Monday, April 4, 2011

Route 9 Revisited - What Does It All Mean? - UPDATED

The short version of the Route 9 / Miami New Times review kerfuffle, now that all the facts anyone is willing to disclose (and some they maybe didn't want to disclose) appear to be out: Miami New Times posts a fairly harsh review of a two-month old restaurant to its website; owners complain and note several factual errors, express concern that critic never actually visited or relied on information provided by a chef from a soon-to-open local restaurant; newspaper briefly pulls review from website; the next day, newspaper reposts review with several factual errors corrected; editor acknowledges that critic dined with another chef, that they "are old friends and once had planned to write a cookbook together," but says that concern over influence on review "doesn't hold water;" categorically denies that the critic didn't dine there. Meanwhile, the same day, the Miami Herald posts a fairly glowing three-star review.

Having had a chance to digest, and at risk of prolonging the discussion past the point of utility, I have some further questions and thoughts:

(1) Should a critic dine - for a review - in the company of a chef from another local restaurant? The Association of Food Journalists' Food Critics Guidelines doesn't expressly speak to it. The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics only vaguely says that journalists should "remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility." My initial reaction was that, while it is unlikely to "compromise integrity," it could well "damage credibility." In my day job, it's what we call the "appearance of impropriety."

I'm confident that New Times' critic, Lee Klein, is able to form his own opinions; but I also understand how a restaurateur could feel that opinion was influenced by the presence of "competition" - particularly, competition that had been identified as a "difficult table."[1] The notion that a critic doesn't take into account fellow diners' opinions is unrealistic; any claim that Klein doesn't do so is belied by the fact that he has previously described his dining companions' views in his reviews.

I found New Times editor Chuck Strouse's dismissal of these concerns - because the other restaurant is 20 minutes away, and was not yet opened - a bit too blithe. I might have felt differently if Klein's fellow diner, Chef Klime Kovaceski, worked at an established restaurant that had already been reviewed. But that's not the case: his restaurant, Trio on the Bay, is opening the same week that this review dropped (something he could easily know since he was eating with Klein a week before), and it's not unreasonable to think that any buzz from a positive review for Route 9 might take away from Trio's opening week buzz.[2] Again, I'm not saying that's the case, I'm only saying that it is understandable how such an impression could be made.

But it was interesting to me that in an informal twitter poll, most diners and chefs who responded were not bothered by it. The typical response was that "Integrity, honesty and personal opinion should dictate." With that, I completely agree. Speaking of which ...

(2) Should Lee Klein be writing about Chef Kovaceski's restaurant? To me, this is a no-brainer, but one that has slid beneath the radar as discussion has focused on the Route 9 review. We now know that Lee Klein and Chef Kovaceski are "old friends," and are close enough that they "once" had plans to write a book together (the cached version of Kovaceski's website referred to those plans as recently as a couple weeks ago).[3] Klein has already done two posts on Kovaceski's new restaurant on the New Times Short Order blog: a puffy preview piece back in February, and just a few days ago, a "First Look" promising even more posts next week. Is there any circumstance where a journalist should be writing about the restaurant of an "old friend," without at a minimum disclosing that relationship? Seems to me Klein shouldn't be writing about Kovaceski's restaurants at all. And I wonder, if this all hadn't come out, if Klein would have been writing a review of Trio a couple months from now. Speaking of which ...

(continued ...)

(3) What's going on with quality control at New Times? The multiple factual errors in the Route 9 review are far from an isolated occurrence. An easy example: just a couple days ago, Klein published a post on Short Order with "Five Great Restaurant Dishes for $10 or Under." One of those five dishes is the "pound of big boy bbq ribs" at Gigi. Only one problem: those ribs are currently priced at $16, and to my recollection were never less than $12. Easy enough to fact-check (just go to the restaurant's website); but even after someone questioned it in the comments, nobody bothered to correct the post.

But it's not right to single out Lee Klein. I don't read New Times regularly other than the food stuff, and in particular the Short Order blog, so I have no idea if the issues are just there or pervade the entire publication. But with a few notable exceptions,[4] the rest of the posts on Short Order lately make Klein look like A.J. Liebling. It's a problem too big to take on here, but most of the writing there is, as Charles Barkley would say, "turrible." If you skip through the churnalism, you'll find "reviews" based on one-visit, 20-person engagement party dinners, writers who don't know "palate" from "palette" (since corrected), writers so green they describe Tropical Chinese (which is regularly in Zagat's "Best Chinese" list, and has been named in New Times' own "Best Of" lists at least three times) as a "hidden gem," writers so ignorant that they go "Eww" at the mention of lard, writers so lazy that they write complete gibberish like a recipe for risotto garnished with "mixed florist floor," and, generally speaking, much purple prose hurled in the direction of restaurants that provide complimentary tastings, the freebie nature of which is only occasionally disclosed.

It's enough to make you think maybe Bourdain is right about food writers. And it's doubly distressing, to me anyway, because with the city's "paper of record," the Miami Herald, cutting back all over, including on food coverage, New Times and Short Order have the opportunity to fill the gap. But more often than not, they're serving up a plateful of crap instead. Speaking of which ...

(4) Who's right about Route 9 - Victoria Pesce Elliott or Lee Klein? Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and each may be in its own way equally valid. But I say that knowing it's very easy to skew one way or another depending on your personal predilictions, or depending on the message you want to convey. Witness:

"Starters worth sampling include a deep green poblano pepper stuffed with a smoky mahi dip and served with aggressively seasoned toasted tortilla triangles that are great for dipping."
"A smoked-marlin-filled poblano pepper arrived sliced diagonally into four pieces, with fried corn tortilla chips in the role of crackers. The fish spread was tasty, but the dish could have used another component."

"... perky pink Keys shrimp over fresh, well-timed egg fettuccine with just enough butter and garlic for a smooth kick."
"Homemade linguine with shrimp didn't work either. The pasta was too thick and dressed in olive oil, a splash of lemon juice, and nothing else. The shrimp were of the very small, tasteless variety."

"Homey desserts include ... a banana cream 'pie' that's really a charmingly sloppy ramekin of pudding with slivers of ripe fruit and a touch of whipped cream."
"The word pie should appear in quotation marks on the menu, because the presentation is that of sliced bananas in a ramekin of soupy, condensed-milk-based cream with some crumbs lining the dish. Sweet and tasty, but not pie."[5]

Same dishes. Not terribly different descriptions of the factual details. But a very different tone, and a very different effect. So was the New Times review a hack job? Maybe. But the Goldbergs would be foolish to dismiss the criticism simply because they are disturbed by how it came about. You need look no further than the comments to my original post to see that several other people with no axes to grind have been underwhelmed by the food at Route 9. Every criticism is an opportunity to learn something, to rethink something, to find a way to make it better. Those opportunities should not be ignored.

When I was first asked this question, I responded: "I actually can get where both are coming from. I contain multitudes." And aside from being a chance to quote Walt Whitman, it's the truth. I've been to Route 9 twice. I met Paola and Jeremy before they opened the place, so for better or worse there's no pretense of me going in without being "spotted." And while I feel like I need at least one more visit before I could write about the place, if you were to ask me right now, I'd tell you that it's neither as good as the Herald review makes it sound, nor as bad as the New Times review makes it sound. In my experience so far, Route 9 is doing some things pretty well, some others could definitely use some work. Speaking of which ...

(5) Should a restaurant be reviewed in its first two months? When the review is generally positive, nobody complains; it's only the negative reviews that prompt the question. I readily admit to a double standard here: the more experienced the restaurant team, the more appropriate I feel it is to write about the restaurant in its first couple months.[6] I'll also admit that I'm much less inclined to write something early if it's going to be negative. I suppose I must be an optimist, believing that every place can improve (or at least should have the opportunity to prove my optimism unfounded).

The Goldbergs are not inexperienced or untrained, but they are young, first-time restaurateurs. They're well-intentioned, earnest and hard-working. And Route 9 is a neighborhood restaurant; it's not shooting for Michelin stars. It's a situation where it might well take the restaurant several months to really find its way, figure out what it can do well, what it should be doing better, what it can fix, and what it should change. I think they should be given that chance before being saddled with such a bitingly negative review. But by the same token, it's time for the Goldbergs to turn their attention back to running a restaurant, and making it the best they can.

In the meantime, if there's anything good to come of all this, it has to be the new fake twitter feed of @the_lee_klein - Freddie Krueger look-alike, name-dropper, spewer of Yiddish, and schnorrer of the first degree.

UPDATE: Lee Klein (the real one, not @the_lee_klein) had his say Sunday morning on Short Order, apologizing to his readers for making factual errors in his review of Route 9, while denying that the errors - or having Chef Klime Kovaceski at his table - in any way impacted his opinion, and reiterating that the review was based on his own experiences at the restaurant. It was, overall, a pretty menschy response, and it really is past the time to let this go - for the Goldbergs to get back to runnng a restaurant, and for Klein to get back to writing about food. But there were a couple things that still rankled (other than Klein stealing my title for his post):

(1) New Times has attempted to put the focus on a few, non-material factual errors in the review and treat them as if they were an isolated occurrence. Klein writes, "I made four factual errors in one review -- it's pretty hard to imagine making more, and something like that obviously should never happen." But it's really not that hard to imagine for any of us who read New Times regularly; in fact, I can immediately identify at least two more errors that are readily apparent in this review itself.[7] Plus, it's not the particular mistakes themselves: it's that their presence, and the failure of anyone to find them or fix them, undermines overall credibility. If someone can't get the facts rights, why should their opinion be trusted? I actually think Klein is a good reviewer, and agree with him more often than not, but setting aside the particular review, there's a bigger and more pervasive problem with quality control at New Times that they appear uninterested in addressing, and I find that disappointing.

(2) Klein says that during the years his friend Kovaceski owned Crystal Café he never reviewed the restaurant or wrote about the chef or the restaurant in any other format, proclaiming, "I've always been careful in avoiding conflicts of interest." What, then, is the explanation for the multiple posts authored by Klein in the past couple months on Kovaceski's new restaurant, Trio on the Bay, with the promise only days ago of still more to come? What am I missing here?

But I'm done with it, no more on the subject from me. Go to Route 9 and decide for yourself.

[1]I'm going to accept New Times' representation that Klein did in fact dine at the restaurant and did not, as Route 9 owner Jeremy Goldberg suspects, simply rely on information passed on by Kovaceski. But it is peculiar that Kovaceski should have drawn enough attention to himself to be noticed and remembered by Goldberg, and his companion Klein went unnoticed. And I'll also admit that it just doesn't read like typical Klein to me (and yes, though I occasionally pick fights with him, I read him regularly). If nothing else, I would have expected Lee to jump on the opportunity to remind his readers that he, too, is a CIA grad.

[2]In fact, a few years ago, a restaurant owner filed a lawsuit against the Dallas Morning News, contending that the reviewer wasn't qualified, made factual errors, and that the reviewer was "in cahoots" with "the competition" - another local restaurateur with whom the critic dined at the restaurant that was the subject of the review. The lawsuit was ultimately settled a year later with the paper's agreement to re-review the restaurant. Even more detail here.

[3]Years ago, Klein wrote a review of Kovaceski's last local restaurant, Crystal Café, after Chef Kovaceski had left. It reads more like a love poem to Kovaceski than a review of the present restaurant (now closed).

[4]Full disclosure: a couple of the Short Order contributors, Paula Niño and Trina Sargalski, I know personally. Both can write circles around the rest of the contributors over there. And Short Order's coverage of the local food truck scene of late has been enthusiastic and expansive, even if about a year late to the game.

[5]Incidentally, is there a quota on the number of times a professional food critic can use the utterly vapid word "tasty" during the course of a year?

[6]The irony may be that veteran restaurant teams can put on a great show for the first couple months, only for things to decline later as the consulting chef focuses his attention on the next gig, and the extra staff brought in for the opening are let go. I suppose this is one of the good things about community-based sites like Chowhound and, dare I say it, even Yelp. Whereas a review is invariably a snapshot of a restaurant at a particular time, the community-based sites provide an opportunity for ongoing dialogue that can capture - though surely imperfectly - the fact that restaurants often get better, or worse, over time.

[7]Here are two quickies: (1) The review, in suggesting the restaurant's description of itself as "American-style cuisine with a bit of Latin and Florida flair" is off-target, says that "ceviche of the day and fish tacos were the only Latin dishes among some three dozen items" - and then goes on to describe a dish of a smoked fish stuffed poblano chile with corn tortillas. (2) Said poblano is described as being stuffed with smoked marlin, while the menu says mahi mahi. Like the others, the mistakes are not material in and of themselves. But they do betray a cavalier disregard for details that must be disheartening for a restaurant that typically only gets one shot at being reviewed.


  1. 1)Yes, a critic should be able to dine with a chef from another restaurant and maintain his/her integrity. In this case, the "competition" argument was pretty weak and I'm not sure what "difficult table" meant - requests for gluten-free dishes? Screaming kids? Still, one would think a critic would be particularly sensitive to appearances of impropriety and just plain avoid them. In this case, Klein's close, easily documented working relationship with Kovaceski casts a taint on his story, so common sense should have led Klein to choose a different dining partner. Which leads to #2: Of course not. Which leads to #3: This is the real issue here. Quality control (aka editor) at the top would have caught the above issues, as well as all the sloppy crap you mentioned and a whole lot more. For every careful writer like Paula or Trina, there are many others whose posts are so riddled with poor grammar, inaccuracies, a sort of childish naivete that belongs in a middle-school newspaper that it brings down the whole blog. Most bizarre of all is defensive blog posters jumping into commenter wars. Can't quite imagine Sam Sifton arguing profanely with a reader's illiterate rant that is best ignored, but this seems to be as unprofessional as it gets. This would be Chuck Strouse's job. His response to all this was cavalier and by focusing on the details, avoided the bigger picture of his publication's integrity.

    #4: They both are, and so is anyone else who's been hired to write reviews. Klein's credibility may be damaged because of this kerfuffle, but let's set that aside for now and agree that he got tiny tasteless shrimp while VPE's were perky. Tomorrow's shrimp may be off the menu altogether, which brings us to #5: Probably not. But you make the case sensibly and well. It is time for Route 9 to take all criticism, valid or otherwise, and use it constructively. They benefited from the kerfuffle for now, but if those shrimp really are tiny and tasteless, they'd better spend their time finding fatter ones instead of playing this victim card.

    Finally, kudos, Frod, for filling so ably and intelligently that gaping void between paid "professionals" -- that would be anyone paid to write reviews and their editors -- and fanboy/girl commenters. Since your blog is a labor of love, I'd call it priceless.

  2. First and foremost - thank you very much for the very kind words.

    As for what was meant by "difficult table," I suspect - but don't know - that Kovaceski was a complainer. The receipt Route 9 had tweeted a picture of(and then took down) appeared to reflect that a couple items were taken off the bill.

  3. Another question- Should a critic who is at a restaurant for the purpose of a review and not pleasure, complain so much that they get dishes comped? Seems unprofessional to me since his meal is a company expense plus he/she can simply write about the experience in the review. Just sayin...

  4. Thank you for taking the time. Very much appreciated.

  5. I've been in Miami, not only the beaches are the attraction but also the foods and restaurants...I will surely comeback here. "I'm going to Miami ♫ ♪ ♫"