Here I am, always late for the party.
Things in the food criticism game have been a tad bit discomforting of late. Not only have we had a bit of issue with the John Mariani affair, but now there’s a real scandal involving fellow Pac Nor’westerner Jim Dixon. He recently gave a marginal re-review of Portland’s Castagna restaurant. The review was a bit odd, in that it didn’t cover desserts or ambiance, but focused on appetizers and entrees, and had a particular gripe about salt.
Below are a few quotes from a 468 word review:
When Kevin Gibson and Monique Siu-a husband-and-wife team who’d both been present at the creation of some of the best meals in town (Gibson at Genoa, Siu at Zefiro)-opened Castagna on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard in 1999, everybody was happy. Before its first birthday, a reviewer in WW’s own Restaurant Guide proclaimed it “the best new restaurant to open in Portland.” In 2000, The Oregonian dubbed Castagna its Restaurant of the Year.
So what’s my problem? In a word: salt.
I also know that we fickle, inconsistent humans come equipped with varying abilities to perceive flavors.
So take this with a grain of salt. Or better yet, shake a little on the food at Castagna, because it’s still bland.
I had to ask for salt for the cafe’s signature burger ($11), ditto for the steak ($19), two items that should’ve been pretty heavily salted before they were cooked.
On first perusal, this may seem like a relevant piece of criticism. But then the owners of Castagna, Kevin Gibson and Monique Siu posted a letter to the editor in which they drop this bombshell.
…in the best interests of full disclosure, please let your readers know that your reviewer imports and sells sea salt.
To add insult to injury, the Castagna dropped off a 50 lb Salt lick to Mr. Dixon.
Weekly Editor Kelly Clarke responded that this little fact of Dixon’s business should have been noted somewhere around Jim’s review. But, she noted “In order to avoid any conflicts of interest, Dixon does not sell salt or olive oil to restaurants he reviews for WW.”
That little bit of news sure lit a fire under some people’s bottoms in Portland, as they responded with several further letters to the editors, wondering where the line is drawn in this “Conflict of Interest” debate. One writes “If a restaurant chooses not to do business with Mr. Dixon, then he is free to review them?” Another reader follows up with “I know that you all are proud of your Pulitzer Prize this year, but Jim Dixon and Kelly Clarke just took a little shine off your publication’s well-deserved reputation.”
Jim Dixon then responded to his critics in the same column, essentially saying “I have never tried to sell salt to Castagna.”
Which may be true, but he has sold salt to restaurant Clarklewis. But as Portland Tribune’s Phil Standford points out, Clarklewis is owned by Michael Hebberoy, who also owns a company who caters for a place called Family Supper.
This is what Dixon said of a dish at Family Supper:
We joined the party, and we all ate sliced fresh tomatoes drizzled with good olive oil and sprinkled with chunky sea salt
As I said before — Whoops. Although to be fair, Dixon took on Clarklewis as a client after this review. But without that key bit of information, it does make Dixon look compromised, even if he isn’t.
I could write a treatise about ethics and restaurant criticisms. I could sit here on my perch on high and waggle my finger at the various parties.
But really, it is far more entertaining just to sit back and watch. I’ll save the ethical discussion for another day. There will also be more mature posts soon — as soon as I am done being entertained by all of this.
And bring some popcorn.