Editor’s note: Fifty-one restaurant critics—and counting. If too many cooks spoil the broth, then too many critics put everyone in the soup. Think of the poor restaurants. On any given day, a food critic from one of 26 or so publications or broadcast media might drop in unannounced. Or worse, announced. And think of the poor restaurant-goers. Who out of the din is reliable and entertaining? According to Slammed’s Philip Innes, the critic’s critic, only two— Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune and Dennis Ray Wheaton of Chicago Magazine—are exceptional. Despite the crowds, it’s as thin at the top as the air tourists breathe from the Sears Tower Skydeck.
To be an effective restaurant critic, one must possess abundant confidence in the quality of one’s opinions, writing ability and food knowledge. For some critics, such confidence is well justified; for others, less so; and for still others—not at all. Of course, that’s just my opinion.
Or as Liesl Schillinger put it in a New York Times book review of Jay Rayner’s novel Eating Crow, “Being a restaurant critic ought to mean never having to say you’re sorry.”
I turn my attention to the Windy City and some of its biggest windbags. And I’m not referring to star chefs Charlie Trotter and Rick Tramonto, whose recent salvos over foie gras have been making headlines. I examine which restaurant critics in the greater Chicago area have nothing to apologize for. Some deserve to be summoned to an awards podium, other called onto the carpet.
The Whole Package
The Tribune’s Vettel
In each of these surveys, I suggest that the chief restaurant critic of the major daily should set the standard for the other critics in the region. Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune actually does. He’s one critic who has little to apologize for.
Vettel is a top-tier critic for good reason. He writes well, engagingly, knowledgeably and without an obvious agenda—in short, he looks to be the whole package. He seems receptive to a wide variety of cooking styles, unlike Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle or Frank Bruni of the New York Times. Although he has manned his post for a considerable stretch, he doesn’t appear to be out to remake Chicago in his image (even if he jokes that his movie star appearance helps him get great tables). He seems thrilled to be a part of the vivid Chicago food scene, rather than arrogantly presiding over it from some high perch.
When Vettel writes full-length pieces, he makes good use of the column space: Some design elements demand more attention than do the restaurants that house them. Given the chance, one simply must see the kitchen at Trotter’s, the wine tower and bungee-corded expediters at Aureole in Vegas [and] the animatronic beasts at Rainforest Café. And at Pluton, you have to see The Stove.
Soon, the reader realizes he has been set up by the fluidity of the words “you have.” Vettel continues: I’m serious; you have to see it. It’s almost a rule. At meal’s end, the waiters announce matter-of-factly that it’s time for your kitchen tour, and you practically have to feign a leg injury to get out of it.
More humor follows: Nearly 8 feet by 4 feet, the one-piece stove looks, in proportion to the rest of the kitchen, like a Buick in a birdcage. But Vettel’s humor morphs into a metaphor which captures the theme of the piece: [The stove] is the shiny, steel symbol of Pluton’s pursuit of the culinary Big Time.
Vettel’s good about admitting when he’s recognized: Service is exemplary, but you can’t go by me: a few years ago I was still able to get in and out of Vivere undetected, but now Fred Ashtari, the unflappable maître d’, spots me every time.
Still, no one critiqued in this column gets a free pass, and the more prominent the critic, the more finely I’m apt to nitpick his work. Although the grammar police won’t be breaking Vettel’s door down, the syntax man may say he owes a little pocket change. Participles dangle when he describes two sushi joints as being both well away from the city’s center offering quite a bit more than the standard maki roll.
In articles prior we have seen that many top-tier restaurant critics stumble when they take on Asian food—Vettel’s no exception. And I wondered how he could describe gregarious [sushi] chef Mike Ham at work and resist calling him “a bit of a Ham.” Finally, I’m guessing there are some who feel that Vettel, like Bauer at the Chronicle, is too embedded in Chicago’s dining scene.
Dennis Ray Wheaton of Chicago magazine finishes a whisker behind Vettel. Vettel gets the nod because his contributions to the Chicago dining scene are greater. Nevertheless, Wheaton’s pieces are a genuine pleasure. Where most critics flounder in longer pieces, Wheaton puts the extra space to good use. The more Wheaton the merrier.
His writing appears flawless, but more important, it’s engaging: With Green Zebra, McClain has expanded his realm. The focus is on organic vegetables in a New American style incorporating McClain’s love of Asian flavors. But it ain’t exactly Zen: The packed room sounds like the middle of a zebra stampede.
He certainly can deliver stinging criticism: But over and over, my hopes were confounded, until they were as damaged as the chipped terra cotta earthenware used to present some equally flawed dishes.
Jonathan Black’s work at Crain’s Chicago Business is proof of something every good writer knows—that the more one reduces a piece (to a point, at least), the better it gets. Black accomplishes more in a small space than most critics with all the room in the world. There’s no wasted motion.
Black makes brevity work for him, as in this excerpt from his review of Charlie Trotter’s: Dessert: cashew “cheesecake” with white nectarines, kumquats and star thistle honey. Complaint: long wait between some courses. The price: If you need to ask, don’t come.
Succinctness doesn’t preclude great details: The cuisine’s from Gujarat, home base of the Jains, who are so vigilantly vegetarian they never cook after sundown for fear of killing insects. Or: Lots of twentysomething women the night we went. Our quartet of neighbors paid for their dinner with tip envelopes from Salon Buzz.
Black’s style: oft imitated, rarely perfected. He may be the soul of brevity, but other Crain’s reviewers seem to lose their way, and much of their soul, matching his succinctness. Apparently, once you’ve had Black, you can never go back.
Too, Too…Chicago Sun-Times’ Bruno
In a New York Time’s book review of Jimmy Breslin’s The Church That Forgot Christ, Michael Newman observes: “Of course, all columnists adopt personas, and all face the risk of being swallowed whole by their alter egos.” I don’t necessarily agree. I think some columnists adopt alternate personae, but others just channel their latent energy straight to the page.
Since I don’t know Pat Bruno of the Chicago Sun-Times, I can’t say whether he has adopted or channeled the strong persona that leaches from every sentence. I find him an acquired taste, and I have force-fed myself quite a number of his articles without being able to acquire it. Foie gras ducks are force-fed, but they supposedly lack a gag reflex—I don’t.
Bruno doesn’t know how to modulate his lively voice. His writing can be as irritating as the tines of a clam rake dragged insistently across a blackboard: A confetti of excellent coleslaw was better than most I might find at a top rib joint. How good is that? Damn good I say. He beats any good ideas into the ground: An amuse is that petite taste-tickler that some chefs like to send out gratis. Call it a message from the kitchen that says “Taste this. Good, right? Now do I have your attention?” And he probably should avoid phrases that require as much care in pronunciation as fudgy puck.
The Tap’s Williams
Even David Williams’ bio marks him a maverick: Dave likes the smell of chalk dust after a hard rain, Malaysian fast-pitch softball, and the slow burn of a good urinary tract infection.
If Williams of The Tap—Chicago’s Bar Journal has a philosophy, it’s probably contained in the following: Work sucks; otherwise they would call it sex. For those of us doomed to waste our time in corporate oblivion, we can at least hope for a place nearby where we can get a good hot meal at lunch and a cold beer after work (or, on a bad day, sometime shortly after noon). I guess you can’t take the bar out of the barrister.
Like Bruno of the Sun-Times, Williams has a strong voice; unlike Bruno, his didn’t get on my nerves: We avoided a bug-infested table next to a stagnant pool in the corner, preferring to sit in the non-West Nile section. However, readers can forget political correctness: The Reuben is my personal favorite… for the same reasons I like their talented bartender Megan—both are stacked quite nicely.
I appreciate his voice, but some will not. Blame his parents. Williams apparently has a brother named William.
And don’t forget
Gay Without the Pride Not that restaurant critics of gay publications should be a separate category, but Chicago may be the only city in which I can assemble enough of them to make one. So how could I resist? Unfortunately, none of the four publications surveyed produces exceptional restaurant criticism. In a sadly misguided piece, Rick Karlin of Chicago Free Press actually pens a sonnet along the lines of How do I love Panino’s? Let me count the ways. No poetry, cleverness or humor redeems this ghastly effort. Karlin’s no Elizabeth Barrett Browning (and he’s no George Carlin, either). I’m calling City Hall and having his poetic license revoked.
Shatkin’s Three Cents Laura Levy Shatkin, the Chicago Reader’s critic, was apparently brought aboard in 1999 to launch and develop that paper’s restaurant section. Although Shatkin’s pieces don’t follow a traditional review format, there’s value to be found in them. Usually, she takes the 1000 or so words that might be devoted to a review and covers three restaurants. Missing are the numerous superfluous dining observations that, depending on the reader’s perspective and the critic’s quality, make up the wheat or chaff of a restaurant review. Nevertheless, Shatkin realizes carefully chosen details speak volumes. At Eppy’s Deli, she writes: This winter they’re running a deal called Temperature Soup; pay whatever the temperature is for a cup of soup with your sandwich. “If it’s 58 degrees out, your soup costs 58 cents,” says Eppy’s owner Larry Epstein. “If it’s three below, we’ll give you three cents back.”
Critics With A Voice Broadcast reviewers are masters of the “wham bam, thank you ma’am!” They generally provide fleeting entertainment, not sustained analysis. I wouldn’t know ABC 7 Chicago’s James Ward from Adam, but I can practically hear him shouting at the camera: There are injections, infusions, extrusions, confusions, delusions, inhalations and torchings—and foam, foam, foam! Give Ward credit for asking the following question: So, if your kitchen is a laboratory, what are your customers? Guinea pigs or gourmets? Although “Gourmets or guinea pigs?” would have been punchier.
In spring 2003, NBC 5 Chicago food critic David Lissner was terminated for his appearance in a newspaper advertisement promoting a local eatery. Reviewing duties at the station are now in the hands of Shatkin, whom we saw earlier is also the ChicagoReader critic. Shatkin comes off much better in her articles than she does in transcripts of her television appearances.
Cafeteria Critic Cum Laude Bryan Chang, a student at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, authors a food column titled “Bryan’s Food Shack” in the biweekly student newspaper Chicago Business. Better-established critics and food snobs alike may bristle at the relatively high marks I accord this individual. He’s not a real restaurant critic, they may say, just a grad student dilettante. He spends most of his column space talking about esoteric subjects, and when he does finally get to the food, he’s usually discussing campus eateries. Exactly, and I find him refreshing after the mind-numbing sameness of the 50 or so midlevel reviewers in which I’ve had to immerse myself.
More to the point, I’m recognizing Chang’s sharp intellect, sense of humor, interesting voice and genuine passion for food. Chang tackles the world of competitive eating while reviewing an “all you can eat” establishment: This solution to the big stomach/small person paradox is commonly offered as the reason for Japanese domination in the world of competitive eating. But even a marginally competitive eater like myself will tell you your biggest enemy in an eating competition is gas… the line between a burp and a barf is razor thin. I suspect Kobayashi’s competitive advantage is, in fact, his ability to direct that gas in the opposite direction.
Kaplan’s Scores Sherman Kaplan does a commendable, but not unassailable, job critiquing restaurants for North Shore Magazine. The majority of the time, Kaplan writes well and knowledgeably, is reasonably entertaining, and suffers only occasional lapses into advertorial piffle: Baked clams are tasty, but the breading is a bit excessive. Still, with a dash or two of hot sauce, it’s a good choice with any of the cold beers on tap. Translation: The clams suck, but you won’t mind if you spice them up with hot sauce and drown it all with a cold one.
Kaplan knows how to catch readers’ attention from the start of a piece: Restaurants are like race horses; their bloodlines do matter. Or: You’ve probably heard the rumors about Gene & Georgetti. They are rude, it is whispered, to all but their most loyal customers.
However, Kaplan’s endings suffer from a recitation of information that could be included in the boxes that accompany his pieces. Obviously, a narrative loses steam when it ends: Expect to spend about $60 a couple for three courses, plus add-ons. There is valet parking. Vermilion has a K/RATING of 15/20. I assume the K stands for Kaplan. The problem with personal signatures like that is, they tend to grate on those who haven’t fully bought into the critic’s personality.
At Le Titi de Paris (great name, by the way), Kaplan applauds a platter of delicious mignonards…brought out as a final fillip. No, sir, I am the final Philip. Kaplan earns a PI/RATING of 85.50.
Philip Innes is the pen name of …oops, almost let it out, Suffice it to say that the author of this “Critiquing the Critics” series is a food critic as well. Clearly this is a case of “it takes one to know one.” You can find Innes’ Full Monty on more than 50 Chicago-area critics at www.slammedmagazine.com.