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A Conversation with Nancy Nichols


Richard Kilgore
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eG Conversation with Nancy Nichols

Food & Travel Editor, D Magazine

March 14 - 18, 2005

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Copyright © 2004, D Magazine. All Rights Reserved.

We are pleased to have Nancy Nichols, food editor of D Magazine, join us the week of March 14, 2005 for an eG Texas Forum Conversation.

Although the Conversation does not officially begin until Monday, March 14th, you may begin posting your questions and comments for Nancy at any time in this thread.

Nancy has given us permission to publish her article "Romano's Revenge" on the lawsuit brought by restauranteer Phil Romano against Dotty Grifith and the Dallas Morning News after her review of his Il Mulino outpost in Dallas. In her article she delves into the careers of both Ms. Griffith and Mr. Romano and into recent Dallas restaurant and criticism history. In addition she touches on a number of controversial issues in restaurant criticism, including the causes and effects of non-anonymity for food critics, whether critics should have restaurant experience and the star system.

Nancy has been the Food and Travel Editor at D Magazine for 8 years. She says it's a perfect job for her as she loves to eat and travel and travel to eat.

She spent close to 20 years in and around the food business working in many different capacities --- from her first job as a waitress at the J. C. Penny's coffee shop to catering Christmas parties for Steven Spielberg and Jane Fonda. In between she was an event coordinator for the L.A. Coliseum and Sports Arena and produced events ranging from NBA basketball games to Bruce Springsteen concerts. A native of Dallas, she spent 11 years in Los Angeles before returning to Dallas in 1992 just as the local dining scene began its transformation.

D magazine food coverage and Nancy's articles are frequently reported and discussed in the eG Texas Forum and the eG Food Media & News Forum.

Click to check out the following.

The eG Texas Forum Media Digest.

A thread on Nancy's James Beard Award nominated article,

Death on the Half Shell.

Thirty Years of Dining in Dallas.

An earlier discussion of the article which is now published in full (see above link) Cry Baby: Inside the City's Nastiest Food Fight.

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Hello Nancy. Thanks so much for joining us for this conversation.

I'd like to kick it off with a question about the role of the media in providing characters like Romano with what Margaret Thatcher used to call the "oxygen of publicity."

Thatcher used that phrase with respect to terrorism. Of course, Romano is not a terrorist -- he is using legal means to accomplish his strategy of self aggrandizement and intimidation. Nonetheless, I see frivolous lawsuits such as Romano's as clearly immoral, and I think news media have a responsibility to consider their actions carefully before allowing immoral actions to achieve their desired results.

In general, do you think that by providing Romano with so much excellent (and free) coverage of his clearly frivolous lawsuit, the media have encouraged this kind of offensive conduct going forward? Do you think the message is that if you're poorly reviewed or reviewed in any way that varies from exactly what you wanted, and you have money to burn, you should file a frivolous lawsuit against the local restaurant, architecture, music, etc., critic?

Specifically, what of the role of D Magazine, and now the eGullet Society as carrier of a reprint and this Conversation, in keeping the flow of the "oxygen of publicity" coming to Romano? I'm referring in particular to language like, "As a lawsuit, it’s a waste of time. But Romano himself told me it was his critique of Dotty Griffith and the star system, and, as such, it raises all sorts of interesting questions." And, later, "Finally, Romano’s lawsuit attacks the star rating system. Here is where I applaud him . . ." My immediate reaction when I read those passages was to think that the ends don't justify the means -- that immoral acts like filing frivolous lawsuits are unworthy of being applauded, directly or indirectly.

So, since we are all now about to embark on the project of giving Romano yet another round of free publicity, can you offer us any thoughts on how you think the media should balance the journalistic imperative against the (we hope) desire to avoid aiding and abetting those who abuse the system?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Hi Nancy, we are very glad you joined us for this chat.

It is clear that you do not agree with Romano's (and others') claims that food critics should have some sort of training and I agree with you, but I also think that in order to write about something you have to know what you are talking about. So, what should be the minimum requirement(s) for a food critic? What charactaristics make a good restaurant critic?

Thanks again,

Elie

E. Nassar
Houston, TX

My Blog
contact: enassar(AT)gmail(DOT)com

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Good morning one and all. I am looking forward to a "meaty" debate on the topics raised in my article. I certainly stirred a hornet's nest of public opinion, especially in the restaurant community. Thanks for asking me to this forum. Now I have a place to discuss, publicly, some of the fall out.

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Well, Steven (Fat Guy) raises plenty of the questions I faced when tackling this story. First of all, let me say that in my heart, the main emphasis of the story was not Romano’s ludicrous lawsuit, but food reviewing in general; more specifically, the relationship between the restaurant industry and those who “watch” it. I used Romano’s “oxygen of publicity” to raise issues that, until now, have not been discussed publicly—the ever changing role of a food critic and their relationships with restaurateurs. His lawsuit did/does open the gates to a discussion: when you, Fat Guy (Jeez that’s tough to type!) say, “My immediate reaction when I read those passages was to think that the ends don't justify the means -- that immoral acts like filing frivolous lawsuits are unworthy of being applauded, directly or indirectly,” I disagree. Romano, and any other restaurateur, has the right (dang!) to sue frivolously, just as critics have the right to write, sometimes equally frivolously. But, frivolous as we all may be, I viewed the silly lawsuit as an opportunity to raise the bar on the business of restaurants and the reviewing system. I do not like the star rating system and, after talking to scads of local restaurateurs without deep pockets, found that many are frustrated by the system. That said, let’s rumble.

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Hello Nancy,

I'm a big fan of your writing and your ballsy attitude on Frontburner.

I am also not fond of the star system but what I find more annoying in restaurant reviews is the tendency for reviewers to describe each morsel of food to the minutia. I swear a certain critic in town (not you) must get out the thesaurus each week just to get that word count up for the publication. Bottom line is we want to know if we should spend our money at the restaurant and why, not the fact that on that particular critic's plate the sea bass was as flakey as a Head and Shoulders ad.

So here is my question: Do you find that restaurant critics write for the audience of readers who are simply looking for a good place to eat Friday night or are they writing for the much smaller circle of restauranteurs and foodies who thrive on a whole paragraph describing the proscuitto? My view is that it is the latter when it should be the former but I would like your inside opinion.

Thanks.

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Elie, thanks for bringing up a topic that comes up almost daily in my profession, especially from chefs and owners of high-end restaurants. In my mind everyone is a food critic. If you dine at a restaurant and pay for food you will have an opinion about your experience--food, service, ambience, etc. The difference between the average diner and me, or anyone who manages to get paid for their opinion, is that I have learned how to write about my experience. Hopefully what I write is an evaluation that contains a reflection of my experience backed by my knowledge of food. Movie reviewers don’t have degrees in movie criticism although a fair number of them have studied film. The good ones survive. The same holds true for food criticism: those who have worked in the food industry or have extensive hands-on restaurant experience tend to rise to the top. The trick is combining knowledge and writing. I would rather train an experienced writer to be a food critic, than the other way around. A good restaurant critic is truthful and fair and backs up critical statement like “the hollandaise was runny” with a fact like “because the creamy sauce was broken perhaps by overheating.”

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Raynickben refers to my “ballsy attitude on FrontBurner” which is the name of the daily blog of D Magazine. First of all thanks, and second of all I detest reading long dissections of dishes in a review. All criticism has an innate amount of egotism built into it--we are getting paid to write our opinions. But I tend to gloss over when any writer (food or otherwise) goes too far off. There are better ways to reach a word count requirement and I agree that the main purpose is to provide a reader with an adequate amount of information so that they can decide how to spend their money. However, I believe that you have to balance authority and entertainment in food writing, and turn your phrases appropriately. The Head and Shoulders comment is at least a positive statement, but the image the statement leaves in my taste memory makes me sick at my stomach. And, despite your awe-inspiring alliteration, I would never make it through a paragraph the perfect proscuitto.

Edited by NancyNichols (log)
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Welcome Nancy. Thanks for joining us for this first in a series of Conversations with Texas food writers.

In your article, you appear to point to two levels of inconsistency in Dotty Griffith's review. In addition to the confusing four star rating in the context of an overwhelming ratio of negative comments to postitive comments, you also focus on a glaring internal contradiction in her discussion of a single dish.

She noted that “a half-order of pappardelle with Italian sausage and pancetta wasn’t overwhelmingly buttery, but the sauce was so rich that more than a few bites of the large portion quickly felt filling, then cloying.” In the next sentence, though, she said the dish was “worth an encore.”

This raises a question about the editing process in restaurant reviewing. Anyone can write a sloppy or internally contradictory piece for a variety of reasons, some of which may be out of their awareness. On the surface of it, the above quote appears to be something that an editor would question if it came from a relatively inexperienced writer. But it sometimes happens that even succesful, established writers in any field run the risk that their publishers stop providing them with solid, consistent editing support. This happens in book publishing too often.

So what level of editing do you provide your reviewers? What do you see as the proper balance between the reviewer's right to express their views and editorial responsibility?

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Terrific piece, Nancy.

The issue of the rating system is the subject of a cover story in this month's Philadelphia Magazine, which covers similar issues in connection with the opening of a high-end restaurant and the review by the food critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Craig LaBan. Read it here, if you like.

As for the star system (scale of 1 to 4 bells), LaBan had the following to say:

It comes down to the widely held impression, which isn't without foundation, that LaBan awards two bells to most of the places he reviews. So you get restaurants that at first blush seem wildly divergent in quality ... receiving the same middling grade.  Of course, LaBan wouldn't say it's "middling." The box accompanying his reviews describes two bells as denoting "very good," and he elaborates, in an interview, that two bells are "a green light, with qualifications." ... LaBan also allows that in his head, he thinks of restaurants as being "a high two, a middle two, and a low two." But that's in his head. To add more gradations to his scale, he says, would lead to hair-splitting and the suggestion that this is a science, which it's not. The bells are merely a sifting device; his discursive comments are what really matter. "Most of what I do is in the review," he says, "in the soft-tissue experience."

As you point out, restaurateurs, though, are more concerned about the stars than the "soft-tissue", probably because many readers don't really bother with the nitty-gritty, just the bottom line.

So: for better or for worse, isn't it the critic's job to assign a rating, regardless of how inherently flawed the system may be? One can argue all day about the fairness of it all (and surely this is a topic on most boards here), but if the short-attention-spanned public just wants the nutshell (after all, most will remember the number of stars longer than the description of the carpaccio), isn't it appropriate to expect the critic to offer that?

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Richard, I can’t speak for the editing process at the Dallas Morning News, but I can shed some light as to what happens at my magazine. Once I write something, at least five editors, plus a copy editor reads my review. Believe me, if someone doesn’t understand a sentence or feels that I’ve failed to make a point, I hear about it and am given the opportunity to correct or change my original thought. However, we have the “luxury” of being of monthly publication, which gives us time to reread. I feel that all newspapers suffer from poor editing, but the responsibility of being clear goes to the writer, especially when you are expressing an opinion or a fact.

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Hells bells, Philly four-bells system is more cracked than the Morning News’ 5 stars. First of all, if you’re going to have icons, you need to have at least 5 to allow a broader range. That said, once you assign the icons, you’re stuck. I understand that people want a quick reference guide. The only quick reference guide that makes any sense to me is to break restaurants down by price first and then assign the icons. That way a fabulous diner or a hole-in-the-wall Tex Mex joint can become a 5-Bell/Star dining experiences. But the New York/LA-centric food media continues to promote fine dining restaurants as the only establishments worthy of five-anythings.

Edited by NancyNichols (log)
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Ms. Nichols-

In Food Fight, you note that you have abandoned the anonymity which is standard operating procedure for restaurant critics all over the world because "Times have changed...the emergence of...dining critics like John Mariani as high profile celebrities have put pressure on food writers to increase their visibility and feed the public's curiosity."

In the book, The Soul of a Chef, it was reported that Mariani also gets free plane tickets and hotel rooms from restaurants he reviews. And he never pays for the food or the wine when he is reviewing. So do the "new, higher-profile" restaurant critics also take freebies?

-Robb Walsh

Restaurant Critic

Houston Press

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Welcome, Nancy. And many thanks for participating.

More on the star system (or bells, or forks, or whatever) . . .

I certainly have a take on the system that it is essentially a "soft" issue and treat it like that when making a dining decision. I also automatically think that the rating is based on the food and service. I certainly may be wrong on that. For that reason, if I have time, I will check out a place myself before an important dinner or lunch. Now why would I do that? Well, there are two other criteria that are just as important to me, noise level and table spacing. At least, I can check that out just by walking in.

There are some places here that I will not willingly patronize because of noise level and table spacing. (I do get dragged along from time to time with a group.) I can think of a couple where the food is exceptionally good and innovative, is rated with two or three whatevers, but I avoid like the plague because of extreme discomfort. From time to time, I see these issues addressed by critics. It is happening more here. But, when I am away from my turf, and don't know the critic in another city, I have been badly dissappointed that I wasn't forewarned.

Do you think it is the responsibility of a critic to address these issues, at least at the extremes?

Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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Ms. Nichols-

In Food Fight, you note that you have abandoned the anonymity which is standard operating procedure for restaurant critics all over the world because "Times have changed...the emergence of...dining critics like John Mariani as high profile celebrities have put pressure on food writers to increase their visibility and feed the public's curiosity."

In the book, The Soul of a Chef, it was reported that Mariani also gets free plane tickets and hotel rooms from restaurants he reviews. And he never pays for the food or the wine when he is reviewing. So do the "new, higher-profile" restaurant critics also take freebies?

-Robb Walsh

Restaurant Critic

Houston Press

Robb:

Having known John Mariani for years (I frequently dine with him when he's in Houston)... I've been to dinners that we paid for AND those where they were comp... however, he is always honest, both in the review AND when the restaurateur drops by the table to check on him. I have been fortunate enough to see the same comments appear, both at the table... and in the review. He has actually gotten to the point where his opinion is so respected and widely-spread that he writes what he damn-well thinks. I've heard him express "tough love" to Tony Vallone and Tony was actually pleased to hear his opinion... that being said, he has expressed to me that he feels that Tony's is still one of the best restaurants in the nation..... as opposed to the Chron's critic, Alison Cook, who has rated Tony's 2-stars (along with taquerias) for years. Of course, Alison tries to be anonymous, but is recognized most of the time.

I don't believe that comp meals preclude an honest review, or that anonymous ones guarantee honesty. A lot of people know what you look like and I think you are pretty damned honest in your reviews. I dissagree with your reviews frequently, but never doubt that you were trying to be open-minded (except in restaurants that cater to us "San Fillipy setters" ;-)).

Jack Tyler

Publisher

Houston Restaurant Business magazine

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In the previous posts, Robb and John have emerged as the yin and the yang of ethical dining review policy. Yes times have changed and with it food writers’ visibility, but not to the point that accepting free meals is an acceptable practice. I’ve heard the Mariani rumors (that he dines on free meals, etc) and now that Jack has confirmed the fact, I think it’s fair to say that what Mariani is doing is making us all look bad. It’s one thing to be recognized, it’s another to be catered to no matter what the critic tells the chef or writes in his review. It is an unethical, egomaniacal practice. Maybe Mariani is all about “tough love,” but I’ve seen plenty of freelancers grazing off restaurateurs with stars in their eyes and their reviews have translated into stars on the page. When Jack says, “I don't believe that comp meals preclude an honest review, or that anonymous ones guarantee honesty” I think he’s dead wrong. If you are a critic and accept a free dining experience and then express your opinion to the chef or owner, you become a consultant, not a critic. Period.

Edited by NancyNichols (log)
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Linda, noise level and table spacing both fall under ambiance, which should be one of the major components of any dining review. It is important for readers to know what type of vibe to expect when venturing to a new restaurant. Noise is a hot topic right now. Currently I am carrying a decibel level reader with me on reviews. I want to add a symbol that rates the noise in a restaurant in our listings. However, what you may or may not know is that many restaurateurs are designing noisy restaurants on purpose. Not only does it turn tables faster, noise produces a high-energy vibe that makes people feel like they’re in a happening place. It’s a big problem, at least in my opinion, and I refer to the noise factor frequently. Dining out is about sharing a meal with friends, families, or colleagues. When you can’t carry on a conversation over dinner, we’ve got a problem. Especially in high-dollar eateries.

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I want to add a symbol that rates the noise in a restaurant in our listings.

I think that is something many people would like to see.

Perhaps an ear muff symbol with a decibel rating along side, Nancy. Or how about a one ear muff to a five ear muff rating?

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. . . . .

Not only does it turn tables faster, noise produces a high-energy vibe that makes people feel like they’re in a happening place. It’s a big problem, at least in my opinion, and I refer to the noise factor frequently. Dining out is about sharing a meal with friends, families, or colleagues. When you can’t carry on a conversation over dinner, we’ve got a problem. Especially in high-dollar eateries.

Thanks for your reply. Perhaps I am just getting older and really don't care that much about being "happening." I am so glad you are including that in your reviews. If that practice would spread, perhaps some of these idiots would get a clue. Some of the places here, I have left with a sore throat and ringing ears. And I am talking about pretty high dollar places. I support Richard's earmuff symbols. :laugh:

BTW . . . OSHA regulations require hearing protection above 70 decibels.

Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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One of my biggest pet peeves of the moment is menu writing. In a rush to be “new, fresh, and exciting,” menu writers have stretched the English language to absurdity. I’ve now eaten “wind-dried” tomatoes, hand-picked basil, “inverted” osso buco, “baby” everything—I’m sure you’ve all seen it. Presentation seems to go crazy as well. Please stop serving anything in a martini glass or splattering the rims of plates with chopped parsley or paprika--it never works, it always looks like a war zone. I’m also over meat served on top of potatoes. One of my main concerns about the industry is that chefs are taking themselves too seriously. Sure, everyone wants a shot at their own TV show or line of products, we are living in a food-crazy society now, but I really miss the “Alice Waters” approach to dining where the focus is on real food and real conversation over dinner. Thankfully I do see, underneath the “Fusing Maniacs,” a definite trend toward chef owned and operated small restaurants with menus driven by local ingredients. But, I worry that they won’t survive in our current “wow factor” cuisine society.

Edited by NancyNichols (log)
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Nancy,

How do you stay emotionally detached from the people who have put their heart and soul into a restaurant but for lack of talent, money, a clue

just cannot make a place successful? Knowing your review could be the death knell to their livelihood do you just say "too bad, so sad" and print it? Have you ever held back a review for personal reasons? And how do you get a picture of a smiling restaurant owner knowing that his/her picture is going to be next to a not so positive review? My heart breaks for them everytime I see that in all publications.

(But believe me, I would rather a shoemaker lose his money than me lose mine dining there! I'm not that sympathetic!)

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One of my biggest pet peeves of the moment is menu writing. In a rush to be “new, fresh, and exciting,” menu writers have stretched the English language to absurdity. I’ve now eaten “wind-dried” tomatoes, hand-picked basil, “inverted” osso buco, “baby” everything—I’m sure you’ve all seen it. Presentation seems to go crazy as well. Please stop serving anything in a martini glass or splattering the rims of plates with chopped parsley or paprika--it never works, it always looks like a war zone. I’m also over meat served on top of potatoes. One of my main concerns about the industry is that chefs are taking themselves too seriously. Sure, everyone wants a shot at their own TV show or line of products, we are living in a food-crazy society now, but I really miss the “Alice Waters” approach to dining where the focus is on real food and real conversation over dinner. Thankfully I do see, underneath the “Fusing Maniacs,” a definite trend toward chef owned and operated small restaurants with menus driven by local ingredients.  But, I worry that they won’t survive in our current “wow factor” cuisine society.

Can you please elaborate on your comment above? How serious is too serious? What restaurants come to mind in Dallas, Houston, or the country where the ““Alice Waters” approach” is done and done right?

This brings up another point, shall we say the opposite end of the spectrum, “avant garde” cuisine pioneered by El Bulli's Ferran Adria in Spain and by the likes of Chef Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea (and previously Trio). What are your thoughts about their approach? Too serious or gimmicky? Or is it good food taken to the next level?

Elie

E. Nassar
Houston, TX

My Blog
contact: enassar(AT)gmail(DOT)com

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Dear Raynickben, First of all it’s hard to get emotionally attached to a restaurant “without talent” and not backed by a solid business plan. Those restaurants will kill themselves and given the space limitations I have, I stay away from these type of businesses. There are plenty of restaurateurs who think they have talent and have tons of money and usually those places too will fail on their own. I also don’t believe that a bad review can break a restaurant with a solid business plan and I don’t think a good review can keep a “talented” restaurant in business if they don’t manage their money wisely. I’ve never held a review for personal reasons, but I have not reviewed a place because I feel that the restaurant will not survive. On the picture question, yes I am not happy when the photographer comes back with a picture of a smiling owner. Luckily, my art director and photographer will take my suggestions as to what I deem to be an appropriate shot. However, if the restaurant involves a chef who is newsworthy, sometimes I’ll ok a shot for the person no matter what the review. But I feel horrible for a restaurant who gets all excited when the photographer (freelance in our case) comes out and then are crestfallen when the review hits. However, savvy restaurateurs who concentrate on running their businesses instead of worrying about reviews will usually prevail.

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Nice to have you here, Nancy. As a New Yorker unfamiliar with the Dallas dining scene, I hadn't known about you, but I've enjoyed the personality you've shown here.

One of my biggest pet peeves of the moment is menu writing. In a rush to be “new, fresh, and exciting,” menu writers have stretched the English language to absurdity. I’ve now eaten “wind-dried” tomatoes, hand-picked basil, “inverted” osso buco, “baby” everything—I’m sure you’ve all seen it.[...]

Here in New York, Frank Bruni made a related comment, but having more to do with the organization of menus into categories than the language in each entry. There's a thread about it here. An illustrative quote from the article:

But the unwieldy array of options at Ono and Caviar & Banana do not really help a diner put together a personalized experience. The dinner menu at Ono typifies a fine idea run amok. The first page has five categories (grilled pizzas, appetizers, soups and custards, salads and noodles, and tempura), and there are three more pages with a dozen additional categories after that.

I'd like to ask a question no-one's asked you yet in this thread. Who are your favorite food writers and what do you like best about them?

[Edited to add a link to Bruni's article.]

Edited by Pan (log)

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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