New Sun critic takes his place at the table

As long as I've been writing restaurant criticism, first as a freelancer for the City Paper and later for The Baltimore Sun, people have always been curious about my qualifications.

Some of them were actually nice about it. Now that I'm The Sun's restaurant critic, I expect those questions to continue, and I know, too, that there are assumptions about the background of a restaurant critic. In my case, those assumptions are seldom correct.

First, I was not the kind of kid who spent numberless days in my mother's kitchen, learning how to worry a sauce, roll out dough, or discern baking apples from snacking apples. It's not that my mother wasn't a very good cook, but we had a television. And I am not myself a cook. I wish I were, just like I wish I could sing beautifully or drive a stick shift.

But my brain isn't wired that way. But I think it's this lack of aptitude that makes me admire so much the skills and artistry that combine to make a beautiful meal. I'm fairly certain I know when I'm the presence of great food, but I am 100 percent sure I know when something has been made with love. It can be something as simple as a perfectly toasted hamburger roll. I know from having worked in restaurants how hard it is to keep customers happy, and I think this is something that has kept my criticism fair and sympathetic.

The best I can do with each review is try to describe what my experience at a restaurant was like. That was something the legendary John Dorsey used to say, in so many words, when he spoke to groups about his days as The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic. There will be times when your taste won't align with mine, but even then, I want you to enjoy our disagreements.

I think it's helped me to be from around here; knowing what Baltimore dining used to be helps me to gauge its condition now. I don't think I'm overly sentimental about bygone restaurants, but I'm aware of the empty spaces in the city's heart: from years ago: Sid Mandell's and the old Suburban House; later, Marconi's and Martick's; and always, always, Louie's Bookstore Cafe, the rare restaurant that made life in the city better.

Often I'll be introduced as a food critic, and sometimes I'll rush to protest. I think of what I do as restaurant criticism, and most people get what I mean. Food is a part of what makes an evening at a restaurant matter, but it's not the only thing. Every review I write is essentially about expectations — how a restaurant sets them, and whether it ends up delivering on them. The nicest thing someone says about a review is that it sounds like I'm talking directly to them, that they can hear my voice.

The different expectations we bring into restaurants, the way other people behave when they're sharing a public space — these are the very things that get talked about at Dining@Large, the Sun's dining blog at Elizabeth Large created this wonderful meeting space and then ran with it, like Steffi Graf in her prime. Laura Vozzella has been having an absolute ball with it since Elizabeth retired in February after 30 years of reviewing.

If you've never visited, please do. It's where you can have your say, or just eavesdrop. That's where you'll find breaking news, roundups of restaurant deals, and discussions about tipping, children in restaurants, family dining, service issues and, of course, good food. It's also where the restaurant critic can dabble in some "inside baseball" talk — the things that go wrong on reviews, the dishes we wish we'd ordered. (And yes, it will have a new name soon.)

For the past few years, I've been working at Johns Hopkins for a cognitive neurologist and neuropsychologist, just one of the jobs I've had while freelancing all these years. I can sum up what I learned from that job this way: 1) isn't the brain interesting; and 2) man, we're all so different.

Table Talk, the Wednesday column, will continue to be the place for longer stories about restaurant-related news. It will be back next Wednesday, and I'll have lots to tell you.

One more thing: our family pronounces it gor-REL-ick.

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