Food Fight, Part 2

Careful, New Yorkers, with your attitude -- you might get busted

Attention New Yorkers: Never underestimate Miami. Don't put down its people. Try not to sneer at what you don't comprehend. Use the idea of superiority to describe our weather and our beaches; don't apply it to your attitude. The only patronizing we want you to do is in our shops and restaurants.

Otherwise you just might find yourself arrested.

The credo that many New Yorkers seem to carry off the plane with them like miniature bags of pretzels -- good to pull out only when you're really desperate -- is that while they might deign to visit this southern, subtropical 'burb to escape Nor'easters and the like, nothing in this town measures up to the wintry comforts of home. The gastronomically minded are particularly vocal in this aspect. Our chefs are uniformly second-rate; never mind that many of them came from New York City and operate sibling restaurants there. The sophistication in our upper-echelon eateries matches only to the midlevel joints of Manhattan, and can you believe that guy just answered his cell phone at the table? How gauche. And bluntly, service lacks any sort of customer-relations know-how. Oh, okay: Agreed.

Yet I get distressed when New Yorkers come down here with chips on their shoulders the size of pads on a linebacker. Whenever I'm a guest on Linda Gassenheimer's WLRN-FM (91.3) radio show, someone invariably calls in with, "I just moved here from New York and I can't find anywhere good to eat." Visitors from out of town, even my closest friends, have had the poor manners to be surprised that places like Norman's actually serve edible, let alone award-winning, modern cuisine.

My culinary colleagues are the worst, as I recently discovered at the Restaurant Critics Versus Restaurateurs seminar at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Although two of the restaurateurs own a good deal of property down here, all three ran places in New York. In addition the two other critics were both from New York-based publications. So while the panel was designed to be a confrontation between reviewers and proprietors about the purpose of restaurant critics, I found myself defending the position that New York is not the only place of international gastronomic merit, where critics count and restaurateurs quake; I heard myself continually countering the unspoken opinion that every restaurant that operates in another part of the country is merely indulging in a dress rehearsal so it can go to New York. In fact nearly every comment made was prefaced with, "Well, in New York ..." and qualified with "It's different in New York than it is down here [Miami]." Some gems:Restaurateur Tony Goldman, on how long a restaurant should be open before it's reviewed: "Ideally if you could have the two to four weeks, that is really what a restaurateur hopes for, so that you are really honed and experienced at what you do. Not unlike Broadway shows that work out in Boston and Hartford before they come to New York so that they can work through their systems. We don't have that exact luxury."

Me: "Those shows that open in Boston ... get reviewed by the local critics -- on opening night."

Goldman: "But they don't get reviewed by the New York Times and the main game."

Esquire magazine restaurant critic John Mariani, on the influence of a negative restaurant review: "I know of restaurants that a critic gave a very poor review and people who have been going there for years for every single week suddenly turn to each other and say, “I guess it's not very good anymore,' because the New York Times or Esquire or New York magazine said it's not very good ... that's stupid on the public's part."

Mariani on the star system: "Every paper or magazine I know that uses a star system -- Esquire does not, New York magazine does not -- one star means ..."

Me (inserting): "and we [New Times] don't, thanks."

Mariani (without missing a beat): "... one star means good."

New York magazine restaurant critic Hal Rubenstein, on the usefulness of the Zagat Survey: "The New York guide is a great reference. The Miami one sucks ... It's very strong in New York, and it's not very strong down here."

Not really the opinion of the editor for the Miami Zagat Survey, Victoria Pesce Elliott, who was sitting in the audience. Elliott later discovered that the edition Rubenstein was criticizing -- mainly because it didn't contain his favorite restaurant Icebox Café -- was three years old, about as old as the café.

So as a critic for a weekly non-New York newspaper or two where "local" is a four-letter word, I'm not in the club, I guess. As a matter of fact were it not for my big mouth, I would've been damn near invisible. And I'll still be the first one to say it: We can't compete with New York, gastronomically speaking or otherwise. But we shouldn't have to. New York and Miami are not cities separated at birth; New Yorkers and Miamians, regardless of how many relatives and connections there are between us, do not share the same designer-label brain. We were founded by different peoples with a separate variety of concerns, and these roots reflect in how our cities are both populated and managed today.

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