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Reviewing the Reviewers in NYC - 2009


TAPrice
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As you may know, Moira Hodgson reviewed restaurants for the New York Times for about 4 1/2 months in 1980, about 25-30 restaurants worth in those days. (I don't know what Mimi Sheraton was doing at that time -- it was in the middle of her tenure.)

I think I may have written this before, but I always had the amused impression, only slightly borne out by fact, that Hodgson would re-review restaurants and change the rating Sheraton had assigned them, only to see Sheraton, when she returned, re-review them and change them back.

I haven't looked at her other stuff for the New York Times of which there is a great deal (probably more than 2000 pieces). It seems like she wrote a food piece for the Times bi-weekly for about 20 years (1982-2002) as well as non-food topics such as dance.

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On the subject of Bruni again for a moment, it seems to me that today's four-star review of Daniel represents a reversal of the only significant theme running through Bruni's opus. Bruni's reviews have stood, on many occasions, for the proposition that only the food matters. Momofuku Ko, where you sit on stools at a counter and get served by sometimes-grumpy line cooks, gets three stars and would have received four were it not for some inconsistency and missteps in the food. Sripraphai and Szechuan Gourmet get two stars even though they lack any two-star or even one-star trappings. He has argued against form over substance with so many reviews. When he downgraded Alain Ducasse at the Essex House from four stars to three, he cited exactly the problems that he acknowledges at Daniel. From the Ducasse review: "But beneath an unfettered pageant is an uneven performance, a wow that wavers, a spell less binding than a restaurant with this much vanity can possibly wish it to be." From the Daniel review: "it yields fewer transcendent moments than its four-star brethren and falls prey to more inconsistency" and "which make Daniel’s clunker rate — slightly higher than a restaurant as ambitious as this one’s should be — puzzling." I guess Bruni feels that Daniel is a better restaurant than Ducasse was, or at least that it does a better job pretending to be a four-star restaurant.

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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On the subject of Bruni again for a moment, it seems to me that today's four-star review of Daniel represents a reversal of the only significant theme running through Bruni's opus.

Yes, and it is so blatant that I have to think Bruni is aware of it. How does he justify this review in relation to everything else he has ever said? Mind you, Daniel might very well be a four-star restaurant by a some definitions. It just doesn't add up in light of Bruni's own past standards.

But let me emphasize a point I made, perhaps not quite clearly enough, on the Daniel thread. Historically, the number of four-star restaurants has been stable over many decades, at 5-6. The only definition the Times provides is the word "extraordinary." What it means has varied over time, but in a city of >20,000 restaurants it's fair to say that some set of 5-6 restaurants is extraordinary by some definition.

While Bruni has put his imprint on the star system at levels zero-to-three, he has not done so at the four-star level. It is entirely possible that if Sheraton, Miller, Reichl or Grimes were still the critic, the four-star places would be the same ones they are now. I suspect Bruni is keenly aware of this, but he hasn't yet found a restaurant that would allow him to put his mark on the four-star level, the way he did at three stars with Ssäm Bar and the Bar Room, or at two stars with Sripraphai and The Modern.

By re-affirming four stars for Daniel, he is in essence kicking the can down the road, assuming (as is widely believed) that he will be leaving the job in June, and that no new four-star places will be named between now and then.

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To add to this: In the audio portion, he specifically says something to the effect of "one of the most successful redesigns ever". He also mentions that they moved towards Per Se's more modern decoration style and (this is the key to his remaining somewhat consistent) away from stuffy.

Surely even Bruni liked the Red Room at Bouley - it seems he does have room for decoration as a positive IF it's amongst the best ever, and towards his own sense of aesthetics, i.e. it moves away from stuffy, which is what he's hated all along. I think that's not terribly inconsistent.

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Surely this is the key line in the review?

And yet I never walked out the door feeling less than elated.

which recalls his occasionally discussed and derided "what stars means to me" blog post. Doesn't matter what he found objectively negative, he was elated!

It's been noted that Bruni used to never grant three stars if he had any significant issues with the food, and there are the many examples cited of being overly generous on the sole justification of food. But I think Bruni's attitudes may have changed a little over time.

The Le Cirque reviews are instructive. Going from 2 to 3 stars between 2006 and 2008, Bruni tries to make the claim that the food has improved enough to justify the promotion. Nevertheless he explicitly says, in lines that foreshadow the current Daniel review:

Le Cirque isn’t quite as reliable as other three-star restaurants.

But . . . it sufficiently complements, and doesn’t undercut, the rest of what makes this restaurant such an haute hoot.

Another example on the low end is the Chop Suey review, also from 2008, where he says basically nothing good about the food, but gives it a star, writing

But sometimes food isn’t the primary consideration in deciding where to eat, and some restaurants have persuasive charms beyond the perimeter of the plate.

He ends that review describing a surrogate on the Bruni-excite-o-meter

My Spanish friend was spellbound. And the potato croquettes weren’t quite mushy and bland enough to snap him out of it.

I guess I'm saying that his focus may have shifted, or at least blurred, leading to some inconsistencies between early and late. But the underlying, infuriating foundation of rating-as-excitement lives on.

Edited by Leonard Kim (log)
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Surely this is the key line in the review?
And yet I never walked out the door feeling less than elated.

It's the key, yet I find his claim very difficult to swallow.

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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On the subject of Bruni again for a moment, it seems to me that today's four-star review of Daniel represents a reversal of the only significant theme running through Bruni's opus. Bruni's reviews have stood, on many occasions, for the proposition that only the food matters. Momofuku Ko, where you sit on stools at a counter and get served by sometimes-grumpy line cooks, gets three stars and would have received four were it not for some inconsistency and missteps in the food. Sripraphai and Szechuan Gourmet get two stars even though they lack any two-star or even one-star trappings.[emphasis added]

Huh? What are "one-star trappings"? Officially, one star is merely "good." Sure, if the food were served in a freezing tent with an outhouse for a bathroom, there might be an issue, but I've never seen or heard anyone talk about "one-star trappings," by contrast with no-star trappings. And for the record, if it matters, Szechuan Gourmet has white tablecloths. I look forward to your explanation here but can very reliably predict in advance that I won't agree with it.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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There are definitely some sub-one star elements at Sripraphai, at least at the time Bruni reviewed it:

Sripraphai has additional limitations. It does not sell alcohol, although you can come with your own, and a nearby store sells beer. Its mostly gelatinous, often cloying Thai desserts, on display in prepackaged containers in the dining room, are not for everyone (and were not for me).
Those factors don't make it a zero-star restaurant, but they are inconsistent with about 98% of the one-star places.
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The thing is, there are 20,000 restaurants (so Zagat says) in New York City, with just 50 or so opportunities per year for one restaurant to receive even one star. Even assuming stars have a 10-year shelf life, that leaves 19,500 restaurants without stars. In other words, about 98% of restaurants in New York City do not have stars. When you have such a system, a single star doesn't just mean "good." It means your restaurant is part of the very cream of the crop, and within that is in the lower layer of the cream of the crop (sort of like me at Stuyvesant High School). It's somewhat (though not entirely) similar to being listed in the Michelin guide. Just being listed, even with zero stars, is a vote of confidence. The Times is a little different because some reviews are set aside for slapdowns and others are given with the "poor" or another sucky rating -- but rarely.

In other words, there was a time when neither Sripraphai nor Szechuan Gourmet would have been likely to be reviewed at all. Instead, they would have been treated in the $25 and Under column, which was specifically designed for inexpensive but excellent restaurants with great food but not necessarily much else. Bruni has steadily encroached on $25 and Under territory, and now gives stars to a few restaurants each year that wouldn't have even been reviewed in the past.

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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[...]In other words, there was a time when neither Sripraphai nor Szechuan Gourmet would have been likely to be reviewed at all. Instead, they would have been treated in the $25 and Under column, which was specifically designed for inexpensive but excellent restaurants with great food but not necessarily much else. Bruni has steadily encroached on $25 and Under territory, and now gives stars to a few restaurants each year that wouldn't have even been reviewed in the past.

Yes. And under other reviewers, they would have been likely to be given 2 stars, just as Bruni did.

You still haven't explained what "one-star trappings" are.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Right, Ruth Reichl gave two stars to New York Noodle Town, so the star system's coherence has been falling apart for a while. Bruni is simply accelerating its pace with another round of self-conscious populism. By trappings I mean everything from the presentation of food on the plate, to beverage programs, to service, to decor, to ambiance. The star system makes the most sense as a shorthand system for communication when even a one-star restaurant has a certain minimum level of those trappings. If it doesn't, it's nothing against the restaurant, but it should be evaluated differently. It's what $25 and Under is for (as well as Dining Briefs).

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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Right, Ruth Reichl gave two stars to New York Noodle Town, so the star system's coherence has been falling apart for a while. Bruni is simply accelerating its pace with another round of self-conscious populism. By trappings I mean everything from the presentation of food on the plate, to beverage programs, to service, to decor, to ambiance. The star system makes the most sense as a shorthand system for communication when even a one-star restaurant has a certain minimum level of those trappings. If it doesn't, it's nothing against the restaurant, but it should be evaluated differently. It's what $25 and Under is for (as well as Dining Briefs).

what of the Momofukus?

or the one star for McDonalds?

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Nope.  It was Raymond Sokolov.

This was the first McDonald's in Manhattan, and obviously Sokolov could not have predicted that there would eventually be one every 10 blocks. But it clearly didn't meet the traditional one-star criteria by any stretch of the imagination.

I trust we can all agree, however, that Bruni has stretched the traditional star system to a degree not matched by any of his predecessors. Whether it's a good or bad thing is open to debate.

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Nope.  It was Raymond Sokolov.

This was the first McDonald's in Manhattan, and obviously Sokolov could not have predicted that there would eventually be one every 10 blocks. But it clearly didn't meet the traditional one-star criteria by any stretch of the imagination.

I trust we can all agree, however, that Bruni has stretched the traditional star system to a degree not matched by any of his predecessors. Whether it's a good or bad thing is open to debate.

Can you think of anyplace that doesn't serve clearly better food than McDonald's that Bruni gave a star to?

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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what of the Momofukus?

or the one star for McDonalds?

The Momofukus are, as you and I (and Bruni) believe, a challenge to the old paradigm. They're serving haute cuisine on bar stools, among other things. It's very hard to reconcile the formalistic implications of the star system with what the Momofukus are doing on the culinary side. But restaurants like Sripraphai are in no way a challenge to the old paradigm. They are category-leading places that deserve praise but not necessarily stars.

I think it's hard for people today to view McDonald's from the perspective of the early 1970s, when it was seen as innovative and interesting -- not to mention much, much better cuisine-wise than it is today. I think a star was a mistake -- just as a star today for Shake Shack or City Burger would be a mistake -- but I can relate to why McDonald's got one for sheer forward-thinking inventiveness. If you go way back there are all sorts of star awards that seem weird in retrospect, but usually in the moment there were relatively defensible reasons for them.

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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  • 3 weeks later...
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?

Looks like no one will any longer be reading her reviews. Bruni's blog is reporting that the Observer has given up reviewing due to the costs.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

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

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In today's review of Shang, Bruni makes the following point:

If there’s one thing the modern gastronome loves more than pork belly, it’s bragging rights.

I'm wondering if anyone agrees with this sentiment. I think I do, and I also think it's why shows like Top Chef and anything with a competition in it are so popular.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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In today's review of Shang, Bruni makes the following point:
If there’s one thing the modern gastronome loves more than pork belly, it’s bragging rights.

I'm wondering if anyone agrees with this sentiment. I think I do, and I also think it's why shows like Top Chef and anything with a competition in it are so popular.

Is it just me, or is this review shorter (word count) than most?

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