The Side Dish: Are Restaurants Really Worth Their Awards?


Perhaps I set my restaurant reviewing bar a little too high. Perhaps my visit to New York’s Le Bernardin ruined me for all other restaurants. From the attentive service to the friendly staff to the impeccable and outrageously perfect food (not to mention the gorgeous chef) I was completely blown away by my experience. I thought maybe restaurant reviewing could be a gig I could get used to.

On my last visit to Seattle, I made reservations at Canlis. After living in the city for a number of years, I had heard great things about the restaurant, not to mention the outstanding views of Lake Union and the city neighborhoods below. The staff was attentive, the food arrived hot, and the drinks were marvelous (I recommend the ‘Lady in Satin’). But to be honest, the food just wasn’t memorable enough to warrant a return visit. The main dish arrived with overcooked vegetables and the dessert menu, riddled with ice cream offerings despite the January weather, seemed out of place. I couldn’t bear to write a bad review. Maybe the chef was just having an off night.

This weekend, I had a chance to dine at Union. With the chef, Ethan Stowell, nominated for another regional James Beard Award (he was nominated last year as well) I was certainly interested in tasting the food. Touted as a ‘small plate menu’, I ordered three items – the lobster salad; potato gnocchi; and veal tenderloin. Despite the wait time for a drink and placing my order, I still had hope for the food, as a fellow diner confided that Stowell’s restaurants were some of his favorites.

However as each course arrived, I was again dismayed. The lobster salad was drenched in dressing, leaving me sad that I couldn’t actually taste the lobster. The potato gnocchi, with it’s decadent gnocchi bits, was overpowered by a bacon infusion. And the veal tenderloin. Oh, the veal tenderloin. When the plate arrived in front of me, the marvelously friendly Dining Manager described briefly, in the loud dining room, the two pieces of meat on the plate. While I enjoyed the smaller, perfectly cooked, melt-in-your-mouth piece of meat, the other piece was nearly inedible. So tough, I gave up after one bite, concerned I might accidentally fling the plate’s contents onto my lap trying to get my steak knife through. When when the waiter arrived to take the plate, I inquired again as to the selections on my plate. It turned out the smaller piece was a well-cooked piece of tongue (impressively yummy, much to my surprise) and the larger, inedible piece was actually the veal tenderloin. Oy. I nearly cheered when the honey tangerine sorbet arrived as the dessert course. Please, please, clean my palate!

Was this the standard for Union? Sadly, some of my local foodie friends say yes. Complaints in my friend circle ranged from terrible service to repeatedly bad food. I wonder, though, if my experience is similar to others, how could the restaurant be such an award winner? Are food awards really based on the taste of the food or merely the amount of press the restaurant (or chef) has received prior? Could James Beard be going the way of Wine Spectator?

Jennifer Heigls Career Diary of a Caterer

~ Jennifer Heigl

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