In Happy Endings, food critic Scott Reitz travels part of the globe that says "Dallas" in search of great desserts and great places to eat them. This is the third in an occasional series.
I always share desserts when dining out, mostly because I feel strongly that any one person should not have to bear the entire caloric cost of a restaurant confection alone, but also because I like to watch how a table of diners attacks the plate at hand. Sometimes a group casually lingers over desserts that become the backdrop for the end of a meal. Sometimes desserts become the center of attention, drawing conversations inward toward matters of fine chocolate, sugar and spices. Sometimes they reduce tables to a series of murmurs and moans as diners scramble for every bite to the last.
The brownie sundae at Village Kitchen, which you see up top, produced this last kind of reaction while I was working on my review last fall. After a few tentative bites of the dessert, the chatter at my table reduced to a minimum, replaced by the sounds of smacking lips and clanking tableware. As we finished our spoons had become weapons battling for the last bite, which was nothing more than a single brownie crumb standing in a tiny smudge of chocolate sauce. Such behavior is obviously an indicator of a dessert's wider appeal.
So when I paid Village Kitchen a visit a few weeks ago, I informed my friends that an order for the brownie sundae was absolutely mandatory -- advice they heeded and I instantly regretted when what arrived looked significantly different than the dessert I'd had before, and even less like that picture up there.
So I snapped a picture for comparison purposes.
To be fair, it's common knowledge that restaurants dress up the plates they know are going to end up in pictures that will exist on the Internet till the end of time. (If you need more evidence simply order a Big Mac and hold the resulting sandwich up to a glowing McDonald's menu board.) And it should also be known that food photographers typically arrive with fancy SLR cameras, lights and filters that make food look their very best, and I work with a pinhole camera made from a shoebox and tinfoil, while trying to remain under the radar.
I honestly don't know if I was spotted as a critic during either visit. It's not like I have a post game wrap-up after my meal where chefs get to ask what I thought of the steak and I get to ask them if they fancied my new fake mustache, although that would be cool. Still, the difference between the plates was striking, and calls into question how not just critics, who are increasingly abandoning their anonymity, but all members of the media including bloggers, who are rarely anonymous, and photographers, who are never anonymous, are treated, and how those experiences will align with what their readers will encounter when they visit the same restaurant later.
I'll stop short of recommending diners print or cut out images and pictures from newspapers and magazines and request their plates arrive just so. (Although I'm curious to see what would happen if they did.) But the next time you see a gorgeous steak in print you might to well to imagine it a quarter-inch thinner with a thick line of gristle.
Not that it would be any less delicious. Even though my second sundae had a serious case of the fuglies it was devoured with no less enthusiasm than the first.