Has Blogging Finally Paid Off?
I'm not in this for fortune and I'm not in this for fame, though I do enjoy the positive feedback I get and the links to the blog or to select posts from other blogs like Eater and Slice and Cookthink as well as several restaurant websites.
And I'm not in this for freebies or perks, though sometimes offers come my way. I've been offered a number of product samples for review, probably a result of my pieces about products like Almondina and Ak-Mak. I always ignore those emails. Once or twice I've gotten invitations for free meals at restaurants looking for reviews. No thanks.
What I do get out of this is the opportunity to write nonfiction about the things I love on my own terms, on my own schedule, without having to bend to editorial constraints of traditional publications. I like the opportunity to experiment with different approaches to writing about food and travel, and I love the immediacy of the blog form.
Last night, however, I just might have reaped some tangible rewards from this endeavor, though I can't be sure. I was dining at Devi, my favorite upscale Indian restaurant in New York, for the Restaurant Week special. I've written about Restaurant Week at Devi before, and how they were a class-enough act to keep many of their best premium menu items on the reduced-price menu. I also wrote a piece about Devi's co-chef Suvir Saran's presentation at the N.Y. Times Travel Show (Saran's partner, Hemant Mathur, is the tandoori specialist). I'm wondering whether those two positive pieces account for the extras we were lavished with last night.
Once again, the Restaurant Week menu barred no significant holds from the regular tasting menus. Two of us shared appetizers and mains. Now some Indian food purists might find Devi's menu too "nouvelle" or "fusiony," but I find that most of the innovations work and that the food remains Indian at the core. In addition to the two appetizers we ordered, the waiter brought us an additional appetizer "compliments of the chef." I didn't give it much thought. One of our appetizers was the Goan shrimp balchao bruschetta--fresh, tender medium-large shrimp served on toast with a savory onion and tomato-based sauce that, though not specified on the menu, is flavored with a bit of shrimp paste. Balchao is a Portuguese colonial specialty sauce that is also popular in Malaysian cuisine as belacan. The other appetizer we chose was grilled scallops with roasted red pepper chutney, Manchurian cauliflower, and spicy bitter-orange marmalade. Two perfectly cooked jumbo sea scallops sat atop the pepper chutney which was actually more a coulis. On one side of the plate was the marmalade, and on the other a small amount of the Manchurian cauliflower, or gobi Manchurian, crispy cauliflower with a mildly spicy, sweet and sour tomato glaze, a dish borrowed from Indian-Chinese cuisine. Our bonus appetizer was a full order of the gobi Manchurian, one of the restaurant's more popular vegetable dishes.
One of the main courses was a no-brainer, Hemant Mathur's amazing tandoor-grilled lamb chops coated with a complex spice paste, and served with two wonderful sides: sweet and sour pear chutney and a spiced potato preparation that is potato heaven. Our other entree was the masala fried quail. This is one of Suvir Saran's specialties. A similar fried chicken recipe is in his American Masala book. The poultry is breaded with a buttermilk batter with Indian spices. The result is a marriage of North India and the American South, dare I say a Mississippi Masala? Thankfully, it's not saccharine like Mira Nair's films. The quail's accompaniments of a warm mustard-oil potato salad and a spicy slaw with peanuts that reminded me of something Thai were fabulous. In addition to these two entrees we were comped with an excellent vegetable side dish, crispy okra salad. The fried slivers of okra lose all of the okra sliminess that turns many people off to that vegetable. Breads are not included in the prix-fixe, so we ordered the garlic naan. But when the bread arrived we were also presented with an additional basket of bread, one of the restaurant's signature creations, goat cheese & spinach kulcha served with a yogurt sauce, also "compliments of the chef." My dessert, a mango kulfi, was good if unspectacular, but pleasantly lighter than most kulfis, like a cross between a kulfi and a sorbet. As for the extras, I did the math. The three complimentary items add up to $31 on the menu. The tables around us didn't seem to be getting the same treatment.
Surely a total of three reservations in two years didn't get me into a frequent diner loyalty program. So I'm figuring all those perks may well have been related to the good press I've given Devi and Suvir Saran, though nothing of the sort was communicated to me. I do know that well-run high-end restaurants track their diners' preferences. And computerization has made this all easier. So perhaps there's a Peter Cherches record in some Devi database that has me flagged for special treatment, and it makes a match with my reservation. I know that many restaurants follow blogs and message boards. I've gotten several nice notes from restaurant owners and PR people about pieces I've written.
I'm happy to be the recipient of Devi's hospitality and largesse, but I wonder if I should be concerned about privacy issues in this culture of surveillance. After all, there may be records on me in restaurant databases all over New York. What if my culinary pecadillos were to be leaked? What if, all of a sudden, cardiologists began to publicly decry my unsafe eating habits? Could I suffer the fate of Eliot Spitzer?
I doubt it.
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Note: Devi regularly offers several tasting menus similar to the Restaurant Week menu: a $45 3-course dinner and a $40 early-bird that includes a glass of wine or beer.