February 27, 2007

Chops' Beef With LaBan

The Daily News reported last week that Chops and Alex Plotkin, the managing member of Chops, sued Craig LaBan and the Philadelphia Inquirer for libel. The subject of the lawsuit is this three-line review of Chops in the “Or Try These” sidebar to LaBan’s Feb. 4 review of Fleming’s in Radnor:

A serious power-lunch crowd makes this sunny room feel like “the Palm on City Line.” A recent meal, though, was expensive and disappointing, from the soggy and sour chopped salad to a miserably tough and fatty strip steak. The crabcake, though, was excellent. Revisited January 2007.
No matter how unkind, a restaurant review typically is not fertile ground for a successful libel action. Those who sue restaurant critics often don’t win for one or both of the following two reasons:

1. Restaurant Reviews Are Considered Opinions. Generally, opinions are privileged (and, therefore, not actionable), while statements of fact are not. The distinction between fact and opinion, though, is not always clear. For example, even statements of fact in restaurant reviews can be considered part of the opinion when read in context of the entire review. Of course, statements of fact are protected if they are true. But statements of fact don’t have to be 100% true to be protected; they only have to be substantially true.

2. Restaurants Are Seen As Public Figures. If you’re a public figure, you can’t win a libel suit merely by proving that what somebody wrote was false. You also have to show that the false statement was made with “actual malice.” This means you have to show that the person either knew that what he or she was writing was false or that he or she entertained serious doubts as to the truth of the statement but published it anyway. Public figures have this higher burden because they’re expected to use the public forum to which they have access to set the record straight. Restaurants are considered limited public figures for purposes of a review because they are places of public accommodation seeking public patrons.

Plotkin has a beef with two words in the review: strip steak. In his complaint (which I obtained from the court), Plotkin alleges that LaBan “ate a steak sandwich without the bread, not a strip steak . . . .” But it’s still not clear what the sandwich was made of. Although Plotkin alleges that “[t]here is a significant difference in the meat, preparation of and presentation to the customer of a steak sandwich compared to a strip steak,” he does not come out and say that the sandwich was not made with strip steak. If the sandwich was made with strip steak, or if LaBan believed it was made with strip steak, Plotkin may have a tough time proving the libel claim.

Plotkin’s complaint also contains some extraordinary allegations that are bridge-burners, to say the least. For example, Plotkin claims LaBan has a “vendetta” against him because Plotkin “jokingly” threatened to reveal his identity to a room full of Chops patrons in 2002. He also claims that LaBan’s invite to participate in his weekly Q&A forum was a “set up” during which LaBan planned to further embarrass Plotkin with the aid of (and I love this phrase) “sham ‘bloggers’.”

But perhaps the most brazen allegation is the one in which Plotkin drops the F-bomb—fraud. Plotkin does not assert a cause of action for fraud; however, he does allege that LaBan fraudulently publishes food reviews based on what he is told by others instead of his own personal experiences.

Vendetta? Sham-bloggery? Fraud? These are bold allegations. But will it all backfire?

There’s another reason you don’t often see restaurants suing critics—it’s not good for business. Restaurants need critics. Even if a review is less than stellar, it’s still press. Negative reviews certainly can sting, and it’s instinctive to want to fight back. But there is something worse than a negative review: no reviews at all. Or perhaps even worse, a positive review that no one can trust.

In other words, Plotkin’s lawsuit could have a chilling effect. Reviewers may now believe that if they say something negative about Chops, they too could get sued. How many restaurant critics do you think are going to rush out to review Chops now that it has a reputation of suing a restaurant critic? My guess is very few, if any. What critic is going to take that risk? It could be long time before you read another review of Chops, positive or negative.

But that’s only half of it. Let’s say someone does give Chops a positive review sometime in the future. Aren’t you going to wonder whether the reviewer was influenced by the fear of getting sued? Can a favorable review of Chops be trusted at this point? Possibly. But as a result of Plotkin’s lawsuit—win, lose or draw—these are questions that could dog every positive word that is written about Chops for a long time to come.


The information provided in this blog post is not intended to be legal advice, but merely conveys general information related to certain legal issues and the possible contents of a steak sandwich someone else ate. (Keep in mind, I write a food and wine blog. Any lawyer who has time to write a food and wine blog probably isn’t worth listening to for legal advice.) The information is not guaranteed to be correct, complete or current. PhilaFoodie makes no warranty, expressed or implied, about the accuracy or reliability of the information in this post or at any other website to which this post is linked. (Nobody really reads or links to this blog anyway, but, hey—belts and suspenders, yo.) The views and opinions expressed herein are PhilaFoodie's and are not the views or opinions of his employer.

This information is not intended to create any legal relationship between PhilaFoodie and the person reading this post. This post is not intended to create and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the reader and PhilaFoodie. This post is not soliciting clients and does not propose any type of transaction. You should not act or rely on any information in this post without seeking the advice of an attorney. (Again, I’m makin’ it up as I go along here, folks. Just in case that wasn’t clear by now.) The determination of whether you need legal services and your choice of a lawyer are very important matters that should not be based on blog posts, especially posts from a food and wine blog for cryin’ out loud.

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February 16, 2007

Restaurant Week Wrap-Up: A Smack-down, Of Sorts

Restaurant Week is not a normal Center City dining experience. Twice a year it turns the local restaurant scene into a carnival-like atmosphere. As I’ve noted before, not all restaurants do the same act during the two Restaurant Weeks that they do the other 50 weeks of the year. Yet, much like the provocative posters for the Bearded Lady or the Dog-Faced Boy, the lure of a three-course meal at a posh restaurant for a mere $30 is hard to resist. And, indeed, the seats fill up quickly as diners scramble early for reservations. But as with all carnivals, soon after you emerge from the tent you often find yourself deliberating whether the show lived up to the hype. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.

Bistro Romano

Inspired by the likes of Barnum and his modern-day equivalents, I decided to take a different approach to Restaurant Week this time around. Instead of evaluating the restaurants in a vacuum, I though it would be fun to compare my experiences at two restaurants to see which one performed better under these carnival conditions—a sort of Restaurant Week smack-down, if you will.

Bruschetta - Creamy Dill; Basil and Tomato; and Artichoke, Onion, Garlic Minestrone

First up was Bistro Romano. One of the draws of this romantic, Italian eatery in Society Hill certainly has to be its dedication to filling your belly. For example, instead of serving the standard three courses during Restaurant Week, Bistro Romano served four—the first being three delicious and remarkably fresh Bruschetta. The hearty Minestrone, too, was large enough to be an entrée.

Veal Saltimbocca

Bistro Romano also emphasizes home-cooked style of preparation. Many restaurants in Center City masterfully execute a version of the home-style theme (e.g., Radicchio). However, Bistro Romano’s translation was not quite up to snuff. The Minestrone was uninteresting. The Veal Saltimbocca spent too much time in the broiler; the prosciutto appeared to have bonded with the veal on a molecular level, giving the dish a tough, jerky-like texture.

Tilapia and Shrimp in White Wine Sauce

Similarly, the white wine sauce accompanying the Tilapia with Shrimp tasted like it was thickened with flour or cornstarch, making it heavy and reminiscent of gravy (a simple reduction or beur blanc would have been welcomed). All of this may be nostalgic of how mom used to make it; however, a restaurant should deliver a little more refinement, even if it is taking a home-cooked approach.

Chocolate Torte with Raspberry Sauce White Chocolate Mousse

For dessert, we picked the Chocolate Torte with Raspberry Sauce and the White Chocolate Mousse. The torte was uncharacteristically sweet and the chocolate was less intense than the torte’s color and density would suggest. The mousse, though, was nicely balanced—not too rich or overly sweet.


The second restaurant was Mandoline, a contemporary cash-only BYO in Old City. It was refreshing to see that Mandoline’s Restaurant Week Menu appeared to be identical to their Winter Menu, which includes tempting starters such as Lobster Truffle Macaroni and Cheese and the Goat Cheese Pistachio Cake.

Venison Ragout with Papperdelle Pasta and Grana Padono

I opted to start with the Venison Ragout with Pappardelle Pasta and Grana Padano. The pappardelle was well-prepared and all of the all of its flavors were complementary. However, the ground venison was more subdued than expected. Although this makes the racy-sounding dish more accessible, it may be a little disappointing to those who are looking for the wild and gamey flavors often associated with venison. It may be a little too tame, in fact, to justify using something as exotic as venison.

Five-Spiced Smoked Duck Breast, Citrus Sweet Potato Mash and Sweet Soy

Mandoline’s Five-Spiced Smoked Duck Breast, Citrus Sweet Potato Mash and Sweet Soy packs an array of well-chosen flavors. The smoke and glaze used to prepare the medium-rare duck impart sweet notes of apples and molasses, and the citrus enlivens the wonderfully sweet and earthy mash. Some pieces of the duck, though, were tougher than they should have been and were difficult to carve with the standard butter knife they provided.

Chocolate Hazelnut Gelato Olive Oil Gelato

Mandoline does not prepare desserts of their own, but they do offer gelati from Capogiro. The Chocolate Hazelnut Gelato is a guaranteed winning flavor combination (one of my personal favorites), and the hard-to-resist Olive Oil Gelato delivers the delicate essence of this cooking staple while maintaining a rich, creamy and satisfying texture.

So, who won the smack-down? This dubious honor goes to Mandoline. Both restaurants had a few issues—Bistro Romano presented overcooked veal and seemingly starch-laden sauces; Mandoline’s duck was a little tough and its ragout, while well-prepared, was somewhat different than expected. But at the end of the day, the issues with Bistro Romano’s performance were more systemic and appeared to stem from their literal interpretation and execution of the home-cooked concept throughout. Plus, as I’ve emphasized before, flavor counts, and the flavors of Mandoline’s dishes were more impressive than Bistro Romano’s.

Thanks to those who posted their recent Restaurant Week experiences here in the comments section of my prior post. Do check them out. Also, thanks to the Center City District / Central Philadelphia Development Corp. for organizing Restaurant Week. The next installment will take place September 23-28, 2007.

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