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September 2, 2008

Has Dining@Large affected my reviewing style?

Under Monday Morning Quarterbacking, Robert (the single one) had this to say:

As I was reading your review and got to the end of paragraph 3, it occurred to me that maybe the Sandbox conversational style has found its way into your more formal writing. Not a complaint, just interesting.

I wasn't going to respond, but then Gailor said the same thing when she called me last night.

Actually it's the other way round. The blog just lets me be conversational all the time, but I've always thrown in a review that's quirky when I'm feeling stale. Or my sense of the absurd overcomes my better judgment. I doubt if the restaurant appreciates it. Here are two examples I dug up from the archives: ...

 

Prime Rib (2000)

Let me introduce you to the restaurant that was the ne plus ultra of dining out when I first arrived in Baltimore almost 30 years ago.    

Things are and always have been tres sophisticated at the Prime Rib. The walls are black, the mirrors framed in gold, and the floors covered in swank wall-to-wall leopard-print carpeting. Someone is actually at the piano playing that suave piano music. And note the paintings: just slightly titillating but oh so tasteful, like that naked Leda cozying up to a swan.Aren't the details perfect? I love the fresh flowers and the small fringed lamps on each elegantly set table.    

Yes, it is noisy. But that's not really the restaurant's fault. We happen to be wedged in -- OK, the tables are pretty close together -- between two sets of birthday revelers.    

The stage is set. I have my best pearls on, and I'm feeling that little frisson of excitement that happens when you know you're dressed elegantly and have about two pounds of beef heading your way.    

This is a dining room that insists you drink a martini. No, I'm working, but you go ahead. We'll follow it with a full-bodied red from the encyclopedic wine list.    

You want prime rib? You've come to the right place. The aged beef is superb here, tender and bursting with meaty flavor. If you say you want it pink, you'll get it pink. A couple used to be able to split an order of the Prime Rib's prime rib -- it's more than enough for two -- for a great special-occasion bargain. Nowadays, though, the prime rib and most of the steaks cost $30 (no side dishes included) and there's an $8.50 service charge for split entrees. It's not quite the bargain it used to be.    

As for those steaks, I'd recommend getting the New York strip straight up, so to speak. Once the kitchen starts fooling around, it's just gilding the lily. The steak au poivre sports a marchand de vin sauce with shallots and reduced red wine, only the sauce hasn't been cooked long enough and the shallots still taste a little raw. Just scrape them off and enjoy the gorgeous, well-marbled meat.    

Go ahead, start your meal with the jumbo lump crab cocktail or the gently smoked trout with mustard sauce and capers. Cost is no object. Which is good, because you get only five small oysters Rockefeller -- each one hardly a bite -- for $13. Still, I love the fresh spinach topping just hinting of anise, don't you? And small oysters are often more tender and flavorful than the large ones.    

Funny how sophisticated we Baltimoreans like to think we are these days, what with our nouveau this-and-that cuisines; but we still crave the Prime Rib's hot, crunchy Greenberg potato skins. Why are they so good? They aren't loaded with cheese or bacon, but you just can't stop eating them.    

One of the things that always surprises people about the Prime Rib is that, in spite of the name, it has some of the best seafood around. And the offerings have expanded since I was here last; it's almost as much a seafood restaurant now as it is a steakhouse.    

We're not just talking crab cakes and stuffed flounder. Here's a Chilean sea bass with a vieille maison sauce. But aren't you surprised that our excellent waiter suggests we get it stuffed with crab imperial and have the sauce on the side? Does he know something we don't?    

Good move, it turns out. This vieille maison sauce tastes like canned stewed tomatoes.    

Still, the seafood itself is fabulously fresh and perfectly cooked. All in all, a better choice than the rack of lamb chops baked in garlic butter and served -- who knows why -- with both mango chutney and green mint jelly. The lamb is OK, but not world-class like the beef.    

Oh dear. Somehow we've run up a huge bill without meaning to, just by ordering side dishes at $5 or more a pop.    

Still, what do we care? We're on an expense account, so it seems churlish to complain. Of course, if you come back on your own -- well, you might be justified in complaining about the special side dish of the day, fresh Silver Queen corn cut off the cob and cooked in cream and butter. I'm not saying it is canned corn, but it does taste like canned corn. And how about the house salad with chopped egg, wintry tomatoes and a house dressing with practically no taste?    

Haven't the au gratin potatoes gotten kind of mushy because they've been cooked too long? And why cook haricots verts Greek-style with tomatoes and onions? You lose the whole point of the young, tender green beans. But this perfectly seasoned creamed spinach will restore your faith in the kitchen.     Now take a deep breath, because you absolutely must make room for dessert -- even if you have to take a walk around the block first. Try to overlook the fact that the kitchen garnishes some of its desserts with lettuce leaves.    

You could get the chocolate mousse cake with three different layers of chocolate, or the best Key lime pie north of Florida. And you won't find a more satisfying slab of apple pie, if you like it hot with a crust that shatters at the touch of a fork.    

But I'm going to surprise you. In spite of the black walls and leopard-skin carpet, in spite of the fact that you feel so New York dining here, I'm going to suggest you get the bread pudding. There's nothing sophisticated about it; even the little squirt of whipped cream on top seems kind of silly. But this homey little bowl of bread pudding with its hot, buttery, rum-infused sauce -- well, it will knock your socks off.

Maison Marconi (1998)

Doug H. had lived and worked in Baltimore for 13 years before he moved to Annapolis, but he had never heard of Marconi's. Doug H. got taken to the local landmark for dinner recently, ordered minestrone and shrimp Creole and pronounced the restaurant "nice but dated." Elizabeth L., a longtime resident of Baltimore who knew Marconi's well, ordered the lobster Cardinale, the fried eggplant, the creamed spinach, the strawberry Melba. She didn't say much (she was too busy eating), but she smiled a lot.

So it goes. How to explain the appeal of this old-fashioned restaurant to those who don't have it as part of their pasts? How to justify a wine list that not only doesn't list vintages, it doesn't even list vineyards?    

Either Marconi's quirks will seem the epitome of Old World charm, or they will make you grumpy. (As restaurants do in Europe, for instance, Marconi's charges extra for bread and butter.)    

Many years ago I reviewed Marconi's and complained about my veal dish. An outraged reader called and chewed me out. "Everyone knows not to order veal at Marconi's."    

Everyone knows not to order shrimp Creole at Marconi's if you're expecting anything but a mild, bland version, because - frankly - much of the restaurant's clientele isn't as young as it used to be, and its collective stomachs can't tolerate very spicy food. (At least that's my theory.)    

You order the lobster Cardinale if you're in the mood for something extravagant. Lobster meat, mushrooms, lots of cream, sherry and Gruyere cheese are arranged in the lobster shell and broiled for a few minutes. It's a handsome dish. Or you have one of the oyster specials, like the plump little sauteed oysters arranged on a slice of Smithfield ham. Usually the lamb chops are wonderfully reliable, but this evening they had a distinct lamb flavor - too strong for my taste.

As for first courses, you can order minestrone like Doug H. did, but it isn't much more than vegetable soup. Instead, have the delicious antipasto, which features fat lumps of lobster with Russian dressing, a couple of steamed shrimp with cocktail sauce, quarters of hard-boiled egg, a fine slaw, Italian cold cuts, pimentoes and anchovies.    

I'm not a fan of the house salad, which is chopped lettuce, egg and tomatoes in a very mayonnaisey dressing; but Marconi's clientele seems to love it. Instead, I'd have one of the vegetables (everything is a la carte here), specifically the fried eggplant. It tastes like eggplant but has the texture of a cloud and a crisp gold exterior. The creamed spinach isn't bad either.

Doug H. had a slice of the "Dark Side of the Moon" chocolate cake for his dessert. Foolish. Everyone knows that such a trendy dessert wouldn't be a big seller at Marconi's, so chances are it wouldn't be all that fresh. And, indeed, it was a bit dry. Elizabeth L. had rich vanilla ice cream with plump strawberries and Melba sauce. Her husband and their other guest shared Marconi's signature dessert: more of that good ice cream with homemade bittersweet fudge sauce served in a bowl on the side.    

Doug H. glanced around and probably wondered what he was doing sitting on an uncomfortable bentwood chair in a dining room that looks like a pale green and white wedding cake (with elaborate crystal chandeliers). Elizabeth L. sat back and enjoyed being waited on by a truly professional and responsive waiter - one who never even introduced himself.

  

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 2:58 PM | | Comments (14)
        

Comments

As long as Dr. Adobo Karili doesn't influence your writing style.

I concede its been there all along, its just Sunday's review hit me between the eyes.

I had the same thought as RTSO and Gailor, but kept it to myself, for fear that if anyone called attention to it, it might stop.

This seems like homework.

I think I'll go back to the old boring, formal way of writing my reviews then. EL

Oh way to go, OMG. Now look what you've done, you moop.

I too was struck by the refreshing tone of Sunday's review. I did not think to comment on it but I hope you will return to it when the spirit moves you.

No, don't go back, let your freak flag fly. I just meant that I was told there would be no more compare and contrast assignments after high school. Hey, I still dream that I won't graduate because I forgot my locker combination.

These can happen only once in a hundred years when the inspiration strikes me. They can't be ordered up. EL

Or you could change the name of your review to "Dinner Conversation" and then a conversational tone would be perfect.

Sorry LJ, I mean Monkey Girl.

Aw c'mon Elizabeth, don't "go back to the old boring, formal way" of review writing. I LIKE the conversational style--it''s fresher and seems to suit today's more casual style.

The tone of the Pieces review seemed bloggy to me, too, while I was reading it. But, since TPHBs seem to be heading in that direction, we can call EL prescient, not lazy.

Matching the style to the restaurant and the dining experience is what good reviewers do. It keeps things fresh and lively. My favorite example -- when Ruth Reichl (then with the NY Times) wrote about a Manhattan restaurant known for its haut cuisine and haughty service. She went there twice, first disguised as a bag lady, then beautifully dressed and bejeweled. After which she wrote two reviews which the Times printed side by side, deftly and hilariously contrasting both the food and the service she experienced.

When you're within spitting distance of retirement you should write all reviews in the style of the restaurant. Tapas dishes get only four words each. Noisy restaurants have lots of exclamation points and random capitalization. Pretensious places are reviewed in stiff overly formal English. And a Mexican restaurant in Spanish only, just the Spanish that we all understand. El restaurante es muy excellent. Me gusta el taco. Porque no agua? Los platos son muy grande. See we all know Spanish.

Was wondering if you've been to Piv's Pub on York Road across from Valley Motors. Just returned from another great meal there, and am wondering why it doesn't do more business. The food is delicious and well presented. They have a really nice bar. I 'm worried that it won't make it!! The house salad is excellent as was the lobster ravioli this evening

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.
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