November 12, 2008

Delicious and Dreadful

These stories really have nothing to do with much of anything other than I have some sort of connection to both.

First, from the New York Times, an audio review by restaurant critic Frank Bruni of Market Table in Greenwich Village in New York City. As the legion of long-time Lusty Bit readers will recall (cough, cough, snort, cough, chuckle, deep breath), my wife and I dined at Market Table last December on the first night of our whirlwind, two-day NYC visit.

I still remember the gnocci with bits of braised short ribs in a parmesan broth. To this day I can still say it's one of the most delicious things I've ever tasted.

Listen to the review and take in the pictures. If you happen to make it to NYC any time soon, Market Table is well worth a visit, not only because of the quality of the food, but because of the relaxed atmosphere and the top-notch service.

Second, and last, what can only be qualified as a scathing critique: Washington Post dining critic Tom Sietsma reviews the restaurant Redwood in Bethesda, Md., just outside of Washington, D.C. I lived in and/or worked in Bethesda for nearly our entire 12 years in the great swampland of Washington, and there was a time when not a weekend went by where we didn't eat out at some restaurant in Bethesda. There are tons of them, and more seem to open every time I go back for work.

Several months ago I walked by Redwood. With its mammoth windows and sheer size, from the outside it is something to behold. But according to Mr. Sietsma -- in whose taste I have unquestioning trust after many years of reading and taking action based on his reviews -- the food on the inside is just not very good.
A cake of diced beets and yogurt cheese isn't bad; it's just nothing I haven't seen or tasted in 100 other restaurants across the country. Mussels heaped in a heavy skillet are dried out and flavorless, an unpleasantness magnified by crostini that weren't so much toasted as scorched. Baked, stuffed clams, another way to start a meal, are smothered in a near-sarcophagus of breading. Although I'm not listening for them, complaints from nearby diners ("This isn't what I was expecting") reveal that I'm not the only unhappy camper at Redwood.
I'm somewhat fascinated by the restaurant industry. And I find myself not only thinking about whether I enjoyed the food at a given restaurant, but whether it has the right business model to succeed. Because of the sheer volume, Bethesda is a microcosm of the cutthroat, but often unexplainable nature of the restaurant business. Good restaurants that did all of the right things, at least from the consumer's perspective, would fail, while other restaurants that had mediocre food and service would survive, sometimes even thrive.

Sietsma touches on this in his review:
Now that I've eaten here several times, it's hard to explain the crowds. Maybe it's just a matter of location and good design.
In a place like Bethesda, which has become an epicenter of luxury living, it does appear that some restaurants can succeed, at least for a time, based solely on "location and good design." Places where, as the cliche goes, diners can see and be seen.

In Pittsburgh, from my limited experience, it's a mostly different situation. There are, from what I can tell, places where one can see and be seen, but there typically aren't epicenters of uber-activity where location and design alone are enough to draw in enough new diners to generate success in the face of mediocre food.

If anything, my concern is with the number of restaurants that have opened that aren't what the average person would consider to be affordable. Mio, in Aspinwall, for example, was Pittsburgh magazine's best new restaurant. But it's really expensive. It's not BYOB and I don't know if there is a bottle under $70. We had one fantastic meal there, but we don't get out very often, and there are now enough other quality restaurants to try that I don't see us returning there any time soon, in large part because of the cost.

And I don't think we're alone. On Chowhound, when "hounders" from other cities are coming to Pittsburgh and looking for recommendations, Mio is almost never mentioned by local "hounders." I have to chock a portion of that up to price, because the food was too good otherwise.

My hope is that, as new restaurants do open in Pittsburgh, more will pursue a business model based on affordable food. Provide a limited menu that changes enough to keep things fresh, and with a honest focus on doing everything well, instead of just a few stellar dishes and then other options that may be no great shakes, but at least they're what people expect. In a city like this, it seems, for nonchain restaurants to ensure long-term success in what will likely be a prolonged economic downturn, quality food at a good price seems to almost be a prerequisite.

Oh, oh! Time to go. The Top Chef premiere is on! God, some times I hate being a food dork!

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