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May 6, 2010 09:54 AM

When Restaurant Reviewers 'Just Don't Get It' - Moved from UK/Ireland board

Moving a discussion from the UK/Ireland board over here:

There is a relatively new Hunan restaurant in London's Chinatown, which has been praised by various London chowhounds. See link here:


On April 24th, The Independent (a London newspaper) published a very negative review of the restaurant. Here's a link to the review:


When I started reading this restaurant review, it became immediately clear that the reviewer knew very little (if anything) about Hunan food, or Chinese food in general. At first I thought it was funny, and a perfect example of how what some people find delicious is what other people find disgusting. As an example, here is how the reviewer described his appetizer of pig-ears:

"I plumped for the pig's ear with chilli, reasoning that pig offal could be lovely; I've had braised pig's face at Wild Honey and very nice it was too. This should be a spicy treat. Unfortunately, it was a small plate crammed with extremely cold and glutinous offcuts of what looked like anaemic bacon. Each slice had a central ridge of white muscle or cartilage, which made it interesting to chew. Any actual pork flavour was hard to detect, partly because it was coated with chilli oil. As it slithered out of my chopsticks and across the table, I had to admit it wasn't a success. Perhaps in Hunan circles it's like eating pork scratchings with a cold beer during a football game. In a restaurant, its presence is simply perverse."

As fans of this dish know, what the reviewer describes doesn't sound like a bad version of the dish at all. It's simply that the reviewer doesn't like it! He doesn't compare it to other similar dishes he's had elsewhere, but judges it purely on his own preferences. And of course eating this dish isn't perverse! I've had it at a few different Hunan restaurants as a cold starter.

Unfortunately, this carried through the entire review, and on my second read, I started to find the whole thing quite offensive, and borderline racist. The 1 star rating and insulting review seems to be based purely on the fact that the reviewer doesn't like or even remotely appreciate Hunan food, or the "weird things" that Chinese people eat (jellyfish! duck with the bones still in it!!). It's unclear what the reviewer was expecting, but there is no indication in the review that the restaurant did anything wrong at all! So is it fair that this restaurant received a 1 star review?

More than a question of whether it's fair, I'd like to question why the Independent felt that this was an appropriate review to publish at all. I personally don't think it is - why hire a reviewer to review food that he knows nothing about? And what makes the reviewer think it's acceptable to write a review like this? Should I be writing a letter to the editor?

Everyone has their own food preferences, which is fine...but to fault a Hunan restaurant for serving Hunan cuisine seems unfair and pointless.

The good thing is that other major London papers have written much better reviews of this restaurant. See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyl...

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  1. Also happy to report that the comments posted about this review on the Independent website say pretty much the same thing I've said here....

    1. I would definitely write a letter to the editor. Ridiculous. If they don't have anyone on their staff who's familiar with a particular cuisine, either don't review it or take people with you who know WTF it's all about.

      1. On my first pass I was similarily appalled by the review and it reflects the sadly declining standards on the Indy's food pages. However on my second read I started to have some sympathy for the review.

        If I compare and contrast Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong and China with those in other countries like the UK they are often sub-standard with tacky decor, bad music etc. At "home" in China would they be competitive? Or do they survive/thrive in cities like London because most diners know no better and expect no more. Is it more racist to believe (and accept) all Chinese restaurants should have bad decor, shabby menus, and poor ingredients? In my experience the standards in China are in fact very high with an attention to detail and quality you don't often see in these restaurants in the west.

        I have enjoyed eating in Chinese restaurants in China that have design standards and fixtures and fittings that would put many (UK) restaurants in London to shame. The cooking in these is often far more precise with amazing quality ingredients. In contrast I too have experienced dishes with very low quality ingredients in the cities outside of China. For example the Sichaun classic of chicken served in a mound of large deep fried chillies, in China this was big hunks of the traditional black skinned chicken, in my last Sichuan meal in Sydney it was unidentifiable chicken "shrapnel" that had no taste.

        This was a poor review and some of the reviewers remarks are unfortunate. But lots of what he says resonated with my experience of similar restaurants (I have not been to this one). I would really like to see us raise our expectations of Chinese food, regionalism is good, but it still needs to be executed well and presented with integrity. The poor in China may eat on the street and from "hole in the wall" low quality restaurants. But the professional classes and those with a little money have very demanding standards and I doubt they would accept much of the slop that is dished out in the restaurants in the west.

        Dave, I think you are a food anthropologist. I wonder if there is an academic view of how cuisines spread through migration as the first restaurants are usually cheap and cheerful for impoverished economic migrants, these are patronised by the "poor & adventurous" (AKA students), then as the cuisine establishes and the local professional classes accept it goes mainstream and quality standards rise to be on par with those in the the home country. Here in Sydney we are definitely seeing second generation restaurants with modern Malaysian, Thai, Vietnamese and regional Chinese ones pulling in the punters with superb food in great spaces...and yes at high price. London seems less advanced, Hakkasan/Yauatcha were not bad, but Bar Shu seems to be be let down by the quality of the food.

        The best part of the Indy review on the Indy website is the first comment. Some Mantovani fan seems to be confused between the Mandarin people and Mandolins....I think I can understand why they appreciate Mantovani....!

        36 Replies
        1. re: PhilD

          Haha, I'm not a food anthropologist yet, but yes, that's what I'm studying.

          There are probably some academic views about the question you raise, but I don't know of any articles off hand. I'll look into it.

          One thing that comes to mind though is that there is a difference between informal restaurants offering cheap homestyle cooking and restaurants where there are professionally trained chefs, and higher levels of service. So I guess I would question what you mean when you say "quality standards rise to be on par with those in the the home country" - what do you mean by quality? Are you talking about flavors of the food? Levels of service? Training of the chefs? Similar menus? Balance of innovation and tradition?

          The answer to this is that there *is* no answer, since one person's idea of quality might be different from someone else's....so I guess I see this as a problem that would exist in any kind of study that traces the spread of cuisines are you described. How can anyone really be a "judge" of this?

          1. re: Dave MP

            Dave, re the quality question, I would say it is all of the above, I recognise that improved FOH standards don't always imply better cooking, but I think there is a reasonable correlation, after all better wages for chefs (secures talent) and more money for ingredients are causal factors affecting food quality, and improvements in other areas improve the overall dining experience. Whilst it is subjective I would argue there are a lot of common factors between most people e.g freshly cooked to order vs. sitting around to be reheated. .

            Is it right to segment "home style" restaurants from other ones? I am not certain it is, as I think they are simply points on a continuum, I would expect any restaurateur to want to move along this continuum either to improve there own lot in life or altruistically to deliver better food.

            I see this happening with lots of cuisines and they are the better for it. It is wonderful that the depth and quality of a cuisine can be experienced as the restaurant becomes economically established and doesn't need to compromise quality and thus deliver (in a new country) the type of experience the discerning diner can experience of the cuisine in its native environment.

            1. re: PhilD

              I'm with Dave MP totally. It sounds as though, given the reviews by those who *do* know Hunanese cuisine, this place *isn't* compromising quality in the least. I don't understand the argument that you have to move along a continuum from "peasant" fare to "gourmet" fare—on the contrary, there's a reason the latter's always borrowing from the former.

              The reviewer just didn't do his job, period. It seems pretty obvious. Hell, he quoted his date's opinion on her wonton soup without question, as though she were an expert too! Ludicrous. (Mind you, I've done that here and there on my own blog, and you see it occasionally in professional reviews, of which I've written a few as well—but only as offhand color, never as the last word.)


              1. re: tatamagouche

                "I don't understand the argument that you have to move along a continuum from "peasant" fare to "gourmet" fare—on the contrary, there's a reason the latter's always borrowing from the former."

                It isn't an argument that you need to move to gourmet fare, instead it is an argument that you can serve authentic and genuine regional food in a well appointed restaurants with good standards. I am also not certain why there is an assumption that regional Chinese food is peasant food, I understood most Chinese regions had a range of food from everyday dishes to grand banquet standards and the Hunan province is no different (despite it being Mao's birthplace i.e. fervent adoption of his favourite foods).

                The reason I saw it as relevant to the review was the amount of time the reviewer spends talking about the decor, music, and service. I really can't see why so many Chinese restaurants in the west are still stuck in this time warp as it really detracts from the quality of the food. Good restaurants in China aren't stuck in a similar time warp so why do we have such low expectations or such a stereotype of what a "good" Chinese restaurant should be in the west? I know it is changing with London having a new wave of restaurants but it is still far from the norm so aren't these criticisms justified?

                One other observation about the review. Why is a Hunan restaurant serving a wonton soup and a jelly fish dish. Surely these are dishes from other regions rather than Hunan? It may be ignorant on the part of the reviewer to order these dishes but why shouldn't they be judged if they are on the full menu? IMO if it is a good restaurant all the dishes should be of a good standard, if they can only cook Hunan food well then only have Hunanese dishes on the menu.

                1. re: PhilD

                  Ah, I see—but I'm still not sure I agree. You say, "Chinese restaurants in the west are still stuck in this time warp as it really detracts from the quality of the food. Good restaurants in China aren't stuck in a similar time warp so why do we have such low expectations or such a stereotype of what a "good" Chinese restaurant should be in the west? " But for me, I don't have "low" expectations based on ethnicity, I have "low" expectations based on price point/type of cuisine (which is different than ethnicity of cuisine). And they're not really low, they're appropriate: I wouldn't enjoy eating eat hot dogs in luxury, esp. because you'd be paying more than the dogs themselves are worth to do so. I've never been "distracted" from good food by nondescript surroundings. (Filthy's another thing, but that's not the issue here.)

                  1. re: tatamagouche

                    "But for me, I don't have "low" expectations based on ethnicity, I have "low" expectations based on price point/type of cuisine (which is different than ethnicity of cuisine). And they're not really low, they're appropriate"

                    Totally agree that price point drives expectations. But doesn't that constrain the quality of the food? I am pleased to see Asian restaurants in the west moving out of the "cheap and plentiful" category and therefore be able to do justice to their cuisines.

                    1. re: PhilD

                      I actually meant my expectations of ambiance are based on price point/type of cuisine—I absolutely don't think price point determines quality. That implies all cheap places are inferior to more expensive places. On the contrary, many, many cheap places are fantastic! Surely as a Chowhound you agree with that? Some of the best food to be had here in Denver, for instance, comes from divey taquerias/taco trucks and dumpling/noodle houses.

                      1. re: tatamagouche

                        I definately agree cheap can be good, and it often is. No I don't think price always corelates with quality, but I do see price as big factor in achieving great quality i.e. if you need to sell a dish for $5 you can't put $6 worth of ingredients into it. Thus if a restaurants ambition is limited to delivering cheap food in cheap surroundings there will be economic limits to what it can achieve no matter how talented the chef.

                        But give a talented chef a better budget (and thus ingredients) and they can probably deliver better food. And as you say the higher price point can only be achieved if the ambiance improves to meet a clients expectations. I am seeing this happen in Sydney across all sorts of cuisines, the liberation of the food from its "cheap image" has resulted in greater authenticity (and I use hat word carefully) and allowed for innovation on menus.

                        It becomes a virtuous cycle with the general public experimenting more and broadening their tastes, the restaurants stretch themselves and move away from the tried and trusted formulas we see so often in the west, and the breadth and depth of the cuisine then moves out of the "foodie ghetto". A good example is Thai, we have many many restaurant choices that include traditional, regional, innovative, fine diners and street food....it is a long way from fish cakes and green chicken curry.

                        1. re: PhilD

                          There is no better food than a good goat taco, and that costs about $2. Nobody has yet created a better dish no matter the price point. It is great food.

                          1. re: Steve

                            ...but from reading this article it seems not all goat tacos are equal and it appears that better ingredients (baby goat) and preparation (handmade tortillas) result in a better taco: http://gastronomyblog.com/2010/02/04/...

                            I wonder if there are any dishes were the better inputs (ingredients, prep, and skill) don't improve the end product?

                            1. re: PhilD

                              Well, but I don't think more expensive ingredients always mean better ingredients, or that high end chefs always have better skills or work harder than low end ones.

                              Handmade tortillas are definitely preferable, but I've seen those far more often at cheaper places than more expensive ones.

                              1. re: tatamagouche

                                I agree, I would never say "always". But give a talented chef better produce and tools and I think it is safe to say they will deliver a better result. And of a course a talented chef will often do between with mediocre ingredients than one with the best ingredients and no talent.

                                I would say it is analogous to music, give a talented musician a great instrument and they will perform better, but give the same instrument to one with no talent and it won't make a difference.

                                1. re: PhilD

                                  Well said. I think we're basically on the same page at this point...

                                  1. re: PhilD

                                    The fact is that there are plenty of restaurants around in all major cities that do 'fancy' upscale tacos. And empanadas. And arepas. The list goes on. They are almost always pathetic compared to the cheap street food.

                                    In fact, I would say it is highly unlikely any of those places can produce a taco as good as a decent street vendor. They are attempting an 'elegant' version - which usually translates into weaker flavors, less fat, less savory ingredients. White meat chicken and meats with as much flavor bred out of them as possible.

                                    After all, you wouldn't want to drip delicious juice all over your fancy dress shirt, would you? or were you planing on eating your taco with a knife and fork?

                                    1. re: Steve

                                      I'm not a taco expert so can't be specific, but it srikes me that there is a difference between a chef who tries to improve a dish by going "fancy" and a one who sticks with the fundamentals and simply uses better produce e.g. a simple pizza is better with an authentic sourdough crust,well made fresh tomato sauce, well sourced mozzarella di bufala, and a few spanking fresh basil leaves. And yes something of this quality is still best eaten with your hands.

                                      Re comment "White meat chicken and meats with as much flavor bred out of them as possible" isn't this a characteristic of cheap mass produced meat? High quality meat has a lot more flavour, it is often from slightly older animals (poultry), or very young (kid and 21 day sucking pig) and if aged (like steak) is dry aged for up to 80 days to intensify the flavour. All of that cost money and makes the produce more expensive.

                                      1. re: PhilD

                                        "High quality meat has a lot more flavour"—that's arguable. Many would say the cheapest cuts of meat, including offal, have a lot more flavor than the more expensive ones—which may be more tender, but not necessarily more flavorful.

                                        Take green chile—pork loin versions pale in comparison to pork shoulder versions. Same goes for carne asada etc.—you wouldn't use ribeye.

                                        1. re: tatamagouche

                                          Yep, it rests on the definition of "better". When it comes to food, better = more suitable, for a particular dish, on a dish by dish basis (and that's not even counting individual preferences). Sometimes that's more expensive, at other times it's less expensive. There is so much variation that generalisation here is not a useful approximation.

                                          It's also worth remembering that food/ingredient costs tend to be a minor part of the price tag of a dish at many restaurants. Together, real estate, labour and profit margin, as well as many other factors matter much more.

                                          1. re: limster

                                            Absolutely—hence my point above about not expecting ambiance at places where the food is cheap. Agreed w/ limster.

                                          2. re: tatamagouche

                                            I think PhilD was referring to sourcing your meat from better animals/farms/purveyors - ones that are more careful in breeding, raising, slaughtering, aging, etc - rather than foolishly substituting in a more expensive cut of meat for a cheaper and better suited one.

                                            Though not 100% reliable, he was generally right. Using beef as an example: a cut of dry-aged grass-fed and grain-finished beef from an animal old enough to develop flavor will almost always be more flavorful than the same cut from a feedlot-raised, indifferently slaughtered, young animal of the same breed.

                                            1. re: cowboyardee

                                              Good point. The ill-conceived substitution is usually what de-flavorizes many of the upscale versions of humble food. I am definitely willing to try whatever new comes along - though I have my doubts that a more talented chef that cares about the ingredients is actually doing this - is anyone even dry-aging tripe?

                                              1. re: Steve

                                                Steve: I think the tripe argument heads down a reductio ad absurdum path. On the taco question, I thought the "taco taskforce" link showed that you can get a better taco by using better ingredients?

                                                I agree that there is a limit to how far some dishes can be "improved". The beauty of a lot of these dishes is there relative simplicity and thus there is only so far they can be taken, once they get close to perfection it is very difficult to improve on perfection.

                                                I never like to get into an argument about whether one dish is better than another i.e. is a good taco better than a good pizza. Because this is so subjective, based on personal tastes, and varies so much by circumstance and context. For example a cup of tea and a great bacon butty is unbeatable for Sunday breakfast, but doesn't measure up a celebration. I can never answer the question" what is my favourite food because it changes so much on the context.

                                                Your comment on the Tony Bourdain clip sort of circles back to where this discussion started. We often sample foods in cheap hole in the wall places and make the association that "cheap" is a component of what makes the food good. My point is that this is a false premise and that many of these cuisines become exponentially better if they are delivered under better circumstances. Trying to deliver great regional Chinese food, Vietnamese, or Thai out of a hole in the wall kitchen or the back of a truck isn't ever going to get the best out of them. Grungy and cheap isn't always a good feature, it is often an inhibitor to progress.

                                                Sure I have enjoyed a lot of this type of cooking (and I still do), but it has been a revelation to me to see how these cuisines flourish when delivered in a more economically stable model. The NanXiang Steamed Bun Restaurant in the clip is a good example of this, it isn't a dodgy hole in the wall place but an upmarket operation in Shanghai no doubt competing with similar restaurants across the city. In China if it didn't have very high standards it wouldn't survive and flourish. And if this is Tony's idea of food perfection I have no argument with him, but lets not assume it is a cheap version in a cheap restaurant, as this link to their branch in Singapore demonstrates: http://www.nanxiang.com.sg/page.asp?n...

                                                1. re: PhilD

                                                  But Phil, we're going in circles when it comes to what you call "circumstances":

                                                  "My point is that this is a false premise and that many of these cuisines become exponentially better if they are delivered under better circumstances. Trying to deliver great regional Chinese food, Vietnamese, or Thai out of a hole in the wall kitchen or the back of a truck isn't ever going to get the best out of them."

                                                  To me it's yours that's the false premise; the food determines what circumstances are appropriate, not the other way around. Again, it appears you're saying that, for instance, you can't possibly get the best taco from a taco truck or the best dumpling from a hole in the wall; my experiences suggest otherwise. There'd be only one way to tell, of course; put that same taco or dumpling cook in a kitchen with all the equipment in the world and all the finest ingredients at his/her fingertips and see what happens. My guess is that the results would be, simply, different; some might like them better, some less. As limster implied, "better" depends on what you're looking for. Take your cup of tea and bacon butty: that absolutely would equal a celebration in my eyes—the celebration of the small things, of daily life. You seem to contradict yourself when you admit that, indeed, so much depends on context, which I think is what the rest of us are arguing.

                                                  1. re: tatamagouche

                                                    I have already said I am not a taco expert so it is tricky for me to argue that. And clearly there are some foods/dishes which are simple and can be optimally delivered from a humble kitchen i.e. a truck. For this catagory of food there isn't a measurable leap in quality/experience as a result of improving the inputs. But I maintain this is a relatively small and discrete set of dishes. As soon as you start to expand this to the broader cuisine then the impact of better quality ingredients and higher levels of skills start to show up, and that is the key element of the point I am trying to make.

                                                    We may think we experience the best of a cuisine in a hole-in-the wall eatery full of locals (usually recent immigrants) enjoying the food of their homeland. But we don't. We only really get to experience the greatness of these foods once the owners/chefs get some economic clout behind them and are able to deliver the full richness of their cuisines. Dumplings are probably a good example, look at the difference between the regular hole-in-the-wall places, a more upmarket place like Din Tai Fung and somewhere like the Michelin starred T'ang Court (2*) or Lung King Heen (3*) in Hong Kong. Same "simple" dish that is great in a hole-in-the-wall place but once you experience what it can be at a top restaurant it changes your perspective.

                                                    "Better" really does depend on whether we are useing it a subjective or objective sense. I agree with Limster that it depends what you are looking for, but in my mind this is the subjective view, and there is nothing wrong with liking one thing over another. But if if we try and take a more objective view and discard personal taste and breadth and depth of experience (i.e. I like a dish because I know no better) I believe "better" becomes a more precise term and in this regard I do think you can judge the relative merits of ingredients and technique: whether a dish is made to order or reheated, or marinaded for long enough, or fresh/clean oil has been used to deep fry, or garnishes are plentiful and in peak condition, or condiments and sauces are made in house or bought in etc.

                                                    And of course context is everything, this discussion would be far better over a pot of tea and basket of steaming dumplings or with a case of beer and a heap of tacos to share.......although cold beer is always better even if you like warm beer...!

                                                    1. re: PhilD

                                                      Heh. At this point we can agree to disagree—until we can meet and compare dumplings from a cart and then from Lung King Heen. Cheers to your willingness to engage with me—this is what I love Chowhound for.

                                                      1. re: PhilD

                                                        "We may think we experience the best of a cuisine in a hole-in-the wall eatery full of locals (usually recent immigrants) enjoying the food of their homeland. But we don't."

                                                        Oy vey, who is 'we?' Are you seriously doubting me when I give my opinion that a good taco from a taco truck can be as delicious as any food I have eaten at any upscale restaurant? That is tantamount to calling me a liar and saying I am delusional.

                                                        Again, I am not comparing that taco to a mythical taco that has not been made yet (that would be useless and absurd), I am comparing it to any dish I've ever had from a talented chef using exquisite ingredients. I have yet to taste anything better. And judging from my years on Chowhound there are many follks who have posted similarly about other humble foods as well.

                                                        1. re: Steve

                                                          Steve, you misinterpreted what I said. I thought my first para qualified the second (i.e. as I can't talk about tacos I didn't).

                                                          Many cuisines (in the west) only exist in hole-in-the-wall joints. It is only recently that we have seen some of these cuisines break out and as a result people have been able to experience the depth and breath of that cuisine. Once this starts to happen the paradigm changes, we are no longer satisfied with a narrow subset of dishes from a cuisine, with restaurants that have the same menu, as we experience more of the food our tastes become more sophisticated. Think of the regionalism of Chinese food in restaurants (which the post was about), Vietnamese places that serve sophistcated dishes not simply Pho, Indians regional food rather than butter chicken and samosas, modern Thai rather than endless green chicken curry and fish cakes, and so on and so forth.

                                                          It isn't "upscale" that makes these places good, it is the economic clout that success brings that allows them to expand there repertoires. I can only imagine how frustrating it is for a cook to produce the same basic dish day in day out when they know there cuisine and talent can deliver much more. IMO the second and third generation of these mainly immigrant restaurants are enabling this.

                                                          Experience is driven by opportunity. As restaurants change the opportunities to experience food changes and that what leads to the evolution of taste. I am lucky I live in a city (Sydney) where a lot of 2nd generation restaurants are opening, once experienced it is really difficult to go back to the hole-in-the all experience.

                                                          One thing we don't have is quality Mexican, not even hole-in-the-wall tacos. My theory on that is that we don't have Mexican immigration so the food doesn't go through the evolution from the basic hole-in-the-wall. We simply get Mexican concepts started by money men who import the idea straight to the high street.....not good. I take your word on the tacos, I simply need to try them.

                                                          1. re: PhilD

                                                            "Many cuisines (in the west) only exist in hole-in-the-wall joints."

                                                            Not at all. Sydney must be very limited. It's already a long-time trend to serve foods like tacos, arepas, empanadas, all manner of dumplings, skewers, chaat, etc at all kinds of places. from divey to diva and everything in between. From obscure 2nd language-impaired immigrants to celebrity chefs and those in the middle.

                                                            I didn't misunderstand you. You said "we may think... but we don't" It's hard to misunderstand that.

                                                            Your theory of street food improving via some kind of completed demographic transition is empirically not playing out here in the US, and I doubt it ever will.

                                                            1. re: Steve

                                                              But it isn't a theory of street food evolution, street food may be part of it but I am talking about a cuisine. And of course we have lots of chefs who take lots of influences and incorporate them in menus. But what I am talking about is how we get to experience the true depth and breath of a cuisine as it establishes itself not the limited experience via a hole in the wall or a chef cherry picking.

                                                              Maybe my theory doesn't hold for the US but I have seen this type of evolution in many of the cities I have lived in including London, Paris, Sydney and Hong Kong.

                                                              I will continue to search out places like these, that makes me happy and broadens my culinary knowledge but obviously I need to try a good taco as it seems to be a life changing experience, and may save me a fortune in travel and restaurant bills....!

                                                              1. re: PhilD

                                                                I think there is room for all these experiences- evolution, revolution, and tradition. I don't say one is better than the other.

                                                                But I do expect restaurant reviewers, no matter how temporary, to at least put a little research into their subject. A grade school child is expected to research a book report, so an adult can at least research Hunan cuisine before diving in.

                                                                The reviewer's statement that Hunan cuisine is "a more chilli-drenched and ballsy version of standard Cantonese fare" is laughable.

                                                        2. re: PhilD

                                                          re: "Better" -- I was thinking more along more objective lines -- i.e. using a specific ingredient to create a specific taste or texture with certain established qualities. That's not relative, and many of these values can be measured if necessary (simple examples might be concentration of salt in milligrams per millilitre, or the force in newtons required to break a piece of meat, more complex ones would include HPLC profiles of aromatics in wine). What's relative is whether people who taste it like those established qualities or not, which is a separate issue.

                                                          An obvious example is that a winemaker intent on making a bordeaux style wine wouldn't use pinot noir grapes, regardless of their quality, even though they're all grapes. And Ch. Petrus would make a good argument that a grape with a poor repuation (merlot) can be great.

                                                      2. re: PhilD

                                                        I don't say that one type of food is better, certainly not, and it has nothing to do with cost. Just in my outright appreciation, I can't find anything that is better than a great taco, even if it is from a taco truck and costs $2. Other foods can be just as good, but not better.

                                                        My favorite taco joint where I live serves tacos de cabrito. baby goat. It has four stools. They are about $2. The tortillas are not handmade.

                                                        Of course, one taco can be better than another, but I think it's the skill of the cook that counts, not really more expensive ingredients.

                                                    2. re: cowboyardee

                                                      Cowboyardee: exactly what I meant. Use the right cut of meat for the dish and the best source for that cut.

                                                      There is an interesting spin on this point. A lot of these "peasant" dishes that use cheap cuts which are coming back to popularity, would have used livestock from the backyard. A free range, home reared beasts that had a long life, the scrawny rooster for the coq-au-vin is a good example, or mutton for stew. Ironically these days these are more expensive ingredients than the bland mass produced lean meats in supermarkets, in some respects you need to be rich to eat poor!

                                                  2. re: PhilD

                                                    I appreciate the idea you are trying to convey, but the fact that you (or anyone else for that matter) probably can't name one chef that serves an 'elevated' taco better than what you can get from many taco trucks leads me to believe that it is unlikely (though not impossible) that we will see a 'better' taco anytime soon.

                                                    My own feeling is that a really good taco from the street is a great foodstuff that can go head-to-head with any item served at any restaurant in the world. So I am not just comparing that taco with a 'fancier' taco, but I am comparing that taco to any expensive dish I have had from a tasting menu at an elaborate meal, no matter the ingredients or preparation.

                                                    Here is a video from Tony Bourdain at a dumpling place in Shanghai. I believe his sentiment goes for many humble foods. As an individual item, there is a lot of really cheap street food out there that is as thoroughly satisfying as any single item in a restaurant anywhere. Yes, it can be made fancier, but it is highly unlikely it can be made better.


                                                    It doesn't need to be improved. But I am always willing to try further creations that may be just as good...

                                                    1. re: Steve

                                                      One explanation for the superiority of truck tacos over "elevated" approaches is specialization: the truck guys generally have very limited menus, an intent focus on a dish or two. Your typical fine-dining chef's attention is more diffuse, the expertise much more generalized. Focus on doing one thing really well tends to yield better results, regardless of how humble or exalted the venue.


                      2. We haven't had a decent restaurant hack since Durack moved back to Australia. Jay Rayner tries, and his heart's undoubtedly in the right place, but he doesn't have the necessary love of the new/unknown (see his review on Silk Road, which commends the restaurant while admitting total ignorance of Xinjiang food and culture, without displaying any particular desire to find out, and his review of Gourmet San, which makes the common mistake of categorizing it as Sichuan whereas it's Dongbei, a fact of which I was illuminated by this board). This is why chowhound is so important. John Walsh is a total joke, well done to all those of you who wrote to the editor, though since [allegedly] he only got the job by being [someone]'s mate I doubt his total lack of any qualification to the position is going to affect his possession of it now. On a more positive note, Golden Day is indeed splendid, was doing roaring trade last time I passed by, and I doubt they give much of a toss what's written in the Independent (let's let that sentence finish itself). I know no one at Silk Road has bothered to read their Observer review, which is another reason why I love it so.

                        1. Like probably 99.95% of British people, I have absolutely no idea what Hunan food is, or should be like, or if I might like it. To expect expertise in a cuisine that has such minimal presence here in the country is simply fanciful.

                          Of course the reviewer should approach the meal from the point of view of his own tastes and preferences. This not what we do whenever we go to a restaurant (of any sort)? I have absolutely no interest in gaining expertise in the nuances of Hunan cuisine - but would have been very interested to read what a reviewer had to eat, whether s/he liked - I am then perfectly capable of coming to a conclusion about whether I fancy eating there. Is this not what we do with restaurant reviews - whether written by a professional, posted on local review sites, discussion boards or whatever.

                          Of course, discussing these minority cuisines, as they appear in London restaurants, in one of the main purposes of Chowhound's UK/Ireland board.

                          23 Replies
                          1. re: Harters

                            I agree with you to a certain extent. But I think that a food reviewer should be responsible enough to do a bit of research before trying a new cuisine. Some of the things that were 'insulting' to the reviewer were in reality not insulting at all. For example, in many Chinese restaurants, it is typical to bring out dishes in the order that they are ready - as opposed to separating appetizers and main dishes. This is perfectly normal, and someone who has eaten Chinese food regularly (or even read about it) would know this. If the reviewer doesn't prefer that, then that is reasonable, but to say that the restaurant is at *fault* for this type of service is irresponsible restaurant reviewing.

                            Same thing can be said about almost every other criticism of the restaurant. I really liked the pig-ear example, because I personally like this dish. It's supposed to be cold, and covered in chili oil, and have a chewy texture. For some people it's great, and for others it's not. I thought the comparison to "anemic bacon" was hilarious, because I could see how someone could have that idea....but this is a relatively common dish, and it's presence in restaurants is not "perverse" at all! Another Hunan restaurant in London, for example, also has this dish.

                            You make a good point that for many people who are unfamiliar with Hunan food, this restaurant is perhaps less accessible. But it doesn't seem like the reviewer did any research before eating there, and he didn't seem to ask for any help deciding what to order. When I bring friends to Hunan restaurants for the first time, I generally don't order pigs ears, since they often don't like it. But there are many well-known Hunan dishes that might be more appealing to British tastes, and I think the reviewer completely failed to seek these out.

                            But my biggest problem is that he is judging the restaurant on the wrong criteria - which results in unfair negative press for the restaurant. Judging a Hunan restaurant poorly for including jellyfish on the menu is akin to judging an Italian restaurant poorly because it has 5 kinds of pasta, but no chips. I'm surprised he didn't complain that he wasn't offered milk to put in his tea!

                            As skut points out, most reviewers aren't perfect, but being upfront about what you know and don't know makes sense, as does doing a bit of research. I do think it's appropriate for a reviewer to mention that Golden Day won't appeal to every diner - if you are the type of person who is grossed out by jellyfish or duck with bones in it, then maybe it's not the best restaurant for you....but that doesn't mean it's a bad restaurant. It's just different.

                            1. re: Harters

                              What is the point of having a food critic if he is supposed to represent the opinions of "99.95% of British people." Frankly I find the above two posts to be defending ignorance with ignorance and they are quite unbecoming of both posters.

                              London has two Hunan restaurants and a quick internet search could at least give you the basics; by the basics, I mean enough knowledge to not order won ton soup. His Cantonese-Hunan comparison is a comical little cat-dog, but he does absolutely nothing to redeem himself from what could otherwise be a Jay Rayner style mistake. Instead he turns it into much more and comes off sounding rather bigoted by the end of the review. Also, if our mate John here had done this minimal level of research then he may have declared "Oh my, this is not a French restaurant" and it would have saved him his time, the money of his employer and all of us the time of having to read his review. Furthermore, no one is saying that a reviewer should not approach a restaurant with his own personal taste. All of us on here do just that. However, if you're meant to be a professional at this and you are supposed to promote these restaurants to others then you are obliged to go the extra mile. Frankly, John didn't take an extra step. Forgive my David Cameronism here, but I know a few "average British guys" who would have been far more impressed with the place had they come with me then if they went with this reviewer.

                              I have eaten at numerous Chinese restaurants in the UK, the US and China itself. I have eaten in some places that would frankly horrify a CERTAIN COMMUNITY on the UK board and not all of them were outside of the Western world. Nonetheless that does not justify taking a dig at adventurous students. Do you realize how expensive this restaurant is? It is by no means cheap and the quality of the ingredients is not cheap either. If this guy had even gone so far as asking a waiter (and they speak good English at Golden Day, btw) what to order then he would have been served Hunan food. Instead John claims he was served what he roughly summed up as off cuts. Mate, you ordered pig ear. Pig ear. Also, the Chinese happen to specialize in many of these off cuts of meat and they are by no means "poor" food in China. It's like going to India expecting authentic food and then refusing to eat vegetables or anything that isn't served in a British curry house. I don't care if the restaurant is in London; Golden Day and many restaurants like it serve a primarily Chinese clientele who are looking for something they'd get back home. As a result, the quality tends to be VERY high. If a Chinese bachelor doing his graduate degree or an investment banker visiting from Hunan went to Golden Day then they would both be equally satisfied with the quality, presentation and authenticity of the food. Being an economic migrant no longer lowers your standards. There are too many restaurants serving some niche cuisines for that to be an excuse any longer.

                              If you had been to the restaurant I would not have had to write all of this. John insinuates that the food has not been served with quality and integrity purely due to his lack of research. You can't go to an under represented restaurant, order what they don't specialize in and then give it a rubbish review.

                              For one last aside, not all students are poor and the foreign ones are generally loaded if you go to a school like UCL. That's why some of their "economic migrant" restaurants cost a fortune. See Pasha Hotel for Kazak food as an example of this. Many of these rich students (and many poor enthusiastic ones as well) know the difference between high and low quality food. Many of the more adventurous ones also happen to be quite well informed because they approach eating as a hobby.

                              1. re: JFores

                                What is the point of having a food critic if he is supposed to represent the opinions of "99.95% of British people." .........London has two Hunan restaurants......"

                                I think you make my point even better than I could.

                                If London has only 2 Hunan restaurants, then I suspect my 99.95% is an underestimate of the percentage of the population who are likely to have even the slightest knowledge of what the cuisine is.

                                And, I repeat, why on earth should we expect a journalist to have knowledge of the cuisine. I've read the review in the Independent - I see nothing in his writing that is diffferent from hundreds of other restaurant reviews I've read. Bloke goes for meal, eats it, writes about what he thinks, publishes. Simples!

                                Let us also consider Mr Walsh himself. Is the the Indie's restaurant critic? Nor he isnt. Has he been another paper's restaurant critic? Not according to his profile. Does he regularly write restaurant reviews? No he doesnt. So, on the actual evidence, what we have here is an ordinary bloke who has gone for a meal, eaten it and written about it. Just like I do most weeks (although I dont get paid for it).

                                Let's also bear in mind that the review was written in the Independent - a national newpaper, not simply a local London one ( as noted by the OP). He is writing for the entertainment of the readership - the vast majority of whom will not be in London, nor likely to be eating there on a trip to the capital. Those of us who live elsewhere on these islands know that national newspapers and, indeed, many Chowhound posters seem to think there is just a vast wasteland outside the M25. We might find it offensive and patronising, but we get used to it.

                                1. re: Harters

                                  So if you saw a review for a sushi restaurant where the reviewer complains the the fish was raw and there was some weird spicy green stuff on his rice you wouldn't see any problem with it?

                                  1. re: viperlush

                                    Not in the context in which we're discussing this.

                                    Raw fish? Yuk! I'd be thankful for the warning though.

                                  2. re: Harters

                                    "And, I repeat, why on earth should we expect a journalist to have knowledge of the cuisine."

                                    Because journalists are supposed to do a little freaking research. That's their job. This reviewer did not do his. As such, his review is insulting in its lack of context, and depressing in its lack of ethics.

                                    Of course, it's not reasonable to expect the reviewer to like a style of food he is unfamiliar with. And it would have been fine for his review to reflect that. But it would not have been hard for him to determine that a lot of what he ate were traditional, expected preparations in Hunan cuisine and for his review to provide that context before professionally smearing a restaurant.

                                    1. re: cowboyardee

                                      Yes, I think cowboyardee's last point is key - the reviewer is *not* just some random bloke, he is presumably a paid professional, and people buy this newspaper. I'm assuming that Walsh would like to be taken seriously as a restaurant reviewer (i.e. I don't think this was all just a joke)....so the fact that he is professionally smearing a restaurant is a problem.

                                      Incidentally, this is one of my biggest problems with Yelp, and with many other internet review websites. People post reviews of places, clearly have no idea what they are talking about, and then give a place 1 star for completely ridiculous reasons. But the thing is that on Yelp or other internet sites, these reviews are balanced out by people who *do* know what they are talking about. And additionally, they aren't paid professionals! I believe this is also one of the main reasons chowhound does not use rating systems for restaurants.

                                      Restaurant reviews need to have credibility, and to be at least partially objective, in order to be fair and useful. A brief review of Golden Day might read as follows:

                                      "I went to Golden Day Chinese restaurant. Everyone was eating with weird sticks instead of forks! That's not normal! I hate it"

                                      Using the guideline, "Bloke goes for meal, eats it, writes about what he thinks, publishes" this review would be completely acceptable. So would the Independent publish it?

                                      I would hope that all mainstream British newspapers in 2010 would recognize the difference between this and good food journalism, and would say "no" to a review like that. For similar reasons, Walsh's review was unacceptable.

                                      1. re: Dave MP

                                        "Restaurant reviews need to have credibility, and to be at least partially objective, in order to be fair and useful."

                                        I genuinely don't agree with this - the objective bit that is. Eating out and subsequently talking or writing about it is entirely a subjective matter in my view. There's no practical distinction between whether the writer is a professional or amateur. The reader forms a view based on their knowledge of the writing. Few food journos have a professional food background (a very big plus point,IMO). So, for example, I always enjoy reading a Jay Rayner review - I like his style and, on the odd occcasion that he gets out of the M25 and eats at somewhere I know, I generally tend to agree with his view. Using that as evidence, I would tend to think that his tastes miught be similar to my tastes.

                                        On the other hand, you see a different style of journalism with Adrian Gill's reviews. He can fill his weekly column with all sorts of tosh which have nothing to do with food, ending up with a paragraph saying "The food was very nice". And he is generally regarded as one of our preminent restaurant critics.

                                        Call me an old cynic, but one has to wonder if we'd been having this thread if Walsh had gone to the restaurant and written that the pigs ear was fantastic. Knowing that the Chowhound "conventional wisdom" over this place, I rather suspect that his ignorance of the cuisine would be overlooked.

                                        1. re: Harters

                                          Quote: 'The reader forms a view based on their knowledge of the writing.'
                                          Okay... so my view is that this is a journalist who doesn't do his research, and I thus disregard this review and place no faith in his other journalistic writings, food-based or otherwise. He has marked himself as a lazy and unreliable journalist. How is this a good thing?

                                          Quote: 'Call me an old cynic, but one has to wonder if we'd been having this thread if Walsh had gone to the restaurant and written that the pigs ear was fantastic.'

                                          We almost certainly wouldn't. So what? There are way more bad journalists out there than there are chowhound threads calling them out on it. In this case, Mr Walsh did such an obviously poor job with this review that someone here noticed it and felt compelled to post a thread. Just because some sloppy journalists sneak below the radar doesn't mean it's wrong to point out shoddy journalism when you notice it.

                                          It is also arguably less ethical to smear the business of another as a result of a writer's lack of professionalism than it is to maintain that level of un-professionalism but harm no one.

                                          1. re: cowboyardee

                                            Good to see we're still able to be subjective here. You see "shoddy journalism". I see an entertaining and engaging write-up which is all I want from restaurant critics.

                                            1. re: Harters

                                              I guess it can be both at the same time.

                                              1. re: Harters

                                                that may be what *you* want from restaurant critics, but I think it's unfair for Golden Day. Should reviewers poke fun at things they don't like? I think they should reflect before giving a 1-star rating and think about whether it's truly the restaurant's fault.

                                                Probably Golden Day's business won't suffer too much because of this review, since the target audience for Golden Day is people who are interested in trying Hunan food. But still, business is business, and a review like this is not good for any restaurant.

                                                I think it's too bad though, since from what I read, it actually *is* a very good restaurant, and many people who are completely unfamiliar with Hunan food would be able to have a wonderful first experience. Of course, they'd have to go in with an open mind - something the reviewer clearly did not do.

                                                It may be true that 99.95% of British people are unfamiliar with Hunan food, but I would hope that 99.95% of British people are not closed minded. Maybe it's my American ignorance, but based on the wonderful Brits I have met since moving here, I also think the people in England generally expect more from food reviewers. Unfortunately, what is entertaining to one person is bigoted to someone else....for me, and I think for most people, restaurant reviews should be both entertainment *and* a tool for discovering new, exciting places to eat, and not a place to insult foreign foods and cultures.

                                                1. re: Dave MP

                                                  We'll just have to agree to disagree about our fundamentally differing views on this. Perhaps you're right and we come to these differing opinions due to national cultural differences. Reading many Chowhound posts on the different boards, I could easily understand that.

                                                  1. re: Harters

                                                    I just want to say that I also fundamentally disagree with you. And I find your point of view very disheartening.

                                                    1. re: haggisdragon

                                                      And honestly a weird point of view for a Chowhound

                                                      1. re: viperlush

                                                        Ah, but then I'm not a Chowhound - I'm just someone who occasionally contributes to an internet discussion board.

                                                        1. re: Harters

                                                          Ah, how nice of you to admit that. I've seen many people on these boards who wouldn't 'fess up. Good for you.

                                                    1. re: Dave MP

                                                      Dave, taking a step back, we should recognise that we (on the board) see food through a different lens to a lot of other people. In the UK there are food reviewers who are aligned with our perspective: Rayner, Norman, O'Loughlin etc. But equally there are others who are employed to write "entertaining" copy: Gill, Winner, Coren and now Walsh it seems.

                                                      I don't find any merit in his review and his lack of understanding about "kougan" is insightful and leads me to dismiss his review. I suspect his review is written more for effect and entertainment, it isn't really journalism, it is lifestyle commentary. The same is true for any of these styles of review, that is popular journalism, and that is what sells newspapers.

                                                    2. re: Harters

                                                      Thank you Dave.

                                                      There is a practical difference between an amateur and a professional. One gets paid, for one. If I was receiving a salary to be doing this sort of stuff I could bet you that I wouldn't have the level of typos, colloquialisms, etc that I otherwise do. I would actually believe in an editing process and if I was approaching a cuisine I haven't had then I would *GASP* do a bit of research. I think that point has been drummed into the ground (a few times.)

                                                      When I first started on Chowhound I did not know what Sichuanese food was. I had almost no knowledge of most "niche" or ethnic cuisines beyond a few places I frequented and which I knew I liked. I did, however, know what Wikipedia was. Wikipedia provides the brilliant ability to look these things up within literally about 5 clicks. Less. 3? All in all someone who is getting PAID to do this should have the common sense to take 3 clicks out of his busy day of Twittering at the office to double check that strange and weird thing he's going to eat after work. No, FOR work.

                                                      Reviews that are this bad may actually effect the way in which staff serve foreigners for months to come. I really don't appreciate that. If this happened to a place I hold near and dear to my heart like Thattukada or Silk Road then I would be genuinely livid. It's nice for a business that otherwise survives off of one client base to get an influx of foreigners who want to throw down a lot of money on more high end dishes. I've seen this at Thattukada and I'm seeing this in the extreme at Silk Road which now has out the door lines on weekdays. This man wrote a bad review and he more or less denied a restaurant the chance at a very lucrative boost of business.

                                                      I'm waiting for this guy to hit up Indian Zing and strew his review with comments like "You're gonna regret that in the morning!"

                                                  2. re: Harters

                                                    >>Call me an old cynic, but one has to wonder if we'd been having this thread if Walsh had gone to the restaurant and written that the pigs ear was fantastic. Knowing that the Chowhound "conventional wisdom" over this place, I rather suspect that his ignorance of the cuisine would be overlooked.<<

                                                    Unlikely that it would have been overlooked. Jay Rayner liked Gourmet San, which fits somewhat with the "conventional wisdom" on the board, but skut still points out his lack of research and getting the cuisine wrong above: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7061...

                                            2. re: JFores

                                              Justin, you have misunderstood my comment about students. It was intended as a positive. Students generally don't have a lot of cash; students generally come from backgrounds that have made them more adventurous eaters (travel, education etc); and students often live in the same communities as economic migrants (cheap rents - I lived in a Bangladeshi community). As a result they learn to appreciate new cuisines and cultures. As they then progress into professional life they take their new tastes with them and thus become a good market for the ambitious restaurateur, competition for share of wallet drives standards, and we get better food as a result.

                                              So no this wasn't meant to be a dig at all.

                                              My underlying point is that I don't like, or agree with, a general view that ethnic food (and I hate that term, but can't think of a better one) has to be enjoyed, or is best enjoyed, in a dodgy back-street hole-in-the wall with a immigrant chef. In my experience the peoples from those communities appreciate the finer aspects of dining as much as anyone else and so why should we have one standard for a traditional French restaurant in London and another for a regional Chinese one? My hosts on business trips to China definitely appreciated both food quality and comfortable surroundings. My Chinese co-workers had strong views on which restaurants served good food and which didn't (and they knew which was on form and which wasn't), they were always amused that western visitors would head for the hole in the wall places that they wouldn't patronise, as they sought out good interesting cooking and decent surroundings.

                                            3. re: Harters

                                              "I have absolutely no interest in gaining expertise in the nuances of Hunan cuisine"

                                              Why can't a review be entertaining and enlightening? You seem to have a problem with enlightenment. All this food talk can be pretty shallow without it.