As a restaurant critic and food writer, occasionally my world collides with my husband Chuck’s, who is a professional food photographer. We’re used to it.
Over the course of our 22-year marriage, we’ve run a graphic design business and an IT company together. When one or the other of us has been an employee of another company, he’s been my consultant and I’ve been his. These days, I’m a food writer and he’s a food photographer in addition to his full-time job as an IT director for an oil and gas company. (Yeah, we stay busy.) We're two circling atoms destined to collide from time to time.
Troy Fields shoots the vast majority of the Houston Press cafe review photos, but occasionally Chuck is asked to do it. That was the case for Brick & Mortar Kitchen, and it turned out to be a fortunate coincidence.
Houston Press Art Director Monica Fuentes is in charge of the photographers, while Editor-in-chief Margaret Downing oversees the food writers. Fuentes assigns which dishes the photographers should shoot on the finished review, selecting the ones that sound the most beautiful or visually interesting. (Even when it’s a bad review, she still does this, which just goes to show that it is always to a restaurant’s advantage, no matter what, to put its best food forward when the photographer shows up.)
In this case, the selected dishes were Brick & Mortar’s salad called The Everything — a veritable farmers’ market on a plate — and a fun, Southern barbecue-inspired take on duck breast that I’d raved about in the review.
When working on deadline, it’s always better to get the ball rolling sooner rather than later. You just never know what kind of pitfall is lurking around the corner.
Chuck and I were out on an article assignment together at a different restaurant a few nights after my final review visit to Brick & Mortar. I suggested to him that he might want to step outside and call Brick & Mortar to make the appointment for the review photography. That’s when we started to discover that things had changed.
Brick & Mortar informed him that the duck dish was no longer available because the menu had been changed. We choose the potato pizza as a replacement. The Everything salad was still there — but there’d be an unpleasant revelation about that the next day.
Chuck had dined with me during one of the visits and knew when the Everything salad showed up, it was completely different from what it had been before. Instead of being full of interesting baby greens and cauliflower florets and crowned with a cloud-like scoop of Pure Luck goat cheese, now it looked suspiciously like a Cobb salad.
I was supposed to leave for Galveston later that afternoon, and I started getting a sinking feeling in my belly that I wasn’t going to make it. I asked Downing whether I needed to make an additional, emergency review visit, and she confirmed it. “You’re going to have to go back,” she wrote in an email. There went the Galveston trip.
The review I’d turned in was now null and void. We were past deadline and I had to go see and taste the changes immediately. I texted a friend in the area who’d been my guest on a prior visit, and he agreed to meet for an early dinner. I’d hoped to get back to Brick & Mortar by 4 p.m., but owing to some other article deadlines, it was closer to 5:30 p.m.
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Indeed, there had been a sea change in the menu, and not for the better. The chef and sommelier — another husband-and-wife team, coincidentally — were no longer there. Expensive ingredients had been eschewed. Duck had been replaced by chicken, because it’s cheaper. The salmon tartar was gone and the Everything salad I’d raved about had indeed turned into a plain old Cobb — and not a particularly good one.
Contrary to the popular image of the cackling, arrogant, snooty restaurant critic who wields her poisonous pen with no empathy, writing bad reviews brings me no joy. The first visit holds the promise that one can tell readers about the next, new, wonderful restaurant they should try. When that promise is dashed, there's nothing to do but sit down and tell it like it is.
I got up at 4:30 a.m. the next morning and went about the task of explaining the new direction, why it had happened and the resulting downturn in the quality. You can read that review here tomorrow.
Afterward, I thought about the weird ecosystem of restaurants, customers and critics. Restaurants are dependent on customers to embrace their concept. Customers are dependent on reviewers so they can find a restaurant they'll enjoy. Reviewers are dependent on restaurants for not just content, but inspiration. Rest assured that when a restaurant decides to kill its inspiration, the critic shares the pain— and that is as it should be.