Commentary: Critic’s corner

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Wouldn’t you love to be a restaurant critic?

I would. You’d get invited to the best new places in town, where you’d drink the finest wine, sample the chef’s prized appetizers and get served the most expensive menu specialties every time out.

And all you have to do is capture a few stills of your entrée with your iPhone, head back to the office (or straight home!), fire up your laptop and proceed to nitpick every little detail that wasn’t absolutely perfect.

Why? Because you’re a critic. That’s what you do.

Of course, you toss in a few throw-away lines about the service and décor, and lavish some faint praise on a couple menu items you deemed worthy of your sophisticated palate—just to show you’re able to appreciate the owner’s sincerity in trying to approach your lofty culinary standards.

It’s nice work if you can get it.

I particularly love the columns rating a steakhouse. Since there’s generally less exotic cuisine to rave about at such restaurants, the critics bust out the thesaurus and lavish a serving of vocabulary on their readers that matches the heft and juiciness of the main course itself.

Here’s a great example, from Steve Cuozzo’s recent New York Post review of Costata, a trendy new Manhattan restaurant specializing in steak.

(By the way? Every new restaurant in Manhattan is “trendy.” Just so you know).

“Costata is well-muscled, remarkably mature for its age, white-tablecloth without weird, jagged edges on the plates.”

Wait—is he talking about the restaurant or the entrées?

Turns out he was referring to restaurateur Michael White’s “least interesting” new establishment, although he graciously allows that it lacks the “heat” of his other restaurants, which he laments that “blogger-driven hysterics have briefly turned into a zoo.”

Even restaurant critics have to make sacrifices, ya know.

All about the presentation

In his review, Cuozzo noted that early on, Costata had its problems: “Pasta seemed denatured, swordfish dull, polenta liquid enough for those without teeth.”

I hate when the polenta’s that liquid.

But it seems the house got its act together, though, because as he moved down the menu, the descriptions got decidedly more upbeat. And to be sure, no self-respecting critic is ever satisfied with simply riffing on what sounds like copy lifted off the menu, so Cuozzo needed to roll out some over-the-top descriptions of entrées you’ll never prepare at home:

“The Lobster al forno was an oreganata-style masterpiece, and although lesser chefs doll up inferior crudo with overbearing dressings, Costata’s Italian sashimi is well-calibrated and fully realized. The marinated razor clams were minced and matched to a Chinese-like tactility with spices, fennel and soppressata.”

I’ll be honest: I don’t even know what “Chinese-like tactility” is, much less how to judge whether it’s present or not.

But when the beef arrived, Cuozzoreally waxed eloquent, and his description of the presentation reads like professional ad copy in re-creating the sensual pleasure of devouring a delicious cut of meat.

“Huge steaks for two, like the 44-ounce ‘Tomahawk’ steak, are at the menu’s heart. The magnificent Creekstone Farms Black Angus beef is dry-aged for 40 days, possessed of a buttery flavor depth, yet without an excess of butter or the moldy quality that may come of so long a hang on the hook.”

Buttery flavor—but without the butter. Get it?

He continued: “Herb basting complexioned (yeah, that’s a word—if you’re a critic) the mighty 40-ounce Fiorentina porterhouse and the well-marbled ribeye, among Manhattan’s grandest new steaks.”

You have to wonder, though: Did the guy have his entire extended family in attendance, or was he just nibbling on those giant hunks of beef, then having the wait staff remove them, please, so we can move on to the dessert cart?

Apparently the latter, since he ratchets up the rhetoric when it comes time to polish off one final selection.

“The great pastry chef Robert Truitt’s Italian-esque rum raisin semifreddo with salted banana and passion fruit artfully balances classicism and moderninity.”

Amen, brother. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed when a dessert’s classicism overwhelms its moderninity.

Or vice versa.

It can spoil an otherwise exquisite meal.

If getting stuck with the check doesn’t do it first.

But when you’re a critic, hey—that’s not your problem.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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Hank the Cowdog    
Kansas City  |  July, 19, 2013 at 10:48 AM

Actually, Dan, I'd love to be a cowboy commentator. It's good work if you can get it! Trendy, ya know.


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