Appetizers
February 14, 2011
Monday postscript: Tower Cafe

By Blair Anthony Robertson, Bee restaurant critic
brobertson@sacbee.com

I expected a lot of feedback regarding my review of Tower Café. My voicemail and e-mail did not disappoint.

This enduring restaurant has a loyal following and, if voluminous reader reaction is any indication, there are plenty of others who don't really get the appeal.

Is it possible both sides are correct? Of course. This is what I told folks on Facebook a couple of days before the publication of the review:

"One thing people who read my reviews should realize is that you don't have to agree with all of them. If I like a place you hate or hate a place you like, it doesn't mean you're wrong, and you shouldn't feel insulted. My primary obligation when I give my opinion is to convince the reader it is sincere, well reasoned and given in the spirit of context -- I compare similar places to one another.

"If I get careful readers to agree with 75 percent of my reviews and at least respect the rest, and perhaps be entertained along the way, then I'm doing OK."


So why the massive response this week? Many wrote to say I had validated their opinion, that their friends had considered them cranks and oddballs for not loving this restaurant. Some folks wrote or called to say I am an angry, bitter person. That's not fair. Comments like that make me angry and bitter.

But seriously, I never begin the review process thinking I am going to slam a restaurant. I always keep an open mind, am always on the lookout for things I had not considered, and I am always looking to be entertained. But I also know my role as a critic. I look for the good first - but I never ignore the bad.

Given the number of times I eat out each week, I take my mindset seriously. I never eat out if I am in a bad mood or feel as if it is some sort of obligation. I also make sure I am hungry. Sometimes, I will go for a run or a bike ride to stimulate my appetite because I don't know many people who go out to eat when they are full.

That is how I approached Tower Café - as a place I wanted to enjoy. It didn't work out that way. I didn't have room to elaborate in print, but it starts with attitude. The service tends to be too hurried, too businesslike, right down to those little handheld ordering devices that become the focal point of the server-customer exchange. There is very little banter, very few examples of extra effort and little to no warmth.

For a contrast of what I am getting at here, please visit Formoli's Bistro. It's a very busy little restaurant and the servers are working hard. But part of the hard work means taking the time to allow their charisma to shine through and to connect with the customers. It enhances the dining experience. It is no coincidence that Fromoli's has placed two different employees on my list of best servers the past two years.

As for the food at Tower, I argued in my review that the menu tries to do way too much with this idea of international cuisine. It's the kind of menu that seeks to make everyone happy. One rule of thumb regarding menus almost always holds true: If you encounter a giant menu at a restaurant - and the name Heston Blumenthal or Thomas Keller is not listed as executive chef - you're probably going to have a hit-or-miss experience. Big menus set the kitchen up for failure. You simply cannot bring your best cooking to so many different flavors and sauces and textures unless you are in a world-class kitchen with a talented chef devoted to each station in the cooking and plating process.

Just the week before, Chef David English, owner of the new and successful Press Bistro in midtown, touched on this topic. I asked him why he didn't have more options on the tapas menu. My contention was that after a third visit, I was a little less excited about adventurous eating and thought that the menu needed to change more often or have more options. I also wondered why he wasn't doing lunch, which would add to the liveliness of that midtown block during the day. English argued that trying to do too much too soon would have a dramatic impact on quality and he simply doesn't have the resources in the kitchen to do more just yet.

That made sense, even if I think Press Bistro really needs to offer lunch. I have been in several world-class kitchens through the years. At Corton in New York City, for example, I stood and watched one chef, tweezers in hand, carefully place a single strand of spaghetti (made, thanks to molecular gastronomy, out of charged liquid parmesan) on each plate. That was his role during dinner service. Around him, another chef handled the meat, another the fish, several others the different vegetable preparations and sauces. In the center of it all, the executive chef, Paul Liebrandt, sized up each plate with the eye of an art appraiser before allowing it to leave the kitchen.

I have worked as a cook and I could imagine what was going on in the kitchen at Tower Café - something along the lines of managed chaos and acknowledged concessions on quality. I don't think many would argue that a leaner menu would improve the quality and the focus of the cooking. Perhaps this menu, unchanged for so long, could reinvent itself as a seasonal selection of dishes. You could still embrace the theme of international cuisine while employing current progressive thinking about food that advocates local, seasonal and sustainable.

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