Friday, July 22, 2011

Still Life with Robin:Indescribably Delicious

by Peggy Robin

Two weeks ago I wrote in this space about my quest to achieve the highest badge that Trip Advisor awards to its most frequent consumer reviewers of hotels, restaurants, and other destinations for travelers and diners. My main point in that column was the inherent silliness of the pursuit of a badge of the highest color, though I was doggedly determined to get one, all the same. I now have a bright green badge outlined in yellow -- that’s the second highest level. I have just 20 reviews to go until I achieve the final badge, which, due to some quirky choice in Trip Advisor’s marketing department, is an unappetizing dandelion yellow. Not gold. Not blue, like a blue ribbon. Call it lemon rind yellow, perhaps. No matter the color, I still want it.

So for the past few weeks I’ve been eating out far more often than I normally would just to have more places to review. There are, I have found, three problems with this strategy. Number one: I’ve already reviewed all my favorite restaurants, and of course, all the Cleveland Park restaurants, which means that I’m going all over town looking for new restaurants to review -- not the wisest budgetary choice for someone who normally values frugality. Number two: To achieve the right quantity of reviews, there's been a corresponding drop in quality. That is to say, I've picked a few restaurants I wouldn't have bothered to visit ordinarily, except that it was someplace that was fairly empty on a Saturday night, or it was near where I happened to be around dinner time, and it was a place I had not already reviewed.

And then there’s problem number three, which is what's currently tripping me up (so to speak) on Trip Advisor: I’m running out of words to describe food, cooking, service, and anything else that needs to be written up in the typical restaurant review. I mean, how many ways are there to say delicious? While the thesaurus lists forty-some synonyms, there are only about eight or nine that you can actually use without feeling ridiculous, overwrought, pretentious, or idiotic. I haven’t yet had to worry about exhausting my negative food vocabulary, mainly because all the restaurants I've chosen so far have provided meals worthy of at least a word or two of praise. Faint praise, in a few cases, but in no cases, have I sought to drive customers away. Just the opposite: I've been struck by how mean-spirited some of the other reviewers are; so to make up for some of the online nastiness, I do my best to be generous and give the benefit of the doubt.)

I find that it's becoming a bit of a strain to avoid repeating the same tired phrases. How often can I describe a dish as “tasty” or “flavorful”? There's only so much I can say about the presentation or the combination of ingredients before I reveal my underlying ignorance about the culinary arts. The root of my trouble, I think, is that I’m not much of a cook myself, so I don’t have a great appreciation of how the chef created the dish I see in front of me. To avoid babbling on about the food, I may end up lavishing too many adjectives on the d├ęcor, the service, or the noise level. (I’m a fan of quiet rooms; excessive noise or reverberating sounds will dampen my enjoyment of a meal.) But it's the food that makes the restaurant, and I would bet that foodie talk is the main reason why readers come to the site.

I am striving mightily, therefore, to improve my game in this respect. For inspiration I’ve taken to listening regularly to The Splendid Table, a weekly show on NPR all about eating, hosted by Lynn Rossetto Kasper. Each week she takes on five or six topics in separate segments in her hour-long show. She’ll have on a guest to talk about chilies in Mexico or the curries of India, for example, followed by a segment on the incredible kim chees made by a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant out in Queens, followed by a segment with a master coffee brewer on how to make the perfect cup of coffee. And then there’s the listener call-in segment. Someone calls in and describes a Hungarian pastry that his grandmother used to make, and wonders if the host can suggest what the lost recipe might have been. And without hesitation, right off the top of her head, she comes up with a recipe to recreate those poppy-seed rolls so that they will melt on the tongue just like those the caller's grandmother used to bake in Budapest before the Second World War. The breadth of her knowledge of different cuisines from around the globe is astounding. And the vocabulary! The flow of words to describe cooking, tasting, eating, banqueting, savoring a meal. I sigh in admiration at least a half dozens times during every show. And I’m hoping each time just a trickle of her descriptive powers will simmer and drip into my food vocabulary and spice up my restaurant reviewing – by a kind of osmosis, if not by hands-on skill.

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