Sunday, August 10, 2008


After last week's diatribe, we finally did go to Fuel (1944 West 4th, between Cypress and Maple) tonight: the drama had provided us with a good kick-in-the-pants to finally make good on our long made plans to visit.

As I've explained, I'm on Fuel's side of the debate, and thus I went in with hopes of being vindicated: I wanted the food to be dazzling, success being the ultimate victory. It probably didn't help things much, then, to have such high expectations, because I was a bit disappointed.

That's not to say the food wasn't good. On the contrary, it was extremely competent, the product of a team that obviously cares about what they're serving and have taken time to seriously think about their menu.

What we ordered showed an emphasis on technique: I had the chicken, wherein white meat was stuff with the dark, sous vide, and then crisped up at the end, accompanied by braised artichokes, and crispy cornmeal. While it was exquisitely prepared, the concept likely got in the way of results: in the end, it wasn't overly different enough for me from a type of crispy chicken you'd see in a Chinese restaurant, and the crispy cornmeal was a bit too similar to hashbrowns. If the overall idea was to bring a comfort food quality to the plate, it definitely succeeded, but that really wasn't what I was in the mood for.

Dessert was much the same: a rice pudding using arborio grains (common in risottos), with a raspberry 'meringue.' The arborio rice definitely made it a much creamier and silkier rice pudding, but the raspberry 'meringue' really didn't seem like much more than raspberries with a fluffier whipped cream (not quite as light and airy as a meringue), slightly torched. While it was definitely comforting and good, it wasn't mind-blowingly so (the plating seemed a bit off as well: the raspberry meringue was piled on the side of the bowl, like an avalanche about to crush the rice pudding terrain below).

While I might not rush to go back to Fuel, I never - not for a moment - felt that the food was deserving of anything quite as self-involved as Gill's shoddy review. Fuel definitely merits more effort than a few inconsequential anecdotes dribbled off without much thought, and I'd certainly recommend the place to anyone that's in the area (I'd recommend Gastropod a bit more, though, which seemed just a touch more innovative). It just didn't instill as much fervent passion or praise, though, that would have had the crowds cheering loud enough to drown Gill out completely.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

It's Been A While

There's a couple of easy answers as to the shortage of posts as of late: a lack of time, and a lack of ideas.

This story, however, from the Urban Diner grabbed me within seconds: it seems that Alexandra Gill, food critic for the increasingly sloppy Globe and Mail, was ejected from Fuel, one of the city's more popular restaurants that opened last year (on West 4th by Maple, used to be home to a shish kabob place).

While we haven't been to Fuel yet, I've never heard anything bad about the place, and Gill's review is probably the first time I've heard anyone not rave about it. As the story goes, Gill returned for dinner, and was asked to leave after being recognized by the staff.

One of Fuel's co-owners responded by saying "when a reviewer actually loves food, it comes through in their writing, whether they are being positive or negative, and we can handle those negatives. Those critics will always be welcome at Fuel, for without positive, legitimate feedback, we will never have the chance to grow and become better."

I'm undecided as to whether this was the right path for Fuel to take or not - it instantly propels Gill to even further attention than she probably deserves, and she's certainly no punk rock critic that anyone should have any affection for. It makes for a great story (and only serves to add to street cred) when Lester Bangs or some such gets trounced or kicked out of a show, and Gill doesn't play at that level.

Gill's reviews usually treads along the lines of one or two salient points, muddied up by Carrie Bradshaw writer-is-the-subject nonsense, to the point where one has to question her palate or overall taste (Gill has also written numerous travel and pop culture pieces). Reviews are as much about Gill's personal life as about the food; Gill is both subject and observer.

This, in itself, is not a bad thing. On the contrary, one of the best VOX lessons I ever learned was to understand that reviews were inherently subjective, and not to shy away from it. As with anything, there's a right way and wrong way to do this, and Gill, like many others, doesn't seem to know the difference.

As with any good review (I'll stick with music reviews for familiarity), one really doesn't need to know how an album was named, where it was recorded, what the inspiration was, blah blah blah: that sort of filler is available from press releases and television interviews. Instead, a proper review should reflect the writer's own subjective response to it: for instance, it's instantly understandable to read that a writer's first listen to Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions feels the same as being trapped in a garbage bin being pounded on by baseball bats. This does not mean that I need to know that the writer was shopping with his/her BFF for rollerblades when the picked up said album. One can inject his or her personality into a solid piece without having it overtake the actual subject at hand.

Gill, as many others, makes this mistake over and over again: writer-as-subject only works for Hunter S Thompson and a select few (Nick Kent comes to mind), wherein the subject and personal experience have become so intertwined that it becomes imprudent or even impossible to write about one without the other. Does it make sense for Gill to mention that her companion loves a particular dish enough to have eaten it on four or five other occasions? Sure. Do I give a rat's ass about Gill's fiancee? No (in a recent review, she goes as far as referring him to "the", not my, fiancee; in other reviews, she 'gets married to herself': bejeezus, I'll just watch SATC reruns on Cosmo if I need that). This sort of thing, though, has unfortunately found its way into more publications than ever, and, with blogs, newsgroups, forums, etc., will undoubtedly spiral further and further out of control.

For such self-indulgent writing to inspire an active response from Fuel, then, is perhaps a bit unfortunate. If it calls attention to Gill, and others, as lazy critics, I'll be tipping extra when we do visit Fuel.