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Review: Getting Pleasantly Lost in the ‘City of Gold’

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Jonathan Gold, legendary LA restaurant critic, gets the documentary treatment

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Goro Toshima/courtesy Sundance Selects

Do you like food? Do you like movies? Do you like movies about food? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might enjoy Eater at the Movies, a column by Joshua David Stein which examines eating and drinking on screen.

City of Gold, Laura Gabbert's adoring gaze at LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold, begins with an open MacBook Pro and a blank page. Surely, for a writer, there is nothing more daunting than an accursed cursor, blinking like a horse's foot stomping, demanding instant inspiration. Happily for Gold, for the last 30 years, the muses have sung to him, whispering lullabies of pupusas and melodies of dum pukht. Los Angeles covers 4,850 square miles, and the territory that falls under Gold's purview —€” the Greater Los Angeles area, which includes the Inland Empire —€” is nearly seven times that.

Los Angeles in Jonathan Gold’s eyes is a golden city, with tremendous adventure and joy to be found.

The city which to Gold is as Dublin was to Joyce has been called many things. In Mike Davis' book, a City of Quartz. By Carey McWilliams, an Island on the Land. But "City of Gold" just feels right. This is especially when one considers Gold's influence on it, as shown in Gabbert's film. Los Angeles in Gold's eyes is a golden city, with tremendous adventure and joy to be found in anodyne strip malls. He tools around the freeways and byways in an old Dodge pickup truck, like a jolly hungry Philip Marlowe, a happy warrior on the search for lunch.

The documentary relies on footage of Gold en route and in flagrante as well as various well-chosen talking heads from experts like Michael Dear, professor emeritus of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley, to restaurateurs like Ludo Lefebvre and Suthiporn "Tui" Sungkamee of Jitlada. We see Gold eating and writing about eating. One gets a very good sense of what he looks like driving, from the passenger seat. At one point he says, "I am the truck and the truck is me," sounding not unlike a Lewis Carroll character. The film is meandering, but in the pleasant way getting lost can be.

Photo: Jerry Henry/Sundance Selects

Even the most casual reader of Gold's column, Counter Intelligence, which he has maintained in various homes with only a few interruptions since 1986, knows the man's voice. He writes reviews as playful apostrophes. You feel like you're there next to him, admiring his untamed hair, mid-century mustache and wide-collared shirts; admiring the gusto with which he tucks into a plate of noodles.

But Gabbert's camera actually lets you be there next to him. And it's a blast. Whether he's meeting up with his wife —€” Laurie Ochoa, the arts editor for the Los Angeles Times —€” for tacos at Mariscos Jaliscos or eating alone at a floral plastic tablecloth at Antojitos Carmen, Gold is playful, wry, and curious. He seems both open and genuinely stoked to discover new food and to revisit old favorites. After 30 years, this is no small feat. A lot of this comes through in his writing, but it's nice to actually sit down with the guy.

The deeper resonance of the film, to me at least, is that it provides the framework for what the role of a critic might be.

The deeper resonance of the film, to me at least, is that it provides the framework for what the role of a critic might be. Though Gold does review the splashy openings, generally his gaze is attracted by those restaurants which aren't self-consciously presentational. So much of the criticism we consume —€” and frankly, that I generate —€” concerns that subsection of restaurants that have the wherewithal and the capital to hire PR firms to send emails (poorly spelled and overly perky though they may be!) to the media. In that case, the role of the critic isn't so much as an engine of discovery but mostly as an agent of consumer reports. And you, dear reader, he or she answers, being ripped off.

The point is the criticism practiced by the vast majority of critics isn't actually examining what the restaurant itself is, but trying to sketch out the delta between what a restaurant says it is and what it actually is. Since Gold's metier is restaurants not bound up in presentation, his analysis actually penetrates into the thing itself. Both genres of criticism are important, but one may be considered common and the other profound. For in the former, if a critic is successful he or she has accurately portrayed a sliver of silver-spoon society, whereas in Gold's case, he is the cartographer of an entire city.

Photo: Courtesy Sundance Selects

Could there be a Jonathan Gold of New York? Well, there's Eater's Robert Sietsema, who shows up masked and bemused in the film to ponder anonymity. There's Ligaya Mishan of the New York Times whose Hungry City reviews play too often second fiddle to Pete Wells' High-HHI clickbait. But no, Jonathan Gold is the genius loci of Los Angeles —€” and only Los Angeles. Its vast sprawl and the insularity of its communities translates rather directly into the purity of the cuisine Gold thrives on. "There's a there-ness underneath the there," says Gold in the film, gilding the Gertrude.

In New York City, in contrast, where 8 million souls are piled on top of each other, bounded by rivers and bereft of cars, there is hardly room left to be unstudied, to serve food for one's community, unless, of course, one's community is a bunch of hip-hop loving yuppies with a taste for $115 bottles of Vermentino. Even the most "authentic" restaurants have one eye on tradition and the other on courting the outsider. There's no way to make rent otherwise. I blame the skyscrapers that layer story on story on story. I blame the rivers that hem us in. It's just our luck that we got stuck with the Manhattan schist.

City of Gold isn't therefore a panacea. And it's not perfect. I could do, for instance, without the almost obligatory bad-mouthing of Yelp. "They all use the word amazing," complains Allen Salkin.  (I might also reconsider using Allen Salkin as an authority on anything other than Allen Salkin.) But it is a model and Gold is a model. He embodies the highest, most noble form of criticism. He is the light of the world. And City of Gold should not be kept hidden.

Rating: Five (out of five) stars

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