Friday, September 25, 2009

Eating Stars - Secret Ingredients in Restaurant Reviewing

When I say I review restaurants, people are intrigued.

"What's that like?" they ask, which is an easy answer of, "Really cool" or "A lot of fun."

No one asks me how I do it either… it's like some magic discernment that only a few people have: awarding little stars (or asterisks on my end of the keyboard) to places that may affect their sales and reputation for years to come.

I've gone to plenty of restaurants that proudly display the stars earned by the local magazine I review for, most predating when I started reviewing.

It is pretty damned cool - but it's not magic.

Despite the fact I'm throwing numbers of stars and hoping they'll stick.

Some things are easy to quantify. Service and Value are two starred items. We rate on a scale of 1 to 5, with five being best. A three for service means the server has done his or her job promptly and without being rude. Extra friendly earns a 4, and Omigod-above-and-beyond earns a 5. You can guess 2 and 1. With Value, 3 denotes a price and experience about on target for what wanted to pay or am average with equal establishments. A 1 means I'm sick and crying over my wallet, and a 5 means there is NO WAY I could have paid any less and not needed a confession.

Ambiance is hard to quantify - and not a lot of people really look at that and judge their visit to the restaurant on that - unless it's a 1, and I note somewhere that I found a cockroach or rat droppings. Then it matters. Other than that, it's a "best guess" based on how I "felt" in comfort and/or luxury and/or whatever the restaurant is trying to make me feel based on their décor (and cleanliness).

Then there is Food. The most important score - and what the restaurants will post if it’s a even a decent rating - if you know food, you know that so many elements can play together. Scents, tastes, heat, texture, presentation… all that must boil down to how many stars (or asterisks) you type.

Both the Husband-of-Awesome and I are pretty gosh-darned good cooks. Good enough where we can draw a crowd to help us with heavy and/or disgusting labor in promise of our food. But if I'm paying someone to prepare my food, it better damn well be better than I can get at home… so I quantify my stars on how likely I would be able to get and enjoy that food experience outside of that restaurant.

A 3 is better than what I can cook at home - or requiring more effort than I'm willing to put in at home. 4 is unquestionably better than I or HoA could cook at home - flavor, texture, and presentation wise. Plus, it should have some use of ingredients we A) wouldn't be able to get easily or B) totally surprises us in usage and/or combination that tastes amazing. A 5 is beyond even the imaginings of what we could accomplish at home - even with classes and schooling - and has just done something we would never have imagined flavorwise - above and beyond the expectations of 4.

It does help to be educated in food. Watch cooking shows, try to cook, read how food works… read other reviews. There might be a food that I simply don't like… just because I don't like it. I have to still evaluate if its good quality (though, having a partner helps here). Knowing what the texture and flavor of squid or octopus (for me) should be lets me discern the quality of the surprise addition to a chef's sushi platter (very good, in this instance). The same goes for something I love. I adore chocolate, and hot fudge - even if its broken - tastes pretty darned good. But a broken hot fudge doesn't have the best texture and it means that the ice cream shop has their settings too high - or they don't prepare it properly.

While I still don't think there's any magic to restaurant reviewing, it does take the ability and willingness to think about things differently. You have to make a credible scale for your quantitative assessments of things that aren't really countable, measurable, or provable. You need to impose levels and rationale on your impressions, feelings, opinions, and preferences in food - a HIGHLY personalized preference. The most important part, though, is to not let this quantitative thinking interfere with your - hopefully entertaining - experience dining out.


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