Entries in Amanda Hesser (2)



Note: Montrachet closed in May 2006—ostensibly for “renovations,” but it never re-opened, and its wine cellar was sold. The space (with the same ownership) is now Corton.


In March 2004, New York Times interim restaurant critic Amanda Hesser made a stir when she demoted Montrachet, the long-time three-star standout in TriBeCa, to two stars. Whether Montrachet deserved the slap-down may be debated, but the review stood out for its soul-lessness.

I had a chance to find out for myself last week. Hesser’s comments about the décor seemed to me completely wacky. She wrote:

Entering the restaurant is a bit like stepping through the looking glass. There is no coat room in the tiny foyer. A small portable heater set on top of a wine cask buzzed at the coat checker, who took my coat, hung it on a metal rack in the dining room, then looked up my reservation. She was polite, warm even.

Before me stood a dining room with sponge-painted walls and self-consciously modern paintings. It felt like a scene from “Wall Street.” I could picture Michael Douglas sitting at a red banquette, bellowing into a first-generation cellphone the size of a shoe.

I hadn’t been to Montrachet in years, and I suddenly felt the disappointment of returning to a childhood home and finding that the backyard is not so big as you remembered, that the curtains are kind of shabby. Montrachet even smells old.

I can’t comment on the coat rack and space heater—it being high summer, these accoutrements were entirely unnecessary. But the space itself seems elegant and refined. It didn’t smell old.

I was there with a party of three. Two of us chose the appetizer of Marinated Sea Scallops with Gazpacho Sauce. This was a bit disappointing, as the gazpacho overwhelmed the scallops, leaving them flabby and dead to the taste. The third member of our party ordered a Wild Mushroom Bisque, which he pronounced a success.

We had three different main courses, which all were pleased with. Between us, we tried the Magret of Duck with Pistachios and Cherry Endive Compote, the Chilean Sea Bass “en Barigoule” with Parmigiano Reggiano, and the Grilled Rib Eye Steak with Morels, Texas Sweet Onions and Truffles.

Montrachet has one of the most revered wine lists in the city, and it takes a connoisseur (or the sommelier’s guidance) to make sense of it. One of my companions knows his wines, and he chose a PlumpJack Cabernet Sauvignon — a brand previously unknown to me — that I found superb.

For the record, appetizers at Montrachet are $11-22, mains are $24-32, desserts $10-11. A cheese course runs to $16 per head. All three of us tried that, and I was gratified to find that it included good-sized samples of five contrasting cheeses, which is more than you get for the money at many restaurants in town.

Montrachet also offers four fixed menus. There are two three-course prix fixe options at $30 or $46, a six-course tasting for $79, or an eight-course tasting for $95. The latter is available only Monday to Friday.

Montrachet certainly seems to me superior to most two-star restaurants in New York. While one cannot judge fairly on a single visit, on this showing I would say that Hesser’s demotion to two stars was an injustice.

Montrachet (239 West Broadway between White and Walker Streets, TriBeCa)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: ***
Overall: ***



The New York Times hasn’t had a full-time restaurant critic since William Grimes stepped down from the post at the end of last year. As Grimes is still with the Times, working on other assignments, you’d think the paper could have persuaded him to stay in the chair a few months longer until a permanent successor could be named, but for whatever reason that wasn’t possible. Evidently Grimes couldn’t take eating out 10-12 times a week (and the rumored $150k+ expense account that goes with it) for a day longer. Marian Burros filled in for a while, and for the last couple of months it has been Amanda Hesser. Hesser is a fine writer, but she has made a mess of things, and no doubt the Times will heave a sigh of relief when a permanent successor to Mr. Grimes takes over.

Hesser got herself in trouble with a glowing, almost fawning, 3-star review of Spice Market (403 West 13th Street at 9th Avenue), the Jean-Georges Vongerichten-Gray Kunz homage to Asian street food that’s the latest rage in the trendy meatpacking district. Well, it turns out that JGV wrote a glowing jacket blurb for Hesser’s book Cooking for Mr. Latte. It is safe to say that Hesser benefited enormously from such a high-profile endorsement, and her review looks like a quid pro quo.

Bear in mind that, according to the Times, there are just five 4-star restaurants in New York City, and all of those are temples of French haute cuisine. A 3-star review of a place that sells “street food” is thus highly unusual, if not unprecedented. Coming from the Times, such a review instantly puts Spice Market at the top of the pile. To add insult to injury, Hesser failed to mention JGV’s partner, Gray Kunz, and she praised the desserts while failing to credit the pastry chef. The review mentioned Vongerichten’s name eleven times.

The embarrassed Times says it stands by the review (how could it do otherwise?) but had to issue a correction:

A restaurant review in the Dining section last Wednesday about Spice Market, on West 13th Street in Manhattan, awarded it three stars. The writer was Amanda Hesser, The Times’s interim restaurant critic. Last May, before her assignment to that post, Ms. Hesser published a book, “Cooking for Mr. Latte,” that was praised in a jacket blurb by the restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who later opened Spice Market. He wrote: “Amanda Hesser’s charming personality shines as the reader experiences the life and loves of a New York City gourmet. `Cooking for Mr. Latte’ is perfectly seasoned with sensuality and superb recipes.” The review should have disclosed that background.

Reviews of Spice Market have been mixed, which only adds to the perception—whether justified or not—that Hesser had no business awarding it three stars. (Although Hesser’s lack of disclosure may raise eyebrows, the rating is defensible. Andrea Strong praises Spice Market just as highly as Hesser did, sans conflict-of-interest. So does Hal Rubenstein in the April 19th issue of New York.)

Hesser’s problems didn’t start or end there. On February 24, she reviewed Asiate, awarding just one star. Now, from all I’ve read Asiate is an extraordinary restaurant that isn’t yet clicking on all cylinders. Nevertheless, to award just one star is practically an insult, and nothing in the review itself seemed to justify such a hard slap. She ends the review with this bon mot:

There is also the view. You sit atop an urban canyon, as the sheer cliffs of Midtown drop off into the park. From this height, the traffic below seems to glide and swirl without an ounce of contention. The pressures of city life ease a little. And for that alone, I might order a glass of sake, stay for the gougères, then feign illness and steal across Columbus Circle to Jean Georges for a meal that never disappoints.

Once again, a bouquet for Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

When not praising her favorite restauranteur, Hesser has been stripping restaurants of stars previously won. On March 17 Montrachet was demoted from three stars to two, while today Compass got the shove from two stars to one, despite the installation of a new highly regarded chef, Katy Sparks.

This passage of her Compass review showed another lapse in judgment:

A renovation is planned, and I hope it includes the service, which vacillates between comically inept and smothering. One night, I asked the waiter if he could describe the venison entree. “It’s awesome!” he said. Later, when we were having dessert, the waiter popped open a half-bottle of Bruno Paillard Champagne and began pouring.

“What did we do to deserve this?” I asked.

“It’s nothing,” he said. “I forgot to serve it to another table, and I didn’t feel like taking it back to the bar. So here you go.”

It’s pretty well known that the Times does not permit its critics to accept free food or drinks. Does Ms. Hesser really believe that the waiter was unaware whom he was serving, or the lame excuse he offered for giving her a drink she neither ordered nor paid for? Obviously the restaurant’s largesse did them no good in this instance, but why did Ms. Hesser accept it, in clear contravention of her paper’s stated policy?

And if a “renovation” is planned, why review Compass now? Given that the Times cannot re-review a restaurant very often, would it not have made considerably more sense to wait until after the rehab was complete?

Between keeping up with new openings, and cleaning up the mess Ms. Hesser has made in her brief tenure, the Times’s new restaurant critic will have his or her hands full. (Update: The Times has now announced that Frank Bruni, presently the NYT’s Rome bureau chief, will become the new restaurant critic. His first review will appear June 9th.)