Monday, March 31, 2014

Rant: Restaurant Intimidation?

Last week, I dined at Ribelle, a restaurant that a famous food writer recently criticized, stating: "I left there feeling brow-beaten." He felt intimidated and bullied by the restaurant? GQ writer, Alan Richman, opposes what he labels as "egotarian cuisine," where chefs allegedly cook for their own desires rather than that of their customer. These chefs combine seemingly disparate ingredients, and Richman believes this leads to failure more often than not.

In his article, Richman bashed several restaurants, including Ribelle, a relatively new restaurant in Brookline owned by Chef Tim Maslow. He stated: "I ordered one dish after another, idiotically hoping the food would get better." Locally, Ribelle has garnered many raves and accolades for its cuisine. Boston Globe writer Devra First reviewed Ribelle, awarding it four stars, only the second restaurant she has awarded such a high rating. It was also selected as the Globe's Restaurant of the Year. When I spoke to a number of my food friends about the restaurant, I heard plenty of raves, and really no complaints.

Would I fall on Richman's side, or those locals who loved Ribelle? Would I feel intimidated by the restaurant? At the very least, I didn't expect to feel brow-beaten.

Frankly, I don't understand how Richman could have felt intimidated by Ribelle, or why he had such disdain for its cuisine. Accompanied by my good friend Adam Japko, we ordered the Pieno di Degustazione, a 9 course tasting menu priced at $89. I agree with Richman that some of the ingredient combinations on the menu seem unusual, that they are not the norm at many restaurants. However, where Richman uses this as a basis of his criticism, I see it more as an exercise of the chef's creativity and inventiveness. Just because a combination of ingredients hasn't been done before doesn't mean it doesn't work well together. The test of this creativity is always the taste, and I believe Chef Maslow has succeeded.

For both Adam and I, Ribelle impressed, and we felt that it was one of the best meals we had tasted in the Boston area. I think the combinations of each dish generally worked very well together. For example, the Sweetbreads, Coppa, Sage Brown Butter and Celery Root was sublime, simply amazing from the first bite to the last. It is the type of dish I would want to order every time I dined at Ribelle because it was so fantastic.

The pasta dishes, from the Mafalde to the Agnolotti del Plin also were excellent, and I would love to try their pasta tasting menu. Even the Salsify, Black Truffle, Onion, Fennel and Trout Roe (a more unique combination) was delicious.

To me, all of the dishes signified a chef that knew what he was doing, a creative soul who could bring great taste to life in unique new ways. Is the chef cooking in part to please himself? Sure, as I feel it is a personal challenge of the chef to blend such seemingly disparate ingredients into a delicious dish. However, the chef also knows that he must please his customers or his restaurant will fail. And in this case, the chef succeeds on both levels. Did I feel brow-beaten? Not in the least.

There was nothing all all that seemed intimidating. I felt it possessed a more casual, neighborhood feel, with a welcoming ambiance due in part to its open kitchen and communal seating. The servers were all personable and attentive. Did Richman dine at a different restaurant? I just don't understand his criticisms.

So who do you trust? A writer for a national magazine, or local food writers? Have you felt intimidated by Ribelle? Or are you one of the fans of this restaurant, someone who will return time and time again to sample its tasty cuisine?


MC Slim JB said...

The nub of Richman's argument seems to be, "There's a lot of wacky flavor and ingredient and texture combinations going on out there that don't move me. The problem cannot be my own hidebound notions of what is good, but the failures of male chefs that I attribute to their competitiveness and overweening egos. In my world, chefs aren't driven by the desire to pursue some idiosyncratic personal vision and put out something that excites their customers the same way they get excited. It's all just macho dick-swinging."

I find that weirdly cynical in a dry, joyless, airless way for someone who follows the pleasure-creating business. It also makes me wonder: does he actually know any chefs? In the end, this seems like a desperate attempt at relevancy by an increasingly out-of-touch professional who overstayed his welcome on the national scene years ago.

Frederick Wright said...

I'm a lot more intimidated by the long T ride out to Brookline, and the reported high noise levels at Ribelle, than I am by the originality and creativeness of the cuisine. Personally, I've been very eager to try out Tim Maslow's cooking and I'm thrilled that he finally has a place that I can reach by public transportation.

Anonymous said...

I essentially agree with Alan Richman...There's way too much concern with pushing the edge of the envelope and being creative than being accessible and nurturing which is what eating is about....his point about women in the scene is also relevant.