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The Year in Bruni

Another year of Frank Bruni’s Times restaurant reviews has come and gone. It could be his last, as he’s rumored to be stepping down next year to write his memoirs. As of June 2009, he’ll reach his 5-year anniversary, a point when a critic might want to move on.

For the second consecutive year, no restaurants earned 4 stars. Corton was the year’s best new restaurant, but I suspect even Drew Nieporent (owner) and Paul Liebrandt (chef) would tell you they were not aiming for 4 stars. Bruni gave it 3 stars, which was the correct rating. Momofuku Ko was the only other conceivable candidate, but Bruni made a compelling argument for awarding three.

In case you’re wondering, it has now been 209 weeks since Bruni elevated a restaurant to 4 stars (Masa on December 29, 2004). That’s by far the longest such gap in New York Times history. There have been a couple of 4-star re-reviews since then, but no new members of the club.

Daniel is the only remaining 4-star restaurant that Bruni has not reviewed, and it’s fairly apparent he does not love the place. I suspect he is itching to find another 4-star restaurant, after which Daniel will be promptly demoted. I don’t know of any new restaurants coming along that are 4-star candidates, so Bruni will need to promote somebody.

At the 3-star level, there were happy pills in the water at Times HQ. Bruni doled out eleven 3-star reviews in 2008. He has given just 33 of them in 4½ years, so it is remarkable that a third of them came in 2009. Bruni’s smackdowns are the stuff of legend, but he did not demote any 3-star places this year, and there was not a single new restaurant that was clearly aiming for a 3-star review that failed to get it.

To some extent, we are seeing the effects of Bruni’s grade inflation. At least three of Bruni’s 3-star awards seemed awfully dubious to me (Dovetail, Matsugen, and Momofuku Ssäm Bar), and I have my doubts about one other (Scarpetta). But even if you subtract a star from those reviews, it was still a very good year for new restaurants.

Bruni continued his pattern of awarding two stars to very marginal candidates, such as Double Crown, Bar Q, Bar Blanc, Bar Milano, Mia Dona, Market Table, Perbacco and Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill. This, in turn, put pressure on him to elevate borderline places to 3 stars. It should be obvious that if Momofuku Ko is a 3-star restaurant, the less ambitious Ssäm Bar is no better than two. Yet, when he awards 2 stars to Double Crown the preceding week, all Ssäm Bar’s 3-star review means is “better than Double Crown.” That is not a tough bar to clear.

Bruni’s obvious bias in favor of Italian restaurants continued. About 20% of his reviews were Italian (broadly construed), and he gave those restaurants 2 or 3 stars 60 percent of the time. Even his 1-star Italian reviews were generally enthusiastic, which is not always the case with Bruni.

In other genres, there were missed opportunities. Allegretti and Eighty One, to which he gave 2 stars each, were better than several of his 3-star places. Eighty One was probably the most unjustly treated, given the 3-stars awarded to the inferior Dovetail nearby. Persimmon and Elettaria deserved better than the 1 star Bruni gave them.

For the first time that I can recall, Bruni visited a French restaurant by choice. He awarded 1 star to La Sirène, which was a perfectly reasonable rating. Had it been Italian, it would have received two.

Every year, Bruni picks a couple of places no one writes about any more, just to point out that they’re not as good as they were. This year’s victims were Mesa Grill (1 star) and Michael’s (no stars). Among new restaurants, Ago and Secession received his most entertaining and richly deserved takedowns, both receiving no stars.

A number of Frank’s reviews were about a ‘scene’, conveying practically no important culinary content. Among these were Kurve, Delicatessen, Chop Suey, Elizabeth, and Second Avenue Deli. It seems almost a travesty when Elizabeth is allotted the same number of column-inches as Corton. If it was worth writing about at all, couldn’t it have shared the review with some other place?

Bruni doled out several well deserved promotions, including WD~50 (2 to 3), Le Cirque (2 to 3) and Mas (1 to 2). But the largest errors of his tenure—The Modern, Gilt, and Gordon Ramsay—remain uncorrected, with all three restaurants still undeservedly mired in Bruni’s two-star scrum.

Despite some mistakes, Bruni did not commit as many howlers in 2008 as he did in past years. For the most part, where there was excellence he found it. Where restaurants let us down, he called them on it.

As Bruni notes in his year-end retrospective, most of the important restaurants that opened in 2008 were planned in much happier times. That means that we won’t be seeing anywhere near as many ambitious restaurants in 2009. Bruni will be spending his time in more casual places, which is probably the way he likes it.

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