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Home > McGill News > 2002 > Fall 2002 > Epilogue


Picky Eater: Notes from a Montreal Food Critic

When I got the position of restaurant reviewer for Hour Magazine, a Montreal alternative weekly, a buddy told me it topped the list of ideal jobs. I felt elated... and nervous. Was I qualified? My predecessor had food knowledge coursing through her veins (she was Sicilian, after all), whereas my culinary heritage was New England WASP and old England meat.

Although my mother now makes a mean pot roast and my dad has a pan-European cooking style, she was known for specialties like whole wheat pineapple upside-down cake and he for frying up lamb necks. I gleaned a sense of experimentalism from them, I suppose, and by the time my plum job arrived, I'd broadened my culinary knowledge thanks to having lived in Europe and Mexico. Also, my anthropology background lends an appreciation for food's place in culture (many reviewers come from social science backgrounds or, curiously, music). I can cook, yet am blessed with a husband who wants to -- he's my steadily ticking gastronome, my partner in culinary crime.

And what a great city for this gig! From downtown sushi spots to far-flung Punjabi joints, casual yet suberb French fare to homestyle vegan, this town provides its denizens with plenty of palate-tickling opportunities.


Hour gives me a modest budget. I try to pick good spots from a range of cuisines, prices and neighbourhoods -- I'd rather eat well and spread the word than be bitchy (no matter how much fun that is). I ask friends, strangers, taxi drivers about their fave spots; pick up flyers, look on the Internet, check streetside menus and read other food folk, mostly so I don't review on their heels.

Anonymity is key. I book under false names, pay cash, and hush loud-mouthed companions. Very rarely, and only after the meal (if I liked it), I "out" myself and chat up the staff for background info. The stealth is also for my own good. After I gave one restaurant a mixed review, the owner sent a scathing letter to Hour. I'd caused 11 cancellations that Friday, she raged. The establishment sits on the corner of my block, so let's just say I'm happy to remain anonymous.

At first, I worried about my food evaluation abilities -- did I understand risotto deeply enough to pass judgement? I'm more confident now: aware of my strengths (Mexican, Asian, Mediterranean) and weaknesses (I still have much to learn about fish and know little of African cuisine). This is not work for vegetarians or the squeamish and I will cheerfully eat anything -- horse, insects, tripe, tongue, raw meat, fermented Korean pickle -- but don't like cucumber.

The tools of the trade are simple. I bring a handbag into which I can surreptitiously slip a menu. A small notebook and pen to discreetly jot down notes. Pals so I can taste more widely and get opinions, but not too many or I'm distracted by conversation.

My priority is always the food -- freshness, innovation, flavour, texture -- balanced against price and expectations. "Too salty" is my common complaint, but I won't mind if I'm watching a live flamenco show while snarfing briny grilled octopus.

Setting and service are less important. I've slammed the chi-chi if the food is so-so, and lauded holes-in-the-wall if the grub transports me. But a whiff of attitude makes me much harder to impress. Some diners joke that snooty waiters are a sign of "authentic" service in a French bistro, but arrogance and rude service leave me cold. A great perk to my job is that instead of fuming quietly, I can get even by letting the readership know just what a jerk someone was.

At the same time, good staff can make a restaurant. I now know that if a waiter (genuinely) asks if everything's all right, speak up! At one place (for a non-review meal) renowned for seafood, I wasn't sure if I'd picked wrong or the fish wasn't quite its usual self. Upon voicing this to the waitress, she responded by whisking it away and reserving the entire meal, which was so good I returned to write about it.

Afterwards, to put the food puzzle together, I often turn to the Internet. What are the components of Lebanese zaatar spice or the anatomy of squid? That useful tool has enlightened me as to the history of ice cream, the correct plural of octopus (octopodes), the merits of petit gris snails versus Burgundy ones, and the creation myth of Korea, which involves a man, a bear and 20 cloves of garlic.

When people ask which is my favourite restaurant, I can't say. I have a preferred soup spot, love one venue's caesar salad, another's steak-frites, only eat dim sum at a particular haunt, and am a sucker for even mediocre Indian. I have my favourite French BYOB -- maybe two or three -- and as far as I'm concerned, the town's best Thai food is at a food court.

From demystifying sweetbreads to suggesting recipes for kale, experiencing unctuous foie gras and visiting organic farms, I feel lucky to have this job. But those in the know realize my perpetual dining companion has it luckier -- he doesn't have to lift finger to keyboard after the meal.

Maeve Haldane also writes tasty articles for the McGill Reporter, where she is acting editor.

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