Eat - The Italian Job
The Italian Job
Steven Dick, pictured, shares his experience as a first-time reviewer for The List’s brand new Eating & Drinking Guide
Earlier this year I was employed to eat. And no, I wasn’t cramming pies into my face, a guinea pig for Greggs; I was hired to dine at some of the best restaurants in Scotland. You’re probably thinking, ‘bully for you’, but with a few more four-letter words inserted for effect.
I’ll admit that in the knowledge I’d be eating out at numerous Italian restaurants over a six week period my nectar card was shredded and the fridge pawned. However I came to understand that reviewing isn’t just about shovelling it in and cashing the cheques. Each review has to be rigorously researched, written and re-written to ensure fair and balanced copy.
Reviewing isn’t just about eating. You have to travel to the various ‘neighbourhood haunts’ (miles from anywhere) and gather information from puzzled 16-year-old waiters. And then there’s the time-consuming job of sitting down and writing the review. With less than 200 words at your disposal, every word has to count. It’s not easy describing the experience, the atmosphere, the service and the food all without ever using the word ‘nice’. Add deadline pressures and suddenly what should have been a picnic becomes your worst nightmare.
My day job is writing and telling jokes. I’m a stand-up comedian and, at one time or another, have written for almost every funny Scottish person you’ve seen on television - Chewin’ The Fat, Frankie Boyle, Craig Hill and Karen Dunbar. So how did I end up as a restaurant reviewer? I guess it’s because I enjoy food and eat out often. I’ve visited restaurants all over the world so have a high standard to compare against. I’ll happily spend the last of my rent money on one stunning bottle of wine rather than six cheap bottles. I also grow unusual vegetables - Ramrod, Black Enorma, Hurst Greenshaft. That their names are more suited to Carry On Up the Allotment is incidental. So with a genuine interest in food and a history of writing I joined the 40-strong List Eating & Drinking Guide reviewing team, who set forth with the task of dining in almost every restaurant in Edinburgh and Glasgow. In the Italian squad we had over 60 restaurants to cover between us. That’s a lot of garlic bread.
The reviews are conducted incognito. Sadly this doesn’t involve false moustaches and outrageous Austrian accents but simply means that staff don’t know I’m from The List when serving me. Remaining anonymous sounds simple but it takes an almost superhuman strength not to blurt out, ‘I’m from The List!’ - particularly when the service is slack or the chef has taken the night off.
Meeting the staff is often the most fun part of the reviewing process. I enjoy talking to the insane and hardworking people who own restaurants and learning how they came into being.
Getting through the dessert is just the beginning for a reviewer. I then spend a restless night tossing and turning, thinking of the right words to describe the experience. The salad? Was it piled high, towering or heaped? Did it really resemble a Tibetan mountain forest? When describing food it can be very difficult to avoid clichés. Luckily the editors provide phrases, terms and descriptions that the reviewers must avoid at all costs. So if I mentioned that the soup was ‘perfect’ or the café had a ‘laid-back vibe’ I could confidently expect a phone call. Or the sack.
Working on the Italian section was great fun. Overall the quality is high and the staff are charming (with a few oddballs thrown in). However I couldn’t help worrying that there might be retribution if I gave the wrong place a bad review. These fears were confirmed one evening when I revealed myself as a reviewer to a waiter in an Italian restaurant. He asked if I knew the man who wrote the review of the restaurant the previous year, adding, ‘because we’re gonna have to shoot that guy.’ I replied that I didn’t and edged towards the door.
For me the best experience about reviewing is being forced into visiting an area of the city, or restaurants, that I would never have ventured into of my own accord. Some I’d probably never go back to but there were at least three that I would not only go back to but intend to make regular haunts. I also very much enjoyed the opportunity to review a restaurant that I’ve been to ten times before. I love the place so I was absolutely delighted to spread the word - although I might live to regret it when I can’t get a table. I found the worst experience is when a restaurant lets itself down and I know I have to mention it or when a restaurant has performed really well but I still need to think of a ‘low point’ for the review. Another downer is that for a month after the reviews are over pizza, pasta and garlic bread are off the menu and even the mere sight of a red checkered table cloth is enough to give me indigestion.
Still not convinced about the hard work? I was due to get married and go on honeymoon right after I wrote my last review for this year’s guide. That meant going down the aisle in an adjustable kilt. The night before Valentine’s Day I munched my way through a three-course Italian meal, then on 14 February, I took my sister for a three-course lunch at another Italian restaurant, which ended at 5pm, only to then take my wife out for a romantic five-course dinner (which incidentally was not an Italian. I’m cheap, but not that cheap).
My calorie intake for that 24 hour period could have powered a Nasa moon landing. As I lay motionless in bed, my spleen slowly transforming to foie gras, I considered calling the Italian restaurant and confessing to last year’s review. Maybe they’d send a surly dishwasher round to put me out of my misery.
Of course by next year I’ll have forgotten the abdominal pain and the death threats and I’ll be delighted to do it all again. It’s a tough old job. But somebody has to do it.
Food for thought
Barry Shelby presents a brief history of restaurant reviewing
At the beginning of the 20th century, André Michelin published his first guide to help nascent automobile tourists to find suitable lodging and fare on their travels. Little did he know what he was spawning. More that 100 years later, the red Michelin guide to restaurants is the granddaddy of dining out handbooks. Michelin introduced the first rating system too, and stars, whether they are given by Michelin or the New York Times, are taken seriously. Arguably, fatally so. After the vaunted Gallic guide Gault Millau removed a star from French chef Bernard Loiseau, he committed suicide. Unlike most food critics who dine out on their notoriety, Ruth Reihl, editor of the US foodie bible Gourmet and formerly of the New York Times, went so far as to don a disguise. One of the most respected critics around today, Fay Maschler has reviewed more than 7,000 restaurants in the past 30 years for the Evening Standard. But perhaps expertise is over-rated. One of the most notable 20th century American food writers was AJ Leibling in the New Yorker. He was riotously amusing but passionate about food. His background? A war correspondent and boxing reporter.
Fine food in ‘Fort Apache’
Barry Shelby catches up on some of the latest developments in Edinburgh and Glasgow
For many, the word ‘Ibrox’ conjures images of either Rangers or Fort Apache, the Bronx. But defeating any such stereotypes is Cherry & Heather Fine Foods, a recently opened takeaway café serving innovative sandwiches with seasonal and organic ingredients. Run by Iwan and Reiko Sasaki (who first met working at Ashton Lane’s Cul de Sac), they also do extremely popular vegetarian sushi boxes. The shop is just off Paisley Road West at 7 North Gower Street, 0141 427 0270.
In Edinburgh, simply utter the words ‘duck in’ when booking a table for a week day lunch at Duck’s at Le Marché Noir and you’ll receive a discount. The restaurant offers two courses for £10 and three for £15, which is a considerable saving over the normal price at 14 Eyre Place, 0131 558 1608.
Prices are also being trimmed at the Plumed Horse in Leith. Chef/owner Tony Borthwick recently introduced a fixed price menu - with dishes such as a twice baked Mull cheddar soufflé or roast loin and braised haunch of Borders roe deer - for £31 (two courses) and £38 (three courses). A six-course tasting menu (£45) is to be added to the mix at the Plumed Horse, 50-54 Henderson Street, 0131 554 5556.
Meanwhile, Phool Chand Thakur of 9 Cellars restaurant is celebrating being named ‘International Indian Chef of the Year’. The competition, which raises money for an orphanage in Bangladesh, attracts 5000 entrants from across the UK. Thakur, runner up in 2006, says he will donate his £1000 prize money to a cancer charity in India. 9 Cellars restaurant is at 1-3 York Street, Edinburgh, 0131 557 9899.
Back in Glasgow, Mrs Majhu’s is the new, diminutive Indian café/diner on Byres Road. Trading in the space that Monster Mash vacated, the venture offers tapas-style lunch deals while the à la carte selection includes dishes such as ‘first-class chicken curry’ or salmon baked in tin foil with paneer. Mrs Majhu’s is at 41 Byres Road, 0141 339 1339.
Nearby, at The 78, the popular ‘Dub’n’Grub’ combination of the reggae tunes - courtesy of Mungo Hi Fi - and wholesome Caribbean-inspired vegetarian/vegan fare has returned to the premises (10-14 Kelvinhaugh Street), every Thursday from 7pm until late.
At The 78, many of the drinks are organic, but what can you get for the whisky connoisseur who has everything? For an initial fee of £1200, Glengoyne Distillery now offers a limited number of different casks from US bourbon barrels to Oloroso sherry butts. The un-aged spirit is then stored for at least ten years, during which time the casks’ owners are encouraged to visit and see how their malt is maturing. See www.glengoyne.com
Finally, in fitting testament perhaps to the business he began with his wife Janet, over 40 years ago, ‘Mac’ Henderson of Henderson’s vegetarian restaurant turns 100 on Tuesday 1 May. Happy birthday.