The Unknown Critic

Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan goes to extreme lengths to keep his identity hidden. But his power over local ­restaurants is anything but a secret

And partly it’s explicable when you realize he’s a mass-circulation newspaper’s professional food critic, not a rarefied food snob. As much as he’s judging restaurants against an aesthetic yardstick, LaBan is determining their sense of value. He doesn’t exist primarily for foodies who’ve tried the $300 tasting menu at Masa in the new Time Warner Center in Manhattan, and he certainly doesn’t exist for restaurant owners or chefs. He exists for everyone else. “I think his loyalty is always with the couple going out for their anniversary. And that’s where his loyalty should be,” says Jennifer Weiner, a frequent dining companion of LaBan’s who wrote a clearly LaBan-derived character into her novel Good in Bed. “He’s not going around wrecking places or ruining people’s lives for giggles. He’s mindful of the consumer.”

LaBan’s second visit to Bianca was scheduled for 12 days after his first, a Wednesday. He had a colleague, reporter Dan Rubin, make the reservation. This time, the group consisted of LaBan, me, an Inquirer photographer named Eric Mencher, and Mencher’s wife Kass. This time, since LaBan had already tasted many things on the menu, he told us what he was still interested in trying. And this time, it seemed that LaBan was pegged right away; from early on, Filoni, in his chef’s whites, stood at the end of the bar staring at our table, alternately with arms crossed and tapping his nose with one finger.

The meal was similar to the first in featuring obvious service flaws and uneven but generally good food. All of the appetizers met with LaBan’s approval, but again, there were wine issues. LaBan had ordered a white verdicchio, but it still hadn’t arrived when we got our appetizers (which came really fast; the pacing felt off). When the wine did appear, finally, it wasn’t as cold as LaBan thought it should be. The entrées were a mixed bag (thumbs up on the salmon, arched eyebrows on the Asian seared tuna), and once more, LaBan noted that the restaurant seemed to be torn between doing hearty, homey food and more haute cuisine. The desserts were undistinguished. A trio of crèmes brûlées, in particular, was nearly inedible. LaBan’s guess — accurate, as it turned out — was that these were “chef-made” desserts, meaning the restaurant was economizing by not employing a dedicated pastry cook.

It was a few days before Christmas, and perhaps in the spirit of the season, Dominique Filoni made his way through the dining room, shaking hands. When he got to our table, he made a point of asking each of our names. LaBan said “Henry.” Filoni nodded, then turned and walked away.

Nothing about the meal reversed any of LaBan’s judgments from the first meal; rather, most of his earlier impressions were reinforced, refined or amplified. “All in all, a good meal,” LaBan said afterward, “but they have work to do.” Bianca was, he said, a two-bell restaurant aspiring to three.