Every city, regardless of its size or culinary sophistication, has food critics. If there's a newspaper, there's a food critic, even if the extent of the journalistic scope is the Shopper's News or a resident association newsletter.
I live in Little Rock. It's not exactly an epicurean Mecca, but it boasts an impressive list of top-flight restaurants that is surprising for a city this size.
And for the most part, the local restaurant critics have evolved with the culinary landscape, resulting in reviews that are generally articulate, educated, naunced, and spot-on.
But there are exceptions.
We set out tonight to dine at Graffiti's, a small Italian restaurant that I remember fondly from a New Year's Eve dinner I had there way back in 1991. Since it had been so long since I'd been there, I checked out reviews online. They were all quite glowing, describing a "fun atmostphere" and "trendy menu." Over the years, it has become a "Little Rock institution," by God.
Which brings me back to the point I started out making about restaurant reviews in cities that are not cuisine-forward (thought I'd never get there, didn't you): it seems that restaurants can become ineligible for bad reviews simply by virtue of their longevity as long as there are readers around who remember their glory days.
The best that we can say about our experience at Graffiti's was that it wasn't offensive. We started with the Italian quesadillas and were actually pleased by the flavor. There was a nice little kick to it from a spice that we couldn't identify -- but it worked well with the cheeses and pepperoni. I had the summer salad, which is apparently a staple of the menu; our server tossed out the term (no pun intended), then said, "Do you know it?" I demurred, so she described it. Later, a couple of ladies at an adjacent table got the same spiel but said that they did know it, and they didn't get the description.
It was ordinary but tasty (I'm a sucker for salads with fried chow mein noodles). I'm pretty sure I can replicate it at home.
The real disappointment was with the entrees. My linguine with escargot was woefully underseasoned (although the serving size, even for the half-order, was generous). Vito described his beef tenderloin as "well-cooked", but the vegetable medley accompaniment was overdone and the pesto pasta was just ordinary.
Our server was friendly and attentive but couldn't knowledgeably discuss the wine list. She did tell us about their small selection of half-bottles, which I found fascinating, since it appeared to solve the problem Vito and I usually have when we contemplate wine by the bottle -- I usually order food that needs a white, he orders food that pairs better with red. Tonight, we each got a our own half-bottle of wine that was certainly acceptable, if not orgasm-inducing (they were both the same lower-end Chilean label that we keep on hand at home when we want to have wine with our reality TV).
We arrived early, a little before six, and left between seven-thirty and eight. During that time, we watched the small dining room fill up. Every other group that came in recognized at least one other group that was already there, and the pleasantries that were exchanged smacked of the dining room at a country club where you know that anyone who came in had to be a member.
I concluded that there is a small but wealthy subsection of Little Rock that is solely responsible for keeping this place going, and that they all were either suckers for nostalgia or prefer overcooked food with little to no seasoning.