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I think there are two issues with respect to the cuisine: the context issue and the issue of the current analysis. We discussed on another thread the question of snapshots versus analyses over time. My opinion, and I think oakapple was on the same page, is that when you review a four-star restaurant that has been a going concern for years (and in Bouley's case, in various incarnations since 1987), you have an obligation to take more than a snapshot of a few meals consumed in the space of a few weeks. Surely, Frank Bruni had more meals at Bouley in the past month or two than I've had in the past two or three years -- there are very few people who can rival the Times critic for short-term depth-of-snapshot. But the whole late-to-the-party analysis saddens me, because I feel as though Frank Bruni (as well as the many thousands of people who will only ever know Bouley through this review) never really experienced the restaurant in all its glory -- never experienced the Bouley that made the grouchy William Grimes explode in an atypical Meg Ryan-esque ejaculation of "yes, yes, yes!" and never experienced the Bouley-as-clusterfuck rock-bottom experiences that most of us who have dined at Bouley over time have eventually stumbled across. The restaurant in many ways reflects the mood swings of a brilliant but temperamental chef, and it sounds like Frank Bruni caught the pendulum in atypical mid-swing. Even taking 4-6 months to make a few more visits to Bouley and the other top places should have revealed this. As for the current analysis, it sounds as though even the dishes that were on target didn't excite him, and that to me indicates that we may be dealing with somebody who just doesn't love or get contemporary haute cuisine. I'll be interested to see the review of Per Se, because it will give a reference point that will help when reading the Bouley review, but for now this review feels a bit directionless.

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

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I wonder if anyone else thinks the review itself, taken on its own without knowing that Bouley had 4 stars and was demoted (which, btw, is not mentioned in the review), reads like less than a 3 star review? Because there is very little specifically praised. Sure, Bruni mentions a waiter deftly intercepting the wine pour...but other than the desserts does Bruni ever really say anything very good about the food? He says, "None of the entrees or appetizers was an out-and-out failure..." What kind of praise is that? How does that describe a 3 star meal?

And lastly, after reading this review, does anyone want to eat there? I don't. And I think the reader should want to eat at a 3 star restaurant after reading the review.

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but for now this review feels a bit directionless.

Directionless is kind Steve. There doesn't seem to be a map.

As a reviewer what are your thoughts about including the rescue workers' situation and just leaving it hanging with no further explanation.?

Rich Schulhoff

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

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I wonder if anyone else thinks the review itself, taken on its own without knowing that Bouley had 4 stars and was demoted (which, btw, is not mentioned in the review), reads like less than a 3 star review? Because there is very little specifically praised. Sure, Bruni mentions a waiter deftly intercepting the wine pour...but other than the desserts does Bruni ever really say anything very good about the food? He says, "None of the entrees or appetizers was an out-and-out failure..." What kind of praise is that? How does that describe a 3 star meal?

And lastly, after reading this review, does anyone want to eat there? I don't. And I think the reader should want to eat at a 3 star restaurant after reading the review.

Next time someone deftly grabs my beer at Katz's, I'm giving them four stars.

I'm happy someone else read the review as I did. My faith in society has been restored. :laugh:

Rich Schulhoff

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

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As a reviewer what are your thoughts about including the rescue workers' situation and just leaving it hanging with no further explanation.?

I'm more of a has-been semi-retired amateur reviewer than a reviewer per se, but that won't stop me from giving an opinion. I'm in favor of presenting factual historical context in restaurant reviews. I just think the facts need to be deployed in less of a self-fulfilling, undermining manner. Certainly, it would have been just as much of a blunder to leave it all out. I'm reminded of Eric Asimov's review of David Ruggerio's restaurant, Rouge, which Asimov wrote while sitting in for Grimes during his mysterious absence. I think Asimov was torn about how to handle Ruggerio's criminal record (not to mention the devastating and compelling plagiarism charges against Ruggerio that Mimi Sheraton documented) and ultimately settled on the most generous possible presentation. I think he had to include it, and at the level of language it is only subtly different from the way Frank Bruni presented Bouley's record, but the tonal difference is nonetheless significant. I get no sense that Asimov is using Ruggerio's past against him.

As for aaustin and others' comments that the review reads like a one- or two-star review, well, yes. The dishes that Frank Bruni seems to think (from context) are four-star dishes are described in a most unenthusiastic manner. Then again, I don't think one can or should ignore context. We know we're talking about demoting a four-star to three stars. The review is quite self-conscious on that point, probably more so than it should be. But no matter what, that is the context and everything needs to be read in light of 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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And lastly, after reading this review, does anyone want to eat there? I don't. And I think the reader should want to eat at a 3 star restaurant after reading the review.

Most on this board read this review with first-hand knowledge of Bouley and the heights that it often reaches. Furthermore, you have spent weeks speculating whether or not Bouley would lose a star. Many on the board sensed it coming.

It seems the review was written to that end. A justification of the loss of a star, rather than a review of the restaurant. Because of this, it does a huge disservice to Bouley, for the average reader of the NY Times after reading this review, certainly would not wish to spend their hard earned money there.

IMHO, it also seems that this review is the polar opposite of Mr. Bruni's previous reviews, which took great pains to clearly establish why a restaurant was awarded the number of stars it was. This review just detailed why it shouldn't be a 4-star restaurant, which to me isn't the purpose of a review

I don't live in New York, have never eaten at Bouley, and have no idea what makes Bouley an excellent restaurant. Thanks to Mr. Bruni, I do know what makes it a flawed one.

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I agree with Fatguy and above posters who said the review doesn't use enough food related critiques.

Yes, he critiques the service, which is valid at a four star restaurant. But, there should have been a more detailed discussion of the food.

But, we all know based on peoples' posts on Bouley's inconsistencies, that the three stars is probably valid.

I'm going to Bouley tomorrow night. It will be interesting to see how it is.

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I think I might feel somewhat more optimistic if I saw a way out for David Bouley and his team. It sounds to me as though Frank Bruni may just not like David Bouley's style of cooking, such that even if David Bouley eliminates all the flaws specifically cited by Frank Bruni, there is no clear way for him to earn back that lost star. One of the things I felt with William Grimes's three-star reviews of Daniel and Ducasse was that, at least, right or wrong, one could see a light at the end of the tunnel. I certainly hope David Bouley takes this review as a wake-up call, because the restaurant has been perennially fucked up and needs to be reined in, but I wonder if he has any four-star exit strategy while Frank Bruni is in office. We shall see, I guess. Everybody likes a happy ending; let's hope we get one in '05.

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'm in favor of presenting factual historical context in restaurant reviews. I just think the facts need to be deployed in less of a self-fulfilling, undermining manner. Certainly, it would have been just as much of a blunder to leave it all out.

If the facts turned out to be true, then yes (as in the Ruggiero situation) they should be included. But Bouley was exonerated. The accusations were false. I don't think they should have been included at all. But, if included, a journalist MUST say that as well.

Rich Schulhoff

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

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Clifford's comments echo my own thoughts. I really do not feel the purpose of the NY Times restaurant review is to speak directly to a minority of readers; rather, I think the review should stand on it's own and that any of my less food-obsessed friends should understand why a place got the review it did. In other words, you shouldn't have to be an egulleter to understand why this review reads like a slap on the face and yet the place gets 3 stars.

Any context needed to make the case should be included therein, and I believe his two previous reviews have successfully shown that is possible. I thought the Babbo review did an excellent job of saying, "here's what babbo is, here's what a 4-star restaurant is...this isn't that, but it's a great place, I love it and here's why it gets 3 stars."

Bouley and Babbo both get 3 stars. One reads like a kind, friendly love letter, the other is filled with backhanded compliments. I agree with Fat Guy about there not being a way out. This review is probably as damning as a no-stars review would be to a potential 2-star place.

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I too found the reference to the Red Cross incident to be more character assassination than restaurant reviewing.

I'd like to clear this up (for my own benefit). I recall reading the NYT post 9/11 - and can remember nothing except good things written about Bouley and its staff donating their time and expertise to help the relief workers. Left me with a warm fuzzy feeling after all these years.

What's the story on the "Red Cross incident"? I don't recall reading anything about the accusations - and I sense from what I read here that any accusations then were false.

If so - then it's a terrible wrong to have mentioned anything in the review about it. Could possibly even be defamatory.

By the way - the reason I paid attention to the stuff about Bouley is I had tried to have lunch there one day during my "9/11" trip - but wasn't allowed to eat at the restaurant because I was wearing sneakers. I knew the restaurant was damaged - and regretted missing the opportunity to dine there. Robyn

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Bouley and Babbo both get 3 stars. One reads like a kind, friendly love letter, the other is filled with backhanded compliments.

Just to play Devil's advocate for a moment... isn't this somewhat inevitable? I mean, Bruni was saying that Babbo was designed for three stars and is achieving very near the pinnacle of what it is to be a three-star restaurant. Bouley, on the other hand, was designed for four stars and is substantially underachieving in some key areas (not too many people seem to be disputing that Bouley has fallen off the four star mark). This equals mostly praise of Babbo and mostly criticism of Bouley.

--

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Bouley and Babbo both get 3 stars. One reads like a kind, friendly love letter, the other is filled with backhanded compliments.

Just to play Devil's advocate for a moment... isn't this somewhat inevitable? I mean, Bruni was saying that Babbo was designed for three stars and is achieving very near the pinnacle of what it is to be a three-star restaurant. Bouley, on the other hand, was designed for four stars and is substantially underachieving in some key areas (not too many people seem to be disputing that Bouley has fallen off the four star mark). This equals mostly praise of Babbo and mostly criticism of Bouley.

Exactly.

"These pretzels are making me thirsty." --Kramer

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Maybe I misunderstand, but I'm not sure what the historical context is supposed to provide for the review. Assuming that Bruni dined at Bouley enough recently to give an accurate description of what the restaurant is like today, does it matter much what it was like 5 years ago? Other than to say, "this place used to be great, it's not any more"?

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robyn,

You missed a big story:

Yet a number of the chef's former employees who have been laid off or have quit since Sept. 11, as well as several well-established restaurant-industry sources, say Mr. Bouley has exhibited another kind of selfishness. They allege that Mr. Bouley has profited from the relief effort by using unpaid volunteers and donated food to work with a paid skeleton crew to prepare tens of thousands of meals for relief workers for which, the sources estimated, the Red Cross has paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars a week.

Mr. Bouley declined to be interviewed for this piece. But in response to written questions submitted to him, he said through a spokesman: "What started as a charitable effort has become a business venture." The spokesman added: "David is not a profit-driven chef .... He has no idea what his profits are."

From: NY Observer Article

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Bouley and Babbo both get 3 stars. One reads like a kind, friendly love letter, the other is filled with backhanded compliments.

Just to play Devil's advocate for a moment... isn't this somewhat inevitable? I mean, Bruni was saying that Babbo was designed for three stars and is achieving very near the pinnacle of what it is to be a three-star restaurant. Bouley, on the other hand, was designed for four stars and is substantially underachieving in some key areas (not too many people seem to be disputing that Bouley has fallen off the four star mark). This equals mostly praise of Babbo and mostly criticism of Bouley.

If you're just writing to foodies such as us, this may have some validity, but not if it's going to the general public.

Rich Schulhoff

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

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A friend of mine who was a restaurant critic for many years always said that the amount of what he called "drool copy" should be in direct correlation to the number of stars. A simplification for sure, but I see the validity in it. That's my biggest issue with this review. I firmly believe you can have it both ways, ie, you can be critical and explain the loss of a star but yet praise and say why the place is still 3 stars. I find the latter to be lacking.

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Just to play Devil's advocate for a moment... isn't this somewhat inevitable? I mean, Bruni was saying that Babbo was designed for three stars and is achieving very near the pinnacle of what it is to be a three-star restaurant. Bouley, on the other hand, was designed for four stars and is substantially underachieving in some key areas (not too many people seem to be disputing that Bouley has fallen off the four star mark). This equals mostly praise of Babbo and mostly criticism of Bouley.

While that may be the case, this type of review is problematic.

A NYTimes review cannot assume prior knowledge. It must be able to be taken at face value because only a minority of readers will pick up the paper knowing the history of Bouley and this it is striving to be a 4-star place.

As many have said, this review reads like a 2-star review at best. Clearly Bouley is still serving excellent food and should be considered a destination restaurant like the other 3/4 star places in NYC. Readers of a 3-star review should walk away being excited about trying the place, not avoiding it like the plague. Bruni's review does the latter not the former, and for that it is misguided.

I ate at Bouley this past Thursday and had a wonderful meal. I am nowhere close to a reviewer, but my experience was top notch and I had no complaints.

-Eric

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The issues cited here are typical of "demotion" reviews, which inevitably must explain why a restaurant is no longer at the higher level. Contrary to what aaustin said, the review does point out that William Grimes had rated Bouley four stars, so readers who aren't food-scene insiders will know that that's the context.

Bruni's complaints are also typical of any review where a restaurant, although excellent, isn't living up to expectations. Bruni tells us that he is grading to a high standard, and he also tells us why:

These are, admittedly, quibbles that hold Bouley to a high standard. But restaurants, like just about everything in life, are all about expectations, and many diners at Bouley are knowingly entering the province of one of the most celebrated American chefs of the last quarter century. They want transcendence: from the kitchen, the wait staff, all of it.

For those seeking it, there are comments appropriate to a three-star experience, such as:

I ate well at Bouley, no question about that. There is serious talent in the kitchen, starting, of course, with the chef and owner, David Bouley. And there is a readily discernible commitment to the best ingredients and the most effective methods of preparing them. A terrific fillet of wild king salmon had been poached sous vide (under vacuum), which meant that it had been sealed tight in a plastic bag so that none of its flavor and texture were lost. Then it was topped with a white truffle sauce so that it would have an extra luxuriant flavor and texture to boot.

... and ...

The kitchen excels at tender flesh, especially fish. I had lobster that flirted, to just the right extent, with being undercooked. I had black sea bass that had been slow-roasted to moist perfection and served in a bouillabaisse that was seasoned, surprisingly and deliciously, with vanilla.

I am inclined to agree that the three-paragraph historical overview lost its way. Instead of psychoanalyzing why David Bouley may (or may not) have lost his passion, Bruni could have given us one paragraph of that, and talked a bit more about the food.

With re-reviews, there is always the question: why now? Had Bruni attempted to answer that question, perhaps he would have made a more compelling case.

Fat Guy wondered what it would take for Bouley to get back the fourth star. What precedents are there for restaurants losing stars and later regaining them, and how quickly can it be done?

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Maybe I misunderstand, but I'm not sure what the historical context is supposed to provide for the review. Assuming that Bruni dined at Bouley enough recently to give an accurate description of what the restaurant is like today, does it matter much what it was like 5 years ago? Other than to say, "this place used to be great, it's not any more"?

When a restaurant first opens, the only data points available for a review are the multiple early visits. This is how most restaurant reviews are hatched.

Once in awhile, though, a reviewer goes back and re-reviews a restaurant that has become an institution. At that point, the restaurant has been operating as part of the dining culture for many years, possibly decades, and a snapshot of a few visits in the space of a few weeks doesn't tell the story of the restaurant.

Obviously, it's impossible to have reviewers in place who have been dining at every old-timer restaurant for decades, but I do think the reviewer needs to take on a sense of responsibility when revisiting the city's iconic restaurants, especially when there is a possibility of a demotion. A lot of people -- me included -- felt that Amanda Hesser's demotion of Montrachet was written from the perspective of someone who didn't take the time to understand the restaurant. As with the demotion of Bouley, I have no fundamental sense of outrage over the demotion of Montrachet, but in both cases I felt the reviews themselves did everybody -- the public, the critic, the restaurant, and the enterprise of fine dining -- a disservice by failing to capture the essence of the restaurant. And while Frank Bruni is not an interim critic, this is nonetheless only his third review, whereas it is something like Bouley's 17th year as a four-star restaurant. I don't think the Times reviewer, or anyone else, needs to be a slave to stare decisis, but such a lopsided equation gives me pause, especially in light of what appeared to be a blindered review that only scratched the surface of the Bouley phenomenon.

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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What precedents are there for restaurants losing stars and later regaining them, and how quickly can it be done?

Le Cirque managed to lose and gain four stars on at least two occasions, or maybe three. I can't get that deep into the Times archive without paying money, but I know it was both demoted and promoted by Ruth Reichl (within the space of maybe a year?) and I know it was demoted by Mimi Sheraton and promoted maybe either by her or by the next critic? Bouley was sort of demoted when Bouley Bakery opened and Ruth Reichl gave it three stars, then later William Grimes gave it four stars -- that was maybe two years lag? Daniel was demoted when it moved: William Grimes dropped it to three stars, then it picked up four. Daniel had also been ranked at three stars by Marian Burros when it first opened, which was a bit like a demotion because Daniel Boulud had been a four-star chef at Le Cirque, and was later picked up to four stars by Ruth Reichl. Sorry I don't have the facts better organized here.

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 I misunderstand, but I'm not sure what the historical context is supposed to provide for the review.  Assuming that Bruni dined at Bouley enough recently to give an accurate description of what the restaurant is like today, does it matter much what it was like 5 years ago?  Other than to say, "this place used to be great, it's not any more"?

Any re-review has to include historical context. The purpose is to refresh the professional, critical opinion for the reader's information just as a first review is to introduce the reader to a new experience.

If there have been major changes for the good, it bolsters the reputation of the restaurant and should lead the reader to feel more confident in its ability to provide a pleasant dining experience. If they have maintained their status, that shows consistancy while a demotion has to have a basis to work from.

But I don't think it is necessary to damn the place to hell over a demotion from four to three. Three means *excellent* and that review did not describe an excellent experience.

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The issues cited here are typical of "demotion" reviews, which inevitably must explain why a restaurant is no longer at the higher level.

A worthwhile precedent to examine is William Grimes's demotion review of Chanterelle. I think it does a better job of striking the balance between explaining the demotion and still making the restaurant seem appealing. It is written in a spirit of generosity and deference that is sorely missing from Frank Bruni's review of Bouley. I also happen to think that Grimes was totally on target with the review, but even if I disagreed with it I'd say it was a compelling bit of 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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I'd like to clear this up (for my own benefit).  I recall reading the NYT post 9/11 - and can remember nothing except good things written about Bouley and its staff donating their time and expertise to help the relief workers.  Left me with a warm fuzzy feeling after all these years.

What's the story on the "Red Cross incident"?  I don't recall reading anything about the accusations - and I sense from what I read here that any accusations then were false.

If so - then it's a terrible wrong to have mentioned anything in the review about it.  Could possibly even be defamatory.

By the way - the reason I paid attention to the stuff about Bouley is I had tried to have lunch there one day during my "9/11" trip - but wasn't allowed to eat at the restaurant because I was wearing sneakers.    I knew the restaurant was damaged - and regretted missing the opportunity to dine there.  Robyn

What you'll rarely see in print, or even hear out loud are the comments made by others in the restaurant industry to the effect that Bouley was the only one who received any funds from the Red Cross and who was reimbursed in any way for the use of his facilities. As R Washburn says, the rescue feeding was a buisness venture for one NYC restaurant. Restaurants all over the city opened their kitchens and donated their provisions to prepare food for the rescue workers. Staff from those restaurants worked without pay in those restaurants, out in Queens and on the relief food boat. My understanding is that fee paid to Boulley for the use of his restaurant was a multiple of the number cited by R Washburn. The issue is not the misuse of funds, but simply getting some funds where others got none. Does this kind of rumor belong in eGullet. Ordinarily I'd say no, but perhaps it needs to appear to counter the same sort of rumor that everything was cleared up in a NY Post retraction.

I had mixed emotions about seeing the issue raised in the review. It's a legitimate issue for the public, but I don't think it belonged as an innuendo in that review. All that it seems to prove is that Bruni is talking to people.

I haven't eaten in Bouley in a long time. I can't comment on the accuracy of the food criticism or that of the service. Certainly the the compliment for the deftness of the waiter in grabbing the bottle is a very left handed one. In a four star restaurant one expects not to have the need to pour one's own wine and I'm strongly of the opinion that once the diner has reached for the bottle, the staff should only take notice of its omission and leave well enough alone.

Grimes is a good writer, but he never convinced me he was moved by food. I felt he reversed engineered too many of his reviews supplying the kind of comments that would complete the review. I suspect he lost my faith early and never quite regained them. His periodic put downs of chefs and restaurants outside his reviews left me even less of a fan or believer. I am even less enthusiastic about Grimes' ability to see the light at the end of the tunnel as I felt he was writing that next review at the same time and the tunnel was of his own design. I continue to feel that Grimes' four star review of Daniel was part and parcel of the same disingenutity that enabled him to write the three star review. Although Grimes, in his second review expresses satisfaction with the change in food as if his words were the inspiration, the most severely panned dish in the first review was never changed and continued to appear and be popular with diners. It was not mentioned in the second review.

I don't know Bruni yet, but a comparison to Grimes is not likely to be of consequence. This review troubled me for the reasons evidenced in Pan and chopjwu12's posts. I felt for the staff who expected a four star review and would have liked to have seen some empathy and appreciation for their efforts. Call me soft hearted and admittedly this is more in understanding of chop's disappointment than it is a criticism of the review.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

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