How to Review Restaurants Like a Professional Restaurant Critic
How to review restaurants like a professional restaurant critic isn’t a post I envisaged ever writing here — it’s the sort of thing Lara covers in our food and travel writing retreats — however, comments by a journalist and foodies we met on our recent Melbourne trip demonstrated there was a need.
Everyone’s a critic these days when it comes to food. We know people who seem to work as hard on their reviews for sites like Zomato, Yelp and Trip Advisor as we do on a writing gig for which we’re getting paid.
But reviewing food with a level of sophistication requires knowledge that only comes with years of continually eating out, cooking, researching, and learning how to evaluate food.
How to Review Restaurants Like a Professional Restaurant Critic
On our way into the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in Melbourne, I ran into a young Asian journalist who I remembered meeting at an event in Bangkok the previous year. At that time she had been eating at all the usual restaurants in the city that writers eat at when they’re in town. She had criticisms of all of them, however, those criticisms were naive.
One statement that she had made that stood out was her critique of David Thompson’s restaurant Nahm. She said that the food was “unnecessarily hot”. Given that the chef and his team are mostly cooking from old recipes, some of which date as far back as the 1800s, it was odd to suggest that he was making dishes hotter than the canonical recipes he’d extensively researched.
We had heard similar criticisms of Thompson’s Melbourne restaurant also. While chatting to the chef there before lunch one day, we commented that people had been complaining that the dishes at Long Chim were too hot. He rolled his eyes knowingly and stated that the only dish that should come with a warning — and guests are warned by staff that it’s spicy — is his chicken larb.
It’s a Chiang Mai larb and it’s always spicy — the first time I ordered it close to twelve years ago, I asked for it to have the spice level the locals ate it at and instantly regretted it. At the time, Lara and I both wondered how people could eat it, but since then our tolerance of fiery Thai food has risen considerably.
As Thompson said in an interview in Australian Gourmet Traveler, “When it’s meant to have chilli it does have chilli. One or two dishes are mightily hot but there are also gentler things such as fried rice with crab, and simple grilled pork skewers you’d give to your grandmother on her deathbed.”
So where were these criticisms emanating from and why? A few self-confessed ‘foodies’ had said to Lara that they’d had better Thai in Melbourne at restaurants that simply don’t rate with those who actually know Thai food, but generally they were coming from online ‘reviewers’, most of whom I never pay any attention to, but looked into as research for this piece.
Apart from the poor punctuation and primary grade English skills on display in the restaurant reviews, several little snippets stood out: “not authentic”, “too spicy”, “green curry was oily and had bones”, “too expensive”, “eaten better at my local Thai place”. Quite provocative considering the chef’s standing in the industry.
Having lived in Bangkok and eaten Thai food at least once or twice a day, I have to say that Long Chim served us the best versions of the Thai street food classics and Thai dishes that interest Western travellers, such as Pad Thai, that we’ve ever tasted.
The fish cakes (pictured above) were beautifully cooked with just the right amount of chilli in the paste. The chicken skewers were moist and the pork skewers were smoky with an unapologetically generous mix of meat and fat — as they are on the streets.
The standout dish of the day, however, was the mashed prawn curry, which we had watched chef Thompson cook at a masterclass at Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. It’s been a smash hit with even the querulous online restaurant reviewers. However, the chef confirmed that it’s milder than one of our go-to dishes in the south of Thailand, gaeng poo — a fierce crab curry that is a Phuket specialty that our favourite Phuket Old Town restaurant, Raya, often refuses to serve to Western diners due to its heat level.
To call the food at Long Chim “not authentic” is to immediately frame yourself as someone who doesn’t understand Thai street food and doesn’t know how much research David Thompson and his chefs have done on the subject.
In fact, David wrote the book on Thai Street Food. I’ve cooked endlessly from that tome and despite the often exhausting ingredients lists and involved preparation, the results nearly always are a more complex and more flavourful dish than we’ve generally had on the streets in Thailand.
To call the food “too spicy” is really a reflection of how much the reviewer has eaten, and how little the reviewer knows about, regional Thai food. We ate an array of dishes and didn’t find anything too spicy, but we didn’t have the larb or the green papaya salad.
A friend who was there with a group — the best way to dine at Long Chim — said the table’s opinion was split between those who knew regional Thai food well and enjoyed the dishes and others who found them too hot. Interestingly, online reviewers of the Sydney branch of Long Chim found more dishes too hot than in Melbourne, while the professional reviewers found the dishes in Sydney to be at the right level of heat.
The most curious criticisms of Long Chim were variations of the “green curry was oily and had bones”. A green curry should have an oily surface, a result of ‘cracking’ the coconut cream to separate the oil from the cream. If you have a curry without a film of oil, it’s usually because of the use of canned coconut cream, which generally doesn’t split due to stabilisers added to the cream to lengthen its shelf life.
As far as bones, a good chicken curry will use bone-in thigh meat, which has more flavour and is less prone to drying out than chicken breast. The use of bone-in meat is not a major inconvenience in this dish because the meat should easily fall off the bone anyway when prodded with fork and spoon.
The claim that the restaurant is “too expensive” is probably the only complaint that has any validation at all. Our meal came to almost AU$150, but we had great food and a decent bottle of wine. Also remember that the restaurant is a ‘premium’ venue at the Crown complex — it’s not in one of the food courts.
This is arguably the best chef cooking Thai food anywhere in the world, with a team of predominantly Thai chefs that he has trained who are helming the kitchen in his absence. How this translates to the cost of the meal is that Thompson does not take shortcuts when creating his food.
Sitting at the restaurant you will hear the fire of the wok and the rhythmic pattern of pestle in mortar. A peek into the kitchen will reveal a significant number of chefs — only some cooking and plating food, while the rest are doing extensive prep.
This observation relates to the “better at my local Thai place” argument. I’m thinking that the palate of someone who likes the local Thai place better than Long Chim enjoys the comfort of a packaged curry paste with lots of coconut cream, boneless chicken breasts, and scant use of bird’s eye chilies.
Producing fresh coconut cream and freshly made curry pastes are time-consuming activities in a kitchen. That cheap local Thai place is probably buying in readymade versions of both. That’s one reason why it’s cheaper.
Another reason that Long Chim is more expensive is simply answered by asking your local Thai place which farm their poultry and pork comes from and wait for the blank look in response. When we asked David, he told us exactly where his poultry and pork came from and described the properties of each farm’s produce in detail.
I’m not sure whether the young female journalist I met in Melbourne had dined at Long Chim, but she did go to Lee Ho Fook, the wonderful restaurant with a modern take on Chinese cuisines by chef Victor Liong.
When I mistakenly asked her what she thought of the food, she said it was “one-dimensional”. As we had just eaten there a couple of days earlier, we had no idea what she was talking about. It was one of the best meals we had in Melbourne, with quite an eclectic array of dishes, techniques and flavours. Our dining companions on the day were food industry heavyweights who had eaten there before and were just as impressed as we were.
When I asked what she meant by “one-dimensional”, she said the garnish on each dish was the same. She dined alone and only ordered a couple of dishes. I don’t think we saw a table with less than six dishes on it when we ate there. That’s not how to review restaurants.
While everyone is entitled to their opinion, if you want to be taken seriously as a food reviewer — either as a professional restaurant critic or to establish yourself as a notable contributor to websites such as Zomato – you still need to do solid research and you need to sample more than two plates.
How to Review Restaurants Like a Pro Restaurant Critic
How to review restaurants like a pro is an expensive undertaking if you do it right. There’s a reason why the New York Times reviewers over the years have eaten at a restaurant several times, often with a few friends, before handing in a review of a restaurant — you need to try as many dishes as possible.
You need to eat out often, try to eat at a restaurant you’re reviewing more than once, and eat as many dishes at that restaurant as you can. If an ambitious restaurant offers more than one tasting menu, Lara and I will order one of each and swap bites.
You need to ask questions. If a chef is doing something ‘new’ or ‘original’, find out whether it was actually a technique learnt as a stage at El Bulli or another gastronomic temple. So many times we’ve had dishes placed in front of us and looked at each other and said “that’s just like the dish at…”.
If a chef has deconstructed and reconstructed a traditional dish, make sure you understand the original dish before critiquing it. Chefs’ reinterpreting classic dishes is not going anywhere. You need to understand why the dish is ‘playful’, whether it improves the original, and why the original is considered a classic.
Don’t dine at a restaurant without having researched the chef, the cuisine the chef is cooking, and the restaurant itself — like one Australian critic who gave a very negative review of a restaurant without acknowledging the fact that the chef was using local ingredients and bringing his ethnic heritage to his plates. You don’t need to like every dish, but at least understand its provenance before critiquing it.
You need to travel and eat your way around the world, even if you’re only reviewing restaurants in a particular city or country. In Australia, if you want to critique creative fine dining restaurants such as Attica, Brae, Quay, or Orana — all of which we highly recommend — you need to have dined at benchmark restaurants such as Eleven Madison Park and Cellar de can Rocca to get an understanding of dining at that level and how they compare.
I’m often reminded of an assignment in Cairo, Egypt, many years ago when Lara and I were reviewing hotels for one of the large travel publishing companies which was about to launch an accommodation booking site.
We had reviewed almost 50 hotels (over five days!) when we visited a rather shabby backpacker hostel that resembled a minimum security prison. One guest, on learning who we were working for, proudly proclaimed to us that, “This place has the best mattresses in all of Cairo”.
Intrigued, I asked him where else he had stayed in the city. “Just here, and it’s the best!”
Don’t be that person.
Are you a professional food writer, reviewer or blogger or have you contributed to sites such as Trip Advisor, Yelp and Zomato? We’ve love to hear your tips on how to review restaurants like a pro. And if you liked this story you might like this one on What To Do If You’re Unhappy with Your Restaurant Meal.
Pictured above: fish cakes and skewers at Long Chim, Melbourne.