Taste Before Pretense | Restaurant Reviews | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Taste Before Pretense 

A second look at our food critic’s very first column—circa March 16, 1994.

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My earliest memorable dining experience is of a simple, but delicious, garlicky flank steak accompanied by a wonderful homemade broth served in a Spanish pension, some 25 years ago in Seville. Since then, I’ve accumulated many such fond memories, from an endless array of grilled meats at a churrascaria in Rio de Janeiro and the comforting cassoulet at Les Halles in New York City, to a delicately spiced soba noodle dish prepared by our family’s housekeeper in Tokyo. What these remarkable dining experiences all share is not exotic locales, but rather the care and attentiveness with which these meals were prepared and served.

As the population of the Wasatch Front grows, the probability of finding carefully cooked meals made from good ingredients increases. As the new dining columnist for the Private Eye Weekly, I’ll seek to inform readers of such eating establishments with a keen eye toward keeping “food snobbery” in check. Snobbery of any kind is tedious and boring. Food snobbism is tedious, boring, and ultimately, expensive. I’m convinced that you don’t have to spend your entire paycheck to find great cuisine in Utah. In fact, the relatively low cost of dining out in Salt Lake City is one of the city’s great attractions.

Good food and good cooking are a struggle for balance and propriety. The use of fresh, high-quality ingredients with creativity and solid technique will usually result in tasty dishes, but not necessarily a pleasant dining experience. For that, we also require deft and attentive service and, ideally, a comfortable setting in which the customer is made to feel like a wanted guest rather than a party crasher.

In searching out good restaurants, we’ll try to stay focused on the genuine rather than the exotic, not to be fooled by pretentiousness, and to have some fun in the process. In the coming months of reviews, I will strictly adhere to one rule of food criticism: I will follow novelist Jim Harrison’s dictum to “never eat a pound of foie gras at one sitting unless, of course, it’s offered to me.”

Fifteen years ago this month—in March of 1994—Ted Scheffler became the restaurant critic for what was then the Private Eye Weekly. Although he considers parts of his very first column, especially the title, “cringeworthy,” we’re reprinting a condensed version of his “mission statement” here to commemorate 15 years of food writing. City Weekly editor Jerre Wroble also sat down with Scheffler to reflect on all those calories.

Jerre Wroble: Fifteen years ago, you talked about focusing on “the genuine.” What was pretentious about dining in 1994? Is it the same today? Have you been able to stave off snobbery?

Ted Scheffler: Remember that, in 1994, televised cooking shows were still primarily the domain of public television. There really weren’t celebrity chefs yet, although Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Tony Bourdain and a few others were beginning to emerge. But that was primarily due to their great restaurants, not TV appeal.

Anyway, back then food writing and restaurant criticism had, I think, a certain elitism associated with it. It was gourmands who wrote about food and wine, and the focus for those critics was on high-end, luxurious restaurants. Of course, it’s a little harder to be snobby about which restaurants you review in a place like Utah, where luxury dining is rare. At any rate, I’ve always gotten as much enjoyment from a good taco-cart meal as I have from dining in uber-posh eateries. So to that extent at least, I’m an equal-opportunity food snob.

JW: Despite your laudable antisnobbery goal, I’ve read a fair number of foie gras mentions in your columns over the years (even here in your first column). Doesn’t foie gras bring you dangerously close to “snob” territory?

TS: Offal? Snobby? Is discussing chicken livers considered snobbery? To me, foie gras has no more snob appeal than scrapple.

JW: Some critics wear disguises when they review restaurants. Why don’t you?

TS: Well, for starters, it’s a little late for that. Plus, I want to be part of the local restaurant/food community, charities and such—involved—not a mysterious secret agent. But I’m rarely recognized in restaurants anyway. I certainly don’t make myself known when I’m reviewing a restaurant. And even if I am spotted, is the food going to be better just because I’m there? If a dish sucks, it’s going to suck for me, too, whether I’m anonymous or not.

JW: You also said the “low cost of dining out in Salt Lake City is one of the city’s great attractions.” Still think so?

TS: Not so much. Unfortunately, prices in Utah’s fine dining restaurants these days equal, and in many cases eclipse, those of great restaurants in New York City, San Francisco, Paris, etc. The fact that restaurateurs have to buy the wine they sell here at what are essentially retail prices, and then mark them up from there, doesn’t help.

JW: Back in 1994, you introduced a three-star system to rate food, service and ambiance at local restaurants. What became of that?

TS: I felt that readers were just focusing on the stars and not the logic of the reviews—the “whys” behind the stars. And how do you compare the Red Iguana, for example, with, say, Takashi? The star system just had an artificial and forced feel to it, for me. So I ditched it.

JW: Any successful chefs or restaurateurs who have been along with you for the ride of the last 15 years?

TS: Well, I don’t want to implicate anyone! But a few names spring to mind. Dave Jones and Greg Neville were the first chefs I ever interviewed, and they’re still going strong. Bill White in Park City and the Gastronomy group in Salt Lake City changed the way we eat in Utah, as did the Olsen family when they opened Metropolitan. I’ve followed Tony Caputo’s rise to fame and fortune since the early days. And I’ve always been impressed by the way Peter Cole and Jeff Polychronis at Squatters manage to combine business with community and environmental concerns. And there are many others …

JW: What was your most popular recipe or cooking technique?

TS: Without a doubt, my much-demanded upside-down Thanksgiving turkey recipe!

JW: Part of your “mission statement” about reviewing restaurants was to “also have some fun in the process.” Are you still having fun?

TS: I get paid to eat and drink. What could be more fun than that? The only way it could be any more fun is if somehow I could work sex into the equation.

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