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Everyone's a critic on KQED's restaurant show Check, Please!

Wednesday, Mar 1 2006
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It was the briefest of brief encounters, but in an instant I understood that I'd wounded him to the quick. "Eaten anyplace good lately?" was the usual question from Dan, who I knew worked somewhere on the business side of the paper I used to write for, and who liked to try Los Angeles' unusual ethnic holes in the wall. This time, instead of enthusing about Salvadoran pupusas or Korean bulgogi, I replied, "No, alas. I've just finished a piece about a really awful new Cajun-Creole place on Sunset." His face fell, and he uttered a name. "Yeah," I replied. "We just sold them a quarter-page ad for the next six months," he explained, an ad we were sure would be canceled a day after the piece came out. Suddenly his face brightened. "I always tell them," he said, "it's just one person's opinion!"

Well, it's three persons' opinions on Check, Please! Bay Area, a restaurant review show that debuted on KQED in November of last year, a local version of a show created by WTTW, a public television station in Chicago. The original is often cited as WTTW's most popular program, and has been on long enough to generate a database of "favorite" eateries numbering about 170 -- including, one cannot help but notice, a place named Earwax, listed right above Ed Debevic's, a strenuously '50s-themed chain of diners that no one in his right mind could choose as his favorite restaurant.

Or, as the bet is hedged in the KQED program's introduction, "one of their favorite spots." In the 10 shows that have aired locally so far, these favorites have ranged from ethnic and inexpensive (Anh Hong, Burma Superstar, ViKs Chaat Corner) through moderate neighborhood places (Firefly, Universal Cafe) to expensive destination restaurants (Lark Creek Inn, Manresa). Each of the three "regular people" eats at the choices of the other two, incognito, and then they all gather around a table -- curiously set with plates and silverware that are never used, though the wineglasses get a good workout -- and discuss their opinions, moderated by a perky blonde who has authored a couple of books about wine.

There's a sociological or psychological term paper begging to be written about the interactions of the group; rarely are the reviewers out for blood, and a curious gentility sometimes sets in, as they maneuver not to hurt each other's feelings (or those of the restaurateurs, who are given their own separately filmed segments in which they describe their food and ambience). Most objections appear to be lodged about authenticity (to which I always want to say, "But did it taste good?"), and once it was about the fact that a restaurant was part of a chain (to which I would say the same). Although things never quite devolve into the "Jane, you ignorant slut!" level of invective that makes for good television, I did treasure the sniffiness of the guy I call Vegetable Snob, who felt the need to remind us several times that he's used to much fresher provender purchased at the farmers' markets (which, it seemed, he had only recently discovered).

A kerfuffle erupted on Chowhound.com not long ago when one of those "regular people," also a regular on the site, posted about his experience, which included the information that his first five choices, all in the East Bay, were rejected by the show's producers (Pizzaiolo as being too new, Chef Gregoire for having no ambience, and three for being too similar to restaurants already reviewed: Ajanta, too much like ViKs -- odd in that the former is upscale and does elaborate cooking and the latter is a dive featuring street snacks; Nellie's, because of Hard Knox; and Café Colucci, similar to the Red Sea). At which point he threw up his hands and chose Aziza, in San Francisco, writing, "[Y]es, I love Aziza for that certain occasion, it just isn't my 'favorite' restaurant, the type of place that I go to regularly and feel like I'm at home while dining." Chowhounders were also surprised to learn from him that the person who had chosen Pisces hadn't been there in over a year and felt it had gone downhill but was asked by the producers to be positive in her comments. (Still, he ended his post with, "I encourage all of my fellow Hounds to try out for Check Please," proving once again that the lowest common denominator, as a friend says, is a free meal. Not to mention a little television exposure.)

I've dined at about half of the places the show has covered, and though a picture may be worth a thousand words (give or take), I'm surprised at how the brightly lit shots of the restaurant interiors don't correspond to my memories of them. (I do, however, envy the program's ability to insert shots of the dishes as they're being described, one up on the cell phone photos now so prevalent on blogs.) When my Canadian houseguests, Martin and Bernadette, request an Italian meal -- "Italian seafood, maybe?" -- I think back to one of the first episodes, which featured Antica Trattoria, whose straightforward, cozy, wood-paneled dining room with white-linened tables has looked appealing whenever I've driven or walked past. There's not as much seafood on the menu as I had expected (I guess it's all down the street at its sister restaurant, the excellent Pesce, which features Venetian cichetti, small plates), but we start with a brightly dressed salad of assorted shellfish with curly frisée, plump gnocchi in pesto, burrata cheese served with a ratatouillelike relish of roasted peppers, and an irresistible shared plate of perfectly cooked green and white asparagus covered with a chunky Gorgonzola sauce described as zabaglione. My friends have never tasted burrata, a fresh mozzarella-esque cheese with an exceptionally creamy and buttery heart, and they are entranced by it.

"The starters were better than the main courses," Martin points out later. "And how many times have I written that sentence about Italian restaurants?" I reply. Still, my braised duck, served in a flood of its cooking broth, is as good as it can be. Both my friends prefer the accompaniments to the meat or fish they order (red cabbage and chestnut spaetzle that I find too firm, topped with medallions of venison, and spaghetti squash and blood orange segments under a slab of sturgeon). We finish with excellent renditions of tiramisu and panna cotta. Just as described: a reliably warm and lovely neighborhood spot.

I hadn't been particularly taken by Cha Cha Cha at a lunch I had there a couple of years ago, but the three Check, Please!-ers are so enthusiastic (especially the chooser, a charming Episcopal priest whose big healthy-boy looks should have set off bells in my head, and whose courteous manner helps create an unusually agreeable show) that I invite Hiya and Jonathan to join me there for dinner. The place looks a lot grungier than it did on TV. We put our names on a waiting list, order a seemingly inevitable pitcher of sangria in the packed bar, and, in my favorite restaurant trick, get shown to a table in 10 minutes rather than the 20 estimated. We share small plates (actually quite large) from the tapas menu: fried calamari on a sea of garlicky mayonnaise; chunks of fried platanos embedded in puréed black beans; what the kitchen calls "Cajun" shrimp in a lake of creamy, tomato-y, mildly spiced sauce; spinach salad; two kinds of button mushrooms sautéed with butter and garlic; and jerk chicken, several meaty, plump pieces perched on white rice that taste rather timid despite the Scotch Bonnet peppers promised in the marinade. Everything is tasty, especially the yummy platanos, though nothing deserves the show's come-to-Jesus enthusiasm.

When Hiya and Jonathan drive me to where I'm parked, I note that it's my first time ever in a City CarShare vehicle. I pick up a CD. "People leave mixes in the car," Jonathan tells me. "Do you listen to them?" I ask. "No, they inevitably suck," he says. Everyone's a critic.

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Meredith Brody

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