Subjectivity and the art of the review

On the road this summer, I relied a lot on reviews—hotels, restaurants, the usual. Most reviews are motivated by some sort of axe to grind; seldom do people rush to write glowing reviews of pedestrian hotels, but if they screw something up you can find out through the online reviews. My favorite was the hotel we stayed at in Vegas. Several reviews (many over a year old) concentrated on the broken ice machine. The machine was still broken when I got there, but it wasn’t a solid reason to choose a more expensive hotel.

Restaurant reviews a necessary evil. Like music reviews, they can never really tell you with any certainty if you’ll like it if you buy it. But with enough material to triangulate from, you can make a more informed choice about spending your money. I dislike most food bloggers, more for their horrible writing style than the substance of what they say. The writing is either artificially fluffy, or insipidly flat—concentrating on the most inconsequential parts of the dining experience. What I care about most is the food, not the hipster factor.

I don’t have any confidence in the verdicts that most Northern writers. There is a great phrase I tend to use in describing northern cuisines: “Minnesota spicy” (translation: bland as hell). Subjectivity is a serious issue.

As counterpoint, during our recent trip to Tulsa, there was a guy behind me in line at the Chipotle that ordered his burrito with double the red salsa (I find most of Chipotle’s food to be all heat and no taste to begin with). Then, as I watched him eat it, he poured a constant stream of Tabasco sauce into for every single bite—thus assuring that he wouldn’t be bothered with any of that nasty “food” taste. I find myself somewhere in the middle.

Reviews should always come with the disclaimer “in my opinion” because if the guy at the Chipotle, or a typical Minnesotan, claims that a particular place is great I really want to run away. Contemplating this, in Tulsa, lead me to the conclusion that the most useful reviews always imply some sort of situatedness rather than a holier-than-thou editorial pronouncement about food compared to some mythic standard. Actually, there are no standards, only opinions.

I have a taste for dry salami; I’ll never forget standing in line at a deli while the clerk sliced some for me while opining “I could never eat this stuff—it’s way too spicy!” I had ordered the spiciest available (translate tame and bland) salami in the case—actually I prefer hot dry Italian salami. It’s always a matter of opinion.

So it’s with great trepidation (and searching for a sort of “exercise” topic to write about) that I want to start taking pictures and talking about some places to eat. I love the Twin cities, I just seldom feel comfortable with talking about the food. Some of it is good, some of it is not so good. Part of what motives me is the challenge of combining visual and verbal ways of describing things.

So think of this as a long form disclaimer: If I describe things in a way that offends you (that is assuming that I actually manage to write any reviews instead of just composing disclaimers) then it’s just a Californian eating Minnesota food. Regional tastes differ, perhaps even more radically than individual ones. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I hope to get some of it off my chest tomorrow. Twin Cities hipsters are pretty clannish about their favorite haunts, and I wanted to be able to point back at this should google lead any of them here.

2 thoughts on “Subjectivity and the art of the review”

  1. One of the things I’ve lamented in my decision to move to Minnesota is the wonderful experience of Mexican food. Sure, there are restaurants that claim to serve Mexican food. But to anyone who lives in a border state, we realize that there is Mexican food, and then there is Mexican food.
    We here in Arizona eschew those who eat Tex-Mex or even California Mexican. New Mexico is ok because they do a lot of chilis and/or peppers in their Mexican food. Just in my small town, we have Oaxacan, Guadalajaran, and Sonoran Mexican food (and they all taste VERY different from one another).
    Will I find this up there? Doubtful, and I’m picky about my Mexican food. My brothers have offered to ship it to me on dry ice just so I won’t miss it too much.
    Since I’m not up there yet (a week and 2 days), I’ll look forward to your “reviews.” It will be interesting to see how someone who is a bit more regionally similar to me appreciates the cuisine up there. 🙂

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