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I love reading the New York Review of Books Letters to the Editors which should more correctly be called “Letters to the Authors of Reviews and Essays that Really Tore My Hide Off.” I also like reading the letters that are sent to the Public Editor of the New York Times as well as his response and the Times’ staff’s explanations/excuses.
Letters or comments are always contaminated—I mean, why does one write? Because an issue or sacred cow of yours was either attacked or because you want to passionately support some issue more strongly than the original author/article/etc. did. No one, therefore, is pure. That I understand.
But I also find it fascinating when this “contamination” is so transparent. Not so very long ago, the father of a chef whose restaurant I and another (more mainstream and print media) critic had had a bad experience at wrote to me all upset and offered to pay for a meal if I’d return. Since a total of three of us ate there and we agreed that 66% of the dishes served were substandard and only 33% worthwhile eating, I declined his offer. But he was open about who he was, what his gripe was and suggested a remedy.
Not so on other occasions. Let me give some examples:
“Re: [Resto X] Why is everyone judging so quick! Good, bad, average… Give it a chance! They are young they are trying and it’s the beginning. You re very french Monsieur! La critique facile as we say.”
Hate mail comes with the territory of reviewing for a food blog. I know this. And it’s certainly fair play if in response to our being frank about meals we’ve had, people who disagree with us say so directly.
“I totally disagree with this critic about “LP.”. In my bad english I will try to explain that meals are delicious and the service is charming. Maybe that day your book didn’t let you enjoy them. Besides, prices are more than acceptables (1 beer 2 €, a lot of tapas, 4 €, the most expensive tapa: great spanish ham, 13 €…).”
Now since the errors seem to be compatible with those made by Spanishophones in English and the owner/manager is herself Spanish and I was reading a book at the table, one may assume that this is an outraged but totally self-serving comment.
But I’m always a bit taken aback when someone writes as this person did:
“[Y]is my neighborhood bistro. The menu is a great deal and there are lots of choices: apero, three courses, plus a carafe of wine for 35 euros. I tend to prefer their winter menu. Perhaps I’m reading it wrong, but I wouldn’t call this the “Deepest 13th” as it’s literally one block from the 5th (Blvd de Port Royal), also there are 2 metro lignes within 5-7 minutes (Gobelins 7, and Glacière 6).”
Now here we have a customer whose favorite bistro, like her ox, has been gored, but she is more interested in reasoning with me than throwing vitriol.
And then, there’s a missive like this:
“Don’t go to “Z” – we had one if the worst dining experiences ever. First – restaurant was about 90 degrees and we thought we were going to pass out. Second -all meals were served with the same sides – root purée and sauteed peppers. This is a crime in the middle of the summer. Third – our desserts were “mistakenly” added to the bill although they were part of our menu. Fourth – the rest of the food was mediocre at best. Fifth – they wouldn’t let us sub the dessert from the cheaper menu. Sixth – probably since we were delirious from the heat inside – we left our iPad. When we went back to get it the staff claimed it could not be found. Beware. Perhaps better when not August.”
Here someone clearly had an awful experience but desires more to warn others than excoriate the proponent of the place (me).
“oh, my….I’m a bit surprised at how major a miss you’ve made….
“A”……may be one of the most remarkable places in all Paris. The food is unpretentious, perhaps, but attended to so ….well, attentively… and imaginatively, without any inclination towards showing off… which may well be its downfall with some but I’d have expected better of you, frankly. It’s the kind of place about which reviewers start coughing up words like “integrity” and “honesty” and “mémère…”
And in fact, in that neighborhood there are increasingly so many more places of worth… not, perhaps as notable and distinct and special as “A”… but…maybe, if you live near there, you’ve been blinded by familiarity but in my experience, they’re popping up like champignons…”
I hope people continue to write me, I hope they’ll disagree with me. I hope that my palate is not necessarily satisfied by every piece of bland cooking that hits it; I try to eat at new places as often as I can, every day if possible. Inevitably, I hit a clinker. That’s life.
But a range of quality means just that: there are high, average and low scores and meals and dishes. Wouldn’t we all wish to live in a culinary Lake Wobegon, “where all the meals are above average?” But we don’t.
And wouldn’t we all like our kids and siblings and parents to always be praised, especially in one of the toughest jobs on earth, being a chef? But that’s not life.
(c) John Talbott
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