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Stiffed Again

I try not to think about this too often, but at times it’s depressing to contemplate that a capital city with two universities can be home to a “Gourmet Guide” — really, next to what you can find on Chowhound, the only local guide to dining in Tallahassee — with a rating system that makes absolutely no sense.

Last week’s review of Liam’s should have afforded me some comfort. It’s a relief to see coverage of a restaurant that is not a chain (why does Outback even need a review — do Blooming Onions change that much city to city?), did not last update its interior in the Eisenhower administration, and hasn’t forged new records for critical health inspection violations.

Stiff’s language was even, for once, restrained — which is, believe you-me, a Good Thing. I have written on Chowhound how painful Stiff’s writing can be when the Dem’s editors (clearly distracted by the far more important business of reporting ad infinitum on FSU’s football team) let Stiff stain their newsprint with far too many of his sappy puns, down-home yucks, and windy references to The Good Old Days of forty and fifty years ago (you remember those days, when Jim Crow reigned and women couldn’t get credit cards on their own recognizance).

I won’t even quibble that his review of the actual food at Liam’s is scant on description, as is true with most of his reviews. His background in the industrial-strength hospitality business is evident in his focus on the setting and service (not bad things to address) and his brief, sensory-limited comments that a dish is “nirvana” or that the duck is “rose-pink rare.” (With duck, the first question is always is it rubbery.)

Nor will I dink Stiff, who comments on Liam’s commitment to healthy food, for failing to observe that one current discussion in the foodie world focuses on the environmental tradeoffs to shipping organic goods long distances — as in, flying in organic duck from upstate New York. Liam’s does feature many local foods; the pea shoots that graced my (local, sustainably-caught, sweet as sugar, fresh as a splash of ocean foam) sea bass grew somewhere between here and Thomasville.

Furthermore, with respect to environmentalism, Tallahassee is so far behind on its developmental milestones — the topic is still a big yawn to many in this area, where the unapologetic guzzling of energy resources can border on the grotesque — that Liam’s may have to simply serve a high-demand food such as duck if it’s going to compete with other top-drawer restaurants. I have had duck at a number of local restaurants (Urbane’s so far was the best), and it’s only my gradual interest in ethical, environmentally responsible dining that even has me raise this question.

I will even forgive Stiff for attempting to go foodie on us in his wine discussion while not realizing that despite their small but nice wine list — a fairly new turn at Liam’s — they welcome “BYOB.” They have no corkage fee, and will store and open your wine for you.

But then — for no reason stated — Stiff gives Liam’s four and a half “hats.”

Four and a half effing hats.

Liam’s is a restaurant that is in a completely different stratosphere from most of the — I must say it — crap in this area. Liam’s is often referred to as “big-city-good,” as in, if it were suddenly transported to Manhattan, it could stand proud next to many a restaurant of its ilk. (The lone pho house in Tallahassee is only Tallahassee-good — respectable for this area, just not in a league with big-city pho houses.)

You speak of Liam’s in the same breath as Avenue Sea (in Apalachicola) and Urbane, Sage, and Cypress in Tallahassee (Kool Beanz, Clusters and Hops, and Fusion often enter this debate as well, as do some very good ethnic restaurants, rib shacks, and breakfast or oyster joints).

But based on that ludicrous Gourmet Guide — a guide based on the singularly incomprehensible food rating efforts of Stiff himself — Liam’s is half a hat above Outback and The Melting Pot — two chain restaurants!

But then again, the Tallahassee Democrat’s Gourmet Guide is top to bottom a ridiculous mess.

Sahara — with its hand-rolled dolmas, meat or vegetarian — has three hats– just like Macaroni Grill. Meanwhile, my beloved Shell Oyster Bar has three and a half hats — right up there with Stiff’s rating for The Olive Garden.

In the “light meals” category, Jenny’s Lunchbox — a cute and tasty breakfast and lunch joint — has only three hats, while Crisper’s, a forgettable chain, has three and a half.

On and on it goes, no rhyme or reason.

I have tried in this discussion to steer clear of drubbing truly local restaurants. In food reviewing, one visit should never torpedo a local business. My sense is that local reviewing can focus on what’s great and good, and leave the rest to inference or at least, where a place must get reviewed, to unavoidable conclusions backed with extensive evidence. But let’s just say that I’ve dined at enough places on the list — some of which serve what I think of as The Food You Eat When You Go To Hell– to say without any equivocation that the “Gourmet Guide” is neither gourmet nor a guide.

Read Chowhound, ask around, learn about the area. We don’t have enough great places to eat, but we do have some, and they deserve your business. Just steer clear of the Democrat’s restaurant advice, or as happened to me far too often when I was very new here, you’ll get Stiffed.

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13 Comments

  1. EpiTeleStrat wrote:

    The restaurant reviewer for the Tallahasseee Democrat seems to use the same kind of rating system most wine reviewers use; they know that the average diner or
    oenophile needs a simple way to judge when something is worth spending money on, and these reviewers grade on the curve. This is why Wine Advocate might give a simple Spanish red that’s under $10 an 88 out of 100, and give the same 88 to a $100+ classified growth Bordeaux. It might be nice if a reviewer rated restaurants with a bulleted list rating
    atmosphere,
    service,
    wine list,
    wine markup,
    menu selection,
    rating of what I ate,etc.
    As far as the issue of Tallahassee being a state capital, it is the capital of the fourth largest state by population in the USA. It’s sad to say that the capitals of the fourth and fifth largest states (Florida and Illinois) lack any restaurants rated better than Mobil two stars, but to me it’s sadder still that the capital of the state that is home to Del Boca Vista has no deli that carries sturgeon.

    Sunday, February 24, 2008 at 6:22 pm | Permalink
  2. Sorry, no, I’m going to disagree with you; there IS no curve. Plot the restaurants. The rating scale is random even within categories; it’s the judgment that is way off. This comes up for discussion on Chowhound, too. Again, I don’t want to get into slagging small local businesses, but the guide has no bearing on reality.

    I agree that ratings are often useless. I have been thinking about this a while. Your markers are a more useful concept. It’s why for my review of the Shell I put “chances I would visit this restaurant again” in the summary (though perhaps “chances *I would go out of my way* to visit this restaurant again would be even more useful). I’d add things like noise, child-friendly, parking, etc. and group restaurants within types. There still needs to be a way to quickly convey an overall assessment.

    On the sturgeon, well, TLH has no deli, period… on a long list of stuff we don’t have!

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 7:20 am | Permalink
  3. Denise Roux wrote:

    I am a fan of Ashby’s simply because he tries his best to be kind to independents, even when he gives good reviews to chains. I would also posit that Ashby has lived here much longer than the newbies who want Tallahassee to more like the homes they left.
    That said, I live in Apalachicola. For value and originality there can be few better places than The Owl Cafe and Tamara’s Floridita, especially for lunch. I live on a teacher’s salary, so Avenue C is a bit out of my range. In addition, unlike The Owl, they are dismissive to locals. Papa Joe’s at Scipio Creek Marina is the best for oysters, and I have never had a bad meal. Hardworking locals there are knowledgeable and friendly. I have also been hearing about a small spot in Sumatra with huge portions and prices to fit local budgets. For six bucks you can get a great lunch at Dolores’ Sweet Shop, and then spend a few more dollars for homemade cakes and pies for dessert. I say, appreciate what local riches we have, and go elsewhere if it is not too your liking.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 5:48 pm | Permalink
  4. Karlos Waterman wrote:

    I make no apologies for Ashby Stiff’s reviews, but suggest a little perspective on the quality of Tallahassee restaurants. Being the capital of Florida is not much to brag about when you consider what the good citizens of the state spend to educate our children. Haute cuisine is not to be expected in a state capital where lobbyists fund much of the food business.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 7:23 pm | Permalink
  5. I think Stiff could be much kinder to some of the really good local places. Really he could. Again… Jenny’s and The Shell are two delightful places. Why do chains get better ratings?

    As for being a newbie, I stand accused. He’s definitely playing to the crowd that talks about those upstarts who move into town with their hifalutin ways. *Shrug*

    As for Tallahassee, it can’t be explained quite that easily. I get your point, and yet, there are good-eatin’ towns in badly funded states/regions.

    I think Tallahassee could have better restaurants (and some local restaurants are very good) if we thought of ourselves first of all, as a city combined of old AND new residents, and second, as a city with some style and imagination. We could be that city. Tallahassee has low self-esteem.

    Monday, February 25, 2008 at 7:45 pm | Permalink
  6. FSU1 wrote:

    Ashby Stiff rates restaurants contextually, each on an individual basis for how successfully it achieves what it attempts to do.
    Thus it is understandable that a good little Mexican or Chinese restaurant, or a well peforming chain restaurant, may receive a rating similar to that of a good French or American contemporary house.
    This took some adjustment on my part at the outset of his reviews some 25 years ago.
    The next time I see him – yes, by way of disclaimer I know Ashby – I am going to suggest that he repeat his explanation of his rating system for the benefit of our welcome newcomers who understandably appear to be unfamiliar with it.
    He explained the system when he began reviewing for the Democrat, but I haven’t seen the explanation repeated for a very long time.

    Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 4:00 am | Permalink
  7. As I initially stated, Stiff’s method has several fatal errors. First, within categories his ratings still don’t hold water. Second, he doesn’t clarify what, exactly, results in a good or bad review. Does anyone really think Liam’s is a lesser restaurant than Chez Pierre? Finally, his reviews, taken one at a time, can be ignored, but accumulating these reviews in a “Gourmet Guide” that itself muddles the lines between good and bad is just plain wrong. It’s a phone book masquerading as a regional guide to food in a town that has few alternative outlets for these discussions. That’s not Stiff’s issue — he just writes the reviews — it’s the Democrat’s.

    Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 7:39 am | Permalink
  8. yummy wrote:

    I’m still trying to figure out what kind of idiot thinks the same people who edit football stories edit restaurant reviews.

    Wednesday, March 5, 2008 at 7:30 pm | Permalink
  9. right, yummy, that would never happen at the Demagogue. They are so well-staffed that fleets of editors stand poised over keyboards waiting to groom the offspring of Tally’s Fourth Estate.

    Wednesday, March 5, 2008 at 9:48 pm | Permalink
  10. FSU1 wrote:

    I would suggest that the comparison of Liam’s and Chez Pierre indicates a chronic misunderstanding of Ashby’s rating system. Liam’s is a contemporary American “character” restaurant emphasizing creativity in foods.
    Chez Pierre is a high volume, self-styled ” French restaurant with a Southern accent.” It’s a case of apples and oranges.
    We should bear in mind that criticism is a highly subjective pursuit. Occasionally I, too, disagree with Ashby, and on the rare occasions that I see him I don’t hesitate to mention and discuss it with him. But I don’t think it is so important as to warrant a shrieking jihad.
    Unless, of course, a brother-in-law’s restaurant got a negative review. ;)
    After all, it is restaurants, not Abu Ghraib or waterboarding, that is the subject.
    As for Tallahassee, it was the gentle, well reared Southern nature – which by no means translates to low self esteem – of its people that originally I found so appealing. I would hate to think it is losing that wonderful asset.
    Bon appetit!

    Sunday, March 9, 2008 at 4:08 pm | Permalink
  11. Well, my partner and I can’t marry in this state, so it’s not *my* brother-in-law you’re referring to. In fact, she’s a single child. So it’s not even “brother-in-law, wink wink.”

    I’ll ignore the “shrieking jihad” comment (though all, notice how often women are described as “shrieking”?) and say this. I’m no rocket scientist, but I do read and write for a living, and the guide just makes no sense.

    It’s not necessarily Stiff’s problem (his poor reviews *are* his problem, though I noticed that in the last one he actually described the food).

    The review-rating issue is bigger than some good old boy’s perfunctory write-ups of fast food restaurants. You can diminish my observations, and you can call me a carpetbagger, and say all the other unwelcoming stuff that gets ladled on the heads of newcomers in this town — as if we weren’t all newcomers to this world at some point in our lives — but the reality is that regardless of all the “explanations” the guide doesn’t work as a tool for explaining what’s good to eat in this area, and that’s what newcomers see when they arrive. Munch on that, FSU1.

    Tuesday, March 11, 2008 at 7:42 am | Permalink
  12. Anne in AZ wrote:

    Shrieking???

    Heavens to Betsy, everyone knows that a lady, proper or improper, never shrieks. We ululate.

    Tuesday, March 11, 2008 at 12:13 pm | Permalink
  13. Shell Pointer wrote:

    We have plenty of great restaurants, locally owned, providing LOCAL seafood, in Wakulla County and Woodville. Most are not fancy, but they offer wonderful food. I seldom see mention of some of them. My ranking is:

    Hook Wreck Henry’s
    Angelo’s (panned by Chowhound)
    The Seineyard
    Posey’s Up the Creek
    Spring Creek Restaurant
    The Landing
    Coastal Restaurant
    Riverside St. Marks
    Forgotten Coast
    The Lighthouse

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

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