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New critic revels in dining out

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

My childhood in Texas is full of memories of food: fresh tomatoes and cucumbers from my grandmother's garden, juicy Gulf shrimp hauled in by my grandfather and countless homemade meals from Mom.

But it wasn't until my first stint living in Rome that I began to fully appreciate the immense pleasures of food. The day I arrived, a friend and I stopped at a couple of neighborhood markets, where he grabbed a basket of fresh, local ingredients. The pasta all'amatriciana he made that day — rich and savory with a sweet little kick of spice — gave me an immediate sense of the city and its people. And the insalata caprese was a revelation: thickly sliced tomatoes blanketed with creamy mozzarella, topped with bright basil, dusted with salt and pepper and drizzled with olive oil. Both dishes represent what I love about food: a few simple ingredients (preferably local and sustainable) that offer fresh, clean flavors.

I don't pretend to know everything about cooking methods or the provenance of certain preparations. Could you or your foodie friend best me in a blind taste-test of obscure ingredients? Quite possibly. But I do know what tastes good to me, and I know when a dish has been executed well. And I eat out. A lot. I have tremendous respect for the skill of chefs and appreciate every aspect of a restaurant's staff, from front of house to back. I believe everyone should work in a restaurant at some point in their lives. I have in the past and would again.

Dining offers one of life's most basic and universal pleasures. It satisfies all of the senses, gives us an awareness of place and culture and often serves as a robust communal experience.

My reviews will obviously focus on the food, but I will also give weight to service, ambiance, value and the overall dining experience. The final rating will be a number between 1 and 10, including half points. All restaurants will be graded on the same scale, with a distinction of "fine" or "casual." Restaurants will be reviewed relative to their ambitions and other restaurants serving similar cuisine. If you don't know the difference between a 9.5 at Tam Deli and a 9.5 at Congress, I don't know what to tell you. The end of each review will also include my "Bottom Line," a one-sentence encapsulation of the restaurant.

As for the idea of "restaurant critic as shadowy, anonymous figure," that is a luxury I do not have. I will never make my presence known at a restaurant, but I will also eschew disguises, despite my desire to amass a sweet wig collection. But, to all restaurateurs, chefs and servers, please keep in mind that I eat out very often, so if you see me in your establishment, I am as likely to be there for pleasure as for business.

Enough with all that, then. Let's eat.