December 19, 2011
Is the rancor after the Waterboy review the right dialogue?

I am a big fan of controversy. It's important, stimulating and essential. Controversy is often how we figure out who we are and where we stand. It's how we change our minds or reaffirm what we believe, whether we're talking about the Middle East, the presidential election or a plate of pasta. Reflection is a good thing, too. But there's a difference between controversy of the stimulating kind and controversy that takes an unfortunate turn - leading to insults, needlessly stirring up anger and, worst of all, missing the mark.

I am referring to Rick Mahan's reaction to my largely positive review of his restaurant, The Waterboy. I was quite surprised to hear about it. I thought I had been very generous in my praise, and my criticisms were largely quibbles. But based on the tone and the language of his reply on Facebook, I was left wondering: Did I write a restaurant review or call a foot fault on Serena Williams?

I like to argue about things that actually exist - things I said, criticisms I leveled. Online commenters and Facebookers who chimed in (after Mahan) and called me stupid because my view is mildly different than theirs, well, that is, indeed, controversial. It's just not very interesting or useful. On the other hand, a local blog called Heckasac somehow manages to take my review with the kind of sensibility I welcome. The blog's writer says she continues to love Waterboy, agrees with me on several points, disagrees with me on others and concurs that the room is a Cosby sweater - but she likes it that way. That's the kind of reaction that can start a dialogue, not obliterate any chance of one. A good argument requires an actual conversation. Who knew that so many folks in Sacramento possessed near-scholarly knowledge of carnaroli rice? Yes, it's fun being an online expert when Google is at your fingertips.

(Out of fairness to the chef, who just called me back, I deleted the paragraph here, so my comments jump ahead to the paragraph below)

But here, I will take a different approach, for this space (and the space we allot in the newspaper) is not solely for the sake of the chefs or their restaurants. It is for the readers. For Chef Mahan to suggest that I am neither experienced nor savvy enough to review what is, by any reasonable standard, a neighborhood bistro (serving often lovely food), shows not only an unfortunate penchant for personal attacks but a misunderstanding of what a restaurant critic does. I will focus on addressing that point because readers might find it worthwhile.

What do restaurant critics do?
Maybe it's shows like "Chopped" and "Iron Chef" that perpetuate this image of the restaurant critic as some kind of all-knowing judge. It's nothing like that. We don't sit at a table, take a bite of something and make a face. And we're not writing solely for restaurants, chefs, waiters or even foodies. While about 25 percent of my readers are what we would call avid epicureans, many others are casual diners and voyeurs who simply want something interesting to read. I represent the dining public and the general reader.

Restaurant critics are not chefs, so it's only natural for chefs to have a certain disdain for critics. I certainly understand. I can't think of one critic who went to culinary school. Frank Bruni, the former New York Times critic, was a features writer - with a lifelong eating disorder. His successor, Sam Sifton, was a features editor. Alan Richman, who writes so well about restaurants for GQ and has won umpteen James Beard awards, was a sports writer before he became savvy enough to review restaurants. Restaurant critics are, more than anything, journalists. As such, we place an enormous emphasis on ethics, honesty, fairness, wisdom and lively, authoritative writing. I am a reporter, a gatherer of information, a writer and a critic. When I encounter information that confuses or thwarts me, I seek clarity and understanding through research. I ask questions. I read. I ponder. I compare. Like any experienced and skilled journalist, I must make all kinds of choices along the way to determine what is important, what is not and which pieces of information will best showcase the points I hope to make in my review.

Gathering information starts with visits to restaurants. Lots of visits. I cannot imagine anyone in Sacramento who visits more restaurants -- and more kinds of restaurants -- than I do. I have to understand everything and eat everything, whether it's banh mi sandwiches on Stockton Boulevard, lasagna Bolognese at Biba or a hearty pork chop at Mulvaney's. Raw fish, cooked fish, overcooked fish, steak, chicken, lamb, squab, boar, venison, goat, duck, rabbit, tripe - you name it, I've downed it. The Bee takes this role seriously and invests in this kind of research, all in the name of establishing enough benchmarks to allow me to make accurate and meaningful decisions about the restaurant I am reviewing next.

I am then obligated to give my opinions and support them in some way that helps readers gauge where I stand. This allows them to determine whether they want to agree with me or disagree. Throughout, I am trying to tell a story about the experience of going out to eat. What was the food like? The service? How was the room? Was this place good? Great? A work in progress? A disaster? Was it any fun? How does it compare to its competition?

The review of The Waterboy is what it is. Several folks I respect contacted me and told me they were upset with the review, particularly the tone. Others said the piece made them think, and they wondered why Mahan would be so angry. In many big cities, I would imagine most restaurants of The Waterboy's caliber would be quite pleased with the review and the 3 ½- stars, which translates to "very good." Mahan's response was three different things: admirable, defensive, angry. It is perfectly fine for him to speak up for his hardworking staff the way he did. He is like a father figure at the restaurant. It is more concerning for him to dismiss my sincere (and mostly minor) concerns about the service, the room itself and the food. If he had so desired, he could have contacted me afterward to elaborate on any of these points. Instead, he said I could not possibly understand a simple and cozy (his words) restaurant whose food, suddenly, is as elusive and complex as Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake" and Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow."

These elements are not assessed in a vacuum. I have eaten at every single restaurant in the region that would be considered comparable to Mahan's restaurant. I have taken careful notes about every visit, every piece of food, every encounter with service, every aspect of the room. Two years ago, a woman from The Waterboy made my year-end list of best servers. The Waterboy review was about 90 percent positive and 10 percent negative. The OneSpeed review before that was about 95 to 5. Those are hall of fame numbers for any restaurant. When my mother visited me in September from her home 2,800 miles away, I even took her to The Waterboy.

I may not change my mind about The Waterboy, but I am always willing to listen to the chefs and restaurateurs if they have concerns about what I write. I pretty much stopped reading the online comments three years ago because they are neither sincere nor credible enough. I do read emails and answer phone calls. The number of people who have been aggressively insulting and signed their name to it can be counted on one had. On the other hand, many hundreds have disagreed, expressed themselves appropriately and sought out some kind of dialogue -- a give and take, an argument on the merits. Those readers seem to get what this is all about.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

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