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Bruni and Beyond: Reviewing (2008)


Nathan
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People had been saying that sort of thing on Italian cooking shows for years and years.

And in books, for even longer.

So if I catch either of you repeating the notion, any time post-1998, that Italian cuisine is ingredient-driven, minimalist, etc., it's okay for me to label those statements as trite? If so, I think I have an appointment with the eG Forums search engine. Seriously, though, Reichl is not making a claim to originality any more than a critic explaining a basic point in any other field is making a claim to originality. She's explaining a tradition and she's explaining it in an accurate distillation. In other words she's doing her job well.

I think there is a difference between pointing out elements of the Italian culinary aesthetic where it is appropriate and/or edifying to do so, and the way Reichl has done so in the review.

For example, when Reichl wrote about the simple beet salad or the simple dish of rapini with sausage and garlic... these are situations in which it might make sense to weave in a little digression on the fact that these minimalistic preparations are part of the Italian culinary aesthetic (and presumably part of what makes Da Silvano noteworthy or good). This would have been edifying as to Italian cookery, informative as to the restaurant, organically woven into the narrative and not preachy. Instead, she starts off using this as an example of all the things Americans don't know about Italian cooking, contrasts it with the absurd strawman of an American chef cooking up "spaghetti with bananas and octopus with strawberry jam" as Italian food, and then fails to follow on upon this meme or relate it to Da Silvano later in her review. What she does do is make plenty sure the reader knows she's been to Italy. Not edifying, informative or organic.

So, sure... if you catch me starting off a post about my experiences in a restaurant by saying that "the best Italian cooking starts with great raw materials and allows them to speak for themselves" when that sentence does not frame the main thrust of everything I am about to say about the restaurant, by all means point it out.

Bruni's review has more information as to whether the food is particularly good (Ruth's "assertive" crostini "tasted like pet food" . . . .

"Assertive" is a worthy flavor adjective, whereas the description "tasted like pet food" is trite even by the standards of CitySearch reader comments.

As for "assertive" versus "tastes like cat food". . . The former tells us very little about how the crostini taste, considering that one would expect chicken livers, capers, anchovies and onions to have a strong flavor. It is good assertive or bad assertive? All I get is that it was sharp. Or is that strong? How did the anchovy come through? Maybe she means that it was salty? Capers are pretty assertive, too. Or maybe the onion was raw, and its spicyness was what made the crostini "assertive"? We don't know. "Tastes like cat food," on the other hand, immediately conveys information that the crostini were not good, and associates that with the sense memory of anyone who has ever opened a can of cat food or dog food without a clothes pin on his nose.

ETA: fixed quotes

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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Bruni's review has more information as to whether the food is particularly good (Ruth's "assertive" crostini "tasted like pet food" . . . .

"Assertive" is a worthy flavor adjective, whereas the description "tasted like pet food" is trite even by the standards of CitySearch reader comments.

People had been saying that sort of thing on Italian cooking shows for years and years.

And in books, for even longer.

So if I catch either of you repeating the notion, any time post-1998, that Italian cuisine is ingredient-driven, minimalist, etc., it's okay for me to label those statements as trite? If so, I think I have an appointment with the eG Forums search engine. Seriously, though, Reichl is not making a claim to originality any more than a critic explaining a basic point in any other field is making a claim to originality. She's explaining a tradition and she's explaining it in an accurate distillation. In other words she's doing her job well.

Assertive is an adjective worthy of describing how flavorful something is, or the ratio of one flavor to another. It does nothing to describe the flavor itself, though.

And there isn't anything wrong with making trite comments which sum up Italian cuisine in a pinch, but such statements don't support the claim you made that Reichl's deeper knowledge comes out through them.

Edited by MikeHartnett (log)
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that Oceana is still good?

that Rosanjin existed.

Rosanjin's existence counts as an easily google-able fact. What I meant was, what have you learned something about cuisine from him? Obviously, every week you're getting one man's opinion about whether a place is good or not.

but I'd say the same for all the professional food reviewers...none of them show great depth in a review.

We are not in an era of great food criticism. Edited by oakapple (log)
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For those Bruni supporters out there, when was the last time you learned anything from him — not counting easily goggle-able facts such as the name of a chef, the date a restaurant opened, etc.

Today, when I learned that I want to try Scarpetta. I don't need to learn anything from him, only whether the restaurant was good or bad, in his opinion. And today, he did that rather well.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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For those Bruni supporters out there. . .

I don't consider myself a Bruni supporter by any means. I have simply disputed the assertion that he doesn't have any knowledge when it comes to Italian cuisine.

I'll also add that the one thing I have been grateful to Bruni for is the way he has broken the hegemony of the Francophile model when it comes to evaluating restaurants.

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I'll also add that the one thing I have been grateful to Bruni for is the way he has broken the hegemony of the Francophile model when it comes to evaluating restaurants.

I am not so sure he actually did that. Both Mimi Sheraton and Ruth Reichl gave high star ratings to non-Francophile restaurants. Sheraton, for instance, gave four stars to Hatsuhana and three to Sammy's Roumanian. Reichl ranged far and wide in her three-star ratings. The difference is that Sheraton and Reichl understood the French model too, and I am not convinced Bruni really does. Edited by oakapple (log)
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that Oceana is still good?

that Rosanjin existed.

Rosanjin's existence counts as an easily google-able fact.

Not sure I grasp this. How does one search for a restaurant if one doesn't know of its existence? I'm pretty sure that going to Google and plugging in "worthy restaurants in NYC I've never heard of" wouldn't bring back a valid sample set. Seems to me that learning that a restaurant that you've never heard of should be on your radar is worthwhile.

Or am I missing the point?

Christopher

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Christopher, I do think you may be missing Marc's point. I think he's talking about learning as in being educated, not as in finding out 1- simple service-oriented information (a given restaurant has opened), or 2- Bruni's personal opinions (the restaurant is good). An example of learning something -- in the education sense -- might be learning that it's better to sit at a sushi bar than at a table (or that might be mentioned as a general rule in a review of a restaurant that's an exception).

Back to the more general points, it's difficult for me to compare what I've personally learned from Ruth Reichl (a lot) and from Frank Bruni (nothing) in a meaningful way because she wrote from 1993 to 1999. That's the period during which I was just learning about fine dining, and her reviews were full of information that, to me, was new. Whereas, by the time Frank Bruni came on the scene, I had much more personal experience and knowledge. In addition, it was a different time on America's gourmet learning curve as well as in the development of both ethnic and creative cuisines.

Nonetheless, I think if you control for the variables what you find is that Ruth Reichl's reviews are superior in terms of their educational content. Nathan mentioned that he liked Frank Bruni's review of Da Silvano better than Ruth Reichl's because it "gives you a better sense of what it's like to eat at Da Silvano....which is the point of a restaurant review." I disagree with both halves of that statement, but the latter clause is the one I find particularly disagreeable. Criticism is not primarily about reporting on what something is like. It's about qualitative evaluation of the subject, whether the subject is a book, a restaurant or a performance. Perhaps in writing about cars the idea is to describe how the car drives, but that's low-level consumer reporting not anything approaching arts criticism.

In that regard, I think Bruni's reviews are more like consumer reporting or, actually, more like a blog or personal-journal body of work. Whereas Ruth Reichl's criticism is more like traditional literary and arts criticism. So I would expect the former to be more detailed on the first-person experiential aspect of things (though Ruth Reichl did that well too, when appropriate, and sometimes too often) but I strongly prefer the latter and think it's a superior approach.

To circle back to the much-maligned statements by Ruth Reichl that Italian food is about simplicity etc., I think she's right on. Sure, this piece of information is well known by many people who post here. But that doesn't make it trite. Indeed, I believe she has correctly identified the key issue in Italian cuisine. I find myself explaining that exact same thing to people all the time. So does, I'm guessing, Sam Kinsey. So what she has done is what a critic is supposed to do: she's started out by talking about an important general aspect of the field in which she writes, and then she has illustrated it in a review of a specific venue. You can see this in plenty of her reviews, and in few if any of Frank Bruni's.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Ruth Reichl was a standout critic. She knew food the way a real home cook knows food and she could write circles around Bruni. Her warmth engendered trust in her opinions. I can never tell if Bruni is actually having fun when he is eating or writing. Besides his evaluation of the dishes and the service, there's not much else of interest going on, so there isn't much a reader can learn. Bring on the digressions, the rants, the obscure facts, the sentimental touches and the dining experience that brings tears to the eyes for whatever reason. I don't think Bruni brings much of himself to the table.

Ruth Reichl could write a novella about a cardboard box and you'd be right there with her. Jeffrey Steingarten, Bill Buford, Amanda Hesser, Laurie Colwin...they aren't primarily reviewers but when they write about great, good or dreadful encounters with food the pleasure shows. Of course being a really good critic is a special talent and takes more than that, but without that, it's hard to care too much what anyone says, and it's even harder to read all the way to the end.

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Besides his evaluation of the dishes and the service, there's not much else of interest going on, so there isn't much a reader can learn. Bring on the digressions, the rants, the obscure facts, the sentimental touches and the dining experience that brings tears to the eyes for whatever reason. I don't think Bruni brings much of himself to the table.

Funny, but I thought that was the point of a restaurant review...I'll leave the comparisons with literary and art reviews to those with so much more experience than me at judging that type of criticism :rolleyes:.

And when you look back in this topic, you'll see that the digressions, rants, etc. are what most everyone disliked about Bruni.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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Besides his evaluation of the dishes and the service, there's not much else of interest going on...

Funny, but I thought that was the point of a restaurant review...
I agree with you that the evaluation of the restaurant itself is the main purpose of the review. But the essential difference between an excellent professional review and an amateur food board post is the quality of the insight, and that's what Bruni often lacks.
And when you look back in this topic, you'll see that the digressions, rants, etc. are what most everyone disliked about Bruni.

The problem with Bruni's digressions is that they're so often irrelevant. They don't illuminate the restaurant in any particularly compelling way. For instance, here are the first two grafs of his Bar Q review:
A RESTAURANT critic’s most practiced companions know that the questions to be asked in advance of a meal go beyond the address, the hour and the (fake) reservation name.

More important bits of information: is the visit to the restaurant a first one or a follow-up? And if it’s a follow-up, what are they in for? Is the critic doing them a favor, or are they doing him one?

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the thing is, I think it's food....not an art form (most of the time). and to the extent that food criticism exists (which it does)...it's a different genus than restaurant reviews...which really are a form of consumer reporting.

I see the job of the Times reviewer as akin more to a consumer advocate...not as a shill for the restaurant industry nor as a Calvin Trillin.

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the thing is, I think it's food....not an art form (most of the time).  and to the extent that food criticism exists (which it does)...it's a different genus than restaurant reviews...which really are a form of consumer reporting.

I see the job of the Times reviewer as akin more to a consumer advocate...not as a shill for the restaurant industry nor as a Calvin Trillin.

There is a lot of merit to the "consumer reports" side of the job. A lot of the restaurants Bruni reviews don't really lend themselves to any kind of deep analysis. But the Times doesn't have a separate critic who writes "thought pieces" about new developments in New York cuisine and their historical context. Either you're going to get those insights from the restaurant critic, or you're not going to get them at all. Right now, you don't get them at all.
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Lest my remarks be misinterpreted, I should point out that I am not contending that Bruni is a better reviewer than Reichl, or has more overall food and restaurant knowledge than Reichl did when she was the reviewer. I merely dispute the contentions that he doesn't/hasn't evidenced a good understanding of Italian cuisine and restaurant culture, and as a lesser matter, that the example Reichl review of Da Silvano, or her NYT reviewing work as a whole, demonstrate that she was better informed in this area.

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A lot of the restaurants Bruni reviews don't really lend themselves to any kind of deep analysis.

Serious critics offer depth and insight no matter what they're reviewing. For example, a review of any sushi restaurant presents an opportunity to discuss sushi in general -- a subject many readers could benefit from knowing more about. There's so much information on that subject, it can support dozens of reviews in that category. And the same reviews can easily cover all the relevant consumer issues. It's a false dichotomy to imply that it's not possible to combine deep analysis and straight reviewing, or that criticism and reviewing can't happen simultaneously, if anybody is implying that.

For example, in Ruth Reichl's review of Blue Ribbon Sushi, she takes the opportunity to discuss Blue Ribbon Sushi -- which is just about the epitome of the opposite of a restaurant supporting any sort of deep analysis of its operations as such -- in the context of the decline of formality in the American sushi culture, or rather the Americanization of the sushi culture. I think she also follows that pattern, successfully, with Da Silvano. Again, not a terribly serious restaurant but she's able to craft a serious piece of criticism by first addressing the higher-altitude issues and definitions, then positioning the restaurant within that context.

Bruni rarely if ever does this. When he does begin with general discussion, my take on it is that it tends to be about minor trends or whatever minutiae he happens to notice and try to turn into a hook for a review.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Serious critics offer depth and insight no matter what they're reviewing. For example, a review of any sushi restaurant presents an opportunity to discuss sushi in general -- a subject many readers could benefit from knowing more about. There's so much information on that subject, it can support dozens of reviews in that category. And the same reviews can easily cover all the relevant consumer issues. It's a false dichotomy to imply that it's not possible to combine deep analysis and straight reviewing, or that criticism and reviewing can't happen simultaneously, if anybody is implying that.

For example, in Ruth Reichl's review of Blue Ribbon Sushi, she takes the opportunity to discuss Blue Ribbon Sushi -- which is just about the epitome of the opposite of a restaurant supporting any sort of deep analysis of its operations as such -- in the context of the decline of formality in the American sushi culture, or rather the Americanization of the sushi culture.

I would suggest that the Americanization of sushi culture that was happening (and largely spearheaded by Blue Ribbon) around that time is precisely why it offered the opportunity for deeper analysis and contextualization. And Reichl could be good at that sort of thing, no doubt. Today, of course, when one can buy fresh tuna maki in suburban Kansas supermarkets, it's less of an opportunity.

I'm curious... what do we think is happening in NYC restaurant culture today that is crying out for this kind of treatment? One that I can think of is that seems to have grown recently is the radically increased importance of designer-outfitted waitstaff and high-design rooms that are sweeping and grand in a "hip" kind of way. This is, needless to say, is something that Bruni reflects in his review, although I think some of these places that are operating more on room than food offer the opportunity to explore this phenomenon more deeply in a review that has, thus far, not happened. There's the whole so-called (largely by a few of us) "new paradigm" phenomenon. What else?

I think she also follows that pattern, successfully, with Da Silvano. Again, not a terribly serious restaurant but she's able to craft a serious piece of criticism by first addressing the higher-altitude issues and definitions, then positioning the restaurant within that context.

Here, I absolutely disagree. She starts off with the meme that "Italian cooking starts with great raw materials and allows them to speak for themselves," makes a ridiculous strawman comparison to American chefs ruining this aesthetic by making "spaghetti with bananas," and then completely fails to contextualize and frame her review of Da Silvano by referring back to this setup -- and there were plenty of opportunities for her to note how Da Silvano's dishes reflected this aesthetic in contrast to examples of overwrought iterations from other restaurants with less italianità. Instead, it seems like she's trying to inflate her own cred by making darn sure the readers know she's been to Italy. The Blue Ribbon Sushi review, in contrast, is entirely framed by her opening concept that, "as Americans adopted sushi, we adapted it as well, discarding those parts of the traditional rituals that made us uncomfortable." The Blue Ribbon Sushi review is many times more successful than the Da Silvano one.

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I'm curious... what do we think is happening in NYC restaurant culture today that is crying out for this kind of treatment?

I can think of two things right off the bat.

Bruni has almost totally missed the boat on the "WD-50-like" cuisine. He gave WD-50 the three stars it deserved, basically because he decided that the experiments at last taste good. But he was dismissive of pretty much every other example of it (Goldfarb, Mason, Ong, Liebrandt).

Bruni certainly hasn't missed the boat on David Chang. But did Chang just emerge out of nowhere, or did he have precursors? Has anyone tried to improve on what Chang is doing? If not, why not? If they have, are they succeeding or failing, and why?

In his review of Eighty One, he complained that "the high-end New York dining scene is awash in troikas of pork, trilogies of tuna and the like. A meat that does a wholly satisfying turn as a chop, or a fish showcased adequately in a fillet, appears in many guises, as if it’s an actor doing one of those multi-part tours de force." Did this trend actually originate in New York? And is it really such a bad thing, as the review insinuates?

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While I think he was a Johnny-come-lately on Chang -- mostly because Chang was at first considered part of the $25-and-Under beat, so that's not exactly Bruni's fault -- I think one thing I'd say in favor of Bruni is that he comes pretty close to getting the whole "new paradigm" thing. Closer than any other critic, certainly. But those big issues can easily be dealt with in Critic's Notebook essays.

Unfortunately, Bruni mostly uses the Critic's Notebook pieces to lecture about the minutiae he obsesses about in his regular reviews: patronizing language used by servers, bathroom issues, the egos of chefs, plus various travel and other pieces. He does occasionally comment on real issues of criticism, but rarely.

The thing is, it's not a question of "what are the big issues out there?" or of general trendspotting. It's a question of identifying the big issues that make sense to discuss in the context of a given review, as Ruth Reichl did with her Da Silvano review and as Frank Bruni did in neither his Da Silvano review nor his Scarpetta review. So, for example there are many, many big issues regarding sushi. There have recently been two full-length, thoughtful books (Corson and Issenberg) published about sushi, as well as various related books (Morimoto) and tons of articles. And, despite the spread of sushi to every corner of America, American sushi knowledge remains quite low (ditto for Italian cuisine). Ruth Reichl or another real critic would try to use her occasional reviews of sushi restaurants (or Italian restaurants) to move the ball forward on discussing whatever key general points pertain to a given review. Bruni does little if any of that -- he just anchors his reviews by obsessing about whatever strikes his fancy. And because he writes well and is a good entertainer he gets away with it.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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While I think he was a Johnny-come-lately on Chang -- mostly because Chang was at first considered part of the $25-and-Under beat, so that's not exactly Bruni's fault -- I think one thing I'd say in favor of Bruni is that he comes pretty close to getting the whole "new paradigm" thing. Closer than any other critic, certainly. But those big issues can easily be dealt with in Critic's Notebook essays.

Unfortunately, Bruni mostly uses the Critic's Notebook pieces to lecture about the minutiae he obsesses about in his regular reviews: patronizing language used by servers, bathroom issues, the egos of chefs, plus various travel and other pieces. He does occasionally comment on real issues of criticism, but rarely.

The thing is, it's not a question of "what are the big issues out there?" or of general trendspotting. It's a question of identifying the big issues that make sense to discuss in the context of a given review, as Ruth Reichl did with her Da Silvano review and as Frank Bruni did in neither his Da Silvano review nor his Scarpetta review. So, for example there are many, many big issues regarding sushi. There have recently been two full-length, thoughtful books (Corson and Issenberg) published about sushi, as well as various related books (Morimoto) and tons of articles. And, despite the spread of sushi to every corner of America, American sushi knowledge remains quite low (ditto for Italian cuisine). Ruth Reichl or another real critic would try to use her occasional reviews of sushi restaurants (or Italian restaurants) to move the ball forward on discussing whatever key general points pertain to a given review. Bruni does little if any of that -- he just anchors his reviews by obsessing about whatever strikes his fancy. And because he writes well and is a good entertainer he gets away with it.

I agree with this.

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. . . despite the spread of sushi to every corner of America, American sushi knowledge remains quite low (ditto for Italian cuisine).

I agree that sushi knowledge in America lags far behind American understanding of other kinds of cuisine. However, don't think the same can be said for Italian food. I'm not saying that I think our understanding of Italian food is so great, mind you, but I don't think one could say that the general American restaurant-going public's understanding of Italian food is any worse than its understanding of French or Spanish or Greek or Chinese (etc.) food. Among the rarified few who patronize high-end neo-French restaurants, there is a better understanding of high-end neo-French cuisine, sure. But I wouldn't say that Americans understand the aesthetic of Provençal cooking any better than they do the aesthetic of Tuscan cooking.

NB. On a higher level of understanding, of course, the usually useful characterization of Italian food as "choosing a few outstanding local ingredients, treating them simply and letting them speak for themselves" fails, because there are plenty of dishes and cuisines (Venetian cooking, for example, can involve lots of ingredients, herbs, spices, anc complicated techniques -- many of which are not local) in Italy that do not fit this mold.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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Interestingly, this piece strikes me as a fairly interesting look into the ways that "scene" can inform our choices and affect our enjoyment of restaurants, and perhaps also change the way the restaurant cooks:

His gripe got me to thinking: how many diners avoid given restaurants simply because of the neighborhoods the restaurants are in and the demographic profiles of the diners the restaurants attract?

I know people who, as a near-blanket policy, won’t eat in the meatpacking district, which they find too frenzied, too frothy. I know people who won’t eat on the Upper East Side, where they believe that even the least haughty restaurants have a cellular stodginess that can’t be purged.

I know people put off by the amount of money thrown around at Restaurant X, by the hipster self-consciousness of Restaurant Y, by the median personal grooming standard at Restaurant Z.

And that makes sense, because restaurants are chosen on the basis of much, much more than food. Restaurants are to some extent social clubs, selected because they place a diner in the community to which he or she would like to belong.

What piques my curiosity and interests me more than that is this: to what extent is the restaurant’s cooking indeed affected by its crowd? To what extent does that cooking evolve in a way that reflects the demands and discernment of its audience?

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It was the patrons that cost ADNY a star!

I don't think it's a particularly insightful piece. This is what he says about the ADNY patrons:

I looked around the Essex House dining room on that occasion and saw, at one table after another, couples in extravagantly expensive attire, with extravagantly expensive jewelry, drinking extravagantly expensive wine. Many looked bored, and not especially attuned to the food they were being served.

I'd say he's overflowing with disdain for people who happen to dress extravantly, and perhaps he merely assumes that they're not attuned to the food, because he figures they're not like him. I mean, did he actually ask? More likely it's just an assumption that flows from a lack of familiarity with the people he's looking at. In my experience, limited though it may be, those with expensive tastes are usually more attuned to the quality of what they're consuming, not less. Sure, there are some who just throw money around because they can, but then, not every Momofuku patron is "savvy" either (Bruni's term for them).

Edited by oakapple (log)
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While we're tossing out "general pieces Bruni's done," I thought it interesting that when he set out to investigate top restaurants outside New York, the fifteen he chose didn't seem to me at least to conform to his purported prejudices or leanings. (He notes he deliberately did not choose Cut or Osteria Mozza.) Nor did this series in general, at least to me.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/27/dining/27count.html

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