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Jan 9, 2007 09:01 PM


Ok, I love Toronto Life, I love their reviews and I especially love the annual eating and drinking edition. For economic reasons, I have not been able to try some of Toronto's great restos like canoe, perigee, susur, splendido,etc., so I end up believing the reviews even though I haven't try these places.
However, on special occasions or when my parents are treating, I have been to what I thought were good restaurants. Some of my favourite experiences of the last 6 months have been Romagna Mia and Hillebrand Estates Winery in Niagara on the Lake. However, I was shocked to find that Toronto Life had given them horrible ratings! I mean Romagna Mia went down 1/2 a star from last year and resides at 2 stars. I thought that I remembered Hillebrand at being close to 4 stars, yet this year it was at 1 1/2 stars.
Is my palate really that off? Do I have terrible taste!?!?! I adore food, and yes, I do enjoy the occasional Big Mac and Montanas dinner, but I thought that I had GREAT meals at the above restos. Can someone please explain?!?!?

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  1. They finally decided to update their ratings for a change. Good thing. Some of those reviews were years old. Holy deja vu.

    No, I don't think they have a clue what they're doing. They're a reasonable guide for out-of-towners, but not for those of us that live here. Besides, if you like a place why shouldn't you just go right on enjoying it?

    The main thrust is to promote Toronto. For that I'm grateful since we could use all the help we can get.

    To be completely up front, they took a favourite place of mine (which shall not be named) off the list. I'm more than a little ticked. That resto could use the tourist biz. Oh well, those of us in the hood still frequent it so nyah!

    2 Replies
    1. re: Googs

      Googs: If you think the resto in your 'hood is worthy, why would you not want to name it?


      1. re: Cereal Killer

        I would rather not hand Toronto Life the axe with which they may grind the resto. I quite like the people that work there so I'd rather not have my beefs end up costing them. It's their livelihood.

        I appreciate the sentiment, though, CK.

    2. I too love the Toronto Life food reviews and I look the restaurant up before trying it. But I don't always take the star system to heart. I think they offer a good idea of what's good out there but taste and preference is so personal. I would really have to try the place out and decide if I agree or not with their opinion. In the past, I've noticed that a place they rate highly, I didn't enjoy that much. So this kind of discrepancy happens. You shouldn't worry about it. =)

      I haven't tried Romagna and Hillebrand Estate Restaurant(I dislike Hillebrand Winery - terrible experience) so I can't comment about their current quality of food and service. But just as how a bad restaurant can get good, a good restaurant can get bad.

      Also bare in mind that the reviewers are professional food critics and look for different things than the regular customer.

      Hope this doesn't discourage you from chowing well =).

      1. - Do I enjoy reading Toronto Life: yes
        - Do I find the food writing and reviews interesting: yes (hardly surprising, given that I spend time here)
        - Do I ever try a new place based on a listing: sure
        - Do I take the reviews seriously: Not on your life. I can speak from personal experience that they sometimes seem to "rate" places they haven't been to either at all or in years.
        - Do I trust their star ratings: No, no, no....NO!

        I could say some other really nasty things, but it isn't fair to tar the current staff and management with incidents that happened many years ago (sorry to be obscure here...)

        To be completely fair to everyone:
        - I trust Now's ratings even less, though I find Now a more useful source of new and interesting places to try.
        - I find the reviews in Eye Weekly preposterous
        - Joanne Kates is a good writer and possibly the longest active restaurant critic in North America, but I've never found her taste and mine to coincide. If you ever run into her, ask about her China House review of decades ago and then follow up by mentioning a food writer named Roy Andries deGroot [sic]--enjoy
        - I can't get a handle on Amy Pataki in the Star.

        I feel we haven't had a good restaurant reviewer in Toronto since Jim White in the Star (which was VERY long ago). Unfortunately, there weren't many great places to review in those days, but I could usually tell whether or not I'd like a place by reading Jim's reviews. I had the same experience with Helen Rochester in the sixties Montreal Star. I didn't necessarily agree with these people, but I could relate their comments to my own expectations and experiences.

        For a really different take on restaurant ratings, check out Ruth Reichl's current book, Garlic & Sapphires. She used to review restos for the New York Times (she's now editor of Gourmet). You may decide she is very weird, but would you dine at Le Cirque after reading her review? In comparison, Toronto Life just doesn't cut it.

        4 Replies
        1. re: embee

          Joanne Kates can't write, can't think for herself, and to say that her taste is in her mouth is to flatter. I remember a few doozies in the late 80's, one a diatribe about the portions being too large, another in which she dumped at length on residents of Mississauga as tatsteless boors by definition, another in which she wrote that Provencal cooking was second rate because cream is not used and there are no local good wines. Thereafter I stopped reading JK unless I was in the toilet and had nothing better to do with the paper.

          If I wrote some of the stuff that JK has written, not only would I wear a big hat, I would get a sex change operation.


          1. re: Vinnie Vidimangi

            What amuses me about JK lately is that she is forever going to lounge-type, trendy places then being upset and confused about the bad service, and well, the lounge aspect (restaurant-to-club and all that). I guess she has to review these places if they are purporting to be serious about food as well as partying, but it just strikes me as funny. Get someone in the target market who also knows food to review those places and let her stick to stuffy, more traditional places with her occasional foray somewhere ethnic...

            1. re: julesrules

              I suspect she either chooses, or is asked to review, places where her target readership might aspire to go, or about which they may be curious or envious. JK doesn't simply review restaurants. She writes in a style often called "gastro porn", popularized by NY reviewer Gail Greene. But Greene seemed to review things with some diligence (if not always with total candour) and also (by reputation, anyway) lived a rather exciting life. Kates certainly doesn't, and it shows, but she tries to emulate Greene's sensual style. We may feel that she fails, but her editors obviously disagree. Remember, many people are more concerned with where they eat than with what they are eating.

              Some reputable restaurant reviewers operate on the principle that it's only worth writing about places that are worth patronizing. My point of view is different. I don't want to hear about a mediocre neighbourhood resto -- that's just a waste of scarce publication space. But I do want to hear that a much hyped and/or highly reputed place sucks. I don't think JK's writing is based on either of these philosophies. I reiterate my recommendation of Ruth Reichl's new book.

              Which gets me thinking about Chatto in Toronto Life. He contends that anonymity isn't necessary and wrote a recent article purporting to prove this. That's BS. Read that Reichl book and decide whether Chatto can possibly write an unsullied review.

            2. re: Vinnie Vidimangi

              I do disagree with you about her ability to write. What she writes ABOUT is something else entirely. She contradicts herself regularly, always has, and has no shame at all about it. Since she does not display a consistent sense of taste, and never has, her reviews (honesty issues aside) are not useful. But her work is obviously valued. I don't think any North American restaurant reviewer has lasted anywhere as long, and she now gets several months off each year to run the summer camp she inherited.

              On a few occasions, JK has come close to admitting to being a groupie for certain chefs. But that really doesn't matter. Actually, I contend that she really does think for herself. After all, she writes what she feels like writing rather than accurately describing her dining experiences. "The spicy Szechwan flavours are wonderful" (today); No, "the spicy Szechwan flavours offend my aging taste buds" (tomorrow). You can learn quite a bit about her personality by reading the writings of her apparently rebellious daughter (sometimes presented point-counterpoint with her own musings).

              And I will NEVER forget that aforementioned China House review. It was early in her tenure, and she should have been fired on the spot.

          2. Years ago Toronto Life and Now were pretty much the only publications that I would go to when determining if a restaurant was worthy of my time and attention. But much too often I came away very disappointed. Hemispheres, the Fifth, North 44, Terra - all four star establishments at one point in time - I found not nearly as praise-worthy as other restos that sometimes would score as low as two stars. That's why I'm so glad that blogs like this one about the Toronto dining scene have been mushrooming. It's nice to get second and third opinions.

            Besides, I think a true Chowhound approach would be to find the one outstanding dish at a two star restaurant that outshines the half-dozen good-but-not-great efforts at a four star. That's the meal that I'm after.

            1. thanks guys for the replies. i feel a little better about my choice of restaurants. but can someone please clue me into this China House review? what happened?

              12 Replies
              1. re: icey

                A GREAT resto is extremely consistent, whether it is aiming to be Susur or Thuet or is selling deli or burgers and fries. Toronto hasn't had many great restaurants (my last personal experience of same was "Three Small Rooms" at the seventies Windsor Arms). Consistency is an issue almost everywhere and at every price level.

                I've had several wonderful meals at Romagna Mia and have never been disappointed there, but friends have been sorely disappointed, getting blah food and either pompous or bad service. I once had a great meal at Hillebrand (in the mid nineties), but never had another decent one again and gave up following about four expensive but very poor dinners. Perigee and Susur can be wonderful, but (in my eyes) never lived up to their hype.

                Since I don't want my post killed, I'm going to tread carefully around that China House review. It was a wonderful article describing a Chinese banquet (way back when they were, reputedly, the best Chinese place in town). Simply stated, she need not have eaten there before writing the review. Methinks I just might, possibly, have seen it before.

                1. re: embee

                  I've been living in Toronto for 10 years now, a few blocks from China House and, like icey, I MUST know NOW what transpired with Ms. Kates's review of China House.

                  Would someone PLEASE stop the suspense and clue us in?

                  1. re: FlavoursGal

                    If I'm the only person who ever noticed this, no wonder she got away with it. I gave you the answer. Roy Andries De Groot. Chinese Banquet. Great column. Esquire Magazine. Long, long ago. Joanne Kates. China House. "Research". Great column. A bit less long, long ago. Nothing happened. Something should have happened. She should have been fired on the spot. [Then maybe it could have been me reviewing restaurants in Toronto all these years instead of her ;-)]

                    [As an aside, I haven't been to, or heard anything about, China House for decades. In the early seventies, it was, by appearances, a stereotypical Jewish Canadian Chinese restaurant, possibly a bit nicer than most. On Sunday nights, it was all Jewish families eating the kosher BBQ pork, kosher pork spareribs, and kosher shrimp with lobster sauce ;-) They parenthesized wontons as "kreplach". But appearances were deceiving. On Saturday afternoons, Chinese families invaded Bathurst & Eg to eat Dim Sum. And they had a deep, dark secret. There was a secret menu, a huge compilation of Chinese dishes unseen elsewhere in Toronto. Much of the food was Northern. I had to beg for this menu. They denied having it. (And, it turned out, there was no English translation.) I pulled out a scrap of paper with some of my favourite dishes written out in Chinese characters. I asked whether they had these dishes. The waiter went ashen. I tried to order these dishes. The waiter got another waiter. Do you have these dishes, I asked again. "You not like these dishes" said the second waiter. "Only Chinese people like these dishes. Have chow mein. Have chicken balls. You like them.". When I insisted, he got another man who, I presume, was the owner. "Do you really want to eat these things", he asked. I said yes. "If I serve you these things, will you promise not to complain and refuse to pay", he asked. I promised. The food was fabulous. They all watched us eat. The owner began to smile and brought us chopsticks. I got them to describe a few things on each future visit. We became regulars. Then De Groot (uh, sorry) Kates wrote (or was it "researched") that column. The secret was out. They soon translated the secret menu into English. And they changed the food so that us outsiders would presumably like it. So I didn't like it anymore. And we stopped going some time in the seventies. Then came Paul's Deep Sea Shantung, and it didn't matter anymore.)

                    1. re: embee

                      Wihout going to Esquire's archives, I can surmise that de Groot visited China House and quickly discovered the secret menu. Although blind, he was able to pick up every nuance and write exquisitely in detailed, fine prose.
                      Is it possible JK saw the review, visited China House, and reported on the great new secret menu? I can only guess. But if so, it would be a learning point in her career, and she has managed to come a long way , from "crashing into Noodles with my friends for desserts and cigarettes" (loosely paraphrased from memory).

                      I also found the articles by and about her daughter revealing and disconcerting.

                      If I am guessing correctly, the China House review would not be directly plagiarized line for line, and JK would certainly have visited the restaurant in her old neighborhood.
                      In those days writers referred to the habit of getting material from another publication as 'lifting', and it was fairly common, and hard to trace.

                      I recall a headlined story in the Telegram by Peter G...... about Jim Morrison exposing himself and peeing in a Florida concert. I had read the exact same story, word for word, in the Village Voice two days earlier. I wrote to the Tely's entertainment editor, complaining, with no response.

                      1. re: jayt90

                        I doubt that DeGroot ever visited China House. He did, however, write a beautifully detailed description of Chinese banqueting.

                        Yes, JKs review of China House was "lifted" (I referred to it as "research") pretty much line by line from De Groot. Hard to trace? It so screamed out at me that I've never forgotten it. It was neither adapted, nor attributed, nor finessed. There were ways in which she could have used this material honestly, but she didn't bother to even try. Obviously nobody cared, but it set a tone for me - a tone that continues to this day.

                        She has certainly developed a voice and I feel she writes well. But she is also a self centered kvetch whose attempts at sensuality ring false. Since I value eating well, she is useless as a critic. She contradicts herself regularly, and says things that just don't ring true. I can deal with biases, and relate them to my own expectations and experiences, if I know what they are. With JK, I don't. I'm obsessed with food, so I read her. But I can't take her seriously. I do, however, admire her ability to keep her editors happy and keep her job.

                        1. re: embee

                          Well, JK has been outed here and so has Goddard, as long ago plagiarists. I believe she reads Chowhound to find new places.

                          1. re: embee

                            To elaborate my previous stated criticism of Joanne Kates'
                            work. She goes on and on about herself and it is boring. Sometimes less than half of the column is about the restaurant the purported subject of the review. She uses too much the cutesy jargon of the moment. She seems to follow too closely Gael Greene, and does not recognize that she is mislead because Toronto is calfshit in comparison to NY. She doesn't seem to have a consistent aesthetic, it is as if her opinion is a bit of flotsam moving with the waves of her world. And her world is little judging from the ambit of her Toronto subject matter. To me, she is as reliable as the broken clock which is right twice a day. Quel uber calfshit meister.

                            The tragedy-and it has been a tragedy for some restaurant owners- is that she is supposed to be our leader, our teacher.

                            1. re: Vinnie Vidimangi

                              could not possibly agree with more. Joanne Kates is a self absorbed bore. few foodies of substance take her and his self indulgent rantings seriously.

                              1. re: Vinnie Vidimangi

                                Vinnie. That was so well written. I couldn't have agreed with you more about Joanne Kates. She really needs to retire and spare us her snotty reviews. I have printed your rant out. Its framed! Well done.

                      2. re: embee

                        Exactly when did you enjoy eating at the Three Small Rooms? JK was a cook there in 1971. That was her only job as a cook in a restaurant, I suppose that qualified her to be a restaurant critic :-)
                        I personally don't care what she writes and it does not influence any decisions to try a restaurant. Her reviews are for "entertainment value only"

                        She must be at least sixty now, it's time for her to retire or start reviewing the food at retirement homes.

                        1. re: foodyDudey

                          Yikes, that was so long ago. Probably around 1970. We first tried it after being kept waiting for over an hour after our reservation at Le Provencal across the street. We just walked in and were seated in the Grill. It was a revelation.

                          We could go in jeans (Honest Ed required a jacket and tie in that era), as scruffy kids, and were always treated with respect. The cheaper rooms, the Wine Cellar and the Grill, were every bit as good as the Restaurant. I was especially fond of Trout Lapland (in a dill-cream sauce) but, more importantly, I don't recall getting a bad meal or poor service there year after year. (Note that these comments do NOT apply to the much higher profile Courtyard Cafe upstairs.) The plain green salad vinaigrette was lovely. They would serve a side salad and dessert meal on Saturday at 8:00 without batting an eye. The desserts were wonderful. The ordinary coffee was the best I had ever tasted in a restaurant. In the Restaurant (and in the other rooms when they weren't mobbed), the menu didn't necessarily matter. They were willing to make anything you asked for if they had ingredients to do it. And these improvisations were often fabulous. I didn't work in that kitchen, and for all I know, they could have been microwaving stuff from cans. But everything, whether fancy or simple, seemed to taste good.

                          It couldn't, and didn't, last forever. The owner turned his attention to the Courtyard and Noodles and let the Three Small Rooms languish. I can't remember exactly when we stopped going. But it was the most consistent, and consistently good food, I've had in Toronto while it lasted.

                        2. re: embee

                          I agree that Toronto restaurant greatness stopped around the time of the demise of the Restaurant in Three Small Rooms but would like to add Auberge Gavroche to the list of defunct Toronto greats.