There are two kinds of food critic. There are two kinds of everything, aren’t there? There are those who tell it as it is, and damn the consequences, and there are the rest, who generally don’t. For the past three and a half years, I’ve tried in my capacity as cuisine editor to fall into the former category by providing an honest and accurate picture of almost 200 dining experiences. Some of these reviews have been poorly received (after all, you can’t please all the people all the time), but if the general absence of negative response has been anything to go by, then I believe that I’ve done a reasonably good job most of the time.
The view from the Eagle’s Nest, one of the restaurants reviewed this year by Neil Charles.
Since June 2000, much has changed on Indy’s dining front — the majority of it for the better. There’s been a much-needed explosion of ethnic eateries offering great food at great prices. There’s been a mini-explosion of bistro-style restaurants offering nothing over $20, and a concomitant decline in high-end stuffiness. Cooking schools abound; farmers’ markets are on the ascendancy and grocery stores are beginning to stock really interesting foodstuffs. Surely there has never been a better time to be a roving gastronaut in this former culinary desert than now. In spite of, or perhaps because of, all these exciting gastronomic developments, the role of the food critic is perhaps more important now than it has ever been. After all, the choices these days are myriad, and competition is fierce as new eateries pop up like mushrooms in the least likely of locations. In such circumstances the critic serves as a filter, helping diners to narrow down their choices, and with luck avoid making a bad decision. Right now there are at least a dozen new places I would love to visit, but will probably not get around to. Much as I would like to continue in my role as full-time restaurant critic, circumstances dictate otherwise. So here are a few parting thoughts, and a couple of words of advice to the aspiring restaurant reviewer. • First off, do some research. I always find it helps to read up a bit on the style or nationality of food I’m about to eat and write about. Google is a wonderful tool in this regard, and has been a life saver on many occasions. • Do not allow your personal tastes to interfere with an accurate assessment. It is simply not true that the appreciation or understanding of food and wine is a question of personal taste. In my years as a formally trained wine taster, I have learned that not everything I like is good, and not everything I dislike is bad. There are objective criteria, which it pays to know. Is a sauce correctly made, for instance? Is what is described as a reduction made from scratch or in fact from a tin? Is something deep fried when it should have been sautéed? Similarly, not all international food is to everyone’s taste, but if it is correctly prepared, then this needs to be noted in a positive light. • Don’t be afraid to hold a restaurant’s metaphorical feet to the fire. There’s nothing as infuriating as paying top dollar for a dining experience that belongs in the gutter. It is the duty of the critic to point out when a restaurant is over-aspiring, over-charging and clearly under-achieving. Some restaurateurs get self-righteously pissed when their glaring shortcomings are brought to their attention, but these people generally find themselves looking for other employment opportunities within a few months. In the past year we’ve seen the demise of a handful of establishments which really had no business serving food in the first place. The role of the critic is to steer the reader clear of such places. • Don’t confuse bad food with bad service. It is hard for a server to take the diner’s side in the event of a poorly prepared meal; after all, their job depends on working with the kitchen, not against it. It’s useful to bear this in mind when leaving a tip at the end of the evening. Poor service, however, should not be rewarded, but should also be duly noted. • Don’t announce yourself, and always pay for a meal if you plan to review the restaurant. The New York Times recently printed a story about London food critics who show up on opening night with a large group of friends, expect preferential treatment, then savage the place if it isn’t up to their expectations. This may provide some cheap laughs for the readers perhaps, but this kind of approach defies reasonable standards of honesty and objectivity. • Don’t be an ass. This includes sending back multiple dishes because they are not entirely to your taste, demanding “an extra shot,” asking for seconds, flirting with the servers or throwing a hissy fit and threatening to pull rank. Remember, be on your best behavior at all times, and don’t try to emulate those overpaid wankers in London. • Finally, just eat it. Sometimes it seems like a wretched chore to have to visit a new eatery when you’d rather be at home with a good book. Suck it up. After all, as they say, someone has to do it. Cheerio!