Brunch Boss

I love Robert McGrath. He is and always has been Arizona’s best culinary ambassador for the New American West: a ruggedly handsome Marlboro Man who loves the Great Outdoors, walks like he was born in cowboy boots, fishes, drinks, cusses and treats women with the courtly good manners of a real cowboy. Women openly adore him, but I suspect plenty of guys harbor their own little man-crushes too. McGrath is just that charming, a larger-than-life personality who offers up romantic glimpses of a world — and a West — that’s rapidly fading away.

Wall of Renegades

It’s also safe to say this James Beard Award winner and classically trained chef is a bit of a rebel, an outlaw and a renegade (which is how the name of his new Restaurant, Renegade Canteen, was chosen). With his CIA Hyde Park and Le Cordon Bleu background, he could so easily be toqued out in a high-dollar resort restaurant somewhere. Instead, he prefers using his mad skills to transform the traditional cooking of the Old West into something modern, sophisticated and completely accessible. And he does it all in an elegantly rustic environment that says, “Relax. Enjoy. No need to prove your worldliness here.” And by the way, who else so seamlessly melds disparate design/décor elements such as a giant vase of fresh flowers and a center-stage, glass-enclosed wine cellar with rough-hewn wood and cowboy art? Nobody.

In late January, Renegade began offering a weekend brunch (Saturday and Sunday, 10am-2 pm), and  it’s fantastic. I’ve been twice so far, but I won’t be happy until I’ve worked my way right down the menu, which, like McGrath himself, is anything but conventional.

The most interesting section, called Odd Things, features four terrific dishes — odds and ends that don’t fit anywhere else — each priced at $10. It’s here you’ll find bourbon and honey-glossed pork belly with cheese grits, duck confit quiche, green corn tamale with huevo and the Saloon Hot Brown — McGrath’s riff on a sandwich invented at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky back in the 20s.

The Hot Brown

Forced to pick a favorite among them, I’d probably go with the straightforward but ridiculously good Hot Brown, a towering open-face sandwich built on a foundation of Texas Toast and stacked with great drifts of mashed potato, thick slices of moist turkey breast, beefsteak tomato, Mornay sauce and a topper of crisp onion strings. Actually I’m torn between this one and the pork belly, which has a lusciously fatty, sticky quality that pairs especially well with creamy golden grits. The presentation is simple but stunning, the ingredients humble but haute — a classic case of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

Pork Belly and Grits

The green corn tamale possesses the silky texture, pale color and banana leaf wrapper that characterize tamales of Southern Mexico. Stuffed with panela (a mild white cheese), sided with hot-sweet pineapple salsa and topped with an over-easy egg, it packs a chile wallop.

Tamale and Egg

By the time I get to the springy quiche (so rich with duck confit it seems more like a crispy duck cake), I’m reminded why I’ve loved McGrath’s cooking from Day One. He understands the yin and yang of food and balances the rustic with the refined in a way few others can. He makes guy food women love and pretty dishes that don’t make men feel like eunuchs for liking them. The quiche, accompanied by a spinach, pear and candied pecan salad, lightly coated with bacon-honey dressing, proves my point.

Duck Confit Quiche & Salad

I’ve had so many lousy flatbreads in my life that I wasn’t at all convinced a breakfast version, with a fried egg at its center, would be any different (then again, my friend says I’m a sucker for anything with an egg on top). I ordered it because it came highly recommended and because I wanted to be polite. And man, was I glad to be wrong! Topped with smoked chicken, spinach, roasted green chile, mild cheeses and cilantro, this thing is outrageous. Dunked in egg yolk? Just crazy, crazy good ($14).

Chicken & Spinach Flatbread

Classic Eggs Benedict are flawless too, layered with “peameal bacon” (another word for the ham-like back bacon we call “Canadian bacon”) and poached eggs, then smoothed with a lustrous, lemon-edged hollandaise ($12). Ditto for crunchy chicken fried steak,  ladled with creamy-chunky sausage gravy. Would I order them again? Tough to say with so many other interesting and more unusual dishes vying for my attention. But that’s just me.  Always looking for the next cheap thrill. Next time, I plan to try the fried chicken and waffles and maybe the fried egg sandwich, which, like the Hot Brown, is asterisked as “officially certified hangover cuisine.” Good to know.

Classic Eggs Benedict

Chicken-fried Steak

Technically, the Bananas Foster Waffle isn’t a dessert, but my pals and I treat it like one, saving it for last and eating far too much of it, given all that’s gone before ($11). I love that the bananas are fresh (not caramelized and sickeningly sweet) and that thick whipped cream and caramel sauce are generously applied.

Bananas Foster Waffles

This is the best brunch I’ve had in ages. I loved the live music, a mellow, bluesy trio who covered Van Morrison, Bill Withers, Greg Allman and a bunch of other good stuff I’ve already forgotten. Eating at the bar (the cozy booth was nice too) and sipping Steve Douds’ inspired cocktails (had a screwdriver with Champagne in it, which made it light but no less potent) was also a big part of the fun. But most of all, I thought the food was terrific.

Soulcatcher

The weekend can’t get here soon enough!

Old Familiar

Good old Los Olivos

Mmmmm. Cheese crisp.

Be honest. There’s probably a restaurant in your regular rotation that you never mention to your food-obsessed friends because liking it might weaken your credibility. It’s not the least bit trendy and that’s exactly what you like about it. It’s also reliable, comfortable and close to home. It’s your go-to, your standby, your old familiar.

In my former North Phoenix neighborhood (a restaurant wasteland), that place was Spinato’s, where my family ordered their thin-crust pizza (topped with our special combo of meatball, green olive and banana peppers with extra sauce) nearly once a week.

Now that I live in Scottsdale again, I’ve happily slipped back into making regular visits to Los Olivos Mexican Patio, which has been tops on my list for Mexican food (the old school kind) for as long as I can remember. In fact, this was the first Mexican restaurant my mother and I visited when we first moved to Scottsdale  and the West’s Most Western Town actually lived up to its name.

Nowadays, a good buddy and I meet there at least twice a month to talk, drink beer and split a cheese crisp, which ranks among the best in town. Okay, IS the best in town.

I love a good cheese crisp with all my heart, but they seem to be harder and harder to come by these days. Why is that? Maybe because the Trend Police have ordained that we must worship only that which is authentic and Mexican food made north of the border doesn’t count. So, like nachos, cheese crisps are now disdained as concoctions made strictly for gringos. What a pity! And I beg to differ. In my not-so-humble opinion, Arizona has its own brand of Mexican food, and some of it’s terrific. It deserves a respected place in the pantheon.

As its name suggests, a cheese crisp should be crispy on the bottom (there’s nothing worse than a cheese limp) and — just as important — sizzling hot and gooey on top, thanks to a generous melt of cheese, which is usually of the orange variety. At Los Olivos, it’s an orange and white mixture, which I’m guessing is mild cheddar and Monterey Jack, nice and stringy.

If my pal and I draw the not-quite-together young waitress who seems to work the tiny, narrow room we favor (even though the acoustics are ridiculous), odds are 50-50 as to whether our cheese crisp is still going to be bubbling-hot from the broiler when we get it. But if we draw any of the veteran mamacitas who’ve been working at Los Olivos since time began, that cheese crisp will be perfect every time: the bottom browned, crisp and almost pastry-like in its flakiness, the cheese looping and drooping as the slices are pulled apart.

What makes this cheese crisp so special, aside from its prerequisite crispiness? Two things: the flour tortilla and the hot sauce, served in a tapered bottle, not a bowl. The sauce is bright red, garlicky, redolent with oregano and plenty hot. Brought to the table first thing with warm, thin, crispy corn chips and a milder, chunkier salsa (good but not in the same league) it’s nearly impossible to leave alone.

Now, about that ethereal flour tortilla, made in-house and bearing the black spots of the griddle: it’s one of the best in town. Maybe not better than Carolina’s but very, very close behind. Thin and pliant, it leaves a trace of greasy residue on the fingers and makes a foldable mop for steak picado (another  favorite of mine). Zora Valenzuela has been cranking out flour tortillas for Los Olivos for over 40 years, and I’m here to tell you, she’s got it down.

Critics generally don’t re-review restaurants that have been around since the earth was flat, so it’s not likely you’re going to read a professional’s opinion of Los Olivos any time soon. And God knows you can’t trust most Yelpers, who are inclined to say things like, “I’m generally not a fan of Mexican food, so this may be an unfair review but oh well.” Yeah. Oh well.

Whether you can trust me on this score is also up for debate, and here’s why. When you’ve loved a person, place or thing for a long, long time, you probably can’t view it objectively anymore. Case in point: many years ago, I asked a longtime boyfriend, “Is that girl prettier than I am?” His reply was “I don’t know. I can’t see you anymore.” Maybe it was his clever way of dodging the truth, but it was an answer I happily accepted. It suggested that his love for me had made him blind to this particular asset or that particular flaw. It is exactly this way for me with Los Olivos. I’ve loved it for so long that I just can’t see it anymore.

P.S. My old standbys are the cheese crisp, cheese enchilada with sour cream, green corn tamale and steak picado. I seldom vary, and this, too, is a great treat for me: eating the same thing every single time, which is a no-no in my line of work.

Los Olivos History —-

Although the physical space has grown considerably since I was a kid (there was no blue room — or at least it wasn’t enclosed — and no great big dining room/lounge back then), Los Olivos feels pretty much the same as it always did — kind of creaky and dim, funky and comfortable. It’s one of the things I like so much about it.

The original building, which was constructed somewhere around 1920, is adobe and in its first incarnation was a pool hall. When the Scottsdale Civic Center was built, there was some talk of tearing it down to make way for the parking lot, which, of course, is standard operating procedure here in the Valley. But Barry Goldwater saved Los Olivos from the idiots. Or at least that’s the way the story goes and I believe it.

The Corral family has owned Los Olivos from the get-go and they’re smart enough to stick with a winning formula. It’s been spruced up a little here and a little there over time — new booths to replace the dumpy ripped ones, shiny silver mirrors and walls that have been painted with cactus and knock-offs of famous Diego Rivera paintings. But somehow, it all manages to look ancient and lived in. Best design feature: the grimacing head that sits atop the restaurant like a Mayan gargoyle.

I realize that one day at a new job isn’t enough time to look back on a former job with any sense of perspective. So I won’t go there. But I do want to say how grateful I am to everyone at the Arizona Republic for showing such warmth and kindness to me. The day I got there, many people stopped by to welcome me aboard and tell me how glad they were to have me. It meant a lot.

The place is huge, so I didn’t get to know all the people I wanted to. Never got to meet Bill Goodykoontz or discuss movies with him (would’ve loved that), or tell Clay Thompson that he’s as much a part of my day as my morning cup of coffee, or tell Suzanne Condie Lambert what a talented writer and truly funny person I think she is. She makes me laugh out loud — often — as she goes about the business of acerbic celebrity gossip, laced with a good bit of American culture-skewering while she’s at it. There’s a book in you, Girl. Remember Laurie Notaro?

As for the people I did get to know:

Howard Seftel: Of course, I’ve known Howie for years. We’ve operated since the early 90s as friendly rivals and just plain friends, calling each other occasionally to discuss news, seek each other’s input or simply commiserate about life as a restaurant critic. The day I left PM, I called him right away, and in a show of solidarity, he wrote a blurb about what had happened. He was outraged by the bald-faced denial of the separation of church and state (editorial versus advertising), a journalistic precept that continues to be eroded a little more each day at other publications.

He’s the person who urged me to call the paper, promising they’d give me some kind of work, if not much in the way of pay. In other words, he treated me like a friend and colleague, helped me get a leg up at a time when I really needed it. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.

When I came on as a freelancer, writing two reviews per week, our beats often overlapped. We had to confer with each other about which of us got what, but Howie was always generous, never displaying the sort of territorial stinginess you might expect from someone in his position.

When the paper offered me a full-time position, he was my greatest supporter and ally, giving me the 411 on the ins and outs of the job. And when I left so suddenly four short months later, he was again my greatest supporter and ally.

Howie, you know how I feel about you, both as a writer and as a person. I admire your integrity, your restaurant acumen and your bottomless well of hilarious metaphors.

Karen Fernau: It’s crazy that I never actually met Karen until right before I started working at the paper full-time. You’d think that over the years our paths would have crossed. People who knew her and worked with her were always saying to me, “Oh, you gotta meet Karen. You’ll love her.” And they were right. I did, and I do.

From Day One, we were buddies — gossiping and commiserating like old friends. We were invariably on the same page about all sorts of issues, and it was Karen who made me feel at home and comfortable on the 8th floor.  Girlie, I don’t intend to lose you as a friend just because I’m on the other side of the fence now.

Stacy Sullivan, my editor and jefe: Thank you for always being easygoing and infinitely patient with me as I struggled to learn attributes and all the other maddening aspects of that crazy system. I must come off as more of a Nervous Nellie than I think I do. Stacy would always say, “Don’t worry. You can’t break it,” and I would feel better instantly. You’re a sweet, charming guy, and if you ever need someone to watch the place in NO . . . .

Megan Finnerty: My favorite spice girl, very professional but never afraid to crack an insider joke or keep me in the info loop. A wildly fun and funny girl beneath the no-nonsense demeanor.

Linda Vachata: My editor prior to Stacy and one of my favorite editors of all time (and believe me, in 22 years, I’ve had quite a few). She was always respectful of my work, and work-crazed as she was, always took a minute to tell me a story about her dogs or exchange a little joke. We became friends by email, which — sadly — is entirely possible these days. Linda, more face-to-faces in the future, I hope.

Jaimee Rose: Here’s a person I’ve watched grow as a writer over the years. She can tell a compelling story about mixing religions in marriage, or she can write about the arduous process of making perfect croissants — both deliciously. Early on, Jaimee and I formed a little mutual admiration society, which is the sort of boost we writers sometimes need. Here again, lunch is in order.

Rich Ruelas: I don’t think I’d been on board a week before Rich invited me to speak in his journalism class at the downtown ASU. He made me feel part of the team instantly and lumped me in with the writers who show integrity. I so appreciated that! And no, it was nothing you said, Rich. I’m pretty sure we’ll run into each other at FnB or some other wine-centric venue in the future.

Richard Nilsen: Sorry I didn’t get to read your think piece. I’m guessing it was brilliant. Thank you for seeing me as the old-school writer I really am and finding nothing wrong with that. You’re my brother from another mother.

John Stanley: Oh my goodness, what a sweetheart! We could all take lessons from this guy on the phone interview. Thank you, John, for getting down on your knees and helping me figure out the vicissitudes of Citrix, expenses and all the other tasks that sometimes made me want to slit my throat.

Ron Dungan: Another mild-mannered fellow, my cubicle neighbor, who was always friendly and helpful when I needed help (and that was often in the first month). We groaned about the byzantine expense reports together and were probably destined to become great friends.

Wendy Killeen: Information Specialist at the paper. Working with Linda V, Wendy organized tons of info for Calendar and always, always had something sweet and supportive to say to me. Wendy, you’re a lovely girl and I know with your great attitude you’re destined for good things — more writing, maybe?

Brian Berlinski: Do people usually like the person responsible for creating paperwork involving numbers? I LOVE Brian Berlinski, who was cheery and upbeat every time I came to him with a question. What a good, good guy!

And to all the rest of you I’ve failed to mention in this long-winded Academy Award-like speech — Elaine, Celine, Jill — thanks for your patience along the way.

To Randy Lovely and Nicole Carroll, thanks for hiring me in the first place. I’m happy you had faith in my abilities and sorry that choosing a new path may have created headaches for you.

With regard to the Arizona Republic and all the terrific people there, I’m tempted to use George Costanza’s famous breakup line:  “It’s not you; it’s me.”

Word.

Cowboy Up, Girl

Timing is everything. When Ty Largo and I became friends in 2008, I had no idea that two years later, I’d be willing to forsake my 22-year career in the restaurant reviewing biz to join with him and Stacy Pearson in our brand new PR firm called Up Agency.

I had been unceremoniously swept out the door by PM in April of that year and I was wondering what on earth to do with myself. By early summer, I was thinking of trying to create my own food, chef and restaurant-related website, not understanding that such a thing probably couldn’t make me any money or that, in fact, everyone was already blogging instead. Looking back, I would say that I was ridiculously out of touch.

I asked Mari Belardi at Cowboy Ciao who might be able to help me with web stuff, and she suggested Ty Largo, adding, “We love him.” I got online first thing and checked out the websites he had designed for Ciao and Digestif. “Cute!” I thought, watching the little graphic of steam rising from a coffee cup over and over again. It was crisp, it was whimsical and I imagined he could make something just as darling for me.

So I called Ty and we met for lunch at Digestif. There he was: black and white-checked glasses, silky black hair standing on end in a faux-hawk, sitting up straight and putting on his best business-like demeanor.  “Cute!” I thought again.

We hit it off instantly, oohing and aahing together over Payton’s farm-to-table yummies, talking about our favorite restaurants and my possible future plans as a web-based food wonk. We promised to get together again soon and did, this time at the bar at House of Tricks, where we drank too much and got to know each other better.

By mid-summer of 2008, I was working freelance for the Arizona Republic, thanks to Howie’s suggestion that I call Jen Johnston, who would become my editor, friend and occasional dining companion. Life felt slightly more stable. I had work. Not enough work to really live on, you understand, but enough work to keep the wolves from the door for a few more months. Ty got busy. I got busy, wrangling as much freelance work as I could find and we didn’t speak for months.

Last spring (2009), we met at Quiessence and over cocktails on the lawn, we commiserated about feeling adrift. Ty raised his eyebrows and looked at me over those crazy glasses and, lowering his voice a bit, asked, “Would you ever consider coming over to the dark side?” That’s PR-speak for journalists who leave journalism for PR.

I laughed . . .  and then I started thinking.

I’d harbored the PR idea for years (as many of my pals will attest) but I could never work up the nerve to leave my career and try something new. Then too, after all that early tutelage at New Times (where publicists were characterized as having “666” tattooed on their skulls) PR still smacked of used car salesman in my snobbish little head.  More importantly, no one in PR had ever actually invited me to come on board before.

I was flattered, but I wasn’t ready.

No sir, I wasn’t willing to give up a single thing after losing so much already. I was hanging on for dear life to whatever I had. After about a month of back-and-forth, I confessed that I just couldn’t do it. Ty was clearly disappointed, but he rallied and with a little help from his friends (see his own blog post at Juxtapalate.com), started carving out an impressive client roster as he transitioned from web development to PR.

We remained friends, and, in fact, became better buds over more shared meals than I could ever remember.

And then, this spring, after starting the full-time job at the paper, something just snapped. I realized I was tired of doing the same thing, or more accurately, the thing that was purportedly the same but that had changed dramatically (but in piecemeal fashion) over time. I had become less enchanted with writing reviews and more enamored with the prospect of PR. Suddenly, working with journalists I knew and liked or chefs I admired sounded pretty fun. And just maybe, I’d have the chance to exercise the sort of creativity I yearned for. I didn’t give a hoot about being Nikki Buchanan, Restaurant Critic, anymore. The title didn’t mean squat. It was interesting, challenging work I wanted in a field that, in the scheme of things, wasn’t wildly dissimilar from what I was already doing.

Ty and I talked. Then, after he met with Stacy (who brings a boatload of her own impressive clients to the table), it all sort of fell into place. Suddenly, I had faith in Ty, Stacy, myself and the universe in general.  I was ready to dive off the cliff.

Well, now I’ve done it. And you know what? The water may be deep in places, but it feels just fine.

Stay tuned for my Goodnight, Sweetheart letter to the Republic.

Will Not Work For Food

As some of you may already know, I have resigned my position at The Arizona Republic. Although I was grateful to be offered a journalism job at a time when they’re particularly hard to come by, it was time to move on. My last day is August 4th.

It’s hard not to notice that my last post before this one, dated April 5, was my sharing the good news of my recently acquired full-time position as Southeast Valley  restaurant critic at the paper.  And then I dropped off the face of the blogosphere, which was not exactly coincidence.

I counted up how many reviews I’ve written since I started writing for the paper back in June of 2008. You know what number I came up with? 180. 180 restaurants in two years. My God, it’s a wonder I’m not 40 pounds overweight instead of 20. Still, I’m a beast. So there’s that.

And then there’s the aspect of mind numbing repetition: two restaurants a week, two ledes a week, two décor descriptions a week, two conclusions a week, two everything every week. It’s a treadmill, I tell you, and the pace can suck the creativity and enthusiasm right out of you.

Do I sound like a whiner? By all means, take the reins. Then get back to me in six months, a year, 20 years. Clearly, some people are born to this job (John Mariani and other fabulous writers of his ilk come to mind)  and seem content to do it forever. And maybe some people aren’t. Or maybe I just need a little break.

It has been suggested to me that writing a 500-word review is an easy task, something to be handily banged out in an hour, but I beg to differ. In many ways, short reviews are more difficult. There’s less room or time for graceful writing, transitions, jokes and asides, discussing trends, establishing underlying philosophy or creating a solid argument. Much of the good stuff, the little nuggets that make food writing fun get left in the dust for the sake of brevity.

Conventional wisdom holds (although I seriously wonder who dreamed this one up) that people reading on the web are like good old Sergeant Friday, too busy for anything more than “just the facts, Ma’am.” I disagree. It doesn’t matter if you’re holding a book, a newspaper, or a magazine or you’re staring at your computer screen, you still want the writing to be entertaining and brimming with personality. Otherwise, why bother?

Now, that I’ll have a smidge more time, I hope to stay a bit more current here at Wild Lavender. I still love food, and I still have strong opinions. That will never change. Talk to you soon.

Gainfully Employed

I  have some great news to share! A few weeks ago, The Arizona Republic offered me a full-time position. I am now officially gainfully employed. I had no idea what was coming when I met both my editor Stacy Sullivan and Executive Editor Nicole Carrol at Arizona Center for coffee and a chat back in March. I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped to the floor when they told me what they had in mind. Like Sally Fields, I nearly blurted out a shocked “You like me!” As a freelancer, you’re never quite sure.

When Howie called to congratulate me, he said, “You’ve gotten the last journalism job of the 21st Century.” And he may be right. Within that same week, Raymond Sokolov left The Wall Street Journal (uninterested in accepting their offer for a food trends beat) and here in town, dining critic and reporter Jess Harter was laid off at the East Valley Tribune, a move Harter says he knew was coming. At this moment, I feel lucky, lucky, lucky. Grateful too.

So here’s the scoop. The Valley will now be divided into territories or beats. Howie will have Phoenix and Scottsdale, Barbara Yost will cover the West Valley and I will cover the Southeast Valley, meaning Tempe, Chandler, Ahwatukee, Mesa, Gilbert and Queen Creek. I hope (no, plan) to become the SEV expert, the person who keeps abreast of everything happening there in a restaurant and food-related way and reports it to you, dear readizzle.

The cool thing about my beat is how quickly it’s growing and how ethnically diverse it seems to be. In recent months, I discovered a Venezuelan gem called My Arepa, a sweet Caribbean outpost called Hot Pot Caribbean Cuisine and terrific dim sum at Phoenix Palace.  I look forward to finding more small, sincere independents such as these three.

So if you all learn of great Southeast Valley spots or juicy news I should know about, please contact me here at Wild Lavender or at the paper. I don’t have an email set up there yet, but it should be in place in the next few days.

Question is: With so much good food in my future, how in the world am I going to shed 15 pounds (heck, I’d settle for 10) by summer?

Buh-Bye!

A funny conversation with FnB grrrrrl Charleen “Bad to the Bone” Badman (aka Bad Ass to some of her acolytes) about what she called “squirty bottles” led to this little list of things that: 1) have gone away and I’m glad or 2) need to go away once and for all.

Read it and let me know what you agree or disagree with and tell me what I’ve left out. There must be tons of stuff I’ve forgotten.

1) Pan-Asian Cuisine

2) Wasabi mashed potatoes

3) Edible flowers used as garnish for entrees

4) Candied walnuts/pecans on salad

5) Elaborate dessert plate designs made with crème Anglaise and raspberry coulis

6) Dessert plates dusted with cocoa or confectioner’s sugar

7) Chefs swanning around their dining rooms instead of working in the kitchen

8) Servers who begin by saying “My name is ____ and I’ll be your server tonight.”

9) Perrier water (so unbelievably over-rated)

10) Lego Food—Elaborately stacked and impossible to eat

11) Dishes with too many ingredients

12) Dishes with crazy, forced combinations of ingredients

13) Super-architectural desserts

14) Bizarrely shaped serving pieces that upstage the food served in or on them

15) Lame vegetable sides, particularly the ubiquitous zucchini, yellow squash and onion combo

16) Portobello mushrooms—I still like them; they were simply overused for a while there.

17) Tiramisu—Ditto.

18) Molten chocolate cakes, lava cakes—Ditto again.

19) Menus that list every single ingredient in the dish (Beef stock? Really? And Thyme?)

20) Menus with over-the-top descriptions

21) Menus with misspellings

22) The phrase “baked to perfection”

23) Wraps of any sort

24) Chefs wearing those stupid toques

25) Servers who say, “How are we doing?” WE?

26) Ranch dressing

27) Dirty menus (makes you wonder what the kitchen looks like)

28) White napkins that shed on black clothes

I got my voice back. I wish I could tell you precisely what this blog is going to be about, but the fact is, it’s going to evolve as I write it. Naturally, my focus will be food and restaurants, a little newsy stuff thrown in for good measure. I suspect there’ll be more of the philosophical rambling found in my first post (not to mention the occasional rant), and I plan to shine a light on chefs, ingredients, techniques, beverages and dishes that knock me out. I think, more than anything, Wild Lavender will be an informal platform that allows me to interact with fellow food-lovers and to say as much or as little as I want to about topics for which there’s often no room in print.

Star-Craving Mad

Although I enjoy everything else about my free-lance gig at The Republic, I’ll admit, I dither unto insanity when it comes to assigning stars to restaurants. I reviewed restaurants for 21 years (give or take) without ever bestowing a single star. I just wrote my little reviews and somehow, my readers divined whether I thought the place I was talking about was crappy or fantastic or somewhere in between. And do you know why they were able to do this? They could read, God bless ‘em. They could read and they did read and they discerned what I was saying.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the requirement. People are in a hurry and they want a bottom line, everything summed up neatly, no real reading comprehension required. I can appreciate the whole need-for-speed thing, but I’m an English major, a word person, and I’ve never liked math. Stars represent quantification, and numbers are something I naturally resist. How do you assign a number to so many disparate factors?

Seriously, it drives me crazy. First of all, my stars and Howie’s stars are two completely different things. Given my beat (Everyday Dining), I’m often reviewing inexpensive, family-run operations that have put very little money into their décor.

Does my four-star review of an ethnic hole-in-the-wall equate with his four-star review of a high-end restaurant owned by a celebrity chef? Of course not, and I realize that most readers are smart enough to know the difference. Still, it makes for big discrepancies.

When I first started my current job, my editor suggested that I consider the restaurant’s décor and service when I assigned the stars, but in many ways, that has served to confuse the issue for me even further. If I’m in a barbecue joint, eating a yummy rack of ribs, do I care if the décor is nonexistent, and should I let that become a factor when I’m passing out the stars? Couldn’t there be a five-star rib restaurant based on food alone? The best rib joint in town, and who gives a hoot what it looks like?

Then again, what if I’m in a sweet, sincere little restaurant where the owners have poured time and money into making the ambiance lovely but the food isn’t stellar? Let’s say the food is just average but the setting is adorable? Do I adjust for that—because the place is likeable, even if the food is just so-so?

And what do three stars mean anyway? Our key says that five stars=excellent, four=very good and three=good. Well, I’m a former school teacher, and when I had five grades to work with (A,B,C,D,F), a C (which is roughly equivalent to three stars) meant an absolutely average job. Not horrible, not wonderful, just average. Does “good” mean the same as “average” to you? Do you see how stars are devoid of nuance?

And what about prices? Should I be comparing week to week? If I’ve had something exceptionally good for $15, should all other $15 entrees that fall short of THAT $15 entrée suffer for the comparison?

And then there’s the whole history of stars I’ve already given out. I say to myself, “Wait a minute. I gave such-and-such-a-place three and a half stars. Isn’t this place as good as that one?” Then I worry about “grade inflation.” Sigh.

I’ll tell you straight up, I can think of about a dozen restaurants to whom I was probably either too generous or too stingy with stars. I’m human, subject to moods and anything but infallible. So here’s my suggestion: just read the danged review from first to last and decide if the restaurant in question is one you’d like to visit based on my words, mmmkay?