The Tap: Anonymous Critics, Doggie Menus, and More

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This week in the Tap: Our columnist talks about the need (or lack thereof) for anonymity among reviewers, the pros and cons of menus for dogs, and local restaurant openings and closings.

shepherd-song-tap-logo-final-keylineThe Tap is a biweekly feature created by the Heavy Table and supported by Shepherd Song Farm. “We raise 100 percent grass-fed lambs & goats traditionally, humanely, and sustainably.”

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The Tap is the metro area’s comprehensive restaurant buzz roundup, so if you see a new or newly shuttered restaurant, or anything that’s “coming soon,” email Tap editor James Norton at editor@heavytable.com.

Screenshot from Startribune.com
Screenshot from Startribune.com

Dropping the Critical Mask

Star Tribune food critic RICK NELSON has dropped the pretense of anonymity and gone public. It’s a bold move that will change little-to-nothing in terms of his ability to accurately assess restaurants while allowing him to be a public face for the newspaper’s coverage of all things edible and potable.

In his column on the shift, Nelson points out that restaurants cannot turn on a dime and change their culinary approach simply because of the arrival of a critic. It’s absolutely true — your menu is your menu; your ingredients are your ingredients; your chef is your chef; your value prospect is your value prospect; and you’re going to prosper or wither based primarily on variables that can’t be tweaked at a moment’s notice.

I’d go further and say that there’s very little that can be done on the service side, either. If your front of the house people are capable of recognizing food writers and providing them with warm, welcoming service, they’re capable of providing that same service to the general public and are probably doing so as a matter of course. And if not — well, that’s a problem that will have ramifications whether or not you’ve picked the food writer out from a lineup. Delays, scrambled orders, a lack of consideration for the guest, and general-purpose miscommunication will play havoc with your reputation.

Here’s an anecdote that made its way back to me via a friend of a friend. About seven years ago, I was reviewing a new restaurant for City Pages. The hostess noticed me and ran back into the kitchen to tell the chef that James Norton from City Pages was in the house. “Eff James Norton,” said the chef, using the pungent version of the word “eff.” “I’m going to cook the way I always do.” And he did. And it was excellent, and that came through in my review. When I heard this story later, I was totally pleased. You’re not going to build an empire in fits and starts and treats doled out to people you’ve pegged as VIPs. You’re going to build it on rock solid, day-in day-out consistency and a serious dedication to hospitality.

Of course the restaurant and the chef parted ways not long afterwards, revealing the Achilles’ heel of any and all attempts to write comprehensive reviews: a restaurant is a living, breathing organism, constantly evolving and capable of change (both for better and worse). But the good critics, Nelson included, will keep plugging away at the task because they are the diner’s advocates, and in a world with limited time, money, and events that need commemorating, that’s no small charge.

Courtesy of Stanley's
Courtesy of Stanley’s

Stanley’s Northeast Bar Room DEBUTED ITS DOGS-ONLY PATIO MENU (“Stanley’s Canine Cuisine“) last week to a modest barrage of publicity. It isn’t the only restaurant in the area offering some thought to canine customers, but it certainly seems to be the most lavish and creative. The menu formulated for dogs features Treats, Entrees, and Sweet Treats that range from $3 (a scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with two “Nilla Woofers”) up to $7 (the NE Pup Burger, a half-pound burger served on jasmine brown rice and sweet potatoes.)

The fact that dog owners would be offered a menu for their pets speaks to the incredible strength of feeling that we have for these creatures (and, by extension, the economic potential they represent).

In some parts of the world, dogs aren’t offered menus; they’re featured on them. In most parts of the country, they languish in animal shelters and puppy mills. And yet, just about everywhere, they’re also honored as full-fledged family members. Food, chattel, best friends, workhorses, lifesavers — no other life-form on Earth (other than, perhaps, the horse) plays so many roles.

It would be easy to come down on a dog-focused menu as over-indulgent. But if we proceed on the assumption that dogs might enjoy some of these treats (who wouldn’t want a 6-ounce chicken breast served on brown rice or a chewy smoked pig’s ear?), and we like giving our canine friends discrete moments of happiness, it’s actually a straightforward, rational economic choice.

As intriguing as the menu is, it’s unlikely I’ll be visiting to check it out. Although the menu doesn’t say so explicitly, I’m reasonably sure my cats aren’t welcome.

James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table

We’ve had a blast launching our podcast (The Weekend Starts Now), and part of the fun of these things is visiting other local podcasts. I appeared on the most recent (second) edition of the Twin Cities dining podcast THE WELL FED GUIDE TO LIFE along with my own podcasting partner, Taylor Carik from Secrets of the City. (Pictured above: Evan (L) and Dave (R) from TWFGTL.) We shared a meal at the Spanish-themed Rincon 38, and talked pedal pubs, tapas, and the things we will (and won’t) eat when the chips are down.

— James Norton

NOW OPEN

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

CLOSED / CLOSING:

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
  • Romolo’s in St. Paul | Our review
  • Four Firkins (both locations, Oakdale and St. Louis Park)
  • Rice Paper in Edina | (closing June 27)
  • Four Inns skyway diner in St. Paul
  • T’s Place in Minneapolis
  • Pairings in Minnetonka
  • El Burrito Mercado (Midtown Global Market location)
  • Umbria Pizza in Eden Prairie
  • Sapor in Minneapolis (closing June 26, with a party for friends on June 27)
  • Nye’s Polonaise Room (closing 2015)

COMING UP:

Minneapolis

St. Paul

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
  • 11 Wells Millwright Cocktail Room, Historic Hamm Building, St. Paul | Summer 2015
  • Lexington (new ownership), 1096 Grand Ave, St. Paul | Summer 2015
  • Saint Dinette, 280 E 5th St, St. Paul | June 2015

Greater Twin Cities Area and Beyond

The Tap is the Heavy Table’s guide to area restaurant openings, closings, and other major events. The Tap is compiled and published biweekly by the Heavy Table. If you have tips for The Tap, please email James Norton at editor@heavytable.com.

By James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.

One reply on “The Tap: Anonymous Critics, Doggie Menus, and More”

10k Brewing is looking more like a mid-August opening according to their Kickstarter update from June 8.

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