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Whose restaurant reviews work for you?

  • c

Am being rained and HAILED upon in Milford PA. Plan to make it in to your town tomorrow. Cat, spouse and now ME, all cranky. It is one long drive from LA to Boston.

In Los Angeles the LA Times restaurant reviewer was considered dry as toast by those on the Chowhound message board. The reviewer at the New Times (alternative paper) wrote about 70% of her column on her own personal life, car problems, friends, etc., rather than food, which annoyed chowhounds to no end.

My FIRST choice of info is the postings on this board, terrific and VERY useful from what I have seen, but am wondering whether the papers here have restaurant reviewers to be trusted?

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  1. o
    oystershucker

    In this town I won't go out on a limb and say that I like Allison Arnett (Globe) and Corby Kummer (Boston Mag). Not 'cause they work for the most widely read pubs in town, but they actually know a lot about food. And when they don't know about something, they tell you - they asked the chef, they did some research, etc. They don't seem to review less than a month after a place opens in an effort to scoop other pubs, and they make multiple visits.

    I'm definitely in the camp of qualified opinions being, yes, _better_ than non-qualified opinions. If you don't know a lot about food, its history, its preparation, its ingredients, then don't expect me to respect your opinion as much as someone's who does. I consider Arnett and Kummer to have qualified opinions. Do I agree with them all the time? Certainly not. But I do respect them.

    If you're interested in reviewing, check out Eating Out by Dornenburg and Page.

    5 Replies
    1. re: oystershucker
      s
      Sugar the Cat

      I think Boston is in dire need of a decent resto writer, Allison never includes anything about wine in her reviews, this is a critical part of the dining experience to many people, leaving it out is a disqualifier as a critic. Corby storms around the North End "trying not to be recognized" and the fact that he has a national reputation is laughable. As usual most diners are sheep, not confident in their own judgement and palates, they will always depend on the jaded opinions of PAID writers. The people who think these writers are disinterested parties are the same people who don't notice the five page ad following the great review for Gallo in the Wine Spectator.
      The info on this site is worth ten times what you will read in print in this town, as nobody here is looking for a free meal or pseudo-fame.
      p.s. do I sound bitter?

      1. re: Sugar the Cat

        I vote for Nadeau for trustworthyness and readability. He varies his approach and seems informed and genuinely interested (usually), which makes it easier for the reader to be interested. Arnett on the other hand seems tired. Her reviews are formulaic: brief introduction, liked it (list ingredients), didn't like it (very tempered), service, noise, dessert. Ugh. Insights, context, brilliant writing, and passion are rare in her work.

        I wonder though if it's her choice or if the paper demands the ruffle-no-feathers style. When it's truly good I want to read a rave review. When it's bad tear it up! The paper allows this in movie reviews, why not restaurants?

        Otherwise, the Globe's Cheap Eats writers Sheryl Julian and Adam Pertman, I both trust and usually enjoy. I just wish the reviews could be a little longer and feistier.

        One interesting newcomer is the column by Joe Yonan and Amy Graves. Comes out I think on Fridays in the Globe in the weekend section (forget the title but there's a subsection called "morsel"). The two writers don't really review the whole restaurant. They just comment on what they tried and the scene. It's enthusiastic but seemingly honest and well written. Yonan's food writing and recipes were the best the paper's seen in some time, but they made him travel editor so there's much less of him to read directly now. Too bad.

        Finally it seems here as in other cities that the main paper's reviewers write more cautiously while the alternative papers' reviewers have more verve. Why is that? They all need the ads.

        1. re: munchabunch
          d
          Dave the Bunny

          I don't think the Boston area has a reviewer who knows the first thing about food. they focus on trends, "new" concepts, and flash to say nothing of extraordinarily limited observational skills that might take in ambience, service, architecture, design, and the emotional wellsprings invariably associated with dining out.

          1. re: Dave the Bunny

            Yep. ItÂ’s really a shame.

            Believe it or not, David Brudnoy did excellent reviews for Boston Mag many years ago.

            Of course, the definition of a good reviewer is one you agree with (What great insight that reviewer has!).

            BUT: Allison Arnett is really an embarrassment.

          2. re: munchabunch

            Thanks for the vote of confidence, Sugar! The check is in the mail...

      2. I generally don't like Alison Arnett. I feel she had a hard time saying bad things about the food (although she has gotten a bit better lately.) It's not always all good, and I'd like to hear it when it isn't. Also she doesn't generally talk about wine at all, although again, she has gotten a bit better on that front. Her "star" rating system seems pretty meaningless to me. I feel like she is reluctant to use her position at the Globe to piss off any potential advertisers, and that comes through in bland, shallow reviews.

        I like the reviewer in the Improper Bostonian... I can't remember his/her name right now. That's a free biweekly publication that you can pick up at corner news boxes and in the front of some stores. Unfortunately, they don't really have a web presence and since I don't live in the city anymore, I don't see the reviews that often.

        I also think the guy from Boston Mangazine is good- Corby Kummer. Although I don't subscribe anymore, they are easy to get at on the web.

        I really like the Boston Phoenix's coverage of the Boston food scene. Their reviews are honest and they also cover wine and spirits. It's also a free weekly that you can pick up in many places around town. It's on the web as well, link below.

        Link: http://www.bostonphoenix.com/boston/f...

        1 Reply
        1. re: Chris VR

          Oh, I do so agree about Alison. Every time I read a review of hers (every week) I want to call the Globe cursing and screaming. My favorite is that she'll give a restaurant 3 stars and then proceed to rip it apart. What's the point? It's all about portions and decor with her. God forbid she get's too much of something, it offends her.She also hates any Italian food. I think it should just give in to the political thing it already is. The positions should be voted in and given term limits.

        2. here's a link to a thread from August..

          Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

          1. I would argue that, unlike NY or some other places, there are no widely acknowledged arbiters of taste right now in Boston, in the sense that foodies and chowhounds both consider "must reads."

            I think the other posters have made good points.

            Although the actual reviews are very uneven, I do admire Phantom Gourmet for consistently addressing basic issues other than food that are often given short shrift by other reviewers: service, value and ambience. I wish reviewers were more consistent about discussing all these factors in their reviews.

            Great food combined with poor service can still make for a miserable meal, and an array of good reviewers focusing on service at various publications could really help restore proper service standards over time.

            I for one find many of the restaurants in this area too loud, and I know I am not alone. The kind of design that makes for loudness also tends to be cheaper to maintain and clean, but still, once I reach a certain value thresshold, I expect much less noise and bustle.

            4 Replies
            1. re: Karl S.

              First, I have to disagree about Phantom Gourmet. The reviews are often bizarre, and slanted towards their regular advertisers. Does anyone on this board believe Legal Seafood is the best and most innovative seafood in Boston, or that Dunkin's has the best coffee, bagels and donuts???? One great example of their review/scoring problem is the even weight given to parking compared to say value. If I'm not driving to the restaurant, then what do I care what the parking is? Likewise the availability of $20 parking is treated the same as ample free parking. And another thing, does The Phantom really have to review the Creme Brulee at every restaurant he goes to?

              As for the arbiter of taste comment-- please, I don't need to be told that I should eat someplace because its trendy, thus an essential dining experience. Who is this great arbiter in NYC?? Amanda Hesser? Nonesense, while the woman may be a decent writer, her lack of social conciousness is appalling.

              OK. I'm done ranting. Thanks for your time.

              1. re: Alan H

                I'm so glad to read a negative comment about Amanda Hesser. I used to look forward every week to the NY Times Magazine food section for good recipes and transporting writing about food (particularly from Molly O'Neill). Since the establishment of Amanda Hesser's Food Diary I've gotten used to being disappointed. Her main theme seems to be the different ways in which food can be stressful for someone who is lucky enough to have made a career out of writing about it. It's true that there is a certain precision to her writing, but the content is so stuffy and whiny that I can't believe she is actually printed by the Times. Plus the recipes are totally uninspiring -- I've never wanted to make any of them.

                1. re: tamarl9
                  o
                  oystershucker

                  Interesting to read negative comments about Amanda H.
                  I look forward to her Food Diary column as I generally find it interesting to hear people talk about food and the role it plays in their lives. I think she does a particularly nice job of doing that. Did you know that she used to work at Panini on Beacon St. in Somerville?
                  I've never made any of her recipes, nor do I plan to, so I can't speak for any of them.

                2. re: Alan H

                  I think perhaps I was not clear. I clearly stated that I find PG uneven. The one thing I like is that categories are always addressed, unlike more classic prose critics, who often barely touch on important issues, if at all. I agree that not all issues are to be equally weighted, but certain issues should always be more consistently addressed, that's all.

              2. This is an interesting thread -- we all seem to have slightly (or more than slightly!) divergent views. (Certainly not a bad thing, of course.)

                I don't think there is anyone writing great food reviews in Boston these days -- anyone of the caliber of Ruth Reichl or Jonathan Gold. But I generally trust Robert Nadeau, in the Phoenix, to give a balanced and informed assessment. His writing used to have an off-puttingly superior tone, which seems to have diminished over time (or maybe I've just learned to ignore it.) Stephen Heuser used to write very good reviews in the Phoenix (he split time with Nadeau), but he's gone -- does anyone know where??

                Alison Arnett, in the Globe, isn't my favorite -- she's not a very good writer, for one; and I never get much of a feel for the restaurant she's reviewing from her descriptions. She also seems to have an arms-length relationship with most Asian cuisines.

                Corby Kummer (in Boston Magazine) is very good, with a big caveat. As a big-time food writer, he knows a lot of chefs, including some of the ones whose restaurants he reviews. (he does acknowledge this, at least when he has a personal relationship with the chef). SO I assume that he's recognized everywhere he goes and is generally treated with extra-special care. He still writes balanced, very informative reviews, but they're not based on an anonymous diner's experience.

                I have to disagree about J. Charles Mokriski, the reviewer in the Improper Bostonian -- I find him hard to take. He writes in a flowery, dilletantish voice, seems to review only a few dishes per restaurant, and doesn't strike me as terribly well-informed.

                You're right to trust the Chowhounds first! Their collective judgment has steered me to some fantastic places.

                5 Replies
                1. re: MichaelB

                  You are so right on about Alison Arnett having an "arms-length" view of Asian cuisines...It's almost funny, when you read her stuff, that she seems so uncomfortable, has NO idea what she's talking about, and seems to think it's all great...And to her, it may be, because it's the first time she's ever experienced it!

                  That first time experience seems to carry into a lot of her reviews--of course she never has anything bad to say, because if you've never eaten the food before, it's GOT to seem good!

                  Many people have said Nadeau shouldn't review anything but Asian cuisines, and I've certainly learned a lot from him about different dishes I would have never tried otherwise, over the years...He recently gave a sparkling review to a restaurant that those in the neighborhood consider less than stellar, which makes me look at his stuff with a grain of salt, lately.

                  When Sheryl Julian, the cooking writer for the Globe Magazine, does a guest stint for Calendar, or their Cheap Eats column, I always pay attention, because I really like her food aesthetic...I've been clipping her recipes for years, and enjoying many of them. Her taste seems to parallel my own...When she redid her kitchen, and wrote an article for the Globe about it, I discovered her kitchen, and vintage appliances, even looked like mine!

                  Unfortunately, I have nothing nice to say about the Phantom Gourmet...To me, the show does seem to be an hour-long infomercial for their advertisers, as well as a soothing paean to the pleasures of suburbia, a vindication of the fact that you don't have to go into those scarey Boston neighborhoods that don't have easy parking, to get good food! Hey, why go to Chinatown when you can go to Kowloon, and get all the cuisines of Asia under one roof! Here, we'll show you the dishes, and let the owner speak for himself! Sorry, that show really ticks me off......

                  I've gotten more good leads in the year or so I've read this site, and learned more about different cuisines, and styles of cooking, than from anywhere else.

                  1. re: MichaelB

                    Re: Stephen Heuser

                    I don't know where he went but I really liked his reviews. And he would answer your emails if you had a question as opposed to two of the other main reviewers, Arnett and Nadeau.

                    1. re: Joanie

                      I have written to Arnett on more than one occasion and did receive a response.

                      1. re: Alan H

                        Hmm, I tried emailing her a couple times and left a phone message but nothing. I always wanted to know what happened to the Harvard St. Grill. Does anyone remember that place? It was wonderful. She wrote that the owners were gonna open in the spot on Mass Ave that was once an Asian restaurant and now it's a Buddhist reading room or some such. But the deal went bad and I never heard another thing.

                    2. re: MichaelB

                      re: nadeau. he's always responded to my emails.