Simply The Best?

This is gonna be a long one, you guys. So either strap yourself in or grab your TL;DR parachute and bail out now, while the getting’s good.

It seems timely, the day that The Coast releases its annual “Best of Halifax” list to talk about the fact that the past month has seen the release of two impactful “best of” lists that focus on Canadian restaurants. This past week, enRoute released their annual overview of what they feel are the 10 Best New Restaurants in the country. And, of course, this past month Maclean’s released their list of their 50 Best Restaurants in Canada.

There is nothing simpler than a list. Anybody can make one. Just pick a few criteria and bam: one, two, three, four, however many more. Here’s an example:

Things that are great about lists:

  1. They are easy to read
  2. They are easy to write
  3. They provoke discussions

Oh, wait. Maybe you don’t find lists easy to write. Or maybe you hate reading them. But you know what? I don’t care. It’s my list.

And so we come to Jacob Richler.

Richler is the food editor at Maclean’s. He’s worked as the food critic at the National Post and contributed to magazines like GQ and Toronto Life. He’s worked with Susur Lee and Mark McEwan. He loves food. And he also, it seems, loves controversy.

It’s right there on his website, a quote from Sondra Gotleib that nobody would ever remember if he didn’t use it to advertise himself: “He is highly knowledgeable, acutely discriminating, loves controversy and takes no prisoners.”

When I ask him about whether or not he lets that seeming love of controversy inform his content, he tells me: “you might say that it informs the way I write. But I’m not sure how you can approach food while informed by loving controversy. How would that work exactly?”

Hmm. Let me think.

How it would work, I guess I would say, is that your make sweeping comments about regions like the East Coast, say, in The Globe and Mail. Comments like “the Maritimes is a culinary sad sack, or at least it has been for years. Their crimes against seafood are particularly egregious.”

Yep. That’d do it.

So as much as lists are easy to read, easy to write, and provoke discussions, they can also court controversy. Or at least irritation.

There actually isn’t anything particularly outrageous about the list in Maclean’s. At first glance it was like reading an RSS feed from Trip Advisor or a “Canada Restaurant Good” Google search result. The only thing that really called for any obvious side-eye was the omission of a few notable, capital-G greats, like Joe Beef. This was pretty easily chalked up to your standard “I heard it first on vinyl” bullshit that inevitably rears its head when any genre snob makes a list. This stuff exists if only to tell people who arrive late to a still raging party that no matter what you see around you, this party is, in fact, over for anybody in the know.

Honestly, this list seemed lazy more than it seemed controversial. I’d even go so far as to say that the inclusion of Fid and the Bicycle Thief felt like a shrug of the shoulders meant to appease Haligonians, like throwing an acclaimed politician from last year’s mayoral run a victory party after this year’s election.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that these aren’t good restaurants or even good picks for this list. I’m just wondering, as someone who has eaten at my fair share of Nova Scotian restaurants, how these restaurants were chosen when Fleur de Sel—a restaurant that is inarguably one of the best restaurants in Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada, and arguably the definitive “Best Restaurant” in Nova Scotia—was overlooked. That kind of omission, at least from the trees in my neck of the woods, throws shade on the whole list.

But I throw shade at a lot of lists. For instance, I barely ever agree with the list made up of reader opinions in the annual “Best of Food” issue of The Coast. Just like readers don’t always agree with my reviews in that paper. And just like readers may not have agreed with the three restaurants I named as some of the “Best New Restaurants” in Halifax in 2011. I get it: we’re all right and we’re all wrong. Lists! The great equalizer!

But when the editor who curated a list that spans the entirety of Canada goes on to say “Atlantic Canada is a culinary sad sack,” and, in an interview with Stephanie Domet on CBC Mainstreet comes across as cagily trying to imply/deny that tokenism had a play in the inclusion of Maritime restaurants—it became more important to me to find out how these kinds of lists, these kinds of choices, are being made in that particular list. I can’t help it. I know no good will come of it, but I’m my own worst enemy. When I name the new McDonald’s in Dartmouth Crossing as the Best New Restaurant of 2012 in this year’s Coast issue (spoiler alert!), I’m sure I’ll have my own annoying Melissa B. writing a blog post that is just a 2500 word thumbs down emoji. The die is cast!

In our emails, Richler does get into his process a bit. “You can only judge a restaurant based on what it is trying to achieve,” he says. “You say a bistro doesn’t measure up because the lamb is not as tender as it is at Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV. That’s just not relevant. You compare it to the best bistro you know of, and if it is very, very close, then they are doing a great job and not just a good one.”

“Cool, cool, cool,” I think at first. But then wouldn’t it also be irrelevant to compare the fine dining in a city of 400,000 or  a province of less than 200,000—in a region with socio-economic and geographical resources that are so incredibly different—to that found in cities like Toronto or Vancouver? Wouldn’t you have to judge a restaurant not only on what it is trying to achieve, but on what it is able to achieve? When does something become relevant?

Or maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s the basic common ground. That, at least, seems to be the basis Richler is using.

“Restaurants are the sum of many parts. You also have to remember to think of everything from wine lists to ambience, decor and service. To be great you have to do an awful lot of things right. But most places don’t do anything right so good is usually more than good enough.”

Ok. Now we’re cooking. Yes. Yes. Yes. WHOA. The common ground is how much restaurants suck? Yikes. “Good is usually more than good enough?” WHOA! Also: YIKES!

This is where I start (ok, this is where I continue) to have some major problems with the foundation of Maclean’s, and Richler’s, list. If straight out of the gate Richler has to grade “good” restaurants on some crazy curve, then why even bother to name best restaurants? How can anyone at Maclean’s stand up straight, with pride, over this list if it’s perfunctory at its own best, making exceptions within its own narrative and creating plot holes in its own story about Great Restaurants in Canada? You can’t stand up straight if you don’t have a backbone.

And, honestly—disappointingly—Richler doesn’t seem to have one beyond the a few snappy soundbytes. I had hoped that we could have a great, honest, deep conversation about what he sees as lacking in the Maritimes. This is a smart guy that has a great food background. A guy that seemed to be starting a conversation with this list and his little zings. I wanted to know where he had eaten, what his experiences have been, and how he understands our local food and food culture. Instead of specifics, I got a vague blurb citing “few times” and “other years.”

“I’ve been visiting the Maritimes since I was a child,” Richler says. “I used to go salmon fishing on the Restigouche (and other rivers) with my Dad. Nowadays there are years when work gets me out there a few times, and other years when I don’t get out there at all.  I haven’t a clue how many times I’ve been all told, but this summer I passed through Chester, Lunenburg, Halifax, St John’s and up through the Bonavista peninsula.”

As for where he’s eaten and what he has had, he has the same vague not-niceties to offer, citing “many bad experiences and countless bowls of gluey chowder and of overcooked fish and seafood. But things are coming along, and I had better experiences on my last visit than any previous visit I can remember.”

I am, frankly, disappointed that the entire conversation is limited to chowder and lobster. This—because of the vagueness, I’ll admit—feels more like a conversation with someone who just got off of the latest Disney Cruise to dock in Halifax, not someone who is really taking a serious look at restaurant culture here. While tourism and good food do intersect, I have no qualms in saying that they are definitely not wholly one and the same, no matter how many associations and marketing programs might exist to try to tell me they are.

But where was that gluey chowder? Who knows. And where were the better experiences? Beats me. Too bad nobody can better themselves or celebrate their achievements based on this media feeding frenzy. This feedback is as useful as a movie review that says “I saw a comedy, it was not great.” For someone who writes about food and reviews and rates restaurants, he seems reticent to offer real feedback. Instead:

“How about rather than offending various little restaurants one-by-one, which I have thus far intentionally avoided doing, we have a quick look at the largest single retailer/wholesaler of seafood in the Maritimes, which I believe is Clearwater.”

I’d rather offend the restaurants and have a real conversation about restaurants, producers and food in this region, and find out where he’s been eating and whether he travels like a tourist or a critic, but fine. Lobster it is.

“Most everyone who passes through your hometown of Halifax picks up a lobster at the Clearwater shop,” Richler says. “The box they take the lobster home in—and for that matter the Clearwater website—instructs the purchaser to cook a 2-3 pound lobster like so: bring 4-6 litres of salted water to a vigorous boil, add lobster, return to a vigorous boil, then boil for 20-25 minutes. So, let’s say the average stove top element would take five minutes to return the water to a boil (which is optimistic). We would then be cooking a three pound lobster for approximately  30 minutes, right?”

“Now for argument’s sake,” Richler points towards Thomas Keller, who he calls “easily North America’s most revered chef, ever. He instructs that a three pound lobster be plunged into formerly boiling water (off heat) for about three minutes, then have its claws removed, which should then be returned to the water (still off heat) for four or five minutes more. Then you shell the lobster and gently poach it in emulsified butter at 80 degrees F for a couple of minutes until heated through.”

“So, by my count, your major NS wholesaler/retailer wants lobster cooked at a temperature 20-30 hotter than what Keller recommends,” says Richler. “And for roughly 300-400% longer. Given that I’ve never noticed rioting Haligonians waving placards outside Clearwater stores, it seems possible that locals do not consider this vulcanizing approach to be a reprehensible crime against seafood. But I do.”

As I said to Richler, I don’t know a single local person who buys their lobster in a Clearwater box or reads and sticks to their cooking instructions. Not that there aren’t any Atlantic Canadians who do—of course there are, just like there are people in Alberta who buy beef at Loblaw’s only to take it home and turn it into a strip of leather. This, to me, is like saying that the pecorino you pick up in the Rome airport isn’t the greatest, so nobody knows how to make cheese in Italy. Or that Kraft tells you to cook their Dinner for too long. Basically: the instructions on a retailer’s box have nothing to do with the decisions or skills of restaurant chefs or even home cooks. And, frankly, if we judged every city by it’s airport and the things we bought there, we would all hate every city and snow globes would have a seriously bad rap.

At the end of the day, though, it’s all subjective. Especially when you’re making a list.

“Subjectivity plays a part,” Richler says of list-making, “But there are correct ways of cooking things—which means that there is a wrong way, too. Not a matter of taste—just wrong. Judging restaurants requires being informed and being capable of formulating opinions based on broad experience. It involves subjectivity, but it is only completely subjective when done very badly.”

Here’s my opinion. And this is based on what I feel is pretty broad experience. “Correct ways of cooking things” is TOTALLY SUBJECTIVE. The cusine that people cook is based on more than one man’s opinion or one woman’s rules: food is rooted deeply in different cultures. And with different cultures come different roots.

When I went to Sardinia, I visited Isola di San Pietro. It is a tiny island, a small fraction of the size of PEI. Tuna is their life blood. Every restaurant has tuna, bottarga and fresh roe on the menu. Every dish has some kind of a sloppy, fishy kiss from a local tuna. And every dish that I had that featured fresh tuna had, to my taste, incredibly overcooked tuna. At first, I was disappointed. Then: a revelation. Is it overcooked if, in their culture, this is simply how it is cooked? Who the fuck am I to wander over to a remote Italian island and tap some chefs on the shoulder to tell them they’re doing it wrong because that’s not how I like it in Nova Scotia? If I’m finding the same preparation in restaurant after restaurant, house after house or farm after farm, isn’t it fair to say that they are doing it right?

You don’t have to agree with me about this. It’s my opinion. And I’m not saying that Hubert Keller or Eric Ripert are wrong in their approach to seafood, or that restaurants should depend on some kind dystopian post-recipe excuse-laden anarchy that allows them to tell the customer they are always wrong—I’m just saying that if you’re going to compare something to the best of its breed, you can’t expect that American shorthair silver tabby to suddenly be a Norwegian Forest Cat.

Which brings us to the enRoute “Best New Restaurant” list.

There wasn’t a single mention of restaurants east of Montreal in enRoute. Am I surprised? No. Am I outraged? Nope. I can’t think of a single restaurant on the East Coast that opened in the past year that I would think can compete with the ones mentioned. Do I know every restaurant that opened? No. Have I eaten at all of the restaurants that I do know of? Nuh-uh. But in terms of places I’ve tried, places I’ve heard of, and places that are building great reputations, in my opinion this has not been an exceptionally strong year for new restaurants in Atlantic Canada.

That doesn’t mean it won’t be a good year next year. After all, lists aren’t forever. Look at grocery lists: once you’ve got your eggs and milk, they’re history.

Being on a list or not being on a list doesn’t mean it’s not an exceptional time for food in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. We are lucky to have a rich, vibrant food culture. We have access to wonderful raw goods from our orchards to our oceans, from our stables to our vineyards. We have talented chefs. We have passionate eaters. And, perhaps most importantly, we have perspective.

“I was happy to find on my most recent trip to Atlantic Canada and the Maritimes more properly cooked lobster and scallops than ever before,” Richler says, in the closest he can come to saying anything truly positive about the region. “But I would venture that there is still a bit of work to be done, right?”

Right.

I actually agree. After all , I can’t say I haven’t seen or had terrible seafood in Atlantic Canada. I have. Oh, yes, I sure have. I’m pretty sure we all have. Because there is always work to be done.

I have also had terrible seafood in the United States and Europe. And even Toronto. There is still a bit of work to be done there, too, right?

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