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The Tribune Reviews Next... Again

By Anthony Todd in Food on May 30, 2013 3:00PM

2013_5_30_Vegan.jpg In a move that will surprise no one familiar with the Chicago food scene, the Tribune's Phil Vettel has reviewed Next once again. This time, he's raving about the newest iteration of the rotating restaurant, the Vegan menu. Our question: In a city that is losing critics faster than the rainforest is losing trees, does Next really need another review?

We're certainly eager to read vivid food writing about Next. Vettel's four-star review of Vegan definitely qualifies. If we weren't so impressed with Grant Achatz and Dave Beran, we'd call it over-the-top, but we know that it's probably accurate. Vegan is a "revelatory experience" that will "spoil you for most other vegetable options in Chicago." If you're into food porn, it's a review worth reading.

But it's not exactly a critical review—and it's not anonymous. Vettel revealed last year that he made an exception for Next and didn't attempt to be anonymous because of the ticketing requirement. He's reviewed every single menu at Next, every three months on the dot, giving each of them four stars in turn. On one hand, the public wants to know what is going on inside those exclusive walls. Conversely, it seems like he's spending an awful lot of the Tribune's money to promote the same restaurant over and over and over.

As Grubstreet's Mike Gebert pointed out a while back after Vettel's admission,

Left undiscussed is the question of whether any restaurant needs to be reviewed so often, no matter how remarkable it is (and no one could possibly dispute that Next is remarkable in many ways). Vettel has already reviewed Next twice as often in nine months as he's reviewed perhaps the most influential Chicago restaurant of modern times, Blackbird, in its 14-year existence.

Many other important restaurants have changed chefs, re-concepted or entirely re-written their menus over the past several years and have not received a new review from the Tribune—but Next is, apparently, a special case.

More important, as more restaurants constantly open and our city's stock of restaurant critics and food writers is rapidly dropping, is it responsible for the most important critic in town to review the same restaurant over and over? We are reminded of a famous Ruth Reichl maxim which states, effectively, that restaurant reviews aren't actually meant to be guides to consumers. Instead, they are just what we said earlier: Food and lifestyle porn, designed to make dining into a spectator sport. If that's the case, Vettel is doing his job perfectly.

On the other hand, Reichl expressed that thought in the early 90s at a time when foodie culture was still stuck in the white-linen-and-silver era and most people couldn't afford to dine out very often. She also wrote it about New York, a city whose dining scene is more expensive than ours.

All that is to say that restaurant reviews in Chicago needn't be lifestyle porn instead of consumer guides. During his tenure, Sun-Times critic Michael Nagrant reviewed any number of inexpensive restaurants, and his reviews didn't hesitate to be critical at any price point. As we run low on critics, this sort of useful consumer information is more important than ever. We applaud Vettel for his take on Little Goat (which we agree is entirely mediocre) because it showed that his critical edge is certainly intact. We just want to see that edge brought to bear on more restaurants.