Surely you've read it by now. The savage review from the New York Times' Pete Wells of Guy's American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square, the new restaurant from celebrity chef Guy Fieri.
It was low-hanging fruit for sure. Guy Fieri is best known for his passion for comfort food and his outsize personality, both of which share the spotlight on his popular TV show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. I'm not sure what the New York Times readership gained from the review—I wouldn't expect many of them to be interested in the restaurant in the first place. But it obviously had an impact. Fieri was given rebuttal time this morning on national TV via the Today Show (Fieri claimed Wells clearly had an agenda and it's not fair to review a restaurant in its first two months of being open).
New York restaurant critics are known to give a special Bronx cheer when out-of-town celebrity chefs set up shop here. Whether the chefs are low or high on the culinary totem pole, New York critics can really give them the what for. Remember the lashing Alain Ducasse got for being presumptuous enough to offer a selection of pens with which to sign the check at his Essex House restaurant? Ouch.
What I admired about Wells' review, based on four visits to Fieri's new restaurant, was its rhetorical style. Not just the brilliant use of a series of rhetorical questions, but its deft use of descriptors. It read, to me, like a great tasting note.
"Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita?" Wells asked in the review. "Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?"
Wait, radiator fluid and formaldehyde? Has Wells actually tried either of those two substances? Have any of you? I can actually claim "yes" to one of them, thanks to losing a bet in junior high school science class. But I'm guessing I'm in the minority.
Still, the imagery is terrific. Even if you haven't tasted either, you know exactly what Wells is getting at. And that's what a great tasting note does.
It struck me as curious that Wells' colleague, Eric Asimov, the chief wine critic at the New York Times, has often poked fun at tasting notes, and even questioned their fundamental usefulness. (Disclosure: He's singled my tasting notes out for criticism a few times.)
When we're tasting wine or food, we conjure up both actual flavor sensations and imagined ones. Great wine and food can transport us to someplace else. They enhance our day, our mind, our soul. They bring up fond memories, as when the cartoon critic Anton Ego in the animated movie Ratatouille drops his lower jaw in astonishment and is transported back to being in his mom's kitchen as a young boy after his first bite of ratatouille at Gusteau's. When bad, wine and food can outright revile us, merely disappoint us or leave us with a laughing memory of a bad time.
But either way, good or bad, wine and food stick with us. And as a consequence, we naturally long to relate those experiences to others. We want to recount them with the friends we shared them with at the time. We also want to effectively describe and explain those experiences to others who were not there, to pull them in, to pique their interest, to perhaps gain a new ally in the never ending quest for the next great bottle or meal.
To do that, we need the tasting note. And every wine writer (and food writer for that matter) needs to do two things. The first is rely on the standard lexicon used by the general population of writers in that field. By having a base line, readers can move between one critic and another, finding common ground to compare their own experience to the sensation the writer is trying to convey.
Second, writers must find our own voice and style while also being consistent. True, one person' plum is another's currant. But if the individual writer is consistent in their identification and approach, then creating the baseline needed is easy. And the writer's own voice takes over and the reader can decide for themselves which critic is giving them information in a way they enjoy and can use effectively.
The wine tasting note isn't going to disappear. I hope it's augmented and developed further, not only by new writers, but existing ones as well. I'm always on the look out for tasting note inspiration, whether it's from the bins holding a half-dozen different kinds of pears at the farmer's market or in a field of garrigue blowing in a gentle breeze. And on the flip side, there's soggy tree bark and swamp gas. And yeah, I've savaged a few wines in print too … low-hanging fruit can be fun from time to time.
You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.