Critic’s Notebook: VIP vs anonymous

Both photos are of the Same exact dish at Onotria in Costa mesa. Can you spot the difference? (Left: by Cindy Yamanaka. Right: by Brad A Johnson)

Someone came up to me the other day and asked, rather incredulously, “How could you give such-and-such restaurant only two stars? The pictures in the Register looked amazing.”

It’s not the first time I’ve gotten that question. I usually answer with something like, “We have great photographers, don’t we?” Unfortunately, pictures don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes they tell a completely different story from what I experienced on multiple visits.

Here’s the catch: When a restaurant knows that our photographer is coming, the chef creates VIP food for the camera. And because I dine as anonymously as possible, I rarely eat the same gorgeous food that our photographers end up shooting.

I eat the same ordinary food that all the normal, non-VIPs eat when they go out to dinner. The difference can be shocking.

pork medallions with spinach and Fontina in a Mirabelle plum sauce at onotria

Take for example the gorgeous photo (above, left) that ran in the Register of a grilled pork loin topped with spinach and Fontina cheese served in a light plum sauce at Onotria, an Italian restaurant I recently reviewed. When I sampled this dish, I enjoyed it. I snapped a picture of it with my phone (above, right). The pork wasn’t amazing. It was actually overcooked and slightly tough, and I thought it would have been better with less sauce, but the flavors were good. It wasn’t perfect, but I still enjoyed it. So when I contacted the photo department at the Register, I included this dish on my list of things I hoped they would shoot.

When our photographer returned from the restaurant and uploaded her pictures, I noticed an unfamiliar dish, something unlike anything I had seen or tasted on any of my visits. Our photographers rarely shoot anything that I haven’t tasted, so I was particularly curious about this dish. Looking at it made my mouth water. I wanted to go back to Onotria immediately and try whatever this was. Then I zeroed in on the photographer’s detailed caption: “Open-fire charred pork medallions sit on a bed of spinach and Fontina cheese with a Mirabelle plum sauce.”

And then I laughed, a really big belly laugh. Ah, right. That’s the VIP version. And it looks nothing like the dish I ate. I’m sure it tastes completely different, too. But the description is exactly the same. If not for the garnish of lavender and rosemary, I would never know these two dishes were meant to be the same.

This happens all the time. And this is why I try to stay under the radar. I don’t always take pictures of my food, so I can’t show you some of the most extreme examples of regular versus VIP food. But I do have a few noteworthy comparisons to share. Take a look at these pairings, and it’s obvious which ones were prepared for our photographers, and which ones were cooked for me when the chef didn’t know I was there.

Squid sushi at Kitayama, Newport Beach

Maine lobster with ricotta dumpling and artichoke at Andrea, Newport Beach

Fortunately, sometimes the food I eat does look exactly like the food our photographers capture. Some of the truest photos have come from Sue Ann’s in Placentia, Studio in Laguna Beach and Taco Mesa in Costa Mesa. The attention to detail on every single plate, every night, at Taco Maria, even when they don’t know who you are, is astonishing. That’s one place where I can absolutely guarantee that what you see in the Register is exactly the same as what I ate, and it’s exactly what you can expect to eat there, too.

Arroz con pollo with faro at Taco Maria in Costa Mesa, exactly the same.

Black pepper hamachi at Studio in Laguna Beach, exactly the same.

I get it. Chefs want to showcase their cuisine in the very best light possible when our photographers are in the house. But why wouldn’t they want to do that every day, with every dish, for every customer? That’s something to think about every week as you look at the beautiful photographs that we publish.

This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and Los Angeles Register.

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