So Jonathan Gold, Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic for the L.A. Times, has gone public. Shown his face. Done all the things that a critic does when he (or she) decides that playing the cat-and-mouse game is no longer worth it. He wrote a big piece in this weekend’s paper explaining his decision, saying, among other things:
“My tribe’s tastes include odd seafood, obscure white wines from the bottom of the list and the dodgier bits of the animal. (Barbara Kafka, a great cookbook writer and former restaurant consultant, used to devise what she called “critic bait,” eel terrines or pig-nose dishes that existed solely to be reviewed.) We will never send back a plate of food, but we are quick to point out a corked bottle of wine. If you address us by the name we have reserved under, it will take us a moment to realize you are talking to us. We know how to pronounce mille-feuille. We ask about the provenance of the sea urchin. Our habits are as predictable as those of mating owls.”
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Crow & the Pitcher | Jason Varney
For food-obsessed Philadelphians, the first half of August unfolded like a rigged game of Two Truths and a Lie. In case you were down the Shore, let’s play. Pick the fib: The Ritz-Carlton turned over 10 Arts to a barbecue pit-master for a night; chef-cum-doughnut mogul Michael Solomonov came out in the New York Times as a self-described “crackhead” during Zahav’s early days; and Georges Perrier did a three-night gig at a restaurant that serves deep-fried pickles and a “Cool Ranch Dorito Omelette.”
Now, you already know the game’s fixed. All three are the God’s honest. But still, Georges Perrier—Georges “I declare war on Steve Starr” Perrier—moonlighting in a kitchen that crumbles junk food into the eggs? Well, that casts Le Bec-Fin’s legacy in an unexpected light.
The highbrow/no-brow tug-of-war has been playing out in Philly since at least the 2004 debut of Barclay Prime’s $100 cheesesteak, but Crow & the Pitcher (which marks chef Alex Capasso’s return to Philadelphia after seven years operating Blackbird in Collingswood) is our first restaurant to carry the yupster embrace of cognitive dissonance to what you might call a post-ironic stage.
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Photo by Jason Varney
I was talking with Philly mag restaurant critic Trey Popp the other day, and we were discussing (as we so often do) the state of the restaurant scene in Philly. More specifically, how weirdly awesome this past year has been for restaurants in general, but for restaurants in Philly in particular. It’d gotten so that he was actually concerned with the numbers of 3 star reviews he’d been handing down lately–not because any of the restaurants on which he’d bestowed the stars were undeserving, but because he was worried that, after a while, a whole lot of 3 star reviews in a row just become noise.
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“You can drink as many of these as you want,” our server said brightly. “They’re good for you!”
The concoction in question, a Green Garden Margarita, featured what Lolita’s new menu called “green stuff” and our waitress had likened to a “juice cleanse, only with tequila in it.”
So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen! The reason Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran, after ten years running Lolita–every Center City twenty-something’s favorite modern Mexican BYOB–went out and got a liquor license: to dole out Mason jars of juiced spinach, kale, celery, basil, cucumber, ginger and Cozadores Reposado.
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Steve Wildy has weighed in on Facebook with an open letter to Trey regarding the wine pricing at Petruce et al. The letter makes some very good points. We have re-posted the letter in its entirety below. It is lengthy and illuminating. Please take the time to read it.
Note: Comments are off on this post so the discussion can continue in one place, on the State of the Markup post.
I recently received wind of online comments made by Jason Malumed, a wine distributor, in response to Philly Mag food writer Trey Popp’s review of Petruce et al. These comments elicited a response from the critic called “A Second Look At Petruce et al: The State of the Markup.” (You should read it) Malumed’s comments sought to point out many factual inaccuracies and outright untruths. Unfortunately, Popp’s second look doesn’t apologize to Petruce co-owner and wine director Tim Kweeder for misquoting his average markups as 3x instead of 2.6x as much as it takes the opportunity to further rail against restaurant wine pricing in general.
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For the longest time, we’ve had this problem.
Because of the lag time in the production of Philadelphia magazine–because of the schedules we keep and the choices we make–we here at Foobooz have often found ourselves in a bind regarding writing about new restaurants that haven’t yet been reviewed in print. And the bind has simply been that, in many ways, we haven’t been able to write about them. Not as much as we’d like, anyway. Often not in the ways we’d like, either.
Why? Because while our critic, Trey Popp, has often had his say a month or so before the print issue in which any given review will run actually hits the stands–has put his criticisms down on paper, checked his facts and crafted his opinions–we haven’t been able to write anything about his reviews until weeks later. The issue that’s on the stands right now, for example? In which Trey rips into Jason Cichonski’s The Gaslight and falls hard for Petruce et al? We’ve had those reviews in our hands since mid-April. We’ve known about the issues at the Gaslight’s bar and the incredible feasts to be had with Petruce’s family-style entrees, about the long-ago possibility that the Petruce brothers might’ve opened a pizza joint rather than the restaurant they did. We’ve had Trey’s expert dissection of the menus, wine lists and cocktails sitting and waiting for a publication date that always seemed too far away and, while we’ve been waiting, we haven’t really been able to say anything about them online because, well, the reviews run in the magazine, right? And we’ve never wanted to give too much away before the magazines are actually out there in the world every month.
But in the care we’ve taken in separating what we do here at Foobooz with what we do in the pages of Philadelphia magazine, we’ve deliberately been exempting ourselves from conversations about restaurants in the moments when those conversations are most vital–those first few weeks of a restaurant’s life span which, like it or not, have become the most important few weeks of its life.
And starting tomorrow, that is all going to change.
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Restaurant chefs sure ain’t what they used to be.
Once they were stalwarts who manned the stoves in obscurity, if not outright anonymity, cooking for customers who expected a restaurant’s personality to come from somewhere else: a gregarious owner, a schmoozing maître d’, a head waiter who knew the table you wanted and the drink you always wanted on it.
Now they want to be the center of the show, these chefs today. They cook for creative fulfillment, for celebrity, for adoration. Sure, they cook for customers, too. But only as a means to an end: an invitation to Top Chef, a book deal, a restaurant empire of their own.
At least that’s what everybody says.
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Blackened Catfish – Photo by Jason Varney
It’s not the sort of thing a food critic is supposed to say, but my favorite bite of the year might just be a piece of fluffy white bread soaked with ranch dressing on the Walnut Street Bridge.
That wasn’t everything my fork found on one plate at the Fat Ham. There was a refreshing sprig of dill, and a thin slice of cucumber pickle that was as cool as, well, you know. But there you’ve got the sum total: bread, ranch, dill, cucumber. So I know what you’re thinking: Should I even keep reading this column, or quit while I’m ahead?
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Photo by Courtney Apple
Joe Beddia would’ve flunked out of Wharton for sure.
Consider the pizzaiolo’s business plan. He offers three pies, whole only, in a Fishtown storefront that’s legally prohibited from seating customers. There are no logos on his takeout boxes and no takeaway menus on the counter, and the restaurant has no phone.
And a year after he opened, Beddia is a veritable pizza superstar.
At first it was just the neighbors coming — which was all he really envisioned. But then people started schlepping in from Center City to line up outside his door. And then from Delaware and D.C. And soon, Bon Appétit “Foodist” Andrew Knowlton was horning in on the action.
So how does this happen to a place that is open four evenings a week, routinely reaches hour-plus waits less than three minutes after unlocking the door, and requires takeout orders to be placed in person?
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Craig LaBan’s online chat this afternoon will feature LaBan talking with City Paper’s Adam Erace and Philadelphia magazine’s Trey Popp. Stop by Philly.com at 2 p.m. to ask the trio about restaurant criticism, anonymity or what their favorite restaurant is (because we’re sure they never get that question).
UPDATE: Here’s the direct link to the archived chat.
Craig LaBan Restaurant Chat [Philly.com]