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Online peer reviews do sell things…up to a point

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Here’s an interesting report, from our very own University of California at Berkeley, as reported in the San Francisco Business Times: “[G]ood online reviews on Yelp do indeed bring in more customers.” Specifically, “a half star rating increase (1 to 5 scale) meant a 19 percent greater likelihood that a restaurant’s seats would fill up during peak hours.”

The researchers did not have an explanation for this phenomenon (which actually has some important limits, which I’ll get to in a minute), but I do. Now, I’m one of those people who likes and depends on restaurant reviews. We have a ton of restaurants here in the San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley area, of all types, at all price levels, from just about every ethnicity in the world. So it can be confusing and intimidating to decide on a new place to eat. Under the circumstances, I’ll often turn to two sources for recommendations: Yelp, and the San Francisco Chronicle’s great restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer. A bunch of great Yelp reviews is enough to persuade me to try someplace out, while a single Bauer “must eat there” does the same thing.

I think that’s the reason why Yelp reviews work: people, like me, believe in peer recommendations (such as Yelp’s) and also in expert reccos (such as Michael Bauer’s). Of course, just 1 or 2 glowing peer reccos for a particular place won’t work for me (or anyone else, I should think), because they could always be from the owner’s cousin and mother. And 1 or 2 glowing reviews won’t do it at all, if they’re negated by 6 or 7 “worst experience of my life,” “would never go back there,” “AVOID AT ALL COSTS!”

But one great Michael Bauer review will send me to the joint. I guess, to my way of thinking, there is an emerging parity between expert reviews, on the one hand, and peer reviews, on the other, but that parity only works if the peer reviews (such as Yelp’s) are overwhelmingly positive. So Michael Bauer isn’t going to have to look for a new job anytime soon. When it comes to food, people still depend on restaurant critics. (At least, in a foodie town like Ess Eff.)

I mentioned above that the U.C. Berkeley study had important limits:

(1) “For restaurants with Michelin stars, for example, the Yelp reviews were irrelevant.”

(2) “Restaurants that were rated in popular guidebooks or newspaper rankings got less of a Yelp bump. They ‘did not see a statistically significant effect from the Yelp rankings,’ the economists said.”

Let’s take (2) first. This just confirms my own reasoning: I’ll take Michael Bauer over Yelp 95% of the time. Even if there were positive Yelp reviews, one critical Bauer review canceled them out. Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe experience counts over simple enthusiasm (such as the type you see on Yelp and, for that matter, on “Check, Please!).

As for (1), my hunch is that the kind of people who review restaurants on Yelp probably don’t frequent Michelin restaurants. Why not? They’re too expensive; the people who eat at French Laundry, Coi and Benu are not likely to post their experiences on Yelp, and the people who are considering eating at French Laundry, Coi and Benu are not turning to Yelp for advice.

You just knew I was going to make a connection to wine reviewing, didn’t you? Well, I am, and here it is: Inexpensive wines are more likely to see spikes in sales from online social media sources, such as blogs and Twitter. Expensive wines are not, because the kind of people who can afford them don’t blog or tweet, and if someone has enough money to buy, say, Shafer Hillside Select ($230 for the just released 2008), they couldn’t care less what some blogger has to say.

However, that well-heeled person considering buying the Shafer does care what  the Michael Bauer-equivalent of the wine critic has to say about it. I’m not saying who that equivalent is (wouldn’t be prudent, not opening that can of worms), but I’m reviewing the ‘08 Hillside Select tomorrow, and if I give it a good score, I wouldn’t be surprised if it has an impact on demand.


Inside the somm’s mind: pairing 18 wines with 22 courses

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Mark Bright is co-owner and wine director of Saison, which he founded three years ago with his friend and business partner, chef Josh Skenes. The restaurant has lately become famous for being the most expensive in San Francisco, despite its location in one of the city’s edgiest neighborhoods, the Mission District. A 22 course tasting menu, featuring 18 wines, will set you back $498. I wondered how Bright, a Bellagio alum who came up through the Michel Mina empire, and who calls Rajat Parr his “mentor,” goes about pairing wines under such complicated and challenging conditions. Skenes may change a course recipe in the middle of an evening, adding an ingredient that completely changes the directional compass of a dish, thus forcing Bright to quickly come up with a new wine to pair it with. We had a nice little chat about all this yesterday. Here are excerpts from that conversation, in what you can think of as a tour of a sommelier’s conscious mind.

First, Bright on that $498 price tag. “You have to realize, the ingredients are so expensive. We have a fulltime forager on staff! It’s not a price we aimed for, it just fairly covers our costs. Take the caviar course. The caviar itself is $20-$25 per serving, and that’s just one ingredient for one dish, plus there’s 21 other courses. Some courses have 40 ingredients in them. So it’s about us giving the diners everything we’ve got.”

Which comes first, the wine or the food? “It always starts with the food. I’ve worked so closely with Josh for so long that, when he explains what direction he’s going, I get a preliminary style of wine I think will work. Josh will tell me the dish’s components, I’ll taste them, separated on their own, to see their acidity levels, flavors and textures, and I’ll have it down to 2 or 3 wines at that point. If he changes something suddenly–which happens all the time, many things can happen in a kitchen, maybe he just wants to try something new–I’ll taste just the component change, not the entirely prepared new dish. It’s not a given that the wine has to change, but if the dish changes dramatically, then you have to change the wine. The thing is, every wine brings out different things in a dish. One wine might bring out the food’s earthiness, while another brings out the high tones and a third brings out the acidity. There’s no right pairing; there are a lot of amazing pairings, but you can never say there’s one perfect pairing with a dish. As long as both the food and the wine are enhanced, you’re doing something right. Also, wine grows and matures in the bottle, so in any given dish, if the ingredients remain the same over time, at some point that wine will take itself out of the running.”

Do we collectively get too precious and stressed out over perfect pairings? “You know what? A lot of the time, that does happen, and you know why? I see people doing wine pairings just to be creative and outlandish, completely forgetting the one important fact: it has to be delicious! More than it has to be creative. When I see people do that, I’m like, Wow, what are you trying to prove? You can’t force a good pairing. It just has to be delicious.”

What does Bright eat and drink at home? “Ice cream sandwiches! But honestly, I eat a lot of fish, because my fiance’s Chinese. I love Indian food. An earthy, meaty Syrah works great with it. Cornas, amazing, mind blowing. But I also keep a lot of beer in the fridge. When you’ve been drinking wine all day, there’s nothing better than a cold beer.”


Getting squirmy with the somm

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Besha Rodell is a restaurant critic and blogger for LA Weekly. She blogged yesterday about an incident that occurred when she dined, along with some friends, at what she called “one of L.A.’s most highly regarded restaurants.”

From the sound of it, she and her companions had a very uncomfortable experience, and it had to do with the sommelier.

Go ahead, read her post and then come back here. Briefly, Besha and her friends can be faulted with not having asked the sommelier for the exact prices of the bottle and glasses of wine. So, in that respect, Besha doesn’t have any basis to complain about paying nearly $200 in wine costs. And since she knew in advance how “highly regarded” the restaurant was, she should have anticipated that she was going to end up spending a lot of money on vino.

On the other hand, the somm can be faulted for not telling Besha exactly how much the wines would cost. After all, “not too expensive” is in the eye of the beholder. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly who was responsible for the bad experience. There’s probably enough blame to go around for everyone to share.

When I read the article, I remembered how uncomfortable I sometimes am at restaurants with sommeliers. You’d think a wine writer like me would be able to negotiate the restaurant-somm waters with ease, but that’s not the case. There’s something that almost always makes me queasy, and I can’t quite put my finger on it.

I can relate to Besha’s not asking the somm for the specific price. She was embarrassed. Now, you can argue that she shouldn’t have been, but the fact is, lots of us are embarrassed to ask about bottle prices, unless we’re made out of money, and who is? If I were a sommelier, I like to think I’d be on the customer’s side in terms of helping him find the precise wine that suits his meal, in the most comfortable price zone. But I don’t know how somms are paid. Do they get a percentage of the bottle price? Are they under pressure to push more expensive bottles? And the tip, which is a percentage of the total bill, also goes up with more expensive wine, doesn’t it? Not knowing exactly what the somm’s motives are can make the somm-customer interaction murky and stressful. It’s almost like there’s a subtext to the conversation, with the somm prodding the customer upward in price and the customer resisting, politely and tactfully. That is not the stuff of which good restaurant experiences are built.

I don’t think the situation is the same with beer or cocktails. I mean, the customer’s relationship with a bartender is much easier than with a somm. It’s the fact that wine is so much more expensive that really distorts the dining experience. If you eat at a top restaurant, you almost feel like the servers and sommeliers and even the customers are looking at you and expecting you to spend a bundle on a bottle (or 2 or 3) of wine. (Don’t you look to see what other people are drinking? I do.) It’s like, if you don’t splurge, you risk looking like a cheapskate. I don’t know about you, but paying $120 for a bottle of wine, when the meal itself costs maybe $50, isn’t something I’m prepared to do very often. (And, as Besha knows, a bottle simply isn’t enough for a meal. You’re going to want a couple of glasses, too.)

How do you feel about the customer-sommelier experience? Does it ever make you feel weird? How do you handle it?


Random notes on a dinner at Saison

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Last night’s dinner at Saison really was a tremendous experience. I lost track of how many courses were served. The official menu lists twelve, but there were more than that, especially with the desserts, which just keep arriving, one after another.

This seems like a lot of food, but in reality, it’s not: most of the courses could literally fit into a teaspoon. In fact, I was still hungry at the end, so much so that I made myself a bacon sandwich when I got home.

The point of an experience like dining at Saison, then, is not to fill your belly but to appreciate, on an intellectual and esthetic basis, what the kitchen is capable of doing. While I took notes on each course, they were of necessity incomplete: when I asked our server to tell us about a course listed simply as “caviar,” he got as far as saying it was from American white sturgeon, on a grilled bread gelée, and there was something about chicken, but then he stopped himself short and said that, if he were to explain every single ingredient, and how it had been cooked, he would be there forever. I wrote, concerning that caviar course, “It tastes like one thing,” while in reality it was many different things, all put together so seamlessly that it had the purity and simple beauty of, say, a bite of lobster or of a ripe, plump pear.

And so it was with every course: the pea and parmesan broth, which was actually a custard, the tiny, succulent scallop plate, the vegetables–harvested or foraged in San Francisco, although no one in the restaurant would tell me exactly where (from some hill someplace, I would think: Bernal Heights?), the brassicas, mustard-style bitter greens, also foraged, a rich morsel of rabbit, lamb, a farm egg. The word that kept occurring to me was umami, which to my way of thinking means so much more than merely savory. These are bites of food that stun: your first reaction is OMG, and then you experience the brief ecstasy of such pleasure, and finally your last reaction is a repeat of OMG, and then the server shows up with yet another course.

I liked Saison’s ritual of having a different chef present each course, although I wish the restaurant would hand out little prepared pages of information on each food, instead of the chef stating rapid fire what it was. So much information, so little time to absorb it, or to even hear each word distinctly, with the noise of human conversation and rock music all around.

The service was impeccable, the staff charming and well-informed, the dining room smallish and warm. Saison’s location is a little edgy: at Folsom Street and 17th Street, a few blocks south of the blossoming Valencia Corridor, in a neighborhood that’s as gritty as when I lived there, 25 years ago. Just in front of Saison, I met, by sheer happenstance, an old friend, Amy Cleary, who used to work at the University of California Press when they published my two books. She lives in the neighborhood and told me that that stretch of Folsom Street is rapidly gentrifying. (I kind of figured that out when I saw the new Mission Bowling Club, an authentic bowling alley with restaurant and bar, a block from Saison.) I wonder what the denizens of the Mission District will do, where they will go, as their rents soar and they’re squeezed out. Still, walk along Mission Street, between, say, 16th and 18th, and it remains a riot of bodegas, thrift shops and dive bars, the sidewalks choking with individuals of colorful, if questionable, appearance, the scent of pot everywhere, beggars sitting on the curbs, staggering drunks, young kids on stoops listening to Mexican music on the radio, the Spanish language as common as English, shopkeepers pulling down burglar-proof metal doors on their furniture stores as the business day comes to an end, young mamas pushing baby carriages, old people pacing their way carefully along the crowded sidewalks, carrying bags of bananas and mangoes and bread, police cars routinely patrolling this high-crime area, and all the hipsters, pouring into the clubs and bars as soon as their workday is over, starting their drinking early. Speaking of which, try the Venetian Coast cocktail at Bar Locanda. Tequila, luxardo bitters, lemon, cucumber and salt. A magnificent achievement, and the bartender is pure Nureyev, without the tights. I had one right before the Saison dinner commenced, at 6:30, the perfect way to begin an evening of pleasure (as was the bacon sandwich the perfect way to end it).

 


Can any meal possibly be worth $498?

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Before we consider this interesting question, we have to ask ourselves if any wine can possibly be worth $750, or $3,000, or–gasp–$168,000, as that bottle of Penfold’s 2004 Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon just went on the market for. [Before you open the link, know that the advertisement preceding it is really annoying.]

I think all of us, possessing common sense as we do, would agree that $168,000 is too much to pay for a bottle of wine. But $750 for Screaming Eagle? Maybe. Where you stand, as they say, depends on where you sit. Here are some other expensive wines, courtesy of the wine-searcher website, which each of you will have to decide is worth the price of admission.

That $498 dinner, by the way, can be found at Saison, a restaurant in San Francisco (and in the Mission District, which those of you unfamiliar with San Francisco should know was, until relatively recently, the divier part of town). Saison recently announced a 22 course, 18 drink din-din. Josh Sens’ account, in San Francisco Magazine, is a good read (and the magazine itself, in its latest iteration, is gorgeous and always worth spending time with).

The most expensive meal I ever had was at French Laundry. A friend called me one day: he had a friend, a Brazilian investment banker whose hobby was dining at the world’s greatest restaurants. (I guess that’s more fun than collecting chia pets.) He, the Brazilian guy, was going to be in the States for a two-week window. He’d tried to get 3 seats at French Laundry, but couldn’t. My friend said if I could get 4 seats, the banker would include me as his guest. This was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I pulled a few strings [rank hath its privileges], got the requisite 4 reservations, and so one fine evening we drove up to Yountville and did the Laundry. (That’s how I imagine Michelin devotees talk. Or maybe it’s “did Keller.”)

We opted for the chef’s special tasting menu. It was pretty good, but, being 14 courses or so, I can’t say that everything knocked me out. I also thought some of the wines were just so-so, or not all that cleverly matched with the food. The night’s denouement of sticker shock came when the servor brought the bill. We all discretely hushed as the banker looked at it. I swear I saw his chin drop down to his chest. It was $2,400, before the tip. A lot, even for a Brazilian banker.

Well, that came down to $600 per person, more even than Saison, and I didn’t think it was worth it, at least, food-wise. The experience itself, as sheer existentialism? Sure. Now I can boast I’ve eaten at French Laundry. (Actually, it’s been three times over the years.) But I eat at restaurants for gustatory pleasure and socializing, not bragging rights, and one of the dreariest conversations I can conceive is when people start babbling about all the Michelin palaces they’ve dined at around the world.

Readers of this blog know that I generally eschew snobby things. Not the things in themselves: the wines and the foods, which I love, but the attitudes that so often contaminate their consumption. (We live in a very poor world that’s getting poorer in many ways and conspicuous consumption turns me off.) Still, would I refuse an invitation to dine at Saison? No, and here’s proof: I just accepted one. (No, I won’t be paying for it.) It won’t be Chef Skenes’s full 22 course extravaganza, but it will be a dozen courses, with ten wines. My interest is part gustatory, but the reporter in me wants to know what all the fuss is about. The dinner is tomorrow, Wednesday; I’ll blog about it, probably on Friday, unless I can stumble home to Oakland late Wednesday night, sated and sloshed, and pound something out for Thursday morning. Probably not.


A perfect food day in Oakland

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Yesterday was all about food in the Heimoff household. I was on deadline to complete a piece for Wine Enthusiast’s online site about foods that Napa chefs prepare for garden parties and wine tastings during our glorious summer months. I’d tasted through about 50 little munchies during the Napa action walkaround event at Jarvis, chosen 5 or 6 to write about, and gotten agreement from the chefs that they would work with me to develop the recipes and then come up with wine recommendations.

First let me segue by telling you how difficult it is to work with chefs! If you want to know why, read (or listen to) Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain’s funny insider’s tale of life as a cook. I’m used to having winemakers or their P.R. reps return my phone calls and follow through on their promises. They’re very good about that. Chefs? Fageddaboudit! It’s like pulling teeth. I had to beg, cajole, threaten, practically get on my knees and cry. But it all came together, so I got my recipes: golden tomato gazpacho with toasted garlic, basil and lemon; tuna taco with nuoc cham sauce and guacamole; and Dungeness crab Louis. You can read all about it, hopefully by next week, on the magazine’s website.

All that talking and writing about food made me a hongry honcho, so I hightailed it down to Whole Foods with Gus and bought a tofu burger sandwich on a 7-grain bun. Filling enough, but the chicken enchiladas in the prepared food area looked so good, I bought a box of that too. Ate them both right in the car, as Gus watched pleadingly but unsuccessfully. I never share my food with him, and he never shares his food with me.

But I’d invited Marilyn for dinner, so the eating was just getting started. I was bushed after completing the recipe article and in no mood for fancy cooking, so when Marilyn arrived–late, due to traffic; the Giants game had just ended [WE WHIPPED L.A.’S ASS! GO GIANTS!]–I told her that, contrary to our usual tradition, we’d be going to a restaurant, instead of me cooking up a meal. I had been planning on making–you won’t believe this–a Reuben sandwich, something I hadn’t had since I was a kid growing up in Da Bronx. It’s not the usual semi-fancy thing I like to cook for Marilyn, but I’m reading Jacques Pepin’s delightful memoir, The Apprentice, where on page 148 he has a recipe for a Reuben he says he became “a sucker for” after he moved to NYC (and approvingly quotes James Beard, “who said not many people appreciate a good sandwich.”).

But I was tired, so the Reuben will have to wait. Instead I decided to take Marilyn to the new Indian-Pakistani restaurant that opened in my hood when my old, favored Chinese restaurant closed. I hadn’t been there, but Rajeev, who is decidedly Indian, told me the food was good, so The House of Curries it was. But first, it was back to Whole Foods, for a half pound of cold smoked salmon, a jar of crême fraiche and a loaf of ciabatta, for an appetizer. I like to slice the bread thick, rub it generously with mashed garlic, drizzle it with extra virgin olive oil, and then–extravagantly–top each slice with a sliver of butter, then toast the bread on one side only in a toaster oven until the bread turns a golden brown around the edges. Top with the smoked salmon, add a smear of crême fraiche, and voila. With it we consumed the rest of a bottle of Domaine Carneros’s non-vintage Cuvée de la Pompadour brut rosé, which I’d reviewed the night before. It had been so good, I’d saved the rest, instead of pouring it down the drain, the fate that most of the wine I review suffers.

So we were already feeling good and sated by the time we stumbled down the hill to The House of Curries. We had the usual assortment–beef and lamb tandoories and chicken tikka masala and naan and jasmine rice so on. Unfortunately, the restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license yet, but there’s a market down the block with a wide assortment of beer (which is better with Indian food anyway), and our waiter encouraged me to get some and drink it at our table. So we did. A couple bottles each of Anchor Steam and some Mexican brand whose name I don’t recall but it was really good.

In Pepin’s book he talks about how amazed he was at the unconsciousness or ignorance of Americans in general about food when he came here, in the 1960s (did you know he was offered the job as White House chef for JFK but turned it down to be a head cook for Howard Johnson’s?) People, he said, looked at food as sustenance, rather than pleasure, as he’d been raised in France to do. I’m not sure I agree: As a boy of that time, I remember taking great pleasure in the foods my mother gave me: simple but satisfying things like grilled chicken, veal parmigiana, French toast, bacon and eggs, and, of course, bagels and lox. But I take Jacques’s point: As he wrote, the word or concept of “foodie” had not yet been invented.

Now it has. One of the things I love about Oakland is that it is truly a foodie’s Paradise. So many ethnicities, so many interesting and charming little local restaurants, so many weird and wonderful markets (Korean, Afghan, Ethiopian) to delight in. I love my wine country cuisine, yes I do, but don’t try and get between me and my Ye Feseg Beyaynetu at Ensarro.


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