I chose The Grape for this week's review with a specific purpose: to reflect on the mechanics of restaurant criticism, and to gain a better understanding of Dallas' dining culture. The restaurant was recently reviewed by both D and the Morning News. What better way to learn about two critics and a dining scene than to read their work, dine for myself and compare the results?
At D, Nancy Nichols showered The Grape with so much praise I thought I'd risk my last meal to sip from the Brian Luscher's spoon. She gushed over a perfectly average charcuterie and fawned over service and space. She also had this to say about the soup, which made me want to take my mother there.
My brother proposed to his wife over this soup, so naturally we ordered a bowl to share. Tasting it as a family sparked a wonderful conversation about their wedding and how fast years slip away. By the time the next course arrived, I was as relaxed and happy as I can remember being in a restaurant.
At the News, Leslie Brenner was buried in crowded plates, muddled dishes and unyielding green tomatoes. "These plates are claustrophobic," she wrote of a red-fish dish topped with crab and avocado salad, supplemented with a citrus beurre blanc, a bundle of pencil asparagus and a mound of roasted potatoes. She settled eventually on a quantified score of two stars -- far from glowing
Who's right? Which opinion best serves a readership whose aggregate tastes are so inclusive and so dynamic, they're damn near infinite?
I think both critics accurately reviewed The Grape, but both left a little on the table. Brian Luscher's food is good, for sure, but it wouldn't stand up to a five-star kitchen at the top of its game -- and it's not supposed to. Plates are claustrophobic when the crispy skin of a well roasted chicken is topped with spinach and dampened. But there's so much more to a restaurant experience than what you find with your fork.
The Grape has a warm, familial vibe and tables filled with neighborhood regulars. It's hard to look around the dining room and find a party that not enjoying their time. For these regulars, The Grape is a second home, and if you can weasel your way into that atmosphere, even during a single visit, you'll likely have a memorable meal.
Restaurant criticism is far from a scientific vocation. Sure, I could walk into an establishment, scorecard in hand, with defined attributes and weighted measures ready to be deployed, and end up with a final assessment: "And the concatenated data resolves into a final score for The Grape of 82." But that wouldn't be any fun at all, and I would come up short of capturing the essence of the restaurant.
This is what Yelp and other dining aggregations can never be, and what less than careful food commentary often fails to provide: a sense of what it feels like not just to eat somewhere, but to be somewhere. Hopefully this week's review, which is on newsstands and on the restaurant page now, accomplishes that. If it doesn't, well, at least it will make you crave one of Luscher's burgers.