So you think dining out for a living is a cush gig? Well, let me tell you something: it is. But that doesn't mean reviewing restaurants is easy. Restaurants are entities that evolve over time, but I'm only given a meal or two to form my sketches of them. I always worry that I've raved about a so-so restaurant or caught a perfectly good one on an off night or two--in addition to a basketful of other anxieties about my work.

Looking back on a year's worth of reviews, I regret occasionally mincing words when it comes to mediocrity. Terrible cooking is easy enough to deal with, as is superb food--but when there are no Band-Aids floating in the soup and the green beans aren't scorched, yet nothing really stands out, I tend to mask my disinterest. I've got a few tells, though. For example: I think décor is an important part of the utopian vision of a restaurant, but if I start talking too much about the setting--like I did with my reviews of Alexandria's on Second ("…the crimson walls and dark wood, honey-smooth R&B classics wafting though the air, the Romare Bearden- like lithographs on the wall…") or the Apartment ("Creamy white chairs and cool purple-gray walls are designed to match the halftones of Joseph LaShelle's lush black-and-white cinematography…")--it's probably because there's not too much to say about the food. Ditto on eavesdropping. If I'm paying a lot of attention to what my neighbors are discussing, as I did with Duke's Chowder House (where I learned from a table neighbor, as we looked out on the water, that onions are difficult cargo to ship), chances are I've been picking away at another salad or pre-mixed baby greens that have been slightly overdressed and undersalted.

A while ago, when some restaurants were doing too much with their ring molds and squeeze bottles, you could catch me calling things "playful" when I really meant overwrought or silly. That's not much of a problem any more, but I still feel like a terrible nag on issues of seasoning (most restaurants use too little salt and too much black pepper) so sometimes I don't issue tickets on minor offenses. Whenever I've called something "mild" or "gentle," as I did the tomato sauce at Cucina de Santis, or "restrained," like I called the lemon tart at Voilá!, what I usually meant was that I found the dish boring. (Unless, of course, I used those words to refer to something that should be mild, like a seafood sausage or a panna cotta. I regret that I'm sometimes the only one who can figure out what I mean.) Likewise, I regret that there are not many synonyms for "delicious," and that, among them, I have an aversion to "mouthwatering," "scrumptious," and "delectable," which is why I overuse "nice" and "tasty."

I also regret that I never really cover wine in my reviews. I always mean to take it more seriously, and in the end I can only offer you a handful of excuses: (1) I love wine, but I'm no wine geek. I know more about it than the average two-buck-chuck drinker, but really my palate is better attuned to food. When it comes to wine, I ask good questions, but I still rely on the kindness of waiters--or my tablemates, if they are experts. (2) I find most wine writing really boring. (3) I have a word limit, and I'm trimming details as it is--forgoing the whole subject of wine is one way to make space.

My biggest regret, as I poke around the city for new and improved restaurants, is that I don't write about the restaurants that have become habit to me, because they have already been reviewed or I've been too closely associated with them to write fairly about them. Like the Hopvine, whose food I find perfectly mediocre, except for the dilly little pickle relish they put on their turkey grinder, which is positively hypnotic and goes well with their microbrews. Or Tacos Guaymas, which, until my friend Alvaro opens the little taqueria he keeps on promising, is the best close-at-hand place (for me) to order tacos. I haven't been to Salumi much this year, but since it started its wholesale business, I've been able to eat their fine cured meats in restaurants like Lark, Crow, Baguette Box, and Via Tribunali. It's not the same as eating at the deli's crowded communal table, but it is like a postcard from owner Armandino Batali. When I am depressed by the dark winter, Matt's in the Market has a singular way of making me happy with some sort of well-dressed fishy sandwich and a slice of my friend Michelle's pistachio cake.

As much as I might write with enthusiasm about the lasagna at Cucina de Santis, or the pizza at Via Tribunali or Tutta Bella, I'm not convinced that they will ever top Cafe Lago in my heart. As for fancier meals, there is Lark, which I regret letting Emily Hall praise in The Stranger rather than me, since it's now my go-to place for pork belly and tangerine beets. There is Monsoon, which always has something green and delicious down at the bottom of the menu to go with a fat pink pork chop or lemongrass tofu. There is Osteria la Spiga, home of the most reliable meat sauce around (served on tagliatelle), and more often than not, some form of farro porridge that--since its made from a sort of whole grain--has the air of nutritional respectability blended in with its olive oil. There is Le Pichet, which I can't write about because I used to work there, whose roasted chicken is invariably spot-on, no matter what its seasonal sauce. There is the Harvest Vine, where I also used to work, the only place in town to get funky Mediterranean fish like baby monk-fish or dorade, but also home of the more lowbrow, carnal de-light of a long skinny saus-age called txistorra. And finally, there is Vios Cafe--where I work now--which can always comfort me with a béchamel-slicked pasticcio or gigantic white beans, even if, regretfully, I have to cook them myself.

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