Tomorrow, Sam Sifton reviews La Grenouille, the last survivor of the French grandes dames that once defined fine dining in New York City. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows: One Star: 4,000–1; Sift Happens: 4–1; Three Stars: 3–1; Four Stars: 40–1.
As the website notes, La Grenouille opened on a snowy evening, December 19, 1962. That’s 47 years and 4 days ago, as of tomorrow. Sam Sifton wasn’t even born yet. I was two years old.
As you might imagine, a restaurant this old has had plenty of New York Times reviews, ranging from four stars (Mimi Sheraton) to one (Bryan Miller, but later elevated back to three). Its most recent review was from Ruth Reichl, who awarded three stars in 1997. Reichl was much looser with the stars than most recent critics have been, and even she found the place bedeviled with inconsistency:
La Grenouille is the most frustrating restaurant in New York.
This is not because the food is bad or the service unpleasant. Just the opposite, in fact: in its 35th year, the restaurant is displaying such flashes of brilliance that each failure is a deep disappointment. It could so easily be a four-star establishment.
It is inconsistent still, as we found it in 2007. We thought the food alone was worth just two stars, but awarded 2½ stars in total for the atmosphere, which remains beyond compare. For a restaurant that hasn’t changed its menu in decades, all it can offer is to prepare the classics exquisitely, which it has done on occasion, but not reliably.
Frank Bruni admitted (in his Eater “exit interview”) that he had intended re-review the place, but backed off:
I wanted to rereview La Grenouille. And I went and I had a couple of really, really good meals. I put it on the schedule. I thought I would be lovingly refreshing three stars with the explanation that these three stars have a lot to do with the joy of still encountering this idiom of dining. And then, at my last few meals, they just went off a cliff. And it was clear to me—and the reason I’m comfortable talking about this—and if you use this, please include this explanation—is I’m talking about something that happened four years ago. I’m not saying that this is what La Grenouille is like now. It could be totally different now. But my last couple of meals were so disappointing that there was no way I could put my name on anything more than two stars. And you know what? At this point in time, I don’t want to be the one who kills the last of its kind—you know? Then you ask yourself, “Am I cheating readers?” But you know what? Readers weren’t curious about La Grenouille. I can’t remember what we replaced [that review] with, but I remember thinking, “This is something I want to revisit another one or two times,” because I was so determined not to be the one who killed La Grenouille.
That Sifton is now re-reviewing a restaurant that, let’s face it, no one in the food media pays much attention to any more, suggests one of two things: 1) He doesn’t mind being “the one who killed La Grenouille”; or, 2) He loves it, and wants to give a shout-out to the last surviving full-on traditional classic French restaurant.
As we noted in our review, the demise of this kind of dining has long been forecast. Even in 1991, Bryan Miller noted that, “If you listen to some restaurant-industry pundits, La Grenouille is just the type of expensive, opulent institution that is slated for extinction as ineluctably as the dinosaurs.” When a restaurant has been around for five decades, you don’t complain that it’s too expensive for the recession, or that young people don’t dine that way any more. It has already survived multiple recessions and multiple generations of young diners who eventually grew up.
So in our mind, it simply comes down to whether La Grenouille is doing justice by the French classics that define its existence. Pace Eater.com, it has nothing to do with whether “the pricepoint just doesn’t make sense to [Sifton] in this climate.” We think—mind, we say we think—Sifton has a sense of the history he is walking into here. He has the chance to demonstrate that he is not as culinarily clueless as his predecessor was.
With all of that in mind, we acknowledge that this review sits on a knife’s edge. We think that Sifton will award three stars to La Grenouille.