Food & Drink

Our critic answers your questions: What are the tastes you savor the most?

A perfect margherita pizza, its blistery, leopard-spotted crusted topped with just the right amount of crushed tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil. The Margherita on the Napoli food truck is one of Greg Cox’s favorites.
A perfect margherita pizza, its blistery, leopard-spotted crusted topped with just the right amount of crushed tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil. The Margherita on the Napoli food truck is one of Greg Cox’s favorites. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Last month, in keeping with the communal spirit of Share Plates, I invited readers to email me their questions and suggestions for topics they’d like to see addressed in this forum.

I got a ton of responses, including this four-part gem from Daniel M.

That’s a standing invitation, by the way. Just email me at ggcox55@gmail.com.

NOTE: Daniels note has been edited for brevity (though I couldn’t resist quoting the second question in its entirety).

Q. Give your readers an idea of your favorite tastes, those which prompt you to close your eyes and savor the moment. Mine include ...

A ripe peak-of-the-season Johnston County freestone peach.

A BLT sandwich made with that bacon, Hellmann’s mayo, and slices of homegrown vine-ripened beefsteak tomato.

A. I’m with you on the peach, though I’d extend the range to include the Sandhills, source of the exquisitely perfumed peaches of my childhood. One of life’s unalloyed pleasures is a perfectly ripe peach so juicy you have to stand over the sink to eat it.

MAIN OPTION 2: OYSTERS
Raw 1/2 dozen oysters are served with cocktail sauce, pickled banana peppers, lemon, fried saltines and mignonette at St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar in downtown Raleigh. Critic Greg Cox quite likes oysters. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

I’ll second the BLT, too, though as a Southerner I have to say the bacon and lettuce are optional in peak tomato season. Also, the mayo has to be Duke’s.

Which brings me to tomatoes — along with peaches, one of the great joys of summer. Showered with fresh basil and a drizzle of olive oil, or just sliced thick and simply seasoned with sea salt and black pepper. Either way, bliss.

A perfect margherita pizza, its blistery, leopard-spotted crusted topped with just the right amount of crushed tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil.

I’d also add oysters — any way, really, but especially on the half shell. Even better if they’re part of a seafood tower, which for my money trumps foie gras and truffles as the ultimate gastronomic luxury.

Steak frites — on a sidewalk cafe in Paris. Yes, the cut is chewy by American steak standards, but it’s very beefy. And it’s Paris.

A bowl of pho, its steamy broth redolent of star anise and cinnamon — a potion that works its magic on my senses even before I’ve added any garnish. As a bonus, it’s just what the doctor ordered when I have a cold.

Q. Sooner or later you will have a first exposure to a cuisine completely new to you. Suppose you dine at a place which features the cuisine of Trashcanistan. You order the house specialty, Marinated Camel Hoof. With no experience to guide you, how can you distinguish between “authentic and superb,” “a delightful twist on the classical formulation” and “sadly mediocre”?

A. Ah, you know me too well. Of course I’d order the marinated camel hoof, because I can’t resist trying any dish I’ve never had before.

ZWELIS2-FE-040419-JEL
Zweli’s in Durham serves a half-chicken with a side of collard greens cooked with peanut butter and Jollof rice. It’s an example of a cuisine that Greg Cox sampled for the first time. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

I always research a cuisine before trying it for the first time, so I’d have a general idea of what to expect going in. That said, I would never presume to pronounce a dish authentic until I’ve had it a sufficient number of times in different restaurants to be confident as to the standards. Even then, I think it’s generally more helpful to share my impressions as an outsider to that particular culture (as are, presumably, most of my readers). So, to use your terms, even though I’m inclined to shy away from “authentic,” I might well call a dish “delightful.”

Q. Have you ever had truly awful meals? Have you ever written a review saying “Zero stars, terrible, this place should close!”?

A. I have indeed had a few truly awful meals, though they’re much less common than Yelp reviews would lead you to expect. I have never given a restaurant zero stars, though, because I think it’s more helpful to tell readers about the places worthy of a visit, and why.

In theory, I’d make an exception for a high profile restaurant that I would want to warn people away from, and in fact I have awarded one star or one-and-a-half star to a handful of those restaurants over the years. Oh, and those zero star restaurants I didn’t write about closed without my help.

RAL_ MEKONG2-FE-052617-JEL
Mekong’s rendition of the classic meal-in-a-bowl beef noodle soup, pho, is among the best around. JULI LEONARD jleonard@newsobserver.com

Q. Now for reader feedback and constructive criticism. In evaluating a place with stars, you are wrong to weight food above service, ambiance, cleanliness, quietness, etc. Patronizing a restaurant is a dining experience which begins with a warm greeting, comfortable seating, a perfectly clean table, sparkling clean utensils, background music that is pleasant and low-volume, attentive servers, well-timed pace of the meal, an accurate order-fill, a correctly-figured bill, payment collected promptly.

A. I’m sure many people would agree with your description of the ideal restaurant experience. So do I, for the most part. But the total experience rarely lives up to that ideal, so when I’m awarding stars I weigh the different factors according to their impact on the meal.

Atmosphere (and that includes noise level) is a matter of personal taste, so as long as the place is clean, I take it on its own terms. Service can make or break a meal, but merely average service is so common that most of us don’t even notice it. A merely average rib-eye at a high-end steakhouse, on the other hand, now that’s a different matter.



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