Word to the Unwise

Reviewing food reviews

What, you believe everything you read? Of course not. As a member of the media, I'm very familiar with what kind of jarred pabulum we're spoon-fed like babies. I do my best not to contribute to it -- I try to present a well-researched, critical point of view. But I'm still surprised and irked when I see the mainstream food folk, wittingly or otherwise, lowering the bar of mediocrity and permitting diners to believe that fatreally has become phat.

Allow the Sun-Sentinel to illustrate. In early July restaurant critic Lyn Farmer's scathing review of The Left Bank in Fort Lauderdale was published. I read it on the Sun-Sentinel's Website and thought it both informed and clever enough to e-mail to a chef-friend who appreciates when the dailies, as they so rarely do, take a captious stance.

It's a good thing I did.

The following week, William Fox, critic for City Link, reviewed The Left Bank in unmistakably glowing terms. Supposedly an alternative weekly in Broward and Palm Beach counties, City Link actually is owned by the Sun-Sentinel. This is significant because while the editorial staffs of the Sun-Sentinel and City Link operate independently and never confer about what restaurants they will be covering, the two papers share a Website. When you click on to the "Showtime" section of the Sun-Sentinel to read Farmer's dining reviews, you also get Fox's pieces (plus the words of other critics, some who work strictly for the interactive page).

Each week on the site, one review is highlighted and given a headline; the others are presented as links. So it is probably the fault of the site editor, who merely lifts the edited reviews from the papers, that on July 11, the lead story read, "Left Bank has taken a dive," and that on July 18, the lead story read, "Time has done little to decrease the value of The Left Bank." No doubt no one would notice that two vastly contrasting opinions of the same restaurant were published within one week of each other.

Except that not only was I paying attention, I was confused enough to wonder if perhaps I had misread Farmer's review. So I searched for it in the Sun-Sentinel engine, only to find that the negative review had disappeared. It simply hadn't been archived. Try it yourself: Enter The Left Bank in the search engine. Three reviews will come up -- the freshly positive one by Fox, another laudatory one by Fox done about five years ago, and an approving writeup from M.L. Warren (Lyn Farmer's pen name, which he abandoned a couple of months ago), also from the not-so-recent past. Farmer's July 11 review, which contained phrases like "Service tends to be haughty, never a quality I find amusing but even less tolerable when the kitchen offers so little as a counterbalance," will be unavailable. The only reason I have it to quote from is because I accessed it from my old e-mail.

The bias doesn't end there, either. While I was searching for the review that stated, "Given its current direction, Left Bank might be more appropriately renamed Left Behind," I came across a link to something called "Reader Reviews," where readers can post their own experiences and opinions regarding particular restaurants. Most of these so-called reviews play like this: "We love the new menu. I like the prix-fixe menu. Variety is great." But as I perused the comments about The Left Bank, I noticed two rather strangely worded pieces, both of which contained details the average diner probably wouldn't know. One, written by MichaelinMiami, reads in part: "As soon as you walk in the manager (Andy Foxx) is [there] to pamper you.... The chef has gone to all parts of the world to cull ingredients for his pantry." The other, penned by Jessica Bennett, says, "After 25 years, The Left Bank has a new chef and a new outlook. Updated healthier foods from a global pantry predominate this eatery.... Look at the awards scattered about the room, they have to be doing everything right."

MichaelinMiami is the screen name for Michael Bennett, executive chef of The Left Bank. Jessica Bennett is him as well.

I guess I don't really expect the Sun-Sentinel to be checking whether the people who post these messages are strictly readers or, as in the case of the Bennetts, whether Michael has a vested interest in posting compliments. The nature of the Internet is that anyone can be anybody, and it is virtually impossible to detect this Mardi Gras kind of petty fraud. By creating such a forum in the first place, however, the site is enabling people like Bennett, who feel free to take advantage of surfers' naiveté. Indeed Michael Bennett, who has long been a source for me, claims that he has "seeded the online media arenas with stories about dining experiences at The Left Bank."

Is this ethical? Not in my book. Yes, we need to take responsibility for believing, or not believing what we read. But when information is withheld, we are at the disadvantage. Only those who have been in e-mail contact with Bennett would know that MichaelinMiami, the reader who gave The Left Bank four stars, is in fact the chef of the restaurant. And while Bennett is not hiding his screen name, he isn't making full disclosure either. (In fact it's questionable whether he's making a lot of sense period. He says this about his man-on-the-street reviews: "I have left clues to say that these articles are written and can then be traced back to me. I don't want to be deceptive; I am just having fun.")

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