Restaurant Review Roulette: Mambo Italiano

March 3, 2010

For the last two weeks, I actually had some clue of how many stars Greg Cox might give the restaurants he was reviewing.  I knew that 618 Bistro was abominable, and his “award” of 1 star to the place may expedite its demise.  Or cause them to turn it around.  I also had heard a lot of great things about Guglhupf, so 4 stars was not a big surprise.

This week’s entry?  A place in Apex known as Mambo Italiano.  An Italian, family style restaurant in Apex.  A place that strives to be just like you’d find in Little Italy in New York.  My god, have these people actually eaten in Little Italy?  That’s their objective, their dream, their aspiration?  Meh.

Anyhow, I’ve never been to Mambo Italiano.  Hell, I only go to Apex to see my friend, knife expert Chad Ward (he’s in “near Apex,” at that). So for me to give odds this week will be a complete crapshoot.  The online “reviews” are your typical jumble of nonsense, so I’m going to guess.  But then, isn’t that what Restaurant Review Roulette is all about?

So, here are the odds:

4.5 to 5 stars — 10,000 to 1

4 stars — 100 to 1

3.5 stars — 25 to 1

3 stars — 3 to 1

2.5 stars — 1 to 1

2 stars — 4 to 1

1 to 1.5 stars — 20 to 1

Realize that last week’s one star offering was extremely rare — more so than an award of 5 stars.  That’s because Cox traditionally wouldn’t even write about a bad place.  But with the cutbacks at the N&O, I suspect Cox no longer has a fat expense account, and he essentially is forced to write about any place he visits.  Even if it’s painfully bad.  I’m betting that Mambo Italiano isn’t that bad.

My uneducated, completely ignorant guess: 2.5 stars.


March 5, 2010 Edit: Greg Cox awarded Mambo Italian 3 stars.  You readers pretty much nailed it.  It just might be worth a trip to Apex to give this place a try.

Restaurant Review Prognostication

February 17, 2010

Let’s start something really silly for the area.  Each week, the News & Observer tells us in its Wednesday edition what restaurant will be reviewed on the following Friday.  Greg Cox’s review of Durham’s Guglhupf will be published on Friday, and it’s time for us to guess how many stars he’ll give it.

As you know, the N&O has a 5 star system, and only the best of the best get all 5 stars.

So, how many stars will Guglhupf get???


Edit (Feb. 19, 2010) —  Guglhupf received 4 stars from Greg Cox, making it the highest ranked German/Eastern European restaurant in the Triangle, surpassing J. Betski’s.  Wow.   Congratulations to Drew and Smily, who nailed it.  You have the admiration and respect of the Greater Triangle Blogosphere, but alas, no tangible prizes are coming your way.

Greg Cox Names Top 25 — Er, 24 — Restaurants in the Triangle

January 15, 2010

News & Observer restaurant critic, Greg Cox, has named his top 25 restaurants in the Triangle, with Herons named as his restaurant of the year.   There are a few new additions to his list, including Herons’ going from a no-show to the top performer. Others new to the list include Poole’s Downtown Diner, the Fearrington House, Second Empire, and Watts Grocery.  Interestingly, the online version of this article only has 24 restaurants, unlike the print version, which included Fins on this year’s list. This is because this list went to press before the announcement was made that Fins is closed as it transforms to bu•ku.

Last year Cox included a number of value-type restaurants in his list, such as Allen & Son and China Palace, but no such cheap eats place remains on this year’s list.  Cox has a completely separate list of top “Bargains.” Other restaurants that are no longer on the Top 25 are Bin 54,  Dos Taquitos Centros, Enoteca Vin (closed).

This is a solid list and serves as a guide to the best of the best in the Triangle.  One can argue about a restaurant here or there, but in the end, Cox does a super job helping his readers find the best places to eat.

For a geographic breakdown, of the top 24 restaurants, 10 are in Raleigh, 4 are in Chapel Hill, 6 are in Durham, 2 in Cary, 1 in Pittsboro and 1 in Hillsborough.  Raleigh only has one of the “Best Bargains,” interestingly enough.

Greg Cox’s Top 24 Restaurants of the Triangle — 2010 Edition

Herons (Restaurant of the Year)

18 Seaboard

Bloomsbury Bistro

Bonne Soirée

Elaine’s on Franklin


Fearrington House

Four Square


Il Palio

J. Betski’s


Magnolia Grill





Poole’s Downtown Diner

Saint Jacques

Second Empire

Vin Rouge


Watts Grocery

Zely & Ritz

Top Newcomers of the Year

Busy Bee Cafe

Chef & the Farmer


Cypress on the Hill

Dos Perros


Queen of Sheba



Super Wok

Top Bargains

Allen & Son

China Palace

Neal’s Deli


Rockwood Filling Station


Skipper’s Fish Fry & Market

Taqueria La Vaquita


Udupi Café

The FTC and Me

October 5, 2009

As a health care attorney, I’ve had to work with the Federal Trade Commission, as they are the agency that enforces the antitrust laws (along with the Justice Department).  Frankly, the FTC can be a royal pain in the ass, but I understand their purpose in the antitrust world.  The FTC also regulates advertising to the extent that it may be deceptive or misleading, and they just adopted new rules that require bloggers to disclose whenever they receive anything in value in exchange for a review.


Now I believe in full disclosure, and in the one instance that I accepted a fully complementary meal, I disclosed that fact.  However, I also informed the restaurant that providing that gratis meal did not mean that I would review the restaurant and certainly did not guarantee that they’d receive praise.  Frankly, I really don’t write restaurant reviews for the most part.  In this case, however, I did write about the restaurant because I loved it.  If I didn’t like it, I would probably not have written anything at all.

But with the new FTC rules, bloggers like me have to be worried whenever we receive anything of value.  If I’m at a restaurant and the chef sends out an extra course, do I need to disclose that?  What about if the chef has no idea who I am?  I would argue that in the latter case, the extra course has nothing to do with providing something of value in exchange for reviews — it’s just a nice thing to do.  And in the first case, assuming the chef knows me, I would argue that the extra course was sent out with the hope– but not the expectation — that I might provide a favorable review.  That might fall short of the FTC’s requirement.  However, the bottom line is that the FTC wants to ensure that reviews are not bought, and if they are, then it should be disclosed.

So to ensure that I don’t run afoul of federal requirements (which, at this point, aren’t really law, just guidelines), I offer the following blanket statement that addresses everything I write about in this blog:

“I don’t write true reviews, but I do offer my thoughts on various aspects of the food and restaurant industries.  I also write about food and my family.  I sometimes may receive a discounted meal or free drink or a slab of bacon, primarily because I’ve pretty much immersed myself in the food world.  I generally only write about places I like, so if a restaurant gives me something for free, and it sucks, I won’t write about it.  If they give me something for free and I like it, I’ll probably write about it.  If they don’t give me a thing and I like it, I’ll probably write about it, too.  I also am biased in that I’m much more likely to write about places where my friends work.  I like to write about my friends who are chefs, and I have to admit that they have indeed given me something of value: their friendship.  From time to time, they give me a free dish.  I may not always disclose that, because I really think that what my friends do is our own business.  I am horribly biased by that relationship, so please do not be misled into thinking I’m fully objective when writing about their restaurants.  I try, but you know how friendships work.  So if I write about a restaurant or a food item, just assume that my objectivity has been compromised in some manner.”

And if that’s not good enough for the FTC, then I guess I better start boning up on my legal defense skills.

Greg Cox Just Doesn’t Get It

May 9, 2008

I’ve always thought the N&O’s Greg Cox did a good job with his restaurant reviews. But when he reviewed the Umstead Hotel’s Herons restaurant, he didn’t love it as much as I did. In fact, he admitted on his blog that he has somewhat of a price-oriented bias when he said about Herons, “My experiences at Herons were for the most part very good, and certainly showed Top 20 potential, but – especially given the price – didn’t quite live up to expectations.” (emphasis mine) Those restaurants that have higher prices have to perform better to get the highest ratings. Thus, Herons didn’t get the love it might have received if its prices were lower.

I guess I can live with that, but it creates an awkward situation when he gives 3-1/2 stars (on his 5 star scale) to a counter-service fish and chips place and the exact same 3-1/2 star rating to The Mint, which is serving some of the best and most creative food in North Carolina. Nowhere on Cox’s star rating guide does it list that “value” is taken into account, but he certainly has built that into his equation. I love fish and chips as much as the next guy, but to say that a low-priced counter-service joint is as good as The Mint is ludicrous.

But the real kicker came from when I read today’s review of The Mint — frankly, I just about lost it. It was bad enough for Cox to give it only 3-1/2 stars, but he’s offering his objective opinion. Good enough. I’ve disagreed with him before (he loves Bloomsbury Bistro, and I’ve yet to have a good meal there after 4 tries). But when Cox referred to sous vide cooking as “a type of cooking with pressure,” I had to ask, “Huh?” Greg, “sous vide” means “under vacuum,” and maybe the food that’s in the vacuum bag might be under some pressure, I guess, but that’s not what sous vide cooking is about at all. It’s the bag and the anaerobic conditions and the water bath with controlled temperatures.

And then he gave us this gem: “[T]he lukewarm temperature and semiliquid white of the accompanying sous vide-cooked ‘hot spring egg’ isn’t likely to win many fans.” Um, Greg, that’s what the egg is supposed to be like. The egg white is barely set while the yolk has turned a bit custardy. They’ve been serving ’em like that in Japan for centuries. And it’s not cooked in a bag, sous vide style. It’s cooked in its shell. No vacuum at all.

To give The Mint 3-1/2 stars is laughable. But to not understand cooking methods or the way the food is supposed to be is inexcusable.

Edit — 8:30 AM, 5/9/08 — I posted this review of Cox’s review at something like 2:30, Friday morning.  At 5:07 AM, Greg Cox posted this on his blog:

Note: I just read the final copy of my review in the N & O, and noticed that someone – presumably a copy editor trying to be helpful – had inserted a “definition” of the term “sous vide,” describing it as “a type of cooking with pressure.” While that description may be scientifically correct (I’m certainly no scientist), it misses the point. “Sous vide” is French for “under vacuum,” and it’s just that: cooking under vacuum, usually in an airtight plastic bag. Just wanted to clear that up.


New Raleigh Releases “Palate” — A Raleigh Restaurant Guide

April 24, 2008

New Raleigh is one of the websites I go to daily to catch up on my Raleigh news. They’re really dedicated to promoting great discussion of the politics and culture of our fair city, and they have a lot of good food information, too.

I just learned today that they’ve been working on a new restaurant guide, named “Palate,” which is now live. This is a very clean site that provides a lot of great information. Granted, the site is still in its beta stage of development, so the amount of content is somewhat thin right now, but it’ll only get better. New Raleigh has a lot of young, energetic folks on their staff (and I use the term “staff” loosely, as it’s just a bunch of volunteers who like to write about Raleigh), and they’re not afraid to criticize when it’s appropriate to do so. With this platform, they should be prepared to add a ton of reviews in a hurry.

Palate only lists restaurants that are independent or small, local chains. National chains are not included. Most of the establishments are in the downtown area of Raleigh, but I’m hopeful they’ll include other parts of the city.

Navigation is a breeze, and I particularly like the neighborhood classifications in their guide. Click on one of the neighborhoods, then move your mouse from restaurant to restaurant, and the map automatically moves to the particular restaurant’s location. Very slick.

There’s still a couple of bugs they need to fix, as places like The Pit and The Mint are listed under “T” rather than “P” and “M,” respectively. But I think this could become the definitive guide, if they start focusing on the content. One way they could do this quickly would be to include links to reviews from other sites, so their readers will get a broad sense of peoples’ opinions on a particular restaurant. I’d be honored if they linked to my reviews, all 5 of them!

N&O’s Restaurant Reviews Move to 5-Star Rating System

December 7, 2007

Greg Cox, the News & Observer’s restaurant critic, announced in his “Chew on This!” column today that he’s moving to a 5-star rating system. Was this a case of grade compression making it difficult to distinguish the differences between restaurants? Why not a 30 point system, as with Zagat? Or a 100 point one, just like our schools use?

Seriously, though, I don’t care what numeric system a reviewer uses, as long as he or she is consistent. I don’t always agree with Cox’s assessment, but he does a pretty darned good job, particularly for a city and paper of this size.

Meanwhile, Cox also brags about the N&O’s new restaurant website, which is, quite frankly, not ready for prime time. First, there is a problem with duplicate listings. Frazier’s, South and Fins have more than one listing.

Although the geographic scope of the restaurant database has been expanded, as has the number of cuisine types that can be searched, you no longer can search based on the ratings. Moreover, the search results do not list the ratings of the restaurant; you have to click on each listing to find out what Greg Cox thought of the place. I think this is a nice start, but if you’re going to tell the world about your new 5-star rating system, I would like a fairly simple way to determine what are the top-rated restaurants. And by the way, it appears that Cox’s previous 4-star restaurants have all been elevated to 5-star status. Those being

  • Nana’s
  • Fins
  • Magnolia Grill
  • Four Square
  • Bonne Soiree
  • Bloomsbury Bistro

I may have missed others. For the most part, it appears Cox merely added another star to each previous rating, but that’s not always the case. For example, Enoteca Vin, Jujube, J. Betski’s, Herons and Rue Cler each got a 1 star bump. A place like The Big Easy made only a half-star jump to two stars. I’m thinking that the biggest impact the expanded 5-star rating system will have will be on the lower-rated restaurants. It’ll have to be pretty damn bad to get only one star now.


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