A few weeks ago, genial Jim Wood, food critic over at the Ex, acknowledged in his Wednesday column that "[a]lert restaurateurs usually recognize me when I arrive."
This isn't exactly shocking news: The paper publishes a color photograph of him at the top of the Epicure section every week. But Wood seems to think that his visibility doesn't matter, because, he writes, even if restaurant staff recognize him when he walks into a place, "it's too late for the chef to land a fresh fish."
True. (Probably.) But it's not too late for the restaurant to supply, discreetly, a number of other perks, such as especially attentive service and preparation of food. Perfect anonymity may indeed be an unattainable state of grace for restaurant reviewers, but it doesn't relieve them of the obligation to try. The reviewer, after all, stands in the shoes of the paying public -- all those people whose faces aren't published in metropolitan newspapers and who won't be given special treatment. They rely on the reviewer to tell them what a place is really like, and whether they should spend their money there.
A reviewer's capital is his credibility, and a large part of that is impartiality, as perceived and in fact. That's why publishers spend the sums they do in sending reviewers -- incognito -- to restaurants. Anonymity and an independent source of funds insulate reviewers from the "invitations" and other temptations that review-hungry restaurants forever tender.
No Rain in Spain
A five-year drought in Spain, the world's largest olive oil producer, is driving prices of the precious fluid steadily upward. According to Jim Langell, manager of the Lucca Ravioli Co. in the Mission, retail prices generally "have doubled in the last six months, and they're likely to rise by another 20 to 30 percent" this spring, while wholesale prices have risen from 50 to 75 percent just since December.
The spike "is temporary," Langell thinks, and should end by the fall, when the next harvest comes in -- if it's a good harvest. But he may be optimistic: The weather isn't the only engine driving olive oil prices higher. There's also GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), whose terms require European governments to reduce subsidies to olive oil producers by the turn of the century. That money will have to come from somewhere else, and the only other source is the consumer.
So far, says Langell, Lucca's olive oil sales not only haven't declined but are actually up. Still, he expects that in coming months, "people will start buying liters instead of gallons -- just enough to get by." Until prices come down, or don't.