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

It would have been hard for even the most observant restaurant owner to detect anything unusual going on the table. With the exception of the unwieldy noise meter LaBan pulled from his pocket to gauge the room’s decibel level — something he did only when no servers were near the table — his other behavior was almost invisible. Unobtrusively, we put some of our appetizers on bread plates and passed them to LaBan, again only when no servers were near. “The meat fairly thick, like a slice of melon, luscious and moist, almost fruity — with a vinegary mustard tang that lights it up,” he said into his microphone, as he sampled my carpaccio. “Not a wimpy, thin sheet, but something substantial you can sink your teeth into.” Other than those moments when decisions had to be made (such as what to order), or right after interactions with servers, or when food had just arrived at the table (and LaBan was sampling and describing it), it could almost have been just a group of friends out for the evening. Conversation tailed away to cover work, family, gossip; it was hardly a monomaniacal dinner.

On this night, he liked all the appetizers, and was especially pleased with my carpaccio and his more rustic selection, a creamy brandade with crostini. He had more mixed feelings about the entrées. He loved my red snapper over fork-mashed potatoes (the snapper and my carpaccio, he said, were “three-bell food”), as well as Cooney’s gargantuan melt-off-the-bone lamb shank. But he was lukewarm on the homemade fettuccine with roast lobster that his wife had ordered, and he was particularly disappointed with the steak he got for himself. A rib eye, it was overcooked, tough and dry, and had an off flavor.

More than the unevenness of the food, LaBan felt that Bianca’s identity was a bit fuzzy. The restaurant had been touted as offering the kind of comfort cooking Filoni likes to make at home, yet the menu seemed to give more than a nod to the refined sort of fare the chef had cooked at Savona. Clearly, however, the biggest problems were in the service. “They need to do more training,” LaBan said.

As we drove back into the city (exactly where, and in what make of car, I may not divulge), I asked LaBan if he had a sense yet of how many bells Bianca would get. It wasn’t a one-bell, he said, but it would really have to blow him away on his next visit to get three bells. He was leaning toward two.