In the game of food roulette, I finally pulled the trigger one too many times and came up with a loaded chamber. I've been feeling a little blah for a couple of days now due to a meal purchased from a mobile eatery. Before anyone thinks to ask, NO, it was not a taco truck. This was good, old-fashioned, all-American fare. I'm not going to name names here because what was wrong with it was that it was just too damn greasy. I just simply have a grease threshold, and if it's crossed I pay the price for a bit. I should have followed my instincts this time around and not ate the stuff, and that's why the vendor shall remain anonymous, but it has gotten me thinking for about the third time since I started this blog: when is it worth it to write a negative review?
The Pie Hole write-up was a no-brainer. Anyone who would send out food that burnt deserves to be called out on it. But by the same token, I agonized for days on whether or not to do a negative review of another, more fledgling business. In the end, I decided against it. The food in that case had only been bland, and I didn't want to hazard a chance that a negative review might actually impact a business that small and new.
During my thoughts today, I realized it has been a long time since I've seen a truly negative review in print. Bloggers and travel site users have no qualms letting fly with both barrels, but it seems like you would literally have to give someone a carnivorous parasite these days in order to merit being raked over the coals in any kind of respected newspaper or magazine. If a restaurant is described as pretentious or boring, that's what constitutes a bad review these days. But don't these people ever eat at someplace that's truly horrible? And if so, why do we never hear about it? Maybe we do, if we read between the lines.
Case in point: last week, the Boise Weekly published two reviews (as is their custom) of Manila Bay, which so far as I know is the only Filipino restaurant in all of the Treasure Valley. I went to this place when it first opened, and I can tell you that if I had been doing this blog back then, they would have been another case where I agonized about whether to post a negative review. I ordered the lechón, expecting that I might get some approximation of the roast suckling pig I've seen on so many travel shows. What I got was deep-fried pig chunks, half meat and half fat. I got about five of them down before giving up, and never went back to that restaurant again. I noticed some time later when looking at their menu online that that item was no longer featured, so maybe someone called them out on it. Anyway, I didn't think it boded well. Not only was the food less than impressive, but this was a Filipino restaurant that opened in the same space that had been previously occupied by a different Filipino restaurant. Opening a restaurant in a failed restaurant's space is not generally a good idea, but serving the same style cuisine on top of it...
Moving on. Here's what I mean by reading between the lines. Reviewer #1 said:
"On a Saturday night at a little after 8 p.m., we are the only diners at Manila Bay."
"Our appearance is greeted with a mixture of surprise and smiles..."The reviewer further points out that the restaurant has gone buffet only and that the next day they would be reducing their hours to twenty a week, Wednesday through Saturday from 5-10 PM (drastic changes like these are almost always a bad sign). Then she closes out her comments by saying that she would give the place another chance. Did I miss something here? The most positive statement in the whole review was "the dry adobo cooked pork and bacon chunks are very tender and well-seasoned", and coupled with all those negatives I sure as hell wouldn't be going back. What about Reviewer #2?
"While a few of the chafing dishes are full, others, like the fish head dish, have mostly just the dregs of their contents left; they look like they've been siting there since lunch."
"The spring rolls are burnt on the ends, but don't taste bad with a shake or two of fish sauce and the rice is perfectly sticky and has held up well. We don't finish what is on our plates and we don't go back for seconds..."
Granted, this reviewer had more positive, albeit somewhat apathetic things to say about her second visit (which I wouldn't have gone on after the first visit she describes), but then goes on to say that she would return as well, describing it as "worthy as an evening adventure and a chance to play international detective." My brain hurts just thinking about all of this. There are so many really good restaurants that Boise Weekly hasn't even touched on, yet their reviewers would pony up their own dough to return to a place that is circling the big culinary drain. I just don't get it. Are they being nice, hoping to draw attention to the sinking ship and perhaps save it by proxy?
"Happily aware that vinegar inhibits bacterial growth, I was less intimidated by the fact that both the chicken adobo and the pork adobo appeared to have been sitting in their stainless serving trays for quite a while. This resulted in limp red peppers, but the sturdy hunks of potato and meat stayed moist in their reddish-brown sauce. Water glass in hand, I was ready for heat, but the sauce was mild and needed a splash of chile paste to liven it up. Even chile paste couldn't remedy the fact that the chunks of pork in almost every dish I tried had a fatty rind at least a half-inch thick."
"Rubbery squid bumped up against steamed mussels still in their shells, but the most memorable flavor came from the milkfish in a neighboring pan. Despite an infusion of lemon juice, it was overwhelmingly musky, the earthiness consistent with the mangrove swamps where these mature fish dwell. Notorious for being much bonier than other fish, it made for a challenging chew."
"No particular dish stood out to me, but a trio of soy sauce, chile paste and something sweet-and-sour with a touch of garlic added intrigue to the ongoing mystery of my dining experience."
Furthermore, these reviews always seem to have pictures. When are they taken? As a general rule, food critics are supposed to work anonymously, so I can only assume that someone contacts the restaurant later, says they're going to do a review and want a picture to accompany it. Does the restaurant agree only if the review is good? If they don't agree to the photo, is the review still written up? And what about the Boise Weekly Card, which provides substantial discounts at local merchants, including restaurants? Many of the restaurants have been reviewed in the publication, does that cause any ethical dilemmas? Does the Weekly ever soft-shoe reviews of the participating restaurants, or do a kinder review in hopes of establishing a relationship that might lead to the restaurant participating in the card program? I'm not trying to wax conspiratorial here, I'm genuinely curious. I don't think people are trading illicit bribes at clandestine meetings, but at the same time I find it hard to believe that these things are never taken into consideration. Maybe I'll look into it more, or maybe someone who reads this will contact me with an explanation. I've mentioned on several occasions that I don't get paid to do this, but in the end maybe it's better that way, because I obviously have little idea what is really going on.