1990s Archive

Observations: The Man Who Went to Dinner

Originally Published October 1996
A restaurant reviewer remembers.

As the old saw has it, it’s often not what you know but whom you know that counts. I became this magazine’s New York City restaurant reviewer in 1972—a position I held until 1986—simply because my immediate predecessor, Donald Aspinwall Allan, had been my closest friend for about a decade and a half when we met one fine spring day, as we often did, for an alfresco lunch in his backyard.

We were happily ospreying down batches of crisp little whitebait while brilliant May sunshine coaxed dandelions up from the fissures of Don’s “garden” pavement in Manhattan when he announced that an imminent transfer to Beirut (his full-time job was with UNICEF) would necessitate abdicating his moonlight Gourmet gig. This was some years before all hell was to break loose in Lebanon, and a tour of duty in Beirut was as plummy as any abroad. “You know food and wine about as well as I do,” Don added. “If you’d be interested in replacing me at Gourmet, I’ll put in a word for you.”

So, Don interceded on my behalf with Gourmet’s editors, and I was invited to submit a trial review of a restaurant of my own choosing. Win or lose, I was given to understand, the magazine would reimburse any cash outlay within reason. Chortling gleefully, I informed my significant other that, for one evening at least, we’d be dining in style. For my audition piece I’d selected Le Mistral, then reputed to be one of the indisputable strongholds of classical French cuisine and as far off my beaten track as Ulan Bator. The cost of a complete dinner was a staggering $12.75.

As I recall it, most of my sample essay for the magazine consisted of some adjective-larded nonsense having to do with a dozen escargots—a dish that required little more skill on any chef’s part than an ability to wield a can opener without doing himself bodily harm. In retrospect, my only qualifications for this sudden elevation as an accredited Feinschmecker amounted to reasonable kitchen proficiency, the ingestion of roughly the same number of meals anyone my age had eaten since early childhood, and some familiarity with the tascas, bistros, and trattorias of Spain, France, and Italy, along with a year or so of exposure to a few wildly divergent restaurants in India and a few more in my native New York.

Still, it did not require much expertise at that time to break out of the starting gate as one of the fastest horses in a relatively slow race. Though New York City was inarguably the planet’s best all-around restaurant town in 1972, with a far more diversified menu (suspect as the provenance of many putative “ethnic” dishes may have been) than any other locale in the known universe, it remained a time of relative gastronomic innocence. Most restaurant patrons were as far out of their element as a catfish in the Himalayas; they were nowhere nearly as knowledgeable as today’s more widely traveled, more demanding customers, and they dined out with less frequency. And a good many of their ostensible mentors were one-eyed monarchs in the proverbial land of the blind. When one of the city’s most widely read food writers of the day digressed slightly to inform her constituency that a proper highball consisted of a couple of ice cubes submerged beneath two inches of booze, I was forced to conclude, after some experimentation with the better part of a fifth of Jack Daniel’s, that I was using the wrong recipe for ice cubes.

Dubious as my credentials may have been at the outset, published ink begets more of the same. My earliest prose was barely dry on the pages before I was offered a book contract for a history of world gastronomy and a couple of eminently respectable encyclopedias were soliciting my contributions as a certified authority on food and wine. What could have been a heady trip indeed was tempered only by a nagging consciousness that a great many trusting souls were prepared to risk their time and money on my say-so. It was a sobering realization, and my original cavalier approach soon was replaced by a compulsion to get it right and set it down straight. Nevertheless, it was an exhilarating ride.

As did most of my colleagues, I tried to maintain anonymity while scouting prospective review subjects. It soon became all too evident, however, that any restaurant worker, from the proprietor down to the busperson, could see through any subterfuge, decode any alias, within seconds of one’s arrival. Jacky Ruette, co-owner of La Petite Marmite, for example, had me spotted for a restaurant scribe before the napkin was unfolded over the notebook on my lap, and Jean Larriaga of Le Mistral wasn’t taken in for a second, despite my conditional status during my first meal at his place.

In my experience, the better restaurateurs played the game with sly winks but no disruption of their normal procedures, aware that a reviewer, if besieged with special attention by lackeys hovering around his or her table like gulls around an incoming trawler, has only to survey the rest of the room and its suddenly abandoned patrons to form a negative opinion of the enterprise. And no chef on earth can rejuvenate a rank piece of fish just because some recognizable ink-stained wretch turns up for dinner.

In my antediluvian era, dining options were decidedly less diverse than today. Within a given genre, menus were more or less interchangeable from place to place, with execution, rather than conceptual originality, the determinant factor. With a few notable exceptions, the “better” French restaurants featured pricy delicacies prepared off-premises and requiring nothing more of the kitchen than attractive arrangement by the garde-manger. Enormous poached fish and gargantuan roasts, trundled from table to table in state, were the plats du jourjour after jour after jour—and travel-weary Dover sole was ubiquitous.

In most of the more hallowed halls of Gallic epicurism, such fancy deli fare as oeufs en gelée, saucisson en croûte, pâté de campagne, and artichauts vinaigrette still passed for haute cuisine and were reverently hymned as such by me and others. Beef Wellington, possibly the dumbest dish since the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, bestrode its narrow world like a colossus, and even real men were snaffling quiche. Vichyssoise (pronounced “vichyswah” by self-styled linguists) was inescapable, and dinner inevitably concluded with a liqueur-spiked or chocolate soufflé.

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