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’s first visit to Bianca was on December 10th, a Friday. His dining companions were his wife Elizabeth, an Inquirer editor named Nancy Cooney, and myself. He instructed us to call him “Henry.”

There had never been any question about whether LaBan would review Bianca. An ambitious restaurant on the Main Line is a rare thing. Filoni’s pedigree, too, foreordained coverage by the Inquirer. The only question was how soon. Normally, LaBan will wait three months — a compromise between fairness to the restaurant and fairness to readers who want to know now whether a new spot is worth their money. Restaurants with buzz, like Bianca, he’ll sometimes do a little sooner. Typically he eats at a restaurant three times, twice for dinner and once for lunch. Because Bianca doesn’t offer lunch, he scheduled only two dinners.

The December 10th meal got off to a rough start, with a series of service flubs. A few minutes after LaBan ordered a half-bottle of white wine, the server returned to inform him that despite the wine’s appearance on the list, the restaurant was out of it. She was apologetic and offered to comp dessert. Free dessert because of a minor service error? LaBan thought he must have been ID’d; probably they had a picture of him in the kitchen. His suspicion grew when Filoni kept poking his head out of the kitchen and wincing. LaBan declined the free dessert offer and ordered a different bottle. A few minutes later, the waitress came back to report that they were out of that bottle, too. Now a manager came over, and LaBan asked for yet a third bottle. When she delivered it to the table, it wasn’t chilled properly, and he asked her to ice it down. He was surprised by the wine issues, because Savona, Filoni’s alma mater, has a particularly strong wine program. “She’s bossy,” LaBan said, after the manager practically ordered his wife to try a particular wine.

With the arrival of food, things started looking up. By the time LaBan is done eating his review meals at a restaurant, he has usually tasted just about everything on the menu. We all ordered appetizers and entrées. When the appetizers arrived, LaBan began describing them, as if none of us could see for ourselves. As he studied my starter, he looked me in the eyes and began to talk about it. “Microgreens and slivered fennel over the tuna carpaccio, with coarse mustard ringing the plate,” he said. “Nice that it isn’t smeared everywhere.” I wasn’t sure how to respond. He seemed to be informing me what was on my plate — was he next going to cut it up into bite-size pieces for me? Then I realized he was speaking into a hidden microphone and only looking at me to conceal the fact. His guests at these dinners are, he acknowledges, along mainly as vehicles for him to order more food without drawing attention. “People really just don’t care what my friends think about a place,” LaBan says. “They want to know what I thought about it.” In the discussion of food, LaBan dominated the table, taking on, at times, a didactic tone. He was pleasant and witty and seemed to enjoy challenging servers, to test their knowledge.