Entries in Sam Sifton (10)

Thursday
Jul042013

Michelin–New York Times Ratings Comparison

After the jump, you’ll find the list of all New York City restaurants currently open, that:
(1) Have now, or have ever had, at least one Michelin star; or,
(2) Have now, or have ever had, three or four New York Times stars.

For both Michelin and The Times, the list shows the maximum number of stars it has ever had (“Max”), and the current number of stars it has (“Curr.”). In the last two columns, you’ll find the name of the last Times critic who reviewed the restaurant and the date of the review. Click the link on the date to read the review itself.

The two rating systems are correlated. Most of the Michelin 1-star restaurants have two or three Times stars. Most of the Michelin 2-star restaurants have three Times stars. Most of the Michelin 3-star restaurants have four Times stars.

Given this correlation, you can find restaurants where the two systems disagree. For instance, Babbo has three Times stars but zero from Michelin. Danny Brown in Queens has a star from Michelin but has never even been reviewed in The Times.

Click to read more ...

Wednesday
Jul252012

Pete Wells and the Two-Star Restaurant

In case you hadn’t noticed, the New York Times restaurant critic, Pete Wells, likes to give two stars. In seven months on the job, it has become his base rating. Half of his reviews (50%) have been two stars; just 27 percent have received one star:

It wasn’t always this way. Sam Sifton gave one star 44 percent of the time, two stars 33 percent. Eater has a handy distribution of Frank Bruni’s ratings over the course of his tenure. People jokingly called him “Frankie Two-Stars,” due to his fondness for that rating. But he always gave one star more frequently than two. In his final year, he gave one star 45 percent of the time, two stars just 33 percent—about the same as Sifton.

Has there been a sudden upswing in the quality of New York restaurants? I don’t know anyone who thinks so. Wells is just a far easier grader than Sifton or Bruni.

Wells’s reviews are infinitely better than Sifton’s, and his knowledge is superior to Bruni’s. He’s just generous with the stars—or at least, with two of them. (His percentage of three-star reviews is on par with Bruni’s and Sifton’s. He’s filed only one four-star review, Le Bernardin, and I doubt anyone would argue with that.)

In the New York Times star system, one star is supposed to mean “Good.” Wells’s one-star reviews almost never sound good. Although the rating system hasn’t changed, Wells is reviewing as if one star means “Fair.” Sifton, in contrast, wrote quite a few enthusiastic one-star reviews.

For instance, if we consider just Chinese restaurants: Sifton gave one star raves to Imperial Palace, Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan, and 456 Shanghai Cuisine. Wells has given the deuce to Wong, RedFarm, Café China, and Mission Chinese Food. Are those four restaurants really a whole star better than Sifton’s trio of one-star places? I doubt it.

At this point, Wells would need to give one star exclusively for several months straight, just to get back to the ratings percentages of the Sifton/Bruni years. But the inflated ratings of his first seven months can’t be reversed. A sudden shift now would confer a boon on all the restaurants that got an extra star they didn’t deserve.

Perhaps it’s the descriptions of the stars that need to change. Readers are conditioned to believe that one star isn’t a compliment. Ryan Sutton of Bloomberg uses the same four-star scale, but in his system, one star means “Fair.” New York magazine claims that one star means “Good,” but its critic, Adam Platt, follows Wells’s de facto system: his one-star places never sound good, either. For an example, see his review of Mission Chinese Food this week.

On crowdsourced review sites like Yelp, a restaurant has to be really terrible to get anything less than three stars. None of the professional critics are that generous; nevertheless, the public perception is that one star is awful. For instance, the Eater.com headline after Platt’s review came out, was: “Adam Platt is Unimpressed by Mission Chinese Food.” Eater’s summary was accurate: Platt didn’t like the place, although he gave it one star, purportedly meaning “Good.”

Since Wells can’t retroactively re-rate seven months worth of restaurants, and the public will never think of one star as “Good,” perhaps The Times just needs to re-define its ratings. Change the definition of one star to “Fair,” and two stars to “Good,” and Wells’s ratings will make sense.

Friday
Nov182011

New York Times 3 & 4-Star Restaurants

This is a list of New York City restaurants currently open, that:
(1) Have now, or have ever had, at least one Michelin star; or,
(2) Have now, or have ever had, three or four New York Times stars.

For both Michelin and The Times, the list shows the maximum number of stars it has ever had (“Max”), and the current number of stars it has (“Curr.”)

The two rating systems are somewhat correlated. Most restaurants with at least one Michelin star have three NYT stars, or did at one time, and vice versa. Where this is not the case, it could mean that one service or the other has over- or under-rated the restaurant.

Unlike The Times, the Michelin ratings are anonymous (you don’t know who came up with them) and are published without explanation. But the Michelin ratings are updated annually, and are often reflect changes (for good or bad) that The Times fails to react to.

So you could think of this list as the set of restaurants that are plausible candidates for three or four NYT stars, or were at one time, whether or not they are now.



Restaurant

Michelin

New York Times

Max.

Curr.

Max.

Curr.

Critic

Date

15 East

*

*

**

**

Bruni

7-11-07

Ai Fiori

*

*

***

***

Sifton

4-23-11

Aldea

*

*

**

**

Bruni

4-7-09

Annisa

*

*

**

**

Sifton

6-23-10

Aquavit

*

*

***

**

Sifton

7-21-10

Atera

**

**

***

***

Wells

7-18-12

Aureole

*

*

***

*

Sifton

11-11-09

A Voce Columbus

*

*

**

**

Sifton

11-25-09

A Voce Madison

*

*

***

***

Bruni

5-10-06

Babbo

*

***

***

Bruni

6-9-05

Blanca

*

*

**

**

Wells

10-16-12

BLT Fish

*

***

***

Bruni

4-20-05

Blue Hill

*

*

***

***

Bruni

8-2-06

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

***

***

Bruni

7/28/04

Bouley

**

*

***

***

Bruni

3-25-09

Breslin, The

*

*

*

*

Sifton

1-12-10

Brooklyn Fare

***

***

***

***

Sifton

4-27-11

Brushstroke

*

*

**

**

Sifton

7-13-11

Brushstroke (Ichimura)

***

***

Wells

9-26-12

Café Boulud

*

*

***

***

Bruni

8-15-07

Café China

*

*

**

**

Wells

5-2-13

Carbone

***

***

Wells

6-5-13

Casa Mono

*

*

**

**

Burros

1-28-04

Colicchio & Sons

***

***

Sifton

3/17/10

Corton

**

**

***

***

Bruni

12-10-08

Craft

*

***

***

Sifton

9-7-11

Daniel

***

***

****

****

Bruni

1/21/09

Danji

*

*

*

*

Sifton

8-17-11

Danny Brown

*

*

NEVER

NEVER

Del Posto

**

*

****

****

Sifton

9/29/10

Dévi

*

**

**

Bruni

11/17/04

Dovetail

*

*

***

***

Bruni

2/20/08

Dressler

*

*

**

**

Bruni

6/7/07

Eleven Madison Park

***

***

****

****

Bruni

8/12/09

Esca

***

***

Bruni

4/18/07

Felidia

***

***

Bruni

8/30/06

Four Seasons, The

***

**

Bruni

4/4/07

Gilt

**

**

**

**

Bruni

2/8/06

Gotham Bar & Grill

*

*

***

***

Sifton

5-17-11

Gordon Ramsay

**

**

**

**

Bruni

1/31/07

Gramercy Tavern

*

*

***

***

Bruni

6/6/07

Hakkasan

*

*

*

*

Wells

6-12-12

Il Buco A&V

***

***

Wells

3/14/12

Jean Georges

***

***

****

****

Bruni

4/19/06

Jewel Bako

*

*

*

*

Bruni

6/21/06

JoJo

*

***

***

Grimes

4/17/02

Jungsik

*

*

**

**

Wells

2-28-12

Junoon

*

*

**

**

Sifton

3-30-11

Kajitsu

**

*

**

**

Wells

6-18-03

Kyo Ya

*

*

***

***

Wells

4/11/12

Kurumazushi

*

***

***

Reichl

10/6/95

Lan Sheng

*

*

Laut

*

DB

Moskin

7/29/09

La Grenouille

****

***

Sifton

12/23/09

Le Bernardin

***

***

****

****

Wells

5/23/05

Le Cirque

****

**

Wells

9/19/12

Le Périgord

***

**

Grimes

10/11/00

Marc Forgione

*

**

**

Sifton

10/6/10

Marea

**

**

***

***

Sifton

10/21/09

Masa

***

***

****

***

Sifton

6-15-11

Minetta Tavern

*

*

***

***

Bruni

5/20/09

Modern, The (Bar Rm.)

***

***

Bruni

1/10/07

Modern, The (Dine. Rm.)

*

*

***

***

Wells

3-26-13

Molyvos

***

**

Asimov

7/17/02

Momofuku Ko

**

**

***

***

Bruni

5/7/08

Momofuku Ssäm Bar

***

***

Bruni

12/3/08

Nobu

*

***

***

Reichl

9/8/95

Nobu 57

***

***

Bruni

9/28/05

Nobu, Next Door

***

***

Reichl

12/23/98

NoMad, The

*

*

***

***

Wells

6/20/12

Oceana

*

*

***

**

Sifton

11/18/09

Palm & Palm Too

***

*

Sifton

7-27-11

Patroon

***

**

Asimov

7/10/02

Perry St.

*

***

***

Bruni

9/7/05

Per Se

***

***

****

****

Sifton

10-12-11

Peter Luger

*

*

***

**

Bruni

9/19/07

Picholine

**

*

***

***

Bruni

11/8/06

Public

*

*

**

**

Grimes

12/17/03

River Café

*

*

***

**

Grimes

2/13/02

Rosanjin

*

*

**

**

Bruni

3/28/07

Rouge Tomate

*

*

*

*

Bruni

1/7/09

Sammy’s Roumanian

***

***

Sheraton

5/21/82

Saul

*

*

**

**

Wells

10/7/09

Scalini Fedeli

*

*

*

Grimes

10/13/99

Scarpetta

***

***

Bruni

7/30/08

Seäsonal

*

*

**

**

Asimov

2/25/09

Shalezeh

*

NEVER

NEVER

Soto

**

**

**

**

Bruni

9/5/07

Spice Market

***

*

Bruni

6/24/09

Spotted Pig, The

*

*

*

*

Bruni

1/25/06

Sugiyama

***

***

Reichl

3/17/99

Sushi Azabu

*

*

*

*

Bruni

10/29/08

Sushi of Gari

*

*

**

**

Bruni(1)

3/2/05

Sushi Yasuda

***

***

Asimov

11-16-11

Tamarind Tribeca

*

*

**

**

Sifton

8/4/10

Tori Shin

*

*

 –

NEVER

NEVER

Torrisi Italian Specialties

*

*

**

**

Sifton

6-8-10

Tulsi

*

*

*

*

Sifton

3-30-11

Union Square Cafe

***

**

Bruni

8/5/09

Veritas

*

***

***

Sifton

3-16-11

Wallsé

*

*

**

**

Hesser

5/5/04

WD~50

*

*

***

***

Bruni

3/5/08

 

Note 1: Frank Bruni actually reviewed Gari, the west side branch of Sushi of Gari. The latter does not appear to have ever been reviewed in The Times, but the two are quite similar.

Tuesday
Oct182011

Bye, Sam!

The tenure of New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton has ended. As of Monday, he took over as national editor, a position he’d had his eye on for some time. His departure is not a surprise. When Sifton was announced in the job, he already had a foot out the door:

For the record, it is our expectation that this will not be the end of Sam’s career as an editor/manager/entrepreneur/mentor. He has run two departments exceptionally well, and nobody would be surprised to see him running something in the future.

The guy who picked Sifton, former executive editor Bill Keller (who was also responsible for picking Bruni), practically admitted that Sifton hadn’t even applied for the job:

In the weeks since the announcement that Frank Bruni would be hanging up his napkin, we’ve received numerous applications for the job of NYT restaurant critic. We narrowed the list, and then narrowed it some more. We had some really impressive candidates, writers who know their food and have interesting things to say about the way we eat.

Then we threw out the list and drafted Sam Sifton.

Restaurant criticism burns people out, but Sifton had one of the shortest tenures on record. The Eater.com timeline shows just two New York Times critics with shorter stays: John L. Hess for nine months in 1973–74, and Marian Burros for a year in 1983–84. Burros, however, was never billed as a permanent replacement, which leaves Sifton in the dubious company of the now-forgotten Hess.

Here’s hoping Sifton has more enthusiasm for editing than he did for reviewing. I don’t think dummies get to be national editor, but as a critic, he was vacuous, bored, and intellectually lazy. At least half the time, he was more interested in reviewing the guests than the food—more fascinated with their shoes, clothes, hairdos and gadgets, than with what they were eating.

Sifton was a man of simple pleasures, seldom interested in being challenged, seldom engaged thoughtfully on any culinary subject except fishing. His reviews were full of empty adjectives like “delicious,” “terrific,” and “good,” and laden with obscure references to second-rate fiction. He embraced mediocrity, and neither established nor recognized trends.

He didn’t even work very hard. Frank Bruni, may have had no experience reviewing restaurants, but he at least realized he had a lot to learn, and worked his tail off. Here’s a comparison of Bruni’s first two years to Sifton’s:

  1. Starred Reviews. In his first two years, Bruni filed every Wednesday but two (and for those two, Julia Moskin filed in his place). In Sifton’s first two years, he skipped four Wednesdays (and no one replaced him).
  2. Critic’s Notebook. These are the longer “thought pieces” that appear roughly every couple of months In his first two years, Bruni filed 17 of these. Sifton filed 12.
  3. Diner’s Journal. Before the blog came along, Bruni used to file a shorter review (unstarred) on Fridays. He did 80 of these. The closest equivalent in the current system is “Dining Briefs”. Sifton has done 26.
  4. The Blog. That leaves the blog—difficult to quantify, because the NYT search engine can’t filter out blog posts specifically. Bruni often used the blog to write about restaurants he wasn’t going to review, whereas Sifton almost never did. Bruni generally filed at least 1–2 substantive blog posts per week, while Sifton’s average is near zero. (A short post linking to that week’s newspaper review is not substantive.) In lieu of writing about restaurants, Sifton posted near-useless “Hey, Mr. Critic!” Q&A pieces every so often.

If you don’t care for the numerical approach, just read Village Voice critic Robert Sietsema’s devastating lampoon of Sifton’s laziness or Josh Ozersky’s takedown in Time. These are notable, because critics seldom attack one of their own, whatever their private opinions may be. Why The Times was willing to pay Sifton to do so little work is utterly beyond me.

Industry people I spoke with found Sifton unimpressive. His predecessor, Frank Bruni, came in with a thin resume, but at least he worked hard, wrote well, took the job seriously, and established a clear voice that readers could relate to. Sifton treated it like a two-year vacation.

Fortunately, The Times needed a new national editor, so after two years we are done with him, and he is done with us. Sifton gets an early out from a job he never wanted, and management gets another chance to find someone competent to write restaurant reviews.

If this seems harsh, I offer no apology. There is no other critical discipline at The Times that is treated like a hobby—a mid-career sabbatical before moving on to greener pastures. In books, architecture, theater, film, music, and other fields, the paper has critics who’ve honed their craft for years—decades, even. Whether or not you agree with them, at least you’ve got someone dedicated to his craft.

For restaurants, The Times first gave us a dabbler who had never been to a Michelin-starred restaurant in his life, outside of Italy, before being appointed restaurant critic. And then it gave us someone who had his eye on management, and coasted along while he waited for a better job to open up.

The Times can do better. It must.

Wednesday
Dec082010

The Sifton Scorecard

Last Update: October 12, 2011

Sam Sifton was New York Times restaurant critic for two years. How did his ratings stack up?

The table below shows every restaurant review that Sifton filed, Sifton’s rating, and what New York Journal considers to be the “correct” rating. Those Sifton over-rated are highlighted in red; those he under-rated are highlighted in green.

The correct rating, although clearly not scientific, was determined via a consensus of sources I trust. In a number of cases, it is different than the rating I myself gave the restaurant when I visited. Where there isn’t much critical opinion, I generally gave Sifton the benefit of the doubt. If you disagree, I am happy to refund your money. Oops! I forgot; you didn’t pay to read this. Forget the refund, then. But feel free, to weigh in (with civility) in the comments.

Sifton filed a number of reviews for no apparent reason — that is, where there was no news story or precedent that suggested the restaurant needed to be reviewed (or re-reviewed). Those are labeled “WTF?” in the right-most column. Note that this is a quite different issue than whether he rated the restaurant correctly. (N.B. I am not saying that none of the restaurants labeled “WTF?” should have been reviewed, which is a more nuanced question. I am merely pointing out that these are the ones he didn’t have to review.)


Date


Restaurant

Sifton
Rating

Correct
Rating


Comments

10/14/2009

DBGB

**

**

 

10/21/2009

Marea

***

***

 

10/28/2009

Imperial Palace

*

*

WTF?

11/4/2009

Le Relais de Venise

*

ZERO

WTF?

11/11/2009

Aureole

*

**

 

11/18/2009

Oceana

**

**

 

11/25/2009

A Voce Columbus

**

**

 

12/2/2009

SD26

*

*

 

12/9/2009

Madangsui

*

*

WTF?

12/16/2009

Tanuki Tavern

*

*

 

12/16/2009

Ed’s Chowder House

ZERO

*

 

12/23/2009

La Grenouille

***

***

 

12/30/2009

Purple Yam

*

*

WTF?

1/6/2010

Casa Lever

**

*

 

1/13/2010

The Breslin

*

**

 

1/20/2010

Maialino

**

**

 

1/27/2010

Le Caprice

ZERO

ZERO

 

2/3/2010

(no review)

 

 

 

2/10/2010

Novitá

**

*

WTF?

2/17/2010

Motorino

*

*

 

2/24/2010

Tanoreen

*

*

WTF?

3/3/2010

Choptank

ZERO

*

 

3/10/2010

Strip House

**

**

WTF?

3/17/2010

Colicchio & Sons

***

**

 

3/24/2010

Chin Chin

*

*

WTF?

3/31/2010

Recette

**

**

 

4/7/2010

Faustina

*

**

 

4/14/2010

Nello

ZERO

ZERO

WTF?

4/21/2010

SHO Shaun Hergatt

**

***

 

4/28/2010

The Mark

**

*

 

5/4/2010

Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria

*

*

 

5/12/2010

Fatty ’Cue

*

*

 

5/19/2010

Mia Dona

ZERO

ZERO

 

5/26/2010

Prime Meats

**

**

 

6/2/2010

ABC Kitchen

**

**

 

6/9/2010

Torrisi Italian Specialties

**

*

 

6/16/2010

Takashi

*

*

 

6/23/2010

Annisa

**

***

 

6/30/2010

Balaboosta

*

*

 

7/7 2010

Kenmare

ZERO

ZERO

 

7/14/2010

Pêche

**

**

 

7/21/2010

Aquavit

**

**

 

7/28/2010

The Lion

*

ZERO

 

8/4/2010

Tamarind Tribeca

**

**

 

8/11/2010

(no review)

 

 

 

8/18/2010

Toloache

*

*

 

8/25/2010

Plein Sud

ZERO

ZERO

 

8/25/2010

Wall & Water

*

*

WTF?

9/1/2010

Il Matto

**

*

 

9/8/2010

Fornino

*

*

WTF?

9/15/2010

Nuela

*

*

 

9/22/2010

Vandaag

**

*

 

9/29/2010

Del Posto

****

***

 

10/6/2010

Marc Forgione

**

**

 

10/13/2010

Xiao Ye

ZERO

ZERO

WTF?

10/20/2010

Manzo

N.R.

**

 

10/27/2010

The Lambs Club

*

*

 

11/3/2010

Peels

*

*

 

11/10/2010

Lavo

ZERO

ZERO

WTF?

11/17/2010

Hurricane Club

*

*

 

11/24/2010

Lincoln

**

**

 

12/1/2010

Osteria Morini

*

**

 

12/8/2010

Riverpark

**

**

 

12/15/2010

Kin Shop

**

**

 

12/22/2010

Anella

*

*

WTF?

1/5/2011

Millesime

**

**

 

1/12/2011

Ciano

**

**

 

1/19/2011

Lyon

*

*

 

1/26/2011

John Dory Oyster Bar

**

*

 

2/2/2011

The Fat Radish

*

*

 

2/9/2011

Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan

*

*

WTF?

2/16/2011

Bar Basque

*

*

 

2/23/2011

Ai Fiori

***

***

 

3/2/2011

Fish Tag

ZERO

**

 

3/9/2011

Red Rooster Harlem

**

**

 

3/16/2011

Veritas

***

**

 

3/23/2011

La Petite Maison

*

*

 

3/30/2011

Junoon

**

**

 

3/30/2011

Tulsi

*

**

 

4/6/2011

M. Wells

**

**

 

4/13/2011

Niko

*

ZERO

 

4/20/2011

Graffit

*

*

 

4/27/2011

Brooklyn Fare

***

***

 

5/4/2011

Colonie

*

*

WTF?

5/11/2011

The National

*

*

 

5/18/2011

Gotham Bar & Grill

***

***

 

5/25/2011

(no review)

 

 

 

6/1/2011

Tenpenny

*

*

 

6/8/2011

Imperial No. Nine

ZERO

ZERO

 

6/15/2011

Masa

***

****

 

6/22/2011

Desmond’s

*

*

 

6/29/2011

Empellón

*

*

 

7/6/2011

The Dutch

**

**

 

7/13/2011

Brushstroke

**

***

 

7/20/2011

(no review)

 

 

 

7/27/2011

Palm and Palm Too

*

ZERO

WTF?

8/10/2011

Boulud Sud

**

**

 

8/17/2011

Danji

*

*

 

8/24/2011

Roberta’s

**

*

 

8/31/2011

456 Shanghai Cuisine

*

*

WTF?

9/7/2011

Craft

***

***

 

9/14/2011

Hospoda

*

*

 

9/21/2011

St. Anselm

*

*

WTF?

9/28/2011

Coppelia

*

*

 

9/28/2011

Miss Lily’s Favourite Cakes

ZERO

ZERO

WTF?

10/5/2011

Tertulia

**

**

 

10/12/2011

Per Se

****

****

 

 

Monday
Nov012010

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.”

Wednesday
Jul072010

Not About the Food?

I’d like to deconstruct and debunk a sentence from Sam Sifton’s blog post about this week’s restaurant review, Kenmare. It’s a small point, but that’s why we’re here, so be forewarned.

Here is what Sifton said, with the offending sentence in bold.

I don’t like it much as a restaurant, but that may hardly matter. Places like Kenmare aren’t really about the food. They’re about who’s there and whether they know you. It’s a big city. That works for some people.

“Not about the food” is a lazy meme often trotted out by foodies, food writers, and food-boardists. The restaurants tagged with that epithet are usually those: A) Where the food isn’t very good; and B) That attract a “scene” (models, celebrities, nightclubbers), consisting of people that are somehow determined not to care what they’re eating.

I’d like to challenge that.

In the first place, I think there are very few places that actually set out to serve “inconsequential” food (Sifton’s word). Joey Campanaro, the named chef at Kenmare, has seven New York Times stars to his credit, including a couple of deuces at places where he is still on duty, the justly acclaimed Little Owl and Market Table. I doubt that they would have hired him if they didn’t want a bit of his pixie dust, and I doubt that he would have signed on if knew the food was doomed to be panned—as it has been.

If Kenmare is serving bad food, it’s not by design. Cooking, like books, plays, albums, paintings, and every other kind of creative endeavour, fails sometimes. But rarely is it because the creators never actually cared whether they succeeded.

A commenter to Sifton’s blog post put Pulino’s in the same category, i.e., “not about the food.” But the same owner’s Minetta Tavern has three Times stars and a Michelin star. It throbs with celebrities and pretty young things. Did Keith McNally intend for Pulino’s to be bad (assuming that’s true)? Of course not!

Now, you might argue that regardless of the owner’s intentions, restaurants can be characterized by what their customers intend. But how, exactly, do you put all of Kenmare’s customers into the same bucket? Surely it has (or had) patrons like me, who had enjoyed Joey Campanaro’s work at other restaurants, and wanted to see if he could perform the same magic in another setting.

Visit Sifton’s review, and at the top of it you’ll find a photo of six young, attractive women sitting at a table with drinks, and no food. The caption says, “Kenmare’s owners say it is not a nightclub, but not everyone is going there to eat.”

The women, no doubt, have less experience than Sifton—in the food department, I mean. But who’s to say that, because they are young and attractive, they do not care if they’re served terrible food. (I am assuming the photographer caught them before the food arrived, not that they didn’t order any.) The Times has no idea whether these women ever returned to Kenmare. It just assumes that because of what they look like, they couldn’t possibly tell a good restaurant from a terrible one.

Am I the only one offended by the suggestion?

A couple of Sifton’s other examples—Carmine’s, which has just closed after 107 years at the South Street Seaport; and Nello’s, which received a New York Times goose egg several months ago—seem to me entirely different kinds of places than Kenmare. These are old established restaurants that, for good or ill, have a clientele built up over years or decades that likes what they’re doing, and doesn’t see any need for change.

But Kenmare, a brand spanking new place with a well known chef, has no regulars to fall back on, and the so-called “scene”—those who visit places simply because someone told them to—have a predictable habit of moving on after a few months, or a year at the most. No sensible operator would open such a place intending to serve bad food. That it happens is simply because restaurants fail sometimes.

Wednesday
Jun022010

Busted! Sifton Once Banned "Delicious"; Now Uses It Himself

I wrote a piece last week about New York Times critic Sam Sifton’s repeated use of over-the-top adjectives like terrific, fantastic, perfect, and so forth. (Today’s review had another pair of terrifics.)

In 2000, when Sifton was editor of the Dining section, he chided freelance writer Andrea Strong for using delicious:

My delicious veto started about seven years ago, when my editor at the New York Times, an amazingly talented guy named Sam Sifton, returned a piece I had written for him with one comment. “Never use the word delicious,” he said. “It’s banned in my book. Gimme something more than that.” He was right. Delicious? What a cop out. It’s too easy. He wanted me to work for it, to dig deeper. And I don’t blame him. Now that I teach a food writing class, I’ve borrowed his advice for my students. Last week at our first class, I broke the news to them. “There’s one word I don’t allow in my class and it’s delicious,” I said. They looked alarmed. Why?” They asked. “Because it’s not good enough. I want to know why it’s delicious. Is it the flavors, the textures, the temperature, the contrast of all three? Give me more. Delicious is just lazy.”

Guess what? Now that Sifton is writing, rather than editing, he uses “delicious” almost every week—often twice in the same review. I won’t list them all, but here are some examples:

  • ABC Kitchen: “…a few pizzas for your table would not be in error, starting with the delicious morels with Parmesan, oregano and a soft large-yolked egg…”
  • Fatty ’Cue: “Dessert is delicious, but is not strictly necessary…”
  • Pulino’s: “It is delicious…” and later, ”…will elicit shrugs from any New Yorker who has spent 45 minutes waiting for a table here, delicious as it is.”

Let’s all quote Andrea Strong together: “Delicious is just lazy.”

Thursday
May272010

Sam Sifton's Superlative Diarrhea