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Esquire Magazine Food Critic Revisits Houston, Questions Raised Again (Updated)

If you're a baseball fan you love or hate the Yankees; if you're a football fan you love or hate the Cowboys; if you're a restaurant fan you love or hate John Mariani of Esquire magazine.

Mariani is a widely popular writer who regularly provides lists of "20 Best New Restaurants" or stuff like that for the magazine.

What pisses (a lot of) people off, though, is the way he goes about gathering info for those stories.

The Los Angeles Times did a lengthy wrap-up three years ago about how Mariani gets his meals free and non-anonymously.

"Assessing quality based on freebies is playing with a stacked deck," the Times wrote, "as the chef whips his kitchen staff into show-off mode -- using better products, bigger portions and service to the max -- often to the detriment of the other diners."

It's a method Mariani has used in Houston, as we've noted here (second item).

Has he done it again?

The latest issue of Esquire names Voice, in the Hotel Icon, as one of the 20 best new restaurants in the country.

That's got some Mariani critics chuckling, because when we reported in 2005 that the Greater Houston Convention & Vistors Bureau had paid for Mariani's flights, rooms and meals, he was staying at the Hotel Icon.

Part of his defense, in a letter to a journalism ethics site, was that he hadn't even written about the Hotel Icon, so there. (His other defense is that he's not a run-of-the-mill critic, so he operates under different ethical guidelines. "I do not function as a weekly restaurant critic...whereby the rules of engagement are different," he told the Press back then, and he's stuck to that defense ever since, as has Esquire.)

But now he has written (glowingly) about the Hotel Icon.

What's the deal?

GHCVB spokeswoman Lindsey Brown says her organization did not bring in Mariani this time.

"He came down for the Texas Restaurants Association meeting; he was the keynote speaker," she tells Hair Balls.

Okay. Keynote speakers typically get flights and hotel rooms comped. But did he get freebies from Voice, and did he announce who he was so staff would know?

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Sandy Collet, marketing director for Hotel Icon, isn't saying. She referred all questions to PR guy Stuart Rosenberg.

He hasn't returned our call, but we'll let you know if he does.

Update: The call has been returned! Rosenberg says Mariani paid for his meal (news in itself?), but he wasn't exactly undercover: "John Mariani is pretty recognizable, so it'd be hard for him to walk into a restaurant not knowing who he was," Rosenberg says. "But we were aware he was coming. But he made all his own reservations, came with guests and was a paying customer."

-- Richard Connelly

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