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Sifton and Beyond


BryanZ
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Does anyone else have a hard time with Sifton's writing style? It just seems....dry, a bit thick, and uninteresting. Also, I found, with the Marea review, a disconnect between the descriptions (text) and the stars awarded.

I want to like him and his reviews, but I just can't get beyond the writing style. Anyone else have this reaction?

I have quite the opposite reaction (albeit off of a very small sample). I find his writing witty, a bit sarcastic, rich and entertaining. Look forward to more. I enjoyed "The Cheat" article too.

I agree with dscott - I find his writing very enjoyable. He's witty and observant and I can't wait to see what he does going forward.

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Am I the only person who thought this was a poorly written review?

No. I agree completely. I find his restaurant reviews overwrought. Interestingly, I quite enjoy his other food writing. For example, this piece on the "Chinese Box" and this one on bar food. They seem a lot more balanced and they make me hungry which is always a good sign in food writing.

I think maybe he is just trying too hard in his first couple of official restaurant reviews. Here's hoping he calms down a bit and gets back to his old style.

purplechick

"No verse can give pleasure for long, nor last, that is written by

water drinkers." --Cratinus, 5th Century BCE, Athens

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I enjoyed the review, the writing is solid as far as reviews go and not stylistically out there. I like the fact that he says it was expensive but didn't go on and on about the price.( ala New York's Adam Platty)Fine Dining isn't cheap and if it is your not eating the best product.

Really Bruni wrote a few decent reviews and a lot of sh*tty ones. His best piece of writing wasn't a review but that piece where he went and worked as a waiter as Chris Schlessingers restaurant. Thank god he's gone. In particular that piece about the Charles restaurant was a waste of ink and one of the reasons why the NY Times Food Section lacks. So, bravo Sam sifton and a new era. Its early and he'll continue to improve no doubt. Although Iwas surprised he didn't like the seafood soup that many others said was good. ?

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Am I the only person who thought this was a poorly written review?

No. I agree completely. I find his restaurant reviews overwrought. Interestingly, I quite enjoy his other food writing. For example, this piece on the "Chinese Box" and this one on bar food. They seem a lot more balanced and they make me hungry which is always a good sign in food writing.

I think maybe he is just trying too hard in his first couple of official restaurant reviews. Here's hoping he calms down a bit and gets back to his old style.

I strongly agree. Here's a great newspaperman inexplicably lowering himself just as he's been given the most important platform of his career.

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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I enjoyed the review as well. However, I was a little surprised that it only received one star based on the text of the review. Without glancing at the star ranking at the beginning I thought this restaurant would be awarded two stars at least. It seems that like in the past reviews the tone was maybe not consistent with the final rating.

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I thought Sifton's review today was well written and provided a lot of information about the restaurant. Not much more I need from a review.

Yeah, the writing (or more likely the editing) was much stronger this week. I enjoyed it.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

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

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I enjoyed the review as well. However, I was a little surprised that it only received one star based on the text of the review.

I agree. It seemed less mannered and self-conscious than his first two reviews. I didn't mind those either, but I seem to be in the minority.

Without glancing at the star ranking at the beginning I thought this restaurant would be awarded two stars at least. It seems that like in the past reviews the tone was maybe not consistent with the final rating.

This is an ongoing contradiction in the NYT system as implemented by recent critics. The little blurb at the bottom of each review says that one star means "good". Very few of Frank Bruni's one-star reviews actually sounded good. Most of the time, they sounded mediocre. This wasn't always the case. Mimi Sheraton used to give zero stars about 30% of the time, while Bruni was only around 10% or less. If one star had actually meant "good," at least half of his one-star places should have received a zero.

I prefer a system where one star is a compliment—albeit not as great a compliment as two, three, or four. We'll need more evidence before we know if Sifton is actually headed that way. If so, he'll need to give zero stars a lot more often.

Today's review does create a clash with some of Bruni's ratings. He gave two stars apiece to Sripraphai, Spicy & Tasty, Oriental Garden, and Szechuan Gourmet. It's hard to believe that Imperial Palace is a whole star worse than those other places. It seems that Sifton is simply re-balancing the grading curve.

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I prefer a system where one star is a compliment—albeit not as great a compliment as two, three, or four. We'll need more evidence before we know if Sifton is actually headed that way. If so, he'll need to give zero stars a lot more often.

Today's review does create a clash with some of Bruni's ratings. He gave two stars apiece to Sripraphai, Spicy & Tasty, Oriental Garden, and Szechuan Gourmet. It's hard to believe that Imperial Palace is a whole star worse than those other places. It seems that Sifton is simply re-balancing the grading curve.

That sounds right to me. I always assumed that Bruni made the call that, with only 52 columns a year, and so many places to review either for the first time or to re-review, that there was no reason to give zero star reviews unless the place was either too important to ignore, or such a spectacular experience (Ninja!) that it was worth doing. Mimi Sheraton, also, was writing in the pre-blog era, when it was much harder for people to hear about "important" restaurants that turn out to be complete disasters. So perhaps Sifton is taking the view that an appropriate restaurant for a one-star review is a good, noteworthy restaurant that he'd like to use his platform to call attention to.

On the other hand, I don't understand how "one of the city's great meals" can be a one-star experience. As with restaurants of this type generally, dining there can be a somewhat undignified experience, which no doubt puts a cap on the number of stars, but with zero clunkers mentioned in the text, as well as praise for both the flavors and the kitchen's technical excellence, I thought it was inconsistent.

I thought it was extremely well written, finally showing the promise from some of his past articles.

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I always assumed that Bruni made the call that, with only 52 columns a year, and so many places to review either for the first time or to re-review, that there was no reason to give zero star reviews unless the place was either too important to ignore, or such a spectacular experience (Ninja!) that it was worth doing.

That's exactly what Bruni did (he has said so on multiple occasions), and so has Mimi Sheraton. This seems to have been the paper's policy for many decades. Sheraton just graded on a tougher curve.

Mimi Sheraton, also, was writing in the pre-blog era, when it was much harder for people to hear about "important" restaurants that turn out to be complete disasters. So perhaps Sifton is taking the view that an appropriate restaurant for a one-star review is a good, noteworthy restaurant that he'd like to use his platform to call attention to.

NYT critics have always done this. About 50% if the reviews are dictated by circumstance: a newsworthy restaurant opens, and it would be dereliction of journalistic duty not to review it. Another 30% are new restaurants that the critic could choose to skip if it's just not that interesting. This leaves around 20% for re-reviews and places like Imperial Palace that the critic chooses to call attention to. Bruni did that; Grimes did that.

What's interesting is that Bruni came right out of the gate with that type of review. He chose Babbo. We didn't realize it till much later, but with Babbo he was laying the groundwork for what his whole tenure would be about (pro-Italian, pro-Batali, anti-formality). We'll have to wait a while to find out if Sifton was "making a statement," or if this was simply one of the 20% discretionary reviews that all critics have open to them.

On the other hand, I don't understand how "one of the city's great meals" can be a one-star experience. As with restaurants of this type generally, dining there can be a somewhat undignified experience, which no doubt puts a cap on the number of stars, but with zero clunkers mentioned in the text, as well as praise for both the flavors and the kitchen's technical excellence, I thought it was inconsistent.

Well, it surprised me too. No one-star Bruni review was that enthusiastic. But what you want from critics, just like baseball umpires, is a consistent strike zone. There's nothing wrong with awarding one star to a place like this, as long as you do it consistently.

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Well, it surprised me too. No one-star Bruni review was that enthusiastic. But what you want from critics, just like baseball umpires, is a consistent strike zone. There's nothing wrong with awarding one star to a place like this, as long as you do it consistently.

Agreed, but having just reviewed two places with notable flaws in the food, and given them higher star rankings, it sounds internally inconsistent to me.

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But we are talking about an ethnic restaurant, with probably pretty lousy service (mentioned in the article), lousy decor and lousy everything else...except the food.

I thought his rating of the wine list was perfectly tongue in cheek - something we haven't necessarily seen from a Times critic, and no doubt another reason not to award 2 stars.

WINE LIST A dazzling Tsingtao, vintage 2009, is the best bet.

It will be interesting to watch for reviews of similar types of restaurants, the stars they garner and how consistently his writing/star rating play out. Personally, I think it's a breath of fresh air for the Times.

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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This week's review is more than solid, and a huge improvement over the first two lackluster reviews. I just hope it's not a pattern that he does a great job only with the $25-and-Under places.

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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Maybe the Times should really shake things up and only review, let's say, $50 and under on a regular basis. And once a month, or the occasional Dining Section cover, review high-end places.

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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Maybe the Times should really shake things up and only review, let's say, $50 and under on a regular basis. And once a month, or the occasional Dining Section cover, review high-end places.

That's a bit like saying that the Times should ignore Broadway and devote most of its theater section to productions in church basements.

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Maybe the Times should really shake things up and only review, let's say, $50 and under on a regular basis. And once a month, or the occasional Dining Section cover, review high-end places.

That's a bit like saying that the Times should ignore Broadway and devote most of its theater section to productions in church basements.

Not really - unless you can find thousands of theater productions in church basements.

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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Maybe the Times should really shake things up and only review, let's say, $50 and under on a regular basis. And once a month, or the occasional Dining Section cover, review high-end places.

That's a bit like saying that the Times should ignore Broadway and devote most of its theater section to productions in church basements.

Not really - unless you can find thousands of theater productions in church basements.

It was a metaphor. Non-Broadway shows outnumber Broadway by similar margins as $50 & Under restaurants outnumber high-end places. But productions on Broadway are guaranteed to be reviewed. The farther away from Broadway you get—not just geographically, but in terms of budget and ambition—the less likely you are to get reviewed.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I agree with Chris: Sifton's review of Aureole was his best to date. It was less a display of his encyclopedia of knowledge and more about the food. It was more restrained in terms of language and attitude, and infinitely more readable. I would imagine that Sifton has finally has settled down and gotten out the kinks in his writing style. I actually look forward to his next restaurant review.

On a more somber note, I extend my condolences to Sam and his family on the death of his father.

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I agree with Chris: Sifton's review of Aureole was his best to date. It was less a display of his encyclopedia of knowledge and more about the food. It was more restrained in terms of language and attitude, and infinitely more readable. I would imagine that Sifton has finally has settled down and gotten out the kinks in his writing style. I actually look forward to his next restaurant review.

I don't really think it was a matter of settling down. Sifton isn't new at this, the way Bruni was. Those other reviews are his style, and I am pretty sure we will see more like them.

I thought the review erred by conflating the casual bar room and the formal dining room. The message appears to be that the bar room is pretty good and the dining room mediocre, but for many of the dishes it's hard to tell from his review which menu they're on.

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Do the NYers feel that his "we're NYC, not Las Vegas" thesis is apt?

Yes, I do. Not much for the glitz; would prefer a hole in the wall with good food than an opulent palace with food that is just "meh".

On an unrelated note, Sifton was spotted at Momofuku Ko last night...seemed to be enjoying his meal a lot.

Edited by The Food Doc (log)
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But care or not, it adds up to bad writing.

Bingo. I had only a passing acquaintance with Sifton's writing when he was with NY Press. The reviews then had the same need-to-be-hip self-conscious quality.

Btw, interesting piece in the New Yorker food issue on whether critics need to be anonymous when visiting restaurants. I have a piece about it here, at Examiner.com.

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Do the NYers feel that his "we're NYC, not Las Vegas" thesis is apt?

Yes, I do. Not much for the glitz; would prefer a hole in the wall with good food than an opulent palace with food that is just "meh".

I think this is wrong on a few levels. First of all, most diners do attach value to the setting in which they dine. That's why you can't find many holes in the wall serving food the quality of Per Se or Le Bernardin. Although the food would undoubtedly be cheaper in a more humble setting, it still wouldn't be cheap in the absolute sense. Most people who can afford it would rather not eat in a hole in the wall.

Of course, if the food is "meh," that is a totally legitimate criticism. But had it not been "meh" — had it been, in fact, excellent — should the alleged "Las Vegas" setting have been held against it? I don't think so. What's more, the Las Vegas analogy didn't really seem all that accurate.

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