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Sam Sifton Awards Four Stars to Del Posto, but Can I Trust Him?

In tomorrow morning’s Times, Sam Sifton awards four stars to Del Posto, the Batali–Bastianich Italian fine dining temple in Southwest Chelsea.

The review accomplishes one thing: it sounds extraordinary—exactly what a four-star restaurant is supposed to be:

Mr. Ladner’s pastas are insanely good. After a wintry appetizer of warm, soft cotechino in a lentil vinaigrette, his spaghetti with Dungeness crab, sliced jalapeño and minced scallion arrives like the sun. It is a dish that speaks directly to Mr. Ladner’s genius, to a view of Italian cooking that allows for both jalapeño and Dungeness crab. His cooking is not about recreating Italy on a luxe scale so much as it is about recreating the Italian spirit on the grandest scale imaginable.

The problem is that four-star reviews gain value from the company they keep. There are six other four-star restaurants in New York: Daniel, Eleven Madison Park, Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, Masa, and Per Se. I know of no other critic—amateur or professional—who has suggested that Del Posto is on their level.

To the best of my recollection, each of the last three restaurants to receive four stars—Per Se, Masa, and Eleven Madison Park—had received a considerable amount of critical acclaim, blogger and food-board love, before Frank Bruni confirmed what all of us, basically, already knew. This review comes out of nowhere.

I am not saying it couldn’t be true, only that it lacks the usual indicia of truthyness.

Sifton has not had much opportunity to file high-end reviews. That’s not his fault: in the haze of the post-Lehman Brothers, post-Bear Stearns era, new restaurants of that caliber are a bit thin on the ground. Of the opportunities afforded him, he got it fairly close to right with Marea (three stars), but whiffed on Colicchio & Sons (vastly overrated at three) and SHO Shaun Hergatt (the opposite, with two).

Restaurants change. My 2½-star meal four years ago is, I admit, dated. But I am not yet ready to invest in another meal there on Sifton’s say-so. One thing this review will surely do, is whip up more attention for Del Posto. If a few more reviews confirm Sifton’s assessment, I’ll give it a try.

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Reader Comments (7)

I'll cut and paste my comment on MF from last week, *before* the Del Posto review appeared -

I find Sifton's reviews less useful than Bruni's. Sure, Bruni had his quirks but they were well known. He was like one of those radar guns at a ballpark that always registered 3 MPH too high. If you deducted the 3 then you got the right speed. Bruni tended to be overly generous with Italian places and extra stingy with fine dining restaurants. We all knew that and could parse his reviews accordingly. People like Marc could predict where he'd come out with a high degree of success.

Sifton has been around for almost a full year and does *anybody* think they can predict where he'll come down on any given day? Maybe he'll award extra points to a place his daddy took him to dinner. Maybe he'll deduct points because he'll put on his local sustainable fisherman hat. Maybe he'll eat his way through a decidedly uneven menu and decide that the place is a 2 star because he likes the tables and the moon was in the seventh house of Mars.

Eater had a long running series called Bruni Betting where they'd predict where he's come down. They tried the same thing with Sifton but abandoned it. Sifton's radar gun sometimes clocks in 5 MPH too fast and the next day it'll read 4 MPH too slow. There is a randomness about his reviews that makes them less useful then Bruni's.

September 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLex

The problem is that four-star reviews gain value from the company they keep. There are six other four-star restaurants in New York: Daniel, Eleven Madison Park, Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, Masa, and Per Se. I know of no other critic—amateur or professional—who has suggested that Del Posto is on their level.

Count me as one amateur critic who'll agree with him - to a point. Where I diverge is that frankly, I think Daniel, Le B, and Jean-Georges are only three-star restaurants when you look at the food on th plate. There might have been a time when they were The Best Of The Best in NYC - but now they're dated, from the ambience to the service to the food. You're paying a premium for the show, the shenanigans - but not for what you're eating. They're "four-star" restaurants to the Park Ave set, the Ladies Who Lunch who want a stool for their purses and the Expense Account Diners for whom "expensive" equals "impressive" - but to people interested in food, first and foremost, they're at best three-star establishments.

The truth is, while the commenter above insists that Bruni had some pro-Italian bias, he had just the opposite: why, then, were there no four-star Italian restaurants under his watch? In fact, many "fine diners" have such a bias, and operate under the assumption that Italian cuisine is inherently inferior, and that French / New American = better, and that the pomp we associate with Haute French Cuisine elevates a meal.

For many of us, though, it doesn't. In fact, there's a faction for whom said pomp is distracting nonsense, for whom the mere idea that we are "required" to wear a jacket - or required to do anything for a meal we're paying for is reason to subtract a star right there.

But that's somewhat irrelevant - it's about the food. Sifton represents that new diner - perhaps younger, a bit hipper, not so impressed by flash. Looking for substance first, creativity and originality second, and style a distant, distant third.

Mark Ladner is doing amazing work right now. I would sooner eat at Del Posto than at any of the other four-star restaurants, with the possible exception of 11MP. Daniel, Jean-Georges, and Le B are in danger of becoming outdated relics. Masa is only for the financial elite, and exists in its own category. And Per Se is, frankly, a rip-off. It might be four-star food, I'll grant you, but it's not worth the price of admission. Not when you can easily find equal meals for $100 less.

I think if Sifton wants to make waves, it's time for him to do something bold - not by elevating an Italian restaurant - something which we expected to happen soon, given the rise in the game level over the last few years - but I think it's time to reassess the four-stars of yesteryear. Does Daniel deserve it, or are they coasting on reputation? To be honest, I think (as do many) that Cafe Boulud, under Gavin Kaysen, is the far superior resto of the DB empire right now. I'd eat there over the flagship even were the price tags reversed. Maybe it's time their star-ratings were.

September 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSeth Gordon

Thanks for the comments, and your many thoughtful points. I’ve just a few clarifications:

Bruni’s Italian Bias. You’re right, of course, that Bruni never awarded four stars to an Italian restaurant. But if you look at his two- and three-star reviews, there was an unmistakable tendency to give Italian restaurants a benefit of the doubt that French restaurants generally didn’t get. It was also apparent in his selection bias—the “discretionary reviews,” where a place wasn’t new, and he was writing about it because he simply wanted to.

Pomp is Distracting Nonsense. Whatever you may think of “pomp,” all of the four-star and most of the three-star places, have it to some degree. It’s clear from today’s review that Del Posto has it too. He even said on his blog today, “a four-star restaurant sit[s] at the intersection of luxury and abandon.” He clearly has no intention of chucking the traditional definition of a four-star place, in favor of an “it’s only about the food” ethos.

Re-assessing the Existing Four-Stars. Sifton has spoken highly of these places in various blog posts. Remember, the folks you describe as the “Park Avenue Set,” “Ladies Who Lunch” and “Expense Account Diners” are legitimate customers too. Many of them are Times subscribers. I don’t think there’s a rule that their dining preferences have now become irrelevant. I also don’t think there is a rule that, assuming these restaurants were great to begin with, their value expires after a particular sell-by date. I don’t know you personally, but in my experience, people usually use “dated” as a code word for something they never liked in the first place.

Price of Admission. I think it’s fair to have at least one category of restaurants that are judged simply on excellence, regardless of cost. Whether the incremental price of Per Se and Masa is worth it to you, it’s nice to have at least a few restaurants in this city where the mantra is, “damn the cost, we are going to do the best we can.” Granted, that puts them out of most diners’ price range, but there are still 19,998 other restaurants to choose from.

September 29, 2010 | Registered CommenterMarc Shepherd

@Seth Gordon: Aren't you that guy on Chowhound that relentlessly boosts WD-50 and Falai? Didn't you go on a megalomaniacal rant about how Chinese food in Flushing is categorically overrated compared to Manhattan's Chinatown, branding people who disagreed (pretty much everyone) as foodie elitists?

That said, I like Café Boulud more than Daniel as well. But I'll take your evaluations of the food at Le Bernardin, Per Se etc. with a metric ton of salt.

As for Del Posto, I had a comical meal there a year or so ago (disjointed service, underseasoned antipasti, slightly overcooked pasta, unmemorable desserts, awful petit fours), but I'd be willing to give it another try sometime in the not-too-near future, assuming the $29 lunch stays put.

September 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNS

Incidentally, I prefer Café Boulud to Daniel myself. It’s not so much that I would give Café Boulud four stars, as that I am not convinced Daniel deserves that rating.

September 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarc Shepherd

"Daniel, Jean-Georges, and Le B are in danger of becoming outdated relics."

While I cannot speak for the first two, I can assure Seth Gordon that Le Bernardin is in no danger of "becoming [an] outdated relic." I had the opportunity to eat there this summer for dinner (along with many other amazing restaurants in New York, and in Paris), and to speak to Ripert. Any restaurant that changes their dishes on a regular (albeit slow) basis will have a hard time becoming outdated. Sure, there is, in general, a lack of the most modern techniques -- you'll be hard pressed to find foams, emulsions, liquid nitrogen, etc -- but that does not take away from the quality and execution of the food, and the willingness to experiment. Whether or not Mr. Gordon believes that food is moving in a new direction (and after eating at Chateaubriand I'd likely agree), one cannot simply downgrade a restaurant because of cultural fads.
...it's about the food. Sifton represents that new diner...Looking for substance first, creativity and originality second, and style a distant, distant third. Take a look at Le Bernardin again. At least when I was there, everyone at my table had perfectly cooked fish. Were some of the dishes as creative as I've had elsewhere? No, but that's not what people necessarily expect first when dining there. If you put "substance" first, then any restaurant that produces food at the highest level -- regardless of what cooking trend it belongs to -- cannot become outdated.

September 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEWN

Re: “damn the cost, we are going to do the best we can.”

I agree, I think there's a place for that. I just don't think Per Se justifies the price with what's on the plate. I've gone into detail on other sites before regarding the rather drastic increase in price there - from $150 to $275 - with no difference in the menu to reflect that increase. It's not like they started scattering truffles and foie gras and Wagyu over every dish. At some point, a realization was made: "we're the second most expensiove resto in NYC - we exist on a level that only the financial elite can afford - we can, theoretically charge anything we want, because the diners here are the sort who don't look at price tags."

And so they did. Where once it was in the realm of "special occasion" dining for regular, middle-class folks, it no longer is. That would be fine if they'd somehow changed the menu to reflect it - but they didn't.

The other thing is there are / were other tasting menus of similar length that many find nearly as good - if not better than - for lower prices. "The Eleven" menu at EMP was the most comparable - I think better - and it was $100 less. (Okay, the Per Se price includes tax/tip, but it's still a big difference)

I guess it's a bit like many people's reactions to the old Ducasse at Essex - at the time the most expensive restaurant in the city (to think, that the prix fixe was over $100 was considered shocking!) - while many agreed the food was good, very few thought it was worth the price. And so they closed.


Re: the Park Avenue Set

I agree as well - certainly, their opinions are just as valid. After all, dining can only ever be a subjective experience. I think to some degree, though, the four-stars from the Times mostly appealed to that set, those who have a touch of Francophilia and prefer a kind of old-fashioned poshness - but not necessarily to a broad base. Let's be honest - there are a lot of high-end diners who are very Francophiliac, for whom Italian (or any other) cuisine is inherently inferior and can never be worth four stars. Well, they can dine at Daniel. Have fun. The issue isn't so much that Haute French is overrated - it's that other cuisines have gotten short shrift.

The additions of EMP and Del Posto to the four-star list help balance that out. Masa doesn't really count, since it's in its own rarefied "cost be damned" place - but I'd love to see a Japanese restaurant around the price point of DP, Daniel, etc, be seriously considered for the big four.


Re: my boosting for WD-50 and Falai:

Well, yeah, I'm fond of them both. But I never suggested either were four-star restos. In fact, with Wylie I usually add a caveat that the poster, if they go, should poll the boards to see if there are any duds on the current menu - as there often are one or two (the current cuttlefish with root beer... meh. And not everyone's a fan of the soybean falafel in pine gazpacho...)

You'll find most regular posters on Chowhound have certain places they recommend regularly, when the generic "I have X to spend, where should I go?" questions come up. Perhaps - and I've admitted as much before - my fondness for those two probably comes coupled with a soupcon of neighborhood pride. I recommend Frankie's 17, The Orchard, and Prune a lot, too. That's my 'hood. Depends what someone's looking for. But I recommend Collichio & Sons and Del Posto a lot as well. Hmm... seems Sam Sifton and I might have similar tastes...


Re: revisiting Le B

Yeah, of the three Frenchies they're the one I have the most reticence about knocking down a peg. I probably shouldn't have included them, as I think Ripert is as good as ever - though it's been awhile since I've been. To me, the main problem is the atmosphere: I find it stifling, stuffy, stilted. Boring. Someone on Chow recently referred to the ambience as "hotel lobby" and I couldn't agree more. I'd love to see Ripert's work in a more casual, less fussy - even if only by a smidgeon - setting. And because of my general rule against jacket requirements, I won't be going again unless someone I'm dining with picks it. Not that Eric Ripert cares, I'm sure they're doing just grand business without me. But if I want a bang-up (continental) seafood feast and I'm prepared to blow my dining budget for the month and I'm the one making the reservations - I'm going to go with Marea or Esca more than likely.

I've also left Le B hungry, something that should never happen when spending $100+/pp. I'm not saying I should leave stumblingly stuffed, but I shouldn't be debating whether to grab a slice or a dog before going home, either.


Re: my megalomaniacal rant about Flushing

I took issue with some people who seem to take pleasure in categorically declaring that foods which are geographically inconvenient are better. I always imagine them to be somewhat like "Comic Book Guy" from The Simpsons, spouting off about how (now read aloud in CBG's voice:) "Well, the most authentic Xiao Long Bao (and I must know, because I can say the name in Chinese, and I spent a week's vacation in Hong Kong in 2003) are at XYZ in Flushing."

I think we can all agree that there are, in fact, some people who do that, and I called them out on it. I certainly never said the reverse - that Manhattan C-Town is inherently superior. Far from it, there's good and bad at both locations. I do think that it's not worth the trip for a steamer of dumplings though - that the best at one end is really only incrementally better than the other. Silly to spend an hour on the train (each way) unless you've got other things to do once you're out there.


Re: Pomp

Yeah, sure, Del Posto has it too (I didn't need them to cut the Cotechino in front of me with a scimitar) as does EMP ($26 coffee "service" anyone?) - but it's of a different sort. To me, pomp is when the service is going WAY out of its way to be noticed. I don't like that. It's distracting. My preferred service will always be the classic Danny Meyer style - invisible but unerringly efficient. The kind of place where you feel like if you dropped your fork, someone you hadn't even seen a second ago would catch it before it hit ground - but not, y'know, catch it on a goose down pillow upholstered in the finest 500-thread-count silk, and then present it back to you on a silver tray while releasing a flock of doves.

(Okay, perhaps I'm exaggerating just a bit...)

October 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSeth Gordon

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