Blogging


Three straight months of 50+ hour weeks is taking a toll on my ability to write. I head home and just crash, wanting rest and recuperation. The  end of the project that is the cause of my longer hours is approaching, though, and life, at some point, will return to something resembling normalcy. To that end I do announce that the blog FnS is 4 years old on this day. I’m not the only blog with a birthday around now. Chloe tells me Chow Down Atlanta turned 6 years old  last week.

I feel old, old enough to evoke a line from Twain’s plan for the improvement of English spelling, and say  that our two blogs are merely: bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez,

Some highlights. I do like sausages:

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Especially when they come from the Balkans. Euro Gourmet Grill is a survivor, and still serves up sudzukice and cevapcici with style.

If you haven’t tried the brunch at Graft, you’re missing out. It, along with Local Republic in Lawrenceville, are one of the three outstanding restaurants in the Lilburn-Lawrenceville-Snellville-Grayson quadrangle, and  reason enough to drive to the end  of Webb Ginn Road and turn right.

Eggs Benedict at Graft.

Eggs Benedict at Graft.

I’m told by those that know these things (i.e. Mike Stock) that the eggs benedict is excellent at Graft. It sure photographs well. I love the noontime light in the little converted house.

On my wife’s recent birthday we went to Haru Ichiban, a major favorite in my family. It does some fine grilled fish, a good miso cod and also grilled mackerel:

Grilled mackerel at Haru Ichiban.

Grilled mackerel at Haru Ichiban.

On my birthday we went to Woo Nam Jeong, Stone Bowl House, and we tried their “sampler platter appetizer”

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On  Valentines, we did Honey Pig, and this is what our grill looked like that day.

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Not to forget Summits in Snellville, this is a photo of their Towering Inferno burger, off their (relatively) new burger menu.

Not as hot as you might imagine, the Towering Inferno burger at Summits.

Not as hot as you might imagine, the Towering Inferno burger at Summits.

So we’ve been out and about, it’s just been hard finding time to put pen to paper. For those who are still reading, we much appreciate the patronage and hope to hold out for year number 5!

FnS

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It only happens once every 4 years, and on this day, I urge you to vote, and encourage your neighbors to do the same. A voice not heard is a voice silenced. On this day, more than most days, we need all the people of America to speak up at the polls.

You can always imagine what’s waiting for you after you vote. In this case, it’s a Kitchen Sink burger from Ted’s Montana Grill.

I voted early, and it took me two and a half hours to do so. I saved no time, but since I’m free, my coworkers can go vote, and I’ve got their back. It’s, you know, the American way.

If I were to create a statistic called “Talk of the Town”, and with it try to gauge which restaurants were in the news, I think most folks would have a good instinctive idea what such a statistic would measure. It shouldn’t be limited to a particular forum. It shouldn’t be limited to a particular group. It should have some sense of who is talking about what, and how wide spread that conversation actually extends.

Urbanspoon provides such a statistic, and it’s called Talk of the Town. In general, they weight contributions by mainstream media, alternative media, and to some extent, their own top 10 bloggers in creating this list. I’m in the top 5 bloggers as ranked by Urban Spoon, and I noted one day that if I reviewed a restaurant, and another top 5 blogger reviewed a restaurant within a few days, that restaurant would end up in the bottom half of the top 10 for a week or so. It was something I noted. It didn’t really disturb me. The metric, as it is currently implemented, is however notably imperfect.

There is an ‘elite’ status that Urbanspoon can confer to an active user of the system, and they are called Primes. Some primes are well known bloggers. Marie Let’s Eat, Foodie Buddha, Chow Down Atlanta and your truly all are Primes. Some Primes, and some of the best Primes, have no personal blog and yet wield, in my mind, considerable influence  on the Atlanta food community. Barney (who also has a handle on 285 Foodies) comes to mind.

Over the past months, there has been a push within Urbanspoon, by a certain set of Primes, to decouple US’s Talk of the Town stat from any meaningful connection with any influence outside of Urban Spoon and make it dependent purely on what Primes think. This is one proposal. Another is to make it dependent on what “Top Contributors” think. Understand that US is a web and phone application whose parent company is small, with few employees. They depend heavily on Prime contributions to do dirty work for them and keep their database fresh. If a particularly important subset of Primes push hard enough, and no one speaks up, things will change, and not necessarily for the better.

The subset pushing for decoupling is noted for another couple peculiarities. They are envious of the mainstream media, and they are jealous of bloggers. Every time they open their mouths, bloggers like me are depicted as giving a less than sincere or “genuine” contribution to Urban Spoon. I’ve seen a ton of blogger versus Prime debates, and this group of Primes disappoint me routinely with their myopia. The notion that a major fundamental difference between Yelp and Urbanspoon might be US’s investment in its blogger community does not occur to them. The notion that Yelp might be more read than Urbanspoon – much less TV or print media – never occurs to them either. And it’s exactly this subset leading the charge to remove any “external” influence from the Talk of the Town stat.

Metrics at times don’t entirely encapsulate the influence of certain people on the food scene. Take Mr Jones of Eat Buford Highway as an example. Take Sean, of Take Thou Food, as another example. These folks have, on occasion, turned the whole of the food community’s opinion on the reputation of various eateries, and yet are not to be found on Urbanspoon’s Prime list, nor among their top 10 Atlanta bloggers (Sean, though, is still the top ranked Athens GA blogger). That said, thinking about how to measure their contributions leads to the abstract notion of reputation.

So what is a reputation? How do you measure it? Why are we concerned at all? It’s because if we’re in the shoes of a small web company with limited resources, we really can’t measure a Talk of the Town. We don’t have the resources to, say, interview millions of people continually. We, at best, have to estimate it. And if we can estimate reputation, and find a subset of folks who have plenty of it, then the “Talk Score” for a restaurant becomes, in pseudocode:

Score = Sum(Mention(i)*Reputation(i)/(Age_Of_Mention + 1 ))

So, who should be counted? How do we measure their influence? But simply put, about the worst solution I can think of is to total a few select members of the US community. Questions that come to my mind are: why should Primes or Top Contributors have any more say than a regular US member, and if the answer is no, don’t we already have the results of what they seek in the regular Urbanspoon restaurant ratings? If not in the rating itself, just look at new restaurants with high approval rankings (< 3 months old, circa 20 votes, over 90% positive).

What’s wrong with a US statistic that is what it claims to be? Call it Prime Picks, or Top Contributors Recommend? That’s the appropriate forum for the “elite” users. It’s otherwise a travesty to call such a stat Talk of the Town, because the notion that I’m paying as much attention to my local Top Contributors* as much as mainstream media in town, is asinine.

Now, much of my points of  view come from someone living in a city with a large number of Urbanspoon users, a large blogger community, a large and active collection of media talking about food. In communities served by one or two newspapers with an indifferent attitude towards food (I’m thinking about Shreveport LA, near where my dad lives), an extended definition of “Talk  of the Town” may create a metric that serves the community better than the current implementation. But a *cough* Talk of the Town *cough*  metric that basically counts only what Primes think is in my mind, exclusive, degenerate, too reminiscent of the top 100 list already, and in many way, overly empowers the vote of those Primes.

* One problem is that it’s too easy to become a Top Contributor. I can become one by making 10 reviews, taking 40 photos of every restaurant I review, and uploading each photo into Urban Spoon. This could be done in the span of a week, and suddenly, I’m a “Top Contributor”.

 

Update: fixed the formula to add an age component. Older mentions should eventually disappear.

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.

and

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.

On the same day that Chow Down Atlanta has a birthday, this blog does too. Chloe’s blog is a full two years older than mine, started before blogging food in the ATL became common. There were perhaps 20-30 food blogs of some consequence in my first several months. Now the count is closer to 150. Some of these blogs have already come and gone, the most notable of these in 2011, perhaps the Constant Gobbler.

The best news story for me over the past year has been Atlantic Buffet Sushi and Grill. Readership of the article has eclipsed all my other articles. Though people hardly vote this place up, interest in their food just doesn’t go away.

Oxtail soup in preparation at Tastee's, in Snellville. Jamaican is well represented by Tastees.

I recently picked up a hit or two from this article on Chowhound, and was, well, underwhelmed. People in Snellville can’t recall Gary’s Bistro or remember Three Blind Mice? People would rather eat Indian in Decatur rather than good Mexican in Lilburn here, or the small taquerias in Snellville proper (here and here)? How many restaurants inside the loop compare to the restaurants in Duluth, or John’s Creek, or Gourmandises in Suwanee? How many of you have had the sausages at Euro Gourmet Grill in Lawrenceville? Or for a more traditional (and heralded) restaurant, Matthew’s Cafeteria in Tucker?

Jamaican and the other Caribbean cuisines are underrepresented in the writings of food bloggers, but are a great source of rich flavors at low prices. Things like jerk chicken, pates, roti should be in every eater’s repertoire.  Tastees in Snellville has good Jamaican food, and Ionie’s in Grayson is also representative. And if you’re into Cuban, why not check out Havana South in Buford?

I’m not about to complain much about the quality and choice around Decatur. It has some fine restaurants. But interesting choices radiate in all directions from Snellville, not just “into the city”.

I’m not entirely sure why I’ve gotten interested in this (other than a vision of an easily prepared, perfect medium rare steak). In retrospect, this kind of gear occupies space, lots and lots of space. Nothing has arrived, plenty has been ordered and after looking at how large a 6 quart slow cooker can be, I’m wondering where I’d have the room for an 8 quart.

Maybe I stash the toaster oven in the basement for a bit. My wife wouldn’t like that but it would make sense during a ‘sous vide’ run.

Ok, so what’s sous vide, really? Specifically, though sous vide is used in the vernacular for a style of low temperature cooking, soud vide by itself only means using a vacuum to cook, and doesn’t necessarily mean a low temperature technique. Sous vide can be employed at high temperatures. You can do low temperature cooking without any vacuum, and one of the best sites on the Internet for technical detail on sous vide, low temperature, and related technique, the blog of the French Culinary Institute, puts it this way:

While I love a commercial vacuum machine, about 90% of what a cook wants to accomplish with low temperature cooking can be achieved without a vacuum machine. When Nils was at restaurant Aquavit he did a lot of low-temperature work with a circulator, but didn’t have a vacuum machine. Back then restaurants weren’t required to have a HACCP plan; he didn’t have a commercial vacuum because they cost too much.

Today many home cooks use the Food Saver vacuum for low temp. I don’t use my Food Saver any more. I use Ziploc bags, without a vacuum. I find Ziplocs easier than the Food Saver – I don’t have to hunt down the special bags, I can easily bag sauces (a pain with the Food Saver), I can bag hot foods (foods to be vacuumed need to be cold – more on that in the next primer installment). My Food Saver has been relegated to potato-chip-bag-resealer.

To note, the FCI has a number of primers on their site, on things like transglutaminase (meat glue), and at least three primers on sous vide and low temperature (charts with explanations, part 1, and part 2). The chart info is also combined into a nice little PDF that you can download and keep. I think the temperature charts, particularly the ones that discuss low temperature food safety, are worth the download.

On the Kindle, I have the book Beginning Sous Vide, and if I’m reading my twitter feeds right, Jimmy of @EatItAtlanta is currently reviewing Under Pressure, Tom Keller’s book on sous vide and low temperature cooking. On the blog Curious Cook, Harold McGee has a warning about the dangers of leaving food out too long at too-low temperatures. Temperature control is a serious component of any low temperature cooking foray. I recommend the PDF I mentioned earlier. Download a copy and memorize the bacterial safety charts.

There is an article by John Kessler in the January 22, 2012 AJC that’s making the rounds. His comments concern drawing premature conclusions about food, one that segues into a critical commentary about the one meal review, and one, that from my reading of the elements and circumstances, appears to be a critique of the one meal review in general. In it he complains about Foodie Buddha, something that has become a rite of passage for professionals in the Atlanta area. Foodie is a contrary reviewer, fond of locating new restaurants and reviewing quickly. Foodie’s unfamiliarity with journalistic tropes, awkwardness with words and unconventional points of view make him an easy target. And because FB doesn’t write for a living, any verbal contest between Kessler and FB is combat between a soldier and an unarmed man.

I want to get back to the one notion in the article that disturbs me. It’s the idea that the professional, multi-visit review is the norm, and the one meal review something peculiar and disturbing. I’m not sure how that evolved. The “Average Joe” isn’t rich. He may just have a few dollars in his pocket. He’s hardly about to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars exploring the whole of a menu of a restaurant, particularly one he doesn’t like very much. His judgments are made on the spot, on the basis of the information in front of him.

It’s only in the world of the paid reviewer that people go back to bad restaurants. Everyone else avoids them after the first bad experience, and in a wired world, people now talk about those experiences, often in full caps, often with photographs of the offending meal. It’s a change from the era when print newspapers alone were how people obtained in-depth information, and it’s not one that certain components of the restaurant industry are comfortable with.

Nevertheless, the expansion of information resources is going to accelerate. How many different ways can people find out about a restaurant in this city now? Newspapers, radio, television, food sites, one of the 150 Atlanta food bloggers, and forums all serve an eating public. The modern era, dominated by people talking about their meals, their experiences, substitutes great breadth for depth. There is nothing wrong with that.

What has to change is how people read articles. A blogger’s article, based on a single meal, is just a single point of view. So is a user experience posted to Yelp or Urbanspoon. A newspaper’s professional review is considerably more in depth. And all of these need to be taken collectively as a whole, not read separately and used without context.

It is important, I believe, to calibrate the bloggers you might read. You need to read enough of their work to see how their tastes match with yours, how their experience rings true to your own, how well they describe a world you understand. If a blogger isn’t talking to you, find another blogger. If a blogger isn’t reliable, cut the value of his review down a notch or two. If a few bloggers think in ways you understand, and then show you a few things you may not have experienced, then perhaps you’ve found a fit, and someone worth following.

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