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Mouthing Off

They've got my number: The Web is the gift that keeps on giving. Because my reviews are archived there, they have a shelf life longer than a Christmas fruitcake. And so I've been getting e-mail all year about Rodizio, the Cheesecake Factory and several other of my less-than-favorite places. But more recent reviews have drawn fire, too. Pete McCaffery of Aurora wrote to say that contrary to my November 20 review, he thinks Dumitri's restaurant, at 1911 South Havana Street, is just fine. "The service is great and friendly, the portions are very generous and the quality is tremendous," McCaffery wrote. "In my opinion, it is the best place to have a great meal in the state for the price."

Dumitri's owner, Dumitri Palea, obviously agrees. The ink was barely dry on that edition of the paper when he called to complain about my review. "You are a liar," he said. "You don't know anything about food." What Palea was basing this opinion on--other than his anger that he had not received a favorable review--was the fact that I had called the meat in his souvlaki lamb when it was pork and that I had said his green chile was red. When I finally got a chance to get a word in, I explained to Palea that the meat in the souvlaki could have been dog food for all I knew, since it had been cooked to the shoe-leather point where chewing becomes an Olympic sport, and the only flavor it had was that of old grill grease. Since souvlaki traditionally contains lamb--at least it does in this country--I was giving Dumitri's the benefit of the doubt when I assumed that it used decent ingredients, rather than the cheaper pig. And as for his chile, green usually contains pork--at least it does in this country--and red doesn't; green usually contains jalapenos and red doesn't, since it uses pasillas or some other red pepper instead. Because the chile that arrived on my huevos rancheros was a smooth, runny red sauce that tasted like a can, with none of the flavor of green and not a piece of pork or jalapeno in sight, I thought it was red. My mistake.

The point, of course, is that if you want people to know what your food is, cook it right.

Not far from Dumitri's, but on the opposite end of the price spectrum, is Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House, at 8100 East Orchard Road in Greenwood Village. After I reviewed the place October 9, Mike Walker e-mailed me to say that he and his friends, all casually dressed, had been treated poorly there. "Apparently the bartender hadn't heard about casual Friday, or was so used to the smarmy sales reps and their pagers that litter the DTC food chains like birds on a power line that the suspenderless office actual-worker was rare enough to be equated with a fungus that won't go away," Walker wrote. (If you got through that whole sentence, you can breathe now.)

"In Del's, apparently if you're not overweight and driving a Towne Car you are not considered the right material," he concluded. I probably fall into the overweight category, but I've now driven to Del Frisco's on three occasions and each time asked the valet to park my filthy Toyota Corolla that's packed with sticky toddler toys, old McDonald's bags, rancid juice boxes and about eighty to-go coffee cups. Twice I was dressed respectably, but once, during an impromptu stop for a drink, I looked like I'd just come from a Grateful Dead concert. I was treated the same all three times, and that was very, very well. And while the first time I ate there I was with some recognizable faces, on subsequent visits I was with family members from out of town, and the servers had no idea who we were. Believe me, I watch out for pricey places that are crappy to the ordinary Joe, so I'm wondering if maybe Mike didn't go in there with a little 'tude.

Since I first cut into the Cheesecake Factory, at 1201 16th Street, with my August 28 review, the letters have just kept coming. "After three samplings of the Cheesecake Factory, the 'herd' factor is the only reason people are still waiting in line to get into that place," e-mailed Eve (no last name). "The food is usually served lukewarm; it's definitely not the place for single lunch diners; and the staff is just plain rude and inattentive." Well, the staff is about the only thing I've liked at the Cheesecake Factory; during my visits, the employees were wonderful. So wonderful, in fact, that I felt bad that they had to serve that food.

Someone else (a Cheesecake manager, perhaps?) e-mailed me anonymously, claiming I was the first person he/she had ever heard say anything bad about the Factory. Well, then he/she apparently didn't get copies of other missives I've received about the place. Andrea Welte said she was writing on behalf of her friends, who worked at the Factory and wished to remain anonymous. "The pre-shift chant of 'one, two, three, Cheesecake,' was too much for them to bear," Welte wrote. "Your review was right on target in terms of food quality, quantity and price."

John (again, no last name) e-mailed to say he thought I didn't like the food because I was in a bad mood after having to wait so long. Actually, the first time the wait wasn't too bad, because my kids thought that running amok in an empty Tabor Center was a blast, and the second time I didn't wait at all, because I went for lunch at 11:30 a.m. "Try ordering something from the menu that is not trying to be fancy like the shrimp and other crap you had," John added. "Maybe you're comparing them to places that cost $25-30 a pop. In which case the Factory fails."

My mailbag and voicemail box have also been stuffed with messages about Santino's, which I visited for lunch (and wrote about in the October 2 Mouthing Off) after Santino "Sonny" Rando kept getting himself into trouble. By mid-December, I'd heard from seventeen people--all of whom I've verified had either worked for or with Sonny at Santino's or at Carmine's on Penn, where he was the chef--who had horror stories about how badly Sonny had treated them. While I frequently get calls from former employees feasting on sour grapes, this response was off the charts. Three of the people had kept nasty phone messages from Sonny on their answering machines--and let me tell you, they weren't pretty. Even if the employees deserved to be admonished, a professional would keep his voice down or at least watch his language--especially on tape, for heaven's sake.

Sonny did get two nods of support: Marc Roth wrote to say that Sonny sent his table a free bottle of wine on his second visit to make up for their first dinner there, before Santino's had a liquor license; another guy called to tell me a tale of Sonny helping a "handicapped boy" (his words, not mine). Frankly, I'm getting sick of hearing about Sonny, and I wish he would just keep his mouth shut and watch his temper--something that every chef I've ever worked with has had, by the way. But at least I never had anything thrown at me.

My favorite messages of the year, though, both concerned my December 11 review of Maharaja, at 233 East Colfax. One was from a gutless wonder who called to rant and rave and make all kinds of accusations (he admits he's a friend of the owners) but didn't leave a name or phone number. Hey, at least I have the courage of my convictions and put my name to my opinions. And then some guy named Merle called to angrily offer this: "Your final comment in the review was distressing. It should be 'The proof of the pudding is in the eating,' not 'the proof is in the pudding.'" Yeah, no shit, Merle. However, only you, me, my editor, Miguel de Cervantes and about forty other people in the city (all English professors or copy editors) know that. I find that it's better to communicate ideas to readers rather than try to show how smart I am. And to you, Merle, I want to communicate this: Your lack of a life is distressing to me.

Happy new year.

--Wagner

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