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Food & Travel

Jun 29, 2012

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A nine-year High Court battle over a restaurant review in The Sydney Morning Herald finally came to a close this week but the result left food writers with a bitter taste in their mouths.

In 2003, then SMH restaurant writer Matthew Evans gave a damning review of the food at Sydney’s Coco Roco restaurant. The limoncello oysters (sounds appetising, doesn’t it?) were described as “sickly sweet, overtly alcoholic, slippery, salty and bitter”. Evans deemed the Coco Roco pork belly as “the porcine equal of a parched Weetbix”.

Within six months of the review being published, the restaurant was closed. Shortly afterwards owners Aleksandra Gacic, Ljiljana Gacic and Branislav Ciric began a defamation case against Fairfax that has involved a full hearing of the High Court and two trips to the Court of Appeal. Fairfax finally lost and the damages hearing will shortly decide how much it has to cough up in compensation.

Food and restaurant writer at The Australian, John Lethlean, tells Crikey he feels sorry for Fairfax and  Evans over the case. “I have no doubt that Matthew Evans did his job thoroughly and with the right motivation, which was informing readers.”

Lethlean says he’s constantly wary of the possibility of defamation in his weekly restaurant reviews. “It’s a constant sort of push and pull between editorial and legal,” said Lethlean. “You’ll write something colourful, they’ll [The Australian’s lawyers] try and take it out, sometimes for sound reasons, sometimes you wonder why because it’s just emasculating the piece.

“If you get a feeling from the start that there are some hard words that need to be said, you spend the next whatever hours in the restaurant making sure that you have evidence to support the kind of comments you are going to make,” said Lethlean.

He has his own method of trying to protect himself and provide evidence. “I always make sure if something contentious is going in, I have photographs of it. I started photographing in restaurants before blogs had even been heard of. If I want to say something is oily, I make sure I’ve got a photograph of oily. If I’m going to say the tablecloths were stained and tatty, I take photographs of stained and tatty tablecloths.”

Lethlean estimates he has thousands of photos of restaurants he’s reviewed. But since photos can’t accurately describe the taste of something, there are other methods he employs to cover himself legally.

“If you’re convinced that someone’s used commercially produced mayonnaise, you don’t say it was commercial mayonnaise because you can’t prove it, you say ‘the taste and texture reminded me of a commercially made product’,” explained Lethlean. He notes that he can’t say something tastes like Harpic Toilet Cleaner, even if he’d eaten Harpic Toilet Cleaner and the food tasted just like it because “you just know that it won’t get through the lawyers. You just don’t bother writing it.”

Cases such as Fairfax v Coco Roco are dulling the food reviewing culture in Australia, notes freelance wine, food and travel writer Winsor Dobbin. “If a reviewer has to rein in their opinions, it’s a disservice to readers,” said Dobbin. “It limits … how critical you can be in print or for that matter on social media.”

Dobbin says there’s a tendency for smaller publishers to prefer positive stories on food and wine over more critical takedowns. “There’s a shift away from brutal criticism,” said Dobbin. “In the wine reviewing sphere, you very rarely see brutal reviews because newspaper and magazine editors are looking for wines the readers would want to drink rather than wines the readers want to avoid.”

Australia has much stricter defamation laws than the UK. “Some of the stuff that AA Gill and Jay Rayner [The Guardian‘s restaurant critic] write in Britain would certainly land them in court in Australia,” Dobbin said.

Food & Travel

Sep 22, 2010

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Critiquing a food critic

Have you ever read a food review and wanted to see how it stacked up against your own tastebuds/sensory organs? Last week W H Chong had the perfect opportunity to compare his views with Larissa Dubecki, editor of The Age's 'Epicure'.

Food & Travel

May 21, 2010

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SomethingToDo2

It would be pretty safe to say that Australians love to cook. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say that Aussies love to watch other Aussies cook.

With over 1.7 million people tuning in for season two of Masterchef Australia, it seems we’ve still got room for pressure tests, celebrity cook-offs and a certain Logie-winning food critic with a passion for fashion (we love you MP, even if Ralph doesn’t).

And like season one, the current MasterChef season is not without its own controversy (contestants are allowed to re-plate dishes after the clock has stopped! The judges play favourites, according to an eliminated contestant! Et cetera).

So do the judges know what they are talking about? Why not head down to one of their restaurants and see if they put their, um, food where their mouths are.

I have eaten at judge Gary Mehigan’s Boathouse restaurant in Maribyrnong, Melbourne a number of times; it is becoming one of my favourite places to eat.

The restaurant sits on the edge of the Maribyrnong River and is more like a family-outing type place than the swishy, upmarket restaurant with fancy food you might imagine a MasterChef judge to own. Kids crawl about on the near-by playground and groups of girlfriends stop for a latte after their morning walk around the river.

And the food? Absolutely delicious and not too pricey. The Boathouse has won a number of awards, especially for their wood-fired pizzas. On my last visit I ordered the vine tomato, bocconcini and rocket pizza, and it was to die for. Another favourite is their fish and chips, to be enjoyed while sitting on the deck on a lazy Sunday afternoon. And the selection of local and imported wines is also pretty great. You can salivate over the rest of the menu, including “Gary’s favourite” porterhouse and lemon pepper calamari with coconut vinaigrette, chilli & fresh lime, here.

If you go, try and land the prime eating position — the big cushioned benches along the windows looking out onto the river.

Here are some other MasterChef destinations to taste:

  • Celebrity Chef Matt Moran is the head chef and co-owner of Aria in Sydney and Brisbane
  • Celebrity Chef Luke Nguyen owns and operates the award-winning Red Lantern restaurant in Surrey Hills.
  • MasterChef Judge George Calombaris owns The Press Club and Hellenic Republic in Melbourne, as well as the Belvedere restaurant in Mykonos, Greece.

Food & Travel

Nov 30, 2009

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The Fairfax Press, and especially The Age, is seen to write the gospel according to food. The opinions of its reviewers are believed, and the annual Age Good Food Guide is perceived to be Melbourne’s bible of eating out. On things gastronomic, the Fairfax Press has form. One PR consultant told me about a bar client that preferred publicity in the Age over the Herald Sun because the former brought in a better class of person. Reviewers are supposed to be reporters, and by its very nature what is written on editorial pages is believed by readers to be unbiased, independent and unaffected by anything other than serious-minded fact-finding and analysis.

A journalist’s word is worth much more than an advertiser’s. It’s trusted. I once read marketing research concluding that the value of editorial over advertising copy was something like three to one. And while this kind of gross and unquantified generalisation is perhaps dubious, there is no doubt that restaurant critics are highly influential.

But take Fairfax’s recent review of current culinary darling and Masterchef star George Calombaris’ Hellenic Republic, based in Brunswick, Melbourne.

Chef–restaurateur George Calombaris had either “his own personal Delphic oracle” or a “canny understanding” of the world economy, Larissa Dubecki wrote in the Age early in 2009. His new restaurant Hellenic Republic was “cheap(ish)”, “cheeky” and “cheerful” and it served “gutsy, uncomplicated, home-style Greek cooking”. This encomium — if I may be Greek about it — for Calombaris and his latest venture effulged ever more brilliantly, sounding to me more like a hyperventilated media release than a restaurant review. (Ms Dubecki, it should be added, was at the time the paper’s fairly new restaurant critic.)

The restaurant’s exposed central grill added to the “whole Greek theatre feel”, she wrote. A spit-roast of “yielding, gelatinous flesh is revelatory”, and although a moussaka was too rich and a touch too salty for one or two people it “works splendidly as a … side dish for four”. Hellenic’s customers were more diverse than most, which implied that you or I could go there and not feel out of place. And wine is served from “aluminium tankards”, which Dubecki considered to be a “nice touch”.

The following month on the Fairfax Digital Executive Style website, John Lethlean, who preceded Ms Dubecki as Age restaurant critic, began his piece: ‘Subtle, Aegean blues. The high gloss sparkle of white tiled walls. Lobster pots for light shades and a distinct smell of burning charcoal in the air. Those kooky little red anodised aluminium pitchers used for cheap table wine nowhere else in the world.” (In the March edition of Gourmet Traveller magazine, Lethlean found Hellenic, “absolutely infectious”.)

Nothing in either of these two nugatory assessments could be considered seriously critical, in my view. Aided and abetted by copious plugs written by others in glossy food magazines, similar boosts in daily newspapers’ weekly magazines, an editorial in the local Moreland Leader and a plethora of cyber postings by excited food bloggers, the Hellenic Republic would have needed to become Stalin’s Russia to fail. Calombaris would have trouble buying such publicity.

In April in the Herald Sun I failed Hellenic Republic, giving it 24 out of 50. I said I wouldn’t spend my own money there because Melbourne offered better Greek food in more comfortable and more hospitable surroundings elsewhere. Calombaris’s new restaurant subverted hospitality, I argued, by telling diners that they had to leave at a specified hour and by threatening to fine them if they cancelled bookings too soon before they were due to sit down.

The Hellenic Republic’s arrogance winds you. An informant made a booking for his birthday—a party of sixteen. Because his group was larger than ten, they would be served a ‘banquet dinner’, the restaurant insisted, meaning everyone would choose from a menu that the restaurant mandated. Moreover, there would be a ‘minimum spend’ of $2000 ($125 a head), and they would have only two hours in which to enjoy themselves: their table would be needed at 9 p.m. He cancelled the booking.

In my review, I wrote that the restaurant served ‘OK and sometimes better’ simple Greek dishes in a canteen ambience. Calamari had delicate flavour but had been grilled too long, in my view. Slow-cooked pork in celery was a watery but passable stew, and the offerings overall amounted to home cooking you did when you didn’t want to cook. The wine list was very limited and expensive, I wrote, citing examples, and I pointed out that wine should never be poured into and served from metal containers. Acids—they’re in wine—and metals can react to make bad-tasting babies.

Even if the metal had been treated to render it inert, Lethlean and Dubecki should have questioned the little ‘tankards’ and ‘pitchers’ that so beguiled them. Hellenic Republic was noisy and uncomfortable. You sat on rush-woven seats with two-rung backs. Plates were not changed, so red meat went on seafood slicks. When we booked, we were told we had to sit at a communal table. We were put on one for eighteen, even though several tables for two, which we’d requested, were available throughout our entire meal.

Now, who’s got it right? After more than three decades of reviewing restaurants am I taking the job too seriously? Or, on the other hand, is it possible that the job itself has changed? Is analysis out? And, if that’s the case, why? Have the relationships between some journalists and restaurateurs, their chefs and their professional marketers brought that about? It alarms me, for instance, that in conversations I’ve had lately with ordinary eaters-out they consider me to be ‘part’ of the hospitality industry, the sector that promotes eating places.

The work of restaurant critics impinges on what restaurants do and how they trade, yes. And, over time, on standards, of course. (I believe that until fairly recently good criticism played an important role in improving standards.) But critics work—or should work—for their readers, determining the best eating at the best price. They should give detailed explanations of how they have reached a conclusion, given a rating or a score. That’s the theory, at least.

Unfortunately, though, in recent years tens of thousands of words written by food ‘journalists’ simply promote fashionable restaurants and their owners and chefs. (The reviews I have quoted are typical and their style is ubiquitous.) The same names recur vomitously. You know them. The chefs and restaurateurs who cook at and own these places, it would be fair to say, see their venues as chic gourmand utopias, the places in which to be seen dining out. They will saddle up and ride the gift horse of promotion whatever its breed.

Read the full essay here.

This is an edited extract of an essay that first appeared in the latest edition of Meanjin Quarterly. Volume 68 Number 4, 2009 is out now