August 2012

It started with a retweet by Robb Walsh, a comment from Albert Nurick, a top 5 food blogger in Houston, to the effect that paid endorsements disguised as individual recommendations are pretty rampant in today’s world. The original article they referenced was written in terms of book reviews, but these two amended it to talk about commercially driven “individual” endorsements of restaurants.

Is this the philosophy of the paid restaurant endorser?

Some quotes from the original New York Times article sets the context plainly:

Reviews by ordinary people have become an essential mechanism for selling almost anything online; they are used for resorts, dermatologists, neighborhood restaurants, high-fashion boutiques, churches, parks, astrologers and healers — not to mention products like garbage pails, tweezers, spa slippers and cases for tablet computers. In many situations, these reviews are supplanting the marketing department, the press agent, advertisements, word of mouth and the professional critique.

But not just any kind of review will do. They have to be somewhere between enthusiastic and ecstatic.


Mr. Liu estimates that about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake.

So these pair of comments does set the stage for what I’m curious about. I’ve been harder on negative reviews, particularly insulting ones, but not as harsh on those that are positive. But when you encounter something, yes, somewhere between enthusiastic and ecstatic, and further, written by someone who sounds as if they could produce ad copy in their sleep, what should a third party (or a modest city wide food blogger) think of it?

I’ll note these kinds of discussions go on all the time in the blogging world. A completely over the top review in the wrong place, and yes, bloggers in their little private blogging forums will indeed make fun of the review. The most common fake is the one time reviewer. They appear once, they say something really good. They’re never heard from again. Others may post 2-3 times, and have one good review and two bad reviews. All the bad ones are of the favored restaurant’s competitors.

Ok, to pick on a review, we’ll choose this one by Robert Ingram from the site Thaicuisine. Bites is no longer with us, the owners sold their restaurants to others, who renamed it. Now, I liked Bites, ate there plenty of times, took out of town guests there to entertain, and thought it was really good. But was it really this good?

Robert Ingram – December 5th, 2004
“Outstanding Thai restaurant in Norcross. For a small, neighborhood Thai restaurant, this unpretentious, attractive place is worth the trip from anywhere in Atlanta. The food is absolutely amazing made with fresh ingredients and distinctive flavors. The starters like the spring rolls, chiken coconut soup and spicy beef salad are traditional and delicious. The curries are extremely well made no matter which one you choose(red,green,masaman). The Pad Thai is flavorful with very little oil and grease and the other entrees like the Duck Penang and Catfish are excellent. The dessert choices are off the charts and worth the visit just for the sticky rice with sweet mango or green tea ice cream. This is a great place for a delicious, quick and affordable lunch and a better place for dinner. The owners Eric and Tammy basically run the restaurant by themselves and make you feel at home. It is obvious that they take great pride in their restaurant and the experience you receive is always friendly and inviting. Regulars are treated like Thai royalty here! Tammy always greets you with a sincere smile and Eric makes sure you are satisfied with your food. I have been to many, many Thai restaurants in Atlanta including high end places in Midtown and Buckhead and Bites by a wide margin is the best Thai food I have ever had in this town. As a matter of fact, it is my favorite restaurant in Atlanta. Gwinnett County residents, you have a real jewel in Bites Thai Cuisine…take advantage of it, you’ll have the best Thai food you have ever tasted.”

So tell me, is it enthusiastic? Is it over the top? How many of these reviews (you can see similar toned reviews, though smaller, about Bites) mention the owners by name? Given what was said in the New York Times article, do you trust this review?

There are examples of this same kind of writing on this blog. I won’t point them out specifically, as I don’t want to play favorites. But when a pattern of reviews of this kind emerges, please hedge your bets. Trust someone who has a reputation, someone whose tastes you can measure. Or, as Albert Nurick said in a follow up tweet:

@FoodNSnellville @robbwalsh Shills get more and more clever. Best to build a list of reviewers you trust. Anon reviews have zero value.

I agree.

The Sarku Japan booth in the Mall of Georgia is very minimal, and in that, ironically, it is perhaps more Japanese than the oversized metroplex izakaya that so many foodies love. The classic walkway eatery has no place in America, except in our food halls, and even if the Sarku product is modest, it gives us a small taste of the “walk by and grab it” scene.

As a minimal restaurant, perhaps more authentic than our more common metroplex izakaya.

Are there things to complain about? Sure. I’d have much preferred a small grill oriented izakaya, where I could grab something to drink and a toasty octopus tendril at the same time, but this is food court cuisine, where teryaki chicken morphs into “bourbon” chicken, and everything exists to feed a crowd of thousands as fast as possible. Seldom is the food high end, but it is very often original, as the competition for mouths in a food hall is ruthless.

I’m also on record as saying the obsession with sushi in the States is peculiarly American. Americans do things with sushi that its creators never dreamed of, and obsess over it endlessly, as if it’s the beginning and end of Japanese cuisine. It’s akin to judging all Mexican cuisine by the quality of the “Speedy with beans” that they serve. That said, let’s get down to the business of looking closer at Sarku.

tuna and salmon sashimi, as delivered.

Food, when you get it, is ice cold. That long display case in which they show their goods is actually a refrigerator, and given how cold my seaweed salad was, in full working order. One guy mans the cash register, 2-3 others man the case, and build foods for their audience. There aren’t many nigiri or sashimi choices, perhaps 5 or 6, and they are pretty straightforward choices at that (tilapia, tuna, salmon, etc).

Since I’m a diabetic, I got sashimi rather than sushi. Sarku serves their fish with slices of pickled ginger and a bit of sliced vegetable. I enjoyed the fish, delivered ice cold, and felt it was better than what I could get at, say, Publix, and perhaps not to the quality of what I could get at Waraku or Haru Ichiban. The fish wasn’t as firm, I thought, perhaps not as good a cut.

In summary: It’s clean, neat, accessible, geared to fast delivery in a food court environment. Better than grocer’s sushi, but doesn’t reach the quality of a full service Japanese restaurant, much less a high end sushi specialty shop. Recommended for what it is.

Sarku Japan Sushi Bar
3333 Buford Drive #K106
Buford, GA 30519
(770) 831-2069

Sarku Japan Sushi Bar on Urbanspoon

Saigon Flavors is something of a local favorite, offering a good bowl of pho as well as Thai and Chinese dishes to their customers. Service is attentive and good.

larb beef.

Saigon Flavors serves a good bowl of pho.

Besides pho, we had their larb beef, some bubble tea and a rice (Com Dia) dish. We didn’t have enough of their Thai or Chinese offerings to judge those, but based largely on their Vietnamese cuisine, I’d say this could easily become a routine stop on the way to the mall.

Saigon Flavors
3200 Woodward Crossing Blvd
Buford, GA 30519
(770) 932-7705

Saigon Flavors on Urbanspoon

As my boonie peppers are turning red, if I don’t harvest them quickly, they’re turning out like this:

Something is eating the tips off my peppers.

I still harvest the half eaten peppers, because they have valuable seeds. 2 or 3 of those tiny seeds can grow into a 6 foot plant. So I dry what remains, and collect as many seeds from the pod as I can.

I don’t think hornworms are doing this (though I found at least one hornworm on my plants), and all the boonies are flowering these days. It’s been an unusually wet summer, almost semitropical in character. The peppers love it.

This is something my wife is experimenting with. We like cut up cauliflower microwaved to “just cooked”, often a minute or two less than the microwave bag would recommend. For cauliflower mashed potatoes, she cooks the cauliflower a little longer and softer (but not to mushiness), and then mashes the vegetable with the tines of a fork.

You can also use a potato masher, as shown here.

buffalo sirloin, asparagus, cauliflower, and cauliflower “mashed potatoes”.

The asparagus is also microwaved minimally, and the buffalo sirloin we described here.

I can’t entirely figure out what prompts someone to react to a restaurant or a location. We’ve driven past other Fellini’s Pizza restaurants plenty of times. But getting lost on the way to Miso Izakaya, and finding the Fellini’s near the corner of Clifton and McLendon Road triggered something in my wife’s head. She was determined to go back there. So yes, there we went.

Plain looking. Hardly plain tasting.

It’s pretty no frills, so no frills that a diabetic trying to avoid pizza slices should not go. There are no sandwiches at this Fellini’s, just pizza and salads. But the toppings are good, the crust is good. No, it won’t score points for the “best in town”, but most best in town choices aren’t this convenient. Further, they do well with simple concepts. The slice of white above looks plain. It doesn’t taste plain, with plenty of appropriate spicing thrown into the mix.

I liked what we had here. They have a praiseworthy thin crust, decent salads, fast service, and the price is right. Go sometime. You won’t regret it.

Notes: currently there are 7 Fellini’s Pizza restaurants in town. The Fellini’s web site gives the locations.

Fellini’s Pizza
1634 McLendon Ave
Atlanta, GA 30307
(404) 687-9190

Fellini's Pizza on Urbanspoon

It’s a tiny wings joint near Club Drive and Pleasant Hill, and it has a unique (I’d say very good) wings sauce. The sauce has more in common with a finely ground salsa than the tomato soup consistency of a vinegar based wings sauce. For that reason, I’d suggest trying it out.


You can see black and red pepper specks in their wings sauce.

It’s Asian run, if not Asian owned. I’d guess Korean owners. The iconography is cute, the inside is clean and neat, the tables are nice, and I hope this place makes it. The finely ground nature of the sauce comes though in the specks of pepper you can see on your wings (both black and red). They’re not afraid of spice here, something that leaves me smiling big time.

Crazy Wings
1455 Pleasant Hill Road, Suite 101
Lawrenceville GA 30044

Crazy Wings on Urbanspoon

It’s a bar in Little Five Points, much longer than it is wide. There isn’t much to it physically, a couple tables up front, a long bar, a couple tables in back. Outside, it looks like another small place where locals go to medicate their problems away. It’s only when you’re inside that Porter begins to shine.

I counted 36 taps the day I came, and there wasn’t a dull beer in any of the taps. The beer selection is wicked good, with no filler. Further, given the diverse and exotic nature of the brews, the drinks are fairly priced. The typical tap beer ranges from around 4 to 6.5 dollars.

Brooklyn Brewery’s saison.

Some scallops. Plenty of potatoes.

I had the cheese plate and some scallops. I thought both were quite good. The serving size was small, and the price a couple dollars higher than I would have liked for that serving size. A neighbor ordered calamari, and that seemed a better food deal than what I ate.

But really, the star here is the alcohol. Work through the list of bottled beers sometime. Maybe you’ll find a beer you’ve been looking for, for months. I sure did. Will I be back? Very likely, about as soon as my family decides it needs to window shop the stores of Little Five Points once again.

Porter Beer Bar
1156 Euclid Ave
Atlanta, GA 30307
(404) 223-0393

The Porter on Urbanspoon

Step into this eatery, and 5 consecutive years of “Best of Gwinnett” awards pass you on the right. Fini’s is surprisingly good for a pizzeria on the edge of town. It is just to the east of I-85, in a mall centered by a Publix, and almost impossible to spot from Old Peachtree. These days, this is the sole Fini’s in Lawrenceville, as the other fell victim to a rent tripling scheme (*). My daughter and I went for lunch, and after having had a lot of fair to middling pizza, were pleased as punch we chose this location. Crusts here were nicely done.


Crusty and delicious.

The photo doesn’t do the size of this sandwich any justice. The bread and cheese were fantastic, the eggplant merely good.

Another view of the sandwich, showing the insides.

My daughter had a slice of Sicilian, and I had their eggplant sandwich. Her crust was the way a thick slice should be, and size and crusty character of the sandwich bread was totally delightful. The eggplant was wrapped in a batter, and wasn’t bad. Fini’s has an Italian sausage sandwich, and that kind of spicy meat with this kind of bread would be totally over the top.

Fini’s Pizzeria
1032 Old Peachtree Road
Lawrenceville, GA 30043
(678) 205-3872

Fini's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

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(*) I know this because Tower Games also left the mall, and my contact in the gaming community, Deep Gamer, let me know all about how the strip mall was seeking to profit from expansion by the nearby hospital.

Inside Hae Woon Dae, there are perhaps 20 years of Atlanta “best of” awards all set out on rich wooden walls, thickly paneled. It doesn’t take long to gain the impression that they’re all earned. Just watch the staff. Watch how they talk to tables. Look at the size and thickness of the meat servings. Look at the “charcoal guy”, coming out to top off those folks cooking food at their tables. Yes, they charcoal broil meats here. There isn’t any of that portable butane torch gear being used here.

Hae Woon Dae’s banchan

LA galbi, thicker than most and richly flavored.

I’ve been in the past, long before I was a food blogger and recalled I liked it. I went back on a day I couldn’t think of a better Korean place close to work. The corner of Buford that Hae Woon Dae is on is not my favorite, especially at night, so I went at lunchtime. It was a pretty late lunch and still there were people peppering the eatery.

The LA galbi I had was as thick as my thumb, unusual in this city where 5 millimeter thick meat is more the norm. Thinner meat cooks faster, you see. But sometimes, to develop flavor can take longer. What I had at my table was worth the wait and the couple extra bucks. There was some chew in the meat, but I’ve not ever found galbi with the consistency of pot roast.

Whatever I might say further about this restaurant would hardly change its decades old reputation. Just count me among the many food fans who raise two thumbs up to this venerable Atlanta institution.

Hae Woon Dae
5805 Buford Highway
Doraville, GA 30340
(770) 451-7957

Hae Woon Dae on Urbanspoon

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