But again, wow. My review of Chi Bistro ("Loveless," February 22) inspired such an outpouring of responses (two of which you can read in this week's Letters section, and many more of which you can find at www.westword.com) that I'd like to set a few things straight. That review was not an "assassination" or a "slaughter," as some readers have tagged it; it was a critique of a restaurant that had bitterly disappointed me on virtually every level except interior design. I'm not a hit man. Much as I might espouse a fondness for (and find some familiarity with) the Cold War spy novels of John LeCarré and his ilk, there are no midnight meetings in dirty alleys with shadowy characters who hand over a name and an envelope full of unmarked, non-sequential twenties. Plenty of restaurateurs have tried to manipulate me in a variety of ways, have tried to use me to kneecap their enemies or further their own careers. But none of them have succeeded.
So no, I'm not a hit man, but neither am I a cheerleader. It's not my job to give anyone a medal just for showing up. I'm a critic; it says so on my business card. If everything in the world was just sunshine, hand jobs and fresh-baked apple pie, there wouldn't be a need for me or any of my blackhearted, skulking, lizard-eyed brethren. But as everyone well knows, the world ain't that way. The Departed was not as good a movie as GoodFellas. The Ramones were a better band than Iggy and the Stooges. Some restaurants are good and some of them just aren't.
"Mr. Sheehan," wrote Jeff Shoemaker, "the fact that your 'review' (or more accurately 'self chosen assassination') of Chi Bistro is unfavorable and inaccurate is not the basis for my response. Rather, I am doing so because your method of offering your opinion is the most unprofessional collection of diatribe I've witnessed in memory. One guesses that perhaps you have a frustrated or even failed personal history in the restaurant business and that the old adage of 'those that can, do/those that can't, review' applies to your situation."
Thanks, Mr. Shoemaker, but you're wrong. I didn't come to this gig cold. I was a professional cook and chef for almost fifteen years, and everything I write today is colored by those experiences. Every judgment I make is called against everything I learned, everything I did, every victory and failure I knew while on the other side of the swinging doors. Yes, those who can, do. And I did. Thing is, I figured out a few years ago that I can also do this. And while I may not have made it to the James Beard House as a chef, I have as a food writer.
Those who seem to think I don't take the reviewing job seriously should know that I always make two, usually three, sometimes four, occasionally as many as a dozen visits to a restaurant, all on the company dime. I know papers (well-respected, serious big-city dailies) where the critics are allowed one meal only, others where every new restaurant, ready or not, must be reviewed within three months of opening, still others where no negative reviews are allowed at all and the critic's only method of expressing disdain is silence. I've heard any number of horror stories about how the job is done elsewhere -- and every one of them makes me glad I am where I am. For Chi Bistro, I made multiple visits over many months. Even after the review was in the can, I went back to make sure that nothing was on the verge of a miraculous improvement. Sadly, nothing was. But I have to say that I agree with El Foldo's online comment that my review should have been just three words long: "This place sucks." End of story.