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When reviewing New York City's Le Restaurant, hidden in the basement of a Tribeca food market called All Good Things, The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells begins with the bad news: Aside from the restaurant’s basement location, "it is closed four nights out of seven. Its sole offering is a $100 tasting menu that is not posted in advance. Substitutions are not allowed. And the name is impossible to say with a straight face," Wells says.
"The blond furniture, the pair of white candles suspended from a long row of wooden coat pegs, and the smell of wood smoke all transport you out of New York to some other place — maybe a soothing, if somber, cabin by a Swedish lake." Now, the good news: It’s a "cozy place." "The blond furniture, the pair of white candles suspended from a long row of wooden coat pegs, and the smell of wood smoke all transport you out of New York to some other place — maybe a soothing, if somber, cabin by a Swedish lake," he says. The restaurant will also soon be extending its hours to five days a week.
As for the cuisine, Wells says, "If you are an omnivore, if you dream about uncommon ingredients and pure, focused flavors, then Ryan Tate’s tasting menus are absolutely worth it." He began the dinner with "salmon mousse sandwiched between airy fennel-seed meringues." "The flavors were gentle, but they got my attention," he says of the dish. The next course, "gooseneck barnacles, long tubes ending in multifaceted beaks" that "looked like the sawed-off legs of a Victorian piano," "drew [him] in deeper." The third course was "half of a roasted bird" with "one leg stretched out, its foot curled in," or a woodcock. "That foot was weird but the meat was good, ruddy, juicy, and strong," he says. Finally, he tried water buffalo: "The soft and mild roasted loin wasn’t as deeply satisfying as beef or bison, but still I went home wondering why we Americans eat the same three or four species almost every night and then complain that the main course wasn’t as interesting as the appetizer."
While Wells compliments the food and the coziness of the venue, he can’t do the same for the manner in which he was greeted. "I showed up without a reservation," he says. "The website had said walk-ins were welcome at the counter, but nobody seemed to know what to do with me. An employee in the market asked what I wanted and told me to wait at the top of the stairs. Five minutes went by. Finally, I started down on my own and was met halfway by a host. He seemed surprised and not entirely pleased to see me there."
But, for the most part, Wells says, "Service was unfailingly smooth and professional."
"At Le Restaurant you never know what’s coming next," he adds. "Menus, handwritten on construction paper, don’t arrive until dinner is over."
Wells ends with one more note about the restaurant’s name: "Mr. Tate said that he and Kyle Wittels, who owns All Good Things, called the place Le Restaurant 'to be somewhat funny.' So if you laugh, at least you’ll be laughing with them."
For Wells' full review, click here.
Guy Fieri Battles Scathing New York Times Review by Pete Wells
It’s war between the critic and the TV chef! Katie Baker asks: why are foodie tensions running so high?
Jeff Christensen / AP Photo
The duel began with a single question. “Guy Fieri, have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square?” asked Pete Wells, The New York Times dining critic, in his scathing takedown of celebrity chef Fieri’s latest joint, a 500-seat Times Square behemoth wedged between Broadway theaters and red-sauce Italian trattorias, just around the corner from Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. “Did you eat the food? Did it live up to your expectations?”
Wells published his review, titled “As Not Seen On TV,” in the Times dining section on Wednesday as a series of pointed queries, each more mordant than the last, aimed at the baby-faced peroxide blond Food Network star, whose tattooed surfer-dude persona has won him legions of male viewers and a dedicated following at his California restaurants, Johnny Garlic’s and Tex Wasabi’s.
“Did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita?” Wells wrote. “Any idea why it tasted like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?” Wells seemed incensed that, over the course of four visits to Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar, orders routinely went missing. When the food did make it to the table, it was apparently “pale and unsalted,” at best, and at worst, “one chaotic mess.”
“Why did the toasted marshmallow taste like fish?” “When we hear the words Donkey Sauce, which part of the donkey are we supposed to think about?” “Does this make it sounds as if everything at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar is inedible?” “Is this how you roll in Flavor Town?”
The hatchet job quickly went viral, with the twitterverse agreeing that it was terribly funny and horrendously mean. Squeamish onlookers called it “the most brutal restaurant review ever,” while partisans on both sides rushed to cheer Wells on (“@petewells, your keyboard has been perfectly honed for butchery”) or tell off the journalistic bully (“@petewells Are you serious with the Guys [sic] Fieri review?? You sound like an asshole!”). Online fans called the piece the “Stairway to Heaven” of food criticism and “the magnum opus of #snark,” while Fieri’s defenders shot back that he was “a genuine nice guy, a real dude that loves big flavor, leave him alone.”
Tensions escalated when Fieri decided to throw down a gauntlet of his own on the Today show on Thursday morning. In an interview, Fieri scored a publicity coup by coming across as an unflappable average Joe just working hard to serve up good grub to the American people, and by questioning the Times’ ulterior motives. “It went so overboard, it really seemed like there was another agenda,” he said. “The tone, the sarcasm, the question style. I mean, I think we all know what’s goin’ on here … it’s a great way to make a name for yourself—go after a celebrity chef that’s not a New Yorker.” Later in the program, a panel that included Star Jones and Dr. Phil called the piece mean-spirited and let loose the bombshell that, if the place was so bad, why did the Times sales department host some 200 clients there for a dinner even as the review hit the presses?
Meanwhile, the Times public editor weighed in on the issue and put herself squarely in her colleague’s camp, pronouncing Wells’s review “brilliantly negative,” “fun to read,” and “a masterpiece of scorn,” before concluding that Wells was perfectly within his rights as a critic to speak his mind.
Remaining mysterious in all the back-and-forth between Team Pete and Team Guy was why the review had touched such a raw nerve on both sides. After all, it certainly wasn’t the first time that a Gray Lady food critic had penned a withering screed in the Internet age. Who could forget Frank Bruni’s infamous write-up of Ninja, “a kooky, dreary subterranean labyrinth that seems better suited to coal mining than to supping”? He advised diners to flee “right back out the door … you will be spared an infinitely larger measure of tedium.” His smackdown was so deadly, certain fans still refer to Bruni as “The Ninja” seven years on.
Or what about Sam Sifton’s zero-star pan of Lavo, which he kicked off with a spoof letter from an imaginary jock before proceeding to lambast the city’s Tom Buchanan-esque One Percenters? “I’m a 35-year-old professional in Manhattan and I am looking for a place where I can take my boys from the office to meet this smoking-hot girl I hooked up with at Lily Pond in the Hamptons this summer,” the faux-bro wrote. Sifton assured him that Lavo was the perfect place, a hotbed of thin, tan bodies and social-climbing aspirations. “The socialites and reality- television personalities Tinsley Mortimer and Kelly Bensimon were both there on the first night and apparently put some kind of spell on the place, because roughly 70 percent of the women who eat at the restaurant look like one or the other of them.”
So maybe it was the fact of Fieri’s celebrity that got everyone hot and bothered. Then again, Bruni handed a tepid one star to Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in 2008, calling it an “overly familiar, somewhat tired production” and noting the tacos contained “the most shriveled, desiccated pieces of meat I’ve seen outside a bodega buffet at 3 a.m.” And back in 2002, Bill Grimes wrote a lugubrious column about Anthony Bourdain’s downtown offshoot of Les Halles, lamenting that “it doesn’t aim very high” and seeming to question, like Wells did of Fieri, whether the celebrity chef had even set foot in the place.
As the war of words went on, though, it quickly devolved into a red-state blue-state showdown for a nation still smarting from Election Day wounds. In this narrative, Wells was the entitled, dismissive voice of the East Coast media elite while Fieri, with his big gold chains and his recipes for Mojito Chicken and tequila-soaked “No Can Beato This Taquito,” was the face of rough-and-tumble Middle America (never mind that his other restaurants were located in the vaunted GOP bastions of Sonoma County and San Francisco). “Ignore all those critics in New York,” one fan tweeted at Fieri. “Guy Fieri served me my first pork slider w/cole slaw ever, from a trailer booth at our county fair,” posted a second. “For free, told me to pay if I loved it.” Whatta guy, the tweeters said. A real American who likes downhome comfort food—a guy you could kick back and eat ribs and po’ boys with while watching the big game. Certainly, his restaurant couldn’t “be as bad as all those snooty New Yorkers say.”
Fieri’s supporters also questioned why Wells had, just the week before, opened his no-star review of 21 Club by solemnly advising “readers who look forward to the dark thrill of a public execution on days when there are no stars attached to this column” to “turn elsewhere to satisfy their blood lust.” Woah there, Fieri’s fans said, but what changed in the course of a week? Was it because 21 Club didn’t ooze redneck as much as red Burgundy? Was it because 21 Club was so very classic old Manhattan? The olives in the martinis “are as cold as a walk along Park Avenue in January,” Wells rhapsodized. The venison on the meat platter was pretty icy, too, “as cold as if it had been carried all the way from the hunting lodge”—but no matter. It still was a place where the chattering classes could go to don a jacket and tie, gaze at the art deco-era murals, and relax to “the gentle swirl of old Bordeaux.” A place, let’s be honest, very far from the “Rawk and roll” (Wells’s words) rowdiness and sticky-sweet margaritas of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar.
Behind the frontlines of the other side, Wells’s centurions were busy garlanding him the conquering cultural hero for taking the air out of Fieri’s “greasy, good-old-boy” persona and calling the new restaurant a “fatty tumor” choking the nation. Fieri was “a great symbol of Fat America, of Big Food, of Unnecessary Food Celebrity,” one foodie wrote, “hellbent on turning us all into grease incubators.”
Fieri, for one, seemed eager to play into the Heartland versus Harvard stereotypes. In a statement, he reiterated his belief that Wells “went into my restaurant with his mind already made up” before triumphantly noting that “countless people … yes, even New Yorkers” enjoyed his restaurant. Fieri would not be cowed by a review that more than half of all Today show viewers deemed too harsh.
But Wells was a little more reluctant to get into further mud-slinging. In a conversation with the Times public editor and with Poynter, he painted his beef as merely a wish that Fieri had paid more accurate, and more tasty, homage to the American classics the chef purported to love on his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives treks through America. “This is important American food that makes a lot of people very happy. And since that’s the case, you ought to do it right,” Wells said, before noting, “I did go in hoping there would be good things on the menu. I would have liked to write the ‘man-bites-dog’ review.”
These themes do appear in Wells’s piece, it’s true, though perhaps in a less lofty tone. “Has anyone ever told you that your high-wattage passion for no-collar American food makes you television’s answer to Calvin Trillin,” Wells wrote to Fieri, “if Mr. Trillin bleached his hair, drove a Camaro, and drank Boozy Creamsicles?”
“When you cruise around the country for your show … rasping out slangy odes to the unfancy places where Americans like to get down and greasy, do you really mean it? Or is it all an act? Is that why the kind of cooking you celebrate on television is treated with so little respect at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar?”
When asked about these questions, Wells told Poynter that they were certainly not meant to be mocking, and all made in the most grave earnestness. “I really did have a lot of questions,” he avowed. “There was so much about the restaurant I couldn’t figure out.”
If one goes by the gadfly nature of the Internet cycle these days, the Wells-Fieri fight will likely be brief. It will probably generate great traffic for both parties involved—both in terms of foot-soldiers flocking to chow down on Fieri’s Donkey Sauce burgers in a show of solidarity, and in terms of feverish page views at the Times. But long after the specifics of the smackdown fade, we’ll likely still be wrestling with the fallout from the famous foodie rumble of ’12.
For one thing, it will be difficult for critics (and their bosses) seeking page views to steer clear of the temptations of cruel personal attacks and witty snark bombs. Wells has written some lovely, thoughtful, and evocative reviews over the past year. And it’s a safe bet that not one of them garnered the number of clicks that his Fieri piece did. Even outside of the restaurant world, sniping between critics and their targets is fast becoming yet another blood sport in our gladiatorial cyber-arena. (Witness the tiff last summer between a New York theater critic and Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence over a less-than-glowing review of a Zach Braff play.) In our online crucible where the spat or scandal of the day tends to dominate the news cycle—and where both writers and chefs are expected to be brand names in their own right—how can a critic hope to keep up, except for jumping on the bandwagon of hyperbole?
Then again, maybe we’re just heading in the direction that literary ingenue Rebecca West envisioned in 1914, when she longed for a “new and abusive school of criticism” to cut through all the sycophants and charlatans. Erring on the side of cruelty was desirable—it allowed one to approach a more objective rendering of the subject under consideration. All great critics have understood that being disliked is part and parcel of the job, which is, as Matthew Arnold once said, to see “the object as in itself it really is.” (“We have no friends,” Baudelaire reflected as he embarked upon his day job as an art critic. “This is a great thing.”)
It’s a mantra that food critics on the other side of the Atlantic have long embraced. London writers such as A.A. Gill and Michael Winner have been called “the most feared men in London,” “vicious” fellows with “poison pens” whose eviscerations of restaurants are carried about in the most cold-blooded and pitiless of terms. They swagger into a restaurant on its opening night, surrounded by a group of rowdy friends, boldly announcing their presence and watching headwaiters scurry around in terror. No darting about in wigs à la Ruth Reichl for them. Restaurateurs are lucky if their food even gets reviewed at all. Gill is infamous for writing about everything but the cuisine, and if he does comment on the grub, it’s usually a bad sign. When Gill ventured over to New York to skewer a Jean-George Vongerichten restaurant in Vanity Fair one year, he noted that the shrimp-and-foie dumplings resembled nothing so much as “fishy, liver-filled condoms.”
So, moral of the story: Guy Fieri, maybe you got off easy in New York. Think twice, though, about opening a place in London.
Sushi Nakazawa Downgraded to Three Stars in the Times for ‘Lusterless’ Bites
Sushi Nakazawa — one of the city’s most beloved and affordable omakases — loses a star this week from Times critic Pete Wells, a blow for the West Village restaurant famous for its connection to hit 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Once one of the city’s hardest reservations, the Tokyo-style sushi counter has become “more accessible than ever,” Wells writes, but it’s lost some of its flair to get there. To accommodate demand, the restaurant has made the sushi’s production line more efficient: Chefs pre-slice fish ahead of seatings, rather than to-order. There’s also additional lunch service, and it stays open seven days a week, instead of five.
Those changes, though, have led to the loss of a star, bringing it from four stars to three stars. There are now “few surprises or rarities,” Wells writes, and some of the bites that blew him away in the past are now less appealing, such as the shrimp:
One of my strongest impressions from the restaurant’s early days is the flavor of the live shrimp — the same ones Mr. Nakazawa liked to launch at unsuspecting customers before killing them, shelling them and laying them over a parcel of warm rice. Each time I ate one, I felt the room spin. The lusterless, pre-killed spot prawns I’ve had there recently were no substitute at all.
I doubt advance slicing was the reason the scallop with yuzukosho on its underside, like a concealed weapon, seemed less vividly seasoned than it used to be. Nor did it have anything to do with what’s happened to the tamago, which used to be a kind of whipped custard with a haunting savory finish and is now more like a blandly sweet yellow spongecake.
Wells first awarded four-stars on the sushi restaurant in 2013, just months after restaurateur Alessandro Borgognone and chef Daisuke Nakazawa opened the doors. Borgognone brought Nakazawa to New York after watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the popular documentary where Nakazawa moonlights as an apprentice at Tokyo’s three Michelin-starred Sukiyabashi Jiro. It’s since expanded to DC, where its location in the Trump Building faced criticism.
The restaurant still has pieces that took Wells “on a quick thrill ride,” like the golden-eye snapper and the yellowtail, and with a reasonable $150 price point, the critic commended the restaurant’s “populism,” particularly as so many sushi spots raise their prices.
But Sushi Nakazawa is now off the coveted list of New York Times four-star restaurants, leaving only Eleven Madison Park, Le Bernardin, and Jean-Georges. Three stars.
Hill Country Barbecue Market
Despite burning about 1,500 pounds a week of post oak shipped in from Texas, Hill Country doesn’t produce that kind of deeply smoky barbecue. It produces very slowly roasted meat with an echo of campfire around the edges. The low smoke quotient makes a spongy, beige pork chop a disappointment, and leaves the market chicken just another slightly dry rotisserie bird.
But it does no harm to the prime rib and the beef shoulder. They may not be great Texas-style barbecue, but they are still terrific slabs of roast beef, cooked medium-rare through and through and ringed with that salt-and-pepper crust. And the jalapeño-cheese links, shipped to Manhattan by Kreuz Market, are always full flavored and insistently spicy, though their juiciness varies from day to day.
When Hill Country opened, five years ago last month, it joined a wave of new restaurants that tried to coax more smoke into barbecue than had seemed possible on the tightly regulated shores of the East River. In a glowing $25 and Under column in 2007, the last time Hill Country was reviewed in The New York Times, Peter Meehan focused on the meat, especially the brisket. “No other barbecue place that has opened in New York in recent years has gotten it so right, right out of the gate,” he wrote.
Since then, Hill Country’s other virtues have become easier to notice, or harder to ignore. Year after year I am drawn back to the dessert case for another plastic cup of banana pudding, built upon a custard so thick with eggs and cream it brings Paris to mind, and not the one in Texas. And as New York has become cluttered with strenuously playful cupcakes, few make me smile as easily as the one at Hill Country that is filled with grape jelly and frosted with a fluffy turban of peanut butter.
According to hard-liners, the only permissible side dishes with barbecue are white bread and saltines. Anything else is as out of place as a yuzu macaron.
Hill Country takes a more liberal point of view, thankfully. When I can afford to surrender the stomach space, I will have some peppery corn pudding, which has roughly the same relationship to an ear of corn that an ice cream sundae has to a cow. And I am always grateful for the relief provided by crunchy, sparingly dressed coleslaw and a vinegary salad of black-eyed peas.
None of these dishes look like restaurant food they seem like things packed for a church picnic by the best cook in town. The cook in this case, or at least the one whose recipes the kitchen follows, is the restaurant’s executive chef, Elizabeth Karmel. Named in her honor, EAK’s Bowl of Red is a ground-beef chili that could be a meal in itself, although it’s soupy enough that I wish Hill Country really did serve it in a bowl rather than in the same paper cartons used for all the sides.
In Texas, much of the atmosphere of a barbecue joint is provided by the employees and the customers. Since shipping live Texans across state lines can be complicated, Hill Country’s owner, Marc Glosserman, bought inanimate objects like battered butcher blocks, salvaged floorboards and an old Blue Bell ice cream freezer.
All this may be mistaken for the set dressing a big chain might use, but no chain would play Ray Wylie Hubbard and Reckless Kelly, or hire bartenders who mouth the lyrics as they tuck their bottle openers into the back pockets of their jeans.
Hill Country may not be the real thing. But it plays the part better than anybody else in town.
Changing Chefs, Gotham Bar and Grill Starts a New Era
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Until this year, Gotham Bar and Grill without Alfred Portale was as hard to imagine as Cuba without at least one Castro. Mr. Portale was not the first chef at Gotham, but he took the job so soon after the restaurant opened in 1984, and kept doing it for so long, that when he finally left in May his name and its name were almost inseparable.
It was Mr. Portale who lured Tom Valenti, Bill Telepan, Tom Colicchio and Wylie Dufresne to work at Gotham early in their careers. Gotham’s first three-star review in The New York Times, from Bryan Miller in 1985? Mr. Portale was in charge. Its most recent review, three stars from Sam Sifton in 2011? Mr. Portale was in charge. The three other Times reviews in between? Always Mr. Portale. Always three stars, too.
Anyone following a long-running success like that has two choices. She can try not to startle the horses by speaking softly and moving slowly. Or she can get it over with and shoot the horses. Victoria Blamey, who was hired to take over for Mr. Portale at Gotham Bar and Grill, shot the horses. In an interview published in September, speaking of the architectural plating style Mr. Portale was once known for, she said, “no one wants to see that right now.”
The next day she let loose with a menu that buried every one of her predecessor’s dishes (here’s your hat, tuna tartare what’s your hurry, seafood salad?) under a heap of her own ideas. No question, Gotham Bar and Grill is in the Blamey era now. Loyal customers are going to have to get out or strap in.
Ms. Blamey’s new menu is not self-consciously avant-garde, the way Atera’s tasting menus were when she was the sous-chef there, but it may be more original. It’s certainly not like anything else around town. Her plating style is stark — not aggressive, but a little severe and occasionally challenging. The flavors aren’t like that, though. They’re deep and enveloping they tend to open and change in your mouth, and linger after you swallow, like wine.
Take her ceviche. Normally, you know where you stand with a ceviche. You know how the marinade will change the seafood, how the seafood’s juices will knock the edge off the citrus and how the chile fits in.
The sea scallop ceviche at Gotham is a trickier character. The splayed-open scallops sit in a pale yellow juice that tastes of corn, first sweetly, like a fruit, and then not so sweetly. Then other things enter the picture, smoke and citrus and chiles. The scallops taste like scallops, so of course they’re wonderful, but they’ve also been rolled in chile salt and each one has a pink dot of aged umeboshi paste in the center. There is more to the story, including some charred baby corn whose kernels are the size of poppy seeds, but it should be clear already that you will need to hold on tight if you are going to follow every twist and turn at Gotham.
As anyone knows who has eaten the drippily sophisticated burger incorporating bone marrow and American cheese that she invented when she was the chef at Chumley’s, Ms. Blamey has a way of using fat to underline her points. Most of the time, this comes off as smart rather than obvious. (With the burger, now available at Gotham’s long, much-loved, pink-granite bar, it’s both.)
Try the Baywater Sweet oysters farmed in the Hood Canal in Washington State they’re creamy enough to bring on a swoon, but instead of the mignonette that might keep the fat in check, Ms. Blamey spoons a cauliflower and white chocolate purée into each silvery shell. Half vegetable and half candy, it even upstages the black pearls of caviar on top.
Triangles of foie gras torchon under a translucent layer of black-truffle jelly are really quite fluffy and rich, even by the standards of foie gras torchons. So of course Ms. Blamey serves it with butter — kombu butter, which goes so well with the warm kombu brioche. If the city’s new ban on foie gras ever goes into effect, I already know one place where I’ll stop to say goodbye.
While the torchon will not win Ms. Blamey many fans among the vegans, the cabbage should. The warm, satiny leaves — she uses the caraflex variety, tender and virtually ribless — are dressed with sugary brown juice pressed from charred onions golden pearls of fregola give the dish the heft of a main course.
Although Ms. Blamey is quite clearly a cheerful carnivore, she turns vegetables into compelling events. She amplifies the smokiness of creamy charred Japanese eggplant with a lapsang souchong broth her dal is made with coconut milk, mustard seeds, fried curry leaves and the care a good Indian cook would put into it. The legumes, though, are the dense, creamy red peas long cultivated by Gullah rice farmers on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia.
The animals she does cook, and there are quite a few, are ones she believes were sustainably raised or caught from healthy populations. Tilefish, not popular enough yet to be overfished, is on the menu, under a thick coral pelt of caramelized sea urchin from Maine. Oregon Dungeness crab stewed with tomatoes and ají dulce peppers, a twist on an abalone dish Ms. Blamey ate in Chile as a girl, is stuffed between layers of puff pastry to make a cross between an empanada and pithivier.
Rabbit leg is braised in olive oil and an allium stock flavored with charred fig leaves and seasoned with fish sauce. I learned that later on, in a phone call with Ms. Blamey at the time, I just knew that I’d rarely had rabbit as rich or as sneakily packed with flavor. The rabbit is served under black lentils. The lentils are augmented with chicken fat.
The owners and Ms. Blamey have said they want to entice younger diners to give Gotham a try. Josh Lit, the wine director, does his part by adding five pages of fashionably noninterventionist, sulfur-phobic winemakers like Christian Tschida and Frank Cornelissen to a list that is already as long as a novella. There’s a whole page for Joe Swick, a young Oregonian who calls his chardonnay “Wyd? U up?” and his field blend “Only Zuul,” a “Ghostbusters” reference that the list handily decodes with the hashtag #thereisnodana.
The interior may be a sticking point in the youth campaign it hasn’t kept up with the pace of change in the kitchen. The walls were freshly painted and the lighting fine-tuned this summer before the new menu was unwrapped, but Gotham is still a time capsule of postmodernist restaurant design motifs from the 1980s, when vast loftlike spaces were automatically exciting. There is still some drama left in the theatrical, multilevel dining room the parachute chandeliers that show off how far away the ceilings are and the plants from the garden that press their leaves up against the back door as if they wanted to come inside. But it’s not the kind of drama that translates well to Instagram, and so far the new crowd looks a lot like the old crowd.
At first you might wonder why a pastry chef with more modern leanings hasn’t been recruited. Then you eat Ron Paprocki’s desserts and you stop wondering. Who would wish for vegetable ice creams, shattered cakes and fermented fruit when we could be eating sticks of pain perdu under a crunchy caramel shell, or near-levitating soufflés made from the red flesh of Ruby Prince peaches?
Mr. Paprocki also makes what must be the greatest tarte Tatin in the city, a ring of apples in a state of collapse on a Frisbee of puff pastry stained with what always seems to be the right amount of burned sugar. If somebody tries to tell you it needs to be updated, just laugh and walk away.
Pete Wells Has His Knives Out
How the New York Times critic writes the reviews that make and break restaurants.
Pete Wells, the restaurant critic of the Times, who writes a review every week—and who occasionally writes one that creates a national hubbub about class, money, and soup—was waiting for a table not long ago at Momofuku Nishi, a modish new restaurant in Chelsea. Wells is fifty-three and soft-spoken. His balance of Apollonian and Dionysian traits is suggested by a taste for drawing delicate sketches of tiki cocktails. Since starting the job, in 2012, he has eaten out five times a week. His primary disguise strategy is “to be the least interesting person in the room,” he had told me, adding, “Which I was, for many years. It’s not a stretch.” But he does vary his appearance. At times, he’ll be unshaven, in frayed jeans in Chelsea, he looked like a European poet—a gray wool suit over a zip-up sweater, a flat cap pulled low, nonprescription glasses. He was carrying a memoir, written by a friend, titled “Bullies.”
Wells had encouraged me to arrive just ahead of him, and to ask for the reservation for two, at nine-forty-five, under the randomly chosen name of Michael Patcher. There was half a chance that I’d be allowed to sit before he showed up. If so, then at least one aspect of the evening would have what Wells calls a “civilian” texture, even if he was recognized. (As he put it, “If we’re very lucky, we might get a bad table.”) But when Wells arrived I was still waiting to sit down. So we stood near the door, at an awkward, congested spot from which we could have reached out and taken a clam from someone’s plate of Asian-Italian noodles.
The front of the room was bare and bright, and filled with thirty-year-olds on backless stools at communal pale-wood tables—a picnic held in a cell-phone store. The noise level reminded me of Wells’s review of a Tex-Mex restaurant: “It always sounds as if somebody were telling a woman at the far end of the table that he had just found $1,000 under the menu, and the woman were shouting back that Ryan Gosling had just texted and he’s coming to the restaurant in, like, five minutes!” Wells is not peevish about discomfort. His columns make a subtle study of what counts as fun in middle age—loyalties divided between abandon and an early night. His expressions of enthusiasm often take the form of wariness swept away: Wells found joy in a conga line at Señor Frog’s, in Times Square. But after dining at Momofuku Nishi he returned to his home, in Brooklyn, and wrote in his notes about “a hurricane of noise.”
Two minutes after Wells arrived at the restaurant, it became clear that he’d been spotted. His friend Jeff Gordinier—a journalist who, until recently, reported on restaurants for the Times—had spoken with me about Wells’s chances of remaining anonymous by referring to a famous contractual demand made by Van Halen: concert promoters were asked to supply the band with a backstage bowl of M&M’s, with the brown ones removed. David Lee Roth, Van Halen’s lead singer, has said that the request was not whimsical. It helped to show whether a contract had been carefully read and, therefore, whether the band’s complex, and potentially dangerous, technical requirements were likely to have been met. Gordinier said that an ambitious New York restaurant’s ability to spot Pete Wells is a similar indicator of thoroughness: “If they don’t recognize who he is, then they are missing a very important detail, and therefore they may not be paying attention to other important details.”
In 1962, Craig Claiborne became the first person at the Times to review restaurants regularly two decades later, he published a memoir, noting that he had “disliked the power” of being a critic. He added, “It burdened my conscience to know that the existence or demise of an establishment might depend on the praise or damnation to be found in the Times.” Much of that power remains, even as it has seeped away from reviewers of theatre and painting Wells is a vestige of newspaper clout. And, because successful chefs now often sit atop empires, a single bad review can threaten a dozen restaurants and a thousand employees. When Wells reviewed Vaucluse, on the Upper East Side, he began by identifying the restaurant’s parent company, founded by the chef Michael White and Ahmass Fakahany, a former Merrill Lynch executive: “A critic could run out of new ways to express disappointment in Altamarea Group restaurants if Altamarea didn’t keep coming up with new ways to disappoint.”
The Momofuku Group, run by the thirty-nine-year-old chef David Chang, has in recent years expanded into fast food, overseas restaurants, and a quarterly magazine named Lucky Peach. But Momofuku Nishi was the company’s first full-scale, sit-down restaurant to open in New York in five years. A visit from Wells was a certainty. A copy of the one photograph of him that is widely available online, in which he looks like a character actor available to play sardonic police sergeants, was fixed to a wall in the restaurant’s back stairwell. Chang recently told me that, despite the profusion of opinion online, he still thought of the Times as the “judge and jury” of a new venture, if not the executioner.
In the logjam by the restaurant’s door, a young woman in a dark fitted jacket—later identified as Gabrielle Nurnberger, one of the restaurant’s managers—smiled at Wells, then turned away. Wells said to me, “Look at this,” and we watched as she strode toward the kitchen with her arms down, like a gymnast starting a run-up. (At the equivalent moment of discovery in another restaurant, I saw a manager mouth to Wells’s server “Good luck,” and place a reassuring hand on her arm.) There was increased activity in and out of the kitchen, which was half exposed to the room. We waited a few more minutes, and were then shown to a spot at the edge of the hurricane, against a wall. Our neighbors were taking photographs directly above their bowls of Ceci e Pepe. The dish, a riff on pasta cacio e pepe, using fermented chickpea paste in place of Pecorino, was central to the restaurant’s promoted identity, suggesting technical expertise in the service of amused nonconformity. (Chang told me, later, that he had conceived of the menu as a “Fuck you” to Italian cuisine.) We were given menus with wry footnotes. Wells took off his fake glasses and put on his reading glasses.
“Why does it always have to represent something?”
Nurnberger became our server. Wells is an unassuming man who has become used to causing a stir, and this can be disorienting: it’s odd to hear him wonder, not unreasonably, if restaurants ever think of bugging his table. But a restaurant can’t openly acknowledge him. A while ago, he happened to sit next to Jimmy Fallon, the host of the “Tonight Show,” at the counter of a sushi restaurant in the Village. Both men were recognized. As Wells recalled it, Fallon “got the overt treatment”: “big smiles and ‘Thank you for coming in’ ” and perhaps an extra dish or two. Wells’s experience was that “every dish of mine was an object of attention and worry before it got to me”—he often has a slower meal than other diners do, because dishes get done again and again until they are deemed exemplary. As usual, his water glass “was always being topped up.” But it was “as if none of this were happening.”
Experienced for the first time, this covert cosseting feels slightly melancholy, like an episode of Cold War fiction involving futile charades and a likely defenestration. Nurnberger was a gracious server but, understandably, not quite at ease. She risked overplaying her role, like Sartre’s waiter in “Being and Nothingness,” who “bends forward a little too eagerly” and voices “an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer.” In her effort to help, Nurnberger came close to explaining what a menu was. Rote questions about how we gentlemen were getting on—usually asked of me—had a peculiar intensity. “I’m very reluctant to break the fourth wall,” Wells had said to me earlier, speaking of restaurant staff. “But I wish there were some subtle way to say, ‘Don’t worry!’ ” He sighed—he often sighs—and added, “I can’t honestly say that. Because sometimes they should worry.”
When Wells speaks, his fingers often flutter near his temples, as if he were a stage mentalist trying to focus. He ordered several plates of food after hesitation, he asked for a glass of white wine. He does not follow Craig Claiborne’s practice, in the nineteen-sixties, of weighing himself every day, but he has begun to think of alcohol as calories that he can skip without being professionally lax. He is not fat, but the job stands between him and leanness: he can’t turn down food. “My body is not my own,” he said.
When dishes arrived, he looked at them sternly for a moment. We talked, or shouted, about his older son’s food allergies, and about a decision, just made at the Times, to have him regularly assess restaurants outside New York. (The first of these reviews, from Los Angeles, appears online on September 6th.) He talked of his earlier career, as an editor at Details, a columnist at Food & Wine, and the dining editor of the Times, when he had opportunities to watch chefs work and ask them questions. In his current role, he’d probably leave the room if someone like Chang turned up at the same cocktail party. “The danger is getting friendly with people you should feel free to destroy,” he said, and then stopped. “That’s not really the word, but you get the idea. People you should feel free to savage, when you have to.” Over my shoulder, Wells could see into the kitchen. At the start of the evening, Chang wasn’t visible, but then he was. “He may have been airlifted,” Wells said. For the critic’s benefit, a chef-commander, summoned from a sister restaurant or a back office, may take over from a lieutenant. Though Chang’s brand is built on unconventionality, he respected the convention of the fourth wall. The two men, who were on friendly terms before Wells became a critic, made eye contact but did not acknowledge each other.
In the fall of 2012, Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar opened, on West Forty-fourth Street. The restaurant’s muse, and part owner, was Guy Fieri. Brought up in California by parents who ate a macrobiotic diet, Fieri became a restaurateur, and found fame as the upbeat host of dude-oriented shows on the Food Network, including “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” That show’s signature shot framed Fieri—his cheeks shining, his hair gelled into exclamation points—overlooking a cook’s shoulder in a roadside kitchen, yelling his appreciation of the brisket. Guy’s American Kitchen was his first New York restaurant. Wells ate there on four occasions. Three of those times, one of his guests told him on the way out that he or she had never eaten a worse meal.
In 1963, the Times introduced star ratings for restaurant reviews. One star has come to be defined as Good two is Very Good, three is Excellent, and four is Extraordinary. A restaurant that doesn’t deserve a star is graded Poor, Fair, or Satisfactory, like a Victorian schoolboy. Wells’s review of Guy’s American Kitchen was his first—and, so far, only—column to be headed with a Poor rating. The review was couched entirely as questions. “Guy Fieri, have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square?” it began. “Have you pulled up one of the five hundred seats at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar and ordered a meal? Did you eat the food? Did it live up to your expectations? Did panic grip your soul as you stared into the whirling hypno wheel of the menu, where adjectives and nouns spin in a crazy vortex?” Later: “Were you struck by how very far from awesome the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders are?” Wells went on, “Why did the toasted marshmallow taste like fish?” Newspaper readers have learned to dread columns driven by a rhetorical conceit—Michiko Kakutani once reviewed a novel in Holden Caulfield’s voice—but Wells kept his afloat. His expressions of puzzlement, though amused, were sincere enough to give him a half-innocent path to gleeful, relentless disdain.
Wells is generally a well-mannered critic, if not an overly respectful one. In his first years on the job, he was sometimes faulted in the food press for being too generous in his appraisals he had made a point of publishing fewer one-star reviews than his immediate predecessors. “No one likes one-star reviews,” Wells told me, in a conversation at his apartment, which is in a Clinton Hill brownstone. “The restaurants don’t like them, and the readers don’t like them. It’s very tricky to explain why this place is good enough to deserve a review but not quite good enough to get up to the next level.” He added, “I’m looking for places that I can be enthusiastic about. Like a golden retriever, I would like to drop a ball at the feet of the reader every week and say, ‘Here!’ ”
It was a Friday afternoon. His wife, the novelist Susan Choi, and their two sons were out. (He and Choi met at The New Yorker, where they were both fact-checkers.)* Wells was listening to mournful country-tinged indie music while a small dog clattered about on parquet flooring. A door led out to a deck and a grill. According to Kat Kinsman, an editor at the Web site Extra Crispy, who has known Wells since the late nineties, he is “never more relaxed than when he’s tending a grill and wearing a Hawaiian shirt and has some kind of rum-based drink.” Wells, the adopted son of a nurse and an electrical engineer, told me that when he was growing up, in the suburbs of Providence, Rhode Island, he was “the grill guy.” After the death of his father, last year, Wells began researching his biological family, starting with a few clues but no names: he knew that his birth mother “got mixed up with a folksinger from the local coffee-house circuit,” and that his great-grandfather had headed a university linguistics department. “How many can there be?” Wells asked. “I have ruled out Noam Chomsky.”
“Ugh, I’m too hungover for salvation—come back later.”
He had just e-mailed the draft of a two-star review to the paper. He files copy once a week. Mimi Sheraton, the Times’ restaurant critic in the late seventies and early eighties, recently recalled that she was expected to write at least three articles weekly. “I could not make the review my whole week’s literary effort!” she told me. “And I felt that a review was very temporary—it wasn’t going to live for posterity.” Sheraton, who likes Wells and values his discernment, cares little for his column. “A lot of reviews now tend to be food features,” she said. She recalled a reference to Martin Amis in a Wells review of a Spanish restaurant in Brooklyn she said she would have mentioned Amis only “if he came in and sat down and ordered chopped liver.”
Craig Claiborne, in a review from 1966, observed, “The lobster tart was palatable but bland and the skewered lamb on the dry side. The mussels marinière were creditable.” Thanks, in part, to the informal and diverting columns of Gael Greene, at New York, and Ruth Reichl, the Times’ critic during the nineties, restaurant reviewing in American papers has since become as much a vehicle for cultural criticism and literary entertainment—or, as Sheraton put it, “gossip”—as a guide to eating out. A contemporary Times restaurant critic is expected to maintain a degree of mandarin authority about mussels marinière (and Asian-Italian noodles), but he must also appeal to readers in Miami and London who have no plans to visit New York, and who may come to a review through Twitter and have an opinion about a chef from his or her appearances on TV. As Wells put it, “I have to hit the marks that I have to hit”—food, service, vibe—“without making you die of boredom.” The task can feel like “crossing the desert,” he said.
According to Patrick Farrell, Wells’s usual editor at the Times, Wells sometimes e-mails around deadline to say that he’s forgotten how to write. In moments of distress, he turns to Oblique Strategies, the pack of cards, printed with gnomic guidance for blocked artists, co-written by Brian Eno. (“Change nothing and proceed with immaculate consistency.”) Wells has also learned to avoid taste-related adjectives: his quintessential description of a plate of food is a list of ingredients coupled to an emotion. Writing about Mr. Donahue’s, in Nolita: “The chard was cooked with a little garlic and lemon and bread crumbs. The crab tasted of mayonnaise and Tabasco and had been browned and warmed inside a heavy foil dish in the shape of a crab shell. I spread it on saltines from a crinkly cellophane wrapper and ate it with the sensation of having found something I’d lost such a long time ago that I’d forgotten about it.”
The two-star review is generally the easiest for Wells to write. “It’s good copy, automatically,” he said. Readers will hear a voice of slightly goofy Wodehousian giddiness the column becomes a self-portrait of someone glad to discover that—in this restaurant and, perhaps, in life—things have turned out better than expected. (In the review he’d just turned in, of Little Pepper, in Queens: “How did crinkle-cut fries get into a Sichuan restaurant? How can I be so helplessly, irretrievably crazy about them?”) Writing about a disappointing restaurant is a challenge that can sometimes be ignored. There are twenty-four thousand restaurants in the city. Although Wells, following his paper’s tradition, won’t file a review before he’s eaten somewhere at least three times, he’ll sometimes make one or two visits and then put the place aside, for reasons that are, essentially, literary. Wells mentioned Luksus, a restaurant in Greenpoint with Nordic touches, which has a Michelin star but left him a little cold. “I can’t figure out what to say about it,” he said.
The risk of Wells’s approach is a two-star bubble. Amanda Cohen, the chef and owner of Dirt Candy, a vegetarian restaurant on the Lower East Side, wept with happiness on seeing her two-star review, in 2012—and she still feels its economic benefit. But, she told me recently, half seriously, “we’re all two stars! We all go to one another’s restaurants, and we’re, like, ‘I’m better than this, and we’ve both got two stars!’ ”
In such an ecosystem, a harsh review is precious: it helps mark critical boundaries. Wells said that reviewing a Times Square tourist attraction like Guy’s American Kitchen “wasn’t usual territory for us, but it was legitimate territory—and really great copy. How do you walk away from that?” As Wells has come to see it, a disastrous restaurant is newsworthy only if it has a pedigree or commercial might. The mom-and-pop catastrophe can be overlooked. “I shouldn’t be having to explain to people what the place is,” he said. This reasoning seems civil, though, as Wells acknowledged, it means that his pans focus disproportionately on restaurants that have corporate siblings. Indeed, hype is often his direct or indirect subject. Of the fifteen no-star evaluations in his first four years, only two went to restaurants that weren’t part of a group of restaurants.
A review of a bad restaurant seems to expand its writer’s reach more than an unhappy review of a book or a film. A restaurant can deceive, humiliate, and poison us in a way that “Zoolander 2” cannot. In the case of Guy’s American Kitchen, readers were shown two compelling, class-tinged power struggles: one involved an absent, wealthy celebrity and his exploited customers the other set the institution of the Times against the institution of Guy. As Wells put it, “One would not think they exist in the same universe. It’s like Deadpool on ‘Downton Abbey.’ ” His rejection of Guy’s American Kitchen was, he assured me, not inevitable: even if he was not truly confounded by a lack of authenticity in a mega-restaurant spun off from reality-television self-caricature, his hope for something good could nevertheless be real. Shortly after the review appeared, he told Margaret Sullivan, then the Times’ public editor, “I would have liked to write the ‘man bites dog’ review.” He went on, “This is important American food that makes a lot of people very happy. And, since that’s the case, you ought to do it right.”
The column appeared online on a Tuesday. Wells was immediately overwhelmed by e-mail and Twitter reactions. “I remember having to walk away from my computer,” he said. “It was like a pinball machine—everything was lighting up.” Some Fieri fans wished harm on his family. Editors at other publications assigned think pieces about Fieri: journalism’s pilot fish, nibbling on flesh snagged between the predator’s teeth. That night, “Good Morning America” sent a reporter to the restaurant, to review Wells’s review, while shooting undercover video of French fries.
On Wednesday, after the column appeared in print, Wells turned down dozens of interview requests. That evening, while David Letterman was reading a Top Ten of Discontinued Guy Fieri Menu Items (teriyaki-glazed napkin, crust-crusted crust, suspiciously damp toast), Guy Fieri, who lives in California, was on an overnight flight to New York. The next morning, in a live interview with Savannah Guthrie on “Today,” he showed the public-relations limits of amiable bluster. Sitting in a restaurant stuffed with Fieri memorabilia and Fieri merchandise, he accused Wells of attention-seeking: “It’s a great way to make a name for yourself. Go after a celebrity chef that’s not a New Yorker.” When Guthrie noted that star chefs often have little involvement with restaurants bearing their name, Fieri said, with satisfaction, that this wasn’t the case here: members of his “team” had worked closely with the people running the restaurant. It was an acknowledgment of disengagement in the form of a denial.
“What’s a good board for someone who gets out in the water once a year but talks about surfing incessantly?”
Although the review was published near the year’s end, it became the paper’s fifth-most-e-mailed article of 2012. Wells’s sons, who were then five and eight, picked up on the controversy. Today, according to Wells, “if they see Guy Fieri’s face on a billboard, which only happens every ten minutes, they’re pointing: ‘Look, Daddy, look!’ They know that Guy and I have this special bond.” (Fieri declined to be interviewed for this article.)
After the success of the review, Wells said, “people said that the Times had lost its virginity.” In other words, that the paper, having discovered the secret of viral success, would scramble to replicate it. One could argue that this has happened, with reference, say, to such articles as “How to Train Like the Mountain from ‘Game of Thrones.’ ” But Wells doesn’t see it, in his own work or elsewhere. “Ruth Reichl’s Le Cirque review would have gone viral,” he said, referring to her first column as the Times’ critic, in 1993. In the piece, she describes visiting Le Cirque first as a civilian—she was belittled and bullied—and then as a recognized critic. Her assessment of the first meal describes a “parade of brown food” and ends with a line that she could have tweeted: “I find myself wishing that when the maître d’ asked if I had a reservation I had just said no and left.”
In October, Wells appeared at the Southern Foodways Alliance, an annual event held in Oxford, Mississippi. Wearing a highwayman’s mask, and billed only as the Masked Avenger, he walked onstage, read the Fieri review to a live piano accompaniment, then walked off. Although the article was relevant to the event’s theme—Southern food in popular culture—one member of the audience still found the performance a little unbecoming, “like a musician who had one hit and is singing it, a cappella, years later.” The observer added, “There may have been a cape.” Wells told me that he wore a Gandalf robe belonging to the son of the event’s organizer.
When Wells eats, he looks like someone who’s decoding a puzzle: there’s frowning concentration, a poke around the salad. One day earlier this year, he was in Jackson Heights, with Jeff Gordinier and Steve Wynn, a rock musician with courtly manners who lives in the neighborhood. Wynn was a new acquaintance Wells’s job gives a friendship-cementing mechanism to a man who is fairly shy. That evening, while eating in the second of three Himalayan restaurants that the group visited in succession, Wells sometimes dropped out of the conversation. He’d register that a dark speck found on the surface of a gray, un-Instagrammable beef-tongue soup was a Szechuan pepper, and not the coriander seed that he was expecting or he’d consider the difference between the restaurant’s momos, or dumplings, and those just eaten in the windowless place hidden behind the money-transfer agent. He said, “Just technically—if we can be technical about our momos—where it’s pinched, up at the top, it’s not cooked all the way through.”
Wells wasn’t sure if he’d ever write about the excursion. Ligaya Mishan, who writes the Times’ “Hungry City” column, about cheaper meals, was more likely to cover these restaurants, although Wells—who was the paper’s dining editor for five years—noted that he has “never been comfortable with the received hierarchy of the two columns.” He continued, “I do the ‘real’ restaurants, and these are something else—not worthy of stars?” Either way, he didn’t expect to be recognized, so he dropped his usual defenses. He didn’t wince if one of his guests used his real name, and he openly took notes at the table. (Susan Choi, who eats out with him about once a week, told me that when he started as the Times’ critic he’d write notes in the restaurant’s bathroom, or allow himself to “look like some asshole on his phone.” He now relies largely on his memory.) Wells even faced the room, instead of turning his back on it. Such evenings, he said happily, made him feel like Audrey Hepburn’s character in “Roman Holiday.” His good mood reached out to embrace the whole borough. “If you look at where the good food is in New York, it’s really in Manhattan and Queens,” he said. “I’m sorry, other boroughs, I’m sorry.”
The conversation turned to Romera, a restaurant in Chelsea that closed in 2012, soon after Wells described its many pretensions. (“A restaurant willing to send out a garnish meant to be interpreted rather than eaten is a restaurant that wants to be admired, not enjoyed.”) Wells drew a finger across his throat, in joking acceptance of responsibility. And this led to talk of other restaurants that, like Romera, presented diners with expensive, stage-managed tasting menus, involving many dainty courses and scant choice. In Wells’s phrase, “You just sit down and take it.” It was a curious trend at a time of increasing informality in New York restaurants: no-reservation policies Led Zeppelin on the playlist. As Gordinier put it, restaurateurs now regard the tasting menu as the “delivery system of perfection.” Wells said of this consensus, “It’s as if you couldn’t win Best Picture if you didn’t have a costume drama set in the nineteenth century.” Amanda Cohen, of Dirt Candy, told me that this style of eating can remind her of the fact that powerful people have been known to enjoy recreational powerlessness in bondage clubs.
Wells used the word “fun” in the first sentence of his first review, in 2012, and it has appeared again every three or four weeks since then. He has at times enthused about good-natured restaurants with inexact kitchen standards, like Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, on the Lower East Side. “Other steakhouses can drive themselves crazy over internal temperatures,” he wrote. “At Sammy’s, the meat will be cooked. If you have something more specific in mind, if you want it medium or black and blue, then write your request on a sheet of paper, tear it into small pieces and throw them into the air when the piano player sings ‘Happy Birthday.’ ” In one of the early surprises of his tenure, Wells gave three stars to Il Buco Alimentari, an Italian place in NoHo, which, though hardly a hole-in-the-wall, had few fine-dining airs. Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic of the Los Angeles Times, is a champion of the vernacular, and wrote to praise him. At the Himalayan restaurant in Jackson Heights, Wells described himself as “a little too comfortable in expensive restaurants to be a real populist.” Earlier that day, he had been working on a three-star appreciation of Bouley, in Tribeca, where “creamy tongues of sea urchin under yuzu sorbet” were served alongside “an olive-green spoonful of golden osetra caviar.” But a critic who emphasizes fun—or happiness—is setting up a potential conflict with any restaurant whose approach seems rigid.
“Just play the hit single, then you can do the experimental track.”
Tasting menus suit diners in a certain frame of mind, and they simplify life in the kitchen, especially one whose star chef lives in another time zone. But such a menu makes a long meal almost unavoidable, Wells said, “and it doesn’t leave room for the messiness and chaos that is a lot of the fun of going out to eat”—the business of bartering across the table, and “stealing Jeff’s chicken leg.” (Wells was noting a preference, but he was also indirectly defending territory. A tasting menu disempowers the critic, to the extent that he or she is no longer the only person in the room who has plowed through everything on the menu.) Wells offered another grievance: “If someone’s coming every ten minutes to describe a dish, you’re not going to have much of a conversation.” In 2012, he visited Eleven Madison Park, a restaurant with vast aspirations for international recognition. In a Critic’s Notebook article, not a full-scale review, Wells spoke of feeling worn out by servers doing magic tricks and making little speeches. “By the end of the four hours, I felt as if I’d gone to a Seder hosted by Presbyterians,” he wrote.
Although skeptical about much of what has lately counted as restaurant excellence, Wells hasn’t quite drawn his own boundary line—one defined, perhaps, by affability and chaos. In his columns, where even his expressions of delight are often a little wistful, it’s perhaps possible to detect a critic’s regret that he’ll never report on the dining equivalent of a perfect first album recorded in a garage over a weekend. That has something to do with the nature of restaurants, but it also has something to do with the Times. In the seventies, the paper prefaced every star rating with an explanation: the score represented a reviewer’s reaction “to food and price in relation to comparable establishments.” That language is no longer used, but the spirit—one steak house against another—seems to survive. Wells told me that the star system indicates how close restaurants “come to being the best possible version of themselves,” but he acknowledged that this idea doesn’t fully hold. “It’s hard to imagine a four-star genre restaurant . . . an egg-cream place,” he said. He has tried to wear the stars lightly (“Hotel stars actually mean something,” he said), but he hasn’t ignored them. Last year, his praise of Superiority Burger—six-dollar veggie burgers in the East Village—was unrestrained, but still pegged at two stars. He recalled a conversation with Alison Cook, the food critic of the Houston Chronicle, who once gave three stars to a burger joint. “She thought it was easier for her to do that in Houston,” Wells said. “The Houston stars didn’t have the same legacy.”
Peter Luger Used to Sizzle. Now It Sputters.
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I can count on Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn to produce certain sensations at every meal.
There is the insistent smell of broiled dry-aged steak that hits me the minute I open the door and sometimes sooner, while I’m still outside on the South Williamsburg sidewalk, producing a raised pulse, a quickening of the senses and a restlessness familiar to anyone who has seen a tiger that has just heard the approach of the lunch bucket.
There is the hiss of butter and melted tallow as they slide down the hot platter, past the sliced porterhouse or rib steak and their charred bones, to make a pool at one end. The server will spoon some of this sizzling fat over the meat he has just plated, generally with some line like “Here are your vitamins.”
There is the thunk of a bowl filled with schlag landing on a bare wood table when dessert is served, and soon after, the softer tap-tap-tap of waxy chocolate coins in gold foil dropped one at a time on top of the check.
And after I’ve paid, there is the unshakable sense that I’ve been scammed.
The last sensation was not part of the Peter Luger experience when I started eating there, in the 1990s. I was acutely aware of the cost back then because I would settle the tab by counting out $20 bills cash was the only way to pay unless you had a Peter Luger credit card. At the end of the night my wallet would be empty. Because a Peter Luger steak made me feel alive in a way that few other things did, I considered this a fair trade, although I could afford it only once a year or so.
I don’t remember when the doubts began, but they grew over time.
Diners who walk in the door eager to hand over literal piles of money aren’t greeted they’re processed. A host with a clipboard looks for the name, or writes it down and quotes a waiting time. There is almost always a wait, with or without a reservation, and there is almost always a long line of supplicants against the wall. A kind word or reassuring smile from somebody on staff would help the time pass. The smile never comes. The Department of Motor Vehicles is a block party compared with the line at Peter Luger.
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The management seems to go out of its way to make things inconvenient. Customers at the bar have to order drinks from the bartender and food from an overworked server on the other side of the bar, and then pay two separate checks and leave two separate tips. And they can’t order lunch after 2:30 p.m., even though the bar and the kitchen remain open.
Since its last, two-star review in the Times, written by Frank Bruni in 2007, the restaurant has started taking online reservations. It accepts debit cards, too, which is nice. But the credit card you use to buy a cortado at the cafe or a bag of chips at the bodega will still not buy you a meal at Peter Luger.
The servers, who once were charmingly brusque, now give the strong impression that these endless demands for food and drink are all that’s standing between them and a hard-earned nap. Signals that a customer has a question or request don’t get picked up as quickly the canned jokes about spinach and schlag don’t flow as freely.
Some things are the same as ever. The shrimp cocktail has always tasted like cold latex dipped in ketchup and horseradish. The steak sauce has always tasted like the same ketchup and horseradish fortified by corn syrup.
Although the fries are reasonably crisp, their insides are mealy and bland in a way that fresh-cut potatoes almost certainly would not be. The sole — yes, I’m the person who ordered the sole at Peter Luger — was strangely similar: The bread crumbs on top were gold and crunchy, but the fish underneath was dry and almost powdery.
Was the Caesar salad always so drippy, the croutons always straight out of a bag, the grated cheese always so white and rubbery? I know there was a time the German fried potatoes were brown and crunchy, because I eagerly ate them each time I went. Now they are mushy, dingy, gray and sometimes cold. I look forward to them the way I look forward to finding a new, irregularly shaped mole.
[Readers respond to the Pete Wells review of Peter Luger.]
Lunch one afternoon vividly demonstrated the kitchen’s inconsistency: I ordered a burger, medium-rare, at the bar. So had the two people sitting to my right, it turned out. One of them got what we’d all asked for, a midnight-dark crust giving way to an evenly rosy interior so full of juices it looked like it was ready to cry. The other one got a patty that was almost completely brown inside. I got a weird hybrid, a burger whose interior shaded from nearly perfect on one side to gray and hard on the other.
The same issue afflicted a medium-rare porterhouse I was served one night: The fillet was ideal but the other side of the T-bone, the strip, ranged from medium-rare to medium-well. I could live with this big cuts of meat don’t always cook evenly. What gnaws at me every time I eat a Luger porterhouse is the realization that it’s just another steak, and far from the best New York has to offer.
Other restaurants, and not just steakhouses, can put a formidable crust on both sides of the cut Luger caramelizes the top side only, while the underside is barely past raw, as if it had done all its cooking on the hot platter.
Other restaurants, and not just steakhouses, buy beef that is tender, richly marbled and deeply flavorful at Luger, you get the first two but not the third.
Other restaurants, and not just steakhouses, age that beef to make flavor grow and intensify and double back on itself dry-aging at Luger still results in a tender steak, but it rarely achieves a hypnotic or compelling or even very interesting one.
But those other restaurants are not Peter Luger, as Friedrich Nietzsche might have said.
“When in this essay I declare war upon Wagner,” Nietzsche wrote in “The Case of Wagner,” “the last thing I want to do is start a celebration for any other musicians. Other musicians don’t count compared to Wagner.”
I could say the same thing about other steakhouses — compared to Peter Luger, they don’t count. Luger is not the city’s oldest, but it’s the one in which age, tradition, superb beef, blistering heat, an instinctive avoidance of anything fancy and an immensely attractive self-assurance came together to produce something that felt less like a restaurant than an affirmation of life, or at least life as it is lived in New York City. This sounds ridiculously grand. Years ago I thought it was true, though, and so did other people.
The restaurant will always have its loyalists. They will laugh away the prices, the $16.95 sliced tomatoes that taste like 1979, the $229.80 porterhouse for four. They will say that nobody goes to Luger for the sole, nobody goes to Luger for the wine, nobody goes to Luger for the salad, nobody goes to Luger for the service. The list goes on, and gets harder to swallow, until you start to wonder who really needs to go to Peter Luger, and start to think the answer is nobody.
Michelin's Anonymous Reviewers
Michelin actually has a long history of reviewing restaurants. In 1900, the Michelin tire company launched its first guidebook to encourage road tripping in France. In 1926, the first tour guides were published by Michelin which awarded single stars for fine dining restaurants.
To this day, Michelin relies entirely on its full-time staff of anonymous restaurant reviewers. The anonymous reviewers generally are very passionate about food, have a good eye for detail, and have a great taste memory to recall and compare types of foods. A reviewer has said that they must be a "chameleon" who can blend in with all of their surroundings, to appear as if they are an ordinary consumer.
Each time a reviewer goes to a restaurant, they write a thorough memorandum about their experience, and then all of the reviewers come together to discuss and decide on which restaurants will be awarded the stars.
In this way, the Michelin stars are very different than Zagat and Yelp, which rely on consumer feedback via the Internet. Zagat tallies restaurants anonymously based on surveyed reviews of diners and consumers while Yelp tallies stars based on user reviews provided online. Because the reviews are not screened, this process subjects companies like Yelp to a number of lawsuits. Michelin does not use any consumer reviews in making its restaurant determinations.
NYT Critic Agrees With Everyone: Franklin Barbecue Is Very Good
In time for SXSW revelers to take note, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells has awarded two (out of a possible four) stars to Aaron Franklin’s Franklin Barbecue, meaning the cookbook author and James Beard Award winner’s renowned barbecue spot is “very good” in Wells’s estimation. Although Wells notes that the line at Franklin Barbecue was typically hours-long (presumably filled with people who knew to make the trip before reading the Times review), he admits that the brisket, if not some of the other meats on offer, was worth the wait:
I would note that in the hours required to line up and sit down at Franklin Barbecue, I could have driven 35 miles northeast to Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, ordered the magnificent beef rib (which Franklin sells only on Saturdays), and eaten it until I couldn’t hold any more.
But I’d also note that I would not trade Franklin’s brisket for Mueller’s. I doubt I’d trade Franklin’s brisket for anybody’s, although for other meats, and certainly for turkey, I may give a slight edge to Killen’s Barbecue in Pearland.
The two-star review of Franklin Barbecue may cause some head scratching, but not for the praise lavished on the ultra-famous brisket. With a James Beard Award, consistent placement on best-of lists, including three years on Eater’s own 38 Best Restaurants in America, a spot on Anthony Bourdain’s show, and daily lines of customers, does a New York Times seal of approval move the needle?
The Franklin Barbecue review is the fourth installment of Wells’s national reviews. In September, the Times announced that Wells would occasionally cover restaurants outside of the New York metropolitan area, beginning with the subject of that day’s review — Cassia. Wells gave the already well-received Los Angeles restaurant three stars.
World's 50 Best Restaurants 2016: Osteria Francescana Tops This Year's List
For the first time in its 15-year history, the annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants were announced in New York — to kick off a global tour of sorts. Next year, the awards will be held in Melbourne, Australia.
As for the top three winners, Massimo Bottura's Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy took the top spot from last year's No. 1 restaurant — El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain. Eleven Madison Park is perched at the third spot (up from No. 5 last year) — it also won "The Ferrari Trento Art of Hospitality" award.
"Everything changed in the last 15 years in gastronomy. There's a community — a community that has been created around 50 Best," Bottura said. "We are not here as competitors. But we are here as friends. And if you come to the party at Eleven Madison later, you're going to see — I'm going to DJ with Daniel and maybe Alex Atala. it's just an amazing feeling."
Massimo Bottura's Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy finally nabbed the top spot in this year's . [+] World's 50 Best Restaurants awards — after placing second last year, and third in 2014 and 2013.
There was significant movement within this year's top 20 — half received a lower ranking:
El Celler de Can Roca is No. 2 (down from No.1) Rene Redzepi's Noma in Copenhagen slipped to No. 5 (from No. 3) Dinner by Heston Blumenthal fell by more than twenty spots to No. 45 (last year it was No. 7) Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Spain is the new No. 7 (last year it was No. 6) D.O.M., at No. 11, fell as well (it's was No. 9) Bangkok's Gaggan, at No. 23, dropped significantly (it was No. 10) L'Arpege, at No. 19, fell by seven spots (it was No. 12 in 2015) Astrid Y Gaston in Lima, Peru is No. 30 (last year it was No. 14) Mexico's Pujol is at No. 25 (down from No. 16) the renowned Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain is at No. 21 (last year it was No. 17) and Le Bernardin, which is at No. 24, fell a few notches (it was No. 18).
El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain was bumped to No. 2 this year. But it did win a special . [+] award: the "Chefs' Choice"
Beyond the Top 50, there’s an extended version that ranks restaurants from 51 to 100—though dining anywhere on this list is hardly a consolation prize. Thomas Keller, for instance, has two restaurants in the bottom 50. His New York restaurant Per Se — which received a scathing review from The New York Times’ restaurant critic Pete Wells in January — fell considerably to No. 52 (from No. 40 last year). And the French Laundry, also by Keller, is at No. 85 (down from No. 50 in 2015).
There are also a number of special recognitions:
The “Ferrari Trento Art of Hospitality” award was introduced this year — with New York's Eleven Madison Park winning the inaugural honor. The "Highest Climber" was given to Maida in Lima, Peru. "Chefs' Choice" went to last year's No. 1 — El Celler de Can Roca. And the "World's Best Pastry Chef" went to Parisian favorite Pierre Hermé. Copenhagen's Relae won this year's "Sustainable Restaurant" award and the "Highest New Entry" for 2016 was awarded to London's The Clove Club.
Eleven Madison Park in New York placed third at this year's World's 50 Best Restaurants. It also won . [+] the inaugural "Ferrari Trento Art of Hospitality" award — because as Will Guidara and Daniel Humm say, the restaurant certainly makes everything nice.
Earlier this year, three other big wins were announced:
As far as the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards go, the “Lifetime Achievement Award,” is the highest honor a chef could hope for. In the past, it has been given to culinary luminaries such as Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, Paul Bocuse, Joël Robuchon, and Alice Waters. This year, it went to L'Arpège’s 59-year-old chef Alain Passard, who is best known for his innovative use of vegetables — bringing them to the forefront.
“The One to Watch” award went to Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa’s Den in Tokyo. (It also ranks No. 77 in the overall list.) And in April, the academy honored Dominique Crenn of San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn and Petit Crenn as this year’s “World’s Best Female Chef” — an honor that was previously given to Hélène Darroze, Helena Rizzo, Nadia Santini, and Elena Arzak. So she's certainly in good company. Admittedly, she’s the first U.S. female chef to win two Michelin stars, but does the industry really need to distinguish between genders here? It's the kind of honor that that often brings feminists in the restaurant world to a boil.
Below is 2016's complete list — and for more information, go to The World's 50 Best Restaurants site.