That Time I Was Mistaken
For A Food Critic
words by felicia williams // new york city, new york // shop our brooklyn hunt
It’s 5:30 p.m. and I’m ready to eat dinner. No, I’m not a sixty-year-old woman, nor a six-year-old child; I’m a grown, 20-something woman, and I'll damn well eat when I damn well please.
Making my way to the entrance, I was excited for my meal, though I had read mixed reviews.
There was a solid stalwart of fans, touting how fabulous the fare was and how any amount of waiting time to taste heaven from Michelin star chef, Jean-Georges, was worth it. Another contingent bemoaned ABC Kitchen’s lack of a well established rhythm and consistency. They took to the internets and implored the chef, his staff and the whole establishment to iron out its kinks.
At my arrival, I take in ABC Kitchen in one sweeping glance and am satisfied by the view: long, highly polished wood tables, cut from tree slabs; bright white modern seating; towering bunches of wild flowers and gnarled tree branches in imposing vases; casual cool waiters in plaid shirts and crisp aprons. Also, amazingly, there was nearly no one in this practically “wait-list-only” establishment due to the early hour. Seating would be a breeze.
“Dinner for one,” I announce cheerfully to the slight-framed hostess behind her podium. She looks up at me with a slight smile.
“Do you have a reservation?”
“Uh--” I take a look back around at the nearly empty dining room. I can practically hear the crickets. “No.”
The hostess does that thing with her face that outwardly says, I’m soooo, soooo sorry for what I’m about to say. It was that irritating combination of model’s pout with a slight sneer of sheer joy at delivering unwelcome news. Oh yes, this one is gunning for Broadway.
“We’re pretty booked for dinner,” she simpers in her most convincingly simpery voice. “I won’t be able to seat you toni----ght.”
She draws out the ‘i’, willing me to concede the battle without a fight. I stand there.
“You could, sit at the bar?” she offers, slightly disturbed by my blank look. “We serve the full menu."
I brighten and give her my best smile. “Of course!”
I never truly understood this hesitation from host and hostesses to offer a seat at the bar. It’s, personally, my favorite place to sit.
I get super fast service, a chance to sit and speak with the staff, and as she mentioned, full menu service. I don’t shy away from places that typically need a reservation months in advance. As an army of one, I can throw an elbow and get into even the most crowded of establishments.
There are high tables in the bar area and as we pass one, I ask her if I can park here. She smiles and places down my menu, let’s me know that my server will be with me shortly, and swiftly returns to her post. I assume her rush is to, you know, handle all the people streaming in.
Meal time is the perfect time for me to catch up on my journaling during my travels. It’s the longest period of time in which I am forced to simply sit. I pull out my tablet (a first generation iPad) and get to typing.
My waiter arrives, a young guy, in that signature plaid shirt and folded down white apron. He smiles broadly at me, tells me his name (which I promptly forget) and asks me if I’d like to start with something to drink.
I take a cursory look over the menu and see a refreshing looking basil cocktail. It sounds summery, light and fresh. I name it my champion.
“Excellent choice,” he replies and walks away to place the order.
I wonder to myself if anyone in the history of service, has dared to tell the customer that they chose poorly. I wish they would. I wish I could be there.
My waiter returns with my drink. It’s just as tasty and fresh as I imagined. He then casually names some specials and asks me if I’ve chosen a main course. I confess that I haven’t looked at the menu yet and he exits to leave me to my decision.
After a few seconds alone with my drink, I find that I am so enamored with it, that I want to document it. Possibly to try and replicate it later at home and serve at a dinner party.
I begin to style the drink. I turn it this way and that. I move it in and out of the faint beam of light that falls across the wood grain of my high top. I snap a few pics using the tablet.
Once satisfied, I move right back into writing, completely forgetting to do as I was bid: pick a damn entrée.
I'm a few minutes into journaling, moving deftly between keystrokes and cocktail sips, when I suddenly realize that my waiter is right next to me. He simply materializes out of nowhere.
Startled, I look up into his face and find his expression to be...strange.
I raise my eyebrows at him and smile.
“Are you…” he begins, pausing momentarily to look to his left and right to be sure that there isn’t anyone within earshot. “Are you….a food critic?”
I hold his gaze.
In the infinitesimal moment of silence that passes between us after this question, a million things fly through my brain.
Okay. He sees me sitting alone, with my tablet, taking pictures and writing intensely. I’ve been a bit aloof and I’m clearly studying my surroundings and noting them, so this question kinda makes sense; it definitely looks like I’m writing about my experience. So, what do I do here? What do I do, when I’m asked by the staff of a highly anticipated, hard to get into establishment, if I am indeed a harbinger of judgment, recording the sights, smells and tastes of their very eatery? What do I do? What do I say?
Oh, I knew what to say. It was the only choice I had. I looked him full in the face.
“Yes. Yes I am.”
A slight intake of breath and a fresh sheen of sweat breaks across his brow at the moment this thunderous confession.
He’s fumbling. He’s practically at a loss for words. His eyes dance across my face, trying to put the pieces together.
“What, uh, what publication do you work for?” he finally asks, finding his words but not his composure.
My lie is instantaneous. “I’m so sorry, but I can’t reveal that to you.” I simper. It is my most apt impression of the hostess. I beam inwardly.
“If I did,” I continue in tones of regret, “It might color the way you would interact with me. As it is, I would prefer that you simply treat me with the same hospitality that you would show any other diner.”
His eyes pop at this pronouncement, and in a flash, he’s gone. I have only a brief moment of inward glee and slight trepidation before he returns with a complimentary refresher of my cocktail. And not only that, he’s also brought ABC’s manager, who walks smartly after him and stops at my table.
I’m no slacker. Since I decided to take up this persona approximately one minute ago, I am all in. Let is be known here and forever that Felicia Williams commits!
I draw myself up to my full height in the bar stool and meet the gaze of the woman in charge. Her blue eyes express a kind and warm reception; my brown one’s return a respectful but guarded scrutiny of the unfolding events.
“Welcome to ABC Kitchen.” She spreads her arms wide and gestures towards the impressively and impeccably designed space. “We’re happy to have you joining us for dinner this evening.”
She takes out a crisp business card. My hands fly up to meet hers and I accept it, in the Japanese way, facing towards me with both fingertips on the outer bottom edges. I read it carefully.
My waiter is beside himself. He’s looking at me as if he’s witnessing royalty. I don’t know what I look like at this moment, but I feel ten inches taller, bathed in his gaze. My chin lifts and I smile approvingly.
“It’s so nice to meet you, Jules,” I reply smoothly. I’m so thrilled by this whole thing that even though they don’t know my faux status, I am happy to be meeting this impressive woman, this captain of industry.
“It’s very nice to meet you too, Felicia. Chase here will take excellent care of you.” she nods to him and he gives a quick and fervent nod in return to us both. “Please let us know if there is anything you need or anything we can do for you. Also, please let us know when the article comes out. We’d love to read it.”
“Of course. I’m looking forward to the meal and it would be my pleasure to send you my review directly.”
We exchange our last few smiles and she gracefully exits, leaving me in Chase’s care. He turns to me, clearly ready to be the best damn waiter in the world.
“What do you feel hungry for, Felicia?” he inquires in a dignified sort of reverie.
I decide on the spot to be the kind of food critic that let’s the establishment guide her toward the dishes, rather than having a specific idea or request at the outset. I let him know that I am in his capable hands and he blushes.
Chase launches into an explanation of several dishes, pointing out their various strengths and influences. He’s very knowledge about the menu and shows the kind of pride and passion I might imagine the chef would show were he speaking to me about it.
“Is there anything you don’t like?” he asks after a moment's pause.
I rescan the menu. My eyes jump to the brussel sprouts, as well as a long standing enemy of mine - the cooked carrot. My nose wrinkles and I instantly know I am not interested in this sort of accoutrement.
I let him know and, amazingly, he practically tells me that I have dismissed them unduly. Chase has just informed me that I have judged poorly. I smirk at him openly.
“They’re so great, trust me!” he scrambles to say, seeing the potential for a customer service review disaster. “They are two of our most popular dishes and I’d love for you to try them. I think you’d really like them.”
I burst out in my signature laugh: bright, airy, loud and beam at him. “Sure, let’s do it.” I say.
He’s visibly pleased with his accomplishment and we move further on down the menu.
After a few minutes, we have outlined my plan of attack:
Chicken Liver Pâté on Toast
Roast Carrot and Avocado Salad, crunchy seeds, crème fraîche and citrus
Black Sea Bass, chilies and herbs, baby market potatoes and wilted spinach
Vanilla Bean Ice Cream topped with Salted Popcorn and Shaved Chocolate
Inwardly, I vow not to overeat. I try to think back to the movies and television shows, where I had seen the role of a food critic.
All I could recall was that these characters took small, tenuous bites of their food before putting their pens to paper. Momentarily, my heart sank at this thought. After all, I was hungry but I wasn’t at all sure of what a real critic did in these types of situations. I would have to be cautious, courteous and above all, I would have to write.
Chase exits and I bow my head to the tablet. I begin writing my article in earnest, wanting to capture every detail and moment of the visit. I realize quickly that though this started out as a fib, some part of me really wants to publish this. Some part of me really wants to share this story broadly. I start with the facts:
...ABC Kitchen, 19th and Broadway. Brain child of Jean-Georges; in the capable hands of executive chef Chef Dan Kluger, ABC Kitchen is nestled inside the timeless and fashionably expensive ABC Home and Carpet mega store. I take a quick shuffle to the back wall, descend a small flight of stairs and emerge into a space that can only be described as...woodsy….
A different waiter returns after a short while with my first round of appetizers. When he sets down the plate I think there must be a mistake. It’s the pretzel dusted calamari I’d passed over, with a side of marinara and mustard aioli sauce. I’m halfway through politely sending it back to the kitchen, when Robson materializes and kindly lets me know ABC Kitchen sends this dish with it's compliments.
I’m stunned then instantly try to set my face back to neutral (be professional damn it, whatever that means!). I thank him humbly and eagerly set fork and knife into the crispy flesh.
I bite down.
It is...calamari. Nothing special, no flair. I politely ignore it, return to my writing and wait until I receive my intended order.
The pretzel is quickly replaced by the chicken liver pâté. I dive.
My teeth sink easily into the perfectly toasted bread, my tongue singing songs of joy at the succulent pâté, drizzled in an oil that can only be described as criminal. My solemn vow to not overeat, is immediately broken.
Next, the carrot and avocado salad. I hesitantly spear the first challenger, and take in a slight breath before the bite.
Have you heard of heaven? It is in the roasted, marinated carrot.
At this point, I’m on cloud nine and Foux Du Fafa is playing in my head. I write on:
...Whatever growing pains it may have suffered at it's opening, have clearly passed now. ABC Kitchen is delectable, moody, organically inspired and has much to offer its patrons in terms of taste and visual experience...
Leaning back, I am content with a glass of rosè (Chase’s recommendation) and my wonderful salad.
I confess to him that I probably should have ordered the brussel sprouts, as some of the foods I have hated most since childhood, have suddenly transformed into incredibly tasty morsels.
All thanks to the imagination and talent of this incredibly capable chef.
Chase leaves to the kitchen and comes back to announce to me that ABC is equal to the challenge, and will gladly prepare the brussel sprout dish on the house.
I must confess. I love this fake job.
The main dish, the fish, is a delight. It is another wonderland of textures. Soft, supple flesh. A crispy, flakey skin, topped with bitter (almost violently so) confit lemons.
It lays in a clear, unassuming broth, surrounded by perfectly prepared potatoes and sautéed spinach.
I am almost stuffed to my breaking point, a fact of which I am mortified.
As a food critic, I decide, I shouldn’t have gotten to this point. I’ve clearly pulled a rookie mistake. Here I’ve been, all throughout dinner, shoveling dish after dish into my open maw like a regular person. Like I’m not actually a food critic.
Alas, I must valiantly continue to dessert in order to maintain my cover.
Chase returns and I experience elation and despair in equal parts at the presentation of not one, but three deserts.
I eagerly dip into a pear dessert and am not disappointed, but I am near my belt breaking point, so I move to a sundae. I am pleasantly amused! The contrasting textures (the theme of the evening) are so playful and unexpected. The freshness of the cream, the smooth, bitter taste of chocolate and the salty, crunchy arrestment of popcorn and peanuts are all so amazing.
...I am undone by this creative, almost juvenile assembly of ingredients... I would later write in my “review”.
I am stuffed, I am satisfied. I practically hold out my hands in surrender, unable to carry on. Chase is practically glowing.
The bill arrives, absent all complementary items from the chef, of course.
Our time ended, my things packed away, Chase walks me to the door and beams at me. “I’m looking forward to the article!”
Me too, I think guilty. Outwardly, I smile.
“You’ll be the first to know.”
So, here we are, five years after my visit in 2010. Chase, if you’re out there, here it is, my long over due review.
I had a wonderful time, the food was excellent and I want to thank you and everyone at ABC Kitchen for the amazing meal I was served that evening.
Rating: Five Faux Food Critic Stars.