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Rolling the Dice: Momofuku Ko

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni delivers his most anticipated verdict in quite a long while. The beneficiary, or victim, is Momofuku Ko. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 15-1
One Star: 6-1
Two Stars: 3-1
Three Stars: EVEN √√
Four Stars: 12-1

A Bit of Trivia: On August 3, 1990, Bryan Miller of the Times upgraded Bouley to four stars. The next new member of that exclusive club was not named until December 10, 1993, when Ruth Reichl upgraded Chanterelle. That 175-week drought is the longest in the 45-year history of the New York Times star system.

Do you know how long it has been since Frank Bruni named a new four-star restaurant? Remarkably enough, the last new entrant to the club was Masa, reviewed on December 29, 2004 — exactly 175 weeks ago.

Tomorrow, regardless of what he does, Bruni will match a record of futility not seen since the 1990s; and he will set a new record if he awards anything less than four stars to Momofuku Ko.

We do not suggest that Bruni is aware of the record that he is about to reach. But he must be aware that he is grading on a four-star scale, and it has been three years and four months since a new restaurant earned the top grade. He must, in a sense, be itching to pull the trigger, while also being aware that four stars mustn’t be doled out lightly.

It’s an open question whether Bruni has called his past shots correctly. We think he under-rated several promising candidates, though we cannot say for sure that any of them deserved four stars. The atrophied state of high-end dining is in any case newsworthy—and something he must be thinking about—regardless of whether it’s Bruni’s own fault, the market’s fault, or some combination of the two.

The Skinny: Frank Bruni’s rating of Momofuku Ko will depend on his interpretation of this little blurb, which appears at the bottom of every New York Times review:

Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. (emphasis supplied)

Bruni has frequently awarded two stars, and occasionally even three stars, to objectively middle-brow restaurants that he regarded as “good values for the price.” But to the best of our knowledge, no Times critic, including Bruni, has ever taken price into consideration at the four-star level. A top-rated restaurant has to be extraordinary in the absolute sense, not merely “good for the price.”

We think Bruni has dined at enough four-star restaurants to recognize that Ko is not one of them. It is a remarkable restaurant in many ways, and we have come (quite reluctantly) to the view that David Chang deserves most of the laurels that have been tossed his way. But let’s get real. Ignoring price, the experience at Momofuku Ko is a quantum leap below every four-star restaurant in town. Indeed, it’s probably a mid-tier three-star place.

Yes, it is very good for $85 prix fixe. But at that level, Ko is squarely in the price range of many three-star restaurants. For instance, the prix fixe at Eleven Madison Park is $82; Granted, it’s not a long tasting menu (which would be $145), but rather three courses with some amuses-bouches and petits-fours thrown in. But those three courses have considerably more culinary craftsmanship than most of the menu at Momofuku Ko, and they’re served in a room 10 times as lovely, by a staff 10 times as polished.

To be sure, a four-star rating for Momofuku Ko would give Bruni the chance to put the heel of his boot on the Times star system in a way that none of his previous ratings have done. It’s an opportunity that must have occurred to him. But we think he cares enough about his craft to recognize a real four-star restaurant from a mere imitator.

The Bet: We agree with Eater that Frank Bruni will award three stars to Momofuku Ko.

Update: Just anticipating some potential comments here: The 175-week drought is the gap between new entrants to the four-star level. Bruni has had other four-star reviews, but they were re-affirmations of ratings given by his predecessors.

Reader Comments (1)

Good read. Keep them coming.

May 6, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterhungry

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