"Basically I approached being a restaurant reviewer the way an actor approaches a role. I ran with the damn part for three years, and then I got tired of doing it."
Robert Hershfeld is so convincing as Leo, the "Hills Street Blues" khaki officer, that several people walking into Valentino do a double take when they see him sitting there. Leo, famous for the terrible poetry he wrote to his wife when she left him, would never go to Valentino. Hershfeld, on the other hand, sits suavely discussing the menu with owner Piero Selvaggio. Selvaggio says: "If I have to judge a good cook I will tell him, make a risotto. For me, one of the ultimate tests is how good the consistency of the risotto is--how creamy it is." "Of course," says Hershfeld. Leo would have said, "Hunh?"
Hershfeld, in fact, was every bit as convincing as a restaurant critic as he is as Leo. So convincing that during his three-year television tenure on San Francisco's Evening Magazine show he became one of the most influential critics in the Bay Area. "I had no background in food, but I was sent down to read by a casting agency," he says, biting into little deep-fried ricotta fritters that are light, fluffy and slightly salty, sort of like delicious clouds that someone has cried over. "Wonderful!" says Hershfeld, swallowing. "They were looking for someone articulate. They wanted me to do a regular feature on the show called 'The Best.' For the pilot they chose peanut butter, which was totally dumb. It was chewy and stuck to the roofs of our mouths, and it didn't look very good on tape. I was sure I'd blown it. I heard nothing for six months."
Hershfeld got the job. He had a way of being simultaneously authoritative and friendly, and his fans took his word as gospel. Restaurants he discovered became successful overnight, and Hershfeld became so popular that every meal was interrupted by eager fans who wanted to tell him about their favorite places, ask for his autograph, or simply sit and talk. Hershfeld was always gracious about it, but he is a man who takes his food seriously, and he is clearly happier now, when he can give his undivided attention to the antipasto plate. He slowly tastes carpaccio covered with shreds of pungent white truffle, savoring the combination of the soft meat and the fragrant truffle. He bites into wonderful little pillows of Japanese eggplant wrapped around goat cheese, then cuts into marinated red and yellow peppers stuffed with mozzarella. Clearly, however, his favorite is the vitello tonnato. "I love veal," he says, finishing off every morsel.
"I learned a lot about food doing the show," he says. Just then Selvaggio comes up with a bottle of Bonny Doone Chardonnay, and the two discuss Valentino's extraordinary wine list. "When I started out," Hershfeld says, "I'd always pass when I was invited to wine tastings. I was afraid of committing some egregious error that would betray me as a complete fraud--by the way I held the glass or something. Finally I gritted my teeth and went to a 'celebrity wine tasting'; I figured if they're all celebrities they're probably as ignorant as I am. But the celebrities in question were wine columnists and wealthy wine collectors.
"It wasn't so bad. I found that I was able to adopt protective coloration and pass. I would hear someone say, 'Why don't they have any bread sticks?' and a while later I would turn to someone on the other side and say, 'What kind of a wine tasting is this anyway? No bread sticks!' People would tell wine jokes that were absolutely incomprehensible, but when everybody laughed, I'd laugh too.
"But then the time came to actually taste the wines and list them in order and I couldn't crib off anybody else's sheet. What I discovered was that my three top wines were the same as the consensus three top wines. After that I had the courage to keep doing it."
Hershfeld tastes the next course--light little corn crepes, filled with an airy mousse of porcini and garnished with tenderly sauteed porcini, and an expression of extreme happiness crosses his face. "When I was reviewing restaurants, I learned that I have something of a palate. I have confidence in my own taste at this point." No wonder; Hershfeld did segments three or four times a week, which meant that he had to eat virtually all of his meals out. "I had to do things like go out and eat all the pasta in North Beach," he says mournfully, as the waiter places two kinds of pasta on the table. There are garganelli , little red squares that have been formed into tubes. "They look like salami," Hershfeld says, spearing one of the cheese-covered tubes, "and they taste delicious." Even more delicious are margharitte-- little rounds of pasta filled with saffron and radicchio and covered with poppy seeds; I've never eaten a more beguiling pasta. "Eating pasta in North Beach was not like this," Hershfeld says.