Blistering review takes aim at empire-building chef, and maybe the empire

“Blistering” somehow doesn’t seem strong enough to describe this review of Charlie Palmer’s new Costa Mesa restaurant. In reading it, my heart just breaks for the chef who is clearly in over his head. The LATimes’ S.Irene Virbila takes great pains to describe what worked (steak), what didn’t (a long list), and offers her critique in an open letter to Palmer.

She lays the blame at his feet charging him with abandoning an ambitious young chef in service to growing the Palmer empire. I can’t decide if the format is better or worse than a more conventional review. (If you’re interested in learning food critique in San Mateo, see the Food Gal here.) Virbila does seem to have issues larger than the food’s shortcomings. Chief among them is her criticism of Palmer’s empire building, and the cost-value ratio even in the rarified Orange County setting. The critcism seems a little charged.

I think this stood out even more because it appeared in my inbox along with the following:

  • Gourmet’s bargain bites newsletter,
  • Saveur’s tailgating tips and
  • Whole Foods’ Fl@vors newsletter also geared toward meals under $3.25 and value tips…

…all set against a backdrop of the non-stop economic horrors on TV.

Not that we needed any more evidence that the economy is in the crapper, but when you’re worried about the real housewives of Orange County getting value for their lunch dollars (as if they really eat!) and Saveur, Gourmet and Whole Foods are all touting the economical meal options…it’s a sure sign that people up and down the demographic spectrum are hurting. (Although, apparently some division of AIG is still doing swell, even while we’re bailing them out, they’re chillin at the St Regis. See, AIG fiddles while Wall St burns. And they got an additional 38 billion after the party. Maybe someone spilled something on the rug and the Feds had to cover that, too.)

I think part of what Virbila is voicing is the anger so many people feel at those on top being careless about how their actions affect our lives, ignoring the financial impact of their empire building on our day-to-day activities. It’s just set in the context of a restaurant review.

I passed a woman on the street yesterday talking frantically into her cell phone saying “the money’s all gone! It’s just GONE!” Maybe she was only talking about the loose change jar her kids raided for candy money, but it had the feel of something much more ominous. I’m glad that we are going to be forced to focus on less unnecessary consumption, I hope we’ll get to a place where we can recall what’s important. It’s too early though. We’re all still shocked, hurt, angry. And scrambling.

I find it hard to gin up my sympathy for the housewives of OC who seem to be only about consumption, if not of food, of everything else.  They’re probably married to the AIG guys getting spa treatments. I’m still too close to relying on that loose change jar.

Still, I’m glad if Virbila’s letter causes some empire-building chefs to pause and reflect on what value they’re giving customers. Many people will forego dining out in order to trim expenses and when we do go out, we’re going to be careful about getting a good experience and a good meal at a fair price. At least those of us outside OC will.

It’s never too late to learn to enjoy a meal with friends, at home. At least our friends at Gourmet and Saveur are here to help us do it in style, on a budget.

~ by jacqueline1230 on October 10, 2008.

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