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Saturday
Mar012014

The Comedy of the 1 Star Yelp Review

The following are actual comments and all were part of a 1-Star Restaurant Review in Fresno:

“The restaurant’s Grand Opening was on my birthday”

“There were no vegetarian entrée’s…so I left the restaurant”

“We heard this restaurant was the best in town and always busy. We hadn’t eaten all day and were starving and drove a long way from out of town. We didn’t have a reservation, but we decided to wing-it”

 “My boyfriend just got out of prison and we were looking for somewhere special to go”

The French Laundry 1-Star Review

First off, I do not look at Yelp to help me decide where to eat. I read Yelp reviews for entertainment. I don’t know the reviewer, their qualifications, or the frequency of their dining. Therefore, Yelp is not a credible source of information for me. The reviews aren’t verified, they are simply democratized, giving everyone an equal voice to say stupid things.

Take The French Laundry reviews for instance. Yes, even The French Laundry in Yountville/Napa has 1-Star Reviews, several actually. One of the reviews is summed up in 2 sentences, certainly an in-depth and scholarly review.

The Laundry also has several 1-Star Reviews based upon the fact that a reviewer couldn’t get a reservation there. No kidding? The restaurant books up one month in advance and has done so now for over 10 years. Get a clue!

The Laundry also has several complaints for being overpriced. Really? An expensive dinner at The French Laundry? You don’t say.

Like I said, Yelp reviews are entertainment, nothing more. As such, I’d like to highlight a few entertaining reviews and themes of the Fresno restaurant reviewer.

The Special Occasion Dinner combined with High Expectations

“We were so excited about going to the Bon Jovi concert after dinner”

“It was our first time at this restaurant and it will be our last”

The Fresno reviewer is often specific about the event and the emotions surrounding the event for which they are celebrating with a dinner at a restaurant; “It was my husband’s 50th birthday” or “It was our anniversary”.  Even better, “It was Valentine’s Day, Christmas Eve, Easter Sunday and we couldn’t believe how busy it was”.

You’re an idiot if you think it won’t be busy at a restaurant on Valentine’s Day. The WORST restaurant in Fresno will be busy on Valentine’s Day. The worst restaurant in Antarctica will be busy on Valentine's Day. Morons.

Often the 50th Birthday or Valentine's Day dinner is combined with another key piece of information “it was our first time dining at this highly rated restaurant” or “all the reviews said this place was the best.” So a double whammy of your special occasion combined with high expectations concluding in the ultimate letdown and the inevitable 1-Star Review because "everything fell apart", "can't believe we were treated this way", "didn't pay attention to us".

To a credible restaurant reviewer, showing up to give a definitive review for a restaurant on Valentine’s Day or Christmas Eve is a joke.  Secondly, showing up on a single night and have that single night, define a restaurant forever is pedestrian and stupid, not professional. Thirdly, the reviewer’s birthday, anniversary or special occasion is a meaningless review item to everyone else except the reviewer. I want a restaurant to treat everyone, every day with a high level of service and food quality, not just on my birthday. I want to feel special every time I walk into a restaurant, regardless of the occasion.

Do you know how important I am?

Another popular 1-Star review commentary in Fresno (and other places) is the oh so important “I’ve been coming to the restaurant for years” or “I regularly come here for business meetings”.

The 'I'm a big thing' type of 1-Star review seemingly gives credibility to the reviewer with the ignorant or ill-informed Yelp reader.  How does one verify that the reviewer has been going to the restaurant they reviewed for “years”?

Faith? Jedi Powers?

How many visits to the restaurant has the reviewer taken? Two? Three? 50? Am I supposed to take 'the big shot reviewer's' word for it? Has the reviewer left any critical information out? Was the reviewers 8-top table on time for their reservation or were they 40 minutes late? Did they bring an infant to the dinner? Was everyone around the table an "exception"? Meaning, gluten-free, shellfish allergy, dairy-free, vegan, vegetarian, nut free? Or in the words of Pearl Jam, "center of their own attention" type of table?

Remember, there's always another side to the story and on Yelp we rarely hear the other side of the story...the restaurant side of the story.

Why? Because there's generally no upside for the restaurant to write a rebuttal. Simple cost/benefit analysis. 

Fresnans want BIGGER portions for LESS money and MORE Parking

“The restaurant is overpriced for (take your pick): the small portions, a small sandwich, ratio of meat to bread, a bowl of pasta, a steak”

“I’ve had better: pasta, sandwiches, burgers at…Olive Garden, Subway, McDonalds”

“This review is NOT based on the food. There was no parking. So we left.”

Parking seems to be an issue with Fresnans. In fact, some 1-Star reviews of restaurants never make it out of the parking lot. No discussion of food and service, so I have no idea if the reviewer has eaten the food, because all they mentioned in the review was a lack of parking. Try living in San Francisco or New York; there is never any parking. 

The 1 Star No Parking review is useless in grading the restaurant. It's informative, that's all.

I don’t really know what to say about the perceived value question, other than returning to my introduction about The French Laundry. Everyone should know by now that The French Laundry is very, very expensive. If you think that all meals should be judged by the portions you serve yourself at home (rather than by quality of ingredients or skill in cooking a meal sous vide) and the price you pay at Costco, then you probably shouldn’t go out to dinner.

How much meat do you need in your sandwich to justify a $5 or $8 price tag for a sandwich? A pound of meat? You do know that the deli needs to make a profit, right? And pay employees to make it? And pay their lease? I hear what you’re saying 'Mr. Value for the Money' 1-Star Reviewer, you want to buy a sandwich from the best deli in town, with one pound of meat, with all the toppings on a soft-Subway style roll for the cost of the sandwich and nothing more? Hate to break it to you…ain’t gonna happen.

I'm tired of your complaining! So I have a suggestion Mr. Subway/Macaroni Grill/Chipotle Guy. Since you can buy food at the grocery store cheaper and I’m sure you do a great job of cooking tri-tip at home or you buy your deli meat from Food-Maxx in a 5 pound pre-sealed plastic bag; I would suggest making yourself a sandwich at home and taking it to work, since your home-made Sammy is better than the Fresno deli you went to today. 

But of course the same person that had the 'Best sandwich EVER at Subway last week, because it's a great value', also drinks a Venti drip coffee from Starbucks and buys bottled water by the case at Costco. You know, because there's great 'value for the money' at Starbucks and in bottled water.

I’d like to thank Yelp and Fresno for helping me laugh a little this week.

Just so everyone knows…“My boyfriend just got out of prison and we were looking for somewhere special to go” is not a real comment on Yelp. This one is a joke, but I wanted it to be true…I made this one up. But maybe, I just didn’t look long and hard enough. I should have checked Yelp Folsom or Corcoran, CA.

Wednesday
Jan292014

Fresno Food Truck Challenge: $4 Toast

Knowing a little something about Fresno, I doubt that $4 or $6 toast has a long-term home here in the Central Valley. And let's be clear, a $4 or $6 piece of toast in San Francisco is serious business, freshly ground flour, freshly made bread, artisanal cheese, etc. I've been fascinated with the number of articles written about the hipster, techy, $4 toast craze.

However, Fresno Food Trucks need a gimmic, a competition, a headline now and again and $4 Toast might be an interesting one.

The $4 Fresno Food Truck Toast Challenge should be held at Bella Frutta on a Saturday and the food trucks MUST pick an ingredient, at least one, from all the products Bella Frutta sells at the store to feature on their toast. I don't care if the toast is technically bruschetta and they use Enzo Olive Oil, bruschetta is just a fancy Italian word for toast with toppings anyway.

Or, the food trucks could make a version of their own Nutella, chocolate and hazelnut spread with Bella Frutta chocolate covered nuts. I'd personally like an almond based chocolate spread from the chocolate covered nuts regularly sold at Bella Frutta.

I'll add one more wrinkle, all the food trucks MUST use Max's Bread. This puts all the trucks on an equal footing. No "ringers" coming in to bake bread or sourcing from some sneaky source. At least this time.

But, if the truck wants to source cheese or produce from another local source other than Bella Frutta, be my guest. Each piece of toast must have a single ingredient from Bella Frutta, that's all.

So now we've got everything in place and everyone wins: 

  1. Local Food Trucks (the regular crowd at Bella Frutta)
  2. Local Bread (Max's)
  3. Local Fruit and Nut and Olive Oil Supplier (Bella Frutta)

Local, Local, Local, Organic, Organic, Organic. It's going to be nearly impossible to screw up this menu.

IT'S TOAST!

Maybe charge $2 for one piece of toast and $4 for two pieces of toast, instead of San Francisco prices.

Just your friendly, neighborhood Cured Ham throwing it out there representing the bored-to-death food bloggers in Fresno who escaped to Instagram in 2013. Really...we're tired of eating tri-tip and bread pudding...again and again.

What's the downside? Burnt toast?

 

Wednesday
Jan152014

Valley Water Shortage Targets Pasta

From the elderly to toddlers, pasta is the ubiquitous feel good meal. Who doesn’t love Mac n’Cheese? Or spaghetti and meatballs? Or fettuccini alfredo? Some of the best known and most frequented restaurants in Fresno and the Valley are Italian.

“I look forward to Friday night at DiCicco’s and their spaghetti”, says John Smith, an 80 year old Valley resident and retiree.

But Mr. Smith may have to start eating rice and bread instead of pasta in just a matter of days.

A recent study from the University of Bratislava performed a 20 year experiment in Italy, the home of pasta, and found that an extended family of 38 Italians will use more water to boil pasta in a single year on average, than a brand spankin’ new nuclear reactor heavy water tank in Germany.

Additionally, the study indicated that during the Easter and Christmas seasons, Italians, according to the study, “use more water on pasta than a single Fresno residential home on their 2.4 acre front lawn during summer and all of the Jack’s Car Wash Centers COMBINED.”

Why the University of Bratislava used Fresno in the comparative study for water waste is beyond the knowledge of this blogger, because I always have plenty of water to wash my Lexus. What's the issue...but I digress. This article is about PASTA WASTE WATER!

Valley Water People are quick to cite the University of Bratislava study and have made pasta their Number 1 Bogey Man….today.

 “It has reached crisis levels. Millions and Billions of gallons of fresh water are wasted each day in restaurants throughout the Central Valley on boiling pasta.” says Holten Jameson, spokesperson for the Valley Water People.

Valley Water People are gently and lovingly, but with little understanding, reaching out to Italian restaurants in an effort to find solutions to this water crisis. A Blue Ribbon Panel of academics, bureaucrats, and activists have been assigned to help restaurants figure out a way to cook pasta without water or find an alternative to pasta.

“It’s a challenge,” says Enzo Rossi owner of a Fresno Italian restaurant. “I’m considering moving back to Italy or maybe moving to Argentina…how do you cook pasta without water?” But Valley Water People experts insist it’s possible, but they really have no clue how to do it. It’s a Blue Ribbon Panel of Experts though.

One alternative proposed by the Valley Water People Blue Ribbon Panel of Experts is a phase-out period of pasta into rice based dishes as a compromise.

Another proposal from Downtown advocates is to have a “Pasta Zone”, where pasta would be cooked in boiling water within the confines of Downtown Fresno to help with revitalization.

Says one Downtown advocate, “We want the children to see how pasta is cooked in an efficient, carbon neutral environment.”

“Rice is more efficient at absorbing all the water in the cooking vessel than pasta.” said Dr. Dewey Chetum, President of the Blue Ribbon Panel. “There should be a Valley wide effort to get people to understand rice based dishes will help reduce water consumption in the Valley. I mean, who doesn’t love a properly cooked risotto?” Dr. Chetum explains that he is also on the gluten-free trend (he was on Atkins in the late 90's) and doesn’t even like pasta, but that in no way biases his judgement.

A blockade of all pasta in stores was considered initially, but rejected as too harsh by the Blue Ribbon Panel.

Another version of the "Pot" farm

Fresno Police are already on alert for: backyard and underground “Boilers”, where potential contraband, large format stainless steel pots are used to boil water for pasta. "This could be a bigger problem than meth labs," says an un-named officer.

The officer stated that the way the proposal is written, the possession of pasta was not illegal nor is the buying, selling, or intent to sell pasta, merely boiling it in water or the possession of a 2 or more liter stainless pot to boil the water is deemed illegal and punishable to the fullest extent of the law.

A second measure considered by the Valley Water People was a “buy-back” program of pots and pans able to hold more than two liters of water. Additionally from Holten Jameson, “We wanted to be fair to restaurants and offer them cold-hard-cash for their large pots and pans. If we take away their pots and pans, we take away the problem, right?”

Water is a precious resource for my front lawn and keeping my Lexus clean here in the Valley, residents shouldn’t be wasting it on pasta.

Disclaimer…this post is obviously satire because of this article.

Tuesday
Jan072014

Missing Persons Report: Fresno Food Blogging

The Cured Ham is filing a missing persons report for the Central San Joaquin Valley…several Fresno food bloggers have gone missing in recent months.

Be on the lookout for 30-40 year old males and females with active camera phones, arthritic thumbs, gout ridden limps, and an overly eager sense of “localism” when asking about a restaurant menu. Some reports indicate that missing food bloggers can be found on Instagram, Twitter, and Yelp rather than publishing critical thoughts over 150 characters in length.

Food blogging takes time. Eating at restaurants takes time and money. Taking decent pictures takes practice. Writing critical articles about another boring sandwich, pizza, or taco takes inspiration. It’s a hell of a lot easier to Instagram or Tweet a quick photo and blurb about the meal you just ate without any critical regard for the food or the service.

And yes, I’m guilty, I haven't written much of anything critical recently.

I was reading through Yelp reviews recently, wondering if the food bloggers went there, all I found was ratings inflation and unhelpful nonsense. A one line comment and a 5 star rating is useless. Even worse, a 5 star rating with a negative comment about service; if there is a problem with service how can your experience be 5 stars? Useless.

Fresno Bites, a prolific food blogger, friend, and BBQ junkie hasn’t posted much of anything recently…EXCEPT on Twitter and Instagram, where he posts frequently. I trust Bites opinion. I certainly trust his Jedi instincts regarding BBQ. I’ve eaten his hand-crafted BBQ ribs and they are delicious. I also understand Bites has other interests, a family, a job, and home to deal with. He can’t take 2 hours to write an article or food review once a week. He tweeted something recently about Fresno’s newest restaurant, Westwood’s BBQ, so I know he’s keeping up on popular trends.

Maybe Bites is bored.

Maybe he’s ‘been there, done that’ when it comes to Fresno food blogging.

Perhaps Fresno Food Bloggers aren’t to blame. Perhaps the lack of new Fresno restaurants worthy of reviewing is to blame.

Fresnans…what’s changed in the Fresno dining scene in the last year or two? What has made an IMPACT?

Yes, yes, there have been some restaurant openings ranging from BBQ to Fine Dining, but how many of those restaurants or food trucks are going to make a difference in town? A dozen? Probably less than that.

So what’s a Fresno Food Blogger to do?

Review Elbow Room again? Why? For those that don’t know…The Elbow Room isn’t going anywhere. The Bow will be there as long as it wants to be there. It has a proven formula and a dedicated following from age 21 to 91. End of blogging discussion.

I love Me N’Ed’s pizza! I have said so since I was probably 4 years old. I know Me N’Ed’s pizza commentary by The Cured Ham can incite violence. Guess what Fresno Food Bloggers? Me N’Ed’s isn’t going anywhere either. I don’t care if you think their pizza sucks and that there is no good pizza for 200 miles around Fresno. In the words of WWE Wrestler The Rock…"It doesn’t matter what you think!" Me N’Ed’s will probably outlive most people in Fresno. Once again…end of blogging discussion. 

  • Cracked Pepper’s bread pudding? Yes, it’s good. End of discussion.
  • Trelio, best wine list in town. End of discussion.
  • Parma, yep, fresh pasta. End of discussion.

The days of writing about cutting edge food trucks in Fresno is over.

A couple years ago, Fresno food bloggers were writing regularly about food trucks. Food trucks in Fresno are somewhere near 14 minutes and 58 seconds of fame, quickly being regarded as simply part of the Fresno landscape rather than avant garde. Where’s the outrage against parking in the street anymore? Oh, that’s right, there isn’t any outrage anymore and as a result, no headlines. What truck is pushing the envelope of food? Where are the reports of hour-long lines for a sandwich on a Tuesday?

Food Trucks are in North Fresno / Clovis every week and at Tailgates (Thanks Ricchiuti Family)!…What better indication that they have reached mainstream acceptance!

Food Trucks in Fresno are quickly becoming the snowboard culture on the slopes; different ski, hipster outfit, younger crowd and the IDEA of being different or counter culture. But here’s the rub…snowboarders pay the same lift fee as everyone else, cruise the same slope as everyone else, stand in the same lift line as everyone else and get off the slope the same time as everyone else…Guess what? Snowboarders are just like everyone else with a different ski at mainstream big-time resorts like Vail, Aspen and Telluride.

Fresno gourmet food trucks are simply restaurants that serve food out of a truck for lunch. In the eyes of Fresnans, food trucks are quickly becoming a mobile Sam’s Deli, Deli Delicious, or Fresno Bagel.

Congratulations Fresno Food Trucks! You’ve made it! The bad news? You’ve made it. Now you’ve got to slug it out with the brick and mortars and they have air conditioning in summer and you don’t.

So what’s a Fresno food blogger to do?

Open an Instagram account, use those cool, preset filters to make average photography look hip in one touch. Keep the conversation light, use plenty of superlatives when talking about a sandwich, love your neighbor, and don’t review things with a critical eye or palate because then you’re a hater. In other words…be boring, average, regular, typical, and most of all…quiet.

But it’s totally fine to talk about the worst meal you ever had in your entire life on a recent trip OUTSIDE of Fresno. Because that’s ok.

Happy New Year Fresnans! Now let’s all go out and eat fried calamari, sweet potato fries with ranch, tri-tip sandwiches and hope our favorite menu doesn’t change from 2013!

Thursday
Nov282013

Parmigiano Reggiano Tasting

A Reposted blog entry from Mastro Scheidt Family Cellars

As a winemaker, we are built to talk about terroir. Terroir, is the French term to describe the place of origin, a unique set of descriptors for a wine from a specific region, vineyard, or vineyard block. Cabernet Sauvignon from a specific vineyard in Dry Creek Valley has a unique terroir different from a vineyard in Napa. 

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

In the same vein as a wine tasting, I attended a cheese tasting sponsored by the Parmigiano Reggiano Academy at Cookhouse in San Francisco. I didn’t know what to expect from a cheese tasting. I’ve been to countless wine tastings for 20 years, arranged by everyone from the local wine shop to events sponsored by a particular viticultural region. I always learn something, either about my own palate or about the wine being drunk.

Photo by The Cured Ham, Parma, Italy 2009

The focus of the Parmigiano tasting was to sample Parmigiano Reggiano aged 14-18 months, 24 months (Vecchio), 36 months (Stravecchio), directly from the wheel and incorporated with food. Chef Jordan Schacter of Jordan’s Kitchen in San Francisco, prepared an entire menu of Parmigiano heavy, small plates ranging from a Parmigiano crisp pizza to Parmigiano polenta topped with sugo. My personal favorite Parmigiano inspired dish of the night? Parmigiano and mushroom accented brodo.

Why would anyone consider Parmigiano Reggiano a homogenous branded cheese from Italy?

If I were to tell a fellow wine maker or sommelier that all Cabernet Sauvignon, aged for 12 months from the Sonoma County AVA is basically the same product, I’d get some real funny looks.

But that's exactly what many of us do when we speak generically of Parmigiano. And here's why...

An accurate definition of Parmigiano Reggiano and a good enough answer for most would be that Parmigiano Reggiano is produced exclusively in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and parts of the provinces of Mantua and Bologna, on the plains, hills and mountains enclosed between the rivers Po and Reno, made exclusively of cow’s milk, made with natural rennet and aged a minimum of 12 months.

But the answer above only describes the minimum requirements to be called Parmigiano Reggiano. 

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

For the Parmigiano tasting at Cookhouse, the focus of the evening was on the age of the cheese, from 14 months to 36 month. Parmigiano at 36 months is certainly drier in mouth feel, has a more crumbly texture, and greater intensity of flavor that a 14 month old wheel. A 14 month Parmigiano could easily be described as creamy. Each cheese maturity level can also have different applications in the culinary world, with younger cheeses playing a supporting role in polenta, while a stravecchio parmigiano a leading role on a cheese plate with balsamico.

Beyond the sensory and maturity characteristics we focused on that evening, I began to become even more curious about the specific origins of Parmigiano Reggiano. 

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

384 dairies are responsible for all of the Parmigiano production, globally distributed, of which 34% is exported to countries like the United States. Each dairy produces milk throughout the year from various cows, in various regions, independently of each other.

Each dairy will have variations in cows, harvest, feed, temperature, etc.  Similarly in the production of wine, there are variations in soil type, fertilization, sun aspect, and temperature. Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 7 grown in Alexander Valley, while genetically the same as Cabernet Clone 7 grown in Dry Creek Valley will have dramatically different flavors even if harvested on the same day each year, even if only grown 5 miles apart. Conditions vary from region to region, town to town, winery to winery, winemaker to winemaker. In the case of Parmigiano, conditions vary from dairy to dairy and cow to cow throughout the region of Emilia Romagna.

If there are 384 dairies, how many different cheese makers are there? One for each dairy? Again, the analogy to wine makers is appropriate and accurate. No matter the minimum production standard, each cheese maker has learned a technique, timing, and “feel” differently than their counterparts at other dairies, just like wine makers. 

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest

With all the potential variables for each wheel of Parmigiano, why do so many consumers and cheese mongers generalize Parmigiano Reggiano as some homogenized product; albeit hand-made and of the utmost quality? Various conditions exist in raising cattle as they do in winemaking; yet a sommelier would never consider all Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County homogenized. That would be blasphemy! It’s actually a disservice to generalize and homogenize Parmigiano Reggiano into a monolithic hard Italian cheese.

A few basic distinctions when consuming and buying Parmigiano Reggiano: 

  • Milk comes from Red Cows, Brown Cows and Holsteins. Certain dairies will stamp their certified Parmigiano wheels with a secondary brand, indicating place of origin and the type of cow used for milk. Red and Brown cow milk is more highly prized and more rare than Parmigiano made from Holsteins.
  • Cows are milked throughout the year, causing seasonal variations in the milk, spring versus winter milks, and the diet of the cows from dairy to dairy can vary. Each wheel of Parmigiano is stamped by month, to ensure the 12 month minimum aging requirement, but nothing more.
  • There is no legal certification beyond 12 months of aging. Dairies, exporters, and your local cheese monger may or may not know and is under no obligation to disclose the various ages of the cheese. However, there is an obvious difference in flavor, texture, and visual appearance between a 14 month and a 36 month piece of cheese. 

After a couple hours eating, discussing, and analyzing Parmigiano Reggiano I have a new respect, understanding, and inquisitiveness about The King of Italian Cheeses and the vast kingdom of Parmigiano Reggiano.

Just as I never take Cabernet Sauvignon from Dry Creek Valley for granted, I will never take another purchase of Parmigiano Reggiano for granted either.

Photo by Stephanie Seacrest