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Cocktails before dinner


Ron Johnson
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In my hometown our local restaurant critic has an annoying habit of judging a place largely by its ability to make a martini to her liking.  Occassionally she branches out to manhattans, gibsons, and the like.  However, my quibble isn't so much with this idiosyncracy that I find largely irrelevant to the jugding the merits of the restaurant, but the fact that she is seriously impairing her palate BEFORE she begins to taste the food.  To make matters worse, she also attempts to describe the taste of her chosen wine for the evening immediately after torching her taste buds with glass of vodka.

My questions are:

1) Is this proper behavior for a professional restaurant critic who is employed by the city's largest  paper and has a significant impact on the restaurant business?

2) Despite the enjoyment factor brought about by a pre-dinner cocktail (especially a cocktail as high in alcohol as a martini), does it actually impair one's ability to taste food and wine?

3) If it doesn't impair the ability to taste in a general sense, does it impair the ability to taste subtle nuances in both food and wine?

4) Is there any journalistic code of ethics or rules for restaurant critics, and if so, would this be a violation.

For me this is a real problem.  It would be akin to finding out that Robert Parker gargled with Listerine just prior to rating wines blind.

Any thoughts or comments on this are much appreciated.  I am considering a letter to the editor on this, but want to be as well informed as possible beforehand.

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A "journalistic code of ethics or rules for restaurant critics"?

Monsieur Fat Guy? Just exactly what triggers the ethics chip implanted when one takes the Vows and receives the Holy Expense Account?

ron johnson, my sympathies. I would just not read her reviews. Or if I felt strongly enough, write to the editor and make my points clear.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Don't get me wrong.  I think it is great to have a before dinner cocktail or aperitif such as a Negroni.  However, I just think that a restaurant critic has a different mission than the average joe.  Whereas my only reason to dine out is to have a good time, a restaurant critic is supposedly there to accurately taste the food, discern the quality of the ingredients and judge the level of skill in the kitchen.  It seems that slugging back a martini would only detract from one's ability to do so.

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My guess is that she's more adept at reviewing martinis than meals and honest enough to let her readers know that. I have two thoughts on this. One is that some smokers and drinkers have better palates than some who abstain. At the same time, I believe those who smoke and who drink before dinner would have an even sharper palate if they abstained. Taken together, those would imply that she's not being professional. Then again maybe she understands she's writing for a public at large, most of whom probably take a cocktail before dinner and maybe through dinner. I don't know how sophisticated her reading public is, and I'm using my subjective definition (I strongly suspect it's yours as well, from your post) of sophisticated diner. Lest you feel I'm indicting your fair city, I'll remind you that the reviewer from the NY Times when asked about his qualifications just before beginning his job, responded that if the Times wanted the most knowledgeable person they would have picked a certain chef. This did not stop the reviewer from insultingly reviewing that chef's restaurant within a few months. Maybe the woman really knows food and feels she needs a palate handicap to put her reviews on a par with NYC reviews. Jinmyo's sarcasm about the "profession" is not unwarranted and where is Fat Guy's response?

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Certainly sarcasm and disdain were not unexpected reactions to my post.  However, my purpose was to not to appear naive or sanctimonious regarding the profession and its standards or apparent lack therof.  Rather, my point was to discern whether this reviewer was failing in some objective manner.  She has already failed miserably in the subjective.

Where is the Fat Guy's response?  I would like to know if he ever drinks a glass of chilled straight vodka just before tasting food for a review?

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I think we all vacilate between naively expressing the desire for a perfect world and  a need to show how wise and skeptical we are. Most of us are able to post from one exteme or the other depending on mood or topic. At the same time a post from one pole is bound to bring the other out in us.

There's been some discussion of the profession of food/restaurant reviewer elsewhere on this site. One thing that's been mentioned is that few publications afford a reviewer the budget to make return trips and that few reviewers ever make the four or five visits that are required to get a fair opinion. Few reviews are written with enough knowledge of a restaurant as is. It's just not that important to a newspaper and I assume to its readership. With that in mind, we can ask, as you did, how much can we expect from the field. My guess is that we're underserved but can't expect much more.

My guess is that straight vodka or alcoholic cocktails would not be part of Shaw's predinner habit unless he was reviewing a Russian restaurant. I'm not sure if that makes him a better critic, or just one that's subjectively interesting to me. As I mentioned, if the average reader is one who has a martini before, or during, dinner, he's served well by reading someone with his tastes. If you believe a reviewer's job is to instruct as well as write about what he eats, that's another story. Maybe we should go back and review that other thread where I believe one poster said a reviewer's job is to sell newspapers. He's hired on the basis of appealing to the readership, not improving their taste.

I think your reviewer is failing in some objective way, but not enough people care and in the end, if your taste is better than the reviewers or your standards are higher, you're on your own, or dependent on a subcommunity of friends and local food lovers you trust.

My recollection of your posts here gives me the impression that you've been to NY on several occasions and have traveled abroad. How are the local restaurants and do they warrant closer inspection than currently given? Don't get me wrong, I enjoy traveling and am saddened that eating out is much less fun when I leave NY. I wish every interesting region could match S.F or at least Seattle, but it's rare to come across pockets of restaurants that can make my day. In many places, one is lucky enough to find the Anthony Boudain ideal of good company and lots of alcohol.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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As I have stated previously, I live in Louisville, Ky.  A town that is provincial by most standards, but certainly blessed with a thriving cultural scene, especially for a city of its size.  There are a core of about 10 to 12 very good restaurants here.  By "very good" I mean restaurants that I believe would garner 2 stars on the  NYTimes scale.  Perhaps there are one or two that would fair slightly better.  There are no four star restaurants here.  I think that if you dined at the right places here, you would be pleasantly surprised.  However, they are no comparison to the best that NYC has to offer.

As for relying on a subcommunity of friends and local food lovers as you state, we are lucky to have a forum for just such a purpose.  It can be found at Louisvillehotbytes.com.  If you would like to find out more about the culinary scene in a smaller city in the South, I encourage you to check it out sometime.

Robin Garr, an individual who is widely known in the wine community as a critic, taster, and writer, makes his home in Louisville and hosts the forum.  When our newspaper was owned by the Bingham family (and consistently ranked in the top ten papers in the country) and journalistic standards meant something, Mr. Garr was  the wine writer and food critic.  Now that our paper is owned by a large corporation and the only standard is the bottom-line, we now have a vodka swilling idiot reviewing our restaurants.  Her lack of knowledge of food in general is only trumped by her outright ignorance of wine and her aforementioned habit of having a martini to begin a review.  A habit which, incidentally, is annoyingly described in great detail in each of her columns.  

Alas, I believe you are most correct when you state that although she is failing in an objective manner, her readership doesn't care.  

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Katherine:  She drinks both I believe, so that makes her a gin-swilling idiot as well.  I should have been more specific.

Tommy:  I was waiting for you to take offense.  At least someone out there is championing the cause for inebriation.  Cheers!

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I suspect there's probably a boring but accurate scientific answer to this question.  Unless the cocktail has physiological effects on either the taste receptors on your tongue, or the more complex olfactory receptors in your nasal cavity, which endure while you are eating the meal, there is no reason to claim that the cocktail affects the "palate" ("palate" being a somewhat poetic expression - you do not, of course, actually taste anything with your palate).   I suspect the average cocktail has no more than a passing effect on the receptors (a very powerful alcohol might, of course, anaesthetise them for a period), especially if one drinks some water before moving on to the food and wine.

And are we being snobbish about cocktails?  A glass of champagne or kir before a meal isn't said to impair the palate, although they are going to work on the receptors in just the same way a martini does.  The real danger, of course, is getting loaded before you eat, which may still not affect your palate, but is going to have predictable effects on your memory, concentration and judgment.

Smoking, I believe, is different.  Smoking has a marked anaesthetic effect on the cilia (little hairs in the respiratory) system.  I do not know whether tobacco smoke anaesethises taste receptors too, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if it did - it's pretty toxic stuff.  The anaesthetic effect would doubtless be reversible, but might last a while - until the next cigarette, for instance.

Finally, while I don't dispute Bux's point that smokers/drinkers may have good palates, I would raise a sceptical question about how one can tell.  Person A may appear to have a better palate than person B, but actually only be much better at describing their experiences than person B.  In other words, it is their verbal skill which is better -their palate may be no better or worse.

Oof.

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I sense there are great palates among smokers because some great chefs smoke. I nevertheless believe they are handicapping that great palate by smoking. I've told of one chef who quit, and said he was tasting new flavors in the same food after quitting.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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I'm sure you're right, Bux, and equally I can't imagine someone saying the same after giving up drinking cocktails or spirits.  I think the effects of smoking on taste receptors are much longer lasting than the effects of a quick snifter.

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Yes. As I recall observation was that his taste buds/palate improved slowly for some time after quitting.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Won't find Fat Guy for a few days. I thought he mentioned on another post he is BBQing down south somewhere.

And yes, quitting smoking enhanced my tasting abilities for 20 years longer. The not-Drinking anymore had the same effect. Maybe not tasting food better, but enjoying it more!

Peter
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No, he didn't put on any weight. He ran the marathon and came in among the top 4 or 5% although he had never run before and was never an athelete. But he is a Breton and they're very stubborn and persistent.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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By the way, ron johnson, I thought I would mention that I didn't think you might find my remark sarcastic, merely humorous. Or at least that the sarcasm might be directed towards you. I only meant that there are no standards for restaurant reviewers that I know of at all. And hoped that Fat Guy might jump in and contribute something to the thread.

So, if I have given offense, /me seppuku.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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