Fork U

Everyone's a critic on KQED's restaurant show Check, Please!

It was the briefest of brief encounters, but in an instant I understood that I'd wounded him to the quick. "Eaten anyplace good lately?" was the usual question from Dan, who I knew worked somewhere on the business side of the paper I used to write for, and who liked to try Los Angeles' unusual ethnic holes in the wall. This time, instead of enthusing about Salvadoran pupusas or Korean bulgogi, I replied, "No, alas. I've just finished a piece about a really awful new Cajun-Creole place on Sunset." His face fell, and he uttered a name. "Yeah," I replied. "We just sold them a quarter-page ad for the next six months," he explained, an ad we were sure would be canceled a day after the piece came out. Suddenly his face brightened. "I always tell them," he said, "it's just one person's opinion!"

Well, it's three persons' opinions on Check, Please! Bay Area, a restaurant review show that debuted on KQED in November of last year, a local version of a show created by WTTW, a public television station in Chicago. The original is often cited as WTTW's most popular program, and has been on long enough to generate a database of "favorite" eateries numbering about 170 -- including, one cannot help but notice, a place named Earwax, listed right above Ed Debevic's, a strenuously '50s-themed chain of diners that no one in his right mind could choose as his favorite restaurant.

Or, as the bet is hedged in the KQED program's introduction, "one of their favorite spots." In the 10 shows that have aired locally so far, these favorites have ranged from ethnic and inexpensive (Anh Hong, Burma Superstar, ViKs Chaat Corner) through moderate neighborhood places (Firefly, Universal Cafe) to expensive destination restaurants (Lark Creek Inn, Manresa). Each of the three "regular people" eats at the choices of the other two, incognito, and then they all gather around a table -- curiously set with plates and silverware that are never used, though the wineglasses get a good workout -- and discuss their opinions, moderated by a perky blonde who has authored a couple of books about wine.

Inside & Out: The cozy Antica Trattoria drew us in.
James Sanders
Inside & Out: The cozy Antica Trattoria drew us in.

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Antica Trattoria

Burrata with peppers $10

Asparagus with Gorgonzola sauce $9

Braised duck $16.50

Tiramisu $6

Cha Cha Cha

Fried calamari $8

Fried platanos $7.50

Cajun shrimp $9

Antica Trattoria, 2400 Polk (at Union), 928-5797. Open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10:30 p.m. Closed Monday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult. Muni: 19, 41, 45. Noise level: high.

Cha Cha Cha, 1801 Haight (at Shrader), 386-5758. Open for lunch daily from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11:30 p.m. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: moderately difficult. Muni: 7, 33, 43, 71. Noise level: high.

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There's a sociological or psychological term paper begging to be written about the interactions of the group; rarely are the reviewers out for blood, and a curious gentility sometimes sets in, as they maneuver not to hurt each other's feelings (or those of the restaurateurs, who are given their own separately filmed segments in which they describe their food and ambience). Most objections appear to be lodged about authenticity (to which I always want to say, "But did it taste good?"), and once it was about the fact that a restaurant was part of a chain (to which I would say the same). Although things never quite devolve into the "Jane, you ignorant slut!" level of invective that makes for good television, I did treasure the sniffiness of the guy I call Vegetable Snob, who felt the need to remind us several times that he's used to much fresher provender purchased at the farmers' markets (which, it seemed, he had only recently discovered).

A kerfuffle erupted on Chowhound.com not long ago when one of those "regular people," also a regular on the site, posted about his experience, which included the information that his first five choices, all in the East Bay, were rejected by the show's producers (Pizzaiolo as being too new, Chef Gregoire for having no ambience, and three for being too similar to restaurants already reviewed: Ajanta, too much like ViKs -- odd in that the former is upscale and does elaborate cooking and the latter is a dive featuring street snacks; Nellie's, because of Hard Knox; and Café Colucci, similar to the Red Sea). At which point he threw up his hands and chose Aziza, in San Francisco, writing, "[Y]es, I love Aziza for that certain occasion, it just isn't my 'favorite' restaurant, the type of place that I go to regularly and feel like I'm at home while dining." Chowhounders were also surprised to learn from him that the person who had chosen Pisces hadn't been there in over a year and felt it had gone downhill but was asked by the producers to be positive in her comments. (Still, he ended his post with, "I encourage all of my fellow Hounds to try out for Check Please," proving once again that the lowest common denominator, as a friend says, is a free meal. Not to mention a little television exposure.)

I've dined at about half of the places the show has covered, and though a picture may be worth a thousand words (give or take), I'm surprised at how the brightly lit shots of the restaurant interiors don't correspond to my memories of them. (I do, however, envy the program's ability to insert shots of the dishes as they're being described, one up on the cell phone photos now so prevalent on blogs.) When my Canadian houseguests, Martin and Bernadette, request an Italian meal -- "Italian seafood, maybe?" -- I think back to one of the first episodes, which featured Antica Trattoria, whose straightforward, cozy, wood-paneled dining room with white-linened tables has looked appealing whenever I've driven or walked past. There's not as much seafood on the menu as I had expected (I guess it's all down the street at its sister restaurant, the excellent Pesce, which features Venetian cichetti, small plates), but we start with a brightly dressed salad of assorted shellfish with curly frisée, plump gnocchi in pesto, burrata cheese served with a ratatouillelike relish of roasted peppers, and an irresistible shared plate of perfectly cooked green and white asparagus covered with a chunky Gorgonzola sauce described as zabaglione. My friends have never tasted burrata, a fresh mozzarella-esque cheese with an exceptionally creamy and buttery heart, and they are entranced by it.

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