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Bruni and Beyond: NYC Reviewing (2005)


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Is it just me, or does ordering a Vodka martini just prior to a fine dining experience not conducive to good culinary judgement, from a journalistic perspective? Doesn't that dull the palate?

This is overplayed by haute types. Yes, alcohol does have a temporary anaesthetic effect when it acts directly on the nerves in the mouth. But this effect also doesn't last very long... certainly not as long as the effect of, e.g., drinking a rich, chewy, tannin-filled glass of red wine.

This is probably not the place to continue this discussion so apologies and brevity. I think the issue is not so much the effect on the actual buds but rather on the general acuity of the reviewer both in terms of parsing his experience of the food and his memory of what he's eaten. In my experience, there is a notable decrease in faculties when a serious meal is preceded by an, albeit gin, martini.

Edited by ned (log)

You shouldn't eat grouse and woodcock, venison, a quail and dove pate, abalone and oysters, caviar, calf sweetbreads, kidneys, liver, and ducks all during the same week with several cases of wine. That's a health tip.

Jim Harrison from "Off to the Side"

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Is it just me, or does ordering a Vodka martini just prior to a fine dining experience not conducive to good culinary judgement, from a journalistic perspective? Doesn't that dull the palate?

This is overplayed by haute types. Yes, alcohol does have a temporary anaesthetic effect when it acts directly on the nerves in the mouth. But this effect also doesn't last very long... certainly not as long as the effect of, e.g., drinking a rich, chewy, tannin-filled glass of red wine.

This is probably not the place to continue this discussion so apologies and brevity. I think the issue is not so much the effect on the actual buds but rather on the general acuity of the reviewer both in terms of parsing his experience of the food and his memory of what he's eaten. In my experience, there is a notable decrease in faculties when a serious meal is preceded by an, albeit gin, martini.

Yeah, I was going to say that being a bit boozy during a meal doesn't help your memory at all. I can understand about having a few sips of wine to match with each course and to evaluate the wine service, but I know I certainly couldnt write an effective review myself if I was impaired in any way. At all the restaurants I review for the Times NJ section I pretty much stay totally sober. Going out to eat for pleasure is a different story.

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

offthebroiler.com - Food Blog | View my food photos on Instagram

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Surely, if there had been fifteen such problems, or thirty, we wouldn't expect him to enumerate them all.

A simple statement that there were more would be a step in the right direction. The straightforward reading of the list is that it is the complete list. It doesn't say "for example." It doesn't say "among others."

He says this:

But there were numerous lackluster dishes and recurring letdowns. Veal was undercooked on one occasion, while saddle of lamb was overcooked on another. Sea bream had been left on the plancha too long, although the crunchiness of the skin was partial redemption. The restaurant was also beset with pasta problems: foie gras ravioli in which the foie gras was not fully discernible; ricotta ravioli with even less flavor.

The first sentence indicates to me that there are other "lackluster dishes" beyond those he enumerates, and the that some dishes were "letdowns" on a repeat basis.

Most dishes are not susceptible to a binary success-or-failure analysis, or even to application of a success:failure ratio no matter how detailed the criteria. For that and many other reasons it's not possible to quantify an acceptable "failure rate," nor should it be a goal. That's why a critic needs judgment, and that's why a critic with poor judgment is in the wrong line of work.

Not sure I agree here. One part of reviewer's question would seem to be, "is this dish acceptably good for a four star restaurant at this price point?" On that basis, it strikes me that a reviewer can say either yes or no. To quantify it precisely as a precentage is, of course, mostly a theoretical strawman. But, at some point, if the reviewer finds himself thinking that one out of every five dishes or one out of every ten dishes did not perform up to his expectations at the $350/**** level, it may begin to make sense to take away one of those stars whereas it may not make sense if it's only one out of every twenty dishes.

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Todd, I agree with that assessment of the veal, however let me try to provide some context (or at least I think this is the context) at the review/criticism level: in order to review a restaurant well, you have to try to grasp what the restaurant is trying to accomplish, its target audience(s), and why it makes the decisions it makes. It is often surprising for eGullet Society members, who tend to be adventurous foodies, to hear this, but many of the Michelin three-star restaurants are not restaurants for adventurous foodies. I would say, just based on a rough estimate based on my memory of the list in France, that maybe half of them provide what I would call an adventurous foodie experience (Pierre Gagnaire, L'Esperance, Arpege) and the other half (places like ADPA, Taillevent and Georges Blanc) provide an ultra-luxe fine-dining experience that can be conservative or, in some cases, minimalist (Ambroisie would be a good example there). The thing is, at these ultra-luxe fine-dining places, the target audience is not the adventurous foodie. The target audience is rich people, whether they are adventurous or not. That's why, at a restaurant like ADNY, you have some dishes that appeal to the adventurous rich foodie, and some that appeal to the unadventurous rich luxury diner.

Think about it: is there any four-star-level restaurant besides ADNY where you can get a steak? You can get composed dishes based on beef, but a whole steak schlepped out to your table and presented as such? Now, of course, what you get is a four-star steak -- "Aged ribeye of certified prime Black Angus studded with bone marrow, carrots, onions and black olives" -- but it is a steak nonetheless. When you look at a dish like that seemingly naked and underwhelming veal chop, I think it helps to view it in the same light. More importantly, the point I'm trying to make here is that all restaurants fail when examined according to the wrong criteria. And in some cases it is the restaurant, not the critic, that defines those criteria. Because really, nobody should care what Frank Bruni thinks unless he can demonstrate that he knows what he's talking about. And thus far, he has not demonstrated that. So given the choice between believing that Alain Ducasse and Christian Delouvrier have specified a certain temperature for veal that is lower than the overcooked norm at American restaurants, and believing that Frank Bruni has accurately revealed a problem, I am currently inclined to place more trust in Alain Ducasse and Christian Delouvrier.

Which isn't to say ADNY is flawless. On the thread about the actual restaurant, you'll find dishes I didn't particularly like, and you'll find dishes where Ellen and I had differences of opinion. There was even an overcooked piece of fish one night -- we had the same dish, mine was cooked just right and hers was overcooked. It happens. But ADNY quite simply is a four-star restaurant. The claim that it is a three-star restaurant is absurd, and is one that places the New York Times in opposition to reality. To the extent that the New York Times by definition determines how many New York Times stars a restaurant actually holds at any given moment, of course ADNY is now a three-star restaurant. But by the standards that give that system its relevance, it is a four-star restaurant and the Times is currently beset with numerous and recurring reviews that have assigned the wrong number of stars to restaurants.

I understand your point about rich people, for whom chipped beef with Cambell's Cream of Mushroom soup on Toast is a fine thing. But I don't think that is ADNY's target audience. That why we have things like "21" I suppose. ADNY is supposed to be fine French dining. We can argue about what that means. I would like to point out that the Gunina Hen in maderia truffle sauce I enjoyed so much is a very old style dish, exactly the sort of thing I expect an older, not food sophisticed crowd to like. The veal is plain, and if you view it as a foil for the very good vegtables, I suppose it works. But I think it is too plain, even for the old rich people you think might be the target audience. It's not like a nice piece of plain sushi which I like, it's a fairly bland, very subtle piece of veal. I would argue that to like it well requires a very sophisticated palatte. Need to get a spelling checker. I don't need super complex food. After all, I live on Sushi. But when I eat something that costs as much as ADNY, I would like to remember the flavors of what I ate. The two kinds of cabbage served with the veal are still remembed well. The veal didn't leave much impression as to taste.

Looking at the crowd when I ate at ADNY, most of them looked very interested in the food, as opposed to say Jean Georges where at least some people want to be seen. I think ADNY's target audience is one that likes food.

With respect to steak, other places may have the same idea. Eleven Madison Park has something on the menu like that, although I assume at 20% the price of ADNY's version, they are not directly compable. Speaking of which, I had dinner at Eleven Madison Park last night ($35 special) and while not bad, so far away from ADNY as not to be even funny. But it is about 20% of the price, with a wine special at $5.12 a glass.

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I have never been to ADNY and by virtue of this, I am incapable of passing any kind of personal judgment on the restaurant. However, I have eaten this past year at other four star restaurants in NY (JG, Daniel and Per Se), and I cannot recall having one perfect meal from start to finish at any one of them. Each experience was indeed marked by severe letdowns: a foie gras that was insipid at Per Se, a soft shell crab that had “a not that soft of a shell” at Daniel, a shrimp salad that was too salty at JG (I had to ask the waiter to take it back). It would have been very naïve of me to think (and I did I admit) that four stars would yield perfection across the board. This is not what four stars means. I agree with Fat Guy that there is a bigger picture to look at here.

I think every restaurant regardless of its stature will inevitably yield dishes that are unsatisfactory every now and then, either because they are flawed or fail to suit one’s palate. Having said that, I feel it is a critical error to judge or view a restaurant within the context of one or several particular meals, instead of doing so while also looking at the bigger picture behind it all. There is more to a restaurant than a broken toilet, a snotty sommelier or an overcooked piece of meat. These factors do play a significant role indeed when formulating an opinion, however I object to the idea that such factors would be important enough to cast a shadow on all the extraordinary things from a food and services point of view, that such a restaurant has brought to our food scene. ADNY has raised the bar of fine dining in America, this is a fact, and with a handful of other restaurants, it has propelled our understanding of fine dining to another level. An overcooked piece of meat will never take that away. I am personally dumbfounded by the narrow-mindedness of Bruni’s review.

"A chicken is just an egg's way of making another egg." Samuel Butler
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I have never been to ADNY and by virtue of this, I am incapable of passing any kind of personal judgment on the restaurant.  However, I have eaten this past year at other four star restaurants in NY (JG, Daniel and Per Se), and I cannot recall having one perfect meal from start to finish at any one of them.  Each experience was indeed marked by severe letdowns: a foie gras that was insipid at Per Se, a soft shell crab that had “a not that soft of a shell” at Daniel, a shrimp salad that was too salty at JG (I had to ask the waiter to take it back).  It would have been very naïve of me to think (and I did I admit) that four stars would yield perfection across the board. This is not what four stars means.  I agree with Fat Guy that there is a bigger picture to look at here.

At Daniel's price point, a defective soft shell crab never should have left the kitchen. That is the sort of thing that is supposed to be noticed. I eat a lot of sushi, and at the the better places I go to, I can't remember the last time I had a piece of sushi that was close to bad. An expensive and fine restaurant should have high quality control. Some things like salting are subjective and of course, some dishes may just not work or suffer from ingredents that are just not at their best today. But a soft shell crab should not be hard and no four star place should let it escape from the kitchen. ADNY has a huge staff, there is no excuse for problem dishes to escape the kitchen, such as the fish Fat Guy noted was cooked inconsistently. Not supposed to happen. We can argue about whether a dish like my ADNY veal was a good idea, but it's execution I think was what ADNY wanted.

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Not sure I agree here.  One part of reviewer's question would seem to be, "is this dish acceptably good for a four star restaurant at this price point?"  On that basis, it strikes me that a reviewer can say either yes or no.  To quantify it precisely as a precentage is, of course, mostly a theoretical strawman.  But, at some point, if the reviewer finds himself thinking that one out of every five dishes or one out of every ten dishes did not perform up to his expectations at the $350/**** level, it may begin to make sense to take away one of those stars whereas it may not make sense if it's only one out of every twenty dishes.

I concur with that: there is a point at which enough inconsistency breaks the system and requires a change of rating. I've argued elsewhere that critics, with their limited sample sizes, are not particularly well situated to make that judgment. And it's especially problematic when a critic without much perspective does so. But yes, there is a breaking point. At the same time, I remain very wary of quantification and of binary success-or-failure determinations, in part because both the near-miss and the disaster will get the same zero in the binary system, and in part because most every dish is made up of numerous components and represents a whole greater than the sum of its parts. For example, to read Frank Bruni's review you'd think he ordered a dish called "saddle of lamb." But if you go to Ellen's photos in the ADNY thread or in her album, you'll see that the saddle is the secondary or tertiary component of the dish, which is called "Rack and saddle of lamb on the spit, lettuce, potatoes boulangere." If you look at current menus as well, there is no dish consisting of saddle of lamb only. No, the saddle should not be overcooked. But let's say, in that dish, the rack was perfectly cooked. How would that impact everybody's opinion of Frank Bruni's language choice: "Veal was undercooked on one occasion, while saddle of lamb was overcooked on another"?

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 think every restaurant regardless of its stature will inevitably yield dishes that are unsatisfactory every now and then, either because they are flawed or fail to suit one’s palate.  Having said that, I feel it is a critical error to judge or view a restaurant within the context of one or several particular meals, instead of doing so while also looking at the bigger picture behind it all.  There is more to a restaurant than a broken toilet, a snotty sommelier or an overcooked piece of meat.  These factors do play a significant role indeed when formulating an opinion, however I object to the idea that such factors would be important enough to cast a shadow on all the extraordinary things from a food and services point of view, that such a restaurant has brought to our food scene.

Although Bruni doesn't say so, I believe the food issues, as judged from his perspective, were the main reason for the demotion. In otherwords, had he not perceived "numerous and recurring" problems with the food, the defective toilet and the snooty sommelier wouldn't have been sufficient reasons for the demotion. I am not just saying that this is my opinion, but I suspect it is Frank Bruni's as well.

Of course, when he devotes so much space to non-food issues, it's easy to get the impression that they're what defines the experience for him. But this reminds me of the Babbo review, which was capable of being interpreted to mean that the restaurant lost out on a fourth star because Bruni didn't share Mario Batali's taste in music. I don't think Bruni meant that, but it's emblematic of his writing style that his reviews lend themselves to this type of misunderstanding. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that he just doesn't have the verbal arsenal to describe these dishes the way a seasoned food writer should. He tells you about the broken toilet, because he can.

Like Sam Kinsey, I got the impression that the food issues he listed were mere examples of the "numerous and recurring" problems he perceived. But I agree with Fat Guy that this should have been more clearly stated. I think we all agree that you can't precisely quantify what makes a dish good or bad, but there is some level of disappointment, beyond which you can no longer justify a four-star rating. The question is whether Frank Bruni's judgment on that matter is reliable.

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Let's break it down again, starting with "recurring." I'll bold the words that I think are relevant on that point.

But there were numerous lackluster dishes and recurring letdowns. Veal was undercooked on one occasion, while saddle of lamb was overcooked on another. Sea bream had been left on the plancha too long, although the crunchiness of the skin was partial redemption. The restaurant was also beset with pasta problems: foie gras ravioli in which the foie gras was not fully discernible; ricotta ravioli with even less flavor.

At least in the first three instances, it is quite clear from the language that these were single and not recurring instances. We know the veal was not overcooked on a recurring basis, because it says "on one occasion." This tracks for the lamb and sea bream as well.

Now when it comes to the pasta dishes, which were "beset with pasta problems," I don't know whether these examples recurred or not, but I suspect it would not be relevant: it seems to me the most likely explanation is that the dishes were as intended and were just not to the critic's liking. So if they were that way ten times instead of one, it wouldn't make a difference.

So if no individual dish was a "recurring letdown," the term "recurring" must be redundant with "numerous."

In terms of "numerous lackluster dishes," I suppose there's no way to know if we're seeing a complete list or a list of examples. And that's not our fault; it's the writer's fault. It would have taken two or three words to clear that up, and the lack of those words cuts in favor of this being a complete list. Certainly, though, given the shallowness of what analysis we can see, I would be very reluctant to presume a deep reservoir of backup analysis and examples that were kept from us.

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 think Bruni’s three star review of ADNY underscores one of the most evident flaws of the NYT review system. I feel a great deal of injustice was committed by docking one star, not so much because some of us might seriously question Bruni’s objectivity, qualification or taste, but chiefly because NYT reviews, as is the case for ADNY, are too spread apart.

I find it hard to comprehend how one single person could in 3 or 4 dinners, in a one month timeframe, encapsulate what that restaurant has done in the past 4 years. This, to me, is injustice. Accidents at fine dining establishments happen as I stated earlier. I was served a chewy soft shell crab at Daniel, I also read a story from a former Charlie Trotter cook who plated a fish mousse and served it to the customer with the plastic wrap on! These things happen everywhere and at bad times too.

My “so so” experience at Daniel is there to remind me that there is more to Daniel than my petty dining experience. Beyond the chewy soft shell crab, there was obviously a greater intent and still a great chef. There was also years of extraordinary service and food that I had not been a part of. My single experience cannot predispose me to think that Daniel is not in the four star league. Only in four to five years and with frequent visits during that timeframe, will I be seasoned enough to formulate an answer.

It is impossible to rate a restaurant based on infrequent visits and with so much time gone in between. For a restaurant reviewer, a sound and valid opinion can only be established within the greater context of what this restaurant has accomplished in previous years, the level it has maintained and for how many years. This is a principle that the Michelin guide seems to observe more carefully than the NYT. This is also why I would give it a little more credibility.

"A chicken is just an egg's way of making another egg." Samuel Butler
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Let's break it down again, starting with "recurring." I'll bold the words that I think are relevant on that point.
But there were numerous lackluster dishes and recurring letdowns. Veal was undercooked on one occasion, while saddle of lamb was overcooked on another. Sea bream had been left on the plancha too long, although the crunchiness of the skin was partial redemption. The restaurant was also beset with pasta problems: foie gras ravioli in which the foie gras was not fully discernible; ricotta ravioli with even less flavor.

At least in the first three instances, it is quite clear from the language that these were single and not recurring instances. We know the veal was not overcooked on a recurring basis, because it says "on one occasion." This tracks for the lamb and sea bream as well.

Now when it comes to the pasta dishes, which were "beset with pasta problems," I don't know whether these examples recurred or not, but I suspect it would not be relevant: it seems to me the most likely explanation is that the dishes were as intended and were just not to the critic's liking. So if they were that way ten times instead of one, it wouldn't make a difference.

So if no individual dish was a "recurring letdown," the term "recurring" must be redundant with "numerous."

In terms of "numerous lackluster dishes," I suppose there's no way to know if we're seeing a complete list or a list of examples. And that's not our fault; it's the writer's fault. It would have taken two or three words to clear that up, and the lack of those words cuts in favor of this being a complete list. Certainly, though, given the shallowness of what analysis we can see, I would be very reluctant to presume a deep reservoir of backup analysis and examples that were kept from us.

We can keep on parsing the language, but we'll never know exactly what Bruni meant. I think the prefered reading is that the sea bream et al were examples of a larger problem. In any case, I thinking the following sentence from the review is indictive:

"The final phases of my meals here were the most dependable. "

He's talking about dessert. I think that indicates that he had problems with the mains and starters, and more problems than the examples he gave. I would agree based on my experience that the desserts at ADNY are very, very good.

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We can keep on parsing the language, but we'll never know exactly what Bruni meant.  I think the prefered reading is that the sea bream et al were examples of a larger problem.

It's easy enough to say "among others" if that's what you mean. He did not. He gave a list and, if anything, the preferred interpretation of a list is that it is complete unless otherwise specified. As you know, in the law, where intent often needs to be ascertained from written documents like statutes, this basic principle of interpretation is known as Expressio unius est exclusio alterius: roughly, "the express mention of one thing implies the exclusion of others not mentioned." Who should get the benefit of the doubt here: the writer who had a chance to make it clear in the first place, or the restaurant that has no voice, no opportunity to respond, no ability to explain why it cooks veal the way it does?

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 have not been to ADNY, so my comments are speculative, but I have experienced Delourier at his two previous NY restaurants. I do want to say that I have little regard for Bruni's palate and foodwriting skills. I also believe that ADNY probably does deserve 4 stars versus its NY competition, considering the glaring weaknesses, and endemic inconsistancies of NY fine dining establishments. After all, 4 stars in the NYT only implies one of the best restaurants in NY, not in the world.

However, I do have some reservations, as I do view Delouvrier as a particularly inconsistent chef, and the interesting discussion of the bland veal with the excellent vegetables could exemplify at least a temporary problems in melding the styles of Delouvrier and Ducasse. I have quoted below from a couple of my posts on the ADNY thread, in a dialogue with Fat Guy, in anticipation of Delouvrier taking charge.

Although Delouvrier is capable of producing wonderful dishes, his pigeon with a black truffle sauce at Les Celebrites is possibly the single best dish that I've had in NY, one has to view his tenures at both Les Celebrites and Lespinasse as unsuccessful.  I believe that he failed as a kitchen manager, and his menu was uneven as well.  He never developed a definitive style or a clientele that was inclined to repeat visits.  There was also an element of sloppiness in his dishes which is the antithesis of Ducasse.  Perhaps he will have significantly more support across the board in the Ducasse environment and will do better.

On the other hand, I stand by my comments regarding Delouvrier, a talented, but in my opinion, flawed chef.  Les Celebrites, was if anything more of a mess than Lespinasse, and I don't believe that it was doing great business.  The kitchen was clearly not well oiled, dishes came out at odd intervals, and there was a lot of inconsistency.  I think that managing a kitchen, and mentoring rising young chefs are two different things, and one can be good at one and not the other.  I also think that Delouvrier's strength is opulence, and Ducasse's is restraint and rigor, the whole may be greater than the some of its part, or there could be a disaster in the offing.  We shall see.

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Steven, language parsing and legal standards of interpretation aside, it seems fairly clear that the commonsense reading is that the items mentioned were examples of a larger problem -- if for no other reason than the fact that most everyone but you seems to share that understanding. Could it have been more clear in an absolute sense? Sure. Your point is well made in that respect. But I don't think it is possible to construct a sound criticism of the review founded on the premise that Bruni said he only found 5 problems with the food at ADNY. It's a shaky premise at best. This is not to say, of course, that there aren't plenty of other premises available upon which to criticize the review.

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We can keep on parsing the language, but we'll never know exactly what Bruni meant.  I think the prefered reading is that the sea bream et al were examples of a larger problem.

It's easy enough to say "among others" if that's what you mean. He did not. He gave a list and, if anything, the preferred interpretation of a list is that it is complete unless otherwise specified. As you know, in the law, where intent often needs to be ascertained from written documents like statutes, this basic principle of interpretation is known as Expressio unius est exclusio alterius: roughly, "the express mention of one thing implies the exclusion of others not mentioned." Who should get the benefit of the doubt here: the writer who had a chance to make it clear in the first place, or the restaurant that has no voice, no opportunity to respond, no ability to explain why it cooks veal the way it does?

As someone who spends a large chunk of their time reading old bond indentures, I can state loudly that lawyers do not have statutory rules of construction in mind when they write them. I don't think Bruni did when he wrote his review either. And in any case, the preceeding sentence in the review could fairly be read to indicate that the suceeding lsentence is but a mere non-exhaustive set of examples. But regardless of whether that list were exhaustive, there are several sentences in the review that indicate that he was not universally thrilled with the food:

"In Air So Rarefied, Only Ambrosia Will Do" (the title of the article)

"Over subsequent months and repeated visits to Ducasse, I had a few enchanting evenings (how, in a certain sense, could I not?) and a few insanely indulgent dishes of the sort that I would like to be fed just before my death, the timing of which has probably been advanced considerably by the aged rib-eye that a friend and I shared. " (not all of his evenings at ADNY were enchanting is my reading)

"I did not, however, experience the magnitude of magic implicitly promised by this restaurant's braggadocio: the glossy tomes by Mr. Ducasse on display in the plush parlor that serves as a cocktail lounge; the matte booklet on every table that lists his bibliography; the gold-crowned columns at the center of the dining room, which is as simultaneously sumptuous and sepulchral as a pharaoh's tomb. " (speaks for itself)

"I did not experience the intensity -- or rather consistency -- of pleasure that should accompany the prices." (ditto)

"Something about Ducasse did not entirely click, and this was true of the food as well. " (ditto)

"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. " (ditto)

We can argue about whether Bruni provided enough information in the review to indicate why ADNY did not receive 4 stars. But I think it is quite clear that Bruni thought that ADNY, given the price, was not serving 4 star food. I think that star was docked for the food, and not for anything else.

The next question is whether Bruni knows what he is doing. That I do not know. The NYT reviews of Japanese restaurants lately have been odd, and that is the area about which I have the most information. I suppose one or more of us should offer to take him to dinner and see if we agree with his view on the food served. I'm sure I have insufficent clout at attact his attention, but perhaps someone else can.

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I do not believe there are any benefits of a doubt to be distributed. I always have my doubts I will agree with a reviewer, but there's no way I can establish that he's right or wrong. Elsewhere I've already expressed my lack of confidence in Bruni to review Ducasse for me.

Whatever we think of the rating, and/or the text of the review, we need to be careful of falling into the trap of pretending the rating sums up no more than what was said in the text, or that the text is a detailed accounting of the rating. In the end, the number of stars is a very subjective rating of all a reviewer has experienced. Debating the rating on the basis of technicalities in the text is is fraught with danger. Furthermore, I'm not at all sure it's possible for one reader of the NY Times to convincingly tell another what is the preferred interpretation of any statement made in a food review. Neither do I think you can subject a review to the requirements of a legal contract.

If Bruni is saying that Ducasse has to deliver more than Daniel or le Bernardin to get the same rating, and there is more than a hint of that in his review, I'd reject that outright. Value may contribut slightly to a four star rating, but it's not a reason to deny the rating. I mean if one restaurant serves a meal of a certain quality at a certain price and another serves an almost equal meal at a far lower price, I might be tempted to award the higher rating to both restaurants. If both restaurants serve the same quality meal at vastly different prices, I'd award them both the high rating, but note that one was a better value.

Elsewhere I've expressed my dissatisfaction with this particular review. For too long I've felt the Times hasn't felt the need to have someone with either expertise or interest in food and dining hold the position of restaurnat review. Bruni's not the worst I've seen in this regard.

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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I think Bruni’s three star review of ADNY underscores one of the most evident flaws of the NYT review system.  I feel a great deal of injustice was committed by docking one star, not so much because some of us might seriously question Bruni’s objectivity, qualification or taste, but chiefly because NYT reviews, as is the case for ADNY, are too spread apart. 

I find it hard to comprehend how one single person could in 3 or 4 dinners, in a one month timeframe, encapsulate what that restaurant has done in the past 4 years.

Bruni said that his visits were over months, not just one month. He might not devote that much time to every restaurant, but he did for ADNY. That probably compares pretty favorably to the number of times Ben Brantley sees a Broadway show before weighing in with his reviews, which invariably appear just after opening night, and are seldom followed up. The NYT has reviewed ADNY three times, and I'm sure they will again.

It is impossible to rate a restaurant based on infrequent visits and with so much time gone in between.  For a restaurant reviewer, a sound and valid opinion can only be established within the greater context of what this restaurant has accomplished in previous years, the level it has maintained and for how many years.  This is a principle that the Michelin guide seems to observe more carefully than the NYT. This is also why I would give it a little more credibility.

The Times doesn't have the same objectives as Michelin. The Times is a newspaper. "Point-in-time" snapshots are what they do.

I would also dispute your premise. After 4-5 visits, a competent reviewer should be able to write a dependable point-in-time snapshot. For a majority of restaurants, if the initial review is competent, it should remain sustantially valid for a considerable period thereafter. If a restaurant is important enough, it will get a re-review periodically. That's about all you can ask a newspaper to do. They're in business to sell newspapers, not to maintain a restaurant database.

Edited by oakapple (log)
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most everyone but you seems to share that understanding

That's okay. It's still not only possible but likely that I'm right. I'll summarize the case against the "everyone" interpretation one more time:

- The cheap use of "numerous," "recurring" and "beset" as poor substitutes for criticism should set off alarms in the minds of those who are reading critically. These are exactly the words a writer uses when he wants everybody to assume there's more without him actually having to say there's more.

- The failure to say "for example," "among others," or "there were many more" is telling at the level of professional newspaper writing, where the writer has been a journalist for years and where the copy editing is rigorous.

- It is a standard reasonable assumption not only in law but in common-sense reading of lists that the list is intended to be complete unless otherwise stated. In this case, it is not otherwise stated. If I state, "There are numerous and recurring problems with my Plymouth Grand Voyager minivan. The brakes squeak. The right front hubcap keeps popping off. The heating system it hisses at you. Sometimes when you turn the headlights off they stay on. There is an odd chirping noise emanating from the engine compartment," the reasonable assumption is that I have just given my list. If I say, "There are numerous and recurring problems with my Plymouth Grand Voyager minivan. Just to name a few/among others/for example, the brakes squeak. The right front hubcap keeps popping off. The heating system it hisses at you. Sometimes when you turn the headlights off they stay on. There is an odd chirping noise emanating from the engine compartment," that's how the reader learns that he is seeing examples as opposed to a full list.

- We know that Frank Bruni is willing to be picayune in his criticisms, as with the bathroom fixture problem, so we have no reason to assume he would leave anything out.

- The review would have been more effective had it listed more examples of defective dishes, and it's safe to assume the reviewer knew that yet chose not to list more defects. Most likely, this is either because he wanted the review to be less convincing, or there were not any more defects to articulate.

- Virtually no restaurant review includes a description of every dish or a litany of every specific complaint. Especially in restaurant reviews that are overwhelmingly positive, the standard tendency is to understate or minimize the defects, or leave them out entirely. However, in restaurant reviews that tend in the negative direction -- especially when a demotion is involved -- the standard tendency is to make sure you include all the defects, either specifically or by category. For example, if there is a recurring problem with over- and under-cooking, you can say "Lamb ordered rare was cooked dry and with not a hint of pink, veal ordered medium was bloody, and on five other occasions meat was cooked to the wrong level of doneness." You can also make inferences when something like that is not said.

All of this assumes the complaints are legitimate in the first place. As I've explained above, there are some reasons to wonder about four of the five -- and the fifth (the lamb) is based on a misleading description of a dish.

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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Bruni said that his visits were over months, not just one month. He might not devote that much time to every restaurant, but he did for ADNY. That probably compares pretty favorably to the number of times Ben Brantley sees a Broadway show before weighing in with his reviews, which invariably appear just after opening night, and are seldom followed up. The NYT has reviewed ADNY three times, and I'm sure they will again.

The Times doesn't have the same objectives as Michelin. The Times is a newspaper. "Point-in-time" snapshots are what they do.

I would also dispute your premise. After 4-5 visits, a competent reviewer should be able to write a dependable point-in-time snapshot. For a majority of restaurants, if the initial review is competent, it should remain sustantially valid for a considerable period thereafter. If a restaurant is important enough, it will get a re-review periodically. That's about all you can ask a newspaper to do. They're in business to sell newspapers, not to maintain a restaurant database.

I think the NYT does much more than carry a "point in time" snapshot of a restaurant, or if it does , at least not in the eye of the general public. What are Daniel, Le Bernardin or JG in the public's eye today? Although some may have reviews that are outdated, they remain four star restaurants and not restaurants waiting to be reviewed.

You also say, and rightly so, that the NYT times is not in the business of maintaining a restaurant database, so is the case of the Michelin guide which is primarliy a road guide. The only thing I knew of Michelin growing up was the tires on my parent's car and the road map in the glove compartement.

That being said, it is undeniable though that the Michelin guide became the reference of choice over the years when it comes to restaurant ratings. The NYT might be in the business of selling newspapers but their reviews now carry an incredible clout over the restaurant scene in NY. Their objective might not be the same as in the Michelin guide but the incredible influence it has on the general dining public remains the same.

Going back to my original point, I still maintain that there is too much time going by between restaurant reviews. If an entity of any kind, be it a newspaper or not, ventures into the business of reviewing and rating restaurants (again, a different concept than providing point in time snapshots), I would think it more fair if that rating was re-assessed every year on a continuous basis as is the case with the Michelin guide. My comment was to be read in a more general context. ADNY was lucky enough to have been reviewed somewhat frequently, the same cannot be said about other four or three star restaurants in the city.

"A chicken is just an egg's way of making another egg." Samuel Butler
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First, I'm part of "everyone" reading the criticisms to be more general than as a list that enumerates each and every defect encountered by Bruni in his meals at ADNY.

However, I'm not sure it matters. Even if Bruni had "only" five bad dishes, that may still represent a significant fraction of his sample set. Assume that he went to the restaurant five times and ordered a la carte each time, and also ate each of his companion's (different) dishes. That's only 20 savory dishes, of which a quarter were flawed. Even if we assume that he and his companion had an average of 3 dishes per visit, that still means that they would have averaged 16% flawed. It's possible he visited many more times or had a tasting menu each time, but it's equally possible that he had some more bad dishes that are not enumerated in the review.

Overall, the impression conveyed about the restaurant seems consistent with the rating: Bruni found glitches with the service that were irritating and unexpected in a restaurant of this caliber, and generally found the food to be inconsistent. Each of us may question whether his assessment of the food would match our own, but it doesn't seem like he's stretching particularly far to come up with a reason to dock the star.

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If he really only tasted 20 dishes and five were flawed, do you still think his list of defective dishes was longer than five?

In any event, you're assuming he dined in a group of two on each of five occasions, when the Times critics have historically often dined in groups of four and six. It is also almost unheard of for them not to sample tasting menus. I'm not even sure the foie gras ravioli exists outside of the tasting menu. And ADNY's a la carte menu when ordered in the full format includes appetizer, fish, meat and dessert -- so three savory courses plus one dessert. I don't know how many savory plates he sampled, but the top of the range might be something like 5 visits times an average of 4 diners times an average of 4 savory dishes each, which would equal 80 savory dishes and in excess of 100 plates counting main desserts only, and closer to 140 counting amuses, intermezzos, etc. Or the number could be closer to 20. It's not likely to be that low, but it's possible.

I don't necessarily think the statistical methodology is helpful in reaching conclusions about the quality of a restaurant, but I do think it's helpful in creating context.

In any event, there is then the question of the reliability of the complaints. They are in some cases poorly articulated, in one case possibly misleading, and in other cases questionable. You can also think about it this way: if a quarter of the dishes coming out of the kitchen at ADNY were bad, there would be riots at the 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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How can one meal be "40% better" than or "twice as good as" another? I'm sure economists and statisticians would love to be able to pin numbers on meals, but it doesn't work that way. We're talking about art or something akin to it. While the market is always free to place valuations on this Picasso or that Miro, it is always absurd to say that the Picasso is "40% better" than the Miro. Also, were we even to attempt to quantify diminishing returns with respect to individual food products, those 25-40% numbers would be way out of line with realistic expectations. If you look at food situations where very clearly discernible criteria differentiate gradations of product -- caviar, those fancy Japanese melons, etc. -- what you will often notice is that price can increase several hundred percent while quality increases in only the most minute amounts, often the kinds of differences that are expressed colloquially as "less than 1%." This occurs across the board, whether you're talking about clothes or stereo equipment. But to those who can afford it, it is nonetheless worth paying more for the best.[...]

If you can quantify something as "less than 1% [better]," others can quantify something else as "40% better." It's all subjective. For some reason, I'm reminded of the self-reporting pain scale of 1-10. That scale is subjective but still useful to health professionals. The kind of scale we're discussing is a lot less useful and perhaps more akin to 1-10 ratings of people's looks. A lot of people find that absurd, but people do it all the time and there's even a website that's well-known for affording people the opportunity of rating others' looks.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I think Fat Guy is 100% correct in that a review of this magnitude should have far more specifics regarding the faults than it did. And the lack of specifics regarding the food, at THIS restaurant, is appalling, considering Alain Ducasse is in the discussion, if not at the forefront of the discussion, of the 10 best Chefs in the world today.

But if I were Fat Guy, I'd tone down the rhetoric just a tad, or he'll find Turning the Tables being reviewed in the New York Times by none other than Frank Bruni. :shock:

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Let's break it down again, starting with "recurring." I'll bold the words that I think are relevant on that point.
But there were numerous lackluster dishes and recurring letdowns. Veal was undercooked on one occasion, while saddle of lamb was overcooked on another. Sea bream had been left on the plancha too long, although the crunchiness of the skin was partial redemption. The restaurant was also beset with pasta problems: foie gras ravioli in which the foie gras was not fully discernible; ricotta ravioli with even less flavor.

At least in the first three instances, it is quite clear from the language that these were single and not recurring instances. We know the veal was not overcooked on a recurring basis, because it says "on one occasion." This tracks for the lamb and sea bream as well.

Now when it comes to the pasta dishes, which were "beset with pasta problems," I don't know whether these examples recurred or not, but I suspect it would not be relevant: it seems to me the most likely explanation is that the dishes were as intended and were just not to the critic's liking. So if they were that way ten times instead of one, it wouldn't make a difference.

So if no individual dish was a "recurring letdown," the term "recurring" must be redundant with "numerous."

In terms of "numerous lackluster dishes," I suppose there's no way to know if we're seeing a complete list or a list of examples. And that's not our fault; it's the writer's fault. It would have taken two or three words to clear that up, and the lack of those words cuts in favor of this being a complete list. Certainly, though, given the shallowness of what analysis we can see, I would be very reluctant to presume a deep reservoir of backup analysis and examples that were kept from us.

I think recurring modifies problems rather than individual dishes, and at 250.00 a poorly folded napkin probably made it into the back of our reviewer's mind

If he is thin, I will probably dine poorly. If he is both thin and sad, the only hope is in flight.”

Fernand Point

Cirrcle Bistro, Potato Peeler

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The idea of rating on a scale of 1 to 10 is not the same as saying one thing is a certain percentage better than another thing. We can say that 10 is better than 9. That doesn't require quantification in the absolute sense -- it's just rank-ordering. The absurdity mostly enters the system when you start saying that 10 is 40% better than 9 and you're talking about something like a meal or a work of art or a musical composition.

Also, to be clear, what I said was:

differences that are expressed colloquially as "less than 1%."

I certainly don't think when people say this they are actually referring to a 1% difference in quality. They are simply saying the difference is very small, just as when you say "99% of people" colloquially you mean "almost everybody."

Of course, it would at least be minimally helpful if Frank Bruni gave us something to work with. Even if we didn't agree, we could know where he's coming from. But instead of giving a meaningful analysis of diminishing returns and the standard he uses, he mostly just whines, nitpicks and delivers a verdict. It's unfortunate that the New York Times reviewing position has become such a Being There sort of gig, where the only authority the reviewer has is by virtue of the podium and not by virtue of what he knows, writes or inspires. Such a system is not sustainable over the long haul.

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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