So many delicious adventures with the restaurant critic

February 21, 2010|By Tim Smith | tim.smith@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

One of the most enjoyable things about joining The Baltimore Sun staff 10 years ago was ending up with Elizabeth Large as my pod mate.

Even though her desk was perpetually, maybe pathologically, clean, and mine perpetually and pathetically messy, we got along from the start. And even though there were many things we didn't have in common (she, the sports enthusiast, couldn't believe I didn't know who Ray Lewis was; I, the classical music nut, retaliated by drawing a blank stare when I asked her who Renée Fleming was), we had a great time sharing our little plot of the newsroom.

That daily fun transferred outside the workplace when she asked if I would like to be on her dining companion list, an invitation extended as well to my partner Robert Leininger. That was a quick and easy "yes."

We've been on that list for the better part of a decade, doing our humble part in the service of culinary journalism. Elizabeth has written about her standard rules for those sharing her table at restaurants, and we caught on to them pretty quickly - must order all courses; must not blow her cover; must not put our elbows on the table (just kidding).

Looking back on it, Robert and I were not the most obvious candidates, since we both have certain aversions. Robert hates to eat anything that still looks even close to the way it did when it was alive; I get kind of pouty around mushrooms and some ethnic cuisines. Heresy of heresies, neither us gives a hoot about crab cakes.

But we always found something to try, no matter where we went. (The night I ordered snails, Elizabeth practically gave me three stars). And Robert turned out to have a valuable knack for stealing menus with a speed, even under precariously exposed situations, that Elizabeth had previously not found among her dining companions.

Oh, yes. We did bring one additional asset to the table (so to speak) - a willingness to drive far and wide, from Frederick to the Eastern Shore, which helped us get in on some four-star reviews.

Going out to dinner with Elizabeth was like going out with anyone you like. No pressure. We did the sort of things most of us do - ask for a better table, after being shown one too near a door, the kitchen or a wind tunnel; soak in the ambience, if detectable; enjoy lots of conversation on a variety of topics.

Elizabeth always waited to order last, after seeing what everyone else had settled on, so she could achieve the balance of tastes and techniques that would yield the best sampling of the establishment. Her husband, Tom, who's every bit as much fun as his wife, would often defer to us as well. (Sometimes their daughter, Gailor, joined our little group, which added another dynamic dimension.)

Once in a while, Robert and I would lose out. Before I would say "pork chop" or Robert "salmon," Elizabeth would announce, "I've written about too much pork and salmon lately, so choose anything else."

We just went with the flow, figuring if we were flexible and spontaneous (not to mention so terribly personable and witty) we'd stay on the A list (at least I assume we were on the A list).

Elizabeth loved pumping the wait staff for extra tidbits about the chef or the owners. We learned to do some of the grilling for her, so no one got too suspicious.

Elizabeth is just a wisp of a thing (an athletically honed and toned wisp, mind you), so she didn't necessarily devour everything on her plate, or take heaping helpings from ours - except when it came to chocolate-based desserts; you had to be really quick to get your fill of those. But with a few bites, she knew what she needed to know, grasped the ingredients, the hits and misses.

She hated to leave food on the table, thinking it might draw attention to her. So if she didn't finish something (oddly enough, we always seemed to clean our plates), she'd ask to take it home, even if there wasn't a chance she'd touch it again.

We covered a lot of dining territory with Elizabeth, from the finest to the laughable.

There was the place in Southwest Baltimore - since closed - that boasted of having several dozen kinds of fresh fish every day. That didn't seem too plausible, especially when we walked in on a Thursday night (Elizabeth's longtime review night, recently interchanged with Wednesdays) and found little business.

Into a big, empty room, the waiter steered our party of four to a giant round table for eight. Elizabeth's jaw dropped - even more when the guy acted annoyed by our request for something more appropriate. I also never got over the fact that the music system was playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - as oddball a choice for a seafood place as I can imagine.

Then there was the time we all had to work hard to keep straight faces after driving out to a place in Carroll County that Elizabeth had just mentioned in a feature story but hadn't yet reviewed. As we were seated by the owner (it turns out), Elizabeth innocently mentioned how busy the restaurant was for a weeknight.

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