What Makes for a Good Restaurant Review?

After my recent entry about Quince restaurant in Bangkok, Nathanael (NVPhotography) asked my advice on writing restaurant reviews, since a local paper had asked him to review on new restaurant in town. Never having given it much thought, I asked for a few days to consider my response.

Let me say that I don’t consider most of my entries about restaurants to be true reviews. I just share some pictures of the food and offer some comments. A proper review is more in depth and thoughtful than my musings normally are. That said, let me share five thoughts about what makes for a good restaurant review.

Tawn selects bread at Pollen restaurant at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore.

First, have no conflicts of interest. You cannot offer an objective review if you have been paid by the restaurant, have received any complimentary dishes, or have any financial stake in the restaurant. It is customary for some restaurants to send an amuse bouche, a tiny bite before you dine, to whet your appetite. This does not count as a complimentary dish, as it is given to all diners.

Second, provide a context. This means explaining a bit of the history of the restaurant and/or the background of the chef. Now, this may be more applicable to a higher-end restaurant than to a local diner, but even in the later case, the fact that it is a local diner owned by a family of Greek vegetarians might help us understand what they are trying to accomplish. Think of it this way: when you watch a local high school drama department’s production of “Anything Goes,” you have very different expectations than when seeing the debut of a new opera by a professional company.

Third, explore the menu, especially specials. A good reviewer will either dine with a group or will return to the restaurant several times, in order to sample a wide range of dishes. It isn’t just the number of dishes that is important, though. What also matters is the type of dishes. If a chef is known for his charcuterie (prepared meats) then be sure to order the tripe, the head cheese, and the blood sausage. If the restaurant specializes in seafood, order a lot of fish and not much steak. Most of all, be sure to try any specials. These are meant to reflect the chef’s talent and creativity, often using seasonal ingredients. This gives the restaurant a chance to shine in the area they claim to be their best.

Fourth, be fair in your review. Everyone has their bad days and your dining experience can be influenced by factors that are out of the control of the chef or the restaurant staff. A table of rowdy drunks may ruin the ambience, but it isn’t fair to criticize the restaurant for their behavior. Even poor service from a waiter should be put into context. If possible, make a follow-up visit to see whether the poor service persists or was possibly unusual.

Finally, when you write, try to be as specific as possible. Instead of simply saying that a dish was good, try to explain what you enjoyed about it. This fifth point has helped me pay more attention and be more thoughtful when I eat. When I think about the flavors and notice how they contrast or complement each other, I get more out of the dining experience. If you can convey that thoughtfulness in your review, your readers will get more out of the review.

Of course, I’m sure that if we poked around in my previous entries about restaurants, we could find plenty of times when I’ve broken one or more of these guidelines. As they say, do as I say, not as I do! 

What are your thoughts about what makes a good restaurant review?


On Being Intimidated by Poetry during National Poetry Month

(From topless teens to poetry.  Where is this blog going?)


As you may know, April is National Poetry Month in the United States.  Several Xangans to whom I subscribe frequently write poetry.  Generally speaking, I greatly enjoy their poems.  But I must confess that at a certain level I am deeply intimidated by poetry.  The same is true for opera and ballet, but I won’t address those anxieties in this entry.

Like opera and ballet, I realize that poetry is supposed to be a beautiful art form.  And many, many times I can experience a poem and recognize that it is indeed something very beautiful.  But then I get a bit frustrated that I don’t understand it.  Or, at least, I don’t understand what I’m supposed to understand.  Or, maybe, I have this understanding that I’m supposed to understand the poem’s meaning.

This isn’t to say that I’m completely unappreciative of poetry.  Indeed, there are several poets whose work I greatly enjoy.


As a child, I read the books by Shel Silverstein such as The Giving Tree, A Light in the Attic, and Where the Sidewalk Ends.  Who could not be moved by playfully subversive verse like “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes”?

If you have to dry the dishes
(Such an awful boring chore)
If you have to dry the dishes
(‘Stead of going to the store)
If you have to dry the dishes
And you drop one on the floor
Maybe they won’t let you
Dry the dishes anymore

(Did you know, by the way, that Shel Silverstein was one of the leading cartoonists in Playboy magazine in the late 50s?  And he was able to publish successful children’s books, too.  Would that ever happen these days?)

ts eliot

As a teenager, I discovered T.S. Eliot by way of Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s musical Cats.  Eliot was a Nobel prize winning poet but it was his book of light verse titled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (which Lloyd Webber turned into the musical).  I found these poems to be very accessible, if for no other reason than that I knew the music with which they went, so I could hear the lyrical nature of the poems when reading them.

There’s a whisper down the line at 11.39
When the Night Mail’s ready to depart,
Saying `Skimble where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble?
We must find him or the train can’t start.’
All the guards and all the porters and the stationmaster’s daughters
They are searching high and low,
Saying `Skimble where is Skimble for unless he’s very nimble
Then the Night Mail just can’t go.’

Taken from “Skimbleshanks” from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

Of course, who was I to know that this opening verse was in fact a parody of a Rudyard Kipling poem?  That level of comprehension would have been much beyond me.


In university, I discovered (and had the chance to meet) Dr. Maya Angelou.  Her books first attracted me, as the theme of exploring identity which runs through them resonated with my own journey at that time in my life.  I did not read her poetry extensively, but when I attended a talk she gave at my school and heard her give voice to her poems, they came to life for me.  It was her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning“, which she read at the 1993 inauguration of President Clinton, that seemed to speak widely to Americans, myself included.

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.

Give birth again
To the dream.

From “On the Pulse of Morning”

So you see, it wasn’t as if I had no exposure to poetry.  But somehow I still feel intimidated by it.  Despite the best efforts of Bob Dickerson, my junior college English professor and the first person (by virtue of his Tennessee accent) whom I ever heard pronounce poem as “po-em” instead of “pome”, I look at a lot of poetry and just don’t know what I’m supposed to make of it.


So this week when I listed to a podcast of NPR’s Talk of the Nation from earlier this month, it was if I had heard from my messiah of poetry.  Billy Collins, the US Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, values approachability over pretention.  The article summarizing his 30-minute interview summed up his position nicely:

[Collins] thinks former students have “lingering anxieties” about poetry. Teaching of poetry, bound as it is to the teaching of critical analysis, is the culprit. In what he admits is a cynical interpretation, he believes that to some extent, teachers “teach difficult poetry because it ensures their usefulness as people standing between the reader and the poem” who help with interpretation.

In the classroom, “every time you hear a poem in a classroom, you know questions will follow,” he says. “This sequence — hear a poem, then get interrogated over it,” says Collins, can create an anxious relationship between readers and poetry.

There it was.  Suddenly my anxiety about poetry had found a voice.  Someone had put into words the reason that I felt inadequate when reading poems.  Every time I read a poem, I feel like I have to understand it well enough to answer questions about it.

Poetry 180

One of the projects that Collins has worked on in conjunction with the Library of Congress is called Poetry 180.  It is designed to make poetry accessible to students by presenting a poem each day for the 180 schools days each year.  (Only 180?!  That’s why American students are so far behind their global peers.) 

The selection of poems is geared specifically to high school students.  In Collins’ words, “Hearing a poem every day, especially well-written, contemporary poems that students do not have to analyze, might convince students that poetry can be an understandable, painless and even eye-opening part of their everyday experience.”

Let me share the first poem in the collection of Poetry 180.  It is titled “Introduction to Poetry” and is written by Billy Collins.  It sums up pretty much how I feel:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

from The Apple that Astonished Paris

Now that I’ve found a poet – a Poet Laureate, nonetheless! – who has put into words exactly the trepidation about poetry I feel, it is as if I have had a catharsis.  The boil has been lanced, and I can face poetry with a fresh start and now expectations.

I am just at the very beginning of my journey to learn to appreciate poetry, but I realize now that poetry is something I can learn to enjoy without having to worry about understanding it.

Happy National Poetry Month.


The Importance of Writing Clearly

Effective writing skills are important.  From time to time, I make spelling mistakes.  Grammar mistakes, too.  Especially when I’m in a rush to post an entry or send an email, I don’t spend nearly enough time reviewing and revising my words.

But there are times when I think such effort is crucial if you want to be taken seriously.  If for no other reason than to make your point clearly, taking the time to consider, review and edit your writing will yield many benefits.

This week I was exposed to two examples of why poor writing weakens your argument and causes others to not take you seriously.


The first example came from work.  Someone submitted an email from a personal email address to an internal company address that perhaps they thought would not be monitored.  The letter was so unclear and unfocussed that it was brought to the attention of my division’s VP, who took the time to respond and ask for clarification.

Here’s the text of the email.  “Huddles” are a type of daily team-building training session, about 10 minutes in length, that our employees conduct.

Huddle notes. What are we, high school 15 year olds. But then again for what [our] employees are paid has a lot to do with the quality of people you attract. They have been re-hashed, re-worked and repeated. Micro-Managing is old and tiresome. I would no more give someone who gets a livable wage the next idea for a huddle through a note or comment I may or may not make.

What in the world is this person trying to communicate?  The VP’s eloquent response conveyed a sincere desire to understand what, exactly, the person was concerned about.  Being provided with the opportunity to share suggestions?  Having a document on which he or she could take notes about the training?  The quality of employees we hire?  The amount we pay them?

Hopefully, the employee will respond to the VP’s email with more information.  My suspicion is that the person didn’t expect to ever receive a response and, when asked to articulate him/herself more clearly, will scurry into the shadows of anonymity.

What a shame, though.  There is obviously something bothering that employee, but his/her inability to clearly articulate it will hamper our efforts to address the concern.


The second example came from a friend who shared his frustration at Kenneth Starr’s role in persuading the California Supreme Court to overturn the 18,000 same-sex marriages that have been performed in the state.  In an online comment board, the friend wrote the following:

Which constitutional rights should you lose simply because you are heterosexual?  As a honest taxing paying citizen, what right am I entitled to revoke yours.  Are you doing this for money?  You can’t take it with you.  Fame?  same sex marriage will happen soon or later…like it or not… very soon, in history, you will be remembered as one of most hated person.  why you are doing this?  you will regret so much in your death bed knowing how many hearts you have broken & how many people wish you, your family and anyone relate to you go to hell (i am atheist and don’t believe in hell).  you are good at what you do as an attorney(prostitute)-for-hire & put your skills to good use.  so many things come & go in life…one thing has & always will remain the same…how love make people feel.  anyone with heart knows this.  do you have a heart?  I know my love as much as you know your love.  Don’t judge your daughter/son & granddaughter/son’s love.  There are less days you’ll live compare to the days you lived.  Do yourself a good deed while you are a human being.  Don’t wait till you return to earth as a handful of fertilizer…than you’d would be no different from the worst criminal you’d know.

His passion is very clear but I think the power of that passion is lost when the message delivered is so unclearly articulated.  It isn’t the spelling or grammar errors – those are understandable.  It is just the way that so many disjointed ideas are crammed together in a single paragraph, running into each other in a stream-of-consciousness way.

The sad truth is, it isn’t a statement that’s going to persuade anyone to change their views about same-sex marriage.  It isn’t going to cause an experienced lawyer (Starr) to sit back and reconsider his position.  If anything, it makes the argument in favor of same-sex marriage look weaker because it makes us look like a bunch of people who can’t even express ourselves clearly.


It is important for us to be passionate and to express those passions.  But I think the passion is most effectively channeled when we can express it in a way that moves others to understand and hopefully support our views.


I miss the NY Times

NY Times When I lived in the States, one of my favorite ways to pass a Sunday morning was with a big pot of coffee, a pitcher of scalded and frothed milk, and the New York Times.  Just the Magazine alone was worth the purchase price.

Sadly, the Times is not available here in Asia except as a special purchase at a newsstand that imports days-old copies.  Instead, you can purchase the International Herald Tribune, which is the Times’ international coverage and a smattering of US news, combined with some local stories provided by a partner newspaper in each particular country.  It just isn’t the same.

One of the things I like best about the Times is the quality of writing.  I honed my appreciation for the written word by reading the prose in Times articles, which are written several grade levels above the average newspaper.

These days I read the Times online.  The writing is just as good but the experience is not the same.  Still, I enjoy the reporters’ clever turns of phrase such as this choice bit from an article about some notable people who died in 2007.  This quote comes from an entry about former longtime Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton, the first running mate for George McGovern’s 1972 Presidential campaign, who resigned from the campaign after acknowledging his history of depression and mental illness.

The federal courthouse in St. Louis is named for him. Accomplished men and women have recounted how they were awed by his intellect, influenced by his humanity, inspired and enlisted by his passion. Thomas Eagleton was a giant of Missouri politics. But he was a giant bound by ties of his own peculiar design. He spent the first part of his career in the grip of a secret. Later, he was fettered to a question he answered countless times but never resolved.

“He was a man of decency, honor, humor, integrity,” George McGovern told me recently, rattling off Eagleton’s virtues until they veered abruptly off a rhetorical cliff, “with an incredible cover-up.”

Beautiful, isn’t it?