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A food critic reviews his career

By CHRIS SHERMAN
Published December 27, 2006


Chris Sherman steps from behind the menu after rating bay area restaurants for 17 years.
photo
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
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Restaurant reviews

The first time worried me. A few tables away in a downtown St. Petersburg restaurant, a man announced loudly, "I know who you are."

I blanched. Would he out the big guy with the handlebar moustache, thinning hair and spectacles by bellowing: "You're the food critic for the St. Pete Times"?

Instead, the man said clearly, "I love those commercials you do for oatmeal."

Wilford Brimley, whew.

Truth is, that overfed, aging hippie eating around the area since 1990 was indeed the Times restaurant critic.

Chris Sherman was not the person who threatened a Gulfport cafe with a terrible review unless an unsatisfactory chicken salad was taken off the bill. Nor was Chris Sherman the ranting poseur so drunk in a beach restaurant she broke the toilet.

Nope. For nearly 17 years the critic was me. I often sat behind you as you talked about me.

I tell you this now because the gig is up. I hang up my tasting fork and my expense account today. No more free lunches. Or dinners. Or breakfasts.

They weren't exactly free. After two days in the hospital last month I went home with a stent in my heart and a diagnosis of Type II diabetes. I won't blame restaurants for too many calories or carbohydrates or my lack of exercise. I must eat more wisely at every meal, cook at home and not have a ready excuse for overindulgence.

Those who think I now give up the best job at the paper, maybe the best in town, don't know the whole story.

I do not get paid to dine year-round in gourmet restaurants.

Sure, the newspaper picks up the tab, but it's not all gourmet. I eat in the same places you do, the bad and the ugly as well as the good. Too often I've faced another choice of salmon, mahi or grouper perhaps, accompanied by overpriced wine, soggy vegetables and a dessert menu of chocolate indulgence, creme brulee and, ta-da!, tiramisu.

For almost 20 years (at the Orlando Sentinel before here) I've gone out three nights a week or more, some lunches and occasional breakfasts. Most times the meals resulted in a review but quite often I struck out. Many times I drove an hour to find that a place was not good, not bad, just nothing to write about.

When places merited a review, my guidelines were to dine twice with a companion, so that I could sample four entrees. One critic I know bragged of tasting everything on a menu; either she or her auditor was a fool. With four appetizers or salads and four desserts, I had a good sense of the range of cooking.

The dining companion was sometimes my wife, but often colleagues or friends who lived or worked close to the restaurant. I would outline my recommendations, including classic tests and clever innovations, and let them pick what they thought they would like. I would order something else to round out the sampling. We were out, as you are, hoping for a good meal.

While I noted their reactions, my taste of what was on their plates was all that mattered.

When people assert that a critic has great power, I demur. A good review gets someone in the door once; after that the customer's stomach and wallet decide. There are many restaurants I liked and the public didn't. I drive by many I can't stand that are packed.

As restaurant critic it was important that I not be recognized; I did not want better treatment than the average diner. Staying anonymous is a drag. I had a credit card in an assumed name, actually my birth name before I was adopted, so two-thirds of it was still legally me.

I made reservations in that name, my companion's, or sometimes "Mr. Christopher." My disguises were never elaborate. Carrying a road map or a camera pegged me as a tourist. To "Where are you from," I could say "Ohio," and it was true. Once, a breathless owner asked, "Are you the restaurant critic ... for the Tampa Tribune." I said "No," with a smile.

Yet after almost two decades, many chefs and waiters did know me, but I usually knew when I'd been recognized. Waiters hovered or shook so hard they almost dropped the plates. One completely missed a water glass and emptied the pitcher on the table and my wife's lap.

The important things - dull menus, unripe tomatoes, stale bread, dirty uniforms and a preference for overcooked fish - can't be changed in an instant.

More often, service confirmed that I wasn't getting special treatment.

Two weeks ago at SideBern's in Tampa, where service is sharp and I have been spotted before, we were shown to an empty section and the worst table in the house, against a wall and next to a utility station and the hall to the kitchen.

An actual faceoff between critic and chef can be strained. When I stopped in to give a second chance to a downtown St. Petersburg restaurant, the chef was still so mad he pulled up a chair, sat down and browbeat me for 20 minutes. That meal left a bad taste; years later and without him, the place is superb.

Many chefs and restaurateurs have ignored my criticism, though some welcomed it. Chefs are notoriously picky themselves and can take apart a meal brutally. There's debate backstage in any restaurant. Once, I got an irate phone call from a chef in Tampa, followed months later by a lengthy letter from the owner, who attached a laminated copy of the review with each of my complaints underlined: She agreed completely.

Finally, reviewing left me wanting real anonymity: to eat like a normal person, no badge, no undercover nonsense. I treasured places like the Chatterbox, A Downtown Wonder, in St. Petersburg where I could tuck into a good bowl of chili, a cup of espresso or an open faced sandwich of real roast turkey, mashed potatoes, white bread and gravy.

I haven't been able to do enough of that. For ethical reasons I have had to put distance between myself and talented people I admire and appreciate, monastic restraints that go against my voluble nature.

The other drawback is geographic. As a critic for the whole Tampa Bay area I couldn't just stop just anywhere between the St. Petersburg newsroom and my home in south Tampa when I was in the mood for Italian. Instead, duty called me to brave U.S. 19 for Mexican in Tarpon Springs or take the expressway to barbecue in Brandon.

Yet one payoff of my job has been permission to get lost from the crabbing docks in Yankeetown to Amish bakeries in Sarasota.

I've had my eggs over-easy on the beach with hard-hat workers griping about shoddy building practices, eavesdropped on French executives in gourmet restaurants and found tiny corners of Malaysia and Jamaica in bland strip malls.

And now: check, please.

We don't know yet who will be the next critic; we can say only that you won't be seeing his or her picture in the paper. As for me, I'll continue to explore, but instead of hunting and sampling restaurants, I'll be searching for food, wine and noncaloric pleasures, like good architecture.

For dinner, I'll be home, cooking my vegetables.

And you, eat your oatmeal.

Chris Sherman can be reached at csherman@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8585.

[Last modified December 27, 2006, 00:35:09]


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