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Food critic undercover in San Francisco

Michael Bauer, a food critic, keeps San Francisco chefs on their toes.

(Page 2 of 2)

Hidden or recognized, Bauer eats out almost every night. He skips breakfast and usually eats a light lunch. He makes three visits to a new restaurant before writing his review, returns to each of his annual 100 Best once a year, and goes back to check up on restaurants he has previously reviewed. He also spends 40 minutes on the treadmill each day and takes one vacation a year to a place where good dining is not even an option. Antarctica was a recent destination.

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But there is a regret in his life. He knows he can't socialize with the people who own or work at the restaurants he reviews. Although he was friends with Wolfgang Puck and attended his wedding, once Mr. Puck opened a restaurant in San Francisco, their friendship had to end. "You give up a lot," he sighed. But it's not just losing friends that's a problem. As Bauer says, "The longer you do the job, the more enemies you make," he says. "I don't take it personally."

Tonight, in this half-filled French-like bistro (two stars in 2007) he was about to rereview a meal that could possibly increase that enemies list. It didn't take very long for us to realize that at least one of those stars was in danger of falling from the sky.

Unrecognized, we waited while they set our table, and then the staff proceeded to ignore our requests for everything from a soupspoon to the check. And yet Bauer never stepped out of the role of uncomplaining patron. He is a pleasant-looking Everyman and not a larger-than-life James Beard-type presence. Rather than making notes during the meal – or speaking into his lapel – he used his phone to take photos of the dishes to help him recall, for example, how the boeuf bourguignon was inexplicably covered in puff pastry.

And yet throughout dinner I never felt as if I was sitting across from a sneering critic such as Anton Ego, the animated character Peter O'Toole voiced in the Disney Pixar film "Ratatouille."

We took spoonfuls and forkfuls of each other's dishes – making few comments during the meal other than a couple raised eyebrows (mine) and questioning glances (mine again), at what was passing for French cuisine. The critic's barbs were saved for the one-star rereview he wrote two weeks later.

While most of Bauer's reviews are at least two stars (if a restaurant is terrible on his first visit he often doesn't return or write about it), his barbs can be sharper than any serpent's incisor. While I would have chosen "bland" to describe the weak onion soup, he went with the far more descriptive "tasted as if the kitchen had added water to stretch the broth." For me the pizza was just not worth taking home, while he thought it was "a limp margherita ... with a crust that had the spongy characteristic of a Boboli with a too-sweet tomato sauce." And while my Petrale sole was, to me, incredibly dry, he found it "two minutes away from becoming jerky." Ouch. But accurate.

Of course, being with a reviewer does make you think somewhat more critically. So when he handed me the specialty beverage to sip, I considered it an opportunity to follow in the footsteps, not to mention the taste buds, of critics such as Craig Claiborne, Mimi Sheraton, Frank Bruni, Jonathan Gold, and, of course, Michael Bauer. I sipped. Scrunched my face thoughtfully and then declared, slowly enough for him to recall the words so he could, if he chose, include them in his review, "It tastes like something I would have at my dentist's."

He nodded politely, as if to say, "these days everyone wants to be a critic."

And, of course, he is right.


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