Awesome smoked-salmon sandwiches from Cap’t Mikes at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market
Buying a Father’s Day card is not that much different from buying pajamas for a 3-year-old boy: your thematic choices are pretty much limited to baseball, cars, trucks, and fishing. Want to get Pops a cookbook to go along with the card? He better like to set stuff on fire. Panna cotta? Green papaya salad? Nope: according to every bookstore display this time of year, it’s grilling or nothing for manly Dad.
Now, my dad hit the ol’ Weber a few times every summer at our house in New Jersey. We had some good steaks and burgers, sure. But he was much more likely to be inside sifting through piles of restaurant reviews instead, wondering if that new Indian place in Kenilworth would have lamb rogan josh worth trying, or driving over to the Lower East Side to round up a Jewish brunch spread of smoked sable, kippered salmon, bagels and bialys, some pickled green tomatoes and scallion cream cheese, maybe a few rugalach, and kibbitzing with the guys from Russ & Daughters and Gus’s Pickles all along the way.
It’s too bad that my dad, now 82, doesn’t use computers, if only because Chowhound was made for him. He would be in his element, an instant message-board pro, the first to crow over an unlikely strip-mall find, warning when a favorite biryani lost its oomph or a chef went back to Fujian, waxing rhapsodic about long-gone dishes like the nut cake at the Hungarian Bake Shop, Uncle Tai’s Hunan lamb with scallions or the cinnamon babkas at Gertel’s.
My dad loves to tell stories, and he loves to talk about food before, during and after eating. He would be an ace Chowhounder, I know it, smart, helpful, opinionated, a little cranky maybe, not one to suffer fools or blandness easily.
People often ask how I came to be a restaurant reviewer, a position I was lucky enough to hold in both San Francisco and New York City for some dozen years. I wasn’t a chef, nor had I gone to cooking school, which made a lot of people wonder about my qualifications. But what I did have was an appreciation for the theater of restaurants, a little thrill of anticipation that comes straight from my father, who loved going to the theater, the opera, and the ballet but probably loved going out to dinner best of all.
More importantly, I had, oddly but usefully, as it turned out, grown up reading piles of smart, funny, and thoughtful restaurant reviews, all the time. Back in the 1970s, my dad subscribed to The Restaurant Reporter, a monthly newsletter, and kept back issues in binders. My sisters and I read these for fun, because the reviewer, Seymour Britchky, didn’t just write rants or raves about food. Instead, he had a keen ear and eye for the absurdity of New York City social life, writing like Tom Wolfe with an razor-sharp palate, and his reviews happily skewered any pretense that arrived with the vichyssoise.
Weekly reviews in the New York Times and New York magazine got discussed, and, if sufficiently intriguing, torn out and put aside as aide-memoires for future visits. Bad reviews, of course, were the most entertaining. I can still remember my father’s glee in one of the Times’ rare “poor” rated reviews, a scorched-earth masterpiece about a place called Dish of Salt.
My dad shared a lot of his favorite things with me and my sisters growing up, but it’s his lifelong love of food, his curiosity, his refusal to be intimidated by unfamiliar flavors or snooty maitre d’s, that I’ve made my own. At 3, I’m told, I loved to sit on my dad’s lap, sharing a plate of raw cherrystone clams and trying to sip at his beer. And in that, close to 30 years later, I’m still my father’s daughter.