Entries in Fiamma (6)


Should the Star Ratings Take Price Into Account?

At the bottom of every New York Times restaurant review is this blurb, essentially unchanged for many years:

Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.

The paper never explains exactly how price is “taken into consideration.” Presumably, it means that a restaurant could receive a bonus star for being an exceptionally good value, or be docked a star for being too expensive.

I’d like to challenge that. Should the rating be price-sensitive? I can state at least four good reasons why not.

1. It is Open To Manipulation. In many notable cases, restaurants have raised their prices—sometimes substantially—just after they received a glowing New York Times review. For instance, when Frank Bruni awarded four stars to Eleven Madison Park, the prix fixe was $88; a year later, it is $125. Sam Sifton awarded four stars to Del Posto just a month ago; now, they have dropped their à la carte option, locking customers into a (minimum) $95 prix fixe.

I am not suggesting that either restaurant would lose the fourth star if the critic went back today, but these are hardly isolated examples. Country raised its prix fixe from $85 to $110 after Bruni gave it three stars. Fiamma went from $75 to $95 (later partly rolled back after Bruni called them on it). At Falai, a two-star restaurant, Bruni likewise saw a noticeable price increase (beyond the rate of inflation) when he returned two years later. In a blog post, he surveyed several other examples.

Now, I do realize that anything can change at a restaurant. But a talented chef is probably going to stay talented; an attractive dining room is probably going to remain that way. Prices, on the other hand, are merely the function of what a manager types into a word processor.

2. It Depends on Factors the Critic Can’t See. According to Joe Bastianich (partner with Mario Batali at Del Posto and many other restaurants), food is only 30 percent of the price—the rest being rent, labor, miscellany, and of course profit. The critic can see the food on the plate. He generally has no idea if the restauranteur got a sweet rent deal that enables him to undersell comparable restaurants. The restaurant might be saddled with union labor, which tacks on added costs. Restaurants that are part of larger empires might have the flexibility to run at a loss for a while, an option that independent outfits don’t have. Restaurants in hotels might be subsidized.

Lower rents, of course, are the reason why the dining scene has flourished in neighborhoods not formerly known for fine dining, like the Lower East Side, the East Village, and Brooklyn. (The same was true twenty-five years ago in Tribeca, but it clearly isn’t now.) But those chefs don’t deserve bonus stars, just because they choose to locate in a low-rent district. Critics review restaurants, not rent deals.

3. It Makes Comparisons Much More Difficult. It is already hard enough to discern whether a pair of two-star restaurants are really comparable, when one four-tiered system needs to accommodate every genre and cuisine. But it only adds to the confusion when there is a mysterious price element in the mix. Is the two-star Torrisi Italian Specialties really punching at the same weight as fellow Italian two-stars Maialino and A Voce Columbus? Or is Torrisi getting a bonus for serving a bounty of pretty good food for just $50? It’s quite a bit less than you would pay at the other two places, but is it actually as good in the absolute sense?

4. Critics Should Evaluate Quality, Full Stop. Think about the other disciplines in which The Times employs critics: music, dance, film, theater, books, fashion, architecture. In no other, does the price of the product figure in the review. A critic gives an informed reaction to the product, independent of its economics. The Times doesn’t give better reviews to plays that open in cheaper off-Broadway houses; it reviews the production, not its price.

I am not suggesting that diners don’t, or shouldn’t, care what the meal costs. Of course we do. But value from the customer’s perspective depends on factors the critic can’t easily assess. For all of the above reasons, I think The Times ratings should be based on quality, full stop. The reviews, of course, would still show price ranges (as they do now). Diners can decide for themselves if the restaurant is “worth it.”


Fiamma Closes: The Bigger Picture

Eater.com reports that Fiamma, Stephen Hanson’s acclaimed SoHo Italian spot, has closed. Two thoughts immediately spring to mind.

Number one, this is the first “recession-related” closure that I’m actually sad about. I never got around to dining at Fiamma, but it was obviously a first-class place. The other closures I’ve seen lately were marginal restaurants that most people won’t miss. They were either not very good, not very important, or both. Bear in mind that the restaurant industry always has a high failure rate. Many of these places would have failed anyway—though perhaps not as soon.

Number two, Fiamma was part of a large empire: Stephen Hanson’s B. R. Guest, with almost twenty restaurants under its wing (before today). In theory, Hanson might have had the resources to subsidize losses at his most acclaimed restaurant with revenues from some of the others. To know whether that made sense, we’d need to know his overall financial picture, but you’ve got to figure it was considered.

The point is that many restaurants at Fiamma’s level aren’t part of a big conglomerate. If revenues are down, the owner has nowhere else to go. If Fiamma couldn’t make it, then what about everyone else?


Fiamma Capitulates


As we noted yesterday, the SoHo Italian restaurant Fiamma jacked up its prices, while reducing choices and banishing luxury ingredients from the kitchen, not long after Frank Bruni awarded three stars. Bruni took them to the woodshed in the Times dining section.

Hours later, Fiamma waved the white flag. Chef Fabio Trabocchi e-mailed Frank, and announced that prices would be lowered once again—not back to November 2007 levels, but to lower levels than they’d been just twenty-four hours earlier.

Mr. Trabocchi said that he and Mr. Hanson decided today to lower the three-course prix fixe from $92 to $85, the five-course from $120 to $105 and the seven-course menu from $138 as of early this week to $125.

Anyone want to take bets on how long this lasts?


Fiamma Flummoxed

[Kalina via Eater]

In today’s Times, Frank Bruni slaps Fiamma with a wet noodle, after hearing complaints that prices went up dramatically, while quality went down, after he awarded three stars in November 2007.

Indeed, the prix fixe menu went up from $75 to $95, while many of the luxe ingredients were banished from the kitchen. New Yorker’s “Tables for Two,” which often reviews restaurants much later than the other critics, caught Fiamma after its downturn, and it wasn’t pretty. The Eater Complaints Dept. sprang into action, noting not just the price hike, but also fewer choices than before.

The prix fixe was $92 on Bruni’s most recent visit, “an increase of more than 20 percent in just three months.” The five-course prix fixe had risen from $100 to $120, while the chef’s tasting menu “had contracted from seven courses to five.” He says, “The number of choices within the prix fixe was slightly smaller than on a menu I’d saved from mid-November, and in some slight ways the food on the more current menu seemed less luxurious, a shift noted and debated on several dining blogs recently.”

While the cost of dining, like everything else, has continued to rise, the shift at Fiamma—more money for less luxury—was especially abnormal, and deserved the dubious distinction of being called out in the newspaper itself. Normally, Bruni saves this type of news for his blog.

But he left Fiamma at three stars, while noting that it “makes me feel a bit less enthusiastic about a restaurant with so much to recommend it.”

The trouble is that most people who are searching for restaurant reviews will find Bruni’s original three-star rave, and not the far less conspicuous correction. You can’t tell whether Fiamma has slid to the lower end of the three-star range, or if Bruni would award two if he were doing it all over again.

Unfortunately, Times policy doesn’t allow a re-rating without three full visits, rather than the one visit that preceded this update. Bruni is no doubt unwilling to make that investment for a restaurant he reviewed only four months ago.

Had Bruni lowered Fiamma to two stars, the repercussions would have been substantial. It would have been a cannon-shot across the bow of restauranteurs: “As quickly as I gave you the third star, I can take it away.” Instead, restaurants can feel free to take advantage of the consumer after the rave reviews are in, knowing that they are not likely to be revised for many years to come.


The Payoff: Fiamma

This week, Frank Bruni awarded three stars to yet another Italian restaurant, Fiamma. Perhaps sensitive to the fact that it seems to be the only cuisine he likes, Bruni tries to argue that it’s not really Italian:

Would you find these entrees in Italy, even up north? Maybe, in a very fussy restaurant. In most others, no. And who cares? They’re prepared with finesse and they’re the definition of luxury, no matter the geography, no matter the language… Fiamma is about as Italian as a poodle in a Prada scarf. [Say, what???]

The review once again uses Frank’s favorite insult, “fussy”. Somehow, Fiamma managed to overcome that liability. It doesn’t happen often. Bruni insists that the cuisine “owes its classically indulgent soul to France.” Somehow I suspect that if a northern European chef were in the kitchen—Gabriel Kreuther, for instance—two stars would be the maximum.

One never knows with Bruni, but based on other reports I’ve read, I can’t quarrel with the rating, although Eater and I had forecasted two stars, and thus lose $1 on our hypothetical bets.

          Eater        NYJ
Bankroll $61.50   $70.67
Gain/Loss –1.00   –1.00
Total $60.50   $69.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 25–9   25–9

Rolling the Dice: Fiamma

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews Fiamma, the one truly serious establishment in Stephen Hanson’s galaxy of crowd-pleasing one-star restaurants. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 8-1
One Star: 5-1
Two Stars: 3-1
Three Stars: 4-1
Four Stars: 25,000-1

The Skinny: This is technically a re-review, as William Grimes had awarded three stars to Fiamma’s predecessor, Fiamma Osteria, with Michael White at the helm. Earlier this year, White decamped to run the kitchens at Alto and L’Impero (three and two stars respectively, per The Bruni), and Hanson hired Fabio Trabocchi to replace him. Fiamma is the only restaurant in Hanson’s portfolio that critics have taken at all seriously, and he is surely itching to keep all three of his stars.

I haven’t been to Fiamma, but Bruni often telegraphs where he’s headed. In a blog post just one week ago, he complained about the custom of covering tablecloth stains with a fresh napkin, which he called the Napkin of Shame. And yes, he had been “shamed” at Fiamma. (I still don’t get what’s “shameful” about it, but hey, that’s The Bruni: the rituals of fine dining are lost on him.)

Anyway, he didn’t have much to say about the food, but what he did say wasn’t promising:

The meal progressed, a rich, saucy meal, because Fiamma’s new chef, Fabio Trabocchi, cooks in a rich, saucy style. One course departed, another arrived, and so on and so forth. We’ll delve into this deeper when review time comes around.

I don’t remember eating with particular abandon. In fact I remember eating in a restrained fashion, wary of the cumulative effect of all this richness and all this richness and all this sauciness.

My take? Those aren’t the words of a critic who was really enjoying his meal. If Frank is obsessed about napkins, he’s not loving the food. That’s why a three-star review is looking like a real long-shot.

But he didn’t imply it was awful either, as it would have to be for a former three-star restaurant to be double-demoted to one star. So Eater’s two-star prediction is looking pretty good.

The Bet: We predict that Frank Bruni will award two stars to Fiamma.