If, as a double-chinned, buffet-loving nine-year-old, I had suddenly chocked on a King Size Nutrageous, and seen a glimpse of my own personal fat kid heaven, last night's Second Annual Village Voice Choice Eats would have been it. A half hour before the doors opened, the line of ticket-holders dreaming about Sara Jenkins' porchetta sandwich in close proximity to Salumeria Rosi's mortadella and Christina Tosi's compost cookie snaked around the block. If, like Robert Sietsema and Sarah DiGregorio, you consider yourself ahead of the mainstream food cognoscenti, you would have been happy to see favorite neighborhood spots such as AM-Thai Chili Basil Kitchen, Braai, and Mumbai Xpress. Before the feeding herds entered the Armory, I had a chance to chat with the two Village Voice restaurant critics about Staten Island's beaches, what it's like to have the best job in the world, and why Top Chef food intentionally doesn't look good.
LM: Other than the obvious effects of the recession on the food industry: better service for diners, chefs who must be more creative with what they have, and some restaurants closing, what else do you foresee happening in the food industry because of the economic downturn?
SD: Rents are inevitably going to down. Hopefully that will have a positive effect and mean that small restaurateurs without a juggernaut generating a lot of money and people standing behind them will have a chance to open. Hopefully that's one of the long term effects.
RS"I think people will be seeking more fundamental dining experiences. They're not going to be so concerned with $15 cocktails and all the different kinds of amuse bouches. Rather they're going to focus on the entrees, they're going to want to go to restaurants over and over again, and they're going to go to cheaper restaurants. Restaurants are going to be more important to them than just some place that they'll read about in a blog and go off to be the first person there. There will be a shakeout of restaurants that don't offer both excellent food and some concept of value too. One of the things that these places have in common is that a lot of them are way below the radar of the food press. A lot of these places are run by immigrants, who are bringing their food here, primarily for an immigrant audience, but it has been discovered by the likes of us, who love to eat food and meet new people. What this mainly displays is how much immigration there has been and how good the food cooked by the immigrants is. Plus, there are a few hipster places here, and places that we just like. It basically more than anything reflects our taste in food.
LM: Which is your favorite borough for food?
RS: Just to be contrary, let me say the Bronx. Next to Staten Island, the Bronx is the most underexposed borough. But there are amazing things wherever you go. I encourage people to just get on a random subway some time, go to a random stop, go out and look for food. I swear you're going to find something really fast. The food in New York is better than it's ever been in history before, and more amazing.
SD: People should go out to Staten Island. There is some amazing Sri Lankan food.
RS: Italian—athe Italian restaurants. The best Vietnamese restaurants in town are in Staten Island. Not to mention beautiful beaches. We sound like we're selling Staten Island.
SD: We just want to keep it from reverting back to New Jersey. I know that everyone there wants to be part of New Jersey.
LM: With the local, organic, and sustainable movements, I've heard discussed that ingredients are the new chef. Do you think in any sense we're seeing an end to the era of the celebrity chef as people start to care more about where their food is coming from?
RS: I would say the celebrity chef à la Top Chef is going away because the quintessential fact about Top Chef is you could never taste what they're making and most of the stuff looks awful. Great chefs have always known that the ingredients are number one. You could be completely untalented and go out and buy three ingredients and you could be the best chef in the world. It's like taking photographs. Anyone can take a great photograph. Any chef can cook a great meal but first he or she has to understand that ingredients are number one.
SD: Top Chef may go away but I disagree a little bit. I think that one of the reasons people like it so much is because the food is so disgusting, they feel, 'I could do that'. 'I could be on that show.' I think that's one of the attractions.
RS: Maybe it's the democratization of chefdom.
LM: Which is more fun to review, a restaurant you hate or a restaurant you love?
RS: I almost never review restaurants that I hate because I never want to eat a bad bite of food in my life, and I believe you can pretty much avoid that. With a lot of the restaurants we review, we wouldn't want to do a bad review anyway. What does it look like for a journalist to kick a ma and a pa in the chops?
SD: No, I would never do a bad review of a small family restaurant. There are times though when a big restaurant that's been hyped a lot comes along. You go with an open mind, but when you're paying a lot and there's a situation where the emperor has no clothes, then you do feel pretty good about writing a bad review because you're preventing other people from wasting their money.
RS: Right. It's natural to hold restaurants to higher standards that charge an arm and a leg. If you have to pay $100 for your dinner, it better well be a good restaurant.
LM: What's the most surprising meal or dish you came across last year?
RS: I recently ate at a place called Mustang Thakali Grill from a little tiny part of Napal. I ordered this thing that was made of buckwheat starch and it looked like a poodle when it came—a brown poodle. It came with all these little dishes like an Indian meal. I loved the buckwheat starch, and I loved the way it looked, and I loved caressing it.
LM: What was the texture like?
RS: Like thick whipped potatoes or something, but rising in little peaks like a dog. It was a dog of starch.
SD: I just ate at one of the restaurants here, Dirt Candy. It's a vegetarian restaurant. I often cook vegetarian meals. I like vegetarian food very much but a lot of times at restaurants it can not be as exciting—unless it's Indian vegetarian which I love—but the portabella mousse at Dirt Candy is ridiculous. It comes in a little, beige cube and it kind of jiggles. It's so rich you almost cannot believe it. It's like mushrooms times a thousand plus cream in this wonderful texture. It's really delicious.
LM: Do they have any here?
SD: I'm not sure if they're serving it here tonight. I hope so. It's really good. It's surprising that it tastes so wonderful. [Note: They did, and while I hoped it wasn't as good as Sarah described, I, too, was shocked. By far the best vegetarian sample there, and one of the best vegetarian dishes I've ever had.]
LM: Some restaurant critics complain that reviewing restaurants for a long time takes the fun out of going out. Do either of you agree?
RS: Only if the reviewers want their identity to be known. Being a restaurant reviewer is a strange job because here you may have certain notoriety, and yet if no one recognizes you, are you really famous? So most critics have ways of making the restaurateurs know who they are by their behavior or by using their own credit cards. Even today you never know the pretenses under which restaurants are reviewed. A lot of bloggers—and even restaurant critics—catch free food, and when you get free food and you're recognized at a restaurant, what you say about the food is totally untrustworthy. Being anonymous is important to us and when you're anonymous you get to enjoy food just like normal people. There is nothing worse than being recognized as a critic and plied with free food that you don't want. We work for a publication that pays for our food. Why would we want to get free food?
SD: It is pretty wonderful because you can go out with friends whose opinion you trust and whose company you enjoy. It never gets boring to me.
RS: It's the greatest job in the world. It really is. I can't believe I've got it.
LM: How do you maintain your anonymity?
RS: No, never. I am friends with a few chefs who I knew before I was a critic, but I tried to keep that to a minimum. The critics who are recognized are the critics who, with the possible exception of Frank Bruni, want to be recognized. I'm not going to mention any particular critics, but they want to be recognized because it feeds their little microscopic egos.
SD: It also helps to not be very well known. No one's looking for me.
LM: Anything you won't eat? Have you come across anything?
RS: I won't eat human flesh.
SD: Have you come across it?
RS: Not that I know of.
After speaking with Robert and Sarah I decided to hit the booths to beat the mob. I almost forgot I was in New York, the trans-fat-free land of posted caloric counts as I watched people wearing bibs reading, "Don't worry I'm wearing elastic pants!" scarf down their forty-fifth sample of cheesy grits (Smoke Joint) or lasagna (Max). Last night's event ranks among the few places I've ever been where people were more interested in the food than the booze. As I walked by Roberta's stand, one gentleman reminded his friend, "Don't fill up on bread!" Granted he was referring to Levain boules, but in this environment, with limited stomach capacity, I understood his exhortation. As the plastic cups, plates, and utensils and paper napkins started to pile up in front of the Slow Food booth, I briefly wondered, 'Is all this disposability environmentally sound?' But then I was caught up in the waves of frenzied feeding, and last remember wishing more restaurants had brought dessert.