September 21, 2007

How To Become a Food Critic...Sort of

Last night was my first real gig as a food critic. We went to a new French wine bistro. Pasadena Now had arranged for my reservation at 7:30 and had set it up so that the General Manager would take care of us during the meal and answer any questions we may have. The food was divine, the service sparkling, and by the time our final souffle appeared on he table Spike and I were giving each other high fives. Then the bill came.

The bill?

We exchanged a look of horror. When the manager told us at the beginning of the meal he'd be bringing us a selection of the chef's recommendations, we had sat back and relaxed. We were first presented with the $18 foie gras terrine, the $12 heirloom tomatoes and the $14 roasted fig and pistachio salad. Our main courses were the $24 pork crepinettes and $30 scallops over squid ink rice. As a sweet ending we requested tea and the $8 chocolate terrine and $8 lemon souffle. Of course, during the meal these numbers were meaningless as I jotted down notes about the service, atmosphere and tastes.

But suddenly the price was the only thing that mattered. Our bill came to $110. "You handle it, honey. This is your thing" said my husband, his face pallid. I just stared at him, knowing he was right. I'd have to handle this.

I went to the bar with the bill and called over the general manager. I put on my perkiest smile and dove in. "I was under the impression that this meal was going to be comped. What do you want me to do with this bill?"

The manager's expression clouded for the first time that evening. "I had no such understanding. I spoke with [the editor of Pasadena Now] twice on the phone and he didn't mention anything about it." He was obviously not happy to hear that I expected a free meal. "You can either leave the bill with me and I'll have [the editor] pay or you can just pay it right now and work it out with him later."

This was my first dining experience as a food critic. Maybe I had misunderstood the editor and I was supposed to have him reimburse me the cost of dinner. I didn't know what to do and didn't want to embarrass Pasadena Now by stiffing the restaurant so I went ahead and put the bill on my American Express card.

I called the editor this morning. "WHAT!" he yelled. "I've been doing this for twenty years and I've never had a restaurant do this. Why would they think we'd give their restaurant free publicity? The review is off! I don't care what you write about it on your blog but we are not going to do a review." He then gallantly offered to reimburse me the cost of the meal and assured me he'd call the restaurant and give them a piece of his mind.

So now I'm left with a few pages of scribbled notes with such nonsense as "foie gras - melts like butter - cool with zing of currants," and pistaccio dessert - too complicated - tried too hard."

The only notes I took that now seem relevant are a few snippets of conversation I overheard from the diners next to us. Two older couples out for the evening. As they finished dessert, the wives got up and one of them said, "I wanna leave before the bill comes. I'm Jewish, not foolish." The women took off. A few minutes later the bill was presented to the men. "Holy #@*!," gasped one of the men. Indeed.

20 comments:

Melissa said...

I would have peed my pants when I saw the bill!!
So, you probably won't go back for weekly date night, eh?

glittersmama said...

Sounds like they'll be getting lots of good publicity.

AzĂșcar said...

110? That's nothing on an expense account. You should look into getting one of those, they're handy and make you feel not a bit of guilt.

a happier girl said...

That's crazy. That editor should demand your money back.

Heffalump said...

Wow! That is like two weeks worth of groceries for us! I would have probably cried or something.

Jenny said...

You should have asked for a plate on which to vomit, telling them you are returning the merchandise and will therefore not be paying for it.

Sarah said...

Yuck! Jenny, you are twisted. I'll have to bring you along with me on my new review in case I run into another sticky situation and need some tips.

Janell said...

$110 for two people doesn't seem too bad for two people at a restaurant of that sort. Then again, there's a huge difference in not expecting any bill at all and receiving one with which you can calculate weeks of groceries! Silly restaurant. I guess they're now blacklisted.

Suzie Petunia said...

Whoa. You ate foie gras AND squid ink? Ew.

chronicler said...

Well, I had wondered about this the first time you talked about getting comped meals. Not to sound like a "know it all" or anything like that, because I'm still jealous of the gig, but what you actually are Sarah is a food advertiser/reviewer. A critic goes to the restaurant, has a meal just like everyone else, without letting the restaurant know who they are. Then they write about the restaurant as a regular person would experience it.

What Pasadena now has you doing are positive restaurant reviews or advertising. The management knows you're coming, do their best to make sure you have a tip top experience so you can write about them in a positive light.

Your boss is at fault. He should have made clear to the restaurant what was expected.

chronicler said...

Oh heck hit enter before I wanted to,

how was the foie gras anyway? And do tell us about the desserts.

AzĂșcar said...

Hey! I like squid ink...although octopus is better.

s'mee said...

I want details on the fig and pistachio salad...that sounds incredible! I'm not sure what I would have enjoyed more in regard to your choices of desserts.Yum!

Sue said...

Oh. Awkward.

JLJ said...

French food is gross. When I was in France I ate like 50 baguettes in one week because I was too nervous to try much else. They were so delicious and cheap. I would be the worst food critic ever!

the wiz said...

Sarah! Drinking TEA!!!!! I'm so offended, I don't know how to handle it.

I could never be a food critic. I hate shellfish, tarragon, and anything with cilantro on or around it must be sent back. Demon weed. gag.

So, I am curious about the tip, though. Does the mag pay for that? Even it it's understood that it's comped, do you still tip and then get reimbursed? Howzzat work?

aubrey said...

i would love to be a food critic. crap, i think i've already said that. your editor is awesome to get all fired up about that and then offer to reimburse you. i'm sure next time will be much more smooth. and 110 sounds pretty normal for that amount of food that you listed off. but was it still good? i hope you don't ever consider doing what jenny recommended. hee hee.

Colleen said...

Wow, I don't think I would've had the guts to go tell the manager my meal was supposed to be free. That or (depending on my mood) I would have just lost my temper with him! You're one smooth operator.

Kate said...

That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard.

I'm glad your editor is going to reimburse you. Silly people at that overpriced resaurant.

Marie said...

How awkward! I hope this won't scare you away from the gig.

So what does squid ink taste like? We encountered an appetizer with squid ink on the menu of a fancy restaurant we tried a couple years ago during SLC's Dine-o-Round week and had a good laugh (though we didn't order it). I love the image of an angry chef trying to scare one more tablespoon of ink out of a very tired little squid.