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Bruni and Beyond: NYC Reviewing (2004)


rich
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I regret to say that I've been ignoring Bruni's reviews since the review of EN with the derogatory remarks about tofu. I've decided that I have so little confidence in his taste that I'm unlikely to get much out of reading his reviews and will concentrate on recommendations from trusted eGullet members and friends and reviews of other critics who may inspire somewhat more confidence from me.

I hope I'm not being too harsh, but I am being truthful.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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  • 2 weeks later...

As we reach the end of another year, it's time for the First Annual Dubious Achievement Awards in NYT Food Criticism. Frank Bruni has one review to go, but heck, it's Christmas, so here goes.

The categories are:

Most Overrated: Awarded to the most egregious example of awarding more stars than the restaurant deserved.

Most Underrated: Awarded to the most egregious example of awarding fewer stars than the restaurant deserved.

Most Pointless: Awarded to the review that was the most egregious waste of one of the Times's 52 annual reviewing slots.

Cheapest Shot: Awarded to the review that took the most unwarranted pot-shot at the chef/restaurant.

Hardest Fall: Awarded to the most egregious demotion review (one that takes away stars previously awarded).

Most Irrelevant: Awarded to the most egregious example of wasting space on matters having nothing to do with the restaurant.

Worst Written: Awarded to the most egregious example of terrible prose that never should have made it past the editor's desk.

And now, my view of the winners:

Most Overrated: Sripraphai. It received two stars; it arguably deserved zero.

Most Underrated: Asiate. It received one star; it arguably deserved three.

Most Pointless: Indochine. A formerly "hip" restaurant, nobody had talked about Indochine in years. Why write the re-review, just to tell us that it's now a zero-star restaurant?

Cheapest Shot: Bouley. By many accounts, the restaurant deserved its demotion to three stars, but the review itself contained several cheap shots.

Hardest Fall: Montrachet (Amanda Hesser). Its demotion to two stars was arguably undeserved, and the review itself was insulting. Incidentally, by my count there were seven re-reviews this year: Union Pacific, Montrachet, Compass, Babbo, Bouley, 71 Clinton Fresh Food, and Indochine. Two of these re-affirmed previous ratings (Babbo (***), 71CFF (**)). The others were all demotions.

Most Irrelevant: LCB Brasserie Rachou. The review mentioned Al Taubman four times and Martha Stewart once, concluding that the restaurant was perfect for felons who've concluded their prison sentences.

Worst Written: Spice Market (Amanda Hesser). Any number of Frank Bruni reviews deserve an honorable mention, but for purple prose that shouldn't be seen past the freshman year of college, no review beats this one.

Feel free to disagree!

Edited by oakapple (log)
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I don't think Bruni is qualified to judge a Japanese restaurant.

His befuddled statements in previous reviews (including his consternation at a sunken table) show a deeply shallow understanding.

Still, it's nice he enjoyed himself, I guess.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Most Pointless: Awarded to the review that was the most egregious waste of one of the Times's 52 annual reviewing slots.

The first review of Masa (Hesser) was 100% a waste of space.

Most Irrelevant: Awarded to the most egregious example of wasting space on matters having nothing to do with the restaurant.

The review of Wolfgang's contained precious little actual discussion of steak.

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 don't think Bruni is qualified to judge a Japanese restaurant.

I'm not sure it's a question of qualifications as such -- there is no course one can take, no certificate one needs to acquire -- and he strikes me as no more or less competent to judge a Japanese restaurant than a French one. I'm also not entirely sure the divisions among cuisines apply all that well to restaurants like Masa and Per Se, where the cross-cultural influences are so pronounced, in terms of ingredients, preparation and aesthetics. What strikes me about both reviews, and many others, is that they are so irrelevant-seeming on their own terms. That is to say, without the podium of the New York Times, nobody would take these reviews all that seriously as standalone pieces of work. Virtually the only thing noteworthy about Bruni's four-star reviews is that they award four New York Times stars. They contribute little else to the discussion that hasn't already been said. Whereas, the work of someone like Ruth Reichl, Mimi Sheraton or Craig Claiborne had a certain internal force of authority to it -- it would not have been as widely read without the Times podium, but it would have been taken seriously by serious observers.

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. We've pointed out several times in the past that, despite the conventional wisdom that the Times only awards four stars to French restaurants, there have actually been Chinese, Japanese and other types of restaurants with four New York Times stars -- just not in the past 15 or so years.

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. We've pointed out several times in the past that, despite the conventional wisdom that the Times only awards four stars to French restaurants, there have actually been Chinese, Japanese and other types of restaurants with four New York Times stars -- just not in the past 15 or so years.

I'm curious... what non-French types other than Japanese and Chinese? More to the point, what European types other than French?

--

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In 1968, Peter Luger held four stars (as did Shun Lee Dynasty). I'm not exactly sure how one might categorize the Quilted Giraffe in terms of ethnicity, but it held four stars as recently as the early 1990s. Our set of "Back to the future" topics makes for interesting reading in this regard:

http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showtopic=49482

http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showtopic=49627

http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showtopic=49641

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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Most Overrated: Awarded to the most egregious example of awarding more stars than the restaurant deserved.

And the winner is...

Every single one of them.

No restaurant deserves to be pigeonholed into a bogus category of stars, points, tocques, macarons or whatever other numerical rating system happens to be used to quantify the unquantifiable.

It is utterly unfair to the restaurant for a reader to put any credence in such a system. And for the critics who advocate these ratings, my response to you is: learn how to write and you'll lose the need to assign a mathematical value to something entirely unrelated to mathematics.

This needed to be said,

Rocks.

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It is utterly unfair to the restaurant for a reader to put any credence in such a system.

I'd take this a lot more seriously if the restauranteurs considered it unfair. To the contrary, most restaurants are quite happy to rely on a favorable NYT star rating in promotional materials (websites, reviews posted in the entrance foyer, etc.).

When a restauranteur complains, it's usually about receiving too few stars, not about the fact that the stars exist.

You might find the odd restauranteur who says he'd rather there were no stars at all. It will probably be a restauranteur who has not benefited from the system. When the restaurant is favorably reviewed, and consequently awarded a high number of stars, for some reason the chef/owner never seems to mind.

Funny how that works. :laugh:

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It is utterly unfair to the restaurant for a reader to put any credence in such a system.

I'd take this a lot more seriously if the restauranteurs considered it unfair.

Pull aside any restauranteur in the country. Ask him or her whether it's fair for one single person's whim in assigning stars to have such a dominant influence.

And these little asterisks (how are they arrived at again?) are based on ... how many visits to the restaurant by this one single "critic?" Three? Five?

And THIS is what establishes a restaurant's reputation as being good or bad?

I reject the entire notion of this fundamentally flawed and incorrect "system," and so should you.

Cheers,

Rocks.

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Pull aside any restauranteur in the country.  Ask him or her whether it's fair for one single person's whim in assigning stars to have such a dominant influence.

Such comments are typically made, not specifically with respect to the assignment of stars, but about the overall influence of the reviewer. Opera companies likewise complain about the dominance of the principal New York Times music critic, and Broadway producers about the New York Times drama critic. The Times does not award stars to operas and musicals, but the complaint is the same. It is heard, of course, only when the review is unfavorable. For some reason, they don't seem to mind the influence of a positive review. Indeed, by posting the reviews on sandwich boards and quoting them in ads, they usually hope that the good reviews will be as influential as possible.

Ironically, the NYT restaurant critic does not have the influence s/he once did. Asiate and V Steakhouse seem to be doing quite well, despite the one-star rating.

And these little asterisks (how are they arrived at again?) are based on ... how many visits to the restaurant by this one single "critic?"  Three?  Five? 

That's far more visits than the music, drama, or movie critics base their reviews upon. There's very little in your complaint that would not be true of all types of reviewing by major newspapers. You are therefore arguing—whether you realize it or not—for the abolishment of all published critical opinion that has the potential to influence purchasing decisions.

And THIS is what establishes a restaurant's reputation as being good or bad?

Again, you are presuming far, far, more influence than the reviews, in fact, have.

Edited by oakapple (log)
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You are therefore arguing—whether you realize it or not—for the abolishment of all published critical opinion that has the potential to influence purchasing decisions.

When you make leaping assumptions such as this, it shows that you didn't read what I wrote with any degree of thoughtfulness.

And THIS is what establishes a restaurant's reputation as being good or bad?

Again, you are presuming far, far, more influence than the reviews, in fact, have.

The influence that stars, points, tocques or macarons can have on the dining public and the restaurant industry is enormous.

Cheers,

Rocks.

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I agree with you Rocks. I've long advocated for the removal of "stars." But I don't need to press my point anymore. Frank Bruni is doing it for me every week and making a much better argument than I ever could.

Rich Schulhoff

Opinions are like friends, everyone has some but what matters is how you respect them!

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Most Pointless: Awarded to the review that was the most egregious waste of one of the Times's 52 annual reviewing slots.

The first review of Masa (Hesser) was 100% a waste of space.

This is a fascinating comment. Until the final paragraph—where she demurred on the number of stars to award—this review was no more or less wasteful than any other NYT review. To call the review a 100% waste of space suggests that the words are superfluous, and only the stars count. While I disagree with people who think the stars should be abolished, I definitely think the words are important.

Hesser did something useful in that review that I wish critics would do more often: she lifted the veil on the thought process behind the stars themselves, explaining precisely why she was torn between four and three. Having done that, I think she should have awarded four, but that misjudgment was limited to her final paragraph.

FYI, I thought that Hesser's most pointless review was Compass. It was a demotion from two stars to one, but in the article she said that the restaurant was planning a renovation. Given that a minor restaurant like Compass isn't going to be reviewed very often, a review just before a renovation is truly pointless. Of course, Compass went on to lose its chef (Katy Sparks). We will presume that Hesser couldn't have predicted that, but the review certainly should have followed the renovation, rather than preceding it.

Edited by oakapple (log)
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You are therefore arguing—whether you realize it or not—for the abolishment of all published critical opinion that has the potential to influence purchasing decisions.

When you make leaping assumptions such as this, it shows that you didn't read what I wrote with any degree of thoughtfulness.

My point is that there's nothing you've yet said on the topic that wouldn't be true if the reviews were identical, except for the removal of the stars.

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You are therefore arguing—whether you realize it or not—for the abolishment of all published critical opinion that has the potential to influence purchasing decisions.

Actually, I think Rocks is arguing exactly the opposite. He's arguing for better written reviews and better consumers who take the time to read well-written reviews rather than relying on the number of stars assigned (or a two-word snippet from a review pasted into a newspaper ad for a movie).

You yourself note that the NYT does not assign stars in its movie or drama reviews, but I can read those reviews and usually reach a conclusion about whether I would want to see that play, musical, or movie. Why do we need stars at the end of our restaurant reviews? Shouldn't the reviews themselves, not the stars, help us decide whether we go eat at a restaurant?

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You are therefore arguing—whether you realize it or not—for the abolishment of all published critical opinion that has the potential to influence purchasing decisions.

When you make leaping assumptions such as this, it shows that you didn't read what I wrote with any degree of thoughtfulness.

What you wrote was, "Pull aside any restauranteur in the country. Ask him or her whether it's fair for one single person's whim in assigning stars to have such a dominant influence." That does on its face seem to me to be a species of the standard chef/restaurateur complaint leveled against all critics when unfavorable reviews come in: "Who is this person to criticize my establishment?" Those same chefs and restaurateurs can often be heard to say, when a favorable review comes in, "You know, he gets it. He really gets it! He gets what we're about!"

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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Oakapple, the reason Hesser's review was a waste of space was that it called for its own destruction. It contemplated a re-review by the new critic, and now that we have that re-review, which said pretty much what every other review everywhere has said, including Hesser's review, we have yet another 1,200 words spilled in making the same set of claims about how Masa serves such good fish. So why bother with her review? With only 52 slots available per year, why allocate 2 of them to what is probably the smallest restaurant ever to be reviewed, especially when both reviews make pretty much the same set of no-brainer claims?

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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You are therefore arguing—whether you realize it or not—for the abolishment of all published critical opinion that has the potential to influence purchasing decisions.

Actually, I think Rocks is arguing exactly the opposite. He's arguing for better written reviews and better consumers who take the time to read well-written reviews rather than relying on the number of stars assigned (or a two-word snippet from a review pasted into a newspaper ad for a movie).

What I got out of it was that he was taking Don's implication that it is unfair "for one single person's whim in assigning stars to have such a dominant influence" to its logical conclusion.

This is something with which those of us in the performance arts are intimately familiar. There are two NYC music reviewers for opera, and they never review the same show. Their reviews are based on attendance at one single performance (opening night) and, at the very, very best, perhaps a dress rehearsal. Similar things may be said about the reviewing scene with respect to musical theater. The NYT is "the paper of record" when it comes to opera and musical theater performances, and these reviewers wield tremendous influence not only over the success of the individual productions (which, in the case of opera, are scheduled for limited run anyway) but can follow the individual performers throughout their careers -- usually in the form of short blurbs, either positive or negative. "slkinsey had an outstanding high C in the big aria" (whether I did or not -- and believe me, I have read plenty of things in NYT opera reviews that were patently untrue) is like getting three stars when I expected three; "slkinsey's top C in the big aria was tight and strident" (again, whether it was or not) is like getting two stars when I expected three. Frequently, this one sentence is all a performer can expect to get in an NYT review. Not too different IMO.

To a certain extent, the argument that a review of limited depth based on a limited number of visits to a restaurant and summarized in a short blurb or star rating, is in fact an argument that can easily be extended to all reviewing of this kind. One could say the following and make more or less the same argument:

  • Pull aside any opera singer/musical theater performer/dancer/pianist/conductor/etc. in the country. Ask him or her whether it's fair for one single person's whim in reviewing one performance to have such a dominant influence.
  • Pull aside any movie maker in the country. Ask him or her whether it's fair for one pair's whim in assigning "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" to have such a dominant influence.
  • Etc.

In this sense, the argument that "one person's (or a few people's) review shouldn't have such a dominant influence" be that via a single blurb, a star rating or a "thumbs up/down" is more or less an agrument against all reviewing as we know it today. Because the fact is that certain reviews by certain reviewers in certain media outlets do, for better or worse, have a dominant influence. Now, I'll be the first person to say that I think there are things wrong with this system. But, as a performer myself, I also want to be able to take advantage of that system because it's the only way to reach a lot of people. So, I might want to get rid of the people who are currently in this position of influence, but that doesn't mean I don't want someone there. I think you will find that this attitude is shared by most performers, producers, directors, restauranters, etc. The vast majority of the public simply doesn't want to read twenty in depth, thousand word reviews from different critics. Sure you roll the dice, but that's part of playing the game.

--

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