Entries in Momofuku Ssäm Bar (6)


A Chef's Plea for Half-Stars at the Times

Frank Bruni delivered a shock this week — deliberately, I am sure — by awarding three stars to Corton just seven days after awarding three stars to Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Three-star reviews are pretty rare. There have been just 32 of them in Bruni’s 4½ years on the job. So to give out two of them in a row is unusual. He has never done that before.

Now, the Ssäm Bar review was totally discretionary. No particular event compelled him to write it. By doing so when he knew Corton was coming the following Wednesday, he was clearly trying to make a meta-statement about the very different paths to excellence that these two restaurants have followed.

But the Ssäm Bar review upsets many in the industry, not just because David Chang is ridiculously over-exposed, but because it makes nonsense of the rating system. The same chef’s Momofuku Ko, which is clearly more ambitious and accomplished by any measure, also carries three stars from Frank Bruni. What is the point of a rating system, if it fails to distinguish different levels of excellence and accomplishment?

Over at the Feedbag, an anonymous chef suggests that the Times should add half-stars to its system, to better distinguish between different levels:

The grading of restaurants lately does not make sense. How can a restaurant as refined as Eleven Madison Park, Picholine and Corton fit on the same level as restaurants as casual as A Voce, Scarpetta and the very baffling Momofuku Ssam? I am not saying they aren’t all great restaurants in their own right, but they are not equals. By installing a half star, one could differentiate between them. In my opinion, Blue Hill, Scarpetta and Craft should be 3 stars, Corton, Picholine, and Eleven Madison, 3 and a half, and Momofuku Ssam, 2 and a half. By grouping all of these establishments under the same 3 stars, they are misleading patrons. Isn’t that supposed to be the idea of these reviews? By awarding three stars to restaurants so disparate, they’re making the Times review system meaningless, and that hurts everybody.

We agree that half-stars allow the critic to discriminate better between different types of restaurants. That’s why reviews published on this blog use half-stars.

But ultimately, whether your rating system has 4 grading levels or 100, it can be no better than the person assigning them. I have no idea what ratings Bruni would have given out if his system allowed for half-stars. However, it is poor judgment that has created this mess in the first place, and poor judgment is not rectified by adding levels to the system.

Bruni seems to be applying a bizarre “quality divided by price” formula to assign stars. On that line of reasoning, Ko and Ssäm Bar are rated identically, for although Ko is better, it also costs more. In his defense, Bruni can point out that the Times rating system expressly states that prices are “taken into consideration,” though no past critic has done it quite the way he does.

The same perverted logic allows Bruni to justify awarding three stars to the Bar Room at the Modern, when the obviously superior dining room at the same establishment has just two. We strongly suspect that if the Times had half-stars in its rating system, Bruni would nevertheless have made the same error.

Our own view is that ratings should reflect excellence, period. The fact that excellence costs more is utterly irrelevant to the rating. It may be that some diners either cannot afford the best restaurants, or that they prefer to spend their time and money in other ways. But if Momofuku Ssäm Bar is inferior to Momofuku Ko—as it clearly is—the fact that one is cheaper does not make them equal.


Momofuku Ssäm Bar

momofuku_card.jpgIs it possible to be more hyped than David Chang? Where should we start? In 2007, he was the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year. Both Bon Appétit and GQ named him Chef of the Year. Frank Bruni awarded two stars to Momofuku Ssäm Bar, then named it Best New Restaurant of 2007, despite the little detail that it opened in 2006.

On eGullet.com, a crowd of adoring admirers has all-but canonized him. They said that Ssäm Bar was at the vanguard of a “New Paradigm” of “haute cheap” restaurant dining. Discussion board regulars criticised me, not because I disliked Momofuku Ssäm Bar (which I don’t) but because I failed to exhibit the required paroxysm of rapture. In truth, on two previous visits I found the food at Ssäm Bar very good indeed, though the ambiance leaves a lot to be desired.

That’s the backdrop to the very generous offer I received last week from eGullet regular Nathan, to join him for a Bo Ssäm, the one remaining item at Momofuku Ssäm Bar that I was really dying to try.

The Bo Ssäm is a 10-pound Berkshire pork butt (the shoulder, actually), braised for seven hours. Ssäm Bar serves two of them a night. A Bo Ssäm pre-order is the only way to get a reservation—6:00 p.m. or 10:00 p.m. (11:00 on weekends). It requires a big group, which I’m not quite enterprising enough to put together myself, so I was grateful that Nathan did all of the organizing: he’s so fond of the Bo Ssäm that this is the third time he’s ordered it. And he’ll probably do it again.

Current Menu (click to expand)

Prices at Momofuku Ssäm Bar are gradually inching upward, with many items a dollar or two higher than they were last year. The Bo Ssäm, which was $165 just fifteen months ago, is now $200. There are now two tasting menus ($45 and $75). The wine list has expanded a bit, though I don’t find any of the choices particularly impressive, and most bottles are over $50.

Nathan ordered the appetizers, and our party of nine was able to sample a good deal of the Ssäm Bar menu.

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Diver Sea Scallops — lychee, yuzu, watercress (left); Seasonal Pickles (right)

We started with Diver Sea Scallops ($16), which I enjoyed, although Ssäm Bar regulars said that an earlier version of the dish was better. Seasonal Pickles ($10) offer plenty of taste contrasts.

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Fuji Apple Kimchi — Burgers’ smoked jowl, maple labne, arugula (left); Steamed Pork Buns (right)

Fuji Apple Kimchi ($13) is one of the regulars’ current favorites, and it can’t be denied that the apple and bacon combination works beautifully. Steamed Buns ($10) with juicy pork belly is a dish that can’t miss.

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Fried Brussels Sprouts — chilies, mint, fish sauce (left); Spicy Tripe Salad — poached egg, frisee (right)

I remembered the Fried Brussels Sprouts ($12) from my first visit. They’re terrific, so it’s no surprise they’ve remained on the menu. I was not especially fond of the Spicy Tripe Salad ($15).

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Pork Sausage & Rice Cakes — Chinese broccoli, crispy shallots (left); Grilled Veal Sweetbreads (right)

I don’t have a particular recollection of Spicy Pork Sausage & Rice Cakes ($18), but I loved Grilled Veal Sweetbreads ($15)—usually, they’re served fried, breaded or sautéed, but when simply grilled they stand up beautifully on their own.

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Santa Barbara Sea Urchin — tapioca, whipped tofu, scallions (left); One dozen oysters (right)

The Santa Barbara Sea Urchin ($16) with tapioca and whipped tofu is a much celebrated dish. I certainly respect the creativity that went into it, but I wasn’t all that enamored with it.

At this point, I felt like I’d already had a full meal, and the pièce de résistance (accompanied by a dozen oysters), hadn’t even been served yet.

The Bo Ssäm in all its Glory

The Bo Ssäm could almost be called liquid pork: it is braised to a point of such tenderness that the meat practically collapses at the touch. It comes with leaves of lettuce; you are supposed to put the pork inside, add sauce, wrap it up, and eat it like a burrito—that’s what the “Ssäm” in the restuarant’s name actually means. I tried this once, but from then on I was content to just eat the pork itself. It is so luscious that one can hardly be bothered to interrupt the appointed journey from plate to mouth. This must be one of the top ten dishes in New York.

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Cheddar Shortcake — apples, ham cream (left); Hazelnut Torte — parsnip buttercream, grapefruit (right)

Desserts, which could so easily be an afterthought at such a restaurant, were first-rate. I especially liked the Amish Cheddar Shortcake ($9), with an almost wickedly clever “ham cream.” Hazelnut Torte ($9) wasn’t bad either.

With nine certified foodies at the table, it’s no surprise that the State of the Momofuku Empire was a topic of conversation. One of my companions admitted that he had expected to see Momofuku clones springing up; so far, it hasn’t happened. My own view is that Ssäm Bar is sui generis. Impressive as the food may be, it lacks almost every other amenity that a good restaurant should have—a place to hang up your coat, for instance. As prices continue to rise, and Chang is distracted by other projects, I wonder if Ssäm Bar’s charms may start to fade as diners come to grips with its limitations.

There are signs that Chang’s act is starting to wear a little thin. Over on Grub Street, Cutlets suggested that Chang, “earnest and talented as he is…needs to be reassessed.” Over on Eater.com, a contributor complained that the very dish that Momofuku Ssäm Bar was named for—the $10 Momofuku Ssäm—is no longer offered at dinner.

What on earth is Chang up to? Another of my dining companions, a Ssäm Bar regular, conceded that “I’ve never seen him here.” Two weeks ago, Chang announced that “it’s clear some of us need to step aside and let the real talent shine,” naming new chef–partners for his two current East Village restaurants, as well as the still-unopened Momofuku Ko.

You have to wonder if all of the accolades are going to his head. If Thomas Keller—who has more restaurants than Chang—is in the kitchen at The French Laundry on most evenings, then why is Chang “stepping off to work on new restaurant projects” when, less than two years ago, all he had was a noodle bar? As Cutlets notes, “Ko will have to be phenomenal (and, let’s be honest, it very well could be) to shield him from what could be some backlash against the flood of praise bestowed upon the young chef in the past year.”

I don’t think Chang is the certified genius that some people say, but you have to give him credit for the remarkable phenomenon that is Momofuku Ssäm Bar. No one knows where it will go from here, but it certainly won’t be boring.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar (207 Second Avenue at 13th Street, East Village)

Food: **
Service: *
Ambiance: Burrito Bar
Overall: **


Momofuku Ssäm Bar and the New Paradigm


Note: Click here for a more recent visit to Momofuku Ssäm Bar.

On February 27, eGullet’s Steven A. Shaw (handle: “Fat Guy”) launched a discussion thread called, “Where to get the haute-cuisine experience, cheap.” The premise was Shaw’s observation that, these days, you don’t need to go to a “fine dining” restaurant to get haute cuisine.

Another eGullet member (handle: “Nathan”) dubbed this phenomenon the “New Paradigm” (“NP”), and it stuck—at least with Shaw, Nathan, and one other eGullet member who bought into the idea (handle: “Sneakeater”). Shaw would later claim that it was Bouley Upstairs that got him thinking along these lines, although the discussion thread was launched just six days after Frank Bruni’s two-star review of Momofuku Ssäm Bar.

What exactly is the New Paradigm? The very small band of people who believe in its existence chose a most peculiar lodestar — Frank Bruni himself — though Bruni has never acknowledged a “paradigm” in any review except the one that launched it:

[Momofuku Ssäm Bar] has emerged as much, much more than the precocious fast-food restaurant it initially was. 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. They’ll gladly take some style along with it, but not if the tax is too punishing. And that’s what they get at Ssam Bar, sleek, softly lighted and decidedly unfussy. Most of its roughly 55 seats are at a gleaming dark wood counter that runs the length of the narrow room, though these seats afford more elbow room than exists at the much smaller Noodle Bar.

Many of the remaining seats are at communal tables, and reservations aren’t taken…

There’s a good deal in Bruni’s description that’s patently offensive. Who’s to say that people who want to make a reservation and sit at a table are “effete”? Who’s to say that those who are “savvy” about fine food have “little appetite” for rituals that Bruni finds “starchy”? Bruni’s error, of course, is that he projects his own prejudice onto everyone else. He doesn’t like these things, so he just assumes nobody does—at least, nobody that knows what they’re talking about.

eGullet’s Nathan, who apparently counts mind-reading among his many skills, says that the purported phenomenon “especially appeals to a youthful but knowledgeable demographic.” We can readily believe that Nathan knows at sight who is youthful—although the clientele at Meatpacking District bars, and for that matter the McDonald’s across the street from Stuyvesant High School—seems pretty youthful too. How he discerns that the clientele are knowledgeable is beyond my comprehension. It’s Bruni’s error all over again: he counts himself as knowledgeable, and simply assumes that those dining where he does must be as smart as he is.

Shaw, perhaps realizing that restaurant critics shouldn’t be mind-readers, calls the alleged phenomenon, simply, “haute cheap.” Shaw mined an article (and a paycheck) out of his invention, with an article in the March 19 issue of Crain’s New York Business. He chose five restaurants to illustrate the concept: Momofuku Ssäm Bar, Bouley Upstairs, Degustation, Room4Dessert, and the Bar Room at the Modern.

I’ve dined at all five. Their points in common are not at all new, and can easily be attributed to other explanations. For many years, fine-dining restaurants have been offering casual dining at the bar to walk-in patrons. In a number of places, the “casual front room” takes on the identity of a separate restaurant, though clearly still affiliated with the “mother ship.” Bouley Upstairs and the Bar Room are two of the many examples of this. I love Room4Dessert, but it fails the first test: it may be haute, but it ain’t cheap—bearing in mind that it only serves dessert.

Degustation’s similarity to the others is only skin-deep. Patrons there sit at a bar (as they do at Ssäm Bar and Room4Dessert), and the menu there is “tapas-style” (hardly a novelty these days), but in most other respects it is fairly conventional. Even Shaw had his doubts about it: “Whether Degustation fits the pattern is an open question. I think the food, while quite good, is weaker and less haute than what’s available at Momo-Ssam, Upstairs and certainly the Bar Room at the Modern. Visiting Degustation between Momo-Ssam and Upstairs really emphasized that it’s operating at a lower level…”

Because the New Paradigm is such a tenuous concept, its three advocates have continually struggled to redefine it. Skeptics point out the many holes in their theory, and it morphs into something else. For instance, a no-reservations policy was allegedly a keynote of the paradigm, but three of Shaw’s five examples take reservations. Another canard was “no dress code whatsoever,” but in an age when only about 10 restaurants in town still have a dress code, that hardly narrows it down.


I paid another visit to Momofuku Ssäm Bar on a weeknight a couple of weeks ago (first visit here), to try to get my arms around this alleged paradigm. As I was by myself, I had no trouble getting a seat at around 7:00 p.m. (Couples who had arrived before me were still waiting, since there weren’t two adjacent bar stools available.) I actually had a pretty good seat, facing part of the open kitchen.

I decided to order two dishes at the opposite end of the Ssäm Bar spectrum: something funky, and something totally conventional. I started with the Veal Head Terrine ($13), mainly because I was alone, and my usual dining companions would have been totally grossed out. If you ignore where it came from, there’s nothing gross about the Veal Head Terrine (photo here). Its bark is worse than its bite.

The terrine is served warm, in a roughly 6”×8” portion sliced as thin as tissue paper. Frankly, I think that if it were sliced thicker, but with a smaller surface area, it would pack a heftier flavor punch. At first, I spread it on the toasted bread provided, but the terrine was overwhelmed. I ate the last half of it without the bread. It had a slightly spicy taste, but was not anything special.

Then I ordered the Milk-Fed Four Story Hill Farm Poulard ($26). For the curious, Frank Bruni had a blog post about this recently. It was a follow-up to his review of Resto. (The Gang of Three have not admitted Resto to the New Paradigm club, despite its similarity to the other restaurants mentioned.) Four Story Hill Farm is, of course, an impeccable poultry source, and Chang’s kitchen knew what to do with it. It was nearly as juicy and tender as you could want chicken to be, but nothing special was done with it. It was just chicken on a plate over a bed of warm leaf greens.

Actually, it struck me that if you ordered the chicken at Blue Hill, this is almost certainly what you’d get. I never had the chicken there, but I’ve dined at Blue Hill often enough to know the style. It would be the same quality of ingredients, and the same style of preparation. They do indeed offer a similar dish on their menu, and according to the website, it’s $30.

This anecdote helps to debunk the idea that Momofuku Ssäm Bar is “haute cheap.” For what is almost certainly the nearly-identical entrée, Blue Hill charges only $4 more. When you consider that dinner at Blue Hill has all of the traditional restaurant amenities, while Ssäm Bar has almost none of them, you could even argue that Ssäm Bar is over-priced. I can’t make any direct comparison of the Veal Head Terrine, because Blue Hill doesn’t serve anything like that. However, Blue Hill’s appetizers are in the $10-16 range, and the terrine was $13.

(I am prepared for the David Chang Army to advise that Chicken isn’t what Ssäm Bar is about. Too bad. They serve it; I ordered it. It was an experiment to see what Chang does with something conventional. It was pretty good chicken, but something I’m sure dozens of other restaurants are offering. Perhaps this section of the menu is meant to be “Ssäm Bar for Wimps,” but it wasn’t labeled that way.)

Before tax and tip, the total cost of my meal was $55, including two glasses of the house sake at $8 each. Obviously if you think Ssäm Bar is serving four-star food (which it isn’t), you could call it “cheap” in a sense. But objectively $55 isn’t a cheap meal, and of course Ssäm Bar isn’t serving four-star food anyway. It’s pretty close to what you’d pay for dinner at Blue Hill, but a whole lot less pleasant. It turns out that “haute cheap” isn’t really that cheap.

Beverage and Wine List

The wine list has improved since my last visit to Momofuku Ssäm Bar, and there seemed to more serving staff behind the counter. Both of my selections were delivered without silverware. Neither one could reasonably have been eaten with chopsticks (though those weren’t offered either). However, my requests for a knife and fork were quickly granted. The sound system played music at a noise level I found annoying.

You might have wondered whether the New York Times review affected business. The server I asked said it had. He said people come in “all the time” and mention the NYT review. As far as I could monitor, most of the orders coming out of the kitchen seemed to be pretty conventional stuff. I did see one additional order of the Veal Head Terrine. In that case, I happened to overhear the server steering a couple towards that choice. It appeared that only the guy could stomach it.

David Chang does some very good cooking, although you have to be willing to put up with a setting that is far from ideal, and verges to the unpleasant. In terms of comfort, it is probably the least appealing of the purported “New Paradigm” restaurants, and the quality of the food doesn’t quite overcome its many disadvantages.

Eating out, like most other things we do, has gotten progressively less formal since about the 1960s. There’s really nothing new about that, and it’s astonishing that a seasoned critic like Steven Shaw thinks so. One expects that from an arriviste like Frank Bruni, but not from Shaw. Momofuku Ssäm Bar, in its radical rejection of amenities we have come to expect in a restaurant, could be called a Paradigm of One. It really has no competitors. And frankly, I’m not aching for more of its kind. I’d rather pay the extra $4 for a table and a reservation.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar (207 Second Avenue at 13th Street, East Village)

Food: **
Service: *
Ambiance: Fair
Overall: *½


The Payoff: Momofuku Ssäm Bar

As predicted, Frank Bruni awarded two stars to Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Both Eater and New York Journal took the two-star wager at 2–1 odds. On our hypothetical $1 bets we are $2 richer.

  Eater NYJ
Bankroll $0 $0
Gain/Loss +$2 +$2
Total +$2 +$2

Rolling the Dice: Momofuku Ssäm Bar

Today, New York Journal introduces a new feature, Rolling the Dice, wherein we’ll take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we’ll track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We will keep track of our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Eater’s official odds are as follows:

Zero Stars: 5-1
One Star: 3-1
Two Stars: 2-1
Three Stars: 6-1
Four Stars: 25,000-1

The Skinny: Ssäm was reviewed in $25 and Under less than four months ago. There are no official statistics, but this must be the fastest transition ever to a rated review. Bruni wouldn’t do it unless he had a Statement To Make. Besides, virtually everyone who’s had the food at Ssäm has been wowed. A measly star is therefore unlikely—bearing in mind that, despite the official definition, one star almost never truly means “Good.”

Bruni has shown, again and again, that traditional formality means nothing to him, but we just can’t see him giving out a trifecta here. Even David Chang, the chef, said, “It would be embarrassing for every other restaurant that actually deserves three stars to have some one-trick pony like us in the mix. For fuck’s sake we don’t even have silverware and we use paper napkins.”

The Bet: We agree with Eater that Bruni will award two stars to Momofuku Ssäm Bar.


Momofuku Ssäm Bar

Note: Click here for a more recent review of Momofuku Ssäm Bar.

Is it possible to be hotter than Momofuku Ssäm Bar? Well, I suppose you could be The Waverley Inn. Aside from that, Momofuku Ssäm Bar is about as hot as it gets, with practically monthly mentions in New York magazine, the Times, and elsewhere.

The restaurant, an offshoot of the successful Momofuku Noodle Bar, also in the East Village, is named for ssäm—basically a Korean burrito. The chef, David Chang, can be commended for his guts in choosing a name that sounds like moth-er fuck-you, although it means “Lucky Peach.” He can also be commended for having one hell of a publicist.

The concept has changed almost monthly since Momofuku Ssäm Bar opened last summer. At first, it was just a lunch burrito bar. When Dana Bowen reviewed it in the Times, late-night dinner service had only just started, and then, only after 10:30 p.m. The starting time for dinner kept moving earlier, and now it is served at the times normal people eat. Like 7:30, which is when my friend and I showed up yesterday, when there was about a 5-10 minute wait for seats at the bar.

The menu is in a bunch of categories; you are encourated to order tapas-style, and share. The server recommended that we choose six items, and as usually the case with such recommendations, it was probably one too many.

Seasonal Pickles ($9) had a lively taste, with the ones pictured on the left packing quite a bit of heat.

Wellfleet Oysters ($15 for half-a-dozen) were cool and fresh.

Three contrasting hams are offered on the menu. We had the Edwards’ Wigwam Smoked Ham ($10) from Surrey, Virginia. This was fresh and light to the taste, but we needed more than the two slices of bread that came with it.

The restaurant claims that they serve “no vegetarian-friendly items.” This isn’t strictly true, as Brussels Sprouts ($11) and a number of other dishes (like the pickles) demonstrate. Of course, perhaps there’s more to this dish than meats the eye. It was so crisp and smokey that it could almost have been bacon. [See update below.]

Finally we got to one of the dishes Momofuku Ssäm Bar is named for: Hanger Steak Ssäm ($19). To eat, you place a piece of steak on a leaf of lettuce, add rice and sauce, and wrap the whole thing up like a soft taco. It’s a little unwieldy, but a pleasure.

I was full by this point, and barely tasted Seafood Stew ($29). My friend loved it though, calling it a spicy bouillabaisse. A pair of small-tined forks would have been helpful, for prying the meat out of the mussels.

There is much more to explore at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. If you can muster a crowd, consider ordering the whole pork butt ($180), which is slow-braised all day. We saw one at an adjoining table, and our mouths were watering. The party of seven couldn’t finish it.

Although it is crowded and loud, service is friendly and fun. The servers are well informed about the menu, and patient about explaining it. The kitchen doesn’t really know how to pace the food. Like most tapas-style restaurants, plates come out when the kitchen is ready, not when you want them. Our first four courses appeared rather quickly, but there was a noticeably long wait for the fifth and sixth. In the meantime, we enjoyed a bottle of sparkling shiraz ($35), an oddity I don’t remember seeing anywhere else.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar (207 2nd Avenue at 13th Street, East Village)

Food: **
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: *½

Update #1: My statement about the restaurant’s purported absence of vegetarian choices sparked a few comments. Yes, I am aware that a vegetable dish may have come into contact with an animal-based product during its preparation. Similar items appear on menus all over town. Unless the restaurant has told you so (and most don’t), one can never assume a complete absence of animal derivatives. I therefore thought that the unusual comment on Momofuku’s menu was worthy of a mention.

“Vegetarian” is an umbrella term that covers many different approaches to eating. (See Wikipedia.) Many people who call themselves vegetarians would eat a number of items on Momofuku’s menu. The strictest vegetarians might not, but they would probably find themselves frustrated at many restaurants in New York. I have no reason to think that Momofuku is in a category by itself.

One commenter seemed to think that this was “Bad, incomplete reporting” on my part. I am not writing Consumer Reports, just a journal of my impressions of restaurants I’ve visited. I don’t claim to be exhaustive, as I think would be obvious to just about anyone. And I cannot imagine that any strict vegetarian would be depending on me (a confirmed carnivore) as her source for restaurant recommendations.

Update #2: After posting this entry, one commenter wondered how my 1½-star rating could be reconciled with my apparent enthusiasm for the restaurant. I’ve responded to that in a separate post. After thinking about it, I did update the food rating from 1½ stars to two, but the overall rating remains at 1½ stars.