the chef.

You know what's not so great? When I go to a restaurant, they know full well who I am, and there are huge problems with the food and service. Happened to me at Au Pied de Cochon.

Go figure.

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You know what's great? It's great when I go to a restaurant, nobody knows who I am, I have a great meal and the restaurant gets a good review. Happened to me at O Chalet back when Alexandre Gosselin was the chef.

You know what's not so great? When I go to a restaurant, they know full well who I am, and there are huge problems with the food and service. Happened to me at Au Pied de Cochon.

Go figure.

Considering the role of a critic, it would be expected that your anonymity is critical to the restaurant offering you an experience typical of any patron. Otherwise, the experience you are writing about may as well be titled 'How Good a Restaurant Can Really Be When They Want To Suck Up to You"... or something of this nature.

Which leads me to ask...... How can you expect unbiased service, when most restaurants know or can identify you? And, considering that so many restaurants know you, how can you expect to have a typical experience in any restaurant? Face it, with such visibility, you never know when the meal you had just been served was expertly staged with an exceptional attention to detail, or if that perfectly plated dish were the norm.

Edited by fedelst (log)

Veni. Vidi. Voro.

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Not to mention that, although some people defend the utility of having everyone tacitly agree to pretend the critic is anonymous, most everyone agrees that it's virtually impossible to both remain anonymous and attain sufficient dining experience/maintain enough dining experiences in a given locale to have anything worthwhile to say as a critic. The idea that real, actual anonymity is "crucial" to a food critic's work seems laughable. Certainly, around NYC some of the food critics who have done the very best have turned out to be the least anonymous (e.g., David Rosengarten).

Edited by slkinsey (log)

--

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fedelst - how anonymous do you think a critic can be in Montreal?

I don't work in the trade and I know what Lesley and Beauchemin look like (ditto Tastet, but he's no longer writing for Voir). I even knew how to spot Helen Rochester in a crowd even though she apparently went through some lengths to conceal her identity.

A party of 3 or 4 that orders almost everything on the menu, swaps plates throughout the meal and pays in cash. Unless your FOH are walking brainstems or amateurs press-ganged into service, the orders and the plate swapping are pretty good giveaways.

I also don't think that the sucking up actually happens as often as you might think. I wouldn't want to be the restauranteur who visibly lavishes attention on one table to the detriment of everyone else who came in. That kind of negative reaction gets around pretty fast.

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Not to mention that, although some people defend the utility of having everyone tacitly agree to pretend the critic is anonymous, most everyone agrees that it's virtually impossible to both remain anonymous and attain sufficient dining experience/maintain enough dining experiences in a given locale to have anything worthwhile to say as a critic.  The idea that real, actual anonymity is "crucial" to a food critic's work seems laughable. Certainly, around NYC some of the food critics who have done the very best have turned out to be the least anonymous (e.g., David Rosengarten).

Are you referring to Jeffrey Steingarten - Vogue, or in fact that overly self indulgent David Rosengarten?

Veni. Vidi. Voro.

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fedelst - how anonymous do you think a critic can be in Montreal?

I don't work in the trade and I know what Lesley and Beauchemin look like (ditto Tastet, but he's no longer writing for Voir). I even knew how to spot Helen Rochester in a crowd even though she apparently went through some lengths to conceal her identity.

A party of 3 or 4 that orders almost everything on the menu, swaps plates throughout the meal and pays in cash. Unless your FOH are walking brainstems or amateurs press-ganged into service, the orders and the plate swapping are pretty good giveaways.

I also don't think that the sucking up actually happens as often as you might think. I wouldn't want to be the restauranteur who visibly lavishes attention on one table to the detriment of everyone else who came in. That kind of negative reaction gets around pretty fast.

How, anonymous??? Good point, of course there is a big difference between making an attempt at being anonymous, and having an established social relationship with the management or staff of the restaurant. There is also a question of the motivation between the Gazette engaging a freelance vs. a staffed/salaried reviewer. It makes sense that the staff journalist has no interest in being known, or developing a presence as their value their employer is their ability to provide an unbiased review based on what the average Joe or Jane might experience. Whereas, as a freelance, anonymity may aid providing an unbiased review, yet, works counter to developing other writing/career opportunities. Perhaps Ms. C might have assumed a more discreet approach had she been a salaried journalist.

There may be many ways to conceal ones role as a critic. Yet, circumspect, and composure reign in developing a modicum of anonymity. Same goes for a restaurant looking to assure that a known critic is served a perfect meal. I was not suggesting that an establishment under review would be laying on excessive or lavish attention by the wait staff. Rather, that there may be extra care that is taken in the kitchen, and a more attentive eye on the table. Certainly, any overly attentive service or exceptional presentation would go noticed by the other patrons...

You also forgot a key point... Dining on a Wednesday... as it is commonly known by most all restaurants that Ms. C usually conducts 'her research' on Wednesdays.

Veni. Vidi. Voro.

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  • 1 month later...

I have personally had the experience of working in a resto as part of the waitstaff and being told at our before-service meeting to be on our best behaviour because Lesley C would be dining at the resto that night. I often wondered how they knew this in advance. And sure enough, the head chef put all of his energy that night into overseeing her meal. Definitely not representative of the level of care that each plate usually received. I was also surprised by the level of friendly chatting going on between the chef and owner and the reviewer. Apparently they had known each other for some time. Surely this subjective experience influences what is written. Given that there appears to be a continuum upon which chefs/owners fall between the extreme of friendship to the other extreme of complete anonymity, my perception is that the illusion of objectivity should be relinquished and it be clearly stated to the reader what bias exists (for example, a partner working in the kitchen of the restaurant being reviewed). A bit less of the reporter-like tone, and perhaps more of a personal narrative that explicitly mentions whether or not the chefs were aware of being evaluated might resonate as being more fair to me.

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OK, let's clear things up.

After doing this for eight years I can honestly say I know many, many chefs. I have to. I'm a freelance writer and i have to make a living. HOWEVER, just because I chat with a chef does not mean I have them over to my house for dinner, go out partying with them or that he or she is shown any favouritism.

I could list a ton of chefs I've chatted with who have ended up with less-than-stellar reviews (Martin Picard, Eric Gonzalez, Racha Bassoul, Marino Tavares), and I could list a ton of chefs I haven't said a word to who got great reviews (Juni, Roberto Stabile, Alexandre Gosselin, Louis-Francois Marcotte).

Really, if anything I think they might think we're "friendly" and then be surprised to see a two-star review. And as I've noted a million times before, I even criticized my husband's desserts, and I've been married to him for 17 years.

Look, get used to it, all the reviewers know some chefs. Robert Beauchemin does, Philippe Molle does, Marie-Claude Lortie does, and Jean-Philippe Tastet and Francoise Keller certainly did.

I, for one maybe, have only one chef out there I consider a close friend, whom I've known for over a decade. I can't live in a bubble and ignore chefs. I have to interview them often for other stories (for the Gazette and other publications), which means I've spoken to many of the city's top chefs on the phone for hours on end. Anyone who regularly reads what I write, knows I often quote chefs in my Critic's Notebook column and other features. Where do you think those quotes come from?

The challenge is to set aside that relationship for a review and focus on the restaurant. I'm there for the readers, to tell them what to expect. My job is not to help promote a chef and/or the restaurant.

And as for your accusation of people knowing I would be there in advance, the only thing I can imagine is that they recognize the name I book under, or that they might of seen my name on the phone, something I always make an effort to block.

Why they knew I was coming in advance is a mystery to me.

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We should all remember that a critic is providing an educated opinion. Tasting food is very subjective. There are off nights and times when everything is perfect. There's bias in tasting (try cooking dinner for 10 kids) and perception in service (try taking out my MIL for dinner).

If something sounds interesting, you should not hesitate to try it. If you can afford it, try something new. Dining out should be an adventure.

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