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Criticizing the Critics

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I think I mentioned somewhere once upon a time that I love Michael Landrum from afar.

You have to be careful about loving him up close, if he's not expecting it - Ray's, it seems, has a strong "must wear pants" policy.

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OK. There are too many arguments here for me to dispute, or quote, so just let me address a few.

Back in 1997, when Tom Sietsema came back to DC to edit the SidewalkDC website for the behemoth Microsoft, he hired me to be his wine writer. One "innovation" we implemented - and I don't say no one ever did it before, but it certainly wasn't common - was for me to write a mini-review of a restaurant's wine list, which ran as a sidebar alongside his restaurant reviews. The Post was not doing this at the time. By the end of our run two years later, the Post was actually mentioning wine in its reviews. When Tom took over the Post reviews, he continued this by regularly discussing the restaurant's wine list. It may not be "30-60 words" (a very arbitrary standard, Jake), but he typically does give an indication in his reviews of whether a restaurant has given any thought to wine.

As for Galileo - maybe Tom felt compelled to devote more ink to Roberto's rap sheet than his wine sheet - it's more relevant, after all. The thing to remember isn't that editors don't know anything about wine (you don't know what they drink), but that newspaper reviews are limited in space and ink; online screeds like those that appear here and in blogs are not limited in word count or "column inches", which quite frankly may be an advantage, or maybe not - it depends on the writer, not the medium. We can critique the writer's choice of what to include or leave out in any given review, but it is important to keep this in mind when dismissing someone's entire body of work.

This site is not "the press" - it is part of a new creature, social media, that acts as a counterpoint to the press, and certainly has an influence on it. It may even be the future of "the press," God help us all. That would be anarchy. But then, the "press" often resembles anarchy in its own right ... so I imagine we'll survive.

I grew up in a Washington Star family. I remember my dad expressing consternation that "Nixon lied to us." I took a "creative journalism" class at The Writers Center in Bethesda from the reporter who covered Watergate for the Star. He told us how he'd wake up every morning in dread, go to his doorstep and retrieve his copy of the Post, and learn what story he'd be chasing all that day. Yes, the Post has its faults - the conservative editorial page among them - and it hasn't figured out how to thrive in the Internet era. But it has a damn good Food section these days, which is going for a "three-peat" in the Beard awards, thanks to the vision of Joe Yonan and Bonnie Benwick, and the writing of Jane Black and now Tim Carman. And maybe some talented freelancers who are trying to do something more than the ordinary. That's something to be appreciated. (Says the "homer," who has been writing steadily for the Food section for two and a half of those three years ... and very proud to be part of that effort.)

[Joe - you may include the suck-up bonus in my next check ... ]

I'll go back to lurking now.

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This site is not "the press"

Wanna bet? The collective wisdom and information here dwarfs your Food section in every way, from sheer breadth to high-level expertise.

Any time you want to get five of your best people to debate five of the best of ours, just let me know when you'd like your asses handed to you.

How dare you mention the word "anarchy" after six years of my blood, sweat, and tears organizing this data.

And for the record, I'm not a fan of the recent anti-Post posts.

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Wanna bet? The collective wisdom and information here dwarfs your Food section in every way, from sheer breadth to high-level expertise.

Any time you want to get five of your best people to debate five of the best of ours, just let me know when you'd like your asses handed to you.

How dare you mention the word "anarchy" after six years of my blood, sweat, and tears organizing this data.

And for the record, I'm not a fan of the recent anti-Post posts.

Our board's eponymous figurehead is sort of uniquely immune from receiving one of my "hey would you please tone it down" messages, but I'm just going to point out that Dave's claim was only that "social media" as a whole would represent an anarchic future should IT come to define "the press", and not this site specifically. We're still waaay ahead of Yelp, for instance. Otherwise, I'm generally inclined to agree with Mr. McIntyre. The idea of a circumspect and ethical press has always struggled to gain momentum, and IMHO seems to be on the decline these days (*cough* Fox). I don't know that any news organization binds its contributors to a specific ethical standard these days, but here on the board it's more a combination of good manners and peer pressure, rather than the pursuit of a loftier goal, that keeps the drivel quotient relatively low.

To this day, I think few commenters are able to achieve what the Xerox PARC folks used to call a "level 2 argument" - one in which the issue was sufficiently understood by the person making the argument, that (s)he could effectively argue the opposing viewpoint, but obviously had reasons not to. It's a high standard, but worth pursuing, even if often the conclusion can only be that your opponent is a total kook.

There are a lot of extraordinary people who participate on these boards, including amateurs whose considered opinions in certain areas are more reliable than those of many paid professionals out there. But as a community, we're also inclusive in a way that we should be, and that no credible news organization should ever consider being.

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Wanna bet? The collective wisdom and information here dwarfs your Food section in every way, from sheer breadth to high-level expertise.

Any time you want to get five of your best people to debate five of the best of ours, just let me know when you'd like your asses handed to you.

How dare you mention the word "anarchy" after six years of my blood, sweat, and tears organizing this data.

And for the record, I'm not a fan of the recent anti-Post posts.

Not to add fuel to a fire, but, you know what? I like Sietsema's reviews. I like the Post's food coverage. And, not surprisingly, I like this forum. They all work together for me.

Tom is good at his job. Although a lot of people take issue with his focus from time to time, he has a good grasp of what people like to know about restaurants before they go, including me. I agree that his beverage coverage could be more complete, but it's not horrible. In fact, it's usually pretty good (at least as much as it needs to be). Unless I'm mistaken, he tends to mention whether a restaurant has an really bad wine list or an overpriced one. So, what we're really talking about here is data points. Most people just want a good, reasonably priced bottle of wine. And I would submit that the people who want more are savvy enough to research the issue on their own. I am only kind-of that savvy in that way. I know enough about wine, beer, and beverages to almost always get a good one that pairs well with my food (or know if I can't), but as long as there's one in my price point that I like, I don't much care. I don't think I'm terribly atypical.

Would I like someone to review drinks specifically? Yes. But they do. Have you read Don's reviews (this is a rhetorical question meant to inspire those that haven't)? Or the reviews that appear here? Or Tom's chat (he regularly highlights good beverage programs and places with great wine, when asked)? Or the Posts' actual beverage column (they do a good job, though mostly with cocktails)? Could the Post do more? Yes. So, maybe our good friend dmwine will do a special on DC restaurants with great wine lists. It wouldn't be the Post's first.

So, chill. No harm, no foul. If you find a place that is not getting the credit it deserves about its beverage program, post about it here. Or email people at the Post. I think they are trying as hard as anyone to provide salient information and to be "in the know." In fact, I'd be surprised to learn that the editor (who has posted here) doesn't want that.

And, as long as we're on the subject of Don's "blood, sweat, and tears," let me thank him for all of it. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that this community has brought quite a bit to our lives. In fact, for me it has been (quite literally) a lifeline at times. So, I thank you Don, and all that have helped, unreservedly.

Now that you mention it, though, what great beverage programs do I not know about?

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It may not be "30-60 words" (a very arbitrary standard, Jake), but he typically does give an indication in his reviews of whether a restaurant has given any thought to wine.

As for Galileo - maybe Tom felt compelled to devote more ink to Roberto's rap sheet than his wine sheet - it's more relevant, after all.

30-60 words is an arbitrary standard that I used to show that it wouldn't be a major space burden on a review.

And zero words, by the way, is absolutely the wrong standard for a restaurant whose previous incarnation was a worldwide-known wine destination. He spends 29 words talking about the Lab (which doesn't exist in the current restaurant; those 29 words do not mention its oft-postponed return). He spends 47 words (combined, in two different places) talking about what it's like to be a food critic.

Wine and other beverages are a significant portion of a restaurant check in fine dining. Zero words is not an option.

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Wanna bet? The collective wisdom and information here dwarfs your Food section in every way, from sheer breadth to high-level expertise.

Though, as with other sites, the collective wisdom is often buried under the collective bullshit of a thousand amateurs spewing about their latest crushes and gripes.

There is a lot to be said for the "let a thousand flowers bloom" approach to on-line food wisdom aggregation.

But there is also a lot to be said for bringing professionals together in a tightly edited, national-caliber weekly section, as well.

(In the five-on-five, which side does Dave play for?)

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Though, as with other sites, the collective wisdom is often buried under the collective bullshit of a thousand amateurs spewing about their latest crushes and gripes.

1001.

(In the five-on-five, which side does Dave play for?)

It has always amused me (since day one, pretty much), when people bitch to me (while angrily wagging their second finger at me) about "THOSE people on YOUR website" as I think to myself, "Gee, aren't you a member here, too?"

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(In the five-on-five, which side does Dave play for?)

Whichever, I am sure that - just like in school - I would be the last player chosen for either side. B)

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View PostWaitman, on 12 April 2011 - 08:21 AM, said:

Though, as with other sites, the collective wisdom is often buried under the collective bullshit of a thousand amateurs spewing about their latest crushes and gripes.

1001.

To be clear, I included myself in the original tally.

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I know that he is a member here, so is making comments concerning his douchebaggery and evidently small penis size count as a personal attack?

[Yes. You can attack the writing (*), but not the man. Stop, please.]

(*) And please don't pull a Mark Twain and say something like "the writing is that of a douchebag with a small penis." I'll leave the links because they're interesting, but quite frankly, Steve has been a perfectly fine member here. Yes, he has an agenda (as do many), but he's honored our few informal rules and to the best of my memory has never written a single post that merited deletion.

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[Yes. You can attack the writing (*), but not the man. Stop, please.]

(*) And please don't pull a Mark Twain and say something like "the writing is that of a douchebag with a small penis." I'll leave the links because they're interesting, but quite frankly, Steve has been a perfectly fine member here. Yes, he has an agenda (as do many), but he's honored our few informal rules and to the best of my memory has never written a single post that merited deletion.

Re: the link to the Minneapolis Vietnamese discussion, I find it interesting that the man, whose anatomy I will not characterize any further, uses "opinion" in his titles a lot, strongly suggesting the conclusions are his opinions, but when challenged suddenly claims that everything came from some folks who responded to his survey, puts the responsibility for it on them, and ducks the question of whether his survey methodology was any good. Strikes me as a bit two-faced. JMHO.

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the question of whether his survey methodology was any good.

It seems pretty obvious to me that a self-selected sample based on the mailing list of a single restaurant is a survey methodology that isn't any good.

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In any case, the pastry chef guy ( I already forgot his name due to a nice lunch at Lyon Hall that included a couple of Saison from Philly, and also featured a chance sighting of Pizzaiolo Chris Nye )that is opening the Mexican restaurant struck a chord with me when he said this, "The point of Empellon is to be solid and straight forward and serve food that's worthy of craving rather than pondering. "

So much silly food, trendy food, (and my least favorite) fancy food. And still there is this urgency to jump on the latest bandwagon, slap it with a trendy label, (as in Molecular Gastronomy, Pizza Napoletana, Tapas, etc..oh and Artisan-that one is important from a marketing perspective) and then make some mediocre, run of the mill, half assed crap that does nothing but shame the cuisine it is (poorly) derived from.

So, this probably doesn't make a lot of sense, but what I would like to state clearly is...

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I'm pretty sure "Blood Orange Consomme" is actually simple syrup with strained orange juice incorporated, and even with a funny title, it's still not very good. Or, I should say it might be good, but it's not any better than blood orange simple syrup, and in any case, I would have rather had the rum baba I thought I was having before the "consomme" added.

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[Yes. You can attack the writing (*), but not the man. Stop, please.]

I just figured I would ask before I actually commented...

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This post by Rieux makes me want to resurrect this thread for our new members, and pose the question: what do you think of critics being criticized?

My view, which is well-known: if you're going to dole it out, you'd better be able to take it right back. Everything I write is (and should be) subject to close scrutiny, and I don't take it personally (unless it gets personal). There are plenty of expert amateurs out there who know every bit as much as I do, if not more, about many things. One thing I'll say for myself: I'm quick to admit when I'm wrong (which I often am) - a lot of critics are not, and I think this does the public a huge disservice.

But I've also heard - particularly about people who vehemently criticize the wine critic Robert Parker - that it's ridiculous to criticize a critic, that it's rooted in jealousy (this is Parker's time-tested line of self-defense), etc. I don't buy that line of thinking at all - some people who criticize Parker are jealous (and they're the ones who tend to get personal), but others simply don't like or trust his palate or his adherence to the 100-point scoring system (you can include me in this group - I think the 100-point scoring system is a joke, and have said so even to my close friends who use it).

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This post by Rieux makes me want to resurrect this thread for our new members, and pose the question: what do you think of critics being criticized?

I like to see and hear it just from a general knowledge perspective, but I'd like to see actual criticism and not cryptic comments.  I've made these requests before in threads (and some of them to you Don) but rarely get an answer.  I can't recall any actual quotes, but they been along the lines of "We need some new blood in this town because the critics all suck" or "Tom hasn't done his job in years" or even more incendiary yet more vague comments. 

 

I'd love to hear these comments more fleshed out.  If you're calling for a whole new crop of critics, I'd love to know what's wrong with the current group.  I enjoy reading Tom, Tim and Todd (or T3, Triple T, or 3 cubed ;-) ) but maybe I like them because I just don't know any better?

 

So for me, I'd say bring it on, but only if you supply some context or details, otherwise don't bother.

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I like to see and hear it just from a general knowledge perspective, but I'd like to see actual criticism and not cryptic comments.  I've made these requests before in threads (and some of them to you Don) but rarely get an answer.  I can't recall any actual quotes, but they been along the lines of "We need some new blood in this town because the critics all suck" or "Tom hasn't done his job in years" or even more incendiary yet more vague comments. 

I'd love to hear these comments more fleshed out.  If you're calling for a whole new crop of critics, I'd love to know what's wrong with the current group.  I enjoy reading Tom, Tim and Todd (or T3, Triple T, or 3 cubed ;-) ) but maybe I like them because I just don't know any better?

So for me, I'd say bring it on, but only if you supply some context or details, otherwise don't bother.

Bart, I cannot tell in reading this whether or not 1) you're issuing a general statement, or 2) if you've written the entire thing about me (presumably because I chose not to elaborate in response to this post of yours). As to why I didn't, I would have had to name names and get specific about details I know about certain companies that are private business practices, and I don't think it's my place to do such a thing. Should I not have said anything at all to begin with? Perhaps not, but my original post just cited what could have been, in my opinion, one of a hundred, no, make that a thousand examples I could come up with about how, yes, the public is manipulated by marketing and public relations strategies - this is not specific to restaurants, and is so obvious (to me, anyway) that I don't think it needs clarification. Product placement in movies. There's another example. A publicly traded company announcing bad news on a Friday afternoon at 5 PM. There's another. "Advertising is the art of convincing people to spend money they don't have on something they don't need." Will Rogers. 

If the latter (i.e., #2, and I don't *think* that's the case, but I'm not sure), I think I've been a fairly strong supporter of Tom over the years, especially considering the position I'm in. Yes, there are aspects of his work that I've loudly criticized (star system, wine coverage, travels a lot, overlooks this website), but that's as far as I'm willing to go - I even publicly defended Tom during his lowest moment when people like Michael Birchenall of FoodServiceMonthly.com were calling for his resignation (I cannot find that essay online, but it was pretty strong and blunt - it was titled something like, "Why I Think It's Time For Tom Sietsema To Step Down"). I consider Tom a friend, and we are supposed to have dinner together sometime in the near future. There are plenty of "new blood in town" and "Tom hasn't done his job in years" comments, but they haven't come from me (I mean, I assume I'm part of the blood in this town, so I'd be calling for my own ouster!) And I've flat-out said here that I think Tom is an excellent restaurant critic, and I'll say it again: Tom Sietsema is an excellent restaurant critic.

If the former (i.e., #1), then I agree with everything you say.

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Don -

    Nope not about you specifically, more of a general observation about many posts I read in here.  I just called you out because you're easy to remember!  :D

Put me down as #1 above!

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I think that "criticizing the critics" is very useful for a site like this one, if it provides information that can help put the critic's output into perspective for the purpose of deciding where to eat - e.g., "Critic A's taste in Armenian food tends towards the bland and greasy, as evidenced by his praise of Place X over Place Y, so watch out before you decide to rely on his recommendations there" or "Critic B loves to be the one who 'finds' unknown spots (or maybe his employer pushes him towards that sort of output), and this tends to lead him to exaggerated praise as when he reviewed Places W and Z so highly, so watch out for that." (just pure hypothetical examples).

By contrast, there are many types of "criticizing the critics" which are more about their writing, their personal style, etc., or about general reactions to their work as a whole - and I know that I have done that occasionally - but are not actually useful in determining what restaurants to go to.  For instance, the thing this week about the Kliman chat.  I have strong opinions about that chat (re the guest who declined the pasta), and was sorely tempted to chime in with my opinions here - but they would not be opinions that are useful to anybody else, and the internet is already full of people complaining about other people.

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I think that "criticizing the critics" is very useful for a site like this one, if it provides information that can help put the critic's output into perspective for the purpose of deciding where to eat - e.g., "Critic A's taste in Armenian food tends towards the bland and greasy, as evidenced by his praise of Place X over Place Y, so watch out before you decide to rely on his recommendations there" or "Critic B loves to be the one who 'finds' unknown spots (or maybe his employer pushes him towards that sort of output), and this tends to lead him to exaggerated praise as when he reviewed Places W and Z so highly, so watch out for that." (just pure hypothetical examples).

By contrast, there are many types of "criticizing the critics" which are more about their writing, their personal style, etc., or about general reactions to their work as a whole - and I know that I have done that occasionally - but are not actually useful in determining what restaurants to go to.  For instance, the thing this week about the Kliman chat.  I have strong opinions about that chat (re the guest who declined the pasta), and was sorely tempted to chime in with my opinions here - but they would not be opinions that are useful to anybody else, and the internet is already full of people complaining about other people.

I agreed with everything you said ... up until the last sentence! There's plenty of room here for character assassination chatting about non-restaurant items; the comments just need to be in the right threads and in the right forums - and they should never be of the form "X is a Y," where X is a person, and Y is a derogatory noun.

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