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

LaBan had told the Filonis that the Bianca review would be published in the January 16th Inquirer. Around noon on Monday, January 10th, six days before the review was to come out, a man the Filonis didn’t know showed up at the restaurant and handed Dominique an advance copy of the following weekend’s Inquirer Image section, which had been printed but not distributed. “Don’t ask me how I got it,” the man said. “Sometimes I get it early.”

Dominique called his wife, who was in the dining room. “I have a surprise for you.” Maybe he’d created a vegetarian pasta dish? Sabine had been asking him to put one on the menu. “Is it a good surprise?” she asked. Dominique said he’d be right down. Standing at the bar, they took in the review the way most readers do, broad strokes first. The rating: Two bells. The headline: “Bianca: A fancy-homey place.” The picture: Dominique looking relaxed at the restaurant. Then, they read the text.

LaBan described the decor as “formal but warm,” called Bianca the “newest haunt” of the Main Line crowd, noted Filoni’s impressive $50,000 stove, enthused that the snapper’s sauce was “exquisite,” the carpaccio “luscious,” the food generally “well prepared,” the ingredients “excellent,” and the duck confit “succulent.” He said he “loved” the candied lemon zest that accompanied the lobster cocktail, and lauded the “soulfully braised” short ribs and lamb shank.

He also made all the broader criticisms that had been evident during the review meals: the arguable homeyness of the often haute food and decor, the incongruous inclusion of an Asian tuna dish, the “unpolished service” and wine glitches, the problematic pasta, steak and desserts. LaBan remarked that he was sure he had been recognized by Dominique, “unless he makes a habit of staring down customers with eyes as intense as demiglace throughout dinner.” (“I thought I knew him from somewhere,” Dominique says. “That’s why I stared. I didn’t know it was him.”) Near the end of the review, LaBan wrote, “Such flaws are easily remedied with fine-tuning, but need to be addressed before Bianca is ready to step up to the next level.”

Reading it all, Sabine found herself nodding. She thought the review was fair and accurate, and she agreed with nearly all of LaBan’s points. Well, not his comment that the mahogany columns evoked “a Victorian cruise ship.” Nor his disparagement of the tuna dish as a clichéd crowd-pleaser out of place on a rustic French menu. (“That’s what I eat at home,” Dominique says.) The Filonis completely agreed about the pastry chef, which was a timing and budget issue for them. The main criticisms, especially about service and wine, Sabine and Dominique were already well aware of.

At the same time, Sabine was disappointed and frustrated, since she knew they had already addressed many of the things LaBan found fault with. A week from opening, the sommelier they’d arranged to hire fell through; then, on the 15th of December, their replacement sommelier left, so the timing couldn’t have been worse. They now printed the wine list every day, so a wine would never be out of stock. They had the pacing down. They were properly chilling the wine. Dominique, too, felt LaBan had come too soon. And Sabine felt that had she been there on the review nights, several of the problems wouldn’t have occurred. Frustrating, but she also recognized that the restaurant needs to offer the same level of service whether she is there or not.

The Filonis were heartened by the sense that LaBan saw Bianca as a work in progress. Those two bells weren’t cast in iron.