Young and Hungry

What’s In a Review Anyway? And What Does ‘Tender’ Taste Like?

I've been checking out the reviews of a few area restaurants in an attempt to better understand the process a critic uses when evaluating an establishment, and the usefulness of the material that results. I'm not frowning on restaurant reviews. I personally love reading a critic's praises as much as much as the bludgeoning a less-than-perfect dining establishment might receive.

I'm curious, however, what parts of a review other readers focus on, and how a critic shapes a diner's perception, expectations, and, ultimately, their dining decisions.

Estadio received attention recently from both The Washington Post's Tom Sietsema, and the Washington City Paper's Tim Carman, before he left for the glass-and-concrete environs of 15th and L streets NW. Overall, both critics cast the 14th Street NW Spanish newcomer in a positive light, but individual dishes weren't agreed upon. Take a look at two views of the octopus, personally one of my favorite dishes...

Says Tom:

Smoky octopus curls atop a cake of potato coins that get a nice kick from capers; the dish is very appealing.

Says Tim:

Conversely, the grilled octopus with potato-caper salad was in dire need of something to boost its flavor profile.

I actually think Estadio's strengths are in the many seafood dishes the menu offers and found some of my meat-centric dishes less attractive comparatively (though still great). I was excited to try the blood sausage, a dish I've had for breakfast at many pubs over the years. But I was disappointed by Estadio's blood sausage, finding their take a little dry and bland.

Says Tom:

Blood sausage is simple and wickedly delicious, racier still if you ask for it with Cabrales cheese.

It's pretty easy to collect many examples of comparative dissonance in restaurant reviewing. Check out Tom and Tim's dueling reviews of Penn Quarter's massive family-style Italian joint Carmine's (in case you couldn't get enough Italian family-sharing eating). Carman was pretty displeased, comparing dishes to auto and body parts, while Tom applauded competent, thoughtful service, and tender meatballs.

Outside the confines of a print publication, without editors and fact checking, things get even more muddy in the world of user-generated content. Says one Yelper, JuJu S., about Estadio...

I had the octopus. Tender but almost tasted overly tender. I've had much better.

Helpful indeed, but what does tender taste like exactly?

The Post goes on to quantify Estadio's worthiness with a score of two-and-a-half stars. Carman, however, does his best to let his own words describe an experience in a way that lets a reader form their own opinion. Carmine's gets two stars from the Post, and a pretty thorough lashing from Young & Hungry. Yelp rates both restaurants equally at three-and-a-half stars.

I'm illuminating the obvious. Restaurant reviewing is indeed subjective and hardly a science. The same can be said for art, music, and other areas of reviewing where personal tastes play such a large role in shaping consumer perception. There are some things we all can agree on however: a steak that arrives well done when it's requested medium rare would be universally agreed upon as an error. If only all facets of a restaurant were as easy to measure.

What makes you trust a critic, and what do you take away after reading their reviews? Now it's time to conduct some exhaustive research to determine what tender tastes like.

  • Mike from Capital Spice

    For me, trust comes first from a sense that I have similar tastes to those of the critic or reviewer. I know what I've liked and disliked about the places I've been...if the critic's takes on some of these are similar enough to mine and those of other reviewers I already trust, that's a good place to start.

    The critic's voice plays a role in this as well - if I could see myself eating with the writer, I'm more likely to put stock in their opinions.

    Finally, if I try a new place on that person's recommendation and it is a primarily positive experience, that tends to cement it.

    My take-away from a review? Definitely the details on the setting - decor, ambience, service, vibe - and the overall approach to the food. Beyond that, I'll probably file away the details of a dish that is particularly praised or panned, but I don't feel compelled to recreate the reviewer's meal.

    Hope that helps...

  • dcrat

    I mostly agree. It's getting a feeling for the reviewer and what their likes and dislikes are. I might not always agree with the Post or Mr. Carman but I did have a sense of what to expect from them and could judge a place accordingly. This is the reason I can't stand Yelp, Zagat or other public review sites, I don't know these people and for all I know they think Olive Garden is authentic. So I would say some kind of predictability is important.