I was outed as soon as I walked through the door: The critic had arrived, and there was nothing I could do to hide my identity.
It’s a situation that every reviewer is bound to face at some point: in our deeply digitized, social-media-savvy world, anonymity is a commodity more fleeting than a first-half Eagles lead. All you can do is hope that the chef doesn’t change his or her M.O. in a cynical effort to please your finicky palate.
When this happens, the front-of-house team typically makes herculean efforts to hide the fact that they know who you are and why you’re there, and it’s up to the critic to assess not just the food in that case, but also whether their particular dining experience is in any way different from what everyone else in the dining room is receiving.
Alas, this establishment made no such effort: They knew who I was and why I was there, and it became adversarial right off the bat.
“Honestly, Brian, if you give me a bad review, you’re out of my will. And if you imply that anything wasn’t perfect, you might not make it to your car alive. I brought you into this world, and I’ll take you out of it.”
Oh, how fickle a mother’s love can be.
This past summer, my editor and I decided that it might be interesting to review my family’s Thanksgiving dinner. It’s the one meal, after all, that ties us all together as Americans. From potato latkes to the seven fishes, from glazed ham to roasted goose, the holidays are a time of deeply felt tradition at the table, but none of them, aside from Thanksgiving, is so universally experienced. Ham at my uncle’s annual Hanukkah party would be anathema to the holiday, and no sane Protestant would ever whip up a batch of potato pancakes bound together with matzoh meal (a tradition inexplicably still espoused by some members of virtually every Jewish family) for Christmas. But Thanksgiving, with its turkey and stuffing and cranberries and pies, is as close to a national family dinner as we get, a nap-inducing, stomach-expanding feast for all quarter-billion-plus of us.
The review seemed like such a good idea in the carefree days of August.
Apparently, however, when I mentioned this past summer that I might be reviewing her Thanksgiving dinner, my mother took it to heart. And as the weeks leading up to the feast ticked by, she put the word out—to my father, to my wife, probably to my 2-year-old daughter—that she was killing herself, literally breaking her back (her words, verbatim) preparing for the big meal.
Was she trying to soften me up? Was she trying to make me feel pre-emptively guilty? Hadn’t she over-worked every other year that she’d hosted Thanksgiving too, or had she merely been phoning it in all those other three-and-a-half decades of my life, whipping up her Nero-esque feasts at the last minute with the help of Swanson and Lean Cuisine?
Had the culinary memories of my childhood all been a lie?
No way. My mother takes too much justifiable pride in her cooking to have skimped in the past, and her histrionics this year were, I think, a way to let me know that, review or not, this was her dinner, her house, and if I didn’t like it—well, then I could just stop in Chinatown on the way home.
As expected, there was no need for that.
The turkey, which she’d brined for three days, retained a level of moisture that even far fattier birds rarely do. And after it was done its oceanic bath, the skin of the beast had been massaged with a buttery paste of garlic, sage, thyme and rosemary, crisped up in the oven over a bed of aromatic root vegetables, and allowed to rest for precisely the right amount of time before being sliced up for service.
Carrot soup, a silky, elegant puree lifted by an unexpectedly assertive seam of cayenne pepper, proved to be a perfect addition to a meal that, for so many Americans, is traditionally a study in various levels of sweetness. (My mother’s Thanksgivings never have been, mercifully.) Even my sister’s contribution of cranberries, a chutney vivid with cumin, cinnamon and orange zest, found its footing in the savory as surely as it did the sweet: very well-planned and executed—though the immutable rules of sibling rivalry dictate that I could never give her the satisfaction of letting her know that.
The stuffing, really, was the only dish that didn’t quite take flight. And though I was reminded over and again how my mother had broken her back over the homemade corn bread, how she had scrubbed each and every one of those mushrooms by hand lest the critic chomp into any grit, god forbid, those earthy-sweet little buttons, nicely sauteed with onions and garlic, dominated the flavor profile of the dish. Some sort of meat would have helped it along, perhaps a fennel sausage removed from its casing. It was a relatively successful stuffing, but only moderately so, a shortcoming that stood out as a result of the procession of otherwise stellar dishes.
Service was more forceful and interactive than it is at most restaurants—Can you please help your sister clear the table? I’m not running a restaurant here!—but the depth and pricing of the beverage program made it rather easy to gloss over the thinly veiled threats of the chef.
My father, the wine director, sommelier and traffic cop for the night, has lately been making it a point to pop the corks on the kind of special-occasion bottles that too many collectors never quite get around to opening. The result was a dinner fueled by wines that my review budget never really allows me the opportunity to pair with a meal for work. We started with a crisp white Bordeaux before heading over to California for a deeply expressive Napa Valley Cabernet from Taylor Family Vineyards. From there, we popped open a bottle of Clos Mogador 1996, a dizzyingly delicious Spanish red that was the drinking highlight of the night. With dinner, we enjoyed a 2009 Beaujolais Cru—perfect with the full gamut of the holiday’s flavors.
By that point, with all the food and wine, it became a test of wills between the adults and the kids to see who would stay awake longest. In the end, we never did get to the dessert wine—better, at that point, to accompany the excellent, subtly perfumed Riesling-poached-pear tart with coffee. No more alcohol and only a bit more food: just hydration and tapering off at that point.