In the last couple of weeks, Frank Bruni, Adam Platt, and Moira Hodgson have all filed their “Best of 2007” restaurant lists. The three didn’t quite follow the same rules, but still it is useful to compare what they came up with:
|1. Momofuku Ssäm Bar
3. (tie) Anthos
5. Park Avenue _____
7. 15 East
8. Allen & Delancey
10. Mai House.
Park Avenue _____
Allen & Delancey
|Park Avenue _____
Allen & Delancey
The Monday Room
The Waverly Inn
A couple of Bruni’s choices actually opened the prior year. We’ll allow an exception for 15 East (which is on all three lists), as it didn’t open until December 2006, clearly too late for consideration last year. But Momofuku Ssäm Bar was a 2006 restaurant by any definition, even if its current menu bears no resemblance to the original one. Eater summarized the situation perfectly:
Bruni’s bigger, less explicitly stated, point is that 2007 was dull. Ssäm Bar is 2007-eligible on a technicality: the menu overhaul heard ’round the world happened days into 2007, a full three months after the restaurant opened… With all due respect to sweet goodness that is Ssäm Bar, if better restaurants had opened in 2007, and a Best crutch was not needed, it would have been relegated to the ranks of 2006.
Dull indeed. Bruni rates on a four-star system, but no restaurant on his top-10 list was rated higher than two stars. Bruni issued no four-star ratings last year, and his only three-star ratings were re-reviews of older restaurants. Platt was even worse: he issued three stars to nobody, and indeed, I cannot recall his last three-star review. That’s despite the fact that Platt rates on a five-star scale.
Though I often disagree with Bruni’s ratings, I do agree with the core conclusion: 2007 wasn’t a great year. Anthos was the only truly new-in-’07 restaurant that won three stars on this blog. Insieme and Soto barely missed, and I don’t think there were any other reasonable candidates.
Bruni and Platt both suffer from the same disease: they are hostile to luxury restaurants. That explains why neither of them awarded three stars to the new restaurant I would rate as the year’s best, Anthos. Ironically, though they much prefer casual restaurants, neither critic has loosened the criteria for three stars. Thus, you have the paradox that they don’t award three stars to the places they truly like, but they seldom award three stars to the restaurants that truly deserve them.
A case can be made for Gordon Ramsay, which like 15 East opened too late in 2006 to be counted in last year’s roundup. I had a considerably more favorable impression of it than the mainstream critics. The fact that Ramsay had to fire the chef de cuisine is clearly not a factor in its favor, but if you count it as an ’07 restaurant, then it was the best new place that opened.
I would also award an honorable mention to Rosanjin, which also opened in late 2006, but did not start serving its exquisite sit-down Kaiseki until December. Frank Bruni awarded it two stars, but perhaps he felt that Soto and 15 East (also two stars, according to him) had used up his quota of Japanese restaurants. I can’t comment on 15 East, but I would rate Rosanjin higher than Soto, by a nose.
The only restaurant listed that’s in serious disagreement with my own experience is Park Avenue ______, to which I awarded no stars. But as all three critics included it, I have to assume we caught it on an off-night. It’s now on my “return-to” list. I haven’t yet made it to 15 East or Resto, but I am now eager to try both. (Resto remains awfully tough to get into, which is the main reason I haven’t gone yet.)
Bruni’s other unusual choice is Mai House, which no other critic included. But based on my four visits, I agree with Bruni that it deserves a spot in the top 10.
Platt had three choices listed by no other critic: BLT Market, Hill Country, and Market Table. I can’t comment on the latter, but BLT Market and Hill Country were two of my favorites in 2007. Bruni relegated BLT Market to the “Dining Briefs” treatment, once again showing that he often under-appreciates the best places. And as Hill Country was covered in the “$25 and Under” beat, Bruni never reviewed it.
Hodgson had some of the oddest choices, listing restaurants that no other critic was especially excited about, like Tailor, Cafe Cluny, and Morandi. Hodgson didn’t limit herself to ten choices, and she said they were in “no particular order.” She also included restaurants with new chefs, even if they weren’t new in ’07. (Bruni and Platt considered “transformed” restaurants, but not in their “top-10” lists.)
In his year-end retrospective, Bruni once again sounded the themes that have defined his tenure: as he sees it, the younger diners—“food adventurers,” he calls them—have rejected the traditional trappings of luxury dining:
The restrained size (along with the tight focus) of so many of these ventures speaks in part to the desire of young chefs to call their own shots and do their own thing, even if it means downsizing the settings in which they work.
It speaks to economic factors as well: high rents, exorbitant start-up costs, a local economy with less swagger than in the past.
But I suspect it also taps into wider cultural dynamics, into the anxieties of a country, overextended abroad and self-doubting at home, that has lost some of its appetite for grand plans and grand gestures, that would prefer to play things safe.
Bruni, as always, misjudges the market for high-end dining. Just try getting a last-minute prime-time table at Alto, Aureole, Babbo, Country, Cru, Daniel, Del Posto, Eleven Madison Park, Felidia, the Four Seasons, Gramercy Tavern, Gordon Ramsay, Gotham Bar & Grill, Jean Georges, La Grenouille, Le Bernardin, the Modern, Per Se, Union Square Cafe or Veritas—to name a few. These places are generally full, which suggests that the market for the luxury experience is not truly on the wane.
Now, you’re probably not going to find young foodies dominating these restaurants’ clientele, but these are expensive places. They don’t cater to young people on tight budgets, except perhaps as an occasional splurge. These diners naturally will gravitate to places like Allen & Delancey or Resto, where you won’t find three-star food, but where you can eat well without breaking the bank. A restaurant that’s relatively good is not “best” in the absolute sense.
Bruni needs to distinguish between reporting on trends and influencing them. Anyone considering a new luxury restaurant will be aware that it’s tough to get a fair shake from him, unless the cuisine is Italian. Gordon Ramsay made it over the hump, but others might not be so fortunate. So far, 2008 once again shapes up as a year of humbler ambitions, pending the arrival—or not—of Paul Liebrandt’s mysterious four-star wannabe.