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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Herons, Shephards and restaurant reviews

Last Saturday I decided to treat a friend of mine to a dinner at a restaurant, the Painted Heron, that received one of the most glowing reviews I have ever come across. It appeared in the last week’s Sunday paper magazine (no link, alas) and it certainly inspired me despite the fact I am not too keen on Indian food.

The dinner was an extraordinary experience. Despite our high expectations induced by Matthew Norman’s raving review, we were not disappointed. Everything – the decor, food and service – was excellent and the price commensurate with the quality we enjoyed. For our London-based readers I recommend to make a trip to 112 Cheyne Walk, SW10 and sample the gastrogasm-inducing fare we enjoyed.

I also applaud Matthew Norman whose restaurant review in the Sunday Telegraph Magazine is one of the sections of the paper I read regularly. His razor sharp witt is refreshing as he uses it to punture many a pompous restaurant’s pretentions. However, his vitriolic sarcasm had a day off when he wrote a review for the Painted Heron – one of the reasons I wanted to see this culinary marvel. And as it was substantiated, I am ready to trust his opinions in the future. He is by no means the only one to give high marks to the place. Although I cannot link to his review, I found another reviewer making pretty much the same points:

The food is bloody marvellous. Every single dish made me stamp my feet and howl at the moon.

The tandoori baby chicken came. And I came over all funny. This was a good strong bird not much bigger than a greedy quail, served whole, orange from the oven and trickling juices and runnels of bright yoghurt, served on onion kulcha bread.

I picked it up and tore in. Sweet Jesus. And then I was sorry again because the chicken in your local curry house is not fit to cluck orisons over the carcass of this princely bird-child.

Quite.

Still reeling from the culinary delights of the night before, I opened this week’s Sunday Telegraph and right in the news section I find out how Matthew Norman’s review of another restaurant has earned him a letter from the owner threatening to sue.

It was, both parties will submit, not quite a glowing review. Indeed, phrases such as “the eighth circle of hell”, “among the very worst restaurants in Christendom” and “meals of crescendoing monstrosity” may have conveyed the impression that Matthew Norman, the prize-winning restaurant critic of The Sunday Telegraph Magazine, was not entirely enamoured with the food on offer at Shepherds in Westminster, central London.

Last week, alas, things moved from the kitchen towards the courtroom. Richard Shepherd, the owner of Shepherds, whose restaurant has long been a favourite of politicians, is threatening to sue The Sunday Telegraph for libel because he was so hurt by the review.

Unless Mr Shepherd received damages paid to the charity of his choice, and the opportunity to write a letter defending his restaurant, he would have no choice but to sue.

It is not just a matter of free speech and the right to express one’s opinions, especially when one is getting paid for doing so, but the manner in which Mr Shepherd’s reacted to Mr Norman’s sharp and let’s face it, witty criticism.

Where do you start with somewhere like Shepherds? You don’t. If you have any sense you finish with it.

There is so much about Shepherds that is wrong that it would, in a more elegant age, merit a pamphlet rather than a review.

This is a man who likes his food and dislikes the kind of pretentious ‘concept’ restaurants that has sprouted all over London in the last decade or so. Apparently, many customers have written letters to the Telegraph expressing support to the restaurant with colourful insults directed at Mr Norman. One has to remember though that Shepherd’s is frequented by politicians whose palates are not necessarily amongst the most discriminating, what with having to kiss arses all day long…

Mr Shepherd’s response, or more accurately his lawyers’ response, is a seriously po-faced letter that completely misses the point of Mr Norman’s job and talent. It is almost distressing to see the kind of corporate bullying normally reserved for customers directed at a restaurant reviewer. There was at least one dissenter, John Blundell of the Institute of Economic Affairs, who wrote:

Thank you a million times for your brilliant review of Shepherds. I stopped eating there four years ago when we had to send back three of our four main courses.

Mr Norman himself appeared unrepentant, although he did admit that he had one regret.

The lawyers’ letter was far more amusing than my review. That’s the sad thing.

Somehow I doubt it…

14 comments to Herons, Shephards and restaurant reviews

  • Rob Read

    The world will end before I eat there!

    BTW what did the bill come to? I only live accross the river…

  • It is amazing how worked up people get over food reviews. Here in Denver, the alternative weekly has a food critic who was basically declared the best food writer in the nation for 2002 (some award or another) and there are folks who regularly write in saying that he is a horrible narcissistic writer who knows nothing about food and simply takes joy in trashing good restaurants. And yet, for the first time in my life, I actually read the food reviews because they are entertaining and knowledgeable. All this really proves is that people are very passionate about what they eat, and woe betide the person who dares to say anything to contradict their dearly held views.

    (While several of the letter writers have excoriated Mr. Food Critic, and have suggested he be fired, the paper in question shows no sign of permitting negative consequences. In fact, I think they like the controversy.)

  • Antoine Clarke

    I have had atrocious English food at Shepherd’s and vowed never again. It was overcooked dried mutton on the bone claiming to be lamb along with the usual boring vegetables.

    However, a year later I was invited to a banquet(Link) at Shepherd’s with a number of think-tanks being present. Someone was there from the IEA, but I do not recall who that might have been. The lamb was nice and pink, and among the finest servings of it’s kind in this country.

    Far be it from me to defend English cuisine (the sort of thing that makes one wish England had been invaded more frequently), but Shepherd’s may simply have had a bad day. The service on the other hand, has always been excellent in my experience.

    Having said all that, I look forward to trying out the Painted Heron. Sorry for the long comment, but food does that to me! 🙂

  • Alas, my faith in Samizdata has been undermined.

    Any properly disreputable media outlet would have at least mentioned this part of the review in question – regarding the soup:

    “Were it found today in a canister buried in the Iraqi desert, it would save Tony Blair’s skin.”

    How can the brilliance of this assessment have been ignored?

    I’m deeply disappointed.

  • Heh…when I first saw “Heron” and “Shepard” in the same post title my first thought was “Rand al’Thor” … but I guess that’s just me…

    Scott: That line is truly priceless, thanks for bringing it to my attention. 🙂

  • Andy Duncan

    Hi Gabriel,

    Mr Norman’s stupid actions have only highlighted how bad his restaurant is, so he’s been very foolish accentuating this poor review.

    But in general terms, as long as slander/libel laws do exist, then sometimes people do feel compelled to sue in order to combat the general view that ‘there can be no smoke without fire’.

    To get round this, maybe we should all adopt Murray Rothbard’s idea that there should be no slander/libel laws, on the basis that no single person can own the thoughts in another’s head.

    So if Gabriel Syme says on Samizdata that Andy Duncan is a raving lunatic, and every reader of Samizdata believes him, that is up to Gabriel and those readers and nothing to do with A.Duncan because he doesn’t own the contents of their minds, even those potential thoughts on the perceived mental sanity of A.Duncan.

    But in a Common Law system free of slander/libel laws Gabriel will have to do much more to prove the point, because as A.Duncan cannot sue, his lack of action, in response to the adverse comments, will not condemn him.

    And he is still free to publish his response and his thoughts about the validity of Gabriel’s comments, if anybody should choose to read these comments, or his general thoughts on Gabriel’s qualifications to make them.

    Which would make Gabriel more careful in making her original comments, as the sauce which is good for the goose is good for the gander. The resulting meme war between A.Duncan and G.Syme could leave G.Syme even worse off than A.Duncan, if A.Duncan is able to disprove the allegation, in the Popperian sense that what he says is less false than what G.Syme says.

    Though because he can do nothing legally to Gabriel, it might be even better for him to adopt the Duke of Wellington’s approach of saying ‘Publish and be damned’.

    In whatever case, it is of course obviously true (or at least, very unfalse), that A.Duncan is a raving lunatic. And let us assume that he is also a subsidised billionaire, and that G.Syme is an impoverished taxpayer.

    Under the current slander/libel laws A.Duncan can purchase the coercive powers of the state to financially destroy G.Syme to stop him broadcasting the truth that he is a raving lunatic.

    Under a Rothbardian legal system this is impossible, and a Popperian struggle for truth, or lesser societal falsity, can ensue.

    Is this a good thing?

    I don’t know, but it’s frickin cold here in Boston MA today, and A.Duncan’s brain may be even more addled than usual! 🙂

  • About 15-20 years ago, the owner of a Sydney restaurant sued Leo Schofield, restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald over a bad review, and the restaurant won and was awarded some absurd amount of money in damages (something like $100 000 if I remember correctly). Australia’s libel laws were and are ridiculous.

  • John Elliot

    Michael Jennings,
    If I remember correctly, another ridiculous aspect of the Schofield case was the evidence that takings at the restaurant in question actually increased following the damning Schofield review.

  • Eamon Brennan

    I live a couple of hundred yards from the Heron but I will never eat there.

    Eamon

  • Do tell, why’s that? Averse to Indian food? Vegan? You know some dark secret about the meat they serve?

    The place sounds good to me, I’d die for a curry that good right about now (I have yet to taste a vindaloo in AZ that didn’t taste predominantly of tomato sauce; I’ve had much better in Long Island for gods sake!)

  • For those who are considering visiting the Painted Heron, the dinner came to about £60, with starters around £7, main course £12 and desserts £4. Not dirt-cheap but well worth the price, I assure you. And I don’t even like Indian food!

    Brock: Perhaps my unconscious was at play there, I am currently re-reading the last book in the series in anticipation of the next book. 🙂

  • Eamon Brennan

    To David Mercer

    Its a weakness on my part. I can’t get past Exotikka of India on the Ashburnham road. Lousy name, great food, dirt cheap. Some inconsiderate git put it right opposite my doorway. The poor Heron stands no chance.

    Eamon

  • Ah, that makes sense!

    If I ever make it across the pond, I’ll just have to try both of them, won’t I? 🙂

    I don’t know why, even when they do other things on the menu excellently, that Indian food restaurants here in Tucson can’t seem to make a decent vindaloo; even the places I’ve tried with other good curries on offer.

    Maddening I tell you.