Next two critics critted. Lethlean and Dubecki

imagesAvid readers of this blog (hah!) might recall that on December 20 2013, I posted a crit of two Sydney.-based critics, Terry Durack and Guy Griffin. I now turn my attention to Melbourne.

You might also recall that I had one criticism of Mr Durack which prompted me to deduct two out of a possible five pens from his score. I wrote ‘There is, for me, one problem. And it is not in the words. It is in the picture of Mr Durack above the review.’ I my be old-fashioned, but I do believe that restaurants critics should be anonymous, as indeed are the inspectors who work for Michelin and Gault & Millau.

So I come to Mr Lethlean, whose criticism is published in The Weekend Australian Magazine, and whose picture does not appear in the review. But it does appear elsewhere, above his column in the A Plus section (disclaimer: a section for which I also occasionally write). This leaves me in a bit of a quandary with my stern stance on anonymity.

Call me a hypocrite if you will but I have decided not to deduct from Mr Lethlean. Journalism is a very different craft today than it was when my mother practiced it. Most stories were published anonymously. When she practiced her ‘criticism’ (more like notices) she did so under a pseudonym. Only the stars were given by-lines. At least Mr Lethlean’s picture does not appear in his review.

I have chosen to look at his review printed on January 25th 2014, of Hatch & Co in Brisbane. And it is that rare example of the form, a bad  one.

Why write a bad review I have been asked on the rare occasions I have written one. And the only answers I can give are one, to point  out to readers places that pass themselves off as better than they are or – and this is more difficult because it could come across as arrogant – to look closely at a place that is popular but doesn’t – in the eyes of the reviewer – deserve to be so. This review of Hatch & Co falls into the latter category: Mr Lethlean informs us that it is busy and ‘all the rage.’ Well, if it is the duty of the professional reviewer to ‘educate’ his or her readers, then that is the reason for this kind of review. But you must provide evidence that the problems are endemic, and not just the result of the place having ‘a bad night.’ I think Mr Lethlean proves his points.

It begins with a general critique of waiters in the current age. ‘Once’ he writes ‘they [waiters] would approach, subtly make their presence felt and wait for chat to cease…it was called “good manners” and it was a two-way street.’

But not, Mr Lethlean claims, at  Hatch & Co. Here, the waiter is a ‘relentless repetitious nuisance’  who, instead of announcing that ‘she will be looking after us’ should have said ‘ I’ll be interrupting you this evening.’

This is a terrific opening that chimes in with the experiences of many of us who eat out frequently. I worked with Beppi Polese on his book, A Life in Three Courses, and if anyone understands service, then it is Signor Polese, who has survived the cruel Sydney restaurant scene since 1956.

The section on service in that book should be read by every waiter who wants to understand how it works. ‘People don’t like to be disturbed’ he says, ‘Once you say hello, make them welcome, take the order, be gentle.’ Be gentle. How many gentle waiters have you had lately?

According to Mr Lethlean, there is not very much to like about Hatch & Co. But in the manner of a good bad review (if you get my meaning) he is explicit, and spells out exactly what exasperates him. It is ‘oh so predictable’, with a menu ‘I could have written on the plane… the interrupter does not know where the pimientos de Padron are grown’… and so on, right down to the fact that the bathrooms are a long way away.

It could just be that I share Mr Lethlean’s pet hates and predilections, but this review I find, like most of his that I have read, intelligent, precise, contextual (he points  out that this is  a ‘new venture from the folks at the excellent Gerard’s’), entertaining without being ingratiating or cruel and with enough sensuality in its food descriptions to offer a clear picture of what is on offer. And in this instance,  good reasons for me to avoid Hatch & Co. I’m giving him  4 out of a possible 6 pens.

Now to Ms Dubecki whose writing I have admired from afar (Sydney) for some time. I have chosen to look at her November 27th 2012  review of Rosetta, Neil Perry’s entry into Italian cuisine at the Crown Complex.

Alas, there is  a portrait of Ms Dubecki on the hard copy version of this review and also something on the online version which I feel is as bad: a video of Mr Perry spruiking his restaurant. He tells us  that the restaurant is “beautiful, luxe and sophisticated” and that it features “beautiful Italian design”  and that the food is made using “fantastic ingredients” and that they are also “fantastic fresh ingredients.” In other words the review is accompanied by an advertisement and not a very well-written one at that. This is not Mr Perry’s fault: he is a chef and a restaurateur (and  very good at both), not a writer. But it does not sit comfortably above a review that is, in theory, criticism: that is, the analysis of the merits and faults of (in this instance) a restaurant. But unlike the likeness above the review, the video is out of Ms Dubecki’s control – I have recently been subjected to just such an online imposition.

Unfortunately, Ms Dubecki’s review is, itself, at first, a little gushy. “I thought they didn’t make restaurants like this anymore” she begins, and goes on to write (very well) of what she sees as the virtues of the space, everything from the ‘billowy fouff of soft white curtains’ to the joy of ‘lowering your bottom onto the banquette’s russet velvet cushions.’

After making comparisons with Harry’s Bar, Cipriani and Babbo, she writes ‘then you hit the wall of black-and-white portraits of famous Italians – Armani, Sinatra, Loren – and then another layer emerges. It’s a rat-pack time machine.’ And I begin to wonder whether Ms Dubecki doesn’t have her lingua firmly in her guancia: it does sound somewhat – what’s the Italian for kitsch? My Collins Italian dictionary doesn’t give me one so it’s probably – kitsch.

But, as she  so cleverly opines, ‘fit-outs are just foreplay’ and moves onto the food, and almost all is forgiven. The risotto is ‘all silky heaven, pure creaminess, texture like a cloud; the ‘nakedly minimalist mains – lots of roasted meats at prices might make you gasp (tripe at $39!)’ are forgiven because you are bidden to ‘sit back and think of great produce’ from Mr Perry who, earlier on in the review, Ms Dubecki  has dubbed ‘Mr Produce-Driven.’

Look. I may be being Sydney cynical but I suspect that the reviewer is having a seven-veiled dig at Rosetta while still enjoying the show. ‘High rollers will love it’ she ends, ‘but everyday punters  like me [?!] ‘might also appreciate the  dazzling produce and pitch-perfect treatment behind the expense and fin de siecle glamour.’

If I’m right, and Ms Dubecki has delivered a cleverly coded criticism wrapped in  sweet as candy copy, then she deserves her 4.5 pens minus two for the portrait. 2.5 in all. What makes me think I might be right is the score: a creditable but not gushing 16/20.

And that ends my crit of the crits. Until something particularly tasty or terrible strikes my fancy. How dare I judge the judges? What’s the  point of having your own blog if you don’t transgress.


Criticising the restaurant critics.

The press mage used by the late Howard Twelftree, who reviewed as John McGrath - and stayed as anonymous as possible.  A wonderful reviewer

The  image used by the late Howard Twelftree, who reviewed as John McGrath – and stayed  anonymous.

What should we look for in a restaurant critic? Firstly, at the very core of the critic’s response are two questions: what are they trying to do, and how well have they done it? It doesn’t matter whether what is being criticised is a play or a poem, that is the core question.

It means your criticism should be based on the aims of the creative person – in this case the restaurateur and the chef. For a restaurant, it means you don’t use the same criteria for a three hat aspirant as you would for a cosy suburban bistro: in fact, the suburban bistro may outscore the higher reaching place because it achieved what it set out to.

For the restaurant critic there are other imperatives. Give me an idea of what the restaurant feels like. Is it warm? Friendly? Snooty? Casual? Elegant?

I want some context. What is this restaurant with this chef and these owners doing in this place now?

Only then do I want to know about the food. Because the food should tell the same story as the place. Is there a disjunction between what is on the plate and where it is served?

And finally, and perhaps most  importantly, how is it served? Heston Blumenthal, of all people, recently said that he believed service was more important than food. I agree with him.

All  this has to be wrapped up in a writing style that is amusing, informative and authoritative. Amusing is the difficult one. The critic should remember he or she is playing with people’s livelihoods and, without pulling punches, should not sink to the kind of cruel jibes used by the repellent A A Gill. Sure he’s a brilliant writer. But why use your pen as a sword to inflict pain?

Before I move on to a critique of the critics (and this may take place over a couple of posts, too long for one) I should mention that the expert critic may well be an endangered species. My own daughters, both with a keen interest in food and restaurants do not read any of the newspaper or magazine critics. They read online reviews or, more often, blogs. Most of their generation do.

And while I admit there are some  very good blogs, I worry about the unedited, unsupervised, untrammelled nature of them. As a writer, I view editors the way I view dentists: not pleasant but necessary. And here I am writing on my own unedited blog. But that remains my view.

As for the crowd-source sites like Eatability and Yelp, I have nothing but contempt for them.  My experience with Zagat was enough to make me distrust them all.

Zagat works somewhat differently from say, Eatability. Whereas the one prints user comments directly,  Zagat employs what they call ‘surveyors’ of which I was one. You are sent a batch of restaurants with a number of user comments and scores for food, décor, service and cost. You then string the user comments together to build up a review and add the scores.

The problem was the quality and content of the comments often made it impossible to write an even halfway favourable review. But that did not deter my Zagat manager in New York. One example.  I was asked to start a review of a certain restaurant with a comment on the food. But as I wrote to my manager ‘How can  I start a review of  (restaurant) XXX with a comment on the food when the only comment is ‘food average for the price’?

Another time I wrote ‘Sorry,  once again, five reviews, one of them – the longest – seriously negative, I can’t build a meaningful review from that – recommend not including this one.’ I was instructed to: ‘Filter out the negative comments and use the relevant ones.’

I am ashamed to say that I did as I was told – thinking of the money which was pretty good – but determined never to do it again. As it was, Zagat did not come to Sydney for unspecified reasons. If they do, my advise is to ignore them completely. They are dishonest.

I’m not particularly elated at the demise of informed and professional critical dialogue. Restaurant critics have had an enormous influence in educating us — at least those of us in the Anglosphere (America, Australia and the United Kingdom) – to eat better and smarter. In particular, in my native Sydney, Leo Schofield. After one of his pieces, restaurateurs told me they would be inundated with people waving the review and wanting to eat exactly what he ate. And he retired at exactly the right time: when we trusted our own judgement. Thank you Leo.

Rigorous critical dialogue is a positive force for any creative endeavour, as much for gastronomy as for literature, theatre or the visual arts.

The film critic Richard Schickel nailed it when he wrote, in a 2007 response to a New York Times article on the decline of professional book-reviewing and the rise of review-bloggers: ‘Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions…It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.’

But if the latest commentators are right, and the lumpen-cybercrats  are, collectively, taking over the role of the critic, and heeding their peers rather than the professionals, then the days of the critic are numbered.

In my next  post on this site, I’ll provide a review of the reviewers, a critique of the critics. The four I have chosen are: Terry Durack [The Sydney Morning Herald], Larissa Dubecki [The Age], John Lethlean [The Weekend Australian] and Guy Griffin [until its demise the (sydney) magazine