Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Goodfellas ... two reviews, neither too kind ... though one is a bit more Alice in Wonderland

I've been keeping half an eye on the court case between Goodfellas and the Irish News.

Back in February 2007, Goodfellas Restaurant & Pizzeria at Kennedy Way successfully sued the Irish News for £25,000 over a review in August 2000 by restaurant critic Caroline Workman. The review had been less than positive - scoring 1/5 - and the restaurant's successful action looked likely to make reviewers vulnerable. I wondered if I should think twice in the future before dashing off an online AiB post that would describe a bad experience?

Then last week, the Irish News won its appeal, and the case will now go to re-trial if the plaintiff (Goodfellas) decides to go ahead. (Could be a costly business if one side was to lose.)

Giles Coren went to review Goodfellas - the restaurant at the centre of a court case and appeal

But the intervention of the The Times (of London) really took the biscuit when they flew their critic Giles Coren across to Belfast last weekend to check out Goodfellas for himself. (Thanks to Mick Fealty over at Slugger for the heads up.)

In an effort to demonstrate what the appeal court's ruling had explained Coren didn't hold back in outlining his opinion with a heavy sprinklig of exaggeration to season the less-than-serious piece. So while the review reads like a savage attack, remember it's written in the context of the five points that Coren summarised at the top of his piece:

1) That anything written in an article flagged as a review is to be accepted as “comment” (regardless of whether it is presented as opinion or fact);

2) That the bare substratum of fact required to sustain that comment is that the reviewer has had the experience he or she claims, in this case that he has ordered and been served the meal described;

3) That “fair comment” is defined as any comment an honest person could have drawn from the “facts” available;

4) That a comment may be called “fair”, “however exaggerated, or even prejudiced, the language may be”;

5) That malice has no power to mitigate a defence of fair comment, as long as the reviewer genuinely holds the views he expressed.

(emboldened to help understand what Coren was getting at when he penned his acidic review)

As well as taking a look at dishes in front of him, Coren cast his eye around that night's cliental to criticise the diners - "almost everyone is fat" and the men have "big square heads and little pink faces".

His pasta starter was "fine ... fine in the sense of being the sort of thing I used to cook as a student when I was too stoned to dial a pizza" and the chips seemed to quite acceptable.

But his impressions of the main course of pollo marsalla (which featured in the original Irish News review - can't find it online) was much more severe. I quote:

"Then my pollo marsala arrives: an oval dish containing a chocolate coloured liquid and pale lumps of something. I eat a mouthful. The sweetness is, indeed, alarming. As is the consistency of the meat. Without the court papers to confirm what I had ordered, I’d have guessed I was eating thin strips of mole poached in Ovaltine.

It is revolting. It is ill-conceived, incompetent, indescribably awful. A dish so cruel I weep not only for the animal that died to make it, but also for the mushrooms. Ms Workman said it was inedible but, to be honest, as it sits before me, congealing quietly, I cannot leave it alone but return to it every few minutes with the grim fascination of a toddler mesmerised by a pile of its own faeces, nibbling at it, gurning with revulsion, then nibbling some more. If you’ve ever sniffed your finger after scratching your arse, and then done it again, then this dish may not be entirely wasted on you."

Unfortunately, the apple crumble dessert didn't improve matters:

"Alas, what they brought me resembled a mixture of budget muesli and aquarium gravel served in an old man’s slipper. The accompanying custard was pleasant only in that it reminded me of a scented pencil eraser I used to enjoy sucking in the hot summer of 1976."

Coren demonstrated what the court's ruling allowed reviewers to say, using caricature and exaggeration to lampoon the West Belfast diners and the meal he ordered.

Given the Goodfellas is still doing a roaring local trade, it's difficult to see how the original Irish News article could be proven to have damaged their long-term business. But then, I'm not a lawyer!

And it's certainly difficult to see how anyone could argue that an Alice-in-Wonderland review in a national (shrunk) broadsheet could do any damage either. In fact, the publicity surrounding the case, its appeal, and now Coren's review could only be good for business. It makes me want to pop on my fat suit and pink face to go across and experience the atmosphere and menu of Goodfellas for myself!

While as a one-off it's fine, I do hope that newspaper restaurant reviewers can go back to their normal business of reviewing the food and atmosphere in eating establishments, rather than branching out into the world of comedy writing.

And for the record, having originally been less than impressed with Gourmet Burger Bank on the Belmont Road, it did improve. We called in around six last night on the way into town, and the Garlic Burger, chunky fries and onion rings were divine - and the service was fast too.

Update - Having written most of this post, I’ve just realised that the Goodfellas story and Coren himself featured on Nolan’s phone-in show on Monday morning, (listen again for seven days) where he was accused of "test[ing] a principle of law by making offensive remarks" with one caller pointing out that his article (now corrected) referred to the Irish Times instead of the Irish News. Other callers saw the funny side.


Timothy Belmont said...

Mr Coren's critical review won't do them any harm at all because, presumably, their patrons don't habitually peruse the Times newspaper; and this is mutual as far as Times' readers are concerned!

Brabazon said...

I think this 'sickly sweet' chicken thing may be a quirk of local tastes. I have had meals like that in several places and I wish someone had told me before I went. It makes me glad that TV chef Jenny Bristow doesn't have a restaurant. Her food looks so rich and sickly and full of so many different flavours my stomach gathers itself in a knot at the mere sight of it. Maybe this is where the chefs are getting their ideas from...? :(

John Self said...

The original judgment could never stand up on appeal, otherwise the whole business of reviewing restaurants, plays, films (or books!) would be throttled by the need to be kind at all costs. The jury in the original case were misdirected by the judge (and the barrister who acted for the Irish News, who I know quite well, told me some other hair-raising details about the case which probably shouldn't go in a public blog).

Having said that I'm surprised by how liberally the appeal judges have interpreted the law, particularly the first point, where even if something is presented as fact it should be taken as comment because it's embodied within a review. Presumably this doesn't mean a critic can say "This restaurant serves pigeon and says it's chicken". However it would cover the kind of situation which Coren described in the Times after the original verdict, where the Times lawyers rang him up when he said "the risotto tasted like vole's vomit" wanting to know how he could be sure! Coren in particular did have a bee in his bonnet about the original verdict - it was national news, after all - and I wasn't surprised that he came over to test the place. (I had a tip-off that he was doing it so bought the Times on Saturday, ripped open the plastic bag and turned to the restaurant review: no sign! Then I realised it was in the main paper, presumably because of the short lead time.)

The interesting question is whether the restaurant will go ahead with the retrial that the appeal judges directed. I expect they will want to forget about it, but the paper will be keen to press their advantage.

Erin O'Brien said...

I am at once repulsed, hungry, curious and bewildered.

Odd, yes, but compelling as well.

Anonymous said...

26th August 2000
Irish news article by Dining Partners
May Sheridan & Frances Harper

Not good, fellas

West Belfast boasts very few restaurants. Perhaps it’s for this reason that Goodfellas has made such a name for itself, and continues to do so well. Cars lined Kennedy Way outside the restaurant, and it was so packed that people were forming an orderly queue at the door when we visited on a week night. From a customers point of view Goodfellas is a bit daunting.
Brown tinted glass prevents you from seeing inside the restaurant and a caged CCTV camera records your arrival a la Big Brother.
The numerous ‘Cead Mile Failte’ signs ring a little false when you’re asked whether or not you’ve told the receptionist you want a table, and could you make sure that you’re not standing in the way of the waitresses.
We did as we were told – lucky to get a table at all, given the extensive list of reservations well into the night. It wasn’t long before we were led through to our ‘non-smoking’ table in full view of the pizza ovens.
Our waitress brought us menus and offered us a drink. Goodfellas isn’t licensed but you can buy alcohol from the adjoining pub.
We were happy to order a cola – until it arrived. Flat, warm and watery, you can be sure it was on tap. Blue plumes of smoke from the numerous cigarettes at the smoking tables rendered the idea of a separate section a bit of a farce.
We were convinced that we were sitting under the exit for a ventilation pipe until we realised where the smoke was coming from. It’s scary how much people still chain-smoke. This restaurant would have no trade in the States.
The menu is exhaustive. Goodfellas, as you might imagine serves pizza (approximately 10 varieties), but it also offers 10 starters, 10 pasta dishes, 10 chicken dishes, 10 steak dishes, 5 pork dishes, 5 fish dishes and bizarrely, 10 Mexican dishes.
With ‘make your own’ pizza and pasta sections, and side orders, that adds up to over 80 choices.
There’s a school of thought that claims the larger the choice, the better the restaurant. Actually it makes it impossible to use fresh food unless you’re prepared to spend a lot of money on staff.
The multitude of misspellings and completely new Italian words or dishes undermines the strength of the ‘Irish-Italian’ connection boasted by Goodfellas but we put our faith in the sheer volume of customers showing their support, and ordered our food with a degree of confidence.
Our starters arrived disconcertingly quickly – chicken liver pâté, deep fried Calamari (squid), and prawns in a creamy white wine sauce.
At first sight these dishes seemed fine, although the obligatory tomato, cucumber, and shredded lettuce garnish was swimming along with the prawns in the bowl of sauce.
However, after one ring of squid, a mouthful of prawns and a taste of the pâté, it became clear that these dishes were made with the cheapest ingredients on the market.
You get what you pay for these days, although Goodfellas doesn’t pass on any savings to its customers.
At £3.55 for squid (overcharged at £4.25), I did not expect reconstituted fish meat.
The translucent grey rings cannot have been real squid and the hard batter coating and bottled Thousand Island dressing did little to make them more appetising.
Our main courses arrived in as much time as it took the chefs in view to rip open three blue industrial-sized bags of processed cheese, which is actually no time at all.
Goodfellas not only does a roaring sit in trade bit it must also have captured the lion’s share of the home-delivery pizza market in this part of town.
Pizza seems to be what Goodfellas does best.
Indeed this is what most people in the restaurant seemed to be eating. When our main courses arrived we quickly understood why.
My chicken marsala (£8.55) was inedible. The meat itself looked fine, but it was coated in a sickly saccharine sauce that clashed horribly with the savoury food.
Our waitress had warned me that it was sweet, so it probably wasn’t the first time that this dish had been a problem with customers. It’s hard to know why it‘s still on the menu.
The spaghetti dish with seafood and tomato sauce (£7.55) was only marginally more appealing if you could face the Desperate Dan sized portion of heaped overcooked pasta.
The sloppy sauce had generous quantities of dodgy looking seafood.
Even the pizza (£7.95) was a let down, covered with nasty processed salami.
We didn’t witness any theatrical tossing of dough, so it’s possible that frozen pizza rounds are brought in.
Side orders of chips were pale, greasy and undercooked, and the vegetables were unmistakably fresh from the freezer – we weren’t charged for these.
At a very superficial level Goodfellas seems keen to give customers a warm Irish welcome, but the restaurant has a joyless atmosphere and the staff have no more time to be involved with their customers than those in a motorway café.
Service is mercifully quick and staff did notice that we had left most of the food on our plates, but there was little attempt to understand why, and we were then overcharged.
It’s doubtful that things will change until Goodfellas has more competition or until the owners learn that a wide choice and heaped portions are not a measure of quality. Having had a taster, we won’t be back for more. As it says above reception “Customers required – no previous experience necessary”.

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