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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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