Frank Bruni’s tenure as a restaurant critic has come to an end. On Monday, we posted the Best of Bruni. Now, we turn to his failures.
My opinion of Bruni isn’t any great secret. He’s an entertaining writer and a top-notch journalist, but he had no background in food, and it showed. The Times would never put a novice in its music department or its science department. Why, then, did they put a novice in the restaurant department?
Despite his inexperience, Bruni eventually got the hang of it. Any intelligent person with a six-figure dining budget would make at least some of the right calls, and would improve with time. But his aversion to fine dining and his narrow preference for a few limited cuisines severely hampered his effectiveness.
As I did with the Best of Bruni, I’ve made a list of 10 items, but with so much to choose from, a few of the items are thematic rather than individual reviews. Here, then, is the worst of Bruni:
10. Critic’s Notebook. The “Critic’s Notebook” is a quarterly feature that gives the critic more breathing room, to discuss trends and other topics that wouldn’t fit conviently in a weekly review. Bruni, however, seemed bored with restaurant criticism, and he often squandered the opportunity to make these pieces relevant. Examples:
A. “My Week as a Waiter” (1/25/2006), in which Bruni shows that he is just as bad at waiting tables as he is at reviewing restaurants.
It’s 7:45 p.m., the East Coast Grill is going full tilt and I’m ready to throttle one of the six diners at Table M-8.
He wants me to describe the monkfish special. For the fourth time. I hoarsely oblige, but when I return yet again to my riff on the apricot lager mustard, which comes right before my oratorical ode to the maple pecan mashed sweet potatoes, his attention flags and he starts to talk to a friend.
Does he mistake me for a recorded message, paused and played with the push of a button? Doesn’t he know I have other tables to serve?
I need to go over and massage the mood at R-5, where one of the two diners has a suspiciously shallow pool of broth in her bouillabaisse, perhaps because I spilled some of it near M-2.
And I need to redeem myself with the two diners at X-9, who quizzed me about what the restaurant had on tap and received a blank stare in response. I’m supposed to remember the beers? Along with everything about the monkfish, these oddly coded table references, more than 10 wines by the glass and the provenance of the house oysters?
B. “Life in the Fast-Food Lane” (5/24/2006), in which the fine-dining critic drove around the country eating junk food. The mental image of Frank’s smelly car was definitely too much information.
A few weeks ago I embarked on a gluttonous odyssey, with a changing cast of co-conspirators, across this fast-food nation, from New York to California, sea to greasy sea. It was a roving binge as warped road movie: “Transfatamerica.” Or maybe, given our cholesterol-oblivious plunge over a nutritional cliff: “Thelma and Disease.”
But my goal wasn’t to supersize myself. It was to size up and single out the best fast food from familiar national chains, relatively unfamiliar regional chains and tiny local chains I had never encountered. To take the culinary road less traveled, at least by me.
I’m a pampered diner, my diet richer in squab and poorer in chili dogs than most Americans’. As a restaurant critic, I usually eat three-hour meals at beautifully set tables. On this journey, I ate three-minute meals in the driver’s or passenger’s seat, the dashboard doubling as a buffet, an automotive altar across which Quarter Pounders and bean and cheese burritos, as worthy of assessment as veal sweetbreads and duck liver pâté, were arrayed.
Until I hit an In-N-Out Burger in Torrance, Calif., on the eighth day of my trek, all of my fast food was consumed, as fast food often is, in the car, which smelled worse and worse as the trip went on and on. Like an obtuse houseguest or a Supreme Court justice, the scent of a White Castle slider lingers.
C. “Forget the Specials, Explain the Restroom” (5/4/2005), in which Bruni took a tour of the city’s least friendly restaurant bathrooms. Bruni was obsessed with bathrooms. He never missed the opportunity to mention them, and if he didn’t like a bathroom, the restaurant was done-for:
Of the many sad things I have witnessed in this city’s restaurants, few had the particular pathos of a recent scene at the Modern, where an elderly man who had heard nature’s call could not figure out how — or, more precisely, where — to heed it.
He had entered what he correctly surmised to be the restroom, only to find women mingling with men between a row of shared sinks and a series of mysterious doors, the hieroglyphics on which left him utterly clueless about whose commodes were whose.
“It’s unisex,” said a younger woman with him, referring to the general situation.
He glanced around, frozen in place.
“Unisex!” she said, raising her voice.
More glancing. Still frozen.
She sighed. “He’s 85,” she said. “He doesn’t understand.”
I’m less than half his age, and I was confused and frustrated myself - by the restroom at the Modern on this night, by the restrooms at BLT Fish, Per Se and plenty of other places on plenty of other nights.
I indeed understood, as he and his companion apparently didn’t, that doors with arrows on them were for men while doors with crosses were for women and the door with both signs was up for grabs: a lavatory jump ball.
But I couldn’t figure out how to trigger the electronic-eye sensors above the commodes, motion-detecting flushing mechanisms with enough of a delay that you were sometimes asked simply to trust in a cleansing aftermath to your departure. I’ve encountered religions with less daunting leaps of faith.
I couldn’t figure out how to tell whether commodes were occupied. Neither, apparently, could anyone else, because whenever I was using one, someone in the communal area would rattle the door, not to mention my composure.
And I couldn’t figure out why, in restaurant after restaurant, the attempt to relieve oneself turned out to be anything but a relief.
D. “In Los Angeles, the Accidental Pizza Maker” (5/9/2007), in which Bruni flew to the left coast on the newspaper’s dime, and apparently the only restaurant he could find worth writing about was a pizzeria:
The instant and outsize swoon over Mozza owes something to the reputation she made for herself at La Brea Bakery and the restaurant Campanile. It’s fueled by the long-distance involvement of the New York chef Mario Batali and his frequent collaborator, Joseph Bastianich, who are partners in Mozza, their first West Coast venture.
And it reflects the spread of a certain kind of haute pizza culture across the country. In growing numbers, serious chefs and bakers are making — and the food cognoscenti are devouring — exemplary pies inspired at least loosely by the thin-crust pizza of Naples. Usually measuring 10 to 12 inches in diameter, they’re sculptured from dough that’s been lovingly tended by the pizzaioli themselves and cooked at blazingly high temperatures in wood-burning ovens of Italian design.
I don’t mind an article about a great pizzeria, but to fly across the country only for that? What’s worse, it later turned out that Bruni hadn’t even sampled the best New York pizzas for comparison’s sake—Patsy’s, for instance. Yet, he was so obsessed with Mozza that he wrote, not one, but two, blog posts afterwards. No three- or four-star restaurant was so honored.
9. Star Inflantion. Under Bruni’s thumb, the stars became increasingly untethered to their nominal definitions. Let’s review: according to the Times, one star is supposed to mean “good.” Last I checked, “good” is supposed to be a compliment. Yet, under Bruni the vast majority of the one-star reviews were insults.
Now, I realize that restaurants open with expectations. If you were expecting three stars, then you’re not going to be happy with one. But most of the time, one star ought to be an endorsement. Yet, these are some of the many unimpressive restaurants that received one star from Bruni:
A. Cafe Cluny (12/13/2006):
The acoustics are cruel, the lighting kind, the profiteroles outstanding and the frisée aux lardons an embarrassment of unnecessary truffle oil.
But who are we kidding? For now and for the immediate future, the balance of virtues and vices at Cafe Cluny, a West Village newcomer, won’t determine its success, already established. What diners are responding to is its genealogy.
Owned in part by Lynn Wagenknecht, the ex-wife of Keith McNally, it shares roots with Odeon, Cafe Luxembourg, Balthazar and Pastis, and it trades on those ties, its walls decorated with framed sketches of well-known worshipers at McNally-related temples over the years.
Their faces contribute to its aura of chromosomal coolness, and that aura has kept Cafe Cluny packed, no matter how unimaginative the menu (roasted chicken with baby carrots, baby beets with goat cheese) or erratic the service, which hit bottom during a dinner when the sides arrived with the appetizers.
B. Russian Tea Room (12/20/2006):
Tea-smoked sturgeon had an acrid aftertaste. The chicken Kiev, unexpectedly straightforward, did a rubbery impersonation of airline food, and I mean coach. There are nearly a dozen kinds of caviar — foreign, domestic, wild, farmed — and several of the ones I tried had an excessively pasty texture, lacking any bouncy pop.
The kitchen was also bedeviled by inconsistency. Buckwheat blini that were golden and fluffy one visit were charred and leaden the next.
But this restaurant’s real shortcoming is its service, unforgivably poor in the context of dinner entrees that frequently exceed $40, appetizers that infrequently fall below $18 and 30-gram servings of caviar that cost as much as $300.
Outdated menus with erroneous information were put on the table. Drinks and food were ludicrously slow to arrive. Servers responded dismissively to complaints, one of them telling us that we shouldn’t bother him with questions about a fugitive bottle of wine. It was, he shrugged, the sommelier’s problem.
C. Chop Suey (4/9/2008):
We’d be dazzled, at least by the scenery.
And by the cooking?
Well, our reaction might fall more along the lines of puzzlement, because Chop Suey, which mingles Korean and other Asian traditions, is an uneven mash of inspiration and clumsiness…
Why hasn’t this space drawn much notice over time? That was clearly a question asked and a frustration felt by the hotel’s proprietors, who shuttered Foley’s Fish House, the previous occupant, and started over.
As part of an elaborate renaissance of the Renaissance, they set out in a less stodgy culinary direction with a less stodgy crew, turning to two chefs known to show some edge. Zak Pelaccio consulted on the savory dishes, Will Goldfarb on the sweet ones.
The erratic results underscore the question of just how engaged such consultants get: of whether, once they’ve lofted a few ideas and cashed their paychecks, they feel any real pride of ownership or bother to follow through. I have my doubts. Chop Suey didn’t assuage them.
There are two problems with these reviews, and others like them. First, they make it tough for one star ever to be a compliment. Bruni actually did give out positive one-star reviews, on occasion: Terroir (6/25/2008), La Sirène (3/19/2008), and The Redhead (8/19/2009), for instance. But one star was an insult most of the time, which led to the perception that if a restaurant didn’t get at least two, there must be something wrong with it.
And therein was the second problem—a ton of two-star reviews that really should have been one, and a number of three-star reviews that should have been two. There’s nothing really quotable in these examples, so I’ll merely list a few of them: Double Crown (2 stars; 11/26/2008); Little Owl (2 stars; 7/26/2006); Market Table (2 stars; 11/12/2008); The Orchard (2 stars; 2/22/2006); Spigolo (2 stars; 8/24/2005); Minetta Tavern (3 stars; 5/20/2009).
8. Italy is Up, France is Down. Everyone knows that Frank’s favorite cuisine is Italian. I compiled a list of all Bruni’s reviews by cuisine. I expected to find that he over-rated Italian restaurants. Surprisingly, this is not so. His average rating for Italian restaurants was about the same as his overall average.
What did come through was selection bias. By my count, Bruni reviewed about 50 Italian restaurants, or about one every five weeks. No other cuisine was reviewed nearly as often. That’s an inexact count, because these days many restaurants straddle culinary borders. For instance, the Little Owl has an Italian chef, but the menu itself doesn’t scream Italian. I didn’t count it as one of his “Italian” reviews.
His bias was especially apparent in what I call “discretionary reviews” — restaurants reviewed “out of cycle”; those that he chose to review, when there was no particular news event that required it. A large number of Italian restaurants were the recipients of his largesse: Spigolo (2 stars; 8/24/2005); Sfoglia (2 stars; 3/27/2007); Babbo (3 stars; 6/9/2004); Esca (3 stars; 4/18/2007); Al di Là (2 stars; 1/11/2006); and Felidia (3 stars; 8/30/2006). That’s not a complete list.
It came through in other ways. Alto and L’Impero (3 & 2 stars; 10/31/2007) received a double-re-review when Michael White took over both kitchens. That’s fair enough. But upscale non-Italian restaurants with new chefs were far less likely to get re-reviewed. Big changes at Alain Ducasse, Veritas, Gordon Ramsay and Gilt passed with scant notice. He did re-review Le Cirque (three stars; 2/6/2008); the lone exception I can think of.
Bruni seldom explained the reasons for his visits, but as far as I can tell, only one non-four-star French restaurant was visited by choice: La Sirène (one star; 3/19/2008). I’ll bet the Italian equivalent would have received two stars.
Perhaps Bruni’s most telling moment came in the recent demotion of Union Square Cafe from three stars to two:
At this “international bistro,” as it was termed near the start, Italy played a bigger role than France, another instance of Union Square heralding the future of dining in New York.
That “future” is only in Bruni’s mind.
7. Fussy Frank. A few years into Bruni’s tenure, I noticed that Bruni frequently used the word “fussy” to describe the rituals of high-end dining he isn’t fond of. It struck me when the Village Voice asked him to describe his ideal last meal. He said, “it wouldn’t be a fussy labor of extraordinary technique.”
It’s telling that Bruni associates “fussy” with “extraordinary technique.” Are there any such techniques he doesn’t find “fussy”? And it’s such an odd request. I’d like my last meal be as extraordinary as possible, wouldn’t you?
In early 2007, I compiled a list of all Bruni’s uses of the word “fussy” and its derivatives. After that, I stopped counting. For a word not often heard in everyday speech, Bruni uses it an awful lot. It’s a verbal tic, one that perhaps he is not aware of. As I noted at the time:
“Fussy”is never a compliment: no one aspires to be “fussy.” And Bruni virtually always uses it to describe high-end luxury dining, a niche of the restaurant industry for which he has very little use. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Bruni associates “extraordinary technique” with “fussy labor.” Perhaps there is extraordinary technique that Bruni doesn’t consider fussy, but judging from his reviews you’d be hard pressed to identify it. Fussy, starchy, stuffy, effete, highfalutin’ — those are the words Frank usually uses for fine food presented in luxurious surroundings.
Of course, there’s no denying that such restaurants got their share of good reviews—after all, he needs to give three and four stars to somebody. As he noted after he awarded four stars to Eleven Madison Park last week, “for the most part, that the chefs and restaurateurs who muster the most discipline, demand the most perfectionism and institute the highest standards embrace and tuck themselves into [the fine-dining] idiom.”
But with rare exceptions, one seldom got the sense that Bruni actually enjoyed dining this way, and it’s notable that his discretionary visits—the meals not truly required by the job—were nearly always Italian or casual, and he spent a fair amount of time at establishments not technically on his “beat” at all—delis, pizzerias, burger joints, fast food restaurants, and so forth.
Bruni once said that he hates putting on a jacket and tie. No wonder that he felt uncomfortable at restaurants where you have to dress up.
6. Dovetail and Eighty One. Within a few months of one another, Bruni awarded three stars to Dovetail (2/20/2008) and two to Eighty One (5/14/2008), getting the two Upper West Side restaurants exactly backwards in the process. I point this out not just because the ratings were wrong, but because why they were wrong.
Depending on where you sit, the restaurant can feel too plain for entrees that average above $30. The wines by the glass could be more exciting, and a few dishes don’t succeed, like an appetizer marriage of skate and chicken wings that’s inspired by semantics more than anything else.
All of that gives me concern about the possibility of a slightly disappointing dinner here.
Why three stars, then?
But most of my experiences were hugely positive.
Dovetail further strengthens its case with a nightly five-course tasting menu that’s kindly priced at $65. The Sunday prix fixe — three courses for $38 — is quite simply one of the best deals in town. And when I had it the options weren’t dreary second stringers.
The trouble with awarding stars based on “value” is that prices can change rather quickly. Just eighteen months later, in the middle of a recession, that $65 tasting menu is now $80. Entrees that formerly topped out at $36 now reach $42; appetizers, once $17 or less, now reach $26.
At Eighty One, probably the most elegant restaurant north of Columbus Circle, Bruni was confronted with too much of a good thing:
Maybe it’s an inevitable consequence of so many restaurants vying to be noticed. Maybe it’s an attempt to justify entrees sailing far north of $35. Maybe it’s a reflection of chefs too neurotic or vain to commit to one strategy or to dwell on one note.
Whatever the reason, the high-end New York dining scene is awash in troikas of pork, trilogies of tuna and the like. A meat that does a wholly satisfying turn as a chop, or a fish showcased adequately in a fillet, appears in many guises, as if it’s an actor doing one of those multi-part tours de force.
The spectacle is impressive to a point, but exhausting, too. Or so I thought as I sifted through a very busy dish of very articulated veal at the new restaurant Eighty One, which presented veal cheek (braised), veal rack (roasted) and yet another hunk of veal rack (slow-poached in olive oil), not to mention some crispy Ibérico ham and something like a half-dozen vegetables. If ever a dish needed Ritalin, this was it.
Lamb, too, was a dubious triumph of trifurcation: some rack, some loin and some shoulder, for $39, which was $1 less than the veal. I loved the rack, enough to want to spend quality time with it. But my attention was yanked in other directions. I felt like a captive on a cruise, being hustled too quickly to too many ports of call: Acapulco! Puerto Vallarta! Mazatlán! Couldn’t I linger for just a bit?
I should stress that Eighty One is hardly the first guide to send me on such a dizzying tour, that neither of those dishes was actually unappealing, and that others — ones without attention deficits — were excellent.
His only concrete complaint was that Eighty One “occasionally messes up” — but he said that about Dovetail too. It was “Fussy Frank” who described the Frogs’ Legs, which he liked, as “chicken fingers for the Châteauneuf-du-Pape set.” On a later visit, he heralded the replacement of “Lamb Three Ways” with “Lamb Two Ways” as a sign of improvement. Oh, and he prefers to eat at the bar.
5. Two-Star Smackdowns. When Bruni wanted to pronounce a luxury restaurant a failure, he generally awarded two stars, unless it really sucked, in which case he awarded one. This led to confusing ratings, such as when Le Cirque and the Little Owl both got the deuce in consecutive reviews filed in July 2006. When both have two stars, the ratings are meaningless.
In many cases, Bruni’s reasons for denying the third star were dubious at best. At Gilt (two stars; 2/8/2006), which under Paul Liebrandt was probably the best restaurant to open in Bruni’s tenure:
Gilt sometimes doesn’t know when to pull back, pipe down and let superior food speak for itself.
At Alto (first review; two stars; 7/13/2005):
Italian cuisine can certainly match the stature of any other, its altitude determined not by preciousness but by the pleasure it delivers. Alto’s shortcoming is that it runs so simultaneously haute and cold.
At Anthos (two stars; 5/16/2007), he was once again perturbed by servers who explained too much:
And the sommeliers aren’t the only servers who know their stuff. While many haute French restaurants struggle to find servers who can talk about the menu nimbly and authoritatively, Anthos has fielded a sizable team of them. Their polish is a hallmark of an Arpaia production.
But the script they’ve been given — extended musings on the provenances of ingredients and the nature of Mr. Psilakis’s “flavor profile” — communicates a self-consciousness that only a few of the dishes are transcendent enough to justify.
At Gordon Ramsay (two stars; 1/31/2007):
You might expect his debut New York restaurant to be brash and any of its shortcomings to be attributable to audacity, not timidity.
You’d be wrong.
Step into Gordon Ramsay at the London, so named because it inhabits the London NYC Hotel, which used to be the Rihga Royal. Look hard for any vibrancy, any color. The walls, which resemble mother-of-pearl, are less a hue than a mood: coolly, even icily, elegant.
The flowers on and around the dozen tables are white. Against this monochrome, red letters above the doors — the ones spelling exit — exert the most potent tug on your attention. Those aren’t promising signs.
The cautious palette foreshadows a cautious menu, as reliant on default luxuries and flourishes like foie gras and black truffles as on real imagination. Most ingredients are predictable, most flavors polite, most effects muted. Mr. Ramsay may be a bad boy beyond the edges of the plate, but in its center, he’s more a goody-two-shoes.
And for all his brimstone and bravado, his strategy for taking Manhattan turns out to be a conventional one, built on familiar French ideas and techniques that have been executed with more flair, more consistency and better judgment in restaurants with less vaunted pedigrees.
An appetizer of caramelized sweetbreads with creamed artichoke had a textbook luxuriousness, but it didn’t venture into any new or particularly gripping chapters. An entree of roasted chicken for two was adorned with a sufficiently flavorful fricassee of bacon, onions and prunes, but it was still just a roasted chicken for two.
In the context of other ratings he gave out, these were all very obviously three-star restaurants.
4. Four-Star Smackdowns. Twice during his tenure, Bruni knocked a restaurant down from four stars to three. The first of these was Bouley (6/23/2004). I didn’t take issue with this: As I experienced it, over three or four visits, Bouley was a clear notch below the other four-star restaurants. And Bruni must have felt rather strongly about this, given that he demoted it after less than a month on the job. But some of the reasons given were churlish:
At a table across the restaurant, a group of what looked like tourists arranged and rearranged themselves, posing and snapping, focused less on living the moment than on photographing it. Closer by, a glum-looking couple sat, and chewed, in silence. Suddenly, there was a flurry of movement: a tipsy, teetering man knocked over the little lamp on his table and sent it hurtling over the edge.
That scene explained the feeling I got every time I dined recently at Bouley. I had the sense of being at a party to which I had come too late, or at which I had stayed too long. Of watching the awkward ebb of the excitement rather than the jolt itself. The electricity had dimmed, the crowd seemingly changed and the polish worn off…
Is David Bouley putting all of his own heart into this? Is a full measure of passion still there? When he closed the initial Bouley in 1996, his reason and goal were to work on a projected culinary empire: a Bouley at Home store; a culinary research laboratory; a cooking school. When he opened Bouley Bakery at this location in 1997, the combined restaurant and pastry shop amounted to a holding pattern, a way to keep fans sated while the larger feast took form.
That feast kept getting delayed, and in 1999, Bouley Bakery expanded. William Grimes gave it four stars in The New York Times. But this venture was thrown off track. The restaurant sustained damage from the collapse of the World Trade Center towers; Mr. Bouley was publicly questioned about his use of Red Cross funds to feed rescue workers, and employees left when Bouley Bakery was closed for half a year.
It reopened, sans pastry shop, as Bouley, which is essentially the default centerpiece of his frustrated ambitions. It is a lovely, intimate place, but mostly in ways that its forebears had already been.
More galling was the demotion of Alain Ducasse at the Essex House (2/2/2005), arguably the best restaurant in New York at the time. Here, the reasons given were appallingly weak:
Ducasse’s astonishing and formidable wine list doesn’t have very many bottles under $100, but it carries hundreds over $200. And so I initially offered few particulars one night when I asked a sommelier to recommend a French red that would be full-bodied enough for my suckling pig, not too heavy for the preceding lobster tart and about $175.
”But what region?” he said with a derisive huff and repellent hauteur. ”What grape?” I wish I could report what he chose, but when I later thanked him for the fine selection and asked him to write down its name, he wordlessly reached over and started picking at the label, then abruptly spirited the bottle away. That was that: I never received the information…
A server circled back not once but twice to check on a dessert order that had been clearly enunciated. Even as diners were escorted to the restroom one night, they were not informed that a critically important fixture was out of order. Something about Ducasse did not entirely click, and this was true of the food as well.
I have to admit that the food issues, if you believe them, are more serious. I am not sure that I believe them:
But there were numerous lackluster dishes and recurring letdowns. Veal was undercooked on one occasion, while saddle of lamb was overcooked on another. Sea bream had been left on the plancha too long, although the crunchiness of the skin was partial redemption. The restaurant was also beset with pasta problems: foie gras ravioli in which the foie gras was not fully discernible; ricotta ravioli with even less flavor.
3. Le Cirque, Second Review. That Le Cirque managed to coax a second review out of Frank Bruni is one of the miracles of his tenure, given his obvious distaste for that style of dining. But re-review it he did, elevating it to the three stars it deserved (2/6/2008). In an otherwise reasonable review, one outrageous comment makes #3 on our hit parade:
At Le Cirque you will indeed eat too much food, of a kind that neither your physician nor your local Greenpeace representative would endorse, in a setting of deliberate pompousness, at a sometimes ludicrous expense. The ravioli, all three of them, are $35.
But that has long been the way of certain restaurants, which exist to be absurd, to speak not to our better angels but to our inner Trumps, making us feel pampered and reckless and even a little omnipotent, if only for two hours and three courses with a coda of petits fours.
And while I’m not calling for the spread of these establishments (or the massacre of Chilean sea bass), I’m charged with noting when one of them fulfills its chosen mission with classic panache. Le Cirque now does.
Here were so many of the tired memes of his tenure—the idea that your physician would object, that the expense is ludicrous, that such establishments are “pompous” or “absurd.” Most remarkable, Bruni says that he’s “not calling for the spread of these establishments,” but he’s “charged with noting when one of them fulfills its chosen mission with classic panache.”
Has a Times critic ever given three stars (meaning “Excellent”), while noting that he would not prefer to see any more like it? Isn’t the critic’s job to celebrate excellence, not to pooh-pooh it? As long as the Times chooses to employ just one critic for everything from pizzerias to luxury dining, that critic needs to appreciate that he’s reviewing for all of us, not just for the younger generation with whom he has chosen to identify.
2. Momofuku Ssäm Bar. David Chang’s East Village restaurant is one of just a half-dozen that Bruni reviewed more than once, awarding two stars the first time (2/21/2007), three stars the second (12/3/2008). By the way, Bruni never reduced one of his own ratings, though he often reduced those of other critics. When Bruni re-reviewed his own work, it was only to raise the rating.
I was dubious even of the first review. When you combine two-star food with zero-star service and ambiance, isn’t the result something less than two stars? The explanation is even more galling:
By bringing sophisticated, inventive cooking and a few high-end grace notes to a setting that discourages even the slightest sense of ceremony, Ssam Bar answers the desires of a generation of savvy, adventurous diners with little appetite for starchy rituals and stratospheric prices.
They want great food, but they want it to feel more accessible, less effete.
In just two sentences, Bruni makes many errors. First, the appeal of the place isn’t at all generational: I know many people who love it who are a lot older than Bruni. Second, although he doesn’t use the word “fussy,” he uses two substitutes: “starchy” and “effete.” Both, in context, read as insults. (When was the last time you said, “I’d love to do something starchy and effete today”?) And what about “savvy,” another term that, by implication, suggests that those who prefer to make reservations and sit on real chairs are bridge-and-tunnel bumpkins.
I don’t take issue with Ssäm Bar’s popularity. I’ve been three times, and I’d go a lot more if it weren’t so inconvenient. But why must he set up a false dichotomy between Chang’s value proposition and traditional fine dining, with the latter presented as an object of scorn?
He made practically the identical errors when he pronounced Momofuku Ko (three stars; 5/7/2008) the best new restaurant of 2008—a judgment I agree with. His reasons, though, are another matter:
David Chang’s intimate 12-seat, sushi-counter-style restaurant heads this list not only because its best dishes and moments are so memorable, but because it’s a paradigm-busting experiment that, like so much of what Mr. Chang has done, heeds and adjusts for what a new generation of discerning diners cares most about — and what fuss and frippery they can do without.
Here, once again, he portrayed the difference as generational and referred to traditional fine dining in insulting terms—here, “fuss and frippery.” This time, I actually sent Bruni an e-mail, asking why he insisted on putting it in those terms, given that many people who loved Ko (including me) are older than he is.
Bruni replied that he didn’t mean “generational” that way, but he could see why he was misunderstood, and if he had time he’d post a clarification on the blog. As far as I know, it never happened.
Eventually, I wrapped my mind around the idea that two stars for category-defining cuisine might be appropriate at Ssäm Bar, despite its limitations. He then turned logic on his head by awarding three. I was sitting at the bar at Corton, which was due to be reviewed the following week, when the Ssäm Bar review came out. The staff were despondent: Bruni had never awarded three stars in two consecutive reviews, and they feared that Paul Liebrandt was about to be shafted again.
Bruni, it turns out, did right by Corton, awarding three stars (12/10/2008). It’s clearly no accident that the two reviews were consecutive, as if to say, “Here are two totally opposite paths to excellence.” But Ssäm Bar is too erratic, its menu (to other than its regulars) too perplexing, its service too flustered, its ambiance too unpleasant, to be rated at the same level.
And what about the three stars awarded to Momofuku Ko (the correct rating, in my view)? When there are two restaurants in the same neighborhood, with the same man in charge, serving the same style of cuisine, the rating system that can’t distinguish them is a failure. Ssäm Bar simply has to be rated lower than Ko, because it is inferior to Ko in every respect. It is still very good (which is what two stars means), but it is not excellent.
1. The Modern/Bar Room at the Modern. It’s bad enough that Bruni gave Momofuku Ssäm Bar and Momofuku Ko identical ratings. At The Modern, he made the most egregious error of his tenure, actually rating the casual place higher. In his original review (5/4/2005), he awarded two stars to the whole operation, trashing the place for poorly articulated reasons:
The chef, Gabriel Kreuther, who worked at Atelier in the Ritz-Carlton, can and does dazzle. But he seems at times too strenuously determined to do that, producing some dishes that are overthought and overwrought and others with lofty pedigrees but curiously flat effects.
Most people put the Modern in the upper echelon of New York restaurants—an obvious three-star that just might be licking the fringes of four. But if two stars for the Modern was outrageous, it was outright incompetence when he awarded three (1/10/2007) to its more casual front room (the only such room in the city to be separately rated):
Unless, that is, you’re in a less formal mood. Then you should set out for the Modern, but here’s the crucial, counterintuitive part: head for the cheap seats. The Modern is divided into a fussy dining room and a more freewheeling bar area, where the food is less expensive, though not really and truly cheap…
I prefer the Modern’s Bar Room to its ostensibly better, glossier half. After giving the restaurant as a whole two stars following its opening in early 2005, I repeatedly found myself drawn back to the Bar Room, at first just worried, then persuaded, that I’d shortchanged it.
The Modern’s distinct faces have very different appeals, a situation echoed at the city’s many other multiple-personality restaurants, and it’s time to acknowledge that for some of these restaurants, one summary judgment cannot do justice to two unequal parts.
If the dining room is a stately epic, the Bar Room is an unpretentious character study. It has a shorter running time, fewer showy star turns, a less lavish budget for truffles. Its dishes state their cases with one or two central ingredients, one or two salient effects.
There’s that word again: “fussy”. Bruni was almost never able to review that kind of experience without insulting it.