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Nov 14, 2010 08:53 AM

When a review is not terribly objective.

This started out as a review of Trattoria Toscana, but I think I'm touching on a larger topic -- to what degree is our perception of a restaurant -- food, service, ambiance -- colored by how we feel about the company we're with?

A case in point is last night's dinner. It's 5pm on a Saturday night. A lovely but lunch-less afternoon at the Isabella Stuart Gardner museum is followed by a sun-setting, pink-tinged walk through the Fens. Toscana has just opened. The waiter and part owner shows us to a window seat and points out the sights along the Via Condotti (Jersey St.). Everything in the place is so damn jolly. Everyone seems to be smiling. The decor is actually pretty plain, but the warmth of the staff intercedes. The person I'm with is beautiful and smart and funny.

Look. There is no way this meal will not go well, there is such great karmic momentum. I'll rave about the fresh funghi porcini risotto -- a rare (it's almost always made with dried porcini) savory pudding with little taste explosions of the mushrooms) throughout -- comfort food on steroids, perfectly done (though the presentation is plain, it will remind you of eating at grandma's).

The mozzarella di bufala app with olives and tomatoes is the perfect start. But am I really tasting this creamy delight without prejudice when I feed her a sun dried tomato with olive oil dripping down my fingers?

The other dish we shared was the cod with pasta. It had a lovely and delicate infusion of the sea combined with just a pinch of red sauce, the hint of tomatoes brightening the dish. We toast to life, and I see my affection for the food reflected in the deep pools of her soft brown eyes.

On the other hand, what if I'd gone to dinner with a professional colleague? Would we have pushed our reviewers' hats firmly onto our heads and been smart and critical, pointing out flaws real or imagined (wasn't the risotto just a bit salty?) which I missed with my more intoxicating companion?

In the event, we were at Tratoria Toscanna for over 3 hours. Night settled in. The place filled up. Tables turned. We lost track of the time. Too many stories, too much laughter, too lovely a night. The staff never pressured us to move along, rather they indulgently filled our glasses and smiled at us.

It's sometimes hard to know when love of the moment compromises an objective review of a plate of linguine.

Trattoria Toscana
130 Jersey St, Boston, MA 02215

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  1. What I love about Chowhound is that people can provide these very holistic descriptions of their experience and then let the reader judge for themselves. In many ways I find this more "objective" than the slightly clinical air of some professional reviewers, because when I go to a restaurant it's usually with friends or family and not as a clinical reviewer.

    1. Much of the dining experience is subjective and studies show that: same food served in two rooms with different decor, same wine served with different labels, etc. all generate radically different real reported differences.

      We often have reviewers not realize how their expectations matter. These reviews typically say "I wasn't blown away," as opposed to a specific note about poorly prepared food. With the right people, the right ambiance, mediocre food tastes better than it would if served under fluorescent lights with bad music playing.

      And reviewers often generalize from one experience without realizing that food or service which may be off a little becomes terrible under certain circumstances.

      One of the reasons Hounds are drawn to divey places is the expectations game: they promise little and over-deliver, which creates not only a sense of value but of worthwhile experience.

      2 Replies
      1. re: lergnom

        I've had several memorable meals at Burger King-- unfettered delight, the best sort of company, maybe even the sun was shining. It never made the food better.

        1. re: baldbert

          Funny, but look into the research done at Cornell. Look up Brian Wansink; he runs a lab there and has a bunch of studies available for reading without paying.

      2. I stopped thinking about the food when you got to the "soft brown eyes". Pour more wine and bring on the soft music.
        Glad you enjoyed,

        1. This is nice. Thanks for the imagery and the thoughts. Sounds lovely.

          1. There are useful reviews, where the facts of the place are relayed objectively by someone whose opinion you trust for their general and specific knowledge, contextual depth, and freedom from bias. And there are reviews that are terrific to read because they're beautifully and passionately written, even if they convey an individual experience that is unlikely to be replicated by another individual. I like to think there's plenty of room for both.


            1 Reply
            1. re: MC Slim JB

              But of course there are no objective reviews, just reviews written from a more experienced or informed perspective or with a greater desire for a quality approaching objectivity. It would be hard to find something more subjective than taste, especially since food literally, physiologically differs as an experience from person to person (and at the same time is highly socially constructed).

              There is definitely room for both the impressionistic, metaphorical style of criticism and the clinical, just-the-facts approach. Some days I prefer one, some days, the other. And it certainly helps when you can trust the voice of the writer.