¡Ask a Comida Critic!: How Can I Request a Re-Review?

From Irene in the Land of the Intermittent Showers:

My family recently took over an upscale Chinese bistro in downtown Portland, Oregon. We just had our first review by our local free weekly paper, Willamette Week, and it's a bad one. We feel it was not a true and fair review of what we are, and we would like to invite back the reviewer who believed we are nothing but an overpriced place that will come and go without anyone noticing. Plus, he compared us to the mall food court's Panda Express.

In what ways would you suggest me doing this without further offending our local food critic?


Well, I don't write for Willamette ("It's Willamette, damn it!") Week, and I haven't been to Oregon since I did a tour of Reed College as a prospective student. I ended up stoned out of my mind, staring glassy-eyed at the endless shelves of Powell's City of Books, and in my teenage foolishness, ignored almost all of Portland's excellent food, so I'm not qualified to say whether the review was fair.

I love shi zi tou--the lion's-head meatballs that are one of the glories of eastern Chinese home cooking--but even the best ones don't pack a huge wallop of flavor, and the cabbage served underneath is pretty subtly spiced. I'd have tried them, too--but I'm incredibly picky about Chinese food and my m.o. would have been to look for any bits of sinew in the meatball.

I can see the reviewer's point: I've eaten in sit-down restaurants in midtown Manhattan that didn't charge $14 for jade tofu and $16 for General Tso's chicken (incidentally, and this is just a pet peeve: chickens don't have tenderloins). Ambiance counts, of course, but those prices are a hard hurdle to clear.

That's not the question you asked, though, and I'm afraid you're not going to like the answer. The reviewer is not likely to come back, whether or not you invite him. For that matter, the reviewer probably doesn't revisit even those places he raves about because he has to have material for future columns. Rehashes of reviews by the same person tend to make for less-than-compelling reading.

Now, as much as my ego would like to think alt-weekly restaurant reviews have some impact on a restaurant's traffic, you'll get a better sense of what Portlanders think of your restaurant by keeping close tabs on Yelp. Looking at the last three months on Yelp, it looks like you might have some front-of-house issues to address (read: rude waitstaff). Fix that and move past a negative review without dwelling on it.

You've got what looks like wu xi red-cooked spare ribs on the menu, as well as long jing xia ren (dragon well tea prawns) and the aforementioned shi zi tou. It appears your family (or your chef) might be from Hangzhou or Shanghai. Why not reinvent yourselves as a Jiangsu restaurant? Jettison the non-differentiating orange chicken and replace it with, say, dong po rou (braised pork belly). Kill off the watery egg-drop soup and replace it with xi hu niu rou tang (West Lake beef soup). Less competition means you can charge higher prices.

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