It’s taken me a while longer to get this post up than intended. Was doing some stretches on the floor a few days ago and my lower back went into the most excruciating spasm. Have been shuffling around bent over like a reading lamp ever since, unable to tolerate more than a few minutes at a time seated in front of the computer lest my back seize up and weld me to the chair. A spinal version of that dire risk face-pulling kids are traditionally warned about of the wind changing and freezing them in some grotesque grimace for life. Gotta stand. Back in a few minutes…cre-e-e-eak…
Last post I awarded the inaugural Boomtown Rap Wooden Spoon for worst food critic in the West to one Ms Jacqui Bahr, of The Vincent Voice. Ms Bahr can take some solace in having inspired the creation of this award – at least her “winning” review was remarkable, albeit remarkably bad. Most of her food critic brethren and sistren in Perth are so mediocre, so bland, as to be unworthy of any comment at all.
There is but a solitary shining light among local food critics, representing a glimmer of hope and comfort like Gatsby’s green light across the bay to the few who, like me, actually care about such things. I refer to…drum roll… The West Australian’s Rob Broadfield.
There’s nothing particularly friendly or endearing about this bloke – or, at least, his persona as it comes across in his West Weekend Magazine restaurant reviews – so I will refer to him henceforth as Broadfield, rather than Rob. Karma is everywhere.
So what sets Broadfield apart from the rest of Perth’s food critics?
- 1. His reviews are informed
2. He can write
3. His assessments are brutally honest
Truly, I have not come across any other Perth food critic who comes close to this guy. The average (and I mean average) food reviewer over here could be anyone who doesn’t mind a night out at a restaurant and has duly sucked up to their editor long and hard enough to get the gig. They rarely if ever demonstrate any specialist knowledge of the cuisine they’re covering, let alone its preparation, and struggle to move beyond pedestrian superlatives and adjectives in describing their experience. Words like “delicious”, “yummy” and “moreish” do not tell the reader anything about the food, but that’s what passes for assessment from these dullards.
And as for those almost inevitable references to “tastebuds”…really, what the hell do I care as a reader about whether some hack’s tastebuds were tantalised, treated or teased? All that tells me is that the critic is an unimaginative twat who is being paid to write clichéd shit. And they’re all so fucking “naice”, seemingly obliged to hand out good reviews indiscriminately.
Rob Broadfield, by contrast, comes about as close as words can get to giving us a meaningful literary experience, at least, of the restaurant he’s reviewing and the produce on offer, and he tells it as it is for him. He’s not afraid to put the “mean” in meaningful. This fearlessness has evoked threats from disgruntled parties, on one occasion on his life (source: a recent interview on ABC TV’s Stateline program)!
It takes something special to inspire lavish praise from Broadfield, but unlike the arrogant academic who never marks higher than a 7, he is not afraid to put himself on the line when he encounters the exceptional. And on those somewhat rare occasions, you get the impression you can take note with confidence.
Why? Because he clearly knows his stuff! He tells you why he is impressed (or otherwise), and he expands with detail that convincingly demonstrates an expansive knowledge of a wide range of cuisines. And not only from an educated diner’s perspective. He “trained as a chef” in his youth, which euphemistically indicates that he failed to qualify, but clearly he has actively pursued his early interest in food preparation and continued to develop a cook’s understanding of kitchen craft: his cookbook, Pull Up A Chair – A Cook’s Diary From a Summer Holiday, which features his own recipes, was published in 2000.
This is not a bio, so I’ll crush the rest of his notable history past and present into a single sentence mini-resume: food reviewer and editor of the Saturday West Australian’s generally excellent feature liftout West Weekend Magazine, Palandri Wines Director, Managing Director of Margaret River Radio AM1611, food reviewer for Business News, early 90s current affairs/talkback host with Radio 6PR.
I can bang on about Broadfield’s qualities as a food reviewer, and indeed I will be doing a bit more of that before this post ends, but first let’s serve up a few appetisers selected virtually at random from his recent West Weekend Magazine restaurant reviews.
A lamb tagine, baby eggplant, preserved lemon, $27, was simplicity writ large. Based on a vibrant, clean-flavoured stock, it was a slow braise of lamb shoulder and shin made musky with roasted whole small aubergines and perked up with a fine julienne of preserved lemon rind. The flavours were impeccably balanced. Presentation in a cast-iron tagine was spot on. The house-made bread – I saw it going into the oven, courtesy of a very open kitchen – was perfect to sponge up the juices. [Duende Tapas Bar, Leederville, West Weekend Magazine, March 1, 2008]
The gnocchi was a courageously deconstructed dish with all the components on the plate not bound by a sauce. The gnocchi was twice-cooked – blanched and pan-fried – but managed to remain soft and pillowy. [Glass Brasserie, Sydney, West Weekend Magazine, March 8, 2008]
At this point we knew we were eating food a cut above. No stodgy, greasy samosa, no dried-out chicken in acidic and lurid tandoori paste, no desiccated prawns in factory-made tikka. Rather, the flavours were refined, clear and precise…
For desert, the kulfi, $5.90, was heady with mango and pistachio flavours. Disappointingly, it didn’t come in the traditional kulfi mould – a short, truncated aluminium cone like a stretched dariole mould – but the flavours were va-va-voom. [GoGo’s Madras Curry House, Mount Lawley, West Weekend Magazine, February 23, 2008]
See what I mean? He paints a picture of the food and its presentation, gives details of its preparation that assist to convey the textures and flavours, and reasons his way to his assessments. No lazy writing here, no tossing off cheap, empty superlatives like “scrumptious” or “yummy” that leave you to flounder and wonder.
Similarly, we are left in no doubt when he is unimpressed, or why.
…flavours were muted to the point of blandness. The [pork] belly wasn’t rendered properly, and was memorable for its roof-of-the-mouth fattiness. [(A)lure, Burswood, Perth, West Weekend Magazine, December 15, 2007]
If the steak was the highlight, the lowlight was the Thai beef salad…It was made on what appeared to be leftover roast beef, cut into large batons and with none of the hot (chilli), salty (fish sauce), sweet (palm sugar), sour (lime juice) flavours one expects from even a mildly authentic Thai beef salad. It was about as Thai as a double cheeseburger. For the record, Thai beef salad should be made from steak trimmed of every last skerrick of fat and char grilled with a dark, salty crust, before being thinly sliced and tossed with coriander, mint leaves, sliced shallots, cherry tomatoes, chopped chilli and a hot, salty, sweet, sour sauce. [The Globe, Parmelia Hilton, Perth, West Weekend Magazine, January 12, 2008]
That last quote brings me to a gripe about Broadfield. OK, he knows a lot about his topic, but he’s a little over-zealous in asserting himself as a superior culinary being. His laying down the law like this on Thai beef salad is gratuitous, patronising even. Is he writing a food review or a cooking column?
And would all good Thai cooks agree with his decree on the way a Thai beef salad should be made? It strikes me that provincial variation is one of the defining (and most fascinating) features of SE Asian cuisine. No one would argue with his complaint about The Globe’s substitution of roast beef for rare lean steak, but could he be justifiably accused of being inappropriately prescriptive in the rest of his table-thumping Thai beef salad commandments? I believe so.
There are other aspects to his reviewing that irk me, also. He likes to associate himself with the uptown set and postures as urbane – a cove of impeccable “taste” – while simultaneously throwing wry comments about suggesting some contempt for the very notion of “hip”.
For example, when told by a waitress at Duendes that by-the-glass wines are available but not included on the winelist, he writes:
This is something I hadn’t come across in a restaurant before.
“Right, er, so how do I choose a wine?”
“Just ask me. What would you like?”
This must be a hip new thing, so probably best I go with the flow.
“Oh…um…How about a Central Otago sauvignon blanc?”
Ironic smirk towards hipness, yet out he comes with a choice of wine designed to show off his status as a buff.
Further, he frequently comes close to name-dropping, letting us know that he hobnobs with professionals and society’s success stories, yet – again – tempers this with a touch of irony. When reviewing Perth’s universally esteemed Jackson’s restaurant, for example, he lets it slip that his companion is “a colourful Perth silk famous for fulsome discussion on his favourite topic – himself”.
In his review of Bouchard’s restaurant in West Perth last week, he apparently thought it relevant to identify his dining companions as “three brokers, one an Essendon champion who played two grand finals”, “a corporate finance guy” and “a young guy with a red Ferrari…” What have red Ferraris and Broadfield’s taste for yuppie company got to do with the food at Bouchard’s? Or the fact that one of the gaggle had been an Essendon champion? Since when have jocks been known for their appreciation of fine food? And if never, why even mention this bloke’s footballing glory days – is this supposed to add to the cred of the review? Trophyism, Rob mate. Mere trophyism.
In his review of The Globe, he writes:
Barristers and journos are particularly good lunch company: their gossip’s first rate, their storytelling is well-honed and their laughter comes easily. They are a louche crowd, generally speaking, which is good.
Is it? What’s good about barristers and journos, particularly? A disproportionate number of society’s slimebags represented in that crowd, I would contend. And what the fuck does “louche” mean? I could look it up, but on principle I’m not going to. Terrific food reviewing aside, Broadfield is a bit of a wanker, it must be said.
I’m pondering whether he’ll fully appreciate his Boomtown Rap Silver Spoon Best Perth Food Critic Award. If his self-projection and review persona are anything to go by, silver spoons are passé for him. You get the impression he was born with one in his mouth.
He could take a lesson from Perth food blogger, The Food Pornographer, who shamelessly exhibits equal ardour for low-brow fast food, greasy-spooners and pooncey Subi yuppie fare, with an unselfconsciousness that charms, and a total disregard for any notions of foodie hipness. Her unrestrained love of food of all types, and the complete absence of pretention and preciousness in her eccentric write-ups are refreshing and endearing – in this, she has something to teach Broadfield.
The two are not to be compared otherwise, of course. They have different objectives and audiences, and inhabit different genres with different presentation modes. Both attempt the impossible – to communicate sensory experience through abstract modes of presentation: food critics work with words, food bloggers with a combination of photography and words (in that order of potency).
Broadfield’s food reviewing is an accomplished and developed art, built on a lifetime of focused experience and acquired knowledge. His taste in food and wine is genuinely refined, and he writes with flair and panache. However, the air of “superiority” that keeps creeping into his work, that sense of nose in the air, is a flaw he would do well to address. Garnishing his elitist posturing with a sprinkling of irony is not the answer, serving only to conjure the image of a fat boy with his hand stuck in the ideological cookie jar.
But thank Bacchus for him. He’s the best in the West, and probably about as good as food reviewers get anywhere.
Now THIS is Hard to Stomach