Anonymity Is Overrated! A Critic Weighs In

In response to the many readers and friend 'round the world who have called, emailed and written asking my professional opinion of the "outing" of the Los Angeles Times restaurant critic by that owner at the new Vietnamese eatery, Red Medicine, I repeat my oft-spoken mantra: Anonymity is an unnecessary sham, in that I have found over fifty years of reviewing that no restaurant can conceal its true nature from an astute observer behind a false shield over the course of two or three visits. I am usually recognized or acknowledged when I review a new restaurant, and, yes, I do often get superior service and a more careful preparation of dishes. But I am watchful and critically observant enough to walk the walk, observe the place under various circumstances (often coming in early and sitting in a corner or at the bar for a half-hour to watch the ebb and flow of the room, the service and the reaction by the recipient diners). I make it a point to pay for our dinners, although, yes, there are many gratis dishes sent out by the chef for me to try so I may include them in my review. So be it. In the end, my friends and I taste a wide variety of food from the regular menu (I always ask for a menu before coming to a restaurant so I can plan out my meal, and do not tell the kitchen in advance what I will be ordering.) There is lots of passing of plates, (many forks on hand) and we talk and compare, pick apart the dishes, the service, the ambiance -- everything is fair game in our dinner experience. I have two loyal friends with whom I have been reviewing for many years, Penny McTaggart and David Rapoport, and they are excellent balances for me in preparing a review, with my date-of-the-evening usually providing an unexpected new voice.

That said, I absolutely abhore the rude behavior of that fellow named Noah Ellis who stuck a camera in S. Irene Virbila's face and snapped a picture of her before ejecting her and her three guests from the dining room (after they had waited 45 minutes at the bar past their reservation time. Sherry (her real name is Sherry Irene VIrbila) is a fine critic who has been doing her difficult job for many years; she writes it as she sees it, with very little favoritism that I can find. We sometimes disagree on our assessment of the same restaurant, but by and large we find common ground on most places. I think that she often picks up exciting new places to review from reading about them in my Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter (Amarone, Obika) and I often get tips of whom to review from her columns. I suspect that Russ Parsons, editor of the Los Angeles Times' food section, will find a smart way to have someone do an objective review of the restaurant (probably Linda Burum, who does brilliant reviews of many of their ethnic eateries). Several of my readers have already been to Red Medicine and have weighed in with their opinions, and we will venture in shortly to the former Hokusai's portals to do our own review. (Right now, my favorite Vietnamese food is being served up at a little Beverly Hills spot called Pho310, where Kimmy Tang cooks delicious dishes at incredibly low prices.) The Village Voice's asute critic, Robert Sietsema, said the incident shows the restaurant's "uncertainty about the quality of their own food, and is also a general refusal on their part to 'play the game' and accept whatever licks are in store for them." The owner had clamed that the critic's reviews "caused hard-working people in the industry to lose their jobs." Bosh, a spurious and sick comment.

Do I think that the "outing" of her by this internet outrage will hurt her? Of course not; she will continue to be a professional, fair-handed critic of the good, bad and mostly indifferent world of restaurants in which we live and dine.

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