My argument against food critics

I have a love-hate relationship with food criticism.

This is not Michael Bauer. But wouldn't it be funny if it was?
This is not Michael Bauer. But wouldn’t it be funny if it was?

This is not Michael Bauer. But wouldn't it be funny if it was?
This is not Michael Bauer. But wouldn’t it be funny if it was?

I have a love-hate relationship with food criticism.

At its best, it can be transformative, entertaining and highly useful (Jonathan Gold is a god, and Pete Wells’ review of Guy’s NYC resto is a classic). At its worst, it can be clueless, pedantic and plain old wrong (and trust me, food critics do not have an endless gravy train).

But an age of Twitter, Yelp, Facebook, Tablehopper, Chowhound, Zagat, Foodspotting, etc., official reviews tend to be, well, kinda after the fact and pretty out-of-touch. Not that crowd-sourced reviews are all that brilliant, but you at least get a good sense of the place. And sometimes get far better information from people who’ve asked the right questions and ordered some of the best dishes.

My beef with critics? They’re missing the STORY of the chef, the food, the ideas behind the food, the inspirations and the successes and failures. They’re simply documenting a couple of meals. Very subjectively. Which to me, feels useless.

Case in point…

This week, Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about Harvest Table, a new St. Helena restaurant by Charlie Palmer.

Here’s part of the review…

“However, a few items, while good, seem to come out of left field. Pan-roasted shrimp and grits ($14) with slices of andouille sausage and bits of bacon would do New Orleans proud, but seemed like an unlikely contrast to such dishes as foie gras torchon ($26) with rhubarb and pistachio.”

I also recently wrote about the restaurant, and after talking to Charlie and to Mezick, found out this little gem…

Most recently hailing from the acclaimed 1833 Restaurant in Monterey, Mezick said Palmer had only one request when it came to the Harvest Table menu: Shrimp and grits.

Raised in Virginia, Mezick’s roots are in Southern cooking, and this signature dish ($14) was a perfect fit for Palmer’s Progressive American style of cuisine. Made with Anson Mills grits (a Southern institution for stone-ground heirloom grains), shrimp, bacon, Andouille sausage, cheddar cheese and a secret blend of Mezick’s favorite herbs and spices, it’s heartbreakingly good.”

Hmmm. That doesn’t sound out of left field. In fact, if you had only read Bauer’s review, you might avoid it altogether. Which would be tragic since it’s one of the best dishes on the menu.

SO here’s the takeaway: Read food critics with a grain of salt. They aren’t omnipotent, and sometimes they get it really, really wrong by not knowing the story behind the food.

What’s your take? Do you read critical food reviews? And are they all that useful anymore?

[Caveat] Bauer knows food, and is one of the hardest working guys in the biz, and his reviews can easily make or break a restaurant — which I am certain he knows. He does not take his job lightly. He probably also doesn’t spell the chef’s name incorrectly (which I did through my story), use improper grammar or have spelling mistakes all over his work (like I do). As a food writer (I am NOT a critic, but I also pay for my meals as a general rule), I’m very fallible. So I’m not here to cast aspersions on someone I respect immensely. I’m just questioning how useful they really are to readers anymore.]