Musings from a Seattle personal chef
Restaurant reviewing enthralls me; I envision feasting night after night on tantalizing comestibles, paid with someone else’s dime, at tony bistros tucked into quaint pockets of the city. Most likely the reality, while certainly not mundane, is far less glamorous. (And call me shallow, I’m sure I would quickly tire of the inevitable weight gain).
Reviewing is a tricky business; your goal is to help the general public decide if they’ll enjoy the experience, but you’re also dealing with someone’s livelihood. Good reviews can catapult a restaurant into the “hot spot” realm, while a bad review can signal its demise. I ask myself, do I want that responsibility?
Restaurant reviews have proliferated thanks to blogging, yet the medium introduces another point of contention — is the review fair and balanced? While traditional reviewers will visit a restaurant a minimum of two times before writing it up (and will never review it within the first few weeks of opening, unless it’s for a “first looks” write-up), many bloggers base their opinions on merely one visit (I’m guilty). Not only is this practice unfair to the establishment, it’s a disservice to the readers.
Ethics aside, the craft of restaurant reviewing is much harder than it appears. Describing the halibut as “delicious” offers little insight; you want your reader to feel they were dining with you. Better to say, “the halibut — marinated in a zesty soy-chile marinade and flash-seared on the grill — was a perfect balance of crispy, golden brown exterior and melt-in-your-mouth interior.” (Although I’m sure an editor would call out “melt-in-your mouth” as cliché).
You need to be an expert at noticing the details. What’s the atmosphere like? Was the waitstaff attentive? Is parking accessible? Are children welcomed or shunned? Are prices in line with the value? Now imagine encapsulating this into a 300-word review. Believe me, it ain’t easy. (Of course, if you’re writing for your own blog, you have much more leeway).
As part of the food writing seminar, Kathleen Flinn tasked us with writing a review of our lunch spot on the second day. Due to time constraints we merely wrote the first and last two sentences of our review, but our homework was to write one in full, keeping to the 300-word minimum. My review of Boom Noodle follows.
Boom Noodle – 2 1/2 stars, $
1121 East Pike Street
Seattle, WA 98122
12-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday
12 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday
Slurping one’s noodles is the highest compliment in Japan, but staring into the steaming bowl of Shio Ramen at Boom Noodle, I resisted the urge. More upscale than a typical noodle joint, Boom calls for decorum.
The interior’s open, clean lines feature dark wood veneered panels, tables and chairs contrasting with Granny Smith walls – Northwest meets Japan. Most tables are communal seating for 10, although introverts can opt for the 2-seaters around the perimeter. Service is swift, with knowledgeable servers who decipher the Asian ingredients.
We started with the edamame purée – a creamy dip served with unbelievably crisp Okinawa sweet potato chips and slices of cucumber and Japanese eggplant, and the curry potato korokke – crisp potato croquettes lightly infused with curry and served with ginger crème frâiche. Each dish was visually stunning, with fresh, subtle flavors.
Boom offers a wide assortment of teas and adult beverages, as well as five non-alcoholic specialty drinks. The Cucumber Mint Fizz is light and refreshing with a hue as verdant as the walls, while the Madison Sunrise blends freshly squeezed orange, carrot and beet juices with a hint of ginger and shiso. With its deep, sultry layers of red and orange, perhaps “sunset” is more apropos.
But oh, the ramen! I breathed in the earthy broth with heady anticipation, delighted with the fresh bay scallops – plump and plentiful – swimming alongside brilliant green wakame seaweed, fork tender chunks of chicken confit and custom-made ramen noodles. It was a masterful symphony in a bowl, with no ingredient overpowering another. Dessert was mango mousse, a velvety flan-like custard topped with diced fresh mango on a sea of bright green shiso syrup.
While parking’s a challenge, Boom Noodle is sure to become one of our Asian comfort food staples. (As for slurping, turns out they encourage it!)
While I’m happy with my effort, I don’t think it’s stellar. I don’t mention prices other than to include a dollar sign in the summary. I did visit a second time with my husband, making sure to order dessert (that’s another cardinal rule; ALWAYS order dessert). I would have liked to mention more of the dishes we tasted, but was limited by the word count.
Kathleen’s felt I provided good nuggets of information, offering a clear feel for the place. However, she agreed I should have touched more on price. Don’t assume your readers are familiar with exotic ingredients such as shiso; provide a description. Also, if mentioning parking in a review, you should offer options to the reader.
Slipping into passive voice is one of my style issues (as illustrated by this sentence!), as well as using exclamation points (ditto!!!) A writer can better illustrate enthusiasm with clear writing than relying on hackneyed punctuation. While she liked the visualization of the “Granny Smith walls,” it should be “Granny Smith-colored walls” as they obviously weren’t made of apples. Stating the restaurant “is sure to become one of our staples” not only is cliché, it shifts the review from commentary to personal opinion.
This exercise not only deepened my respect for food writing, it’s motivated me to revisit my Strunk and White.