Reviewing the Situation: Even though I've been writing the Cafe column for more than two years, I'm continually astonished by the number of people--readers, restaurant owners, publicists--who still don't understand the two guiding principles of restaurant reviewing.

First, no review can be credible if the restaurant knows a critic is in the house. I guard my anonymity as if I were a Cosa Nostra stool pigeon in the federal witness protection program. I turn down every public appearance, including worthy charity functions. I refuse to meet in person with restaurant owners, chefs or just about anyone connected with the industry.

Why? Aside from revealing my face, there's a danger I might like or dislike these people personally. And it's hard to write an objective review when personalities get in the way.

Second, no review can have integrity if the restaurant picks up the tab. For food critics, there really is no such thing as a free lunch, or dinner. That means I ignore on-the-house meal invitations.

What's the point? It's to make sure restaurants treat me the same way readers are going to be treated. Special handling and free meals are typically not part of their experience.

Everybody Loves a Clown: New Yorkers are used to suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But McDonald's franchisee Forrest Smith has come in for a bit more than his share. According to New York magazine, some unknown assailant has been getting his kicks beheading the statue of Ronald McDonald outside Smith's Manhattan Golden Arches. The thief decapitated the carrot-topped clown's head for the first time about a year ago, leaving the body behind. Smith spent $2,500--That's a lot of money for a clown," he remarked--to replace it. Maybe he should have hired a security guard, too. The avenger recently struck again. It's a bit mind-boggling to contemplate, but somewhere in the Big Apple, there's a guy with two Ronald McDonald heads mounted on his wall. Smith seems unfazed. Either that or he's taken leave of his senses. "This is a nice neighborhood," he insisted.

Who could the perpetrator be? "I'm sure it's someone from out of town who's had a bad day," the New Yorker said loyally.

Lunch Munch: Finding myself at the glitzy corner of 24th Street and Camelback one recent noon, I decided to search out Panini, a Big Four-operated sandwich/salad shop.

It's not easy to find, tucked way back from the street, behind office buildings. For a few minutes, I thought I'd have to hire a native guide to lead me there.

It's worth the hunt. It's a flashy-looking spot with black-tile floors, nifty chairs and tables and modern art on the walls. No servers, just an "Order Here" line.

The price is right, and so is the food. Decent-size sandwiches are served on wonderful focaccia. I especially liked the version featuring chicken breast, roasted red peppers, grilled zucchini, fontina cheese and pistachio pesto ($4.25). Salads are equally substantial, and Panini whips up a good cappuccino.

Panini is located at 2394 East Camelback, and is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.


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