Eating & Drinking

Why reviews matter: I sat down with renowned food critic to see how professionals do it

First dates are designed to be awkward.

Consider: you meet on neutral territory, neither of you knows much about the other, and concealing your flaws is imperative. My date with renowned Ottawa Magazine restaurant critic Anne DesBrisay would be little different. We were to dine just prior to the launch of her book, Ottawa Cooks, at a spot she had visited before but I had not. I was particularly self-conscious of my ridiculously restrictive food allergies that might one day inspire an episode of Survivorman where I document myself deep in some forest foraging for lichen and berries.

For people in the restaurant industry, Anne is akin to The Usual Suspects’ antagonist Keyser Söze — she wields inimitable power, her followers are legion, and no one can successfully pick her out of a lineup. I’m not sure what to expect but am immediately put at ease when she arrives and jokes, “So can you at least drink?”

I can indeed.

We study the menu, and I ask Anne how she knows what to order. She tells me she visits a restaurant sometimes as many as five times before reviewing it, in order to ensure a balanced and fair representation. This will not be the only time during our evening that she will completely shatter the cartoonish image of the snooty food critic. Though she is likely the only person in the room who can be justifiably forgiven for partaking in the trend of snapping pics of food when it arrives, she acknowledges the intrusion as she pulls out her phone. “I hate it, but what can you do.”

I review films for a living, so I understand that opinions are subjective. But sitting across from Anne, I worry that somehow my opinions will be wrong. When it comes time to tuck in, I freeze. “What do I do?” I ask, feeling a bit silly. Anne responds matter-of-factly. “We’ll each take a few bites, but don’t tell me anything. Then we’ll switch plates and talk about it.”

I bite into my entrée slowly and deliberately, savouring the textures and flavours while noting how best to articulate what I’m tasting. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

Between courses, we reminisce about the glory days of the Ottawa food scene in the early ’90s when, thanks to the dot-com boom, expense accounts were exercised without prejudice. In those days, it was not uncommon to get tipped $100 just for delivering a bottle of Dom Pérignon to a table. Anne recalls how, after the bubble inevitably burst, the region’s numerous French restaurants seemed to shutter almost overnight. This freed younger chefs to have some fun and to focus more on ingredients-based cooking rather than being restricted by the technique-driven nature of French cuisine — “a focus on textures and flavours, working with small plates on small bare tables, dispensing with pomp and circumstance and linens and such.”

As our evening together nears an end, we submit to the usual awkwardness of who will pay (Anne does, with a pseudonymous credit card), and I silently review the first-date checklist. Where we disagreed: I have an irrational dislike of servers wearing tank tops; Anne does not. What we have in common: our love of our jobs and why we entered the criticism racket. (Hint: it wasn’t to become millionaires.)

My opinion of a film may change with subsequent viewings, but the film itself remains static. “Restaurants,” Anne notes, “are living, breathing organisms.”

Our goals, it seems, are similar: we want to celebrate those who have delivered something exceptional, we want to inform when something needs improvement, and we want to champion those in the industry who succeed. And we do this because we understand how hard the average person works for their money and how preciously they value their leisure time. We don’t think either should be wasted.

If there is a second date, I suggest we turn the tables. I know a few great spots in Ottawa to grab a movie.

Di Golding has worked in bars and restaurants for 19 years. She is also a film critic, appearing on CBC’s All in a Day, and regularly reviews films for the website Dear Cast & Crew