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Sam Sifton's Superlative Diarrhea


1. Of the highest order, quality, or degree; surpassing or superior to all others.
2. Excessive or exaggerated.
3. Grammar Of, relating to, or being the extreme degree of comparison of an adjective or adverb, as in best or brightest.


In Sam Sifton’s review of Prime Meats, published this week, I just about lost it when I read this:

The staff is exceptionally well trained and efficient…

If the staff of a two-star restaurant is exceptionally well trained and efficient, then what will Sifton say about four-star Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, or Le Bernardin? They are exceptional. Prime Meats, I am sure, is simply doing the very good job that a two-star restaurant should.

Sam Sifton has superlative diarrhea. He casually throws around words like “terrific,” “fantastic,” “excellent,” and “perfect,” when all he really means is pretty good. There is hardly any review in which he doesn’t use some combination of these superlatives. Several reviews have had multiple terrifics.



There are two problems with this. In the first place, it’s lazy writing. Any word used so often eventually loses its meaning. Don’t tell us it’s terrific. Write a description that sounds terrific. If the service is truly exceptional, give some examples. Now, I’ll admit that I’m guilty of these short-cuts myself. But my work isn’t being sold as a professional product. Someone paid for his writing should do better.

The other problem is that these compliments are highly misleading. If he really encounters “perfection” so often, he’s setting the bar awfully low. I eat out a lot, and I seldom find anything that’s perfect. “Excellent” is a compliment I bestow infrequently. It’s not that I don’t like what I’m eating, only that such high praise should be reserved for the rare exceptions.



The problem is getting worse over time. In his inaugural review of DBGB, his only such error was saying that Daniel Boulud’s kitchens “put out perfectly cooked food.” I like Boulud, but could any sensible person say that his five New York kitchens are perfect? A month later, he panned Aureole, but managed to throw in terrific, terrifically flavorful, extremely good, spectacular, and fantastic. At two-star A Voce Columbus, there were two terrifics, two excellents, a perfect, an astounding, and a fantastic.

Some of his praise is just complete nonsense. Within four weeks of each other, he found “deep” wine lists at both Recette and The Mark. At Fatty ’Cue, he found wagyu beef meltingly tender, a phrase so hackneyed that I’d swear he lifted it from a Yelp review. That review also had incredibly good, awesome, insanely agreeable, excellent, brilliant, and unsettling.



His sex analogies probably deserve a post to themselves. At Pulino’s, the fazzoletti “you go to sleep thinking about, dreaming about, and wake up desiring.” A dish at Colicchio & Sons “tastes of…illicit rides in late-night cabs.” One at The Mark is “like a lover sliding into bed.” One at The Breslin “tastes like a date you don’t want to end.” At Strip House, “trembling good…a sorority girl in her first low-cut blouse.”

But none of these hold a candle to the sea urchin toast at Marea: “It offers exactly the sensation as kissing an extremely attractive person for the first time — a bolt of surprise and pleasure combined. The salt and fat give way to primal sweetness and combine in deeply agreeable ways. The feeling lingers on the tongue and vibrates through the body.”



I had that dish. By all means order it. But trust me on this: kissing an extremely attractive person for the first time is better.

Sifton has taken some flack this week for the cookie-cutter quality of his reviews and his repetitive use of the words very good. Previously, Eater.com noted Sifton’s over-use of “the best,” in situations that were—at the very least—dubious.



I made a list of all Sifton’s exaggerations—or as many as I could find. You’ll find them after the jump. Some could even be true, but there are clearly far too many of them. Superlative diarrhea indeed.



  • A beautifully cooked piece of chicken breast, crisp on its exterior and stuffed with chanterelles and bits of pig’s trotter, was a marvelous second act…
  • …fluke with caviar and beets brought the same happy laughter you hear drifting out of car windows at beach-town sunsets
  • …a marvelous dish of barbecued squid with Thai basil and fresh peanuts…
  • …a creamy, perfectly cooked fist of halibut…


  • Cubed raw liver…tastes of lightning storms on the high plains, of fear and magnificence combined.
  • In the thrall of its consumption, the whole dining room seems to pulse with life.
  • A raw baby carrot taken after a bite of the marinated grilled tongue…is a terrific combination
  • …a soft, fragrant ginger shoot after a piece of simply dressed rib-eye…may haunt your memory for days.


Torrisi Italian Specialties:


  • …Torrisi Italian Specialties, a tiny and terrific new restaurant…
  • …an excellent turkey hero…beautifully cooked…
  • But the dishes…are edible paintings
  • …the restaurant shows itself to be towering in its ambition
  • There is always warm, just-made mozzarella…outrageously good

ABC Kitchen:


  • You meet people like this. Only when they are spectacularly good-looking and appear to be attracted to you are they manageable. ABC Kitchen pulls off the magic trick. The food is great
  • The appetizers include a terrific plate of shaved fluke with grapefruit and tarragon, in which the sweetness of the fish melds perfectly with the acidity of the grapefruit…
  • There are also baby leeks vinaigrette, one of those perfect French dishes…
  • Oven-roasted asparagus is terrific as well…

Prime Meats:

  • “…it is executed with a rare degree of excellence…”
  • “Have a Manhattan made by…some mustachioed chemist with tattoos and an understanding of bitters that rivals a rabbi’s knowledge of the Talmud, then some brilliant oysters…”
  • “Devour a steak or an excellent burger…”
  • “The staff is exceptionally well trained and efficient…”
  • “It is an extremely pleasant place.”
  • “…phenomenal split-pea soup…”

Mia Dona:

  • “There are the meatballs as well… They’re terrific.”

Fatty ’Cue:

  • “The food is incredibly good. Fatty ’Cue is a restaurant worth traveling to visit.”
  • “…the playbook of awesome…”
  • “The combination is insanely agreeable…”
  • “…meltingly tender American wagyu…”
  • “There is excellent red-curry-rubbed duck…”
  • “The combination…is brilliant and unsettling…the very essence of nowness.”


  • “Unsightly on its face is steak,… But it makes for fantastic eating.”
  • “The fazzoletti isn’t much to look at either,… But it, too, is marvelous… The dish has a kind of funky, fantastic flavor… It sticks in the mind: the sort of dish you go to sleep thinking about, dreaming about, and wake up desiring.”

The Mark:

  • Four perfectly golden scallops…are a buttery, rich delight.”
  • “the excellent lamb chops…”
  • “…it’s like a lover sliding into bed: nice.”
  • “…the excellent and deep wine list…”

SHO Shaun Hergatt:

  • “…strange and occasionally terrific…”
  • “That striped bass…tasted of beautiful excess.”
  • “Service at the restaurant is excellent…”


  • Nothing in this review that qualifies.


  • “…the phenomenally talented chef Scott Conant…”
  • “The restaurant offers what may be the city’s best pork chop.”
  • “…the cooking is mostly excellent…”
  • “…one of the better meal starters in the city…”
  • “It is a brilliant combination…”
  • “There is also a terrific dish of strozzapreti with suckling-pig ragù…”


  • “The wine list is deep…”
  • “The charcuterie plate offers…cacciatore and…Bayonne ham… These are unimpeachable. But Mr. Schenker’s foie gras terrine is revelatory… [I]t tastes utterly complete, perfect in the way a ripe strawberry is, or a fresh-shucked oyster.”
  • “There is also an excellent little cigar of duck carpaccio…”
  • “It’s terrific: Spain on a plate, as seen from Manhattan.”
  • “It’s phenomenally good…”

Chin Chin:

  • “It’s quiet and polite, a wonderful place to eat.”
  • “Cold shredded jellyfish is just a delivery system for the salty vinegar of its sauce, but it is terrific for that…”
  • “It’s delicious beyond compare.”

Colicchio & Sons:

  • “For the moment, anyway, Mr. Colicchio’s is the must-try New York menu. His restaurant isn’t perfect. But it is exciting. And the food is terrifically good.”
  • “They elevate what might be a menu cliché into something fantastic.”
  • “It tastes of funky sophistication, illicit rides in late-night cabs.”
  • “This is low-whistle-and-chuckles food.”
  • “…an astonishing array of beer…a varied and excellent wine list…”
  • “The dish is spooky perfection, crazy-making in its clean simplicity…”
  • “There is excellent striped bass…”

Strip House:

  • “And the food is generally marvelous, the steak often superb.”
  • “They use [their] leverage to secure excellent product.”
  • “…it’s deeply sweet and tender beneath its crust, pale and pink, trembling good.”
  • “A terrific bibb lettuce salad with Stilton vinaigrette sits on the appetizer list beside roasted bacon with arugula and Russian dressing, a sorority girl in her first low-cut blouse, across a table from a trader in broadcloth and loosened tie. Both are great.”


  • “…there’s an excellent rock-shrimp taco plate.”
  • “…a fantastic Old Bay vinegar sauce.”
  • “Arctic char with lentils and bacon is just about perfect…”
  • “Here’s a double huzzah to those fries, actually, dark brown and salty, with a healthy crust that breaks open on creamy, excellent starch. They are great.”


  • Follow this with a bit of ethereal hummus…and some crazily flavorful tabbouleh…something that tastes very much like joy.”
  • “There is also a terrific combination platter…”
  • “The falafel sandwich is superb.”


  • “Motorino is having a moment. That seems fair. It serves the city’s best pizza.”
  • “You can order too much, watch a pie go cool on the plate, eat it anyway and discover: terrific.”
  • “You can order pizzas to take out, drive them across the boroughs in freezing conditions, get home and reheat the pies: still terrific.”
  • “…a wonderfully bright and flavorful farro salad.”
  • “The margherita is Motorino’s baseline dish. Mr. Palombino provides two… Both are outstanding.”
  • “It is great and unsettling…”


  • “It has excellent pasta.”
  • “A plate of gramigna alla carbonara…arrives on the table as a riot of simplicity, a four-member noise band. It is outstanding.”
  • “The pastas are just ridiculous: perfectly prepared, full of flavor, a rejoinder to low expectations.”

Le Caprice:

  • “…the smoky perfection of haddock blended with potato, a rarity in the United States that is worth traveling some distance to try.”
  • “The béarnaise sauce that accompanies the New York strip steak is copious and addictive, excellent with crisp and golden French fries… These two make a tremendous pair.”


  • Mr. Anderer turns the legs of his suckling pigs into soft braised meat for a perfect pasta dish…”

The Breslin Bar and Dining Room:

  • “Now it’s pig parts for Ms. Bloomfield: an entree of gently smoked pork belly… This is excellent.”
  • “There is a marvelous Caesar salad.”
  • “It tastes like a date you don’t want to end.”
  • “…a cone of wonderful steak fries…”

Casa Lever:

  • “Casa Lever is a deeply likable restaurant.”
  • “…there is a shockingly flavorful mackerel plate…so heightens the flavor of the fish as to amaze.”
  • “But there are splurges worth the price: veal Milanese, for instance, pounded wide and fried with a rare excellence. Also terrific lamb chops…”
  • “The restaurant’s bone-in New York strip is…excellent. So too is the Dover sole.”

Purple Yam:

  • “The chicken had been served with two dipping sauces already:… These were excellent.”
  • “Purple Yam is a perfect neighborhood restaurant.”
  • “…the restaurant’s fantastic, crisp meat salad.”
  • “And there are marvelous desserts…extremely delicious.”

La Grenouille:

  • “The dish is executed perfectly… It is wonderful to eat at La Grenouille.”
  • “Each is a cloud of magnificent flavor…”
  • “There is a magnificent country terrine…”
  • “The legs are delicate, flavorful, addictive…”
  • “There are beef oxtails of uncommon excellence…”

Tanuki Tavern & Ed’s Chowder House:

  • “They’re like something out of a fantasy high school cafeteria: sweet, crunchy and addictive.”
  • “…an excellent hunk of hanger steak.”
  • “Ed Brown, the ridiculously talented chef…”
  • “…a terrific dish of smoked Chatham cod cakes with a roasted tomato-chili jam.”


  • “…Manhattan’s best Korean barbecue restaurant…”
  • “Madangsui is not much to look at, really…[b]ut jiminy crickets, is the dining fine.”
  • “There are cold boiled bean sprouts…, a kiss in a rock club, right after the show.”
  • “The barbecue is excellent…”
  • “…heaven in Midtown…”
  • “It tastes of magic and happiness.”


  • “This is all from Italy, imported here by Mr. May.” Which is terrific.”
  • “…even with terrific anchovies on top, panzanella is made best with old bread torn into shards.”
  • “Chitarra, a signature dish of the restaurant, is rough-hewn and cooked perfectly…”

A Voce Columbus:

  • “…a perfect rectangle of branzino…”
  • “Ms. Robbins is an excellent chef.”
  • “Have, too, the terrific house-made focaccia…”
  • “There are sweet and hot peppers mixed, silky and terrific…”
  • “…a creamed fontina, rich and earthy, quietly elegant, sensual: it’s bedroom fare.”
  • “And the cassoncini…are astounding.”
  • “And ravioli…is close to magic.”
  • “Chicken marinated in fennel and chili…was fantastic.”
  • “A pork chop piled high…was excellent.”


  • “Ben Pollinger, who has been Oceana’s chef since the old days of 2006, runs a crack operation.”
  • “…fantastic in its curried skin, superb with a side dish of spicy Napa cabbage…”
  • “…those crab legs are ridiculously good.”


  • “…a terrific hunk of Alaskan halibut served with baby carrots, fresh garbanzo beans, preserved lemon and a saffron-hued mussel sauce.”
  • “A main course of Colorado lamb loin with Tuscan kale, black garlic, lima and cranberry beans, with cherry tomato confit, was terrifically flavorful….”
  • “…an extremely good hamburger…”
  • “…spectacular battered onion rings…”
  • “…fantastic little pastrami pork-belly sliders…two-bite wonders that are smoky and wonderful.”

Le Relais de Venise:

  • “And you know what? It’s terrific.”
  • “The fries rate higher on the crazy-good scale: salty and crisp, with tender interiors that aren’t mushy even when soaked in the sauce.”

Imperial Palace:

  • “…flavors that are rich and complicated and delicious beyond compare.”
  • “…the zenith of Cantonese cooking in New York City.”
  • “…the cooking is extremely sophisticated.”
  • “Dried scallops and ham? This is a salty perfection in stock that tastes of both.”
  • “…a marvel of technical cooking.”


  • “It offers exactly the sensation as kissing an extremely attractive person for the first time — a bolt of surprise and pleasure combined. The salt and fat give way to primal sweetness and combine in deeply agreeable ways. The feeling lingers on the tongue and vibrates through the body.”
  • “It…helps explain in one bite why men would dive amid huge swells to retrieve the things from the angry Pacific.”


  • “…his kitchens put out perfectly cooked food.”

































































Reader Comments (1)

Well said. Perhaps you could also add that the purpose of a food critic is to describe and evaluate the meal-- not to call attention to him/herself. It seems the main aim of Sifton's reviews are to show how erudite he is and to call attention to himself with all of his hyperbole, name dropping, and misplaced metaphors.

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commentergerry

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