One can't possibly argue with the extraordinary usefulness of Fearless Critic, from its many lists, to its valuable compendium of area restaurants, to its handy ratings system. But one can definitely argue with its claim that its reviews, by "food nerds" and food bloggers, are somehow superior to those of tried and true restaurant critics' simply because the book doesn't accept advertising.
Anyone who's worked within a newspaper will tell you that -- despite its fondest wishes to the contrary -- an advertising/marketing department has little to no sway over the editorial side of the house. And that sway is exactly zero when it comes to restaurant reviews. To insinuate otherwise is insulting to career restaurant critics and -- more to the point -- is simply a marketing ploy utilized by the Fearless Critic's publishers.
Professional food critics -- anonymous or otherwise -- have spent their careers assembling a knowledge base earned over many meals and many articles, honing their craft and building an authoritative voice. And they are every bit as "independent" from influences like advertisers or marketing personnel as the Fearless Critic guide claims itself to be. This kind of dedication and devotion -- in any career field -- shouldn't be dismissed offhand because a publisher wants to sell more books.
All that aside, Fearless Critic is incredibly useful when taken with the caveats mentioned above. With 450 reviews in this year's edition (up from 400 in the 2009 edition) and a brand-new ratings system that grades on both food and a restaurant's "feel" (both are graded on a more flexible 1 to 10 scale, as opposed to last year's A+ through D- ratings), the guide is more useful than ever. That usefulness is most amply demonstrated in the vast and incredibly detailed lists of restaurants near the front of the book, ranging from groupings by cuisine and location to more modern lists like "vegetarian-friendly and date-friendly" and restaurants offering wi-fi or which are open past 2 a.m. These lists alone make the guide nearly indispensable.
One of the most surprising findings in this year's edition is the predominance of ethnic restaurants both in the reviews and in the top lists. Restaurants that most diners would find dive-ish are given special recognition in lists like "Most Delicious," where you'll find Udipi Cafe (Indian), Bonga (Korean), Pho Binh (Vietnamese) and Himalaya (Pakistani) keeping company with Da Marco and Tony's. This is a refreshing change of pace from, say, a Zagat guide that would ignore such places entirely, and is wholly and appropriately representative of the enormous influence that ethnic cuisines -- particularly Asian and Indian -- have had on Houston.
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Some of the tweaks from last year's edition weren't entirely necessary, like the wine list rating system at high-end restaurants, but oenophiles might find this feature as indispensable as we found the lists. Some of the reviews are laughable, such as the bizarre eight-stanza haiku to Five Guys Burgers & Fries. And there is nothing about the reviews themselves that makes them any more useful or trustworthy than a career critic's carefully constructed review. But on the whole, the newest edition of Fearless Critic is a welcome and essential guide to the Houston dining scene.