Critiquing the Critics / Judging the Judges / Rating the Raters
Restaurant Review Review:
If Tom Sietsema’s review of Next Stage was a play, you’d be better off going to the movies instead.
From the looks of his bio on The Washington Post’s website, Tom Sietsema seems like a pretty decent food critic to have on staff. He’s dined for major papers in Seattle and San Francisco, he produces an online video series in addition to a variety of written columns, and he even wears disguises to prevent being made by chefs at the restaurants he reviews.
This guy sounds like a real pro, right?
WRONG. HE’S A NAZI!
Oooh. Did you see what I just did there? I set it up so you’d think one thing, then I spun it all around on you and now you’re thinking something else. Wasn’t that dramatic? Wasn’t it exciting? Wasn’t it theatrical?
It was – inarguably – all three of those things. It was also a complete and utter lie. But here at Reviews of Reviews, we think people would prefer to read an interesting lie over a mind-numbingly boring truth. Judging from his review of Next Stage by Jose Andres, Tom Sietsema clearly disagrees.
From his very first sentence, the critic establishes what will become his piece’s dominant motif, writing: It lifted the curtain on cowboy caviar salad for “Oklahoma!”
Did you catch that? Lifted the curtain? (Wink, wink? Nudge, nudge?) Because the restaurant he’s writing about is located inside a theater, Sietsema decides to have a little fun by inserting a theatrical term into his critical review.
The problem is, a little fun is all a joke like that can hope to produce.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with what the writer is doing here – indeed a bit of wordplay like this can be seen as clever, amusing even – he resorts to this tactic far too often. In a span of just two paragraphs, we’re barraged by all of the following:
Okay, okay, we get it! You can come up with a lot of different ways to compare this restaurant to a stage play! Look, I can do the same sort of thing:
See? It’s not that hard.
But much like knock-knock jokes, meth-fueled weeklong benders and government sponsored attempts at genocide, Sietsema’s “Let’s compare everything to the theater!” construct becomes less and less impactful with each repetition.
It also has another undesirable side effect. After reading metaphor after metaphor after metaphor, the audience becomes conditioned to believe that everything in the article is a metaphor. By the time Sietsema writes about the restaurant’s concrete floor set off by a “river” of shiny Mexican beach pebbles, the reader is forced to wonder, “Which theatrically-based ‘river’ does he mean? Ol’ Man? Moon? That one that leads to the Phantom of the Opera’s man-cave-slash-lady-raping room? Likewise, when the critic remarks that the onion soup wasn’t much better than Lipton, the first question that springs to mind is “Why are you comparing a side dish to the CableACE Award winning host of Inside the Actors Studio anyway?”
Apples and oranges, Tom. Apples and oranges.
But remember, Sietsema is not an idiot. If his years as a professional food critic have taught him anything, it’s that when he’s in danger of losing his audience, he must do something spectacular to win them back.
And that’s exactly what he tries to do here.
After stubbornly refusing to bend the truth for the sake of entertainment throughout his entire article, he suddenly reverses course and ends it with an out-and-out lie: From their vantage point, the cooks catch an even better show: a view of the Washington monument.
I don’t care how discerning Tom Sietsema’s palate is – if he tells us that a plain, white, completely inanimate building sitting outside somebody’s window constitutes a “show,” he either has no idea what entertainment actually is, or he’s selling us a line of self-serving, manipulative propaganda.
For the sake of all humanity, I hope that this time around, nobody’s buying it.
Andy Ankowski, April 11, 2011
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