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Reviewing the Reviewers in NYC - 2009


TAPrice
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Moderator's Note - We've split this topic off from the Bruni & Beyond - 2008 topic, renamed it and closed the old one, since it's 2009 now.

So what happened to Frank Bruni (or more precisely, interest in Bruni)? As someone who only only drops in to the New York forum from time to time, I've always enjoyed the lively (and heated) discussions about Bruni. And then I noticed that last fall people stopped commenting about his reviews.

Is this just a matter that our members tired of the topic (which happens--no big deal)? Or does it reflect a general sense in the New York dining scene that reviews in the NYT don't demand the same attention?

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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Bruni has improved, to an extent. I can't remember the last time he committed a monumental injustice, such as the two-star smackdowns meted out to The Modern and Gilt.

He still has plenty of weaknesses and blind spots, but they're the same ones as before, and at some point there isn't much to add, other than pointing them out again & again.

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Eater just posted a note guessing which of the NYT three star restaurants would be closed this year, here is the list:

Adour Alain Ducasse

Alto

Aquavit

A Voce

Babbo

Bar Room at the Modern

BLT Fish

Blue Hill

Bouley

Café Boulud

Chanterelle

Convivio

Corton

Craft

Cru

Del Posto

Dovetail

Eleven Madison Park

Esca

Felidia

Gotham Bar & Grill

Gramercy Tavern

JoJo

Kurumazushi

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon

Le Cirque

Matsugen

Momofuku Ko

Momofuku Ssam Bar

Nobu

Next Door Nobu

Nobu 57

Oceana

Perry St.

Picholine

Scarpetta

Town

Spice Market

Sushi Yasuda

Union Square Cafe

wd-50

What struck me is just how insanely all over the place this list is! Perry St. & Ko are equal in rating. USQ & Del Posto or Adour? Really? And Aureole isn't on par with a bunch of places on this list?

I'm not one to be critical of Bruni or the NYT system, but when I saw this list I immediately couldn't help but have a negative reaction. The idea of a half star system suddenly makes a lot more sense.

Anyways, just thought I'd print the list to see if people have a similar reaction. I've seen the 4 star list before and reacted thinking it was a good and fair list. Very different reaction to the 3 star list.

(edited as per oakapples note below)

Edited by sickchangeup (log)
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As the tree widens, it's harder to be consistent. If you think the 3-star list is "insanely all over the place," you should see the 2-star and 1-star places.

This is very much Bruni's list. Of the 41 restaurants listed, he reviewed 29 of them. The exceptions are: Aquavit, Chanterelle, Craft, Gotham B&G, JoJo, Kurumazushi, Nobu, Nobu Next Door, Town, Spice Market, Sushi Yasuda, and Union Square Café. [see note below.]

It's a safe bet that Bruni has dined at all of the places awarded 3 stars by his predecessors. He may agree with the rating, or he may simply feel that it's not newsworthy enough to merit a re-review. For instance, he has made side comments about disappointing visits to JoJo and Union Square Café, but he hasn't demoted either one. Since there is limited time for re-reviews, he has to decide which ones are important enough.

The same is true of a place like Aureole, which was 3 stars in the past, but demoted to 2 by Bruni's predecessor, William Grimes. Bruni may agree with the rating, or he may simply feel that it's not quite interesting enough to be re-reviewed at this point.

Some of the discrepancies can be explained by the wide range a rating has to cover. As I recall, Perry St. seemed just barely above 2 stars, while Momofuku Ko just barely missed getting 4. (This is my interpretation of what Bruni wrote, and has nothing to do with my personal opinion of those two restaurants.)

In some cases, Bruni's ratings are just nuts. Dovetail, which got 3 stars, is clearly inferior to the nearby Eighty One, which got two. Bar Room at the Modern, which got 3 stars, is a lesser place than The Modern itself, which got two. Momofuku Ssäm Bar shouldn't have the same rating as the more-ambitious Ko.

Although I would be in favor of half-stars, I don't think the ratings would suddenly all be "correct" if they did that. Critics are going to make mistakes, no matter how finely-graded their scale is. Bruni could correct his Modern/Bar Room debacle anytime he wanted, without half-stars.

____

Note: After sickchangeup did his cut-and-paste, Eater posted a correction. Country should be off the list, as the place that got 3 stars (the formal dining room) has closed. And Kurumazushi should be on the list.

Edited by oakapple (log)
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I think part of the problem is that demoting a place sends a really strong message, and he doesn't necessarily feel it's warranted to "slap" a place like that when all it's done is slip a little bit from where it was when it BARELY managed to squeeze up into a 3-star level down to a "high 2" star level which is where it more accurately lies when ranked amongst it's current peers.

Which I feel is understandable on an individual level to some extent, although what the heck - the review could address this. Bruni is the king of reviews that read one way, but get starred another way.

Similarly, I imagine that promoting a place sends an equally strong message and perhaps he wants to wait and see a more evident moment or wow before he bestows this honor.

In the end it creates this complacency and confusion in his list though.

By way of comparison, I can more fully appreciate the "all at once" nature of the Michelin Guides - if they did promotions/demotions one by one on a bi-weekly basis it would be far more attention getting that releasing a whole bunch at once.

If Bruni isn't going to introduce some form of half star system, then perhaps he can hold an annual "corrections column", where he can pick 2-4 places and somewhat quietly "correct" their current ratings, while saving the single restaurant takedown "demotion" columns for those that deserve it?

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I think part of the problem is that demoting a place sends a really strong message, and he doesn't necessarily feel it's warranted to "slap" a place like that when all it's done is slip a little bit from where it was when it BARELY managed to squeeze up into a 3-star level down to a "high 2" star level which is where it more accurately lies when ranked amongst it's current peers....

Similarly, I imagine that promoting a place sends an equally strong message and perhaps he wants to wait and see a more evident moment or wow before he bestows this honor.

It's hard to tell, because he really doesn't explain why places aren't re-reviewed. In most cases, you don't even know for sure whether he has visited them or not. Bear in mind that Times policy requires a minimum of 3 visits for a review. He has said in the past that there are probably a lot of places that would get a different rating if he re-reviewed them, and there simply aren't enough days in the year to do it. Some of the re-reviews seem like random events, based on what he happened to be interested in.
If Bruni isn't going to introduce some form of half star system, then perhaps he can hold an annual "corrections column", where he can pick 2-4 places and somewhat quietly  "correct" their current ratings, while saving the single restaurant takedown "demotion" columns for those that deserve it?

He did something close to that in his year-end blog post, suggesting that Eleven Madison Park isn't quite a 4-star restaurant yet, and that Del Posto seemed to have slacked off a bit. He didn't go as far as to formally change Del Posto's rating, which (under current policy) would require 3 visits.

I think Bruni should do a lot more of that. I suspect that around half of his meals are just "prospecting," and never make it into any review. The original idea of the blog was to give him a forum to report on those more often, and more promptly, than the newspaper format allows. But he has seldom taken advantage of it.

Edited by oakapple (log)
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He can't unilaterally introduce a half star system or review/demote restaurants without at least three visits.

the number of days in the year is a serious impediment.

as for Dovetail/81 and Ssam Bar/Ko....I think those judgments partially depend upon the price points. Bruni does seem to take price into account more than his predecessors.

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Eater just posted a note guessing which of the NYT three star restaurants would be closed this year, here is the list:

Adour Alain Ducasse

Alto

Aquavit

A Voce

Babbo

Bar Room at the Modern

BLT Fish

Blue Hill

Bouley

Café Boulud

Chanterelle

Convivio

Corton

Craft

Cru

Del Posto

Dovetail

Eleven Madison Park

Esca

Felidia

Gotham Bar & Grill

Gramercy Tavern

JoJo

Kurumazushi

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon

Le Cirque

Matsugen

Momofuku Ko

Momofuku Ssam Bar

Nobu

Next Door Nobu

Nobu 57

Oceana

Perry St.

Picholine

Scarpetta

Town

Spice Market

Sushi Yasuda

Union Square Cafe

wd-50

What struck me is just how insanely all over the place this list is!  Perry St. & Ko are equal in rating.  USQ & Del Posto or Adour?  Really?  And Aureole isn't on par with a bunch of places on this list?

I'm not one to be critical of Bruni or the NYT system, but when I saw this list I immediately couldn't help but have a negative reaction.  The idea of a half star system suddenly makes a lot more sense. 

Anyways, just thought I'd print the list to see if people have a similar reaction.  I've seen the 4 star list before and reacted thinking it was a good and fair list.  Very different reaction to the 3 star list.

(edited as per oakapples note below)

Either I'm not reading this correctly, or I'm not reading this correctly.

oakapple: This is supposed to be a list of NYT 3 stars that Eater hedges will close (as in shutter, as in go kaput) this year (2009)? All of them?

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

My flickr account

ulteriorepicure@gmail.com

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Eater just posted a note guessing which of the NYT three star restaurants would be closed this year, here is the list:

Adour Alain Ducasse

Alto

Aquavit

A Voce

Babbo

Bar Room at the Modern

BLT Fish

Blue Hill

Bouley

Café Boulud

Chanterelle

Convivio

Corton

Craft

Cru

Del Posto

Dovetail

Eleven Madison Park

Esca

Felidia

Gotham Bar & Grill

Gramercy Tavern

JoJo

Kurumazushi

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon

Le Cirque

Matsugen

Momofuku Ko

Momofuku Ssam Bar

Nobu

Next Door Nobu

Nobu 57

Oceana

Perry St.

Picholine

Scarpetta

Town

Spice Market

Sushi Yasuda

Union Square Cafe

wd-50

What struck me is just how insanely all over the place this list is!   Perry St. & Ko are equal in rating.   USQ & Del Posto or Adour?   Really?   And Aureole isn't on par with a bunch of places on this list?

I'm not one to be critical of Bruni or the NYT system, but when I saw this list I immediately couldn't help but have a negative reaction.  The idea of a half star system suddenly makes a lot more sense.  

Anyways, just thought I'd print the list to see if people have a similar reaction.  I've seen the 4 star list before and reacted thinking it was a good and fair list.  Very different reaction to the 3 star list.

(edited as per oakapples note below)

Either I'm not reading this correctly, or I'm not reading this correctly.

oakapple: This is supposed to be a list of NYT 3 stars that Eater hedges will close (as in shutter, as in go kaput) this year (2009)? All of them?

You aren't reading this correctly. That is to say, that the original post on Eater lists all the 3* restaurants as above and guesses that some of them will likely shutter, but doesn't guess which ones.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Eater just posted a note guessing which of the NYT three star restaurants would be closed this year, here is the list:

Either I'm not reading this correctly, or I'm not reading this correctly.

oakapple: This is supposed to be a list of NYT 3 stars that Eater hedges will close (as in shutter, as in go kaput) this year (2009)? All of them?

You aren't reading this correctly. That is to say, that the original post on Eater lists all the 3* restaurants as above and guesses that some of them will likely shutter, but doesn't guess which ones.

I was gonna say...

Thanks for helping out the stupid here, doc. I can be a little dense sometimes. :wink:

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

My flickr account

ulteriorepicure@gmail.com

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He can't unilaterally introduce a half star system or review/demote restaurants without at least three visits.
I agree that he probably cannot do either one of these things unilaterally, but the Times star system has changed many times over its 40+ years, and could change again. So I think it's perfectly reasonable to use this thread to "lobby" for things we believe Bruni and/or his management ought to be doing better.
the number of days in the year is a serious impediment.
I agree with this, but double-reviews (like this week) used to be the norm, rather than the exception, and would allow the Times to stay far more current than it now does.
as for Dovetail/81 and Ssam Bar/Ko....I think those judgments partially depend upon the price points.  Bruni does seem to take price into account more than his predecessors.

Last year, someone posted an analysis which showed that prices at Dovetail and Eighty One did not differ materially. I think Bruni believed that Dovetail was better in the absolute sense, not better in light of the price. You could very well be right about his reasoning in awarding three stars to Ssäm Bar, but that does not necessarily mean he made the right decision. Edited by oakapple (log)
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Anyone else notice a picture of Adam Platt (New York magazine) in the latest issue of Conde Nast Traveler, on page 16?  How could he possibly have allowed that to happen??

People have always known what he looks like. With a notable father and a celebrity brother he's kind of difficult to hide.

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People know what all the major critics look like. About a year and a half ago, there was a big photo of Jonathan Gold in LA Weekly -- the paper he writes for! You can Google Frank Bruni and find photos of him in a couple of weight classes. In this day and age, it's pretty hard to avoid being photographed. The average person is photographed or filmed, depending on who you ask, somewhere between 15 and 300 times a day, including by restaurant security cameras. In a multimedia world, most journalists that rise to the level of major newspaper critic have left behind a trail of television appearances. Even if you're the head of an international arms-dealing ring, you don't bother to avoid being photographed.

If it's really a priority for a given restaurateur, it's possible to focus the staff on identifying the major critics. For some, it is. For others, it isn't. Even with all the photographic collateral a critic like Frank Bruni makes it into a few places without being recognized, especially on a first visit. It was pretty clear from reading the recent Critic's Notebook on chef's tables that Bruni was not recognized at Beacon -- and that's a situation where the chef-owner was serving Bruni face-to-face. There's one critic, Danyelle Freeman, whose photo is published next to her reviews, just like other columnists at that paper. Yet my understanding is that she is not always recognized when she goes out. So you never know. But realistically, despite the over-emphasis placed on anonymity by critics, papers and the public, anonymity is at best one of many tools in the reviewer's toolkit. It is not the be-all-end-all of criticism. It better not be, given how often reviewers are recognized.

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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Yes; everybody knows what Bruni looks like...its certainly no secret. I was at an event at a restaurant recently and a chef from another restaurant who was attending the event introduced me to a leading restaurant reviewer for a NY publication. Everybody pretty much knows everybody (to varying degrees, of course) and what they look like.

Edited by DutchMuse (log)
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I would not be good at recognizing critics. I was in a restaurant a few weeks ago and walked past Kathleen Turner on the way in, on the way to the rest rooms, on the way back from the rest rooms and on the way out. Didn't notice, until someone told me. I lived on the same block as Phoebe Cates for years, saw her many times, chatted, she played with our puppy, and didn't figure out who she was until a doorman at a nearby building pointed it out. And really, if you're in Generation X as I am, you should be able to pick Phoebe Cates out of a crowd easily. The point being, even though all the major critics have been photographed, and even though a lot of restaurateurs, chefs, managers and servers have all the information they need to recognize them, sometimes they just don't.

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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And really, if you're in Generation X as I am, you should be able to pick Phoebe Cates out of a crowd easily.

Granted, it would be easier to recognize her poolside...

This puts me in mind of the time I spent half of a charity concert sitting next to an extremely charming, somewhat barrel-chested woman with whom I passed the time in between numbers with interesting conversation. It was only later when questioned by my friends that I realized I had been sitting next to Marilyn Horne!

So, I think it's pretty clear that this is not a skill at which I excel. On the other hand, there are others who are remarkably skilled in this area. I remember being very impressed when, after having chatted with me for maybe 10 minutes some six months earlier, Dale DeGroff not only remembered my name but remembered some things about me the next time we met. Successful people in the hospitality business tend to be pretty good at this kind of thing.

--

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May we turn for a moment to Moira Hodgson, the reviewer for the New York Observer? I am beginning to suspect that she is the most competent New York restaurant critic left standing (after the loss of the New York Sun and Paul Adams). Which raises a question: does anybody besides me and the people who put together the links at Eater actually read her reviews?

I came across, probably on Eater but maybe on one of the other blogs that's the same as Eater, a link to an excerpt from Moira Hodgson's memoir. It's enjoyable reading.

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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