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Nov 18, 2007 05:52 AM

Cringe-worthy words in restaurant reviews

Time and time again, I see some adjectives in restaurant reviews that make me want to toss a :"sublime" pie in the reviewer's face...2 of my LEAST FAVORITE, yet always over-used words:


From the NYTimes NJ region restaurant review:

On another day, pastas were sublime, the fresh-cut spaghetti and the pappardelle precisely cooked, the Bolognese sauce a chunky, creamy delight, and the shrimp and zucchini working in concert with the pasta.

From a NYTimes reivew of D'OR AHN
The most riveting of the small plates, and one of the least small, was thin slices of eye round of beef, which had been dusted with sweet rice flour and seared in oil. These cutlets were more ethereal than I realized fried beef could be - maybe too ethereal, and thus an illustration of one of the restaurant's frustrations.

Am I the CH outthere that this bothers?

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  1. I think most food writers will tell you it's an endless challenge coming up with fresh ways to describe food experiences week in and week out. I catch myself reusing certain stock adjectives, and it's painful. Shoot me if I describe another restaurant's look as "sleek".

    I'm more offended by plain old bad writing. The worst offender I've run across is the NY Daily News' restaurant critic, the erstwhile blog-natterer Restaurant Girl, whose prose sounds like the product of a junior high kid with her first thesaurus. Every sentence is torture. Her editors should be ashamed.

    4 Replies
    1. re: MC Slim JB

      I sooooo agree with you about "sleek". Has there been a restaurant opened in the last five years in New England that hasn't been described as such?

      What about restaurant reviewers that have poor taste and are tacky in general? One restaurant reviewer for the Providence Journal recently noted he was drinking a glass of White Zinfandel with his dinner. Then there was the reviewer on Kitchen Nightmares whose apertif was Jagermeister on the rocks. How do these people expect us to take them seriously?

      1. re: invinotheresverde

        I agree that Jager on the rocks is a bit odd as an aperitif, but it remains a brilliant digestif, served chilled, neat. It's not Jager's fault that its American distributors managed to market it into the frat boy's shooter of choice. That campaign, which boosted Jager case shipments into the millions, torpedoed its cachet as the sort of thing you'd sip from your flask on the slopes at St. Moritz.

        The good news is that once I realized that ordering Jager was now a good way to get carded (15 years ago now), I started casting about for a digestif that didn't suggest that I might also enjoy butterscotch-flavored schnapps, and thereby discovered Italian amari, notably Fernet Branca. Fernet is actually slightly more effective than Jager at settling an overstuffed stomach, and until rather recently in the States still retained the frisson of the exotic and unknown. It's an indispensable part of my bar.

        1. re: MC Slim JB

          "At Allen & Delancey, a well-heeled woman spooned bone marrow into her mouth. It was a nonchalant bar gesture, followed by a leisurely sip of a cocktail.
          This is a culinary sign of the times."

          "Still, Allen & Delancey boasts more than its share of meaty delights. Even if you're not an organ eater by nature ..."

          C,mon! Head to that bar and put the Jager to good use ...

          After a fewer Digglers, it becomes more than readily apparent that the competition's "Page Six" and her dining experiences serve as perfect inter-textual foils fit to weave a formidable, deconstructive embrace around the zeitgeist.

          Ensconced! A pioneering culinary grammatologist.

      2. re: MC Slim JB

        Restaurant Girl is the worst writer with a job I've ever read. You are correct, every sentence is torture- the girl doesn't even understand basic grammar.

      3. No, you're not. I'm an editor and freelance writer, and even though I work in the beauty industry, it's a universal "EWWW" when writers try to use bizarre words they've found in the thesaurus as descriptive commentary on a subject.

        My most-hated food description is "UNCTUOUS" and if I hear it too many more times, I may exsanguinate myself. Ugh.

        7 Replies
        1. re: shelleykelly

          It is funny how for you “unctuous” is a word to be despised when it comes to food writing. For me that word sounds like what it means. I was going to say that to me it feels onomatopoetically correct but I wouldn’t want you to slit your wrists over something I typed.

          Most hated food descriptors? “Yummy” or even worse, “nummy,” both of which make me feel a little sick.

          1. re: shelleykelly

            Unctuous is used best when describing a wine. If someone used that word to describe food, since unctuous means 'oily', I wouldn't find it very appetizing.

            1. re: cooknKate

              I agree with you, I don't find anything appealing about something described as 'unctuous.' I think people mistakenly use 'unctuous' when they might actually mean 'sumptuous.' They sound very similar.

              1. re: cooknKate

                Foie gras is certainly unctuous -- there's really no other way to describe the mouth-feel. Duck confit, ditto. And, surprisingly, a good Pad Thai. It's all about the mouth-feel, and I've never had a wine that I would describe as unctuous. It's a misappropriation of a word that has an established, prefectly good meaning.

              2. re: shelleykelly

                Any word can be misued or overused, but "unctuous" can be useful in contexts where "fatty," "oily" or "greasy" would have the wrong connotation.

                I've used it in reviews to describe pork belly, pork ragù, pit-barbecued fatty beef brisket, a raviolo filled with bacon and eggs, braised lamb's tongue, lamb testicles in a Peking-style hot pot, and tofu simmered in and coated with a very rich broth.

                Damn, now I'm hungry.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  I'm with you; I think it very useful in its precision (in fact I just declared on my blog the other day that as a result of this thread, to which I linked, I would use "unctuous" in every other post from here on out, appropriately or not. Whether I will or not remains to be seen, but still. It's my nature to be cheerfully perverse & more than a little irritating.)

                  1. re: tatamagouche

                    But see even with the archaic meaning of the word it doesn't really sound like a word one would use to describe something pleasant put in the mouth. I don't care what anyone says, I hear someone describe a food as unctuous and I want to vomit. It does mean oily, but not in a good way...

              3. Ha ha. I've used both "ethereal" and "unctuous" in CH posts in the last two days. The way "ethereal" was used in the NYTimes review doesn't make any sense, though. How the hell can something be "too ethereal"?.

                My current most-hated word is "luscious". Blame the LA Times. It has (I think) the best food section in the country, but it seems to feature "luscious" in either a headline or a leading sentence in at least one article almost every week.

                1. Gutsy! I hate gutsy.

                  Chefs may be gutsy, not their food.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Bob W

                    Bob, Obviously you have not eaten at a real Szechuan restaurant lately. Their food is genuinely gutsy--especially if you order the spicy pork intestine. (The poor man's Foie Gras.)

                    1. re: Leper

                      LOL in fact, we do have several real Szechuan places here in Northern Virginia -- my go to spot is called Hong Kong Palace (they didn't bother to change the name). I will definitely look for intestine the next time I go -- not that I'll order it, but I'll look for it. 8>P

                  2. Try reading The Artful Diner if you want cringe-worthy.