The Role of the Critic
With all the shuffling going on at the New York Times Dining Out section desk (Bruni to Sifton to Asimov to Wells), I can’t help but reflect and compare the writing styles, pedigree, and accuracy of the reviewers. It brings me to think about the deeper question in a more macro sense of what the role of critic means.
First, I would like to list what I want in a critic. Above all, I want a critic who is experienced, world traveled and fed, and knowledgeable. It is a plus if the critic actually cooks, or even better, has been a chef in a kitchen. Chefs can appreciate good food, and know what painstaking efforts it takes to open and run a successful restaurant. Then there’s integrity of course, which I understand is difficult to keep in line especially when one is spotted and drowned in freebies and preferential treatment. The third component is writing, which must illustrate verbally the overall picture, ultimately spending the heart of the review discussing the food and the alcohol.
Now taking into consideration the NYT readership and who the Dining Out section is actually marketed to is important. Certain restaurants must be reviewed, as popularity demands it. Same goes for chefs of celebrity, and in an attempt to be politically, globally correct, ethnic cuisines to follow. Since there are few if any top tier ethnic eateries that makes the decision making quite simple.
I have tried my hand at a few reviews myself on my own personal web blog, and can tell you that it is a lot of work, albeit fun. To get a real sense of the place you have to dine there at least three times, and true anonymity is a great advantage. The only special treatment I received was a result of fostering a relationship with the staff, or having dined with a restaurant, which I can assure is a night and day experience.
I try to take into account the ambiance, the food and beverage, and relate it to the price as compared to other experiences. Consistency is important, and not falling prey to your own tastes and fads is difficult. For example, I am not much of a vegetable lover, but make it a point to try the vegetables offered on the menu to judge the cooking. Moreover, I tend to review restaurants that I am interested in. Finally, if I don’t like a place, I won’t write a word about it. Again it is incredibly difficult to make a restaurant work, and just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean others won’t too. If a concept or effort falls short by my standards, that doesn’t mean effort and hard work are not being put into the project by real people.
Critics are useful to me especially if I can align my taste with theirs. For example, Parkerized scores in wine help me to do my shopping. A 95 score means fruit bomb and a no no for me. Conversely, I might look more closely at a bottle that scores an 89. Customers do this all the time. I trust Chris’s judgment at Chambers Street Wines because we have similar palates in Spanish wine. I also know he does his homework. So when he recommends something out of the ordinary such as an albillo, I go for it. At the very least, I know I will find the wine interesting, even if not to my exact taste.
Which brings me to the New York Times reviewers, who I have found to be good in certain aspects of their body of work and also limited in certain respects.
Starting with Mr. Frank Bruni, I have found his reviews to be very well written, with a global touch, as influenced by his station work in Italy. He quite often nailed what a restaurant was like, the all important vibe, which can often be more important than the food, especially in this town, where I feel the majority of readers rely on to be seen at the next trendy hot spot. Bruni was great at this. I could just close my eyes and imagine a scene, and more often than not he was spot on. My issue with Bruni is that there was never enough discussion about the actual food and wine. Like leftovers on a plate that a waiter whisks away when you turn your head for a second before having the opportunity to mop up the sauce with the bread, I seldom got the impression that Frank actually likes food, or even enjoyed himself. Then when his book came out about his struggles with food and obesity it all made sense to me. Every meal was a struggle, as well as each review, and therefore something forgiving was left out, like the love needed to make a great red sauce.
Then came Sam Sifton, whom I have met a few times, ambitiously minded for higher work, and it showed. I trusted in what Sifton had to say because I felt like he enjoyed dining out with his family and friends. He looked for value and real cooking, but wasn’t critical enough. I followed suit on some of his reviews and found his information a bit off, his experiences a bit different than mine. There is a margin of error there as he may have received the aforementioned special treatment (I knew nary a resto that didn’t have his photo pinned to the bulletin board). But I suspect that while he was hard at work, his mind was elsewhere, like dining and eating, two pleasures I rarely combine, as they are too competing and interfere in my taking in the experience fully, the path to real understanding.
I must obviously make mention of my relationship with Eric Asimov, a friend, dining and travel companion for years, who I met a long ways back training in martial arts together at the Kokushi Budo Institute. His food journalism credentials are all there, having written and created the 25 and Under column, and I have been lucky enough to be a guest at many of those meals. I have also been privy to a few road wine trips in recent years, and watched as he created a chief wine critic position to follow his passion about wine, beer and spirits. When Eric says he is tired of eating molten chocolate cake it is because he has been served it a million times. He is brave enough to take the chicken dish at order time and really reports on what’s what. We always voice our opinions. He listens, but does not sway. In his recent review of Fatty Cue, he awarded the resto two stars. Solid one star in my book (* but the star system needs changing). His writing style is not flowery or full of fancy imagery. Rather he is telling you a story, a short history about food as it evolves. Most importantly, he has the common touch. Until his photos became available, he was as anonymous as could be, like dining with the average white guy. On most occasions he received no special treatment. His experience would be most likely yours too. Things have changed of course, as his connections are vast and he is spotted everywhere, but Eric has remained the same. Just trying to tell a story man.
As for Pete Wells, the actual impetus for my writing this blog entry, his body of work as chief critic is open and short, but it is his last review of Romera that has me worried. I have not been to Romera, but do plan to go, at the behest of trusted eating partners from my crew whose opinion I trust. From reading his review, and knowing something about the type of cooking being performed at Romera, it is probably true that there were consistency issues. A few degrees here or there can alter the state of the dish, especially on that high level of cooking. But what is modernist cooking? I am waging that Pete just missed the point. There is a reason why the most important food movement of our time hails from the Basque region of Spain. There is a reason that these restaurants cannot be found in what is supposed to be the dining capitol of the world. The foodies or sophisticated diners of this town are simply not ready for it. It takes a certain amount of eating and drinking evolution to appreciate what is going on at Romera, and most foodies think they have a more developed palate than they actually do. They think that if they follow Grub Street, Dining Out, Eater, Serious Eats, and watch Tony Bourdain’s show, that constitutes understanding food and wine better. They think that if they can snag a res at Ko, get into Minetta Tavern, and Locanda Verde that they know restaurants. Which on the surface is somewhat true, but only to a certain degree. It’s great to go from PBR to Geuze, but the journey is paramount, and cannot be attained with shortcuts. I once spoke to a wealthy wine collector who ate at El Bulli and told me his meal was garbage and forgettable. I was fortunate enough to dine there once and had one of the most magical dining experiences of my life. Perhaps because I have been traveling to Spain for over twenty years to follow food and wine gave me a different perspective. Perhaps because I cook and own a Spanish wine bar that helps my appreciation too. I am certain that ten years ago, I would not have understood what Ferran was doing either.
In a recent review of Mas (Grillade), Mr. Asimov mentioned his experience at a Basque resto called Extebarri, which specializes in smoking all the ingredients. Now a critic could have written about the use of smoke at Mas and done a fine job. But he enhanced the review by drawing from his vast experience, in this instance a small mountain top shrine to charcoal and wood, the zenith of smoke shops. Having dined there as well, I was transported; my memories took me to my first smoked foods, to that amazing afternoon with smoked butter and ice cream and sea urchin etc. It lends to a deeper understanding and appreciation of what the chef at Mas is trying to achieve. A vital element in any assessment, one that was perhaps missed at Romera.
There is no perfect critic. We just have to trust in a knowledgeable, experienced, ethical writer who can best convey a dining experience so that we can either live vicariously through, or gain vital information for ourselves, perhaps learning a little something along the way.
* As a final note, it would be great to move to a five star system for rating restaurants. I have dined at so many two star establishments, which would be one star on a five star scale. Service being the main criteria for the downgrade along with quality vs. cost ratio. For example, compare the cote de boeuf at Minetta Tavern vs. Fatty Cue. Check out the portion size in relation to the price. The extra star would allow for true wiggle room as many two star restos should probably be one star and the trickle down effect could follow.