This week, John Tesar's new steakhouse, Knife, was reviewed by Leslie Brenner, the longtime critic at The Dallas Morning News. Brenner awarded three stars, an assessment that translates to "very good: a destination restaurant for this type of dining," according to the paper's review and listing policy. You might think an accomplished chef would be happy with such a rating, but Tesar let the entire Twitterverse know otherwise in a tweet that has food blogs across the country talking:
@lesbren fuck you ! Your reviews are misleading poorly written,self serving and you have destroyed the star system and you really suck
— John Tesar (@ChefJohnTesar) July 17, 2014
— John Tesar (@ChefJohnTesar) July 17, 2014
What was Tesar so upset about? Brenner's review was filled with the same sharp-edged prose the critic has come to be known for. She called a bacon tasting "as impressive as those new duds the emperor bought," and noted steaks came to the table overcooked, sometimes underseasoned. Brenner pecked at other dishes, too, including roast chicken and a few of the salads, but her overarching concern seemed to be Tesar's overarching reach. The menu at Knife is massive.
Meanwhile, here at the Observer, my review of the same restaurant was published the same week, and while we don't award stars, it's safe to say I wrote a wholly positive review. I noted the same unevenness in the steaks as Brenner did, and noted a few other minor quips, but generally found the restaurant to be a favorable place to dine.
So Brenner's wrong, right? Wrong. Stay with me.
Tesar's first restaurant Spoon was awarded four stars by Brenner when it opened early last year. After multiple dinners in both restaurants, I think it's clear that Knife in no way recreates the level of refinement and sophistication of its seafood-driven sister. Spoon is a tightly run ship on par with the best fine dining experiences in the city. Knife is more relaxed, but I think that's OK -- it's also a little less expensive. I don't know how many celestial bodies that equals, but three doesn't sound so far off.
The lingering questions are whether Brenner's criticism veers too far toward mean and "self-serving," as Tesar asserts, and whether or not he's a tad insane. My take? Yes and yes. And that's fine by me.
Through years of reviewing restaurants around Dallas, Brenner has become the quintessential critic-villain -- the sort of pundit we see in movies like Ratatouille and, more recently Chef, who dole out eviscerating zingers for the entertainment of readers that enjoy reading engaging restaurant criticism. Tesar, meanwhile, is living up to our expectations of Dallas' most hated chef. And while we should certainly expect his behavior to fall in line with some basic rules of conduct, it's hard not to think that the same quadrant of his brain that's responsible for his starting a fight with Nick Badovinus or launching F-bombs via Twitter is also responsible for his inventive, often elegant cooking. Without Tesar as he is, we wouldn't have Spoon or Knife.
We wouldn't have this story, either, and we wouldn't have Tesar telling Eater that he's banned Brenner from his restaurants, which will surely add more fuel to the fire.
It's also making this seem like more of a publicity stunt. In Chef the movie, Jon Favreau's character posted an angry late-night tweet at a critic and ended up largely successful. I mean, it worked in the movies, right?
Cast blame in either direction, but I'm going to hang onto mine and just enjoy the show.
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