The problem with recommending restaurants

Years ago I read an interview with Quentin Tarantino where he mentioned he viewed friends in a different light after they told him they didn’t rate a film he loved. I understand that. I feel a bit like that way about movies as well, but not in any serious friendship-threatening way. We enjoy Coen brothers’ movies but know their distinctive style of film-making isn’t to everyone’s taste.

Just as with movies, people can have conflicting views when it comes to what constitutes an enjoyable meal. When I hear/read feedback someone doesn’t like a restaurant we rate highly my first reaction is to question the culinary credibility of the critic. In the words of the great Jim Morrison, people are strange… or they can be when it comes to food. As well as having contrasting likes and dislikes, folk have very personal foibles, all of which makes recommending restaurants somewhat of a lottery. These are examples from restaurants in various destinations which illustrate the abyssal gaps that can exist between dining likes and dislikes.

Pizza in Pisa, Italy
Pizza in Pisa.

If you want to go local, mean it
Our view: We turned up at La Taverna di Pulcinella (Via Garofani, 10; Pisa) just before 10pm. It’s a simple trattoria in a typical Italian back street; the plaster on the walls of the houses around it being of the peeling-off variety, the narrow alley full of parked Vespas. The restaurant was packed, exuberant chatter spilling onto the street along with hopefuls waiting for a table. After a short period we were seated beside an ‘in love’ young couple at a bench table on the street, before being brought a couple of pizzas with crispy thin bases and savoury toppings sprinkled with fresh herbs. These were accompanied by a carafe of light Italian red. It was a bit rough ‘n’ ready and all the better for it. Perfect.
The negative view: “It was virtually empty when we got there and it looked like a harshly lit cafe. Nevertheless the reviews were good so we dived in. What could go wrong. Well it turned out the restaurant was booked out and the only place for two people was on the table next to the other only two diners. But the young lady said we could have it for an hour only. We declined obviously only to have the young man who I presume was another waiter go ‘bye bye’ in an insolent, sarcastic manner.”
Why the difference? The “virtually empty” is a giveaway, and a common criticism by people who go out to eat dinner at the time they do in their own country rather than adjust to the patterns of the country they’re visiting. The place was only empty because the negative reviewer turned up before locals who’d reserved tables did. Additionally, a lot of authentic restaurants in various countries look like harshly lit cafes.

Updated queso asado at Puesta de Sol.
Updated queso asado at Puesta de Sol.

Authentic doesn’t always mean basic
Our view: We’ve eaten at Puesta de Sol (Camino Nicho la Cruz, 63; Fuencaliente; La Palma) on a few occasions. Apart from enjoying blistering sunsets most of the year, the food is a cut above the majority of restaurants on La Palma as chef Vidal uses local ingredients in creative ways. We relish eating there as we never know what surprises are going to turn on the table. On our last visit the offerings included a coca base on which Vidal had recreated a seabed scene. Fun and flavoursome dining.
The negative view: “Our choice: pork chops with potatoes. The dish offered: canned ham in aspic, pink mashed potatoes flattened beyond recognition on the plate, and a green tasteless sauce in a thin stripe below the pink mash. The pork chops were not pork chops, and tasted bad and weird. The rest was pretty bland. Where is the enthusiasm for food?”

Tuna, Puesta de Sol style.
Tuna, Puesta de Sol style.

Why the difference? Referencing “ pork chops with potatoes” is the telling phrase. If you want pork chops with potatoes you simply don’t go to Puesta de Sol. But this couple had read good reviews and made the same mistake thousands of other make – just because most reviews were good doesn’t mean a restaurant is right for them. They were criticising creativity because they wanted simplicity.

Flavour is everything
Our view: We wanted to eat at ODE Porto Wine House (Largo do Terreiro, 7; Porto) because we’d heard good things about it and fancied trying one of their tasting menus. We particularly enjoy creative restaurants in the south of Europe partly because of the joie de vivre approach to dining which exists, irrespective of whether restaurants are cheap and cheerful, or pricey and avant-garde. ODE had all the right trimmings but felt as though it took itself a wee bit too seriously. The food looked good yet our first two dishes were bland and disappointing, which we told the waiter. It wasn’t a bad dining experience but it wasn’t as good as we’d hoped, or have enjoyed in similar establishments.

Duck and textures of beetroot, ODE Port House, Porto
Duck and textures of beetroot at ODE Port House.

The other view: “Staff were so warm and friendly and each dish that was served was excellent. We chose the top end tasting menu as well as the middle of the road menu and shared the extra dishes that came with my meal. We are both tasting menu fans as it gives one the opportunity to taste the best a restaurant has to offer. Complimenting the menu was the wine pairing. Again it was fantastic.”
Why the difference? It’s only an opinion, but it seems to me some people enjoy the pomp you find in a few high end restaurants as much as the flavours of the food in front of them. We don’t warm to restaurants which cross from being pretentious and fun into being pretentious and sombre, especially when appearance seems to be regarded more highly than taste. ODE’s management tend to post peevish replies to the criticisms on Tripdavisor which reflected our experience; something which confirms our initial impression.

Michelin star restaurant, El Rincon de Juan Carlos, Los Gigantes, Tenerife
Michelin star restaurant, El Rincon de Juan Carlos in Los Gigantes.

Understanding Michelin cuisine
Our view: The best restaurant we’ve eaten at in the Canary Islands is El Rincón de Juan Carlos (Paisaje Jacaranda, 2; Los Gigantes). We’ve been raving about Juan Carlos’ food since long before the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star. It’s a family affair that is worlds apart from most other family run Canarian restaurants in that the food is avant-garde and treats taste-buds to a roller-coaster of a ride, if you’re open to new and exciting gastronomic experiences.
The negative view: “None of this food or flavours “blew me away”. Is it the best meal I have ever had- not by a long way. Would I recommend – not really. There are plenty of other restaurants in the village all serving excellent food to a high standard. As a first time to Michelin “quality” I’m afraid I was very much swayed by the star.”

Michelin star dining, El Rincon de Juan Carlos, Los Gigantes, Tenerife
Small, and packed with flavour. Michelin cuisine at El Rincon.

Why the difference? Los Gigantes is a purpose-built resort rather than a village. We find most restaurants there to be inoffensive but decidedly average – typical of many resort restaurants everywhere, which tend to be crowd-pleasers aiming at a safe, middle ground of unadventurous palates. From eating in those to trying Michelin star involves a huge leap, and not one everyone enjoys making.

Fussiness and fast food dining
Our view: Costing €42 for a taster menu of eight dishes, and €14 for a wine pairing involving four glasses, the prices at Degust’Ar (Rua Cândido dos Reis, 72; Évora) inside the M’ar De Ar Aqueduto Hotel offer incredible value. What’s more, the food was above average – e.g. golden scallops in walnut butter; crab pâté in filo buns; Alentejana pork with chestnut purée. The waiting staff were chatty and friendly, resulting in generous glasses of wine and one more glass than the pairing suggested. It might not be the number one restaurant in Évora but it was excellent value and a highly enjoyable meal.

Scallops, Degust'Ar, Evora
Scallops at Degust’Ar in Evora.

The negative view: “6 of 9 courses had raw cilantro on them (ranging from a teaspoon to multiple tablespoons,) and the food tasted flat underneath it. While we weren’t uncomfortable, it took 40 minutes to receive our first course due to a series of slow appearances. Service during the meal was also quite slow, our meal took almost 4h to complete.”
Why the difference? I’m still reeling over the raw cilantro comment. Anyone who criticises herbs for being ‘raw’ is never ever going to be on the same gastronomic page as us. It’s a comment which screams fussy eater. I’d be pointing this person to the nearest McDonald’s if I was the chef, especially given the moans about waiting times. One of the great joys of tasting menus is they take an eternity to get through; ideal for wallowing in a lusciously long, and leisurely dining experience but not if sprinting through the courses is your thing.

Black pig and chestnut, Degust'Ar, Evora
Black pig and chestnut at Degust’Ar.

Ultimately what makes someone like or dislike a restaurant isn’t always related to how good the food is. Everyone brings a bag full of personal preferences when they walk through the doors of a restaurant, and that’s what makes it difficult in travel writing to recommend restaurants in general. All we can do is say which ones we’ve enjoyed eating in. Then it’s up to individuals to decide whether any get their gastric juices flowing.

The process in choosing a restaurant to suit rather than just one which has rave reviews begins with being self-aware when it comes to our own predilections.

About Jack 798 Articles
Jack is co-editor, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a Slow Travel consultant and a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Facebook for more travel photos and snippets.

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