Monday, February 26, 2007
Letters and Articles of Interest!
Steven A. Shaw
WHEN ALAIN Ducasse, the
world's preeminent French
chef, announced early this year that
he would be opening an eponymous
restaurant in New York's Essex
House, it was a cause for excitement
among connoisseurs and curiosity
seekers alike. By the time the 65-seat
restaurant lit its stoves in late June,
it had amassed a waiting list of 2,700
names-many of them customers of
Ducasse's restaurants in Europe and
was the most sought-after reservation
in the history of New York.
Nor, apparently, was anyone deterred
by the prices, even though
ADNY (as it is called) was to be the
most expensive American restaurant
ever, with appetizers as high as $50,
entres reaching $80, and tasting
menus at $160 per person.
What you would receive for your
money, as I saw for myself when I
visited the restaurant on its second
night of business, was a level of
Gilded Age luxury never before
available on these shores, at least
not all in one place. Next to each female
guest, a stool is placed upon
which to rest her purse. A dedicat-
ed waiter presents six varieties of
bottled water. You get a new napkin,
handled with fork and spoon, whenever
you leave and return to the
table. Another, smaller napkin is distributed
for dessert. To eat your
squab, you choose from a selection
of bamboo-handled, handmade
knives. In the French style, tables
are well illuminated to enable you
to see the menu, the food, your
friends, and, for better or worse, the
check, which you sign by selecting
from an array of Cartier, Mont
Blanc, Gucci, and Caran d'Ache
The table is yours for the evening,
as is the case at most Michelin starred
restaurants in Europe, so
you always feel indulged rather than
rushed. The wine list is not presented
until after you have ordered.
Coffees are proffered after dessert that
is, after the first dessert. You
also get handmade chocolates and
macaroons, followed by ice cream
and sorbet served from a tableside
gueridon. Then, a gigantic postpost-
dessert cart comes around with
a dizzying display of house-made
candies. If you order verbena tea to
wrap things up, a white-gloved waiter
appears with a live verbena plant
and a pair of scissors.
My first meal, la carte, was a
simple affair: Ducasse, the world's
most dynamic and successful chef,
is known for understatement, and I
focused on the signature dishes of
his two European fine-dining restaurants,
Louis XV in Monte Carlo
and Alain Ducasse in Paris. But
within a few days I returned as the
guest of a friend and we ordered a
multicourse tasting menu. It consisted
of an amuse bouche of sea scallops
topped with Iranian caviar and
then a progression of Santa Barbara
prawns, Hudson Valley foie gras,
Alaskan halibut, and Arizona artisanal
beef, all with elaborate tableside
presentation, followed by an insanely
decadent dessert containing
more varieties of chocolate than I
could keep track of.
I looked forward to my third visit.
Then the reviews started coming
FIRST, THE New York Times critic,
William Grimes, in a "preview" of the
restaurant after one visit, spoke deprecatingly
of the high prices and
the difficulty of securing a reserva-
tion. His praise for the food was
faint, while with regard to everything
else he maintained an attitude
of detached amusement, withholding
final judgment (he wrote) until
he would have a chance to return
more than once in the future.
Grimes's decorum gave way, in
the New York Post's Steve Cuozzo, to
anger. Calling ADNY "the most arrogantly
launched eatery in the history
of the world," Cuozzo wrote
scathingly that "globe-girdling Alain
Ducasse means to tap Manhattan's
cash gusher while it lasts, and
ADNY is the mediocre, often comical
result." He dismissed the luxury
appointments as "gimmickry,"
the food as "middle-of-the-road
In Rebecca Ascher-Walsh's review
in Fortune, anger gave way to rage:
Dante, have we got news for you:
there's now a new circle of hell.
At Alain Ducasse at the Essex
House, you'll see grownups spitting
food into napkins, you'll bite
into bread so burned you'd
think Freddy Krueger [the knifefingered
slasher in the horror
movie A Nightmare on Elm Street]
were running the kitchen, and
you'll experience the thrill of
frogs legs and chicken wings
fighting their way down your
gullet like a kung-fu master.
Although the estimable Gael
Greene of New York magazine
stepped back a bit, in her own account
of no fewer than five meals at
ADNY she pronounced only one
worthwhile, concluding triumphantly,
in the name of her fellow
New Yorkers, "we're not so easily
fooled." This same theme was
echoed in scores of other media
outlets. Ducasse was lambasted for
arrogance and French-style culinary
imperialism; for exhibiting a corporate
mentality, manifested above all
in his frequent absences from
ADNY itself; for the pretentiousness
of his restaurant's appointments;
for those prices; and, finally,
for ADNY's unremarkable food.
In a piece a month later summing
up the worldwide negative press reaction,
Marian Burros, the grand
dame of the New York Times food
The doors opened, and everything
seemed to go wrong. The
food world buzzed about the
disappointing cooking and the
absentee chef. Endless stories
mocked the $500 tabs, the wine list
with some bottles marked up
1,000 percent, and the goofy dining-
room rituals like the presentation
of a selection of knives
with every squab and a choice of
expensive pens for signing the
check. The coverage went from
bad to worse....
To date, there has not been a single
favorable review of ADNY in
the mainstream culinary media.
WHEN THE world's top chef opens a
restaurant in New York City only to
be met by a critical chorus of Bronx
cheers, something is clearly going
on. Can the critics possibly be right?
Let us begin with the charge of
arrogance. There is little debate that
Alain Ducasse is, in fact, the world's
greatest chef, or that he is currently
at the top of his form. To put it in
a nutshell, he is the only chef of our
generation to operate simultaneously
two restaurants that have
earned three Michelin stars, while
another two of his establishmentshe
has eleven altogether-boast one
star apiece, making him history's
only eight-star chef.
Ducasse's story itself is straight
from central casting. Born in 1956
to goose farmers in southwestern
France, he began his first kitchen
apprenticeship at the age of sixteen
before being formally educated at
the Bordeaux school of hotel and
catering management and embarking
on his climb to greatness under
such masters as Michel Gu6rard,
Gaston Lenotre, Roger Verge, and
Alain Chapel. By 1987, Ducasse had
achieved the position of executive
chef at the H6tel de Paris in Monaco;
in 1996, he opened Restaurant
Alain Ducasse in Paris.
Today, Ducasse's global empire
includes, in addition to his fine-dining
establishments, a chain of casual
restaurants plus a cooking school,
country inns, and a line of tableware
and gourmet products. Given his
success, nobody could fault him for
displaying a high degree of self confidence.
But arrogance? Cultural
imperialism? Ducasse has called
New York "undoubtedly the most
spectacular restaurant city due to its
synthesis of international cultures"-
no small compliment from a Michelin
three-star chef. He is also passionate
about American ingredients.
If his desire to meld the best of
French technique with the best of
American ingredients constitutes arrogance,
it is arrogance of a most
By all accounts, Ducasse is one of
the hardest-working chefs in history.
He could easily rest on his laurels;
with eight Michelin stars to his
credit, it may be a century before
anyone achieves a comparable level
of eminence. He also had little
to gain and much to lose by opening
place in New York, a notorious
pit for restaurateurs with grand designs.
It was not arrogance but rather
idealism, in the form of a lifelong
commitment to the cause of
fine dining-as well, of course, as
the ambition to succeed-that led
Ducasse into this venture.
It is true that, these days, Ducasse
is more likely to be seen in a suit
than in chef's whites. It is also true
that at ADNY, your chances of ever
eating a bite of food prepared by
Ducasse's own hands are as slim as
your chances of getting an 8 o'clock
reservation on Friday night. But to
imagine that things might be otherwise-
at any major restaurant-is
to evince a distressing degree of ignorance.
Chefs know how to cook, but
they are not cooks-in New York,
most cooks are Latin immigrants.
Nor is a chef the kitchen overseerthat
is what the sous-chef is for.
Chefs are, rather, executives, their
role akin to that of an old-style artist
presiding over a school of apprentices.
They conceptualize and outline
the work, leaving the detail and
toil to the crew. The real test of a
chef's greatness is not how well he
cooks, but how well the kitchen runs
when he is not around. The world's
best chef is the one who has rendered
himself the most dispensable.
In this respect, the taunting of
Ducasse for his absences from
ADNY-"maybe," cracked William
Grimes, "he does not want to hear
the screams of anguish when the
checks arrive"-is utterly off the
mark. Ducasse's man in Manhattan,
Didier Elena, who has been his colleague
for twelve years, has superior
qualifications to 99 percent of
American chefs who own their own
As for ADNY's shameless luxuriousness-"
I tripped over the damn
things twice," complained the Post's
Steve Cuozzo about the purse stools,
while Gael Greene scoffed at the selections
of knives and pens as "vulgar"
and USA Today derided the
multihour length of a meal at
ADNY as a "New York no-no" -the
fact is that, though it can be precious
at times, ADNY is positively unstuffy,
and a meal there is great fun.
It is only at copycat French restaurants
in New York and London that
the waiters seek to intimidate; at
ADNY, as in the best restaurants in
France, the staff is much less formal
and much more engaging than caricature
Contrary to the misreporting of
the Times, moreover, there are not
55 waiters for 65 customers at
Ducasse but 55 staff members altogether,
including eighteen diningroom
staff. It is also patently untrue,
as the Associated Press bizarrely
contended, that "Each time you sip
water or wine, a hand reaches
around and makes sure the glasses
of all at the table are level." My own
experience, corroborated by that of
other diners, is that ADNY's appointments
trigger sensations not of
contempt but of delight. To be waited
on hand and foot, to be freed
simply to enjoy oneself, is the realization
of a fantasy. Only someone
with a serious axe to grind would
call it an affront.
Is ADNY worth the money-between
$100 and $160 per person for
food alone? That, I would say, depends
on how much money you
have, and what you are getting for it.
Luxury exists because people want
it, cost what it will, even if that cost
seems totally out of proportion to inherent
value. Luckily, the necessities
of life, at least in the U.S., do not
carry such price tags; but for everything
else, what is the crime in letting
supply and demand set the
market? True, there may be diminishing
returns-often, the objective
difference in quality between the
best and the very good is minimal,
while the price margin can be vast.
But for those who both appreciate
and can afford the best, there is no
As it happens, given ADNY's single
sitting and five-day-a-week
schedule (which allows the same
kitchen brigade to be on duty at all
times), it is not clear how Ducasse
plans to make money even at these
prices. The top New York restaurants
currently charge $125 for their
tasting menus; Ducasse charges
$160, which is roughly what it costs
to dine at the three-star level in
France, even at today's favorable exchange
rate. For that extra $35, you
get your table for the whole night
and an unrivaled level of service and
And you get the food, the objections
to which are the most peculiar
part of the whole story.
For every single dish, Ducasse
has acquired absolutely the best ingredients
available in America. New
York magazine quoted one of his
Alain wants the foie gras wrapped
in parchment, delivered on ice,
not vacuum-packed. The most expensive
squabs, strangled. Organic
chickens air-chilled with the
feet on. I had to get special permission
from the FDA. It's costing
him double the usual price.
They [ADNY] are the most focused,
the most demanding.
New York's point here may have
been to mock, but the beneficiary
of this fastidiousness is the diner.
And the same extraordinary care extends
not just to the ingredients but
to every detail of preparation and
presentation. Thus, the Arizona
beef, better than that at Peter Luger,
New York's justly celebrated steakhouse,
is served with chanterelles,
artichokes, and a stew of braised
short ribs, sauced with a flawless
jus, and offered with a pickle-andmustard-
flavored cold salad on the
side. A tremendous halibut dish
comes on three plates. The central
plate holds (barely) an immense
brick of poached halibut-the best I
have had-sitting atop a spinach,
watercress, and Champagne puree,
while a second plate contains a seaurchin
royale topped with a dessertlike
emulsion that positively explodes
with flavor, and plate number three
provides a briny counterpoint in the
form of a mixed seaweed salad.
The list of wonderful dishes goes
on and on: a firm, chilled Maine
lobster tail thinly sliced lengthwise
and crowned with a ginger salsa;
foie gras served over apple confit
and topped with raw apples sliced at
the table; gorgeous sea scallops, just
barely heated and topped with Iranian
caviar. In every case, Ducasse's
way with the food is based on a
tremendous facility with culinary
history, ingredients, and equipment,
while his recipes, juxtaposing flavor,
texture, and temperature, and reflecting
his rather cerebral understanding
of what makes a successful
meal, remind one in their intricacy
of a Bach fugue. This may, indeed,
be what prompted Gael Greene to
complain that Ducasse's approach is
* Ducasse's prices have also been exaggerated
for effect. If the Times reviewer spent
$1,500 on dinner for four, he must have ordered
$600 worth of wine. My own dinner
for four, with about $200 worth of wine, ran
to $930 before the tip.
"too intellectual, too contrived," and
that his food "has no emotion."
But, just as when it is applied to the
music of Bach, the complaint lacks
To be sure, the ADNY kitchen has
produced a few duds. The succulent
Santa Barbara prawns are overwhelmed
by a thick citrus saucehere,
the counterpoint is out of
whack-and wild albino salmon
from Alaska is similarly overwhelmed
by its garnish. There is also the occasional
cooking error. But these minor
flaws, to be expected in an infant
restaurant-ADNY was only a few
weeks old when most of the reviews
came in-pale beside the triumphs.
Already America's finest restaurant,
ADNY will likely soon be America's
WHAT, THEN, explains the collective
In the days when the late Craig
Claiborne was at the Times, restaurant
reviewers were culled from the
ranks of trained culinary professionals
and self-educated gourmets.
Today, they are more likely to be
journalists doing a job. As William
Grimes candidly describes his own
qualifications, "I'm an amateur eater
who's turned pro."
To his credit, Grimes has generally
acquitted himself well. But many
of today's reviewers are fundamentally
incapable even of recognizing the
phenomenon that ADNY represents,
much less appreciating it. With
little sense of how to judge true
French professional service, they
have reacted to the restaurant's occasional
excesses with confused hostility;
without a clear understanding
of ingredients or basic technique,
they have mistaken subtlety and understatement
for mediocrity. The
same drop in standards that, in culinary
instruction, has taken us from
Julia Child and Jacques Pepin to
Bobby Flay and the Iron Chefs has
infected the world of food criticism
as well, where a commitment to
professional excellence and devotion
to the enterprise have given
way to sensationalism and a sometimes
Or to politics. Although the process
has taken a while, restaurant
reviewing has at last caught up with
critical fashions in art, music, and
literature. The spirit of deconstruction
is now everywhere in the
air. Just as, in the nation's English
departments, comic books have
been declared to be on a par with
Shakespeare or Jane Austen, so, too,
in the nation's food press, the entire
enterprise of fine dining is in
the process of being leveled and
"demystified," the high pulled
down, the low raised up. In recent
pieces on New York's two most
Michelin-like restaurants, Lespinasse
and Cello, Jonathan Gold, the
new reviewer for Gourmet magazine,
excoriated the former for, of all
things, its jacket-and-tie requirement
and the latter for being "too
correct." On another front, William
Grimes and others have taken up
the cause of iceberg lettuce, portraying
it as a veritable blue-collar
hero threatened by pretentious,
aristocratic greens (i.e., the ones
with flavor) like arugula.
From this point of view, it is
hardly surprising that the critics
should have been thrown into paroxysms
of neopopulist indignation
over the prices and appointments at
ADNY, or that the Daily News's list
of what else you can buy for $500
White Castle hamburgers." And as
if this display of egalitarian fervor by
some of society's best-paid sybarites
were not enough, added to it was a
generous dollop of good old-fashioned
Francophobia, with one paper
expressing its mawkish concern for
"easily led [American] minds, reduced
to aspic by the whisper of
WHETHER THE critics succeed in
putting ADNY out of business remains
to be seen. If so, however, it
will be a victory greatly to be lamented;
as in the case of other such "successful"
wars, the real losers will be
the public, and the cause of excellence
American restaurants have come
a long way in a short time. In terms
of food alone, the top places (Lespinasse,
Le Bernardin, Daniel, Jean
Georges, French Laundry, Charlie
Trotter's, and the like) have attained
rough parity with French three-star
restaurants. And now, with ADNY,
the same can be said for the nonfood
aspects of a meal (if not yet the
A million negative reviews will
not change this reality: ADNY has
raised the bar for all other American
restaurants, and every chef in
New York knows that Alain Ducasse
is now the one to beat. So, too, do
all those "easily led minds" who
have been wise enough to ignore
the biases of an increasingly irrelevant
class of critics, and lucky
enough to get in. One can only
hope that theirs will be the vote that
STEVEN A. SHAW, a new contributor is
an attorney and food writer in New York.
This is no longer current in that the prices are now much higher and other restaurants have copied many of the fine touches at ADNY but it remains pertinent today
You may Kiss the Chef's Napkin Ring
From The New York Times
24 Jan 2007
by Frank Bruni
THE person taking your reservation is the first to put you in your place.
It’s not just the unsavory dinner times — “We’d be delighted to seat you at 4:45 or 11:30!” — that the voice on the other end of the line trills. It’s the rules laid out, the threats:
Call to confirm your reservation precisely 36 hours in advance, or else. Call if you’re running more than 12 minutes 45 seconds late, or else.
The blessed night at last arrives, and so do you, and you’re immediately made to feel you should kneel in gratitude and supplication. Just inside the restaurant’s door, displayed like a religious icon, is the chef’s book, bearing the chef’s visage. It lets you know you’re in the presence of holiness. It lets you know you can spend another $34.95 on your way out.
You spend plenty before then. Servers muscle you toward a 47-course tasting menu, replete with shochu and grappa pairings, telling you it’s the only way to appreciate fully what “Chef” (no pesky, plebeian “the” needed) can do.
It’s crucial that you appreciate fully, so each dish comes with a disquisition on its origin and proper consumption.
Chef got the eggs from an old lady with cataracts upstate. Chef foraged for the mushrooms in a thicket near the Tappan Zee. Chef counsels a bite from the ramekin on the left, then a sip from the shot glass on the right, then a palate-clearing curtsy.
I exaggerate, of course, but only about the details. Not about the climate around too many upscale restaurants these days. Not about an unmistakable, unsettling shift in the balance of power between self-regarding restaurants and self-effacing diners.
Once they were lucky to have us. Now we’re lucky to have them. They don’t meet us on our terms. We meet them on theirs.
Gordon Ramsay swaggered into town late last year and, instead of unfurling a welcome mat, laid down a gauntlet. Callers were told that the tables they reserved in his shimmering dining room at the London NYC hotel were good for only two hours, after which diners would be shooed to a peripheral lounge for any coffee or after-dinner drinks they might desire.
When this proviso was reported, Mr. Ramsay backtracked, saying that reservation agents had misspoken or misunderstood, and that the time limit applied only to tables in the London Bar, a more casual area just outside the inner sanctum.
But he made no apologies for setting up a ticking clock there, even though diners in the London Bar are on the hook for as much as $85 each in food alone if they listen to servers’ ordering advice.
Thomas Keller just changed the rules of engagement at Per Se. When the restaurant opened in 2004, diners didn’t have to sign on for the nine-course, $150 tasting menu it showcased most prominently. They could elect a less time-consuming menu of five courses for $125. They could eat at Per Se without surrendering three hours or more.
As of this month, though, the nine-course menu is the shortest, and it now costs $250. That price includes a 20 percent tip and free bottled water, coffee and tea, while the old price didn’t.
Mr. Keller said by phone recently that a vast majority of visitors to his restaurant ordered the nine courses anyway, so a simpler, speedier route seemed unnecessary.
But he also made clear that nine courses were what he deemed best for diners visiting Per Se or its sister restaurant in the Napa Valley, the French Laundry.
“I’d like them to experience the entire experience, the entire Thomas Keller, the entire French Laundry,” he said. People who stop at five courses, he said, are doing the equivalent of leaving a Broadway play at intermission or walking through only half of a special exhibition at the
“Has the exhibit given them the full impact of what it was supposed to by whoever designed the exhibit?” he asked. “Probably not.”
Chefs at the pinnacle of their profession have long considered themselves artists, with ample reason. But it’s no longer just the top chefs — it’s no longer just chefs, period — who hoist themselves onto pedestals, inviting reverence.
At Porter House New York, a lesser restaurant that, like Per Se, is on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center, a line on the menu tells you that autographed copies of a cookbook by the executive chef, Michael Lomonaco, are “available for purchase.” Never mind a doggie bag. Take home some instructive reading material.
After the restaurateur Danny Meyer’s “Setting the Table” was published last fall, he propped up copies right inside the front doors of Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park and Tabla, where the book was also displayed above the bar, just to be safe.
Mr. Meyer isn’t a chef. He’s essentially a host, renowned for his humility and hospitality, for rounding out your meal with a prettily wrapped coffeecake for breakfast the next morning. And yet he set things up so that when you walked into one of his restaurants, your first encounter wasn’t necessarily with a host or a hostess saying hello or taking your coat. It was with a photograph of him on a self-flattering book (“America’s most innovative restaurateur,” trumpets the cover) about how he always puts you, the customer, first.
THE lucrative publishing contracts that restaurateurs and chefs receive, the cable television shows on which they appear — all of this has encouraged a showboating that travels into restaurants, where the open kitchens sometimes seem less like peepholes for us than pulpits for them.
When the chef Laurent Tourondel opted for an open kitchen in the main, third-floor dining area of BLT Fish, he had to sacrifice a restroom. Diners must go to the first floor to find one. But look at what Mr. Tourondel got: a broad, beautifully framed stage for his ministrations — provided, of course, that he’s not at BLT Steak, BLT Prime, BLT Burger or BLT Market (coming soon).
The chef Gray Kunz can indeed be found regularly at Café Gray, where he strides through a seemingly blocklong open kitchen positioned between the main dining room and a wall of windows onto Columbus Circle. He and the kitchen staff get the city views; diners get a view of him and the kitchen staff.
It’s partly our fault. It’s largely our doing. Chefs and restaurants wouldn’t behave the way they do if we penalized them for it, instead of readily demonstrating our fealty. We take the 9:45 p.m. reservations (no exaggeration there). We agree to call a second time to confirm.
We buy the books and watch the television programs, granting our culinary heroes the celebrity that they then lord over us. Those of us who love restaurants — of course including critics, of course including me — talk and write about chefs the way movie lovers wrote and talked about directors in the 1970s, ascribing outsize authority to them, treating them as mystically endowed auteurs rather than what they really are: key — but by no means solitary — figures in an ultimately collaborative process.
And they gladly play the parts of creative demigods, roles they’ve helped fashion for themselves.
I visit L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, in the Four Seasons Hotel, during its first week. The restaurant is supposed to start serving lunch at 11:30 a.m., but by 11:40 it hasn’t opened, and by noon only 8 of the 20 or so people angling for a seat have been escorted inside. Most of the others stare poignantly at the hostess. And wait. And don’t complain.
After my friends and I get a table and place our order, one of our servers volunteers, in a jubilant voice, that Mr. Robuchon thinks we’ve made excellent decisions. I survey the path between my table and the door. Is it long and broad enough for cartwheels?
I visit the restaurant Ureña, owned by the chef Alex Ureña, whom our server ceaselessly invokes. “Chef has sent out these amuse-bouches,” the server says toward the start of dinner. “Chef was so pleased you liked your desserts,” he says toward the end. Chef is apparently above such things as names. And we’re apparently expected to know who he is — and to be primed for his genius — before we sit down.
Of course L’Atelier and Ureña have tasting menus. It won’t be long before Hooters has a tasting menu. Tasting menus are all the rage, reflecting more than the desire of many diners to sample little bits of lots of things.
In places where these menus are pushed aggressively — Gordon Ramsay labels his own six-course option the Prestige menu — they also represent ways to transfer control from diners to restaurants.
“I personally love to have tasting menus,” Floyd Cardoz, the executive chef at Tabla, said in a telephone interview last month. He was referring to the five- and seven-course menus he puts together there, and his word choice made me wonder.
Are such menus about coddling diners or flattering chefs? Are a diner’s whims being trumped by a chef’s wisdom?
And are the wine pairings really necessary? Some restaurants insist so, effectively shaming diners into submission and creating an evening of relentless verbiage, the soliloquies by the sommelier filling any gaps in the soliloquies by the servers.
Not that there are many gaps. Even in restaurants well below the top end, servers describe dish after dish, from an amuse-bouche hardly bigger than a semicolon to a scoop of vanilla ice cream, in exhaustive detail and priestly voices. They interrupt diners if they have to. They press on even if the gazes at the table are averted, the jaws clenched. The ceremony and the sweetbreads must come first.
The restaurant must have its say and way. At several casual restaurants over the past year — restaurants, mind you, that seem to exist in part for snacking and for cobbled-together meals — companions and I were told that we couldn’t order a few appetizers to sate our hunger while we sipped drinks and perused menus. We had to place our entire dinner order at once.
The reason, surely, had to do with the understandable challenges of a small kitchen’s trying to pace a large number of orders during a busy dinner service. But it was stated in terms of how the chef preferred to operate, as if that should be our concern, or about our own best interests, as if the restaurant were the final authority on those.
At Freemans, a self-consciously scruffy redoubt on the Lower East Side, the server who denied us our cheese toasts and hot artichoke dip explained, “You’ll have a more pleasant experience that way.” Such altruism. Moved us to tears.
AND now, confessions: I gave moderately or hugely positive reviews to Ureña, BLT Fish, L’Atelier, Eleven Madison Park and Per Se, all of which had virtues that, to varying degrees, outweigh their vanities. Besides, those vanities are too pervasive to hang on any one restaurant, or to hang any one restaurant with.
I raved about Babbo, where the seductiveness of the food transcends a bullying rock soundtrack that puts the cult of its chef before the comfort of diners. When you’re at Babbo, you listen to what Mario Batali wants you to, at the volume he elects, no matter how unlikely you are to enjoy it. It’s his house, not yours.
That’s the subtle or unsubtle message at too many restaurants. And while it hasn’t killed the joy of eating out, it has at times certainly sullied that pleasure.
The inconveniences mount, the orgy of enforced adulation intensifies, and bit by bit, dining in New York’s most prized restaurants becomes cause for exhaustion instead of elation, an act of obeisance rather than indulgence. Something’s got to give.
At Del Posto, Mr. Batali’s newest Manhattan restaurant, he and one of his business partners, the restaurateur Joseph Bastianich, send you out the door with crumbs. Literally. Instead of a Meyer-style coffeecake, the parting gift is a bag of bread crumbs.
It may not be suitable for breakfast. It may not be glamorous. But for Mr. Batali, it’s an opportunity for synergy. The bag includes instructions for using bread crumbs, sourced to Page 39 of “Molto Italiano,” one of Molto Mario’s cookbooks.
It’s a gesture that’s as much a come-on as a thank-you, pointing you toward another way to show Mr. Batali some lucre and love. Reminding you of his glory. Affirming your good fortune in being privy and witness to it.
To Veronica Ridge
The Age 13/02/2007
For many years I have devoured restaurant reviews like a starving man. With keen anticipation I have come to restaurant after restaurant all to often to be bitterly disappointed.
What matter if the clever architect has made a ceiling that looks like a thousand stars at night if the space between tables is so small that the waiters constantly bump into you, if the seats are uncomfortable how can you enjoy food, if near by diners roar with laughter and speak so loudly that conversation is impossible?
One hostess told me a couple celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary at a leading Melbourne restaurant comfortable in the knowledge that it would be impossible to talk to each other during the meal!
Waiters who bring the wrong meals, who give incorrect information about dishes, who argue with patrons I’ve experienced all of this and more.
It is not reviewers fault if Melbourne diners lack courtesy and faults in restaurants abound but they should tell us
Eating at a “good” restaurant should be a total experience. Everything counts – the atmosphere, the décor, the table settings, cutlery and crockery, the attention and service, the presentation and of course the food.
Owners, chefs, waiters, diners and reviewers too; we all have to do our part.
You do your bit, I’ll do mine.
Here’s to a good dinner.