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.
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, Gilt, Le 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.