Eating with Others: Frank Bruni and Me

Last week, Frank Bruni, who is finishing his stint as restaurant reviewer for the NYT, wrote another one of his summary on his experience; this latest one is devoted to the behavior of his dining guests who he’s invited to share his “test” meals.  I suspect every reviewer and blogger who read it has his or her own observations and here are mine. First, though, a note about some differences between eating with the great Bruni and this poor blogger.  Bruni gets a salary and full expenses, I rarely get eirther; Bruni eats where he wants to several times, with three others and due to the Times’ policy, has an almost unlimited budget, I usually eat at a place once, with one or two others, and only wish I had a blue sky budget; Bruni takes friends and mono-fixated (e.g., ones who must have steak) guests, I go with a mixture of food critics, writers and passionate eaters whose tastes sound much more catholic.  So our experiences are quite different. He noted that his guests can be categorized as (largely my terms): – possessive – hoarders vs sharers – perpetually slighted vs eternally grateful – those who eat less/ but pretend to eat most – name-droppers – raters – persons who adhere to irrational rules – persons who reject food based on texture, shape or color – and those trying to figure out what star-rating Bruni would give the place. My experience reflects the co-equal status of who I eat with.  This results in protracted negotiations with my prospective companions over where to eat and in totally individualized choices on what to eat versus Bruni’s dictatorial (his term) decision on where to eat and what to eat. That is not to say we don’t try to try everything that sounds interesting, or is the chef’s signature dish, or “must be tried,” but that’s a consensus/discussion decision.  Only one of my “regulars” asks me to order for her so I don’t miss anything and only one knows my likes so much after 40 years that he automatically orders what he knows I will not. Bruni doesn’t mention his taking notes versus not taking them, but like the split among practitioners of psychotherapy/psychoanalysis, between those who take notes versus those who depend on their memories, some critics recall each and every preparation and ingredient while others need reminders.  One day when I was eating with a “real food critic” (that is, someone salaried, reimbursed, respected and feared) we were joined by a non-critic friend who turned to me in amazement after watching us “work” for 30 minutes and said, John, it’s impressive, you two do exactly the same thing. There are also differences in the way my companions and I go about judging what we’re sampling.  Bruni mentions that his guests rate the dishes 1-4 but my experience is that some of my pals judge the dish against standards set by other chefs over their 10-20 or 40 years of eating; while others assess it on its own as if this were the first such dish they’ve ever had.  (I recall a manpower expert, whoops, a personnel manager, whoops, a human resources director, who told me I must never judge a candidate for a job against other candidates, but see each as a unique specimen – which I’ve decided after 55 years of interviewing, is pure hogwash).  It’s fun to be able to put this breast of pheasant or veal liver up against that of Fredy Giradet or Chez Les Anges years ago and equally interesting to think of which are the two, or three, or five best pastillas or cassoulets, etc., currently available. In addition, it sounds like Bruni’s guests almost obsessively divide each dish in 4 portions, mentally or physically, so that each one of the four can have exactly the same-sized portion. There is a similarity, however, between Bruni’s and my arriving at a grade/rating/decision after the meal ends and my eating buddies curiosity at learning what that global rating or bottom line is. All in all, after reading his piece, I’ll take my friends over his any day, even with the budgetary difference. This week, my favorite is a place recently opened that I think has been in effect snubbed by most others on the scene: Le Marcab 225, rue de Vaugirard, 15th, (Metro: Volontaires) T: Open 7/7 Menus for 16, 25 and 35 € ©2009 John A. Talbott
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