On Being a Restaurant Critic

After Malcolm Forbes of Forbes magazine died in February 1990, there was some question as to whether or not his popular feature reviewing New York City restaurants would continue. Since the business-minded readership clearly enjoyed the concise and often amusing GREEN LIGHT—YELLOW LIGHT—RED LIGHT format, it was decided to keep the column going. And happily for me, for many subsequent years, it was part of my job to provide the bulk of the material for it.

Now I certainly was not a standard food professional.

The extent of my serious experience in the kitchen was once catering chicken curry for fifty people with the help of a friend who was taking a course at Cornell in Quantity Cooking. Fortunately, nobody got sick. However, as a single professional living alone in Manhattan, I certainly ate out a lot, knew what tasted good, and had a sense of value for dollar.

Looking back on those years and the huge quantity of meals I consumed (and yes, I was diagnosed with gout along the way), it’s interesting how few leap immediately to mind.

Parioli Romanissimo on East 81st between Fifth and Madison was one of the very few restaurants to have been awarded four stars by the New York Times’s demanding critic at the time, John Canaday; it certainly deserved them. Perhaps the most memorable meal I have had anywhere—and that includes eating out in Paris and Rome and even Istanbul—was in that exquisite space one Christmas Eve: perfect scrambled eggs lavishly garnished with fresh white truffles.

This masterpiece was very much in keeping with the philosophy of Rubrio Rossi, the restaurant’s courtly proprietor. “Food should be straightforward,” he was quoted as saying. “We attempt to emphasize the primary ingredient of each dish, not camouflage it. Generally, when you include more than five or six ingredients in a dish, the flavors tend to fight one another. Then you simply have clutter.”

Rossi was right. And the fact that I’m still salivating over food sampled at his superb restaurant, which closed more than twenty years ago, says a great deal.

Interestingly enough, one of the other remarkably good places that I remember was located at 24 East 80th Street, only a few blocks away from Parioli Romanissimo: The Gibbon. According to the New York Times, this was “one of the first restaurants to apply the esthetics of Japanese cuisine to the canvas of French gastronomy.” And the results were sensational. Seldom have I encountered more consistently delicious and innovative fare and never in a more tranquil and pleasing ambience.

A memorable Japanese restaurant without the French ingredients and one which is still around is Donguri. Personally, I find this tiny gem far more commendable than the excruciatingly expensive and far more famous Masa in the Time Warner Center.

As I wrote in an earlier edition of this site, when Donguri first opened in 1998 and was run by chef Shuji Fujita and his lovely wife Michiko, it was truly special—a tiny Asian country restaurant that had somehow materialized off Second Avenue. Unfortunately, Mr. Fujita had severe back problems and he and his spouse returned home to Kyushu, Japan, in 2005. Little Donguri was then bought by prestigious Ito En, a multinational beverage company specializing in tea production. Although perhaps no longer quite so special, the restaurant is still very good and certainly worth seeking out by those interested in excellent Japanese fare.

All of the aforementioned restaurants have had reasonably long runs. Manhattan, however, can be fickle, and constant turnover is very much part of the scene. In April, 2008, for example I submitted reviews for Allen & Delancey, a superb eatery housed in a former Salvation Army storefront on the Lower East Side as well as the “pretty, stylish and disappointing” Zoe Townhouse on East 62nd Street. Both have left town for good; this sort of coming and going is something you have to get used to.

“How do you go about being a restaurant reviewer?” is often asked and the answer is relatively simple even if you don’t have the good luck of serving as Malcolm Forbes’s understudy.

To begin with, you should have a naturally critical point of view. You notice things. And notice, too, whether those things match up to your own standard of what they should be. In one way or another, most people are blessed with some of this, so logically most people can be restaurant critics—  at least for themselves and for their like-minded friends. So you’ve already cleared the first hurdle.

Next, you find a place that looks interesting, or one somebody has said nice or encouraging things about, or a tried and true establishment that’s been around for ages or a new kid on the block that has just opened and that is being hyped.

Once there, you start with the basics: the freshness and quality of the ingredients and the preparation and presentation of the dish. Although restaurants are about a lot more than food, food is, of course, the most important thing to consider.

This is elementary stuff. Nobody wants to tolerate tough beef, undercooked chicken, or canned green beans. Unfortunately such things show up— sometimes in the most unexpected places. When they do, or when there are noticeable lapses in cleanliness or hygiene: RED LIGHT.

Happily most restaurants on your list will pass this initial test. (Although over the years there have been some startling surprises: inedible tough steak at a recent incarnation of the Palm Court, burnt escargots at Jubilee, and the waiter’s nauseating B.O. at La Cote Basque come to mind.)

The next step is to consider the ambience.

Is the place attractive and welcoming? Is the lighting good? What about the noise level?

Per Se may well be stratospherically expensive, but is easily passes all these tests. Similarly, in the super-expensive category, Gilt is worth every penny. But restaurants don’t have to be super expensive to be winners. Ithaka, an unassuming Greek taverna on East 86th Street consistently delights and so do the venerable Le Veau d’Or (recently being discovered by a whole new group of celebrities) and, for lunch, the Zen-perfection of the restaurant at the Asia Society.

Over the years, many restaurants offering wonderful food did not pass one important test or another and this was often a problem with the service. At one of Alain Ducasse’s early efforts in Manhattan, the waiter embarrassingly corrected an elegant female guest on her choice of a spoon. The critically acclaimed Le Bernardin also has exquisite food and a beautiful setting, but the arrogance of the staff I have encountered on several occasions always succeeds in leaving a very bad taste. Once, when anonymously reviewing with a party of six, we were given a bad table and treated with unacceptable disdain. Suddenly a busboy who’d worked someplace else recognized me and the unctuous posturing commenced. Ugh.

Personally, I don’t like places where I can’t hear my dinner companion’s conversation and have criticized some of the hottest spots in town over the years for this reason. I’m also not fond of places where the lighting is poor—either so dark that you can hardly read the menu or so bright that both you and your companions look less than your best. But these are personal things and others may not be bothered by them. It’s your call if you’re reviewing.

One thing to watch out for, as a critic or simply a customer, is the all too common occurrence of padding the bill. If this is going to happen, it usually happens at an expensive restaurant when you are entertaining a group of four or more and enjoying some alcoholic beverages. Perhaps it’s then assumed that the check won’t be read. Over the years I’ve noticed with depressing frequency items added that were not ordered and certainly not served—expensive wines, additional entrées. I’m told that this trick is often the ploy of the wait staff who reason that a bigger bill will result in a bigger tip, but whoemver is at fault, it’s pretty despicable.

In today’s world you have an excellent opportunity to hone your restaurant critic skills by submitting comments to websites like Yelp or Trip Advisor. Seek out restaurants you haven’t tried and keep a notebook of your unedited comments. As you write up more and more, you’ll find that your style becomes more professional and your point of view more knowledgeable, more sophisticated. You’ll learn to savor matsutake mushrooms, huitlacoche, and pâté chinois. Offering your comments online is an excellent way to practice being a critic and I regret not having had access to such websites early in my career.

Issue Twenty Two