Yesterday I responded to a poster who was trying to decide between Lupa and Blue Hill by strongly suggesting that he go to Annisa instead. Nina W. countered my post with the following:
"Respectfully disagree. Two meals at Annisa and I see no reason to go back. Mediocre amateurish service, erratic food, gimmicy unspecial wine list, and vastly overpriced for what it delivers."
[you can scroll down to yesterday's posts or follow the link at the bottom of this message for the full exchange]
Well, I think this illustrates the fundamental problem with negative reviews on this site.
Any kitchen - no matter how brilliant - can produce a mediocre experience sometimes, but only a brilliant kitchen can produce a sublime experience any time. So if you have two reviews of the same restaurant, one rave and one pan, the rave should theoretically weigh more: the rave demonstrates that the kitchen is capable of rare greatness, while the pan merely shows that the kitchen - like all kitchens - is fallible.
Example: four years ago, when Le Bernardin was the most universally praised restaurant in the city, I had dinner there and experienced five courses (and many hundreds of dollars worth) of utterly unremarkable food. But it wouldn't make any sense for me to say that, therefore, the superlatives attached to Le Bernardin were the result of a mass delusion. That IS possible, but it's far more likely that I caught the kitchen on a bad night, or I ordered the wrong things, etc. A broader example would be the fact that there isn't a single restaurant that I can think of - no matter how well-reputed - that hasn't been attacked on this site.
This theory (raves should count more than pans) sometimes breaks down in practice because the reader can't know if two opposing reviewers are equally trustworthy. I think Annisa is one of the city's best restaurants and Nina W. thinks it's nothing special. Possibly I'm an unsophisticated lunk with the oral equivalent of tone-deafness. Possibly Nina is an accomplished chef writing incognito. In which case her assessment would be worth more than mine. Possibly the reverse is true (no offense, Nina). It's hard for the reader to tell.
I could try to increase my credibility by explaining why I love Annisa: I think Anita Lo (chef/co-owner) is a genius of, uh (what to call it?) food composition. Her dishes always present remarkable juxtapositions of flavors and textures wherein each element contributes something important to the harmonic whole and no element is wasted. She pairs ingredients in ways that I, at least, would never think of - but, tasting her dishes, the pairings seem exactly, perfectly "right." The meals I've eaten at Annisa have been both culinarily thought-provoking and simply delicious, like a great piece of music that's both challenging and catchy. And the service has always, in my experience, been gracious and knowledgeable.
None of which proves anything. I could still be an unsophisticated lunk, food-wise. But that doesn't change the fact that my recommendation - if you trust it - means more than Nina's deprecation. I am testifying to Annisa's rare ability to deliver an extraordinary experience (and - as I've been there five or six times - to do so consistently); Nina is only asserting Annisa's inevitable ability to, sometimes, fuck up.
Finally (as a last resort), there ARE a lot of people who agree with me and think Annisa is wonderful. There are also some people who agree with Nina, but I reserve the right to believe that either (1) they're basing their opinions on anomalous bad experiences, (2) they are the ones with the weak palates/poor taste, or (3) they have fine taste but don't happen to like the kind of food served at Annisa (though I'm not quite sure how this last one could work).
In any case, I stand by my recommendation.
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