On a recent late night flight returning to St. John’s the seat-back satellite TV offered a great opportunity to get caught up on missed regularly watched programs. After watching the latest episode of a network show, before returning to reading a book, there was a quick flick through the channels to see if anything else of interest was airing. One channel boasted a screen bearing a lovely wintery shot of downtown St. John’s majestic view out the narrows. Obviously that would cause any proud Newfoundland and Labradorian to stop and watch to see what it was about. It turned out to be the latest episode of Million Dollar Critic on W.
The premise of the show sees British columnist and restaurant critic Giles Coren travel around North America trying a variety of restaurants, pitting them against one another to ‘win’ an online published review from the famed and highly followed writer. Though he’s written restaurant reviews, amongst other columns ranging in focus from personal life to politics, for Britain’s The Times since 1993 and has three books under his belt – seeing him on this show was my first introduction.
In this Newfoundland and Labrador episode, Coren sought out Saltwater, Chinched, Raymonds, The Reluctant Chef, and Bacalao. It seemed to be a tall order to adequately profile no less than five places in the 45 minute (hour-length broadcast) program. But, not only did the show cover each restaurant in a way that surprisingly didn’t seem rushed, it also included pit stops at trendy downtown Fogtown barbershop, a screen in, and an off-season visit to Salmonier Nature Park.
The show was profiling some of my favourite spots to nosh as well as places I like to visit. I was excited that this was what was being offered as a taste of our province to viewers who were tuning in from all corners. The show was shot beautifully, despite the challenges posed by a winter storm that had been brewing during production.
There were a few things about the show, and Coren himself, that rubbed me the wrong way. As Newfoundland and Labradorians, we’re proud of the winter weather we endure – often times worse to others by comparison, we’ve gotten used to much of it and it takes a lot to slow life here down. Coren kept referring to the weather they were shooting in as being one of the worst storms ever, which wasn’t really true all things considered. Perhaps it was for him, but that it was his opinion being stated was never really clear.
Coren also made a number of references to moose as a few of the restaurants he visited trotted out the provincially-iconic meat prepared in different ways. He began casually mentioning it was something he had never encountered, which escalated to musings that they didn’t exist, then to comparisons to unicorns. It seemed hard to believe that a restaurant critic, certainly of the level the show propped him up to being, wouldn’t have some sort of an idea about the local cuisine prior to going to a certain area. It was even more strange considering that he has a sidekick researcher (Julia Pileggi) who seemed to know her stuff included in the episode (presumably every one).
It was her efforts that got them into Salmonier Nature Park when it would normally be closed, just so Coren could see a moose. Perhaps Coren’s playful ignorance was pre-planned staging for the visit production knew would happen, but it came across as being unprepared.
The way he conducted himself at times also seemed surprising for someone of his experience. At Saltwater, where he was served white beans and salt beef amidst a sea of liquor, he was all about highlighting the amount of booze more than the food itself. The fact that drink upon drink was being offered from the establishment (nine shots before the meal ever came out) didn’t seem to phase him.
Yet, on his second stop to Chinched, he ordered a charcuterie platter and the ‘hidden’ trotters plat principal; the head chef first opted to serve a delicious soup (I know it’s delicious, because I order it there frequently). This move from the kitchen offended Coren and spawned him to spew on to the camera about how regularly chefs try to impress by serving soup on the house. The comment came off more self-aggrandizing than being the tip it was intended to be; be grateful and move on. And, if the gesture was truly that frustrating for the (read: any) reviewer based on the fact that it was a non-ordered item, then simply cast it out of the dishes being considered within the review.
It was surprising that Chinched didn’t serve their (amazing) molasses bread at the start or with the soup at least, though that probably would have tipped Coren over the edge. Coren, by the way, also criticised the presentation of the secret trotter as well, suggesting it was inappropriate to serve it with the better knife included with the meal stabbed into the meat. Chinched was also one of the aforementioned moose-serving stops, including in the charcuterie, which Coren and Pileggi both enjoyed overall. They docked it points for including one item not sourced locally (the foie gras) because the charcuterie was billed as being ‘local’, and they felt the prosciutto lacked flavour. One friend of mine however goes to Chinched for the prosciutto, so it’s a matter of taste.
The next three restaurants in the line up all wanted to serve Coren tasting menus. It turns out that he hates tasting menus, and made sure to leave viewers absolutely doubtless of that for the remainder of the episode. If you go to a restaurant and say show me what you’ve got, isn’t that strategy one of the more logical options? Yes, it’s good to show three proper courses that take diners through an experience, speaking to your restaurant’s M.O., ability, and strengths – but a tasting menu is also an alternative that still allows the chef to demonstrate strength in palate and presentation.
Raymonds’ presentation was absolutely stunning. They provided a five course locally-sourced tasting menu that was elegant and elevated – everything they’re known for. Coren, this time dining alone, sucked all of the air out of the exercise though and put them under a one hour time constraint. Raymonds was another restaurant where Coren encountered moose, this time two ways – as a finocchio and a ragout. He repetitively said though the dining experience and in the camera confessionals that were they to not meet his one hour challenge, they could kiss winning the review goodbye. Raymonds ended up taking well over an hour.
The Reluctant Chef saw the return of a dining guest with Coren, this time it was someone from the area, Sabrina Whyatt. Whyatt understands seafood coming from a fishing background when she’s not writing books and singing in a studio. It was nice to see the show takes strides to find someone involved in a place’s local cultural scene, and her commentary was refreshing. Neither cared for what seemed to be an overbearing staff eager to please, based on the final edit of the show, or the fact that the cod was intentionally served cold. The Reluctant Chef also included a mushroom dish at the start and a marrow FDG after the cod, which is delicious. Coren seemed the most underwhelmed here, even though it is a great spot, and in his eventual article he did reference the restaurant’s fine Canadian wines (that doesn’t give away the winner though).
Coren’s final visit was to Bacalao where he was greeted by a photo he had tweeted of himself in his St. John’s hotel room that the restaurateur had printed and placed on the table. He was not the least bit amused by this playful act, but here again it was difficult to get a read on if it was his personality or playing to the cameras. I’m an active twitter-er, and know the proprietors of Bacalao are as well from #nlfood tweets with them, so I enjoyed the fun little personal touch. For his final meal on the tour, Bacalao served cod tongues, salted cod tagliatelle, and partridge with duck gravy. He again seemed underwhelmed, but more appreciative of the flavours presented there than his previous stop in the actual show. Not to get too carried away with kindness, Coren criticised the door chime likening it to being a form of ‘prison torture’ which seemed a little over the top.
Something else that is important to point out, after his five course tasting menu at Raymonds, he limited subsequent ‘tasting menus’ to three courses, which (along with his onetime only time limit at Raymonds) made the playing field a bit uneven. So how did it all end? Well if you want to save the outcome and see the fourth episode from season one, you can watch it for yourself here (http://www.wnetwork.com/shows/million-dollar-critic/clips?v=78F302C1-D207-C610-6BFF-573A168CB1D7)… otherwise read on.
It turns out that Coren’s vehement position that Raymonds would be disqualified from winning the review in the face of not satisfying his one hour challenge was absolute rubbish. He announced that they had deservingly won the review which would appear on Huffington Post at the end of the episode, which you can read here. (http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/giles-coren/newfoundland-giles-coren_b_6065226.html)
With the back story from the episode, it seems funny that Coren eventually praises Raymonds for their swiftness in service (which is fair considering the presentation, not considering his challenge). But even in the review Coren makes a series of seemingly inappropriate comments saying that Newfoundland is “so close to Ireland by sea that you can smell leprechaun body odor on the breeze.”
Opening an article about food that way seems like a completely foreign concept to me – there are better ways to indicate the cultural relationships between the two places without that analogy, preying on a terribly stereotypical reference to the Emerald Isle.
The other part of Coren’s resulting review that struck me as being badly researched and just plain wrong – it refers to the winning restaurant as Raymond’s not Raymonds. I’ve known about the lack of apostrophe since the place opened because I questioned it. I was told that the place was named for the two proprietors’ grandfather and father who were both named Raymond, thus the name of the restaurant is plural not possessive. To be sure that wasn’t just locally learned trivia, a quick check on the Raymonds website’s About page tells the story.
To all the profiled restaurateurs: you did us proud, thanks for representing.