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|Unspeakable Bodily Fluids and Genitalia: A Short, Revolting Intro to the Finest Metaphors in British Food Criticism|
In the April issue of Vanity Fair, British restaurant critic A. A. Gill called L'Ami Louis, a bistro in Paris, "the worst restaurant in the world."
But it wasn't this honor that prompted practically every single person I know to email me a link to the article. No, it was the language with which Mr. Gill described his dining experience that set the foodies of North America all a-twitter.
I'm not going to argue: the review is amusing. Gill describes veal kidneys en brochette as a "suppurating renal brick," the wine cellar smells of "fetid bladder damp," and the foie gras tastes of "gut-scented butter or pressed liposuction." He faults the decor in a similar fashion:
It's painted a shiny, distressed dung brown. The cramped tables are set with labially pink cloths, which give it a colonic appeal and the awkward sense that you might be a suppository. In the middle of the room is a stubby stove that also looks vaguely proctological.
But I did not share the shock of some of my fellow food writers. I grew up in England, so I'm used to seeing dishes compared to purple-veined breasts, oozing whiteheads, the last excretions of a dying water buffalo, and so on. It is the distinctive and dominant school of British restaurant criticism, and each of the major broadsheets has its own flamboyant practitioner of the style.
In this slideshow, we collect some of the best examples of the genre, as well as muse on what these nauseating gems might tell us about their authors and British culture in general.
The quote above comes from A. A. Gill's review of The Langley, London, for The Sunday Times, in which he describes a slow-baked cheese-and-onion tart as "snot in a box." Gill also added that his grilled kipper resembled a "smoked postman's Odor Eater." Writing for Vanity Fair, he took Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Rote 66's shrimp-and-foie gras dumplings to task:
What if we called them fishy liver-filled condoms? They were properly vile, with a savor that lingered like a lovelorn drunk and tasted as if your mouth had been used as the swab bin in an animal hospital.
So far, so disgusting. But, as you'll see, Gill's grotesque analogies begin to seem run-of-the-mill when set side by side with those of his colleagues.
Jay Rayner reviews restaurants for The Guardian and its sister Sunday paper, The Observer, and recently treated Top Chef Masters contestants and viewers to this helpful rule of thumb: "A good panna cotta, if it's set right, is meant to wobble like a woman's breasts." He had actually shared this gem earlier on in his career, in a review of Blackstones restaurant in Bath, England, where he added "I checked with the wife, and it did."
Meanwhile, in his 2008 round-up of a decade of professional criticism, he listed a range of "bowel-twisting" dining experiences, including a dinner at a restaurant called Babylon where he "was served a chicken sausage that, even the waiters agreed, looked like a severed penis on a plate," and another meal at a restaurant called Cocoon, where "the ruched material on the ceilings looked like cat's arses."
Lost your appetite yet? Take a deep breath: There's plenty more where that came from...
Will Self is probably better known as a novelist (he is the author of The Book of Dave, for example, which chronicles the adventures of a mentally ill taxi-driver and the religion inspired by his writings), but he also writes a regular column, "Real Meals," for the New Statesman, in which he reviews "ordinary" high street restaurants and food outlets.
In a recent review of the West Cornwall Pasty Company shop in Clapham Junction station, he described the product on offer as "buttock-shaped savories":
I say "buttock-shaped" because someone has to make the obvious point: Cornish pasties are the most arsiform food known to humankind, even crinkled along the rim as if they were an engorged perineum.
Stepping back onto more family-friendly, yet still suggestive territory, in January, he ventured into a Gourmet Burger Kitchen and compared his dinner to "two robust thighs, between which is pressed beefy virility."
I should add that although for Self, most of our fast food is X-rated, it is still often deeply disappointing: more of a tawdry one-night stand filled with self-loathing than a hedonistic experience of sensory delight.
Giles Coren has been a columnist for The Times for more than a decade, writing regular restaurant reviews in between pieces about anti-male sexism and Polish migrants. Most of them manage to be offensive in some form or other, if not for his attitude, then for his potty-mouth, of which is he is inordinately proud:
Rudeness has been good to me over the years. And while I, like most people on the threshold of middle age, deplore our society’s ongoing descent into vulgarity, and believe that politeness is, and must remain, the grease that keeps the wheels of the nation turning, I am here to tell you that being very, very rude to the right people, at the right time, can be extraordinarily satisfying, not to mention spiritually elevating, professionally effective and lucrative beyond imagining.
Over the years, Coren has lambasted wedding food as "supremes of chicken in barf sauce with mouse-tasting croquette potatoes" and pease pudding at The Court Restaurant at the British Museum as reminiscent of "occasions when I have accidentally inhaled while emptying the Dyson." Last summer, he caused a minor ruckus with his characterization of food bloggers as "pale, flabby people" equipped with "wankerish little digicameras," adding that, in his opinion:
Photographing one’s food in a restaurant is easily as rude, disrespectful and brutish as […] dropping one’s trousers in the middle of the room and taking a massive dump.
Amusingly enough, Coren is also a past winner of the Bad Sex in Fiction award, for a scene in his 2005 novel, Winkler, that involves a shot of cum in the eye ("it stung like nothing he'd ever had in there" as well as a dick that "was leaping around like a shower dropped in an empty bath."
Michael Winner is the food critic for The Times' sister publication, The Sunday Times. In what might be becoming a theme, he has also dabbled in more-or-less critically panned erotic fictions: He began his career as a film director, and his credits include Some Like It Cool, "the tale of a young woman who introduces her prudish husband and in-laws to the joys of nudism," as well as The System, a sex comedy starring Oliver Reed. More recently, earlier this year, he set off a media scandal by tweeting about Victoria Coren's (also a journalist, and sister of Giles) breasts and her dead father.
His style is less florid than that of his counterparts in this slideshow, but still notoriously outspoken: as he says, "I've never held back from expressing my opinion in my restaurant reviews."
Several of his finest dismemberments have been recorded for posterity in book form, but just to give you a taste of his style, in a 2010 review of the Petersham Nurseries Cafe, Winner begins with the disclaimer, "I know it will surprise you, but sometimes I upset people. And they upset me," before carrying on to characterize the receptionist as "considerably less welcoming than a disembowelled frog." And that was a positive review.