Warning: This is NOT a review…not exactly, anyway. It’s more of a philosophical diatribe. Proceed at your own risk.
I sit in a comfortable booth, in a nondescript Chinese restaurant. I’m digging through a pile of sticky rice to find the pieces of mushroom, which I set off to the side before chopsticking the rice, chunks of pork and slices of sausage into my mouth. I’m not doing this because I like the food, which tastes a little like some of the Asian markets around town smell, a smell I can’t place and don’t find particularly offensive, but which results in a taste that I’m not particularly fond of either. I’m still eating because I want to be full and then leave this place. As I continue to work the disposable bamboo sticks, I try to discern what it is exactly that I’m feeling. Disappointment, certainly…I wanted so badly to like this place, and this meal. But there’s something else under the disappointment, and I can’t tell if it’s anger. I suspect it might even be depression. But why is it affecting me so strongly?
I knew it, you see. Knew in some deep part of my mind that’s ruled by instinct that the second I walked in and saw what I was getting myself into, I should have turned around and left. Might have even done it if a waiter hadn’t greeted us at the door and told us to take our pick of the tables and booths, all of which were empty. That was the first bad sign, but I shrugged it off. After all, it was a relatively new place without even a good sign that could be seen easily from the street. Plus it was a Sunday afternoon in the gray area between lunch and dinner. I should have known by the generic décor, typical canned music, lack of any Asian staff or patrons. I should have known, but then again some of the best meals of my life have come about as the result of not listening to that first instinct. Other times, not listening bites me in square in the ass.
Forty-five minutes later I’ve been though chewy fried rice, greasy fried shrimp, spring rolls that were both chewy and greasy, sweet and sour sauce with no sour to it, and dumplings that were either so heavy that they came across a little funky or so light that they fell apart when you tried to pick them up. The dumplings are served in bamboo steamer racks. Great for presentation and authenticity, but due to a lack of lining or a plate underneath, puddles of water, sauce and various dumpling juices have formed on the table beneath them. Several of these plates and racks have been sitting off to the side for some time now, but despite the fact that our waiter has been by to check on us twice, he’s made no mention of or motion towards removing them. I haven’t been cross with him because at least he’s pleasant and friendly.
We pay the check, and I finish my tea while eating the fortune cookie that turns out to be the tastiest item of the whole meal. By now, I’ve decided I’m disappointed, angry AND depressed. After all, it’s not like I have unlimited resources, and now I’m thinking about all the better places it could have been spent. I mean if I get into a horrible car accident while leaving the parking lot, that means this could be my last meal. I could lay there, bleeding out and thinking “I should have just gone back to Yen Ching!” And that’s when a notion that has been coming together in my mind for some time now finally solidifies: mediocre food is MUCH worse than food that is actually bad.
Hear me out here. I know that some of you likely are non-confrontational types, but if MY food comes out burnt, or prepared completely ineptly, or contains hair of indeterminate origin, I’m either going to send it back until it comes out right or I’m going to leave that eatery with my money back in my pocket. Either I’m going to get what I want or I’m not paying for it. But what about THIS meal? What do you think would happen if I tried to send food back because it was uninspired? Because this item was a little bland and a little too oily, or that one was a little dense and gamy? Because the sweet and sour sauce tastes like nothing but oranges and ginger? Because the dumpling skin was too delicate and fell apart when I tried to lift it with my chopsticks? Most of these things are a matter of personal taste, and despite the fact that out of the seven dishes I sampled only one achieved any kind of success in my mind, I’m sure they all turned out more or less the way the chef wanted them. So the restaurant gets their money, and I gain a full (albeit unsatisfied) belly and the knowledge that there isn’t much point in returning to that establishment. And that’s all I gained this time, because as I walked to the car I decided that I wasn’t going to write a review of the place, or at least not one that mentioned any names. After all, there was nothing horribly disgusting or dangerous about their food, it was just kind of…eh. And the staff had been very nice. I’m fast approaching 10,000 hits on this site, and I don’t know how many people really read or are influenced by what I say, but I want no part in hurting a business or the people who run it before they’ve really even had a chance to get going.
It’s not the first time I’ve decided to skip a review because I don’t want to hurt a business. For all I know, they’ll find a niche of people here who LOVE the way they do things. I have no problem doing a negative write-up on a place that deserves one, and I’ve even been told that I’m better at writing the negative ones, but I don’t WANT to do it. I don’t want to have bad experiences when I dine out, period. I know a lot of bloggers, critics, whatever, kind of thrive on that, but all I really want out of this is to find food good enough that I don’t feel I’ve wasted my money, and then pass that knowledge around. I want to introduce people to places and things they may never have tried otherwise, and maybe even have the favor returned now and then. I wish I never had any reason to write anything other than absolutely glowing reviews. Nothing delights me more than sensory overload, in this context caused by a truly great meal (it’s why I like sushi so much, it stimulates ALL the senses). The only thing that comes close is when I’m contacted by someone who owns one of the places I’ve reviewed, and they thank me for the kind words and for bringing a little attention their way, or when someone lets me know that I introduced them to their new favorite restaurant or dish. In some bizarre way, it makes me feel like I’m performing a public service. I want people to share the places I love, and by doing so to keep the places I love in business so we can continue to love them.
The next day, I decide to go to Baguette Deli for lunch. After the previous day’s experience, I want something familiar and beloved, and Baguette Deli is easily one of my ten favorite eateries in Boise. Likely in the top five even, to be honest. As I’m sitting there, munching on barbecue pork spring rolls dipped in peanut sauce, I remember that it wasn’t all that long ago that I was trying THAT place for the first time. It could easily have failed to impress me, especially since I didn’t know much about Vietnamese food at the time. In the end, I guess that it’s healthier to think of it more as a gamble than an either/or proposition. Over the past couple of years, I’ve made something of a habit of putting aside my preconceived notions about food and forcing myself to try things with an open mind. Luckily, I’ve been pleasantly surprised many more times than I’ve been disappointed. In the rare instance where a place fails to impress me on at least some level, I can cling to the thought that the odds are in favor of me liking the next place a lot more. Maybe even loving it. But of course, I’ll still be extra careful leaving their parking lot. Just in case.
“What, are you gonna read People Magazine and eat at Wendy’s till the end of time?!” – George Carlin