Drive-by Critic

"An Economist Gets Lunch", by Tyler Cowen - Reviewed in the NY Times by Dwight Garner

36 posts in this topic

Here is a link. Funny review.

Reading this review hurt me because it's such a well-written review.

I haven't read the book, but Tyler has been walking the walk longer than yours truly has. I remember writing Tom Sietsema close to 10 years ago, and saying, 'have you seen Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Food Guide? It's the best I've ever seen.'

Total Respect for Tyler's Ethnic Dining Guide, and I should add that he's been very friendly to donrockwell.com, but I respected him before I ever found that out (and I've never met him). I definitely don't look to him for farmer-organic stuff (in fact, now that I think about it, I don't know that I can recall him ever mentioning it), but he knows what tastes good. In a lot of ways, he's like Todd Kliman (I trust Todd to ferret out the gnarly joints, despite me criticizing him even bothering to touch upscale restaurants - I'm not sure I'd turn to Tyler for a 20th anniversary dinner either).

That said, maybe (like me) Tyler's just not a great long-form writer about food. I could write a brilliant book, but it would take me five years and be 200 pages long - great long-form writers (like Todd) can crank 'em out.

Forward, Tyler.

Rocks

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The very same newspaper a day earlier published a decidely more balanced article regarding Tyler Cowen and many of the same views he apparently expressed in the book (which I have not read). Of course, nothing in this earlier article had me laughing out loud like this sentence from the review did: "Reading Mr. Cowen . . . is like watching a middle-aged man in a blue blazer play Hacky Sack at a My Morning Jacket concert." I am not even sure what it means, but it is such a great image.

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Money quote from the review:

"Deep down there’s nothing foodies loathe more than other foodies."

:lol:

And, money quote from NPR's interview with Cowen this afternoon:

"The best food in our [the DC] area is Korean or Ethiopian"

I was only able to listen to 10 minutes of it without knowing who the interviewee was. As I drove, I was thinking "who is this guy? :blink: "

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Rocks wrote:

Reading this review hurt me because it's such a well-written review.

I felt the same way. I've always enjoyed his food writing and his food picks, and even though it pains me to say it, because I virtually never agree with a word of it, his occasional columns for the NYT. I call it Krauthammer Syndrome.

Look at it this way - it must be one hell of a book to inspire such a creative review. My favorite line (yes, I noticed you changed the title of the thread) was this: "Reading Mr. Cowen is like pushing a shopping cart through Whole Foods with Rush Limbaugh."

I think for the purposes of deciding if you want to read the book, the most important thing to note is the comparison to Trillin. Not always favorably, but to be in the same class is still pretty good.

When I read a review of a restaurant, I don't want to know that the food is yummy. I want it to be interesting. Sounds like this book is interesting and I will probably read it.

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So the book is sitting in my Kindle but for those who would like a preview, there is an article in this month's Atlantic Monthly (May 2012).

It lists Tyler Cowen's six rules for dining out. The first:

"In the fanciest restaurants, order what sounds least appetizing" has me baffled.

What is least appetizing is a very individual thing. For instance, I hate prime rib. It is going to be the least appetizing thing on a menu for me, but most people love it.

His logic is also contorted. He says that at a fancy restaurant, the menu is well thought-out and so an item won't be there unless there is a good reason for it. He offers roast chicken as an example - with the apparent reason being that it is a familiar item that they know people will order. But then the chef won't have much incentive to do much other than offer the tried-and-true. He implies that the chef is more likely to lavish creativity on less popular items.

I am eager to hear from the chefs on this board to know if this is true.

If the item is unpopular, wouldn't it disappear from a well-thought out menu?

Rule 2: Beware the beautiful, laughing women.

This one makes sense to me. Is the place about food or is it just a see-and-be-seen place frequented by women who don't actually eat. DC seems to have few of these; I suspect it is a big problem in NY and LA. In fact, NY reviews often note the presence of D-list women and their presence seems to correlate strongly with meh restaurants (which is auto-correlated with restaurants opened by Sam Talbot).

Rule 3: Get out of the city and into the strip mall.

A Cowen standard. The ethnic variant of "crummy but good."

Rule 4: Admit what you don't know.

How to get good food gen from other people. Interestingly enough, he talks about how to google, but not about how to find local food boards. Or even Chowhound.

Rule 5: Exploit restaurant workers.

Find places run by family members. They receive relatively little pay and so the restaurant can offer good food buys.

Rule 6: Prefer Vietnamese to Thai.

He says that Thai has become too sweet, due to the Thai owners wanting to please American customers. Whereas Vietnamese is not as popular and requires the eater to assemble a dish by adding a lot of unfamiliar sauces and condiments at the table, so the food quality remains high.

My husband spent some time in Thailand, eating with the local guide and his friends. He loves hot food, but they had to give him toned-down versions of what they were eating and it still singed his taste buds. So I am guessing that Thai food had to be Americanized by reduction of heat. I can't speak to the sweetness issue.

In the DC area, I think people get most of the sauces and condiments. Cilantro, mung bean sprouts, lime, onion, rooster sauce, hoisin, and the like - hardly exotic around here. Outside major urban areas - probably a bit less familiar. He is writing for a national audience, so this seems like a fair observation.

Exception - chose Thai restaurants attached to motels, because they are likely run by the Thai owners of the hotels.

Corollary - choose Pakistani over Indian.

** We had the best Thai meal of our lives at a tiny little storefront in Kearney, Nebraska. The place is called Wild Rice and it is just a few blocks from the highway interchange. They rated the heat 1-5 and 3 was painful. We ate there three nights in a row.

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Sometimes I think of offering a tried-and-true item at a fancy restaurant like a Bud Light: some diners want to go to the fancy restaurant because of its popularity, name, etc., but is scared or don't want to go out of their comfort zone, so they order the "tried-and-true." It's a win-win for the restaurant and diner, I think (I hope). But that's my theory.

I've seen food items rotated off, tweaked and the repackaged if it was a "best seller" but the chef wants to be creative/work with it to try to get the diners to try something new. I may be wrong on all this, but it's a thought.

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So the book is sitting in my Kindle but for those who would like a preview, there is an article in this month's Atlantic Monthly (May 2012).

It lists Tyler Cowen's six rules for dining out. The first:

"In the fanciest restaurants, order what sounds least appetizing" has me baffled.

What is least appetizing is a very individual thing. For instance, I hate prime rib. It is going to be the least appetizing thing on a menu for me, but most people love it.

It's not really about "what sounds least appetizing to you as an individual." It's about "what sounds least appetizing to people in general." This advice isn't necessarily for the average DR forum poster.

His logic is also contorted. He says that at a fancy restaurant, the menu is well thought-out and so an item won't be there unless there is a good reason for it. He offers roast chicken as an example - with the apparent reason being that it is a familiar item that they know people will order. But then the chef won't have much incentive to do much other than offer the tried-and-true. He implies that the chef is more likely to lavish creativity on less popular items.

His comment about an item being on a menu for a good reason is in regards to the "least appetizing" dishes. They are on the menu because they are likely a chef specialty and should be good even if it's something the typical diner doesn't think will be good. Roast chicken is on the menu because many people are scared off by the "least appetizing" dishes. They are there because that's what many people will order and not necessarily because the kitchen makes a really good roast chicken.

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Rule 2: Beware the beautiful, laughing women.

This one makes sense to me. Is the place about food or is it just a see-and-be-seen place frequented by women who don't actually eat. DC seems to have few of these; I suspect it is a big problem in NY and LA. In fact, NY reviews often note the presence of D-list women and their presence seems to correlate strongly with meh restaurants (which is auto-correlated with restaurants opened by Sam Talbot).

With the caveat that I haven't read the Atlantic article or the book:

Uh, seriously? Only fat, dour women go to good restaurants?

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With the caveat that I haven't read the Atlantic article or the book:

Uh, seriously? Only fat, dour women go to good restaurants?

Read the article. That's not what he's saying. That's just a "headline" for the basic idea that restaurants that have the hip, good-looking following are likely more interested in offering a great scene rather than great food. They probably aren't raking in the customers because of the food. The food is solid and good enough to keep people coming back, but it's more about the "look at me" scene.

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Sometimes I think of offering a tried-and-true item at a fancy restaurant like a Bud Light: some diners want to go to the fancy restaurant because of its popularity, name, etc., but is scared or don't want to go out of their comfort zone, so they order the "tried-and-true."

I have a friend who thinks the world of Palena and Frank Ruta. Yet, not once have I *ever* heard of an order other than chicken and/or a cheeseburger.

Three of us once went to Palena Cafe (back when it was smaller, and had a limited menu), and ordered "one of everything." Apparently, the kitchen broke into cheers when the order was announced (I cannot verify the truth of this, or for that matter whether they were cheers or jeers, but that's what I heard).

It's not really about "what sounds least appetizing to you as an individual." It's about "what sounds least appetizing to people in general." This advice isn't necessarily for the average DR forum poster.

Agree. If you're at The Prime Rib, and *know* you don't like prime rib, then of course you don't order it. As an example of what I think he's trying to say, the only great dish I can ever remember having at Nora was the "Tofu Hot Pot." Vegan, and wonderful.

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Once I was at a Chowhound off-line meal with a dozen people and Tyler Cowen, the only time I have ever met him. I found him to be arrogant, opinionated and domineering. This was an early gathering at China Star. Cowen arrived late, after everyone else was already there discussing what to order, and attempted to hijack the ordering process because he had eaten there before. He assumed that no one there knew as much as he did about Szechuan food, although among the group was a much more humble and self-effacing person who both spoke and read Chinese and had also been there before, extensively exploring the Chinese menu. Cowen continued to opine, throughout the meal, about which dishes were as good, or not as good as they had been on his previous visits.

I was already familiar with Cowen's blog at that point, but it wasn't until later that I learned that he was a neo-con idealogue, professor of economics at George Mason. It all made sense then. Like shopping at Whole Foods with Rush Limbaugh, indeed.

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Read the article. That's not what he's saying. That's just a "headline" for the basic idea that restaurants that have the hip, good-looking following are likely more interested in offering a great scene rather than great food. They probably aren't raking in the customers because of the food. The food is solid and good enough to keep people coming back, but it's more about the "look at me" scene.

Sorry, like I said, I hadn't read the article--I don't have an Atlantic at hand. Did the rule actually say, "Beware beautiful laughing women [and men]"?

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Sorry, like I said, I hadn't read the article--I don't have an Atlantic at hand. Did the rule actually say, "Beware beautiful laughing women [and men]"?

I haven't seen The Atlantic either, but the other NY TImes article (linked to the review) includes a summation of that rule that seems to give more context: "Avoid restaurants with beautiful women, hipsters and smiling and laughing people." [The quotation marks are to indicate the words are from the NYT, not Cowen.]

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I found him to be arrogant, opinionated and domineering

I find his blog to be that way too. And I admit, I am still annoyed at him for insisting that Ray's the Steaks East River is in Anacostia, then insisting that it didn't really matter where it was, because everyone knows that everything east of the river is Anacostia, and I must be trying to lie about where I lived to make myself feel better. (Note that I live in Petworth.)

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Okay, I will pile on just because I'm in a bad mood. I listened to his interview with Kojo last Wednesday and thought he came off sounding very much like Zora described him. I generally agree with a lot off his restaurant reviews but was really put off by hearing him live..

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Tyler Cowen is the real deal. I've been reading him for years and years -- my impression is that his guide to ethnic cuisine in DC was, is, and shall remain oriented towards grad students at George Mason. It's a mitzva (benevolent gift).

I share his bemusement with how to explain why good food in the DC metro area is more likely than not to be found in strip malls.

I am not, unlike him, a world traveller. My food world is small -- I grew up in South Louisiana, eating what seems to me to be the world's best food, often to be found in strip malls and gas stations and convenience stores. I guess low overhead and low complication is the name of the game. Just food, forget the frills.

I don't share his enthusiasm for Korean chow in Annandale -- but that's just me. He lives in Annandale, I work in (almost) Annandale, I feel like it's a food desert, although there are Korean restaurants everywhere, I don't really care for bulgogi. But if he says try the tofu soup, or the seafood pancake, whatever, I will try it.

Any place that Tyler Cowen raves about, I will try at least once. Never, ever felt like he steered me wrong.

Haven't read the book yet, but my own theory on ethnic food in DC is to look for food from a country currently undergoing a bad civil war and a lot of refugees -- who come to DC and cook their own food as a way of making do. Anybody who cooks for their native Embassy's special events is golden. Trust me on this.

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I haven't seen The Atlantic either, but the other NY TImes article (linked to the review) includes a summation of that rule that seems to give more context: "Avoid restaurants with beautiful women, hipsters and smiling and laughing people." [The quotation marks are to indicate the words are from the NYT, not Cowen.]

In Cowen's words in The Atlantic:

I also start to worry if many women in a restaurant are beautiful in a trendy or stylish way. The point is not that beautiful women have bad taste in food. Instead, the problem is that they will attract a lot of men to the restaurant, whether or not the place serves excellent food. And that allows the restaurant to cut back on the quality of the food.

So beautiful women don't necessarily have bad taste in food, but they might as well because they will by their very existence attract men and thus cause the quality of the food to plummet.

Listen, I get what he's going for here (or at least what I hope he's going for here): the more stylish a restaurant, the more likely it is to rest on popularity and not keep up the quality of the food. But I'm really put off by him singling out women (why not "beautiful people"? Or beautiful men attracting beautiful women?) and then literally blaming them for putting in motion the nefarious forces that ruin a restaurant.

Maybe I'm being nitpicky. But this stuff is starting to get on my nerves.

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Maybe I'm being nitpicky. But this stuff is starting to get on my nerves.

Just curious, and genuinely so: How do you feel about restaurant reviews that focus, to the point of fixation, on the attractiveness of the waitstaff, bar staff and host staff--and the shortness of their skirts--let alone even mention it?

Me, personally, given the tremendous efforts required to counter and prevent sexual harassment in the restaurant environment, mostly by guests directed at female staff members, I have found it to be especially repugnant and repulsive.

Especially when those same comments, if directed at his own co-workers, would get the reviewer fired.

Thoughts?

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Just curious, and genuinely so: How do you feel about restaurant reviews that focus to the point of fixation on the attractiveness of the waitstaff and host staff, let alone even mention it?

Me, personally, given the tremendous efforts required to counter and prevent sexual harassment in the restaurant environment, mostly by guests directed at female staff members, I have found it to be especially repugnant and repulsive.

Especially when those same comments, if directed at his own co-workers, would get the reviewer fired.

Thoughts?

It pisses me off and, frankly, surprises the hell out of me. Which restaurant was it recently--Little Serow?--where staff attractiveness was noted pointedly? While it would be relevant to note if the staff were stinky or dirty or ungroomed, what possible point does it make to note that they're hot except to bring in diners who value appearance over food? These are folks who I really wouldn't want flocking to my store, for my employees' sake.

Incidentally, it also annoys the crap out of me that the man at my table is always handed the wine list and the check, while the woman orders first and is served first--even if the woman is the one hosting (as I often am).

This kind of stuff just really sticks in my craw because there seems to be a anachronistic and persistent undercurrent of (possibly unrelated) gender... issues that ladies who dine must deal with on a regular basis. I haven't served for a decade now, so I can't speak to your side of the experience, but from my side, it's boggling.

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In our culture, there is a strong correlation between beautiful and thin, especially for women. It seems to be breaking down a bit (Kelly Clarkson, for instance) but it is still a size two world in most advertising, movies, and TV. So perhaps the idea is that a roomful of beautiful women is a roomful of women who don't actually eat the food.

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