The caress of cosseted opulence

 

 

imgres

Often, when describing myself, I use the term ‘second generation restaurant critic.’ If it’s not strictly true, nor is it entirely untrue.

Today’s restaurant critic is – or should be – a critic in the best sense of the word. One who assesses and passes judgement based upon an accumulation of experience, taste and observation. A good critic is also a good writer, someone who can hold the object of criticism up to the light examine all its facets and come up with an original way of seeing it. That’s the ideal anyway. The restaurant critic can offer critical analysis or entertainment and often, successfully, both.

My mother, Gloria Newton, was not like that. She had a column in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, then as now a tabloid, but not then as rabidly right wing as now. Her nom de plume was Elizabeth Pitt, and if you know where the Australian Consolidated Press Building is and was, you’ll know why. Her column was called ‘Goings on About Town’, and she reviewed restaurants and night clubs.

IMG_1419

While not a critic in the formal sense of the word she was the first writer in Sydney to write the truth as she saw it. If she didn’t like it she said so, even though each piece wasn’t a lot longer than today’s tweets. There’s no doubt she was read. The owner of the notorious strip joint the Pink Pussy Cat, ‘Last Card’ Louis Benedetto, an associate of Sydney’s Mr Sin, Abe Saffron, was so delighted with her comments about his business that he gave her a little card, which I still have today, offering free entry to her and her friends. Why? Every time she slammed him, his business boomed.

When my father couldn’t come with her for whatever reason – didn’t want to, couldn’t, was away on business – I was dragged along. In my short pants and long socks – school uniform. Dressed like that, I met Sammy Davis Jr, Sal Mineo, Frances Faye as well as local luminaries Gordon Chater, Gwen Plumb, Noel Ferrier – all the greats of that time.

And then there were the restaurants. That was when it began, this curious and lifelong relationship. A relationship not, funnily enough, with the food, but with the feeling, the character, the mood of a public eating house.

The first restaurant I remember – as opposed to the night clubs, like Prince’s and Chequers – was a place called Rainaud’s in Queen’s Square at the top of King Street. I have no idea what we ate – I recall we went several times and not for a review, because my father was also there. Rainaud’s was a wholly Greek-owned business, the two names I can find associated with it are Vrakbnas and Andritzakis. And, much later, I reviewed a restaurant in Ramsgate called Omeros on the Beach and by the door, was an article that said that the owner was a descendant of Costa Omeros who had cooked at Rainaud’s

But what I do remember to this day is the weight of the cutlery and the thick, starched double damask table cloths. These emblems of a luxury, of cosseted opulence remain with me to this day.

images-1

 

There was an ante-room too, where my father would go after dinner and talk to – was it George? – the dark-panelled wooden walls of which were hung with photographs of race horses. And this is perhaps the key to our interest in the place. My father loved horses and horse racing. George, being an owner, probably gave him tips.

But for me this place was everything that home wasn’t.

Oh, we lived comfortably enough, at that time in small flat in Double Bay, and we ate well and at the table. But that cutlery! Those table cloths! It was another world and one in which I felt like snuggling up.

In another book, I quoted Frank Moorhouse who wrote ‘Paradoxically I am most at-home in a restaurant. No, this is wrong – more precisely I like being in a restaurant because it is where I feel not-in-any-way-shape-or-form at-home.’

So the first quality of restaurants which I will note is that sense of being coddled, wrapped in cotton wool and served. I’ve experienced that in my adult life. But only rarely. And it does have much to do with the quality of furnishings. I remember a review of breakfast at Galileo in the Observatory Hotel in Sydney. ‘As we entered’ I wrote, ‘we were led by our elegant white-coated waitress – Sin Im, her name tag tells us – to a long, polished walnut table against the back wall, balloon-back seats padded in an olive green and bronze colour scheme on one side and a padded and opulently cushioned banquette – more of a built-in sofa – along the wall.’ Sin Im returns with bright pink watermelon juices for the girls and orange and ruby grapefruit for us, and takes our food orders. “I feel so important,” whispers younger daughter, looking around at the room now slowly filling with hotel guests who have, lucky things, been sleeping in on their luxurious hotel beds.’

I described it as sumptuous and indeed it was. The other place that achieved this quality, without the accompanying formality and froideur was Tony Bilson’s eponymous restaurant,  Bilson’s, also in a hotel, the Radisson Plaza, also in Sydney. Of this I wrote, in a story celebrating Tony Bilson’s 60th birthday and his fortieth year behind the stoves ‘It is one of Sydney’s most elegant dining rooms. White quarter paned windows look out onto Pitt Street and at this time of the year, the seasonally themed hanging mobiles flutter with ochre and russet Japanese papers. A duck egg blue private room….lined with Mike Parr self portraits faces down the long cream and brown room. A table groans beneath a tempting display of Armagnac, Calvados and Cognac.

That groaning table says it all. Temptation, indulgence. The very words Armagnac, Calvados and Cognac scream Cuban cigar smoke, heady fumes, full belly, lay back. At that level, you do feel ‘so important.’

 

IMG_0678

 

 

Advertisements

Who’s sitting on table 41?


 critic

Did you ever see the episode of Heat in The Kitchen when critic Matthew Evans and his dining companion walk into Aria on a night when chef Matt Moran isn’t there? You might remember the premise was that Evans had taken away Aria’s third hat, and the restaurant was doing everything to get it back.

It was scary. The entire kitchen went into panic mode. What to do? What to serve him? What if we fuck up? I’d hate to have been a paying customer that night. There were only two people in the room. And neither of them would have been me.

What did the sous chef do wrong? What do restaurants do wrong when critics walk in the door?

They forgot their raison d’etre – feeding people – and thought only of the award, the elusive third hat.

The main problem:  awards have become a goal, and not a reward.

I’d like to take you through the restaurant experience from the critic’s point of view.

I began using restaurants  as a boy in short trousers, when I was taken by my mother as her ‘companion’ when she reviewed restaurants for Sydney’s Daily Mirror newspaper, a profession (restaurant reviewing) which, following in her footsteps, I have practiced  at various times in various parts of the world.

I’ve reviewed restaurants for Gourmet Traveller when it was Australian Gourmet and Australian Gourmet Traveller. I’ve reviewed for the Sydney Morning Herald, the Good Food Guide, the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday and the Saturday Financial Review and  was for many years a reviewer for and co-editor of Sydney Eats, which was Cheap Eats and which was – sadly, it is no more, due to incompetence and misunderstanding ­–

the oldest restaurant guide in Sydney. And when I was living in Spain, I reviewed for an English language newspaper under the pseudonym S Panza.

 

All of which I tell you so that you know I do have a bit of experience in the business of summing up a restaurant. What qualifications do I have? About as many of most of our top chefs. Neil Perry started as a hairdresser; Tetsuya Wakuda  studied business at a university in Tokyo; Christine Manfield was an art teacher. Like them, I learnt on the job.

My qualifications are that I love food, I love to eat and I have made it my business to learn as much about it as  I can. And I’ve cooked a few times professionally – nothing serious  – but I’ve felt the heat in the kitchen.

But before we even look at restaurants, let’s look at the one question any critic of anything – restaurants, films, plays, operas, novels  – asks when evaluating whatever it is they’re criticising?

 What are they trying to do – and how well have they succeeded?

images

This question is key to the business of the critic. So if I walk into a hamburger joint in Glebe, I’m not going to judge it against Rockpool. As a matter of fact, I may score the hamburger joint in Glebe (my favourite The Spot) higher than Rockpool – because they’ve achieved what they’ve set out to do – and Rockpool hasn’t.

Of course you have to weight that – it’s harder to be Rockpool than The Spot. But it’s the right place to start.

 

How does a reviewer look at a restaurant? Leigh Prentice, architect and restaurant designer (Sydney’s Bennelong, Catalina) told me how he approaches a restaurant design.

transkaroo-restaurant

He looks at the room, the chair, and the food, in that order – I realised that is exactly the way a critic should enter and begin to examine a restaurant.

So let’s look at it that way.

 

The room:

IMG_0846

Just walking into a restaurant I can learn so much. But first, I have to get rid of me. You know because you see people walking in. How do I look? Am  I cool enough? Will they see through me. Nah. Get rid of it. Feel the room

 

Firstly, is it full? Nothing worse than walking into an empty room.  The restaurant manager’s nightmare. What does the critic do? Well, depends on the critic, the deadline and how the place feels. You can walk out, go somewhere else – or give it a go.

 Second – how does it look? Does it  look like a well oiled machine or maybe I can see empty boxes in the corner, holes in the carpet. I’m more interested in a place  looking well run that the coolest décor. In fact, I have to actually make myself notice the décor – but that’s me.

IMG_6412aa

Are the other customers looking happy?

images

Relaxed? Do they look fidgety, agitated? If so, blame the waiters. Beppi Polese, a classically trained waiter who has trained more waiters than anybody in Sydney told me the secret: “When I walk through a restaurant, I look at every table as I go. If I see a customer moving, I stop and ask if there’s anything they want.”

When a customer has to wave and swivel constantly looking for service, when the waiters walk through the room looking at the ceiling – this is not good.  I can tell a  lot from  standing at the door for 5 minutes.

Actually maybe 5 minutes is too long. How I get to my chair is critical. It’s my first contact with the people in the restaurant (besides the booking, but that’s another story).

art-353-Angry-French-Waiter-300x0

 

Who takes me? Has the booking been observed? From now on, I’m observing the rhythm of the restaurant.

 The chair

Designer-Dining-Chairs

The late Anders Ousback pointed out to me that there are 20 minute chairs, 60 minute chairs and two hour chairs. If I’m sitting down to eat a leisurely meal and I’m shown to a 20 minute chair, I’m not going to relax. Even before I’ve eaten a mouthful, I’m on edge.

Now I’m seated I can check out the table setting, the crockery, the cutlery. Is it of a standard to match the restaurant? Is it – very important – clean?

How long does it take me to get a card? Am I offered a drink?

Do  I feel  comforted, looked after, relaxed ?

Do the waiters know what they’re serving?

What does the service feel like? Let me explain.

I was chatting to a friend once  –  a successful restaurateur and chef – about my disappointment after eating at a very good restaurant – I said I felt the service was way too mechanical. He said:

“There are two ways you can be treated in a restaurant: processed or nurtured.”

Unknown

If on my first visit to a restaurant, the service sucks, chances are, I won’t come back.  If I’m looked after, given an enjoyable experience and the food isn’t the world’s best – I probably will come back.

I don’t need any new best friends – and that goes for waiters. Let me quote Beppi Polese once again:

“A waiter must be fast, gentle, patient and above all attentive…..people don’t like to be disturbed…..And remember, they don’t come here to talk to the waiter – if they do want to talk, they must take the first step.”

Finally:

The best food in the world,

 delivered badly by a surly waiter,

in an inhospitable room,

will not taste good,

 and will not induce a customer to return

 

 The food

strawberry-foam

 

First, the menu. The modern Spanish chef  Ferran Adria  (El Bulli) said, in an interview “A menu is  like a film – it’s made from different shots that have to be spliced together in the best way possible to create a story.”

Now, it’s your job to tell the story, and my job to interpret the story.

Does your menu tell a story? Or is it just a list of dishes? Do the dishes themselves make sense?

If your chefs are inventing dishes – do they know what they’re doing? Or are they just bunging ingredients together?. Check out these actual menu items from a restaurant in The Rocks not so long ago:

Risotto of Japanese Scallops and fresh herbs with a green coconut curry sauce

 

Breast of Chicken filled with a Smoked Salmon and Shallot Mousse, accompanied by lemon peppered potatoes, green beans with a light dill cream sauce.

 

Our own sun-dried tomato Fettuccine, Fetta, Olives and Asian Vegetables in a roma tomato sauce

 

 

What am I looking for?

Ratatouille_610

1. Authenticity.

If you’re serving a coq au vin – is it really a coq au vin or is it just chicken stew? As a critic, I know the difference. And if it’s the chef’s interpretation – coq of our chef – make sure the menu tells me that.  A long gone restaurant in Bondi. I ordered a Greek salad. It arrived with hard little white cubes of stuff tasting of – nothing. What is this? I asked politely. Oh,  said the waiter, it’s tofu – we ran out of feta. Chef thought no one would notice.

If you’ve got tarte tatin on the menu, is it tarte tatin or, as I have been served twice, stewed apples on soggy cake? In both instances, the words ‘caramelised apples’ were on the menu. Again, know what you’re serving.

2. Simplicity.

Less is definitely more. Every ingredient has to have a reason to be there. Every garnish should be edible.

3. Flavour.

Flavour. Flavour. Flavour.

In Japanese cooking there is a principle known as mochi agi o akasu. It means that everything on the plate is there to support or to amplify the flavour of the main ingredient on the plate. This is something that all chefs could well take notice of. It is about both simplicity – and flavour.

4. Balance.

The Thais have a word for it. Rot Chart. Even though a dish may have 20 ingredients, they have to be in balance. Balance is second only to flavour

5. Attention to detail.

Peter Evans told me that when he served breakfast at Hugo’s in Bondi he would personally make sure that every piece of toast was buttered to the edge. A true horror story. I was reviewing a long gone restaurant in Newtown. Every dish that came out smelt of rancid anchovies. We sent every dish back. Finally, when the waiter came with the bill, I asked “didn’t you wonder why we sent everything back?” The waiter replied “I just thought you weren’t hungry.”

6. Provenance

 The founder of the Slow Food movement, Carlo Petrini said “an environmentalist who isn’t a gastronome is sad. A gastronome who isn’t an environmentalist is stupid.” The more we learn about the environment the more we learn how important it is for us to know where our food came from, and how it was farmed or caught. At Sydney Eats, that became one of the things we looked at in assessing restaurants for prizes. I’m sure we weren’t the only ones.

7. Skill

Not show offy foamy things with prosciutto dust all over them, but  evidence that someone – or better still many – in the kitchen who know what they are doing, and do it well.

Believe me, I know how hard it is to do properly. Every meal in a restaurant is a live performance. Each table is a separate audience. There are no rehearsals, no out-of-town tryouts, no script writer, no special effects. Just a waiter and perhaps a floor manager (maitre’d) between the chef, the brigade and the customer.

Whereas a theatre audience may include people who have never before seen a live performance, everybody in a restaurant can eat, and has eaten before their visit to that restaurant. Many can also cook. So the restaurant audience, unlike that for a play, could conceivably consist mainly of people with similar technical abilities to the technicians in the kitchen.

And they’re all experts.

images

Especially the pesky critic. And don’t forget, every critic has his or her own likes and dislikes and you can’t please ‘em all. Just do what you do do, well.

Finally, remember this.

What do you do when a critic comes into your restaurant?

Exactly the same as you do when anybody comes in.

Your very best.

harry's sydney airport (6)