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Everything posted by oakapple

  1. I've been there, but only looked around, so there's that as caveat. Even the less enthusiastic reviews give it considerably more credit than a mere "chicken wing joint." It may be "inspired" by Asian street food, but as Steve Cuozzo said in the Post (in a 2 1/2 star review), "I'd love to know the corner where folks stand around slurping acidic citrus soup combining tuna and tapioca pearls ($11)." New York Magazine this week gushes over the place as much as Amanda Hesser did, and Cuozzo's balanced review (here) has many positive things to say. Even in the Post, 2 1/2 stars ain't chopped liver. In short, while Hesser's ethics may be dubious, other qualified critics have had the same favorable reaction to the food, sans Hesser's conflict-of-interest. She's not so far off-the-map (if she's off it at all) that her reaction can only be attributed to a lack of taste or a lack of integrity. Spice Market is like a play that gets mixed reviews. Those who love it can't understand why others hate it, and those who hate it can't imagine why any discerning person would love it. But you have to at least acknowledge that Hesser wasn't the only critic who loved it. I wouldn't mind adding half-stars to the Times's system, but I doubt that would have made the anti-Spice Market faction any happier with the restaurant's three-star status.
  2. This is where tradition collides with innovation. The NYT defines four stars as "extraordinary." Can a BYO restaurant get four stars for being extraordinary in its class? Or must a four-star restaurant, by definition, have the "whole package"? I guess I'm more of a traditionalist myself---bearing in mind that, when the ratings were more rigorously applied, it was quite a compliment to earn even one star. But nowadays, there's probably no restaurant in the "reviewable" class that is altogether happy with one star, except for the odd occasions when the Times critic picks a place out of nowhere, and just getting noticed is a success in itself.
  3. Yes, without question it's that Frank Bruni. But a fair reading of his output reveals that he has written on a wide variety of topics, including food and culture, and by no means limited to (or even primarily) so-called "gay" issues. Indeed, if he wrote on that topic at all, it was only occasionally. Frank Bruni is, simply, a professional reporter. One might reasonably ask whether someone belongs in that job who isn't chiefly known already for his food/restaurant writing. The Times certainly could have gone for someone who was already a proven restaurant critic, Ruth Reichl was. But of all the things in Bruni's background that are not food related, why pick on one in particular? I have no reason to think that a given sexual orientation disqualifies one from being a great restaurant critic.
  4. I looked into Spice Market yesterday, not to eat (as our dinner plans were elsewhere), but just to see what the fuss was about. Vongerichten's exteriors aren't ostentatious. Like 66, you could quite easily walk right by Spice Market and not notice a restaurant is there. JGV's places are destinations in themselves, and he doesn't need to worry about attracting walk-ins. The décor, which reputedly cost $5 million, is the Real Deal. At every turn, it just yells "Wow" at you. It seems that food alone isn't enough to make a restaurant these days. All of the major openings are as much about scenery as they are about food. My friend, who works in theater, told me restaurants are now hiring Broadway set designers to design their interiors. We were particularly intrigued by the sensuous private rooms at the back of the downstairs bar, where you pass through a curtain of gauze into a world of your own. I wonder how those creamy white luxuroious sofa pillows will look after red wine is spilled on them a few times. At 6:00pm on a Saturday, the upstairs was already starting to buzz, but the downstairs bar was as yet nearly empty. We detected only the slightest whiff of annoyance by dining room staff who could tell we were there only to gawk. They were happy to let us take the tour and examine a menu. In another thread, FatGuy described Spice Market as: That seems to me unjust (well, not the "trendy" part). Spice Market is a real restaurant. It has appetizers, main courses, desserts, a bar and a wine list. You can get a real table, place a real order, and get served, just as at any restaurant. It isn't purely a lounge, and it isn't a tapas place. Can such a place be three stars, if perfectly executed? (I am not saying it is perfectly executed, since I haven't sampled the food or the service.) I go both ways on that question. Spice Market clearly lacks the elegance of the typical three-star restaurant, but maybe our definition of three stars is too heavily biased towards traditional high-end dining. I am still thinking about that.
  5. That's only true in relation to what the restaurant aspires to. If Frank Bruni gives a star to some noodle shop in Chinatown, they'll be singing all the way to the bank, because such places are normally unstarred (and indeed unreviewed). To Asiate, one star was an insult (FatGuy's word, and I agree with him). Three stars for Spice Market was like winning the World Series, because that's the practical maximum such a place could get. When Alain Ducasse got three stars after it first opened, Ducasse shook the place up and eventually earned the fourth star. For that restaurant, anything less than four was unacceptable.
  6. All of the city's major papers and weeklies still have restaurant critics, so I don't think the species is facing extinction anytime soon. Zagat's survey comes out only once a year, so it can't report on restaurants when they're still new, as the newspapers can. The greater danger, I think, is that newspapers reduce the budgets they allocate to restaurant reviewing. The Times's fine dining critic costs them at least $200k in salary and expenses, probably more. Looked at from purely a cost-benefit point of view, they have to sell a lot of newspapers to make that sum back. In the next downturn, perhaps the Times will cut the size of the expense account, forcing the reviewer to make fewer and/or less-costly visits per review. It's a way the paper can subtly cut quality, while still appearing (to most readers) to cover restaurants just as assiduously as before.
  7. The story in today's paper said that the appointment is effective June 1st, and his first review will appear on June 9th. That means we have eight more reviews by Amanda Hesser (or, at least, eight more that aren't by him).
  8. That's a bit harsh. Ruch Reichl's famed Le Cirque double-review shows that, at least sometimes, the paper's critic is not recognized, even in a high-end restaurant where they presumably would be on-the-lookout. Also, by making their reservations in somebody else's name, the critics at least ensure that the restaurants aren't prepared for their visit. The restaurant must take the chance that the critic will show up on the chef de cuisine's night off. That could never happen if the critic always reserved in his own name. William Grimes has conceded that even the dullest-witted restauranteur would probably guess he's a reviewer when he shows up half-a-dozen times and rings up large tabs over a period of several weeks. But at least for the first visit, he can catch them by surprise. The pixellated image on TV appearances is important, because without that even non-foodies would be approaching him all over town --- "Hey, aren't you that guy I see on TV?" Yes, the determined web surfer can find photos of Mr. Bruni. If his mug were on TV regularly, there'd be no chance at all of him ever avoiding recognition. That said, Ruth Reichl had an advantage, in that she could wear a range of wigs and even pretend to be 8 months pregnant. It would be a lot harder for a male critic to plausibly disguise himself. But I still think he should take all reasonable steps to avoid calling attention to his visits.
  9. Ruch Reichl stripped the original Le Cirque of a fourth star, and then gave it back again after they re-opened as Le Cirque 2000. William Grimes stripped both Chanterelle and Le Cirque 2000 of their fourth stars. I'm sure there've been other examples. Indeed, it's the critic's affirmative responsibility to take restaurants down a peg if they're no longer delivering, and I doubt Mr. Bruni will see it otherwise. The 4-star population hasn't changed in quite some time, but, as I mentioned in a previous thread, Amanda Hesser and Marion Burros have both demoted 3-star restaurants recently (Union Pacific, Montrachet). I wonder what's the maximum number of 4-star restaurants the Times has ever had simultaneously? Clearly Per Se is gunning for 4 stars. (Some people think the French Laundry is the best restaurant in the country, so anything less than 4 for Per Se will be a serious disappointment--to Keller, anyway.) Chanterelle has been nominated for the Beard Outstanding Restaurant award for several years running, and that's a nationwide honor, so perhaps it has picked up its game since Grimes demoted it four years ago. Although Chanterelle did not win in any of the last three years, the nominations are an honor in themselves, and only Chanterelle keeps consistently getting them.
  10. Evidently the NYTimes has chosen a new fine dining critic, although we don't know his or her identity as yet. It's not unlikely that the new critic browses eGullet at times. Perhaps s/he is doing so right now--I know that Amanda Hesser has been here. So, what advice would you give? Take it as given that the new critic will write informed, perceptive, relevant reviews, and that his or her sensibilities will be broadly consistent with what you'd expect of someone sitting in that job. Not that I can guarantee he or she will be, only that we must assume so unless proven otherwise. Still, there are questions to be answered, and perhaps opportunities to reshape one of the most influential positions in the industry: 1) How often should restaurants be re-reviewed? There are just five 4-star restaurants according to the Times, and some of them haven't had a review for many years. There's a tier of 3-star restaurants aspiring to 4-stars, including some who've had 4 stars in the past. How often should they be re-reviewed? Fat Guy pointed out recently that Ruth Reichl gave 3 stars to some awfully odd choices, and these have never had a second review. Even an award of 3 stars puts a restaurant in rarefied company. Should the Times should confirm occasionally that this exalted status is still warranted? 2) And what of restaurants that have been slapped recently, like Union Pacific, Montrachet, or Asiate? The first two were stripped of a third star by interim critics. Asiate evidently stumbled out of the gate, but clearly has much higher aspirations than the one star La Hesser gave it. When does Asiate get a second look? 3) The Times publishes only 52 rated reviews a year, and some of these are re-reviews. However, the pace of new restaurant openings in New York has picked up considerably in recent months. This trend may not last, but for now just one review a week isn't enough to keep up. Should the Times review restaurants at its traditional pace, or should it try to find a way to review more restaurants? I am assuming that whatever is done must fit into economic realities. The Times can't afford a second fine dining critic, so printing more full reviews must imply spending less time at some of the restaurants that are reviewed. 4) Is the "fine dining" and "$25 and under" distinction still relevant? Eric Asimov's column has had the latter name for many years now. The reality is that he reviews many places where you'd be hard pressed to eat for under $25 if you order a three-course meal, and certainly not if you order wine and drinks. A lot of restaurants could really fit in either reviewer's territory. 5) Is a single rating (Satisfactory, or 1 to 4 stars) still the right system? The much-maligned Zagat rates Service, Decor, and Food separately. Although the Zagat ratings themselves are problematic, the idea of distinguishing these three categories isn't a bad one. You can conceive of 4-star food and 2-star decor. If Zagat is too down-market for you, another example is the Guide Michelin in Europe, which has a separate rating for "luxuriousness." This is a way of expressing what the restaurant is striving to do, and then the stars represent a critical assessment of how well they've in fact achieved it. 6) Indeed, the Times's own description of the paper's rating system isn't reflective of the true facts. It says, "Ratings reflect the reviewer's reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration." But the fact is, with rare exceptions, only very pricey places reach 3 or 4 stars. This suggests that, while a restaurant might be punished for charging a lot and failing to deliver, few restaurants are ever highly starred for delivering wonderful things at a low price. 7) And lastly, should the paper's bias towards high-end French restaurants be maintained? All of the current 4-star restaurants are French restaurants, and very seldom (ever?) has any other cuisine been so recognized.
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