Thursday, April 3, 2014

Everyone is a critic!

By Phyllis Louise Harris
April 2014

Everyone is a critic!

The March issue of Mpls/StPaul magazine announced its food critics’ 50 top restaurant choices in the area. It also contained the readers’ choices. Interesting how different the lists were.

When I lived in New York City, Friday was the day the New York Times food critic published the week’s restaurant review. If the review was good, those in the know stayed away from that restaurant for at least a month until the crowds died down. If it was a bad review, the restaurant would probably not last a month, so not to bother.

Minnesota food critics have never had that kind of impact on local restaurants. In fact, many followed the crowds and let diners choose the ones they favored. Today there seems to be a wide gap between food critics’ choices and diners’ favorites. Perhaps it is because everyone can now be a critic and post their opinions online anytime, anywhere.

Some professional food writers are instructed by their editors to be controversial. Some are expected to be entertaining. A few actually understand a wide variety of cooking and bring the reader a knowledgeable look at the food under review.

There is nothing more devastating to a new restaurant owner after spending months of planning, endless menu revisions, and perhaps millions of dollars to open only to have a “professional” food critic complain about the lighting, or the service, or the signature dish, or even the urinals in the men’s room. (It actually happened to a brand new restaurant). While most restaurants can survive beyond a bad review, it just takes that much longer to find their audience. Once loyal diners start coming back and bringing their friends the restaurant can be successful for years to come, despite the critics of any kind.

There are more than 9,000 restaurants in Minnesota with many successfully run by creative, talented people who have a passion for food. Yet they now have to endure the online “amateur” critics who complain that the food was not like mother’s…not like home cooking.  Of course it’s not! If you want home cooking, stay home.

We once took friends to a well-known restaurant in Manhattan that served amazingly delicious grilled meats. One guest ordered the rack of lamb, well done. When it was served it was absolutely perfectly cooked, and indeed was well done. But, the diner sent it back because it was not charred black, the way his mother used to cook it for him. To this day, I do not know how he could even chew the thoroughly burned lamb he eventually ate.

There was one Twin Cities newspaper critic who dined at an exceptionally good Chinese restaurant several years ago and ordered Green Beans with Preserved Vegetable – a traditional Chinese dish. When the green beans were served she complained that they were wrinkled and wrote it as a negative in her review. Of course they were wrinkled, they were supposed to be that way. It is not possible to have green beans with smooth skins after they have been twice cooked in hot oil.

I am often asked to name my favorite restaurant. I always answer it depends on what I am looking for. I have favorite restaurants for soup, chow mein (yes, I do eat chow mein), dessert, hamburger, ribs, stir-fries, tempura, noodles, steak, omelets, and more. In other words, I know what chef cooks a particular dish in the way I most enjoy it and that’s where I go. It makes no sense to me to expect every chef in every restaurant, to cook any dish I may be in the mood for in a manner that pleases me.  It’s not going to happen.

In addition to old favorites I enjoy going to new restaurants, sampling dishes by chefs I have not met and being surprised by some of their most delicious flavors and textures. Perhaps that is why I have loved writing about Asian food in Minnesota and around the world for forty years. There is always the possibility of a delightful surprise under every curry leaf, beneath every bubbling broth, along side every bowl of rice. Who would have thought Ann Kim’s kimchee pizza would be so good and make such a hit with Minnesota diners. Or Thom Pham’s cranberry curry would take on a life of its own for more than fourteen years. Or that Reiko Weston’s first sushi bar would start a whole new kind of food craze in Minnesota.  This is the real fun of dining out.  Discovering good food with delicious surprises. So, negative reviewers, if you don’t like a particular dish, don’t go back, but keep your disappointment to yourself. It may become the favorite dish of the decade.

Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine are finalists in the 2014 James Beard Awards for Video Webcast, on location for The Perennial Plate, Europe and South Asia. (See the March column for more information on this talented team.)



Read more about Asian food in Minnesota and try more than 160 recipes in Asian Flavors: Changing the Tastes of Minnesota since 1875, now in bookstores and on

Watch the EMMY® award winning “Asian Flavors” television show based on the book on tpt MN. Check local TV listings for broadcast times or view the show streaming online at: