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Aug 25, 2002 02:48 PM

Chicago mag reviewing restaurants that haven't opened yet?

  • s

This is the second time this has happened, and I'm curious what you think about it. This month's Chicago magazine has a sidebar feature called "Openings" in the restaurant section. Here is what it says about Monsoon, word for word (following discussion of several other restaurants): "And the dramatic interior at Monsoon complements inventive Indian-inspired Asian cuisine, such as a pan-seared striped bass with saffron rissoto cake and a tomato-fennel broth (pictured here $20)." A photo of the bass accompanies the article. Nothing in the article suggests that any of the restaurants are yet to open.

Sounds good, so we tried all week to call Monsoon, at various times, but no answer. I could be mistaken, but I don't think it's opened yet. (Local Palate calls it "soon to open.")

So if it hasn't opened yet, how does Chicago Magazine get to not only describe the cuisine, but call it "inventive?" Is this based on a publicity packet, or did they get a pre-opening tasting? I'm not in either trade (restaurant or publicity) so I don't know how this works. Either way, I'm uncomfortable with what seems like an implication that Kira Hesser has been to the actual operating restaurant and found its cuisine inventive. On a prior occasion, the magazine raved about a dish at MK North though that restaurant was several weeks away from opening. Any opinions?

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  1. I can't speak to this instance, but generally this happens when publications reprint press releases.

    A surprising amount of what passes for "food journalism" is just that: not reportage by objective reporters, but wholesale reprinting of sales pitches. It's absolutely disgusting. But it's a LOT easier for lazy writers than going out, digging up stories, and reporting on them. And a lot easier for budget-strapped editors than hiring writers to do same.

    The angriest I've gotten in the past five years was when I was cowriting the restaurant chapter of a NYC guidebook for a major publisher. I got an email from some PR person who told me she'd look forward to "working with me" on the book. I was totally puzzled. Huh? WHO are you? Work with me HOW?

    She told me she works with lots of authors and reporters. It's her pleasure to roll up sleeves and pitch in. I write about restaurants, and she can help me find LOTS of GOOD ones. We can work TOGETHER. Her tone (even in light of my stunned original reply) betrayed absolutely no history of such an overture ever having been met with anything but eager gratefulness. I wasn't being "pitched", I was being HELPED....via a well-oiled back channel. In fact, she'd been pointed to me by a fellow writer...the grateful recipient of her help in the past.

    I won't repeat my response, but suffice it to say she didn't make the team.


    2 Replies
    1. re: Jim Leff

      Well, given the prominence of Chicago magazine's reviewing in the food community I doubt they'd reprint the description straight from a press release-- okay, let's say I'm willing to give them the benefit of that doubt-- but let's also say that even under the best view of such things, quasi-reviewing a restaurant that invites you over to taste what the food is GOING to be like doesn't really reach the standards of anonymity and typical customer experience objectivity that one hopes for in reviewing. So even the most favorable take of such coverage has to conclude that it bears only a theoretical resemblance to what you the actual patron will enjoy.

      As for MK North, in that case they may well have been talking about the same dish from MK.

      1. re: Mike G

        Mike G wrote: "As for MK North, in that case they may well have been talking about the same dish from MK."

        Well, I've seen reviews of spinoff restaurants, or restaurants whose chef brings a famous dish to a new place, that say, for example: Jackie's signature chocolate purse shows up on her new menu at Lawry's and continues to shine (well, I can't do the restaurant lingo, but you know what I mean...) But this review didn't say that. It described a dish that was billed as a special, delicious, worth-a-trip item on MK North's more casual menu. And so I called and was told: "Sorry, we don't open for another three weeks."

        At best, these were pre-opening special tastings for the reviewer, which seems dubious, and which, as Mike G says, is hardly the same as attending an operating restaurant as an anonymous reviewer. At worst it's the scenario Jim describes--an unholy alliance between reviewer and publicist. Either way, the restaurant is trying to pass it off as an actual review, and I don't like it one bit.

    2. This is not a defense of the magazine, but I think part of the problem is the overuse of one of my least favorite words in the English language: "creative." What does the word mean in this context?

      All chefs create, so I assume the word is meant to convey originality or expressiveness. But to often reviewers use it as an all-purpose positively loaded adjective that means very little. The writer of this piece might have felt it was legitimate to characterize the food as "creative" based solely on the unusual menu descriptions. Who knows?

      Perhaps the magazine's editors also felt that the column title, "Openings," tells the reader that the restaurants described have yet to open doors to the public.

      1. If you think about it, there's no attempt whatsoever in the sentence you quoted to offer any kind of judgment, beyond that the room was color-coordinated with the meal. That's a heroic effort and certainly worthy of note -- I can only hope that the pork doesn't clash -- but it could certainly be known well in advance that the walls are shiny and striped with a scaling effect provided by chain mail or old soda can tabs, or however they accomplished it.

        Seriously, though, keep in mind that magazines have a pretty hefty lead time; the one I work on (not at all food-related, alas, although this is the most food-savvy group of people I've ever worked with) will be wrapping up its October issue (reaching readers the last week in September) this week. My understanding from reading about these things is that to compensate for this, restaurants do regularly anticipate their openings by providing critics and publication staff with tastings and previews. (I think articles in one or both of the "Best Food Writing" annual collections have mentioned this.) As long as they didn't comment directly on the quality of the food, I don't have any problem with it, and let's face it, it worked -- the folks at Monsoon are probably pretty happy with the way their phones have been ringing. :)

        6 Replies
        1. re: Bob S.

          >>...there's no attempt whatsoever in the sentence you quoted to offer any kind of judgment....<<

          Agreed. However, the blurb does assert the food to be "inventive." This of course is one of those mealy-mouthed hype words than can be read in two waya: as a neutral description of food that departs from received traditions; or as implied praise of the ability of a chef to imagine departures from traditions.

          So I also agree with Dave Feldman that the deliberately ambiguous word "inventive" is a tell-tale sign of the unwholesome desire to instigate a positive impression about a place by using language that can nevertheless be defended as neutral. Public relations masquerading as journalism, at its best/worst.

          1. re: Harry V.

            Maybe it's because I'm a copywriter, but looking back at the piece in question, a word like "inventive" fairly screams "we didn't actually taste it ourselves, but we're reading the description right now."

            Dazzling=tasted it
            Daring=didn't taste it
            Exquisite=tasted it
            Creative=didn't taste it

            and so on.

            1. re: Mike G

              Thanks, Mike. Great glossary.

              1. re: Mike G

                Good point and LOL.

            2. re: Bob S.

              Yes, but if the food isn't up to the breathless prose in the press release, will the customers be satisfied?

              Given that many restaurants go through a shaking out phase in the first days/weeks, I for one could easily live with not hearing about it until NEXT month's edition of the magazine.

              1. re: annieb

                Oh, I'm with you, Annie. And, let's face it, there are plenty of behind-the-scenes variables that could throw things off -- maybe the blurb was actually supposed to appear after the opening but was there in time to get into the next earlier issue, or maybe the restaurant is opening a couple of weeks behind schedule, making them look like they're trying to pump up the volume before they open.

                I'm not defending it so much as hoping to give a little background on the many reasons it might happen, some straightforward and some unplanned. You just have to make sure the batteries in your bullsh!t filter are up-to-date.

            3. "Indian-inspired Asian cuisine, such as a pan-seared striped bass with saffron rissoto cake and a tomato-fennel broth"

              Yesterday, I was at a Culinary Historians of Chicago event at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago (CHIC). The Menu included authentic dishes of Kerala and a preview of the unique South Asian fusion dishes from Chef Sumanth Das of the new Monsoon Restaurant. He said his restautant will open around September 17th --- so yes, you were chasing an unopened restaurant. The menu for the event was:

              First Course:
              Avial: Mixed vegetable and coconut stew featuring a new vegetable for us: drumsticks. These were fibrous vegetables where you ate them like artichokes: chew until allow the soft stuff is filtered and consumed then discretely return the fribrous strands to your plate --- unless you're my Dad and swallow it all.

              Cabbage Thorovan: this featured cabbage, coconut, mustard seeds. It was very light -- reminded me of eastern european dishes of cabbage cooked with onions and finished with poppy seeds.

              Masalvada - fried dhal cakes. One per person, we wanted more!

              Second Course:
              Saffron Corn Soup - we loved it. Creamed corn soup with saffron to intensify the color. My Dad was cleaning the bowl with the fried bread to catch every drop ... you can't take him anywhere!

              Chaat Masala Salad: Mixed greens dressed in a yogurt-buttermilk-chaat masala dressing topped with a deep fried papodum and spiced walnuts.

              Since we could only select one second course, my family and I choose half of each so we could try everything. We agreed, we would want both in the future.

              Main Course:
              Rack of lamb served with Bombay style potatoes and Mushroom Ragu. My dinner choice. The lamb had a dry rub of indian spices -and was roasted rare. The Bombay style potatoes had non-sweet mint chutney, masala and whatever else. It was a surprised to see shiitake mushrooms in an indian dish. Everything tasted fine, I just wanted more lamb!

              Sauteed Striped Bass with Risotto Cakes, Sauteed spinach and tomato fennel both. My Dad's choice which I sampled ... he loved it --- my sample was fine, I just didn't have enough to comment beyond having seen the real McCoy.

              Other choices seen but not sampled:
              - Darjeelng Tea Smoked Cornish Hen with Kashmiri Potato and Jagaree Tea Sauce.
              Vegetable Napoleon: vegetables between layers of thick paneer slices.

              Desert Sampler:
              - Chocolate pudding-like with a ginger taste
              - Finely grated mound of carrots with?
              - A lace-type cookie with pistachios and ice cream.

              I used to pride myself on being detail oriented - but I guess I sort through too many things lately. My Dad kept saying everything was delicious but it didn't taste quite indian. If had I read the word 'fusion,' then I guess I could have replied to his comment.

              However, their food didn't react in my stomach like the indian food from a wedding a week prior. If I only knew which spices always seem disagree ...