criticism #1

Cursed Entrees
 
MY ENTRÉE IS CURSED
 
When I moved from New York City to Seattle in 2009, I vaguely felt that I had abandoned a concrete wasteland in favor of verdant, vital greenness. The Emerald City. A city that celebrates life. And Seattle has not let me down: from hiking and hunting in the mountains, fishing in the Sound, and imbibing the excellent local spirits, brews, and wines, I have come to adore Seattle. And of course I love the fresh fish, local produce, and mushrooms here, too. But on the subject of cuisine, I have found a caveat: I have come to dread entrées in Seattle restaurants. So often they disappoint. Specifically, I am referring to those restaurants in which appetizers, cocktails, ambience, and service are all good to great, but the main courses fail to deliver.[1]
            Why and how is this?
Shouldn’t a chef who is able to concoct a great one-bite appetizer likewise succeed with a filet of fish or slab of meat? Is it just easier to work on a small scale? To create one moment of contrast and interest that pops? Are Seattle chefs more willing to take risks with appetizers, or more willing to tinker? Are entrées harder somehow? Is the traditional inclusion of protein, starch, and vegetable all on the same plate too limiting or imposing?
Answers vary by the establishment, but let’s put this problem in context. An entrée should highlight the meal. I’m paying more for it than anything else, aren’t I? Shouldn’t it be better than the ceviche I had to start? A good entrée, as a general rule, consists of multiple food elements on a plate with each element succulent in its own right as well as succulent and interesting when mixed with the elements around it. This can be as simple as steak, sauce, potatoes, and spinach, or as bizarre as noisettes of lamb with calf brains on a bed of carrot and zucchini fettuccine. But any way you look at it, the seasoning should be judicious and the taste should leave the diner wanting more even if the portion is filling. Is this really asking too much?[2]
            I believe two interconnected problems are largely at work:
            First, self-awareness, criticism, and feedback within the establishments must be inadequate. Whether in the conception of the entrée or its execution, someone should be saying, “Hey, this just isn’t that good.” Now, I was a sous chef for the last three years and I know how hard it is to say Let’s redo it. But if the problem is only in the execution, that has to be said. If, however, the problem is in the conception, addressing it can be next to impossible for line cooks and wait staff. Too much ego is at play. Then it’s up to the owner and executive chef. This leads to the second problem:
            Diners and critics are way too easy on restaurants here. The Seattle Times and Seattle Magazine give rave reviews and hand out best of this and best of that for mind-boggling no-better-than-decent food. I am just amazed by this. Are some of these so-called critics going out stoned and starving? Or walking in wearing signs that read, “Food Critic: Go Get the Head Chef Now”?
And as for diners, well my friends, raise your standards. Otherwise, you won’t get better food. Laughing, smiling, and saying, “That hit the spot,” when all it did was fill you isn’t doing your taste buds any favors. And certainly don’t come back again tomorrow. Don’t reinforce mediocrity. Restaurants are businesses foremost, food is always secondary, so it is your spending that really runs the show. Amen to Yelp! but Yelp! is not enough—you actually have to not go.
            Okay. Glad that’s out. The next time an entrée leaves me glum, I’ll let you know about it.
 
-Thomas McCafferty
 

[1] Now, this is not a problem exclusive to Seattle and it is not a problem that is ubiquitous in Seattle, either, but it is prevalent enough that I feel it worth mention. Offhand, I can think of fifteen restaurants that fit the bill (It would be wrong to name them all with one sweeping stroke, but going forward I will write them up in reviews). I can also think of a handful that are stellar beginning to end, the exceptions that prove the rule.
[2] This article is going to be a rant now. I wish it didn’t’ have to be, but my hand is forced. If you don’t want to read a rant, stop. 
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