On a winter’s night, a New York Times food critic walks into a French restaurant on East 52nd Street. “La Grenouille has a quiet appeal in its…conservative good taste. Each table in the restaurant is admirably graced with fresh roses,” Craig Claiborne penned in his 1962 review. He enjoyed “an absolutely extraordinary fillet of striped bass in beurre blanc…a dish of extravagant goodness such as one rarely remembers outside France.” Ruth Reichl agreed that “the sea bass is simply extraordinary,” but it is a very different fillet served to her 35 years later: “Surrounded by a luxurious sauce, onions and potatoes, the fish melts into something very much like marrow. The chef has used the best quality of the fish, its texture, to create a tapestry of tastes.“ To Mimi Sheraton in 1980, La Grenouille is “clearly the most stylish and graceful of the four-star restaurants,” where the leg of veal is “the snowiest and most tender example of that meat extant.” Claiborne found the frog legs overcooked. Twenty-seven years later, Sam Sifton writes that they “are delicate, flavorful, addictive and impossible even in this luxe setting to finish with knife and fork.” Each time, there are flowers. And year after year, there are New York Times restaurant reviewers.
Frank Bruni, another Times restaurant critic, also dined amongst opulence and frog legs. However, he did not review this restaurant during his time at the Food Desk between 2004 and 2009. He set out multiple times to Midtown, planning to “lovingly refresh three stars,” as he told NYEater. But in the end, the meals were inconsistent. He would have felt obligated to remove one of the restaurant’s long-standing stars. “I was so determined not to be the one who killed La Grenouille.”
Since 1957, when Craig Claiborne became the first Times Food editor to offer critical gastronomic commentaries, restaurants ranging from the classic La Grenouille to M. Wells, an unembellished and unconventional diner in Queens, were celebrated or devastated by weekly reviews. Claiborne was hired as an authoritative male voice to give weight to the section of the Times that was then known as the women’s page, a section for “Food, Fashion, Family, and Furnishings.” The mid-century style page was where women writers published home-cooking pieces without byline or ambition, and Claiborne came to the desk as the first official Food editor to create a section with masculine prestige.
The day Claiborne plopped his typewriter down next to chef Bill Neal, busy preparing shrimp and grits, marked the rise from obscurity of Neal and classic southern cuisine. The name of Alain Ducasse, French chef-extraordinaire, now conjures up more mouth-watering admiration than that of Claiborne, but it was the Food editor who first wrote about Ducasse. He confirmed whisperings that this chef was “worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of great French chefs.” And so Ducasse joined the ranks of Paul Bocuse and Gaston LeNôtre, whose shoulders were also originally tapped by the culinary scepter of Craig Claiborne.
Claiborne set the precedent of simultaneously demystifying and fetishizing haute cuisine, distilling a singular, sometimes lavish, meal into an informative article for the masses while conferring star status on a chosen few.
Reviewers of New York restaurants since Claiborne have ranged from stickler to slapstick. Mimi Sheraton, an unyielding Brooklynite with rigid standards of taste, would never go to Brooklyn to wait on line for dinner. Despite the borough’s foodie fame today, in her time as critic from 1975 to 1983, Sheraton did not see merit in the restaurants of her childhood neighborhood, and didn't stray far from Manhattan in her reviews. Ruth Reichl came to the desk in 1993 with a personality as unruly as her hair, a trousseau of disguises, and an optimism to rival that of a second-grade teacher. “My friends will tell you that every time I go into a restaurant I say, ‘Oh, this is going to be great!’” she told Salon. “And it’s really got to not be great before I’m willing to say it’s not.”
Sam Sifton, the most recent Food Editor, wrote his final review in a two-year reign on October 11 in which he declared Per Se “the best restaurant in New York.” Notoriously expensive, re-reviewed and revered by critics and well-moneyed diners, Chef Thomas Keller’s restaurant in the Time Warner Center is a pinnacle of haute cuisine. In Latin, per se means ‘in itself’—the food should speak for itself.
In his last review, Sifton spoke for himself, a final indulgence meant as a celebrate of his own taste, company credit card included, and not for the majority of readers. As an arbiter of taste, Sifton’s presumption in selecting a dinner costing upwards of $500 a head was not entirely well received by readers, judging by scathing references to the one percent on the website’s comment section. But restaurant reviewers are not objective. Sifton’s taste is not universal, but inherently specific. Besides, he was thoughtful enough to include a shout-out to those without his expense account; diners at Per Se could eat sparingly à la carte for only $100—provided they can get a table, that is.
Each reviewer is different, as is each night at a restaurant and each diner who experiences it. Sifton’s approach “has been from the start that restaurants are culture, and that there is no better perch from which to examine our shared values and beliefs, behavior and attitudes, than a seat in a restaurant dining room, observing life’s pageant in the presence of food and drink.” Thus, the “marketing executive with feathered Madonna hair” the next table over at The Fat Radish is just as important an accompaniment as the kabocha squash that “complemented beautifully” the honey-glazed duck. And despite his choice of a four-dollar-sign restaurant for his final four-star review, Sifton brought this approach to neighborhood joints as well as more pricey spots. There are no New York Times restaurant reviews. There are only Sifton reviews, Reichl reviews, Bruni reviews, each with its own idea of what the article is trying to achieve. Even now, Mimi Sheraton distances herself from Sam Sifton’s style, which she described in an interview as “food writing for an audience less interested in food and more interested in the experience and the theater of it. I don’t like it at all…I usually skip the first column and a half and get to the food, because that’s what I think it’s about.”
Either way, “all criticism is argument,” says Sifton. Barring personal style and taste, food writing becomes a work akin to artistic criticism, only focused on a meal and not a MoMA exhibition or collection of short stories. By deeming a critic worthy of commentary, food is deemed an art worthy of criticism.
This critical commentary can never be wholly objective. Kant took care to distinguish between physiological taste and a higher sense of judgment in beauty. Food didn’t make the cut into the realm of beauty, as it has an innate purpose: everyone’s got to eat, and a determination of taste is inextricably tied to a rumbling stomach. But Kant was writing about taste long before food entered the realm of science, and then of art—before food critics began to analyze each technical aspect of a meal, personal hunger or inclination notwithstanding. The question of a food critic is not whether he likes oeufs en gelée. Commentary is an analysis: a judgment of where imagination meets understanding informed by, but not solely slave to, the whims of one particular tongue. True, one critic’s taste can never be universal. Nonetheless, the genre of restaurant criticism, especially in a city renowned for its innovative cuisine, strives to characterize a dinner as creation, social interaction, and potential masterpiece.
Restaurant critics are generally not trained chefs. They are writers—Sifton was culture editor at the Times before becoming the restaurant critic, and he will now take a seat at the National desk. While wielding printed stars of debatable power, the critic’s responsibility is above all to communicate. Ruth Reichl explained to NPR why she wore such elaborate disguises to keep herself from being recognized on the job: “I have a really strong belief that I am there to be your eyes and ears when you're at the restaurant. I'm supposed to tell you what's going to happen to you, not what happens to the restaurant critic of the New York Times who is getting the best table and the chef is cooking the food specially and the portions are getting bigger and so forth.” Rather, she was Chloe, a blonde divorcée in black satin who ordered wine in a husky whisper. Or Molly, a frumpy Midwesterner who put off an unsophisticated air and generally got shoddy service in return.
Ruth-as-Molly is the type of expert defined by Mark Twain: “an ordinary fellow from another town.” No qualifications required except an outsider’s perspective ready to take satisfaction without agenda. Claiborne came from Sunflower, MS to define the tastes of New York. Originally an outsider, he soon suppressed his coming-of-age as a homosexual boy in the small-town South to become the epitome of the in-crowd, drawing out the socialites of Manhattan to regular parties on a lavish East Hampton estate. Reichl transferred from Los Angeles, a city, like New York, that is a sort of placeless place where restaurants describe not the local flavor, but the best of the best, transplanted from around the world. To review restaurants in New York and Los Angeles is to view local reactions to imported cuisine. But she grew up in Greenwich Village. The food column caters to its own choir, being, in this case, fellow foodies, writers, and restaurateurs of the very restaurants being frequented.
Food experts in New York are no more ordinary than they are outsiders. They are treated as celebrities themselves. Reichl’s notorious disguises were born after the realization that her photo was tacked up in every restaurant kitchen in three boroughs.
And these critics are deeply implicated in the food world. At Claiborne’s 60th birthday party, Alice Waters handed out strawberries while Jacques Pépin manned the grill. Their judgments are not of Kantian disinterest. It is, rather, a knowledgeable albeit fallible taste and the ability to recreate a meal in writing that makes a successful critic. Like Twain’s visitor from out of town, a critic's influence is temporary, his word taken as a transient truth. Frank Bruni was audacious enough to advise one over-enthusiastic waiter to seek psychiatric treatment, but also understood that his power was temporary and subjective. He commented on his choice of a last review on a moderately priced restaurant by saying, “Two months from now, you guys won't even be able to spell my last name. I didn't want to write a last review that had any insinuation of grandiosity.”
Since Craig Claiborne invented the genre of the restaurant review as it is known today, La Grenouille has served New Yorkers and urbane travelers Tuesday through Saturday. It is a mark of the advent and persistency of high dining in America: born in France, loved in New York. Haute French cuisine may be on the way out, threatened by Malaysian-barbeque fusion and pork belly and foams. Bruni did not want to be the one to destroy an institution with a lackluster review. He assumed that he maintained the power in his weekly column and gifts of stars that he could be the one to bring the frog to its knees. He derived his authority from the confidence placed in him during his tenure by the eaters of New York. As he mused in a last column, “My judgment—subjective and, no doubt, flawed—was trusted.”
A similar menace to the one jeopardizing the old French institution is looming toward institutionalized restaurant criticism. The democratization of journalism in the face of technology is not specific to food, and its manifestation in the thousands of independent bloggers and Yelpers each giving his own review is a real threat to established criticism. The once venerated opinion of an expert gives way to consensus of Internet users. But restaurant reviewers once felt threatened by the advent of Zagat’s restaurant guide, and the genre has outlived the maroon book. The open forum of online journalism does not have to be an enemy of print. Rather, it can raise the bar of skill and innovation. If anyone can go online and write about a well-cooked steak, then the respected reviewer must write about it better. In the coming weeks, the New York Times will appoint another restaurant critic to replace Sifton. The writer will enter the conversation started by Claiborne and continued by bloggers. This reviewer, like New York Times critics before him, will have an audience, salivating or disagreeing, but reading nonetheless.
BELLE CUSHING B’13 found the frog legs overcooked.