Every week, when we examine our proofs at the Observer -- big sheets of paper with the article laid out as it will appear in print -- I'm treated to another drool-worthy photo of a dish I've selected because I think it will resonate with my review.
Pretty often, the picture shows a plate that has been embellished compared to the presentation I experienced in the restaurant. The garnishes are a little more bright and placed more carefully, and the portions are often larger. I'll write about an overdressed salad that looks like a mess, only to end up with a picture that could hold its own in the Arts District.
It's hard to blame the cooks and chefs behind the plates. While they have no control over the words that get published in a review, they have a lot of influence over the food photography. When I'm dining at a restaurant, I do my best to do so anonymously, in the hopes that I'll be served dishes in line what what other customers can expect.
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When I'm done with my review meals, our photographer, the brilliant and award-winning Catherine Downes, calls and makes an appointment before she visits. Now the chefs know what time to be ready, what dishes will need to be prepared, and that these pictures will be featured in print and on the web. Why wouldn't they take some time and make each dish look as appetizing as possible?
Most of the time these tweaks are small enough that the plate still conveys what a diner should expect. Maybe there's an extra portion of meat tucked into a sandwich, or a sauce that was dumped on my plate is ladled over the photographer's dish with an artist's aesthetic. This hanger steak shot for my recent review of the French bistro Mercat, however, made me laugh when I saw it.
My hope was to highlight one of the dishes that promised a satisfying experience should you end up at Mercat. In fact, all the beef dishes I ordered at Mercat turned out to be pretty good. But if you visit the bistro and order the $18 hanger steak plate, you'll be served nothing like the massive pile of meat above. Instead, you'll get what amounts to a respectable but not overly generous portion. I'd say the plate in this picture has nearly twice the steak.
For what you pay, the serving at Mercat is plenty fair. But don't look at this photo and think you've discovered the most cost-effective share plate in downtown Dallas.