stuhelmthefoodcritic_logo_2014_72DPIBy Stu Helm

Hello Asheville!

I wanna tell you one of my true stories:

I used to write music reviews. Mostly of stoner rock, psychedelic rock, space rock, heavy metal, experimental, and punk rock music. I also booked bands at a couple of nightclubs in my Chicago neighborhood. It was fun! I felt like I was King Shit of Turd Island for a little while there, and cool bands from all over the region and even the world wanted to get on my good side, so that they could get their latest record reviewed and/or get booked at The Note or The Double Door.

As a result of my King Shit status I got an ASSLOAD of free CDs. Every dang day, more free CDs would turn up in the mail, or be handed to me at live shows, or even dropped off at my house by my actual musician friends. I also got schwag. Lots and lots of schwag. T-shirts, stickers, buttons, all kinds of stuff. More than I wanted!

Why am I telling you this? Because last week, in the comments section of my Rhubarb review — a review in which I recounted one of the very few times that I have received a comped meal from a restaurant — one of the more assholey Trolls, who hides behind the screen name “Harry,” wrote that, “Stu can be bought.”

I’ve got a little bit of news for A-Hole Harry, and anyone else who has the delusional concept that people who write reviews shouldn’t except free stuff:

THAT’S PART OF HOW IT WORKS!!!

When I wrote music reviews, bands sent me free schwag and CDs so that I would…

• Be made aware of their existence.

• Listen to and hopefully enjoy their music

• Write a positive review of their music

• Maybe even book them to play a live show.

Now that I have a weekly column on Ashvegas about food, local restaurants and food vendors might occasionally invite me to come dine at their establishment and even comp me a sampling of their menu so that I will…

• Be made aware of their existence.

• Eat and hopefully enjoy their food, staff, & venue.

• Write a positive review of my experience.

• Maybe even take and post pictures on social media to be seen by others.

Business owners might choose to give me free stuff, because… as I stated above… THAT’S PART OF HOW IT WORKS.

If I was to write film reviews, guess what? Indie film makers would send me FREE copies of their films, and invite me to FREE screenings all the friggin’ time. There might even be some free food involved at the screenings.

Indeed, Dear Reader, if I wrote reviews of dog sweaters, e-cigarettes, and truck balls, I am 100 percent sure that I would have boxes full of free samples of dog sweaters, e-cigarettes, and truck balls sitting around my office collecting dust right now… because… that is part of how it works.

In the specific example of Rhubarb: I ate there four times, and only once (the most recent time) did a staff member invite me, and did the kitchen send out samples of the food for me to try, on the house.

In that review I panned two dishes. The rest of the food was fucking aye good, and that’s what I wrote. Two of the dishes were sub-par, the rest were not. What more can I say? I did what I always do: I went, I ate, I reported on my over-all experience.

Can I be “bought.” with a free plate of fried mushrooms? Hell no.

Will I accept the offer of a free plate of fried mushrooms. Abso-fucking-lutely!

The person offering the free plate of fried mushrooms is taking a risk that I may not like it, and I may report that to the readers. In the case of the locally foraged Chicken of the Wood Frito Misto at Rhubarb, I liked it. A lot. So I reported that to you.

Another reader suggested that, when a restaurant knows it’s me, I might get special treatment.

Well, WTF am I gonna do about that?!? Wear a disguise? Make reservations under the name Paul Ramon? Send my intern into Rhubarb to pick up my food so that I can furtively scarf it down in my car, living my life in the underground critic-protection program, with a new identity provided by the FBI? Oh, wait, I don’t have an intern, or a car, and I am not a secret food spy for the US government.

I am a person who loves to eat food and then write about it. Period, end of story, like it or lump it. Any expectations beyond that will only lead to feelings of disappointment on your part, and possibly the posting of asinine, insulting, and ill-informed comments on Ashvegas. Harry.

Okay, enough about that jackassery, how about a review!

TABLE – College Street, Downtown Asheville

I met Chef Jacob of Table at the Stewart O’Sheild’s photo shoot, and as we parted, he shook my hand and said “I hope you’ll come in sometime!”

This told me that he might have known my shameful secret: I’d never been to Table!

Which is weird, because it’s been around for years, it’s located right in the epicenter of my bikey-zone, it looks really nice through the giant windows, and every-damn-body I know has been telling me, “You gotta check out Table!” for years.

Well, Dawn’s birthday rolled around again — like it do — so I made reservations, and we finally went to Table!

First of all: Chef Jacob seems to be a genuinely nice guy, and a stand-up boss. The very morning after I made our reservations online (through OpenTable.com), he dropped me a note to let me know that although he wouldn’t be there the night of our booking, his staff was excellent in his absence.

Alright. I like this guy. For me, like-ability is a factor in my over-all experience. This town is made up of people. I’m a person. Chef Jacob is a person. Dawn is a person. We’s all people. It’s always going to make a dif to us if the people we encounter are nice, or if they’re dicks. We don’t like dicks. Dawn and I don’t dine at certain establishments, because we feel as though this or that person associated with those establishments is a dick. Jacob is not a dick. He scored niceness points with us before we’d even stepped foot in his restaurant.

The hostess / waitress was also not a dick. I think her name was Caitlin. I didn’t write it down, because it was on the receipt, but then I lost the receipt. Dumb!!!

She was great! She sat us at a nice table, in the well designed, medium-sized, open, airy, dining room, where I had an excellent view of the half-naked, muscled-up, crazy-man pose-down going on in the window.

Oh, yeah… there was a half naked, muscled-up, crazy-guy doing a full blown pose-down on the sidewalk in front of the giant, floor-to-ceiling front windows for about the first 5 or 10 mins of our meal. I shot some video, which is currently posted on my Facebook page. Caitlin saw me shooting the video, and said, bravely, “There’s great people watching here?”

I might have replied with something like, “Yeah, Man. Asheville.” I’m not sure. Too mesmerized by the half-naked, muscled-up, crazy-guy pose-down.

Yeah, Man.

Asheville.

Aaanyhoodles… the food:

I started with coffee and Dawn had a sprits. The coffee was a small French press and it was really really good. I found it to be full and rich, and deep and delicious. Dawn said the sprits was the very first one she’d had in the U.S. that was made correctly.

A proper sprits, according to the internationally jet-setting Dawn Roe-Chambeau, should have: “The perfect ratio” of Prosecco, Aperol, and club soda, served over ice, with a mandatory garnish of a fresh orange slice. I guess that betches have been leaving out the ice and/or the orange slices here in The States. Fuckers!

Once we had our drinks, Caitlin returned with some complimentary bread, olives, and butter, which I assume is standard practice, and not special treatment just for Stu and Dawn.

Free bread used to be basic stuff in fancy restaurants, and it absolutely kills us when the “bread basket” is on the menu, for, like, four bucks. I personally think it’s tacky to talk too much about money, but here it goes: The entrees at Table are something like $25 and up, and our entire bill was over a hundred dollars. Including the tip, I think I pried $150 out of my dusty ol’ pocket, so some complimentary bread seems reasonable.

On top of being free, Dawn and I agreed after the first bite that it was some of the best bread we’d ever had in a restaurant. It was really well made, with a super crunchy crust, and innards that were soft, chewy, and substantial. There were two slices each of two types, one darker than the other. Nothing fancy, nothing over-the-top, and thank God, no rosemary. Rosemary on the bread plate is so… 1990’s.

Next, we tried brined cherries and warm almonds to snack on while we waited for our entrees. They had some fancy-pants salt on top too. It was very unique. I would never think to brine a cherry. That would never occur to me. Ever. I’m glad it occurred to Chef Jacob, because it turns out that brined cherries are really good and go perfectly with warm, crunchy almonds.

Since I had enjoyed the gnudi at Rhubarb so much, I ordered the shrimp ‘n’ gnudi appetizer at Table, and that was also very unique and delish. It looked great — as did all of the food at Table — and came with little edible flowers, as well as two long, crazy-looking garlic scapes, that were tasty, mild, and cooked just right. I could be wrong, but the flowers looked like pussley flowers to me.

I’ve had pussley on my mind a lot lately.

The gnudi itself was great, and the shrimp was likewise perfectly cooked and tasted just like shrimp should taste. The over all flavor and texture of this little dish was super enjoyable!

People have since asked me which I liked better: the gnudi at Rhube’s or the gnudi at Tabe’s. and I have to say: they were so different from each other, that I can’t compare. They were both excellent, I would eat both again and again.

At that point, the kitchen did send out a complimentary dish: raw, shaved marlin, with seared orange slices, micro greens, creme fraiche, and some kind of crunchy salty tapenade. It was perfect for Dawn’s Birthday, because she loves raw fish! Me: not so much. She ooohed-and-ahhhed over this dish, and made me eat two pieces of raw marlin because she just can’t accept that anyone wouldn’t love the fuck out of some raaaw fish. I ate a sample, but told her, “That’s tough for me,” then stuck to the rest of the items on the plate, which were all excellent. The seared orange slices were a particular hit with me, and the micro greens were cute as all get-out, the way that micro greens tend to be.

Dawn went back to get more of the raw marline a few days later with her friends. That’s how much she liked it. I never want another piece of it in my mouth ever again for as long as I live. But that’s just me.

The entrees came next and they were both excellent. I got a very tender and well cooked piece of Hickory Nut Gap pork, that came with mushrooms, sour cherries… other stuff that I should have written down… pistachio dust? It also came with what I would consider a completely gratuitous cube of pork belly. Pork with a side of pork. The belly cube was the only thing on the entire plate that I did not finish.

I also have to say that this dish was not served to me quite hot enough. It tasted great, it was cooked perfectly, and I enjoyed it very much, but it just wasn’t piping hot, which is what I would have preferred. That might seem a little nit-picky, but I think I would have finished the pork-belly had it been super-hot to the point of melting right into the rest of the food on the plate.

Dawn got seared tuna, that came in a very mild sauce, with a side of cucumber salad, and a garnish of flowers. She said it was great, and seemed to enjoy it.

I guess I don’t really know what to report about seared tuna at this point in the history of food. If you’ve had it, you know what it should taste and feel like. If this seared tuna had been awful, I’d have some shit to say, but it was good, according to Dawn. She added that she might be done ordering seared tuna for a while, and I got the feeling she was slightly bored with her choice, which may or may not be indicative of the seared-tuna-eating population in general.

Next came dessert! YOM! I ordered some kind of warm chocolate bomb / cake thingy with whipped cream on top that was really fucking good! I didn’t write the name down (C’mon, Stu!!!) but Caitlin said it’s always on the menu, and hinted that there would be rioting in the streets if they ever dared to take it off. Dawn said she could see why. It was super-yum. Or: soops-yummers, if you prefer.

We also got a “carrot panna cotta.” Dawn liked it and ate most of it. I felt as though it had no business calling itself panna cotta and I ate, like, one bite.

So, dessert gets mixed reviews from us: Dawn loved one, and liked the other. I loved one, and had zero interest in the other… I think I even gave it the gas-face. Both were well-made, of course, with high quality ingreeds, and both were very nice to look at. Caitlin even put a candle in the chocolate cake.. thingy… for Dawn to blow out, but promised she wouldn’t sing Happy Birthday. Good call on both accounts, Caitlin.

Jacob was right about his staff: they were excellent in his absence.

Thanks, Table! We had a great time at dinner, and then went up to the Imperial Life, to meet friends for drinks. The kids enjoyed their cocktails, while I sipped water and groaned about being full.

Oh, and for the first time EVER, this happened: Our server upstairs, Noami, asked me: “Are you Stu Helm, the graphic designer?”

YES! Yes, I am, Naomi. I am Stu Helm: The Graphic Designer.

She remembered me from working together on the monthly music schedule posters for Mo Daddy’s back in the day! She was always a pleasure to work with, but we had never met face to face, so it was great to finally meet you, Naomi!

Imperial Life is one of Dawn’s new fave jams, so I’m sure I’ll see you again.


stu_helm_2013

Stu Helm is an artist and writer living in Asheville, NC, and a frequent diner at local restaurants, cafes, food trucks, and the like. His tastes run from hot dogs and mac ‘n’ cheese, to haute cuisine, and his opinions are based on a lifetime of eating out. He began writing restaurant reviews strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook in 2013.

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30 Comments

  1. Can’t afford it.. but glad someone can and afterwards share their experience in entertaining fashion. Have at it, Stu.

  2. C’mon people let’s tell it like it is. Stu probably enjoys the attention that he’s getting. He’s milking it for all its worth. Being a pseudo-celebrity in a bourgeoning food scene is fun for him. He likes getting stuff for free. He’s never claimed to be a real food journalist (his writing proves that to be true). If you’re using Stu as a source for how a restaurant should be then you’re not very bright. Use your own judgment, talk to your friends and colleagues, that’s how you will know where to go.

    As for Stu, let him have his fun. If he’s getting comped meals then good for him. He found a way to get something that the rest of us would love to have. Just don’t let his reviews dictate to you your meal choices.

    Have fun Stu.

  3. We live in a small town. As much as all of the cool folks in this town want to pretend we live in Brooklyn or San Francisco, we live in a small town. While I am certain that it would be possible to make greater strives toward anonymity, in the end any reviewer in a town this size will inevitably become recognizable. As far as the free food goes, I say take it! Buying food at many of these establishments is expensive, especially with Asheville gaining this almost daily recognition as a food town. Whether it comes out of his pocket or that of the publication it can still get quite expensive and I don’t imagine it is always easy to drop (as was the case in this review) often in excess of 100 dollars. Even if the publication is paying for it, its not as though blogs, small newspapers, and local websites are rolling in the dough. How much money can a website like this honestly make. While I imagine they pay their bills, it is quite apparent that they do what they do because they care about it. I dont even agree with over half of the non-food articles on this website but I respect and enjoy reading it. Give these people a break, does everything have to be a fucking controversy or a conspiracy? It’s a food review! Take it or leave it. I enjoy reading his column because it entertains me. Do I always agree? No, and I have been to many of the same establishments, though more often than not he seems to have a decent assessment of most of them. Then again all of these comments demonstrate one of the most frustrating things about Asheville to me. Despite all of the great things about this town, people seem to have a habit of not liking anything if it becomes too popular and then proceed to pan it online. Just my two cents. For my part, keep up the great column Stu!

  4. It is human nature to feel some obligation when accepting something for free. It is best practice to prevent bias by not accepting the free offer. We are all influenced by anything free and to think that one is the exception is folly. Evidenced based research has proven that we are subject to bias when accepting free offers. Pharmaceutical companies continue to provide free lunches, dinners, miscellaneous gifts, speaking honorariums, etc. so health care providers will prescribe in their favor and not what is in the best interest of the patient. I have never accepted any of the above from pharmaceutical companies in my 30 some year health care career. To do so would be unethical and in some states these practices are now banned.

  5. I’m sure McDonalds will give you a free Big Mac if you tell the world how great they are

  6. I find it a bit sad that so many readers assume they’re receiving second-rate food and service when they visit the many exceptional restaurants of Asheville (or elsewhere). That’s certainly not my expectation as a regular diner – if it was, I’d never bother to go out to eat at all! I know that I can count on consistent, pleasant service and carefully prepared food in all of the restaurants I choose to frequent in town. Such is the nature of a restaurant with integrity – they aim to please the customer, and want them to return.

    I’ve been dining out for years here in Asheville – both with Stu and without – and he and I have always received exceptional treatment at our favorite establishments. That’s the beauty of living in a small town – it’s a community and people get to know one another. Granted, Stu’s food column has made him a more recognizable food lover, but I really don’t think the kitchen comes to a standstill anytime he walks in the door of a restaurant, with all hands on deck ready to ensure only the most perfect bites reach his table.

    Have some faith people – you’re going to get a great meal too.

    • boatrocker says:

      It’s pretty sad when one’s girl friend has to take to the Internets to defend a nepotist.

      Please, Stu, write like a real journalist, and not like a diva.

      The word fuck does not convince anyone to eat anywhere.
      Advice that you can take or ignore.

  7. ‘Can I be “bought” with a free plate of fried mushrooms? Hell no.’

    Well, hell, I can! Bring ’em on!

  8. Girl Stew says:

    Had no idea we share a love of psychadelic/stoner rock….like you even more, Stu 🙂

  9. Stu glossed over the Table weakness, which is a lack of interesting shareable appetizers.

  10. To my understanding most legit food critics aren’t comped food by the place they’re eating as that’s pretty much payola–as much as the publication they work for issues them a company card to cover their meals.

    Also, according to the Association of Food Journalists (yeah, that’s a real thing) they shouldn’t know who you are or that you’re coming. From their site:

    Reviews should be conducted as anonymously as possible. The goal of restaurant criticism is to experience the restaurant just as ordinary patrons do. However, true anonymity is often no longer possible. In that case, critics should engage in the practice of anonymity. Ideally, that means keeping all photos and social-media profiles photo-free and restricting public appearances.

    Even when total anonymity is impossible, restaurant critics should make every attempt to arrive at restaurants unannounced and maintain as low a profile as possible during their visits. Reservations should be made in a name other than that of the reviewer and meals should be paid for using cash or credit cards in a name other than the critic.
    http://www.afjonline.com/FoodCriticsGuidelines.cfm

  11. Stu, some unsolicited advice:

    Make it a personal policy to not respond in the comments, at all. Ignore your critics, it’s slightly contradictory being a critic, getting mad at personal critics.

    AND, remover your picture from all your posts, and adopt an alias. Unless you like all the attention, then never mind.

    Advice to all of Stu’s Critics: You don’t have to rely, or depend, or get all mad about his reviews. Take them as entertainment and move on.

  12. I don’t think it’s valid to compare reviewing music or movies or dog sweaters to reviewing restaurants. A CD or a movie or a dog sweater is going to be the same from one consumer to the next. Food isn’t. I don’t care who pays for the food, but when a restaurant knows you’re the critic, you’re probably getting better food and service than the average Joe. If a band knows you’re the critic, it’s not like you get a better CD than I would.

    In other places that I’ve lived and worked in restaurants, restaurant reviewers were totally anonymous. No one knew what they looked like. They used pen names for their newspaper columns. It’s too late for that now in Stu’s case, however. I’ll keep reading because I usually like his writing, but the reviews are much less interesting than when restaurants didn’t know who he was.

    • boatrocker says:

      I would agree. The pink elephant in the room isn’t the free food (though that still smacks of nepotism) but if a restaurant offers it, sure, I can see someone accepting free food. The pink elephant is the fact that the average Joe Schmoe is not going to get the same quality, preparation, presentation etc. as a reviewer trying to act like a rock star.

      At least he did address that concern, albeit with a rather twisted logic. Many would also argue that’s not how it works, at least if a restaurant owner considers themselves a professional. Somehow I have a feeling if I ate at the same reviewed restaurants, the staff and owners won’t be chatting with me at my table and posing for selfies with me.

      I think I have a great new idea for a scam, though. Create a bogus website that caters to local entertainment, food, etc. Then schmooze with restaurant owners, club owners (don’t forget to take plenty of selfies with the staff). Then watch the free meals and concert tickets roll in- woo hoo!

      • You're welcome says:

        Pink elephant and nepotism don’t mean what you think they mean.

        Nepotism: the unfair practice by a powerful person of giving jobs and other favors to relatives

        “The elephant in the room” is a problem that everyone knows is there but no one wants to acknowledge.

        A “white elephant” is a troublesome or costly possession that’s hard to get rid of.

        A “pink elephant” is something that people are said to see quite often when they’re drunk. It’s a drunken hallucination.

        • boatrocker says:

          If an elephant in the room is bad enough, wouldn’t a pink elephant mean a problem is even more in your face? How are both different than the 800 lb gorilla in the room? But I digress. I suppose by not offering a counter argument my points made that one would agree with what I’m saying. Whether it is indeed nepotism, cronyism or rascalism, I’m sure Homer Stokes would be proud.

  13. Stu your ignorance is profound! Your Jason’s bitch!!! Jason sells ads on Ashvegas. You write crap pieces and stir up controversy which in turn brings more people to Jason’s website. Open your eyes!

  14. i don’t care at all who pays for it. he should get free stuff/food/money for these awesome reviews – they’re gold! i kind of care that he is recognized and may get special service and special food preparation that the rest of us won’t get. if they know he’s there, his burger will get more attention than mine. it makes his reviews potentially not applicable to everybody who dines there. that’s the value of an anonymous critic. that’s the conflict of interest as i see it, not in the money. just a grain of salt that needs to be taken when relying on the reviews.

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