*The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu*

That is the new and excellent book by Dan Jurafsky, due out this September, and I found it interesting throughout. Here is just one bit:

In fact, the more Yelp reviewers mention dessert, the more they like the restaurant. Reviewers who don’t mention a dessert give the restaurants an average review score of 3.6 (out of 5). But reviewers who mention a dessert in their review give a higher average review score, 3.9 out of 5. And when people do talk about dessert, the more times they mention dessert in the review, the higher the rating they give to the restaurant.

This positivity of reviews, filled with metaphors of sex and dessert, turns out to be astonishingly strong.

That is another reason not to trust customer-generated restaurant reviews.

And how exactly do Americans conceive of dessert?

Americans usually describe desserts as soft or dripping wet…US commercials emphasize tender, gooey, rich, creamy food, and associate softness and dripping sweetness with sensual hedonism and pleasure.

This association between soft, sticky things and pleasure isn’t a necessary connection. For example, Strauss found that Korean food commercials emphasize hard, textually stimulating food, using words like wulthung pwulthung hata (solid and bumpy), coalis hata (stinging, stimulating), thok ssota (stinging), and elelhata (spicy to the extent one’s nerves are numbed).

How can you resist a book with sentences such as these?

The pasta and the almond pastry traditions merged in Sicily, resulting in foods with characteristics of both.

Here is a previous MR post on Jurafsky, including a link to his blog, and concerning “Claims about potato chips.”

Originally posted on Marginal Revolution – click to see comments and suggestions.

More video here.


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Customized restaurant markets in everything privacy is dead

A restaurant with three Michelin stars is now trying to up its customer service game by Googling its customers before they arrive. According to a report from Grub Street, an Eleven Madison Park maitre d’ performs Internet recon on every guest in the interest of customizing their experiences.

The maitre d’ in question, Justin Roller, says he tries to ascertain things like whether a couple is coming to the restaurant for an anniversary, and if so, which anniversary that is. If it’s a birthday, for instance, he wants to wish them “Happy Birthday” when they arrive. He’ll scan for photos of the guests in chef’s whites or posed with wine glasses, which suggest they might be chefs or sommeliers themselves.

It goes deeper: if a particular guest appears to hail from Montana, Roller will try to pair up the table with a server who is from Montana. “Same goes for guests who own jazz clubs, who can be paired with a sommelier that happens to be into jazz,” writes Grub Street.

Obviously, the restaurant is just trying to be better in tune with the people sitting around eating its food and drinking its wine. But it seems like a reasonable assumption to believe people posting their birthday dates online aren’t doing so in the hopes that someone they’ve never met before will know, as if by telepathy, to wish them the best on their special day.

There is a bit more here, and for the pointer I thank Donnie Hall.

I am now curious what they would do for me. Any ideas?

Addendum: Here is what happens if you buy a scale on Amazon.

Originally posted on Marginal Revolution – click to see comments and suggestions.

How about this obnoxious video?


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I have one dinner in San Francisco

It should be in a Tyler Cowen sort of place. Probably not in the center of town, but still in SF proper. Where should I go?

Thank you for your suggestions.

Originally posted on Marginal Revolution – click to see comments and suggestions.


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What makes most restaurant reviews worthless

Not just the general reason why they are bad, but rather a very specific reason. Caitlin Dewey reports about:

. . . a new paper appropriately titled “Demographics, Weather and Online Reviews.” The study analyzed 1.1 million online reviews of 840,000 restaurants, looking for exogenous — or external — factors in the data. In other words, they wanted to figure out what makes us like or dislike a restaurant, beside the restaurant itself.

The results can be surprising. The diners’ education levels? No effect on actual ratings. Population of the area? Again, not so much.

But reviewers consistently gave worse ratings when it was raining or snowing outside than when it was clear. And reviewers usually liked restaurants better on warm and cool days, rather than very hot or very cold ones.

In researcher Saeideh Bakhshi’s words: “The best reviews are written on sunny days between 70 and 100 degrees … a nice day can lead to a nice review. A rainy day can mean a miserable one.”

Not surprisingly, restaurants in California and Hawaii are popular.

Originally posted on Marginal Revolution – click to see comments and suggestions.


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88 China Restaurant

88 China Restaurant, 13635 Lee Jackson Memorial Hwy, Chantilly, VA (about five minutes’ drive west of Fair Oaks mall), 703-378-0869 (Metro Trip Planner – opens in new window) [Ylp]

I call it “The new old China Star.” It’s run by the people who ran China Star until 2012, and after the original Peter Chang version of the place. They have pretty much copied the China Star menu, to at least ninety percent (I don’t see ma la rabbit, however). I tried three core dishes for old times’ sake. The Szechuan chili chicken (on the bone!) was a whole level better than it used to be. The braised fish was clearly better and finer. The scallion fried fish had a better accompaniment of scallions than it used to have, but was slightly scalier in terms of the fried batter, overall a draw in terms of quality. So this is like the old China Star restaurant, but overall it seems to be definitely better. I will go again, and you should too.


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China Star

China Star, web site, 9600 Main Street (Route 236), Fairfax, VA, 703-323-8822 (in the same shopping center as Kinko’s and Cinema Arts Theatre) [Google | Don Rockwell | Ylp | Zagat]

China Star for the last two years (2012-2014) has had new owners. It has regained a lot of its previous quality. Scallion fried fish is good again. Green beans are pretty good, as is braised fish. The specials are worth trying, definitely, even though they are only in Chinese. I very much like their crispy rice dish. The place is not perfect, and their “American-Chinese” dishes are still pretty dreadful. But I go here often, and I am happy to recommend it to anyone who has at least a clue as to how to order well in a Chinese restaurant.

(Previous review (from 2006) here.)


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Korean Food Specialists

Korean Food Specialists, 7031 Little River Turnpike, #21D, Annandale, VA, 703-333-3400 (Metro Trip Planner – opens in new window) [Ylp]

Set toward the back end of that strip mall, the same one with Il Mee and Shillah. It is the only Korean place around I know that has pork neck, be sure to dip the meat in the sauce. The steamed dumplings are excellent, above average kalbi, reasonably good Korean fried chicken. I long for a richer and more diverse selection of kimchees and vegetables, but overall this is a place worth having in the repertoire.

Some of you may know their branch restaurants in Fort Lee and Palisades Park, New Jersey.


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Should you scorn seafood in the American Midwest?

Bruce Arthur, a loyal MR reader, writes to me:

I grew up in a Polish immigrant neighborhood in Chicago, where I was raised on a diet high in seafood. My mother was raised close to the Baltic Sea and we weekly went to the local grocery store and bought a lot of salmon, halibut, sea bass, and scallops. I thought it was absolutely delicious. Sometimes we went to local ethnic grocery stores (generally Italian, the Italians had lived in the neighborhood before the Poles came and still ran a lot of businesses) and bought fish that was whole rather than filleted.

When I went off to college, I encountered people from the East Coast for the first time in my life, and I was shocked to learn that they did not believe that good seafood could possibly exist far away from an ocean coast. They would say things like “I would never eat fish in the Midwest, I wouldn’t trust it!’, which, as an 18 year old who was very much alive after eating a lot of fish in the Midwest, I found absurd.

After all, I thought, isn’t most seafood globally sourced these days? Few of our common food fishes are actually native to the Atlantic Coast, and if you’re flying fish in from the Pacific Northwest, South America, or Oceania, it seems to me that it should be least fresh on the East Coast, which is the part of America furthest away from where these fish are actually caught.

Of course, there could be other factors. Perhaps fish is freshest not closest to the ocean, but in denser areas – if everything is closer together, the places where fish is bought and eaten are presumably closer to the site of its first arrival in the area. Perhaps there’s a cultural factor: fish wasn’t always globally sourced, so perhaps coastal areas have more fish tradition that results in a higher quality of food. But surely the historic high rate of movement within (and into) America weakens that effect.

Anyway, I’m wondering if you have any insight into this. Am I right to scoff at regional seafood snobs, or do they have a point?

The more important reality is that hardly any regions in the United States have good indigenous seafood these days and thus no relative snobbery is justified. Maine lobster or catfish in parts of the south might be exceptions, and in neither case does the Alchian and Allen theorem hold (i.e., the highest quality goods remain those closest to the source).

In general regional demand effects are strong, as I argue in An Economist Gets Lunch. People outside of southern Ohio don’t understand good Cincinnati chili and so they don’t get it. The ingredients can in fact be transferred to North Carolina but they aren’t, least of all with the proper applications. A lot of good Sichuan dishes can be reproduced reasonably well in the United States, but you don’t get them until the properly demanding clientele is in place (by the way Gourmet Kingdom in Carrboro, NC is excellent). Who amongst us is a properly demanding judge of asam laksa? And so on. One interesting feature of these equilibria is that regional mobility does not seem to undo them. If you move to southern Ohio, you can rather rapidly become a standard bearer of good taste in chili, but you slack off once you are back in northern Virginia.

Originally posted on Marginal Revolution – click to see comments and suggestions.


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Thai Spoon Cuisine

Thai Spoon Cuisine, web site, 6795 Wilson Blvd., #B1, Falls Church, VA, Eden Center, Saigon West, 703-538-2899 (Metro Trip Planner – opens in new window) [Ylp]

Yes Eden Center now has a Thai place. It’s pretty good, but not some holy grail of southeast Asian authenticity. The best dishes are the fish, the whole fish, and with the complex sauces. For instance try the Plah Sam Rod with a three-flavored sauce, pineapple, roasted garlic, and trio of chili. I would be happier to eat here if there was not the entire rest of Eden Center sitting right nearby.


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Do Americans prefer hand-held foods?

Abigail Carroll opines:

Are there any dishes or foods that you would classify as typically, or even exclusively, “American?”

A number of iconic foods—hot dogs and hamburgers, snack food—are hand-held. They’re novelties associated with entertainment. These are the kinds of food you eat at the ballpark, buy at a fair and eventually eat in your home. I think that there is a pattern there of iconic foods being quick and hand-held that speaks to the pace of American life, and also speaks to freedom. You’re free from the injunctions of Victorian manners and having to eat with a fork and knife and hold them properly, sit at the table and sit up straight and have your napkin properly placed. These foods shirk all that. There’s a sense of independence and a celebration of childhood in some of those foods, and we value that informality, the freedom and the fun that is associated with them.

The interview is in general interesting on the history of American food. I have just ordered her new book Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal.

And here is a short piece on why so many American farmers eat so poorly.

Originally posted on Marginal Revolution – click to see comments and suggestions.


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