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Frank Bruni and the Fine Dining Deathwatch

Frank Bruni, the New York Times restaurant critic, has launched an all-out assault on fine dining. Bruni’s influence is difficult to measure. But there is no doubt that the city’s most influential critic has his knives sharpened against restaurants that offer classic, traditional luxury. Anyone planning such a restaurant must assume that the likelihood of recognition from the Times is close to nil.

By “fine dining,” I mean the traditional trappings of excellent restaurants: white tablecloths, a first-rate wine program, fine china and stemware, elegant service, and of course a serious chef with a top-notch kitchen brigade. In so defining it, I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with restaurants that serve great food without some or all of these trappings. Indeed, like most people, the vast majority of my meals are not consumed at luxury restaurants.

But there is a place in our city for traditional fine dining — the kinds of restaurants normally associated with three or four New York Times stars. During Frank Bruni’s tenure, proper recognition for these types of restaurants has all but disappeared.

In roughly 32 months on the job, Frank Bruni has issued 17 three-star reviews. Taken on its own, this is a reasonable pace. When you look at the characteristics of those restaurants, the results are sobering.

One restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, isn’t even in New York City. As far as I know, it’s the only NYT starred restaurant that is not in the five boroughs. It is an anomaly.

Another seven restaurants were previously reviewed by other critics, including:

Nobu 57 is a strange case, as it was technically a new restaurant, but it is a virtual clone of the original Nobu, which was already a three-star restaurant. Bruni could hardly have rated Nobu 57 anything other than three stars, unless he was going to re-rate the flagship restaurant, to which it is largely identical.

Hence, of the sixteen NYC restaurants that have received three-star reviews from Bruni, eight of them were either pure re-reviews, or in the case of Nobu 57, the clone of one. That leaves just eight truly new NYC restaurants that have received three stars from Frank Bruni.

Of the remaining eight restaurants, five of them are notable for their comparative informality: A Voce, Bar Room at the Modern, BLT Fish, Perry St., and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon.

That leaves just three traditional “fine dining” restaurants that have earned three stars on Frank Bruni’s watch: Country, Cru, and Del Posto. Two out of the three are Italian or Italian-influenced (Cru and Del Posto). This leaves Country as the only new fine dining non-Italian restaurant that has won three stars from Bruni over a 32-month period.

Against this is a much longer list of fine dining restaurants that clearly were designed for and expected three stars, but received less: Alto, Cafe Gray, GiltLe Cirque, The Modern, and most recently, Gordon Ramsay. The message is clear: If you are opening a non-Italian fine dining restaurant in New York, the odds of a three-star review from Frank Bruni are slim. If the restaurant is French or French-influenced, the odds go down to near zero.

The odds against earning four stars are even worse. Frank Bruni has awarded four stars to no restaurants that opened during his tenure. He did review one four-star restaurant that was not a re-review: Per Se, which opened before Bruni started, but which no other Times critic had yet reviewed. With Per Se’s clone, The French Laundry, regularly appearing on lists of the world’s greatest restaurants, the decision was practically made for him. To have awarded anything less than four stars to Per Se would have taken Bruni’s credibility to the breaking point.

Even at Per Se, Bruni’s award of four stars seemed almost regretful. What finally persuaded him? Of all things, the vegetable tasting—surely Per Se’s least often ordered menu option. He also complained of ostentation, and a menu “too intent on culinary adventure or too highfalutin in its presentation and descriptions of dishes.” Where, if not here, would culinary adventure be expected? Where, if not here, would “highfalutin” presntation be acceptable, if not indeed demanded?

Bruni’s reviews of fine dining restaurants are full of comments suggesting he is hostile to the genre. The food at Cafe Gray is “fussy”; at The Modern, “over-thought and overwrought”; at Alto, “something too restrained”; at Gilt, the chef “sometimes doesn’t know when to pull back, pipe down and let superior food speak for itself”; at Gordon Ramsay, “low-key loveliness…in place of big excitement.”

His brutal demotions of Alain Ducasse and Bouley are especially telling. Ducasse was done in by an out-of-order toilet and a slightly snooty sommelier. The Bouley review dragged in a bunch of unrelated gossip about David Bouley’s other activities, and wondered whether his heart was still in it—that, notwithstanding a comment about “serious talent in the kitchen.”

The after-effects of Bruni’s smackdowns have ranged from devastating to irrelevant. At Ducasse and Gilt, chefs were fired, and Ducasse closed altogether. The Modern and Bouley still seem to be doing just fine. But to the extent Frank Bruni’s reviews have any influence, anyone who dares open a serious non-Italian fine dining restaurant is taking an almost unacceptable risk. The city’s principal restaurant critic will probably not acknowledge excellence even if he trips over it.

Reader Comments (5)

you make it sound like it's a bad thing. you've made a pretty convincing argument in terms of what bruni has been doing, but so what? you gotta convince us it's bad. frankly i think he should spend more time in queens and brooklyn, and shun more linen-lined tables.

February 12, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterthe pauper

Good argument, but I agree with the Pauper. Who cares? I'd rather 3 Stars actually mean something. And since when does white table cloths automatically equal "fine dining". I find that to be a very old-school mentality. I certainly wouldn't prefer a white tablecloth over the beautiful green leather tables at A Voce.

February 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBig Apple Dining Guide

Bruni has reviewed more Brooklyn and Queens restaurants than his predecessors. It's still not a lot of them, but his bias is comparable to most of the other major critics. The reality is that the Times' demographic is heavily Manhattan centric, and Bruni's choice of restaurants reflects this.

I am not suggesting that the traditional trappings of luxury automatically equal fine dining. I am merely pointing out that Bruni is unusually hostile to this class of restaurants.

February 12, 2007 | Registered CommenterMarc Shepherd

I have to agree with the first two commenters. If I told you that the newspaper's new music critic was praising almost exclusively new bands like TV on the Radio and the Hold Steady at the expense of traditional acts like Norah Jones or Bob Dylan -- that would demonstrate bias and even might be vaguely objectionable. But really, in the end, don't we want music critics to embrace the new and even be a little hostile to the old? I mean, this is a good thing, right? Maybe taken too far, but generally a good thing?

February 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMartin

I think Marc's point is that for someone with so much power over people's livelihood (my friend is a waiter at Varietal, which Bruni just gave one star, and people are being fired as we speak), he uses it a bit cavalierly. He is the stereotypical impossible-to-please critic, one who seems to drag his feet and complain when he's got one of the most sought-after jobs in the world. I especially enjoyed the comments about Per Se. Only Bruni could find something wrong with a four star place.

March 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterCole Matthews

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