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jordyn

Assessing Restaurants

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Aside from the issue of whether Blue Hill is in the top 8 or the top 12 or the top 20 which is sort of a red herring question, I think you can go through each restaurant in the city and create a ranking based on their cooking technique. I think you will find that the restaurants in the top tier expend more technique than the restaurants below them and that is the single most distinguishing feature about them. For example, there is much more technique applied at Daniel than at Cafe Boulud. And more at CB than at DB. And I think that everything else, decor, ingredients, service, quality of wine list etc. follow proficiency. It's this "complete package" that makes a good dining experience unique.

That's why one can go to Le Bernadin, (and I'm only using them as an example because I haven't been there in a while, although I'm going in a few weeks,) and say that given the environment, service etc., the execution falls short so it is a so-so experience. But if you were to serve some of the same dishes at a place like Fleur de Sel where your expectations are for a smaller statement by the chef, one might very well be pleased more than they would having the same thing at LB.

That's why a place like Blue Hill is one I can appreciate. In a very small way, they are trying to apply the technique that one would find in places like Arpege, L'Astrance or El Bulli. That type of effort motivates me to eat there. And while I can also enjoy a meal at a place like Eleven Madison Park or Gotham, they will be less inventive as far as cooking technique so the elimination of that cerebral component puts an additional burden on the kitchen to make it interesting in a different way. Unfortunately, most of the times they fall short. But even at a place like Craft where the emphasis is on ingredients and not wow me technique, the last meal I had there the kitchen prepared a very sparse meal. Some raw fish, a little charcuterie, a thick chunk of Alaskan King Salmon per person and a thick chunk of loin of lamb per person. The lack of the usual clutter that often happens there because everyone goes crazy ordering ala carte was removed and it was my most cerebral meal there.

But getting back to the original point, I think a group of people could sit down and analyze what makes each restaurant in the city tick. And I think a natural hiearchy would emerge. And I think if we pursued that exercize, I think we would find a good many objective reasons to put Blue Hill high on the list. Maybe not top 10 but easily top 25.

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I think a group of people could sit down and analyze what makes each restaurant in the city tick. And I think a natural hiearchy would emerge.

I'd qualify that statement in several ways, most importantly I wouldn't call the hierarchy natural because that's a loaded term, but in essence I agree. I mean, you would find disagreement on specific restaurants, but you could probably get a consensus on groupings and classifications if you defined your terms narrowly and your committee was composed of knowledgeable members and you adjusted for the guy who's still pissed at Daniel for an aggressive table turn a decade ago and the guy who's Daniel's loyal friend and follower. You'd have wildcards like Craft because they don't exactly fit the hierarchy-of-technique mold, and you'd have the whole Japanese problem and indeed a problem with all the non-European places, but I don't think most serious eaters disagree all that much on the rough outlines of the pecking order. Then again Cabrales is a serious eater and she's off on this whole personal preference kick so if she's on the committe you're going to have a hard time with restaurants that serve chocolate and she's always going to be there with that peeled grape vote. But we could work on her. She'd get it eventually.


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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Quickly before I run out to the theater, when I say a natural hierarchy would emerge, what I mean is that when we had the results plotted down on a sheet of paper the pecking order would be plainly obvious to us in most inatsnces. I think the most difficult struggles are on Craft type restaurants because you pretty much have to weigh the French approach against the Italian approach of cooking theory. But I think that issue boils down to how many bonus points you get for cooking perfect ingredients perfectly in lieu of wow me technique.

As for Cabrales, I'll take care of her. I need to take her to dinner at Gagnaire and explain it to her :biggrin:.

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OK, let me address these replies in inverse order of wrath:

(Shaw:) . . . (T)he honorable critic tries as hard as possible to be completely unbiased and objective about the job. Sure, it's impossible, but it's an aspiration.

Granted. This is a very good statement, and I heartily agree. But you introduce a completely separate aspect of the equation when you begin talking about absolutes, as with the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court (see my Bourdain-like tirade below) does not deal with matters of personal taste. Your argument is really about the Constitution being the law of the land, as if there were one standard of good food handed down on stone tablets from On High.

I would like to continue by reiterating my admiration for you, your website, and your erudition in all matters food. I'd like to acknowledge here that you write clearly and very well. However, you go on to say:

(Shaw:) I'd happily explain to you why that doesn't affect the analogy, but how about you save me the time and just assume it? I'm not trying to start a discussion about the Supreme Court. . . .

*fifteen minutes of Daffy-Duck-style raving occur here*Deacon calms down slightly*

I don't know why, but that just struck me as being, well, very condescending. *heavy sarcasm* Oh, GO AHEAD, Shaw, EXPLAIN it to me. Why, *I* is a high-scool grad-yu-ate, I shood be a-bul to figgure it all out. I cipher pretty well, when I ain't workin' as a Double-Naught Spy. Go ahead, I'm sure they'll hold your table at Nobu 'til seven-thirty. *heavy sarcasm off*

I'm trying to imagine a lawyer saying, "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I'd happily explain to you why my client is not guilty, but how about you save me the time and just assume it?"

Honestly, that pretty much made me blind and incoherent with rage for about fifteen minutes. As I said, we're dealing here with esthetics, not ethics. The Constitution says whatever the Supreme Court says it does (Plessy v. Ferguson, not to mention Dred Scott v. Sanford). You're making an analogy from ethics to esthetics, hopping very broad philosophical lines to grasp at your point. Your argument seems to be that the rules for effective restaurant criticism are as absolute as the US Constitution, that there is an immutable baseline hovering somewhere. But the Constitution changes, based on the interpretations of the justices. (See, for a good starter kit, The Supreme Court and Constitutional Democracy, by John Agresto, a "gentleman" with whom I've had some dealings in the past. Then go re-read A Theory of Justice, by Rawls.)

How can you jump from an argument about ethics to an argument about esthetics in the middle of a sentence? Even granting that the Constitution were infallible and immutable, which it isn't, that still has really no bearing on restaurant criticism. There is no Constitution of How to Cook, and no panel of nine grand poo-bahs interpreting it. The Supreme Court justices hold their positions, for life, based on the sufferance of whoever is President when each is appointed. Restaurant critics get their jobs in a variety of ways, some of which have little to do with formal training in cooking. What's the analogy, the James Beard Awards? If anything, the analogy should be drawn to other areas of criticism, like painting, film, photography, etc.

I will happily concede that both Oliver Wendell Holmes and Ruth Reichl expressed their opinions in writing, when they went to work in the morning, and that facility with the English language always helps to convey the esthetic experience, or the train of logic. Beyond that, I don't think an opinion of Roe v. Wade is at all comparable with an opinion of Dover sole. I don't think the analogy is particularly helpful.

But you go ahead. Explain it to me.

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As for Cabrales, I'll take care of her. I need to take her to dinner at Gagnaire and explain it to her  :biggrin:.

Steve P -- Err, you might be beaten to that by another eGulleteer who is assisting in my "rehabilitation". My condition is, I believe, incurable and perfect for me. :laugh:

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Uh. The constitution? Generally good as long as I go for walkies, thanks.


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

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

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

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

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As for Cabrales, I'll take care of her. I need to take her to dinner at Gagnaire and explain it to her  :biggrin:.

Steve P -- Err, you might be beaten to that by another eGulleteer who is assisting in my "rehabilitation". My condition is, I believe, incurable and perfect for me. :laugh:

I think it is impossible to change the bias one has towards food or a particular restaurant, but I think it is important for anyone, be it a professional critic or an amateur, but knowledgeable diner, to honestly take into account one's biases and then try to assess a restaurant on what the chef is trying to achieve. I prefer Gagnaire to Ducasse, because I enjoy the cerebral aspects of Gagnaire's cuisine. Ducasse's emphasis is not the cerebral, but the integrity of the ingredient, perfectly prepared. My expectations at Ducasse and Gagnaire are very different and I think it unfair to use my personal preferences as a basis to downgrade one over the other.

Cabrales, I fear that the only way you will like Gagnaire is if he cooked in the style you enjoyed. But then, you would not be eating Gagnaire's food.

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Cabrales - Well the issue isn't whether it is perfect for you, the issue is whether your palate is complete in it's understanding of haute cuisine. I'm going to have to eat in both Arpege and Gagnaire 3-4 times each in a short period of time and do an in-depth analysis of each place.

Liziee - To me you just said that Gagniare is good and Ducasse is......

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Steve,

To fill in the blank - I say that Ducasse is a perfect 3 * dining experience and anyone would find their expectations met. His goals for the diner, the way I view what Ducasse is "trying to say", is perfectly met. I would not hesitate to suggest Ducasse, but I would also clue someone in about what to expect.

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Now, to the implied question. What I expect from a reviewer is to "clue me in," and "what to expect." The reason I made the trek to El Bulli 2 years ago was from a review in AMEX that described "inventive, creative" cuisine. It was for that one reason I was intrigued and built a trip around getting there. If on getting there, I asked where is the --------- on the menu, then, it's as if I didn't use the review at all. For example, when you read a description of a hotel, you decide if the fit is right for you. I think, given that you are comparing 3* to 3*, there is a different fit for each person.

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Deacon--why get so disproportionately hung up on the analogy? Isn't there a chance you misinterpreted Shaw's attempt to avoid the discussion of the analogy in order to get back to the real discussion?

I think these recent excellent posts by Lizziee go a long way toward explaining the thought process behind what Shaw meant when he drew an analogy to the Constitution and how the Supreme Court justices have to put their personal, subjective feelings and preferences aside in order to evaluate the task at hand fairly and properly by working within the Constitution, and yes, even bending it to their needs.

Lizziee wrote "I think it is important for anyone, be it a professional critic or an amateur, but knowledgeable diner, to honestly take into account one's biases and then try to assess a restaurant on what the chef is trying to achieve. I prefer Gagnaire to Ducasse, because I enjoy the cerebral aspects of Gagnaire's cuisine. Ducasse's emphasis is not the cerebral, but the integrity of the ingredient, perfectly prepared. My expectations at Ducasse and Gagnaire are very different and I think it unfair to use my personal preferences as a basis to downgrade one over the other."

But each experience takes place within the longstanding, codified arena of fine dining which Michelin and Gault-Millau popularized and which the chefs themselves have built upon for hundreds of years, built upon what has come before and which knowledgeable diners and reviewers have to be aware of or they are simply not knowledgeable. It is not subjective and can't be merely explained away as subjective preference without the recognition of this over-riding achievement, this over-riding record. This collective history is the restaurant reviewer's "Constitution" if you will. It may not be a single or concise document but it does exist nonetheless. Ignore it at your peril and risk marginalization.

Shaw urges reviewers and diners to be as "completely unbiased and objective about the job" as possible. So does Lizziee and so do I.

You say "But you introduce a completely separate aspect of the equation when you begin talking about absolutes, as with the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court does not deal with matters of personal taste. Your argument is really about the Constitution being the law of the land, as if there were one standard of good food handed down on stone tablets from On High."

No Deacon--the justices of the supreme court deal with personal taste all the time--and have to put their subjective, emotional, personal feelings and tastes aside each day--they have to ignore whether they are Catholic or catholic or Protestant personally--ignore whether they are subjectively against abortion for instance and assess whatever abortion issue presents itself as a matter of law--as a matter of how it fits within the longstanding legal framework which they themselves have helped to build up with their decisions but the framework and precedents existed long before. So to with restaurant reviewers and writers assessing the achievement of the current crop of chefs and restauranteurs.

Deacon, you go on to say "As I said, we're dealing here with esthetics, not ethics."

Again, no--we’re dealing with both aesthetics and ethics and also with professionalism, awareness, knowledge, fairness and experience--in both the Supreme Court justice and the critic or knowledgeable diner writing up a review of an experience or determing a "best restaurant" list rather than merely a list of subjective favorites.

Granted, “the constitution says whatever the supreme court says it does” but that is until the other branches of government decide to change it and sell the change to the public. This is what I suspect Shaw didn't see as a productive path to go down, not out of condescension but because who really wants to go down that path on a food site? There are parallels to this in food media and if you insist I'll go down that road with you but again, it's off point and you risk getting even further distracted and Bourdain-like.

You go on to state Shaw's "argument seems to be that the rules for effective restaurant criticism are as absolute as the US Constitution." Again, I don't think so--just that Shaw recognizes the criteria for evaluating the best restaurants as opposed to one’s subjectively favorite restaurants has existed for hundreds of years--as have the criteria for defining excellence of a chef's achievement--and that that excellence and achievement is not inherently subjective.

It's much harder to determine "best" for both Supreme Court justice and restaurant critic.

There is an immutable baseline--it’s called the 500 years of culinary history and man’s achievement in fine dining which has reached it's apex in the 3 star Michelin restaurants in Paris and around the world, the US restaurants everyone knows are the best like the French Laundry and the "eight best" in NYC like Ducasse, Daniel, Le Bernardin, et al--of which Blue Hill does not belong, yet. (I've never been there yet I can say definitively it is not one of the 8 best restaurants in NYC yet just. Whether it's top 15, top 30, I can't say until I eat there. How can I do that? Because there are at least 8 restaurants in NYC offering near flawless consummate achievements in technique, presentation, service, quality of ingredients, creativity, ambience night in and night out--delivering what the chef is trying to achieve against this historical standard of achievment--that's how. The small, personal nature, minor flaws and service mis-steps which have been reported mitigate against Blue Hill being included in this group of "best" just yet, regardless of whether one is pre-disposed to subjectively appreciate dining in this style.)

You may have one underwhelming meal at the French Laundry but still have to conclude it is one of the very few, very "best" restaurants in the US. If you didn't, you would be suspect or marginalized, just like a certain justice or two on the Supreme Court.

Yes there are sudden punctuations--the sudden emergence of an Adria or a Gagnaire which upsets the canon--but the really knowledgeable, really trusted sources find a way to deal with these and frame them in the context of what has come before--and this exists outside what one's subjective response is.

Back to the analogy--Don't forget the only way the justices got nominated and approved to the supreme court in the first place is that they’ve proved their grasp of the laws that have been set down--their facility with the baseline, the canon--and so, too, a diner or restaurant critic has to demonstrate their knowledge of the culinary canon, their awareness, open mind and sense of appreciation beyond their own subjective preferences to earn the respect of others as a reliable gauge, a reliable source of something other than just personal feelings and reportage. In short, a proven authority.

You go on with “Even granting that the Constitution were infallible and immutable, which it isn't, that still has really no bearing on restaurant criticism. There is no Constitution of How to Cook, and no panel of nine grand poo-bahs interpreting it.’

and

“Restaurant critics get their jobs in a variety of ways, some of which have little to do with formal training in cooking. What's the analogy, the James Beard Awards? If anything, the analogy should be drawn to other areas of criticism, like painting, film, photography, etc.”

Well, you're right of course, but that doesn't get you very far. All you've demonstrated is why restaurant criticism and acquiring culinary awareness and appreciation is so difficult. I'm afraid forming an opinion of Roe v. Wade is comparable to forming an opinion of a particular Dover sole dish--and for either opinion to be valuable is can't rely solely or even mostly on subjective personal feelings.

Neither culinary nor legal achievement exists in a vacuum or a narrow, subjective frame of reference.


Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Steve,

Excellent, well-thought out post.

Steve says:

"Because there are at least 8 restaurants in NYC offering near flawless consummate achievements in technique, presentation, service, quality of ingredients, creativity, ambience night in and night out--delivering what the chef is trying to achieve against this historical standard of achievment--that's how." The crucial part of this statement is "delivering what the chef is trying to achieve against this historical standard of achievement." Subjectively, I might not "like" the achievement, but as a critic or knowledgeable diner, I have to put personal preference aside and judge a chef on what he wants to "say." My expectations for a critic is to let me know what the chef tried to achieve, how well it was accomplished and how well it was delivered. With this knowledge in hand, I can then decide if this is a restaurant I would enjoy or just as soon avoid. I think that is where subjective evaluation comes into play - the decision to go or not.

Steve says,"Yes there are sudden punctuations--the sudden emergence of an Adria or a Gagnaire which upsets the canon--but the really knowledgeable, really trusted sources find a way to deal with these and frame them in the context of what has come before--and this exists outside what one's subjective response is." I think this is the crux for the serious diner. Steve P. put it more succinctly,"Well the issue isn't whether it is perfect for you, the issue is whether your palate is complete in it's understanding of haute cuisine" or understanding of what Adria and/or Gagnaire want you to experience. Whether my preference is for the cerebral or the purity of the ingredient or the subtle mixing of flavors or the innovative and unexpected is unimportant. My judgement must put aside personal preference and focus on the success of the stated goal.

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Because there are at least 8 restaurants in NYC offering **near flawless consummate** achievements in technique, presentation, service, quality of ingredients, creativity, ambience night in and night out--delivering what the chef is trying to achieve against this historical standard of achievment--that's how.

Steve Klc -- That's high praise for eight restaurants in NY. How would you see those NY restaurants relative to, say, restaurants in France, and what are the eight NY restaurants to which you refer? :hmmm:

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Off the cuff Cab, I suspect if we hashed out the merits of each, NYC would lag behind but I'm not confident enough to predict without engaging others and going through the process first. I will of course decline and deflect politely as Shaw and Bux and Plotnicki and countless others have for the moment re: the particular 8.

And here I was worrying the lawyers and political scientists of the bunch were going to jump down my throat as a liberal arts major with the temerity to even attempt to interpret the jurisprudence of Mssr. Shaw! Thank you Cab for letting me off that hook--on which you most certainly could skewer me--but I think your larger point is a valid thread worth pursuing on its own merits--narrowly defined as a comparison of the most elite expressions, the most total experiences, the very "best" of NYC versus the very best of Paris or all of France. No Adria, no London wannabees, no French Laundry--even though many would certainly include those on any best of the world list. Just New York and Paris (or all of France) and only at the higher end. Several people here have been hinting at and dodging around this since the "NYC 8 best" popped up yesterday.

And let's try to put ourselves in the mindset that Shaw and Lizziee and Plotnicki have advocated--though there is not complete agreement with the feasibility or reward of this approach. I'm game--though we'd have to try to define the parameters in the ways Shaw and Plotnicki have started to in posts from yesterday or we'll be lost before we begin.


Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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A comparison of NY vs. Paris might be unduly restrictive. French Laundry would, as you note be a significant omission. Furthermore, exclusion of non-Parisian areas of France would exclude a great restaurant like Troisgros. US vs. France might be more appropriate. :wink: I don't want to touch that topic, though, although I believe France would unequivocally be preferable :wink:

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Deacon--why get so disproportionately hung up on the analogy? Isn't there a chance you misinterpreted Shaw's attempt to avoid the discussion of the analogy in order to get back to the real discussion?

Oh, absolutely. I took awhile to make my point, but I wasn't arguing as some sort of Constitutional authority. I didn't want to get sidetracked either, I just thought that the analogy could've been tighter.

I appreciate your moderate tone, Steve, and the fact that you addressed my rant point-by-point and at length. (I really think there ought to be a smilie for "sarcasm"--it's very difficult to tell when someone's being sarcastic in print sometimes, without a whole lot of context.)

I was shocked and hurt that Shaw replied in the way he did, actually. I really did offer my comments in all humility--but I was at the same time aware that I was as entitled to venture an opinion as anyone else. I suppose my reaction was outraged because, although I'm relatively new at recreational eating, I expect my opinion (and all opinions here) to be respected rather than summarily dismissed. I've always looked up to S. Shaw, I like his site and his reviews. But I guess perhaps I was looking too hard for a crumb of approval from the sensei. When you look forward, eventually, to maybe a "good job" or "nice post" and what you get instead, after 70 posts, is "I'd tell you why you're wrong, but honestly I don't have time; go 'way, boy, you bother me," well, I suppose I was rather disappointed and disillusioned. It's not quite what I had expected from him.

I suppose I struck a nerve. I didn't make my original comment as a personal attack.

Getting back to the topic for a moment, I really don't think that there are universal standards of food criticism. On "A Cook's Tour" Anthony Bourdain has sampled food that I wouldn't consider appealing, but that certain people do who live in other cultures with other esthetic standards. I'm sure there are aborigines, or primitive tribes in Borneo or Africa, that might consider grubs to be not only acceptable, but the height of their food culture, a complete, lip-smacking delicacy. I just don't believe that the "standards" are unversal.

As far as Michelin is concerned, with reference to French cuisine as being the wellspring, I'm reminded of the scene in "Amadeus" where Mozart gets exasperated and shouts "The Italians, always the Italians!!!" Not that I hate French cooking--if I could afford it, I'd be off to the French countryside like a shot. It's just that I believe that these "objective" standards are more malleable and culturally determined that the absolutists contend. Once upon a time, Trader Vic's was thought to be the extreme edge of the foreign and exotic. Times change. I wouldn't concede even that preparation is always the determining factor--what about Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, where half the battle is getting your hands on outstandingly good ingredients?

"Top Ten" lists are fun to read and argue over. I think there's more consensus at the top of the scale than at the middle, obviously. Once you start getting below ten, the range of opinion broadens quickly. But just among fifteen people, I don't think you'd get any absolute agreement on the top ten restaurants in the country, or even in New York. There'd be overlap, but not lock-step correspondence. Is that because one person's taste is "better" or "worse" than another's? I don't think so; I prefer to use "broader" and "narrower." Shaw has undoubtedly eaten more widely than I have, which is why I respect his opinion. If Shaw says that Sandor's in Florida is worth trying, or that Thai place in Queens that starts with "Pri," that's good enough for me. But I don't eat with his mouth, I eat with mine. It's a starting point, a good lead. I have the responsibility of forming my own sense of taste, and doing anything less would be slavish and be a surrender to the herd mentality.

I admit that I'm a "youngster" at this, and like any youngster, my attention span is limited. So's my bank account, so I can't do nearly as much travelling and recreational eating as I'd like. But I'm still devoted to the cause.

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Deacon, you're making me feel bad about myself. And I really think you misinterpreted my attempt to put the analogy aside and engage you on the subject at hand. I'm no more rude and obnoxious here than I am anywhere else, which is to say if you've been reading my stuff you already know I'm a condescending asshole.

I agree that you won't get absolute lock step agreement. There is room for disagreement within a framework of agreement. The thing is, you need that framework before you can start picking apart its specific components. I mean, if somebody comes up to me on the street and says "French Laundry sucks," I'm going to laugh at that person. I'm going to assume that's a person who just doesn't understand fine dining. But if Steve Klc says to me "French Laundry sucks," I'm going to listen to him very carefully. Because he and I are speaking the same language in general, so we can disagree on the specifics. If you say "French Laundry sucks," well, you're here on eGullet so you're automatically ten levels above the person in the street, so I'll probably want to ask you some more questions about your experience and judgment before I decide which direction the conversation is going.

And in fact French Laundry is a restaurant about which I disagree with the gourmet consensus. I do that occasionally and when I do so I do it very publicly, as I did for about a year with Ducasse's New York place. I'd like to dine at French Laundry about ten times in order to write something really comprehensive about it -- I don't think it's been held up to careful enough scrutiny lately. The consensus is always shifting, but with common assumptions we can strive for it. Restaurant reviews, however, don't usually deal with these consensus issues. They usually hit restaurants early on and try to classify and describe them. They talk about how to get the most out of a given restaurant. They are explanatory as well as judgmental. And in the end, as restaurants mature and become more consistent, you find the critical community falling into a fairly tight cluster of opinions around each key restaurant, with the occasional iconoclast -- who may be right once in awhile -- taking a completely offbeat position


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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. . . as restaurants mature and become more consistent, you find the critical community--

--getting hair plugs, buying a red Camaro, and dropping its old restaurants in favor of younger, prettier restaurants. . . . :laugh:

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This conversation has moved a bit since I last posted, but I wanted to make a few comments before it fades into obscurity. I thought Steve Klc's comments were particularly insightful and racheted this conversation up to another level.

First, I think it's perfectly reasonable to suggest that a general consensus of "the best" restaurants could be produced. Obviously, there will be disagreements here or there, but a group of food-loving people could probably produce such a list that everyone was relatively happy with. Such a process inherently accomodates quirky individual preferences, such as Cabrales' dislike for chocolate, basically by ignoring them in terms of devising an overall mutually agreeable list.

Further, there are, without a doubt, certain standards and approaches that have been developed for fine dining over a long period of time. These do not cease to be relevant just because someone prefers hamburgers to foie gras. I'm perfectly willing to accept that Fat Guy can tell the difference between good mackrel and bad mackrel, or even that a neophyte such as I can see some interesting and valuable cooking being done at a restaurant that I don't particularly care for.

Beyond this, however, some of the lines that people have been drawing between "subjective" and "objective" become fuzzier. Over time, we build on our base of experience, or decide that some of it wasn't that useful in the first place, and make modifications to our approach. For example, how relevant should the Michelin three-star standard be to evaluating fine dining in America? Certainly you see influences, but given that some (much?) of the Michelin evaluation is based on an approach to service as well as to food, and that even the best American restaurants take a considerably different approach to service. (Fat Guy has argued, I believe, that Gramercy Tavern may be the best restaurant in New York; yet I do not believe that there is any chance it could garner a three-star rating from Michelin, based on service elements alone.) To this point, I think that it is telling that the New York restaurants that Steve Klc points at as being part of the "eight best" are some of the most obviously French in the City.

More importantly, considered from the perspective of an individual assessment, subjective reactions ought to the taste of food ought to play an integral role in evaluating a particular restaurant. This does not imply that a review should not take a variety of other factors into account, such as technique, quality of ingredients, service, and so on, but it does mean that at the end of the day one of the primary reasons that we go to good restaurants (as opposed to spectales like the Russian Tea Room) is to eat good food. And by good, I mean good-tasting. Clever technique is not developed in a vaccuum, and without any particular insight into the psyche of chefs, that the goal of this fancy cooking is to produce appealing cuisine. Similarly, the best mackrel in the world probably doesn't do a whole lot for anyone if served in a nice motor oil glaze. Going too far in trying to separate out reactions to flavor is to miss much of the point of all of this eating in the first place.

Taking this a step further, reviews that do not engage in this sort of reaction to flavor are not as useful as those that do. Fat Guy, you stated that your Tasting Room review was a very good one, while Le Bernadin's was merely average. It is not a huge leap of logic to suggest that one of the reasons the Tasting Room write-up is better than the one on Le Bernadin is that the former engages in a more extensive evaluation of, and reaction to, the taste of the food. As Steve P. pointed out early on in this thread, if a reviewer has particular likes or dislikes, it's important that these aspects of his or her personality comes through in the review, but with such information in hand, the review becomes much more useful if it does contain some of the subjective reactions of the reviewer. Why? Because many of us reading the review will have similar reactions for similar reasons, which is what helps us decide if we're going to like a place.

To return to Fat Guy's Supreme Court analogy, technique is like legal maneuvering, quality service may be great oration, but at the end of the day, if you don't have a substantive argument (in this case great tasting food), the Court's still going to vote you down 9-0.

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Neither culinary nor legal achievement exists in a vacuum or a narrow, subjective frame of reference.

Isn't this the way through the interminable arguments about French vs Chinese, objective vs subjective and the like?

The realities we are seeking in restaurant reviews (I was going to say "and Supreme Court debates, but let that pass) are socially constructed. They are neither objective ["belonging not to the consciousness or to the perceiving or thinking subject but to what is presented to this or to the non-ego, external to the mind, real"] nor subjective ["giving prominence to or depending on personal idiosyncrasy or individual point of view"].

There are old and well established traditions of French cuisine, based not on the periodic table of the elements but on thousands of dinners, held over many decades, and many discussions of those dinners. Those traditions give us criteria against which I can evaluate the work of Keller or Vrinat or Senderens. And those traditions change over time; the great dishes we seek today are not those Catherine de Medici enjoyed, nor what Escoffier prepared. But they change slowly enough that we can notice and evaluate the changes, and judge whether an innovator like Passard has made a significant contribution. We can have a reasoned debate, or at least we can try. I can tell you my criteria for a judgement and you can decide whether you accept them.

I assume that a restaurant reviewer is working in this tradition, unless she or he announces otherwise. Didn't this happen some years ago, when Gault and Millau decided that "nouvelle was best"? But at least we knew what they were looking for. Within the broad tradition, a reviewer should follow generally accepted critieria. Someone who hates the taste of crème fraîche should not denounce a restaurant that uses it in the right place, in the right way. Or if the critic does so, she/he ought to explain that this is a result of a personal idiosyncrasy.

Of course the rhetoric of restaurant reviews breaks this rule from time to time, and most reviewers lapse into descriptions of their personal experiences, often as a way of making a point: "delicious", "yummy", "disgusting", "horrid", etc. In the reviews I find most helpful, though, these statements are in the minority. We wouldn't get much out of a review that went something like this: "First we had a lobster consommé. Mmmm! Then we had pigeon breasts in red wine sauce. Yummy! But then they served pig's trotters à l'alsacienne. Yuck!".

My philosophy is too rusty to get the right term for this. I think it is "intersubjectivity" and that the relevant philosophers are people like Husserl and perhaps Gadamer, but I may be wrong here.

This is why attempts to rank radically different cuisines (French, Italian, German, Chinese, etc.) are nonsensical. There is no meta-tradition in which you can evaluate the differring cuisines. Each needs to be taken on its own merits, on its own criteria. (Unless, of course, you believe that All Roads Lead Through France, but let's let that one pass too).

Definitions above are from the Concise Oxford.


Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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Also well said, though I think there is enough commonality and shared history and experience to establish a collective set of criteria for understanding world cuisines. Certainly the comparison across Europe is no trouble at all, and the New World falls into that grouping as well for culinary-evaluation purposes. But I think most gastronomes immediately -- call it instinctively -- grasp that there's something going on with Japanese, Indian, Chinese, and other non-Western cuisines. There has been heavy interaction since the time of Marco Polo. Ingredients are shared; we could make a list of hundreds. The currently recognizable cuisines in all the major culinary nations developed mostly after the dawn of the age of exploration -- and heavily in the past couple of centuries -- so they do not need to be viewed in isolation. Some specific Asian and Indian dishes go back a bit farther, but it doesn't make them out of bounds for analysis because they became part of the amalgam when exploration took hold.

As for objectivity and subjectivity and intersubjectivity and a priori and all that, I do think there are physiological components to taste and I give more credit to "nature" than most philosophers when it comes to discussing the goodness of food. Maybe that's because I know more about food than almost every philosopher, or maybe that's because almost every philosopher knows more than I do about philosophy. Either way, I'm not sure it matters in the end, because whether it's a fundamental truth of the universe or an agreed-upon construct or a little bit of each you still have to live your life as though it's real. Unless you disagree with it, of course.


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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Also well said, though I think there is enough commonality and shared history and experience to establish a collective set of criteria for understanding world cuisines. Certainly the comparison across Europe is no trouble at all, and the New World falls into that grouping as well for culinary-evaluation purposes. But I think most gastronomes immediately -- call it instinctively -- grasp that there's something going on with Japanese, Indian, Chinese, and other non-Western cuisines. There has been heavy interaction since the time of Marco Polo. Ingredients are shared; we could make a list of hundreds. The currently recognizable cuisines in all the major culinary nations developed mostly after the dawn of the age of exploration -- and heavily in the past couple of centuries -- so they do not need to be viewed in isolation. Some specific Asian and Indian dishes go back a bit farther, but it doesn't make them out of bounds for analysis because they became part of the amalgam when exploration took hold.

Can't disagree with any of this. At some level the focus on differences becomes silly -- is the cookery of the eastern arrière-pays so different to that of haute Provence that we have to treat them as completely separate? How about Mentonnais vs Ligurian?

Having said this, I think that the differences are worth focusing on and celebrating. I find the conversation about the best of specific regions and (micro)traditions richer and more interesting than generalised comparisons about one culinary tradition vs another.

whether it's a fundamental truth of the universe or an agreed-upon construct or a little bit of each you still have to live your life as though it's real.

For simple verification of this statement, tell any deconstructionist you meet that his fly is open. He will probably look.


Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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