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Sunday, July 1, 2007

COUNTERPOINT

Food for thought — and a writ to go


Special to The Japan Times

Dear Reader: Today I bring you news of the most chilling and awful purport. Don't worry, it doesn't affect you — at least I hope it doesn't. It is yours truly who is getting the short end of the chopstick on this one. I tell you, I feel as if I've been reborn with a greasy spoon in my mouth — but if you've an appetite for true horror, then read on.

It all started a couple of weeks ago. On June 15, Deborah Cameron, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, reported on a case before the High Court of Australia. Apparently, a restaurant review in that newspaper in 2003 rubbished a fancy Sydney eatery. The critic wrote that more than half the dishes at the restaurant were "unpalatable."

What's so horrifying about a restaurant review, you may ask. Well, the High Court ruled that the critique was defamatory. A decision regarding damages is to be made in the new future.

As it happens, I was once a restaurant critic for The Age, Melbourne's leading daily newspaper, and I thank my lucky stars it was before the era of "critique litigation." In those days (the early '80s), the worst a critic might expect would be a poison-pen letter from a bankrupted restaurateur.

My gastronomic beat back then was exclusively Japanese and Jewish restaurants. The Japanese owners and chefs were angels. Of course, they probably hated my guts, but they always smiled pleasantly when I dared return in my private capacity for a meal. As for the Jewish restaurants, I almost never returned to those I even mildly criticized. No one wants Mossad fiddling with their horseradish, and if Polonium-210 had been developed then, I probably wouldn't be here to chew the cud with you now.

My cover was blown

It was the policy of The Age that a restaurant critic booked a table under an assumed name. They didn't want the restaurant to buy in gourmet food from somewhere else on the night a known reviewer made a reservation.

My policy was to book under the names of American presidents. Not many Australians, I figured, were familiar with the likes of McKinley, Fillmore and Polk. This policy was working out quite well until, at one restaurant, a waiter carrying a tray came over to my table and hollered, "One matzo ball soup for Mr. Abe Lincoln!" My cover was blown. And I had booked the table as John Kennedy!

There was another procedure we were also obliged to follow. After the meal, a critic was to ask to see the manager or chef and announce that he or she was writing a review for The Age. It was usually then that you'd be asked to try some of the other dishes on the menu. If you have never had brisket of beef and cheese blintzes with sour cream after consuming pickled herring, stuffed cabbage and half a roast chicken, I suggest that you never become a restaurant critic — not, at least, of Jewish restaurants. Our meals were on expenses, but that didn't include antacid pills and visits to the enterologist.

I recall one restaurant with a bitter-sweet nostalgia. It was a small kosher place run by an ex-Romanian rabbi. Actually he was a Romanian ex-rabbi, but it looks better the other way.

The first thing I noticed upon entering his homey establishment (the restaurant was in his living room) was that at each table there was a bearded man sitting alone. Some of them were dovening while eating. Now, to doven means to pray; and religious Jews are wont to move their torso and head back and forth while praying. I marveled at the skill of these hirsute fellows: They were able to insert a spoonful of borsht into their mouths just as their heads went forward, then swallow it on the rebound.

So anyway, after the meal I was sitting in this living room/dining room plaintively rubbing my stomach when the ex-Romanian rabbi, accompanied by his wife, approached my table holding a large ladle in his hand. I was kicking myself for booking under the name of Harry Truman. Might they have heard that Truman was known to have harbored anti-Semitic sentiments? If they did, I was soon to be so much mincemeat.

15 budding orthodox rabbis

Actually, the conversation was most amiable. After I made my obligatory disclosure, the kindly owner/manager/chef laid down his ladle and said, "Look, it's all very nice, but I want you should not write up my restaurant."

"Oh no," I said, "it's really great. Your kosher ravioli stuffed with prunes and pine nuts is the best of its kind I have ever had."

But he insisted, glaring at his ladle, which lay on the table like a loaded Colt .45 in a Western.

"You must not write me up! Better you should write up my son. He has a kosher bakery on Commerical Road. I tell you, as God is my witness, they make the best poppyseed cake this side of the Brooklyn Bridge."

Well, not only was God his witness, but also about 15 budding orthodox rabbis. And they were all stroking their long, wiry beards and staring at me to see if I was going to make the right decision. As for me, I was confused. Judging by Melbourne's distance from New York, I couldn't figure out which side of the Brooklyn Bridge was closer.

All in all, I managed to file my review, tacking on a mention of the ex-Romanian rabbi's son's kosher bakery at the end. It was an out-and-out plug and, not having gone there, I had to take the word of his father that his bakery was the best on any side of the Brooklyn Bridge, whichever way you approached it.

Ah, many years have passed since then, and I must admit that, from time to time, I still dine out on the experience. It all rushed back to me again, though, when I saw the article in the Herald. This time, instead of heartburn, I was stricken with a case of acute heartache.

I guess I should have gone to that kosher bakery on Commercial Road, tried the poppyseed cake myself and written a separate review about the shop. But we restaurant critics, even an ex-restaurant critic (or restaurant ex-critic) like me, can't always vouch for everything we eat. We also can't always praise every morsel to the high heavens.

If I were writing reviews today, at least I'd be able to say to the owner or manager or chef: "If you don't like it, well — sue me."



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