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Bruni and Beyond: NYC Reviewing (2006)


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As to the price/value issue I can't equate with what Chinatown Brasserie does with your typical C-Town cantonese resturant. Its a very expensive space and they need to recoup their costs somehow, and they are also using ingredients that are better qualitatively than what -most- Chinese restaurants in the city use.

This is really the heart of the matter.

Their need to recoup their real estate costs is of no concern to me as a consumer. It's like what I said about Ditch Plain: if real estate costs prevent you from charging sensible prices for what you're serving, then you either have to serve something else or change your location. (Of course, Ditch Plain found a way to lower its prices when it found itself empty most of the time -- a problem that CB seems to be avoiding, I must admit.)

The quality of the ingredients is really what kept me on the fence about CB. But finally, after repeated tries, I realized that they didn't make much of a difference to me. Meaning, they didn't cause me to like the food at CB more than I like similar food available much cheaper elsewhere. (If anything, I think CB's food is a little bland.) So, while I recognize that the higher-quality ingredients necessitate higher prices, they don't make me think the higher prices are worth it.

Edited by Sneakeater (log)
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Their need to recoup their real estate costs is of no concern to me as a consumer. It's like what I said about Ditch Plain: if real estate costs prevent you from charging sensible prices for what you're serving, then you either have to serve something else or change your location.

This a problem endemic or systemic to the New York City restaurant industry rather than a problem with Chinatown Brasserie. Many of the fine restaurants we debate on eG have similar problems with the real estate/rents encroaching on the bottom line... Del Posto, etc.

Another problem with this whole "value" angle is that Chinese food in general is perceived as a cheap cuisine relative to French and Italian or Japanese. The fact that Chinatown Brasserie chose American Chinese as its thematic jumping-off point even further re-inforces this perception and works against them, but I salute them for having the balls to try it in the first place.

Edited by Jason Perlow (log)

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

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This a problem endemic or systemic to the New York City restaurant industry rather than a problem with Chinatown Brasserie. Many of the fine restaurants we debate on eG have similar problems with the real estate/rents encroaching on the bottom line... Del Posto, etc.

And people complain about Del Posto's prices all the time.

Note, though, that people don't complain as much about Jean-Georges's prices. Or Perry Street's, if you want a place opened in the current real estate market.

Some places simply charge too much for what they're serving. If real estate costs force them to do so, then that just means that real estate costs make the kind of place they're operating misconceived under current conditions. But it's not up to us as consumers to give them a pass on value because their costs are high. (Especially where, as with CB, there are so many excellent cheaper options.) It's their problem.

Personal disclaimer: I live in Brooklyn, so I'm especially immune to pleas for special treatment on grounds of high Manhattan real estate costs. There are ways to avoid those costs -- even if they're not as convenient or centrally located as you might hope. For god's sake, I've got to commute to go to those Manhattan places that are overpriced because of their rent.

Edited by Sneakeater (log)
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Another problem with this whole "value" angle is that Chinese food in general is perceived as a cheap cuisine relative to French and Italian or Japanese. The fact that Chinatown Brasserie chose American Chinese as its thematic jumping-off point even further re-inforces this perception and works against them, but I salute them for having the balls to try it in the first place.

I've already addressed that, in the "Chinatown Brasserie" thread (where I have a feeling this whole discussion is going to be moved anyway). So let me quote what I posted there, for your consideration:

You often hear that the reason New Yorkers have so much trouble embracing upscale Chinese restaurants is that they have gotten used to classifying Chinese as a "cheap" cuisine.  But that's not really quite it, I think.  I think the real problem is that there are so many truly excellent, overperforming cheap Chinese restaurants in New York.  Places where the quality of the food is completely out of proportion to the low prices charged.  Places that are not just good values, but ridiculously good values.  Because they're not just good for how much they cost, but objectively excellent.*

So it's hard for Chinatown Brasserie to generate much excitement by producing a "better" version of this cuisine, because many of the cheaper available options are so fine.  If my basis for comparison were Chinatown Wok 'n Roll on Flatbush Avenue near my apartment, Chinatown Brasserie would be a revelation.  I wouldn't be able to believe that this kind of food can be this good.  But the problem is, I already had that revelation, in the old downtown Phoenix Garden, in 1981.  And I've continued to have it in a host of places of similar or even greater quality since.  Chinatown Brasserie may be better, in some ways (although not, it must be said, in menu interest), than most or even all these places.  But it isn't that much better.  It isn't an order of magnitude better, the way those places are an order of magnitude better than neighborhood takeouts (or pedestrian Chinatown dives).  But it is an order of magnitude more expensive.

Let's think of the "upscale" Chinese restaurants that have really been embraced by the foodie community in New York.  I think they have mainly been ones that offered food that was not only different in quality, but different in kind, from what's on offer in the excellent cheap places.  I couldn't afford to eat in Shun Lee when it opened, but from what I understand, the excitement there wasn't just about the quality of the ingredients and technique (or the dinnerware).  It was about their serving dishes that weren't like anything anyone had ever seen before.  In contrast, even the dishes at CB that Ed points to above as being unavailable anywhere else aren't that different from the kind of things many of us frequently enjoy for a lot less money.

____________________________________________________________

*  Of course, we know that one of the main reasons these restaurants are able to charge so little for such excellent food is that they grossly underpay their employees.  In that sense, they're unfair competition to an honest mainstream restaurant like Chinatown Brasserie.  Having noted that, I'm going to leave the moral qualms thus raised out of this discussion.

Edited by Sneakeater (log)
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As I also said in that thread, if someone opened a restaurant offering the kind of Chinese haute cuisine that we're alway told is not available in New York (see, e.g., Ruth Reichl's Chinese Cuisine in New York discussion here on eG), I doubt people would have any problem paying for it. What's wrong with CB is that it's a slightly fancier (but not necessarily better) version of the same old same old. That's a hard sell in terms of value. Especially when the regular version is so great.

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But hasn't it been established by now that CB is a DS place and the other stuff is just there to satisfy the needs of the masses, basically to make sure the place is filled by the Chinatown overflow and others who want a more upscale setting (and tourists).

Foodies know to go there for the DS - why would they even look at the other side of the menu?

Rich Schulhoff

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Foodies know to go there for the DS - why would they even look at the other side of the menu?

I don't think that's accurate. I'm sure we're going to order our share of Dim Sum this weekend but there are a number of other dishes on the menu I've been meaning to try, such as the saffron noodles.

And I'm sure Rachel will want us to order the Chicken Chow Mein again. I have to agree with her that its the best version I've ever had.

Edited by Jason Perlow (log)

Jason Perlow

Co-Founder, The Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

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

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Also, Frank Bruni doesn't write for foodies. He writes for the general public.

And, as I've already said elsewhere, the restaurant doesn't seem to view the main menu as secondary. They wouldn't have hired such a high-profile chef if they viewed the main menu as an afterthought.

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Also, Frank Bruni doesn't write for foodies.  He writes for the general public.

And, as I've already said elsewhere, the restaurant doesn't seem to view the main menu as secondary.  They wouldn't have hired such a high-profile chef if they viewed the main menu as an afterthought.

I wasn't quibbling with the review except I think it should have been divided as I mentioned upthread. I'm well aware he doesn't write to foodies, whether he writes for the general public is a debate for another time and place.

I agree SE, the restaurant may not view the other part of the menu as secondary because that's where most of their business lies. But as you said earlier, it's a seriously flawed menu (outside of the DS) and serious food people know what to avoid.

I doubt that's what the restaurant wanted, but it appears that's reality.

Rich Schulhoff

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

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Moderator's Note: The discussion on China Bistro here has essentially been in the context of Bruni's review. Further discussion of the restaurant's offerings that do not directly address Bruni's review should take place in that thread. :wink:

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fwiw:

Del Posto has a sweetheart deal on the rent, which is why their prices (at least the original ones) were especially egregious.

Ditch Plains, no matter what their rent, couldn't get away with selling clam strips (for goodness sakes!) at $15.

for many of us price can be an obstacle.

last week I paid $400 for the meal of my life at Alinea....and it was worth every penny. but I'll never pay $15 for clam strips again, no matter what the location. if your rent is that high, you change your restaurant concept.

rightly or wrongly, the star code for the Times explicitly states that price is taken into consideration. Bruni noted that the ingredients were better at CB; he also noted that for most dishes it didn't make much difference. which I can believe, if you're serving Americanized Cantonese.

Bruni gave two stars to Oriental Garden...which isn't necessarily cheap. but that's a very different restaurant.

I think if you're going to serve takeout food (even with better ingredients) at higher-end prices...a rating might well take that into account.

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My one meal at CB leads me to firmly agree with Bruni's one star. And from what I've read, the VAST majority of the dining community agrees with the review. In fact, this appears to be one of the most widely accepted ratings from Bruni yet. Obviously there are exceptions to every rule, but I'm afraid that the exceptions are people claiming experiences beyond 1 star.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I've been thinking about star ratings lately. One thing I've been thinking about is that I really don't care about them. (I think that'll come up in discussion of Atelier Robuchon.)

But I've also been thinking -- this is hardly an original thought -- about how Frank Bruni's generosity toward lower-end restaurants has fucked up the two-star category.

What brought this on is a comparison of Little Owl (two stars) with the new Tasting Room (not yet reviewed).

Like everyone who's been there, I adore Little Owl. But really, Little Owl is nothing more than an overperforming neighborhood place. Worth a trip? Sure, if you've got nothing better to do, and want to take advantage of relatively gentle prices for food that is, for its class, superlative. But still, nothing more than a very good version of what it is.

The same can be said, in a way, for the new Tasting Room. But just as Little Owl succeeds by completely nailing its modest ambitions, the Tasting Room succeeds by completely nailing its slightly-less-modest ambitions. This occurred to me when I had a so-called "ribeye of pork" at the Tasting Room a few nights ago. It may not be as elementally satisfying as Little Owl's justly famous pork chop, but in terms of both quality of raw materials and sophistication of conception, it was better than the pork chop in every way. (Neither the Tasting Room nor any other mid-level New York restaurant I know can beat Little Owl on cooking technique or quality of preparation.)

What I'm driving at is that Little Owl has a two-star rating. The new Tasting Room seems to me to be a category better. But the new Tasting Room isn't a three-star restaurant. To me, it's a good two-star restaurant.

The problem is, good as Little Owl is, it isn't a two-star. It's a very strong one-star. And the problem with being over-generous with places like Little Owl is that it forces places like the Tasting Room to either be overrated (by giving it three stars cuz it's better than Little Owl and so has to get a star more) or underrated (by sharing the same rating as Little Owl, even though it seems a category better).

In other words, giving too many one-star restaurants a "Bruni boost" to two stars screws up the entire system, at least below the four-star level. (And combined with Bruni's propensity to dock three-star candidates to two, it really makes a hash of things.)

I know this is not a new thought, but I thought this recent comparison gives it a pretty vivid illustration.

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He doesn't think it's a three-star either.

Like you SE, I'm not a fan of the star system because I don't think it accurately reflects the current restaurant scene. And until the Times and others make the necessary adjustments, it will remain meaningless in my opinion.

As far as the Tasting Room is concerned, I haven't eaten at the new location, so I can't comment. I was a big fan of the the small setup on First Street. I had meals there that were better than some places rated higher. I certainly thought the old place served top quality food rivaled by few in the city.

But I also understand the cramped and very casual atmosphere turned some people completely off. And from reading some eGullet comments, that detracted from their food experience. The ambiance never bothered me and that's probably the reason why I ranked it higher than most.

I hope the new, larger surroundings doesn't take away something from the food. I've seen that happen in other instances - Sparks being a recent example.

Rich Schulhoff

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

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I've been thinking about star ratings lately.  One thing I've been thinking about is that I really don't care about them.  (I think that'll come up in discussion of Ateilier Robuchon.)

But I've also been thinking -- this is hardly an original thought -- about how Frank Bruni's generosity toward lower-end restaurants has fucked up the two-star category.

Yes, exactly.

If one concludes that the stars are meaningless, then Bruni might as well pick them out of a random-number generator, and it wouldn't matter. But if the stars are carriers of meaning, then every screw-up debases the product.

And in that sense, Sneakeater has nailed it. If Bruni had not been so generous with two-star ratings for "very good neighborhood joints," the rest of his ratings could be rationalized as being coherent. It's the two-star ratings for places like The Red Cat and Little Owl that has been the most problematic.

I disagree, however, that Bruni will feel at all compelled to award three stars to the new Tasting Room. If Bruni was willing to slap two stars on Café Gray, Le Cirque, Alto, The Modern, and so forth, he won't mind at all with Tasting Room. He's been all over the place with his two-star ratings, but at three stars his ratings have been consistent.

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"He doesn't think it's a three-star either."

True.  He called the old one a four-star.

True Nathan. And I've had four-star meals (the quality and consistency were always the best IMO) there in the past. I always tempered my thoughts by saying the ambiance isn't what a four-star restaurant is expected to be by the Times standard.

I think I started a thread a few years back about places serving four-star food in less than stellar environments and the Tasting Room led my list. Since I haven't been to the new place, I don't know what I would say today.

Rich Schulhoff

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

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The whole problem is that Bruni (and I think it started before his tenure, it just wasn't quite as glaring) has lost sight of the meaning of the ratings. One star is supposed to denote a good restaurant. Two stars, very good. Three stars, excellent. I seem to recall that back in the day it meant something for a smaller, more casual, less ambitious restaurant to simply appear on the radar of the NYTimes reviewer. One star signified a serious achievement for a neighborhood restaurant. What Bruni has done is throw the system out of whack. Instead of using the good rating (one star) as a benchmark, he's pushed his de facto average up to two. Now when I see a one star review I think of it as punishment. It's the same as grade inflation in the US. A C is supposed to be average, but god help some poor kid if he brings home straight C's. Bruni's inflationary tendencies have also abolished any consistency in the realm of inter-category reviews (i.e. small, neighboorhood joints v. higher-end, more ambitious). He's trapped himself. Little Owl and Le Cirque are on the same footing? Dressler and Gilt (rip) as equals? Um, I think not. It's a real shame because it distorts the public's opinion and ends up punishing a lot of undeserving restaurants and chefs.

Here's my solution. He should be forced to issue a public apology for his lack of restraint and, like the central bank of a third world country, devalue his currency to bring the basis back to reality.

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markcury:

except that you're missing one little empirical fact: as Leonard Kim demonstrated, Bruni doesn't issue anymore inflated ratings then his predecessors....so if your argument holds, it holds for all of the NY Times food critics (heck, 3 stars for Honmura An??!?).

(unless you want to argue that Bruni has been reviewing restaurants that are, in the aggregate, substantially dissimilar to those reviewed by his predecessors....which, considering his sample size after two years, is a rather implausible contention)

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