Monday, April 12, 2010

From the Lips of a Restaurant Critic

I can't imagine being a big city restaurant critic, but I was most definitely interested in meeting one.

That's how I ended up driving to Washington today to hear Ruth Reichl dish about being the New York Times restaurant reviewer for six years and the editor of Gourmet magazine for another ten.

Naturally, it was a terrible day to go the nation's capital.

The nuclear security summit that began today guaranteed closed streets, increased security and traffic slowdowns.

Large black cars, men in suits and sunglasses and motorcades were the order of the day, but I'm a native Washingtonian, so I wasn't in the least deterred.

I was amused by the warning signs as I was coming in on 395; they ominously said "DC Event. Expect Delays."

No, no, the circus being in town is an event; an international nuclear security summit is a tad more serious in my book.

Before the lecture, I was meeting a friend for dinner at Oyamel.

I'd read good things, I knew the Post's restaurant critic loved it and my friend validated it all.

They had an entire tequila menu, and after much deliberation, I got the Don Julio, recommended by a Mexican-American waitress I know; it was beautifully aged and not, as the menu noted, one of the "dry, aggressive" tequilas.

Of particular pleasure was the paper straw that came in my water glass; I can't remember the last time I used one.

During happy hour, they have a selection of tacos for $2 each and not just any tacos, but ones wrapped in their soft house made corn tortillas.

They had six different offerings and, curious about the variety, we got them all:

Grilled marinated chicken/guacamole/grilled green onions
Stew of shredded chicken/potatoes/chorizo/chipotle/red onion
Braised beef tongue/radishes/sauce of roasted pasilla chilis/tomatoes/onion/garlic
Confit of baby pig/green tomatillo sauce/pork rinds/onions/cilantro
Yucatan-style pit bbq pork/pickled red onion/Mexican sour orange
Shredded beef/ancho chili and cumin sauce/salsa of cilantro, tomatoes, onion and serrano chiles

It was my first time for tongue and it was wonderful; as a bonus, I got the whole thing because my friend wasn't interested.

We shared the rest and each had a distinct flavor profile, some hotter than others, so it would be tough to choose a favorite (okay, maybe the baby pig).

The only reason we didn't try the sauteed grasshopper taco was because it wasn't on the menu; next time we'll know to ask for it.

It did come highly recommended and even my tongue-shy friend agreed to share one with me next time.

When I slipped off to the bathroom, the very attractive woman sitting next to my friend engaged him in conversation so by the time I got back, she knew I'd come from Richmond.

Leaning across him, she unexpectedly asked what I thought of L. Doug Wilder.

As someone who did phone interviews with the man often during his tenure as mayor, I did have opinions; he can be utterly charming and funny but also stubborn and, as this woman put it, cantankerous.

Then came the kicker. "I used to date him," she divulged.

Well, well, what a good conversation starter that was! Nothing like going out of town for the scoop on a local.

Dessert was chosen by our French waiter and consisted of Oaxacan chocolate custard with Mexican-origin chocolate sorbet, passion fruit gelatin, chocolate and pumpkin seed crumble and fresh passion fruit seeds.

I might note that it was a delightful taste and texture combination and was a mere $6.

And then there was Ruth.

From her days as a member of a restaurant collective in Berkley, CA, she learned that she loved the pressure of restaurant cooking, the full dining room and row of tickets.

She also talked about how people don't just want food, they want an experience, theater even.

She acknowledged that big city critics still have power and as a result, critics must maintain anonymity in order to get a representative meal.

"Good critics give you the tools to experience it in a richer way; they give you guideposts to educate you."

She referred to social media such as Yelp, blogging and Twitter as essentially doing consumer reporting.

She said she loved the democracy of them because they don't give one person the power to decide for the consumer.

She explained her own style of reviewing when she brings friends along to "help."

They have to eat at least three courses and preferably five. They're not allowed to make any comments about the food, so as not to influence her review.

"It's not your opinion people are paying to hear," she would instruct her guests.

And they have to enjoy themselves and make it as normal an experience as possible.

Her comments about her years at Gourmet magazine were just as fascinating because, as she lamented, "I got to live through this time in magazines that will never exist again. Nobody gets to do that anymore."

By that, she was referring to staffers who were entitled to go on one research trip anywhere in the world annually as well as attend any culinary school they chose.

There were twelve test kitchens and eight people devoted to daily recipe testing.

Truly, like women wearing hats and gloves to work, that era is gone.

She doesn't blog, but does Twitter and her reason is that it's so easy.

Her tweeting intent is to point out the pleasure of the everyday, a philosophy I heartily subscribe to in my own blogging.

I'm just not succinct enough to keep it to 140 characters.

Afterwards, I got in line to meet Ruth and have her sign my book, which she'd graciously done for dozens of fans ahead of me, although I was not so demanding as to ask for her picture to be taken with me (not that I had a camera with me either).

When it was my turn at last, she asked about my interest in coming and I mentioned my enthusiasm for eating and writing about it.

Her inscription was "To Karen, Food bloggers: democracy in action. Ruth Reichl."

I couldn't have asked for a more appropriate sentiment.

So thanks to Ruth Reichl for helping me clarify part of my blog's raison d'etre; I'm helping democratize food writing, one Richmond post at a time.

Or as Ruth said, handing me back my book, "These days eaters have just as much voice as critics."

And after all, shouldn't we?


  1. Do they have lectures like this often? I had no idea or I would've gone.

  2. The Smithsonian has all kinds of lectures, but most are not culinary-related.You just have to pay attention so you don't miss what looks good.

    I saw Anthony Bourdain speak as part of the same series a couple of years ago. The audience was like a female fan club and I'm convinced that I was the only person in the room who had never seen his TV show or read one of his books. Still, he was an excellent speaker and I had a terrific time.

  3. i am in love with oyamel. we have had exceptional experiences there and at all of jose's restaurants. hopefully, the next time you are at oyamel - the "bug" taco will be on the menu. it is spectacular. we paired it with the expresso tequila and that was an experience.

  4. The only one of Jose's restaurants I have yet to try is Minibar and I've no doubt it'll be impressive. It's already on the books.

    Our bartender at Oyamel was Asian-American and when my companion, who is fluent in Spanish, ordered our food, she marvelled at his "r" rolling. Her enthusiasm set the tone for a great experience.

  5. oh minibar at atlantico, yes! the deconstructed glass of wine is worth the trip alone.