Restaurant Critics
June 10, 2003 3:31 PM   Subscribe

Why Are The Six Best Restaurants in New York All French? Because William Grimes from the New York Times is a massive, provincial, toadying snob, that's why says so. [NYT reg. req.] With his haughty tone, architectural blatherings and whiney voice [Real Video link] he's undoubtedly my pet hate among restaurant critics, even though he obviously knows his stuff, not to mention a thing or two about cocktails [here is his take on the Martini]. My favourite critics are GQ's Alan Richman and the Anti-Grimes himself, a man who truly knows his food, Robert Sietsema of The Village Voice. What critics get your goat or vote? Which ones are worth reading and following? More importantly, which ones - or anonymous restaurant guides, like Zagat's, can you trust, if any?
posted by MiguelCardoso (36 comments total)
Personally, I don't trust anyone that considers themselves a food critic. Like movie and music critics, they get so into the subject that they focus on how something was made rather than the end result.

I ask in-town friends what restaurants they like rather than even look at Zagat. They haven't steered me wrong yet.

So if you're ever in Pasadena, California, I'll hook you up with the good places...
posted by Argyle at 3:41 PM on June 10, 2003

Chowhound all the way.
posted by muckster at 3:51 PM on June 10, 2003

what Argyle said.

for a decent simple meal in nyc just go to that belgian place at w4 & 6ave that only serves mussels, frites and beer.
posted by dorian at 4:23 PM on June 10, 2003

I second; that and spending time with long time NYC residents who love food and cooking.
posted by gen at 4:27 PM on June 10, 2003

I consider myself to be the best food critic around - if I like it once . . . I'm pretty sure I'll like it again.
posted by cinderful at 5:06 PM on June 10, 2003

When I finally make it to NYC, the first restaurant to which I'll be making a beeline is not French, but Italian.
posted by chuq at 5:12 PM on June 10, 2003

Calvin Trillin. Definitely.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:28 PM on June 10, 2003

what's wrong with french food?
posted by destro at 5:32 PM on June 10, 2003

What are you, some kind of terra-ist?
posted by majcher at 6:08 PM on June 10, 2003

Why is it necessary to take sides as if food critics were sports teams? Grimes and Sietsema are both excellent critics (as even you admit); they have different styles and work different sides of the street. You won't see Sietsema reviewing Le Bernardin or Grimes reviewing the Afghan hole-in-the-wall down the street, so they're both valuable. Imagine that: it's useful to have more than one critic at the same time! If you're on some kind of crusade against French cuisine, I feel sorry for you, but that leaves all the more coq au vin for the rest of us. I haven't had the good fortune to eat at any of those six, but I'd do so in a heartbeat if someone offered to pick up the check, and I'd love to get back to Montrachet (where I had my first anniversary dinner).

Zagat's, on the other hand, is just silly.
posted by languagehat at 6:52 PM on June 10, 2003

Jane and Michael Stern -
posted by perorate at 7:32 PM on June 10, 2003

LH: I love French cooking of all kinds. But I refuse to believe that, with all New York's restaurants to choose from, the only ones deserving Grimes's 4 stars just happen to be French. Surely the laws of logic and statistics make this almost impossible!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:45 PM on June 10, 2003

I'm with you on Sietsema, and the Voice in general, if only because they tend to review restaurants that people actually patronize on a regular basis. While I'm not a miser (my girlfriend and I are eagerly anticipating a birthday visit to Otto) and don't have a problem shelling out for a good meal, I don't plain *like* traditional French cooking - it's too rich and heavy for me, and I can't eat a lot of dairy products at once like that. But give me a good bowl of pho or a big Cuban sandwich and I'm there.

It's possible the accuse the Voice of being pretentious from time to time, but the amount of thorough research they do on completely unpretentious ethnic restaurants is commendable - in New York, with a thousand pizza parlors and tandoori joints, it's good to know what separates the wheat from the chaff, and the Voice is invaluable for such things - the Times wouldn't think of spotlighting the Venice Ristorante and its ilk, and the recent series of top 100 lists of cheap restaurants (Asian, Latin, everything else) has been invaluable.
posted by dayan at 7:48 PM on June 10, 2003

I haven't tried to use Chowhound -- I like the idea, though.

I agree that the Voice approach is a good one: it's certainly valuable to have serious attention paid to the cheapest places. But what I miss is the middle -- there are a host of places in NYC between Nobu and the Chinatown noodle counters, but it's hard to get a firm handle on which of the places where the mains are under, say, $20 are really worth your dollar. And as neighborhoods like where I live in Brooklyn seem to see new restaurants opening weekly, finding out which are gems and which are not. Time Out sometimes covers this beat, as does the absolutely unusable Citysearch. Sometimes it feels like Zagat is the only truly comprehensive solution.
posted by BT at 7:53 PM on June 10, 2003

Jeffrey Steingarten. He doesn't critique restaurants specifically, but if you're looking for critiques of food -- be it sea salt, hangar steaks, or even eggs -- he's your man.
posted by metrocake at 9:33 PM on June 10, 2003

For me Lespinasse was the best, Le Bernardin the worst for the money. When you do go to top restaurants you must get the tasting menus. I have lost some faith some Zagat, even though I do contribute now online (try to improve it) to get the guide free. So many of the top rated Zagat restaurants are crap. The Voice reviews are usually based on reality. Citysearch is not bad, the user reviews are usually entertaining and all over the place. I recently went to Aureole (American), which was good, not great. Better off at Kitchen 22 or 82, which has similar style, but at a $25 Prixe fix
posted by imlit at 9:33 PM on June 10, 2003

But I refuse to believe that, with all New York's restaurants to choose from, the only ones deserving Grimes's 4 stars just happen to be French.
What proportion of Michelin-starred restaurants are French? What about those with two or three stars? I don't have the numbers either, but I imagine that it's a fairly large proportion. 100% is too high, for sure, but not necessarily by much.
posted by kickingtheground at 9:34 PM on June 10, 2003

Montrachet's truffle-crusted salmon is the shit. Mmmmmmm.
posted by Spacelegoman at 9:59 PM on June 10, 2003

Why is it necessary to take sides as if food critics were sports teams?

because otherwise there would be no MefiPoll, and no FPP

and Zagat _is_ silly, but you'd have to be nuts to buy it for the "comments". I think (and hope) that people buy it just for the addresses, and phone numbers, etc. -- it's a directory, really, not a guide

Grimes is pretty smug, as most food writers seem to be -- being a snob is probably an important part of the resume.
(sadly, one thing is taking food -- or wine -- seriously, lecturing innocent people about the vitis vinifera vs vitis labrusca debate and barrique aging until their eyes glaze over is entirely another).

I too like Richman who is also -- rara avis -- a very polite man.
for Richman fans: if in Milan, check out his favorite restaurant in all of Italy, Da Giacomo
posted by matteo at 1:16 AM on June 11, 2003

I don't trust restaurant critics or food guides anymore than I do their equivalents for movies, games or what have you. I usually try to ask friends for recommendations, and if that isn't possible due to being in a totally new area, I find a place to have coffee that looks like the kind of place I would hang out in regularly and ask the staff or customers there. So far, this technique hasn't let me down.

As someone upstream said though, I find it hard to believe that ALL the top restaurants there are French. There's just so many places to eat there, that you would think it would be statistically impossible.
posted by Orb at 1:17 AM on June 11, 2003

What metrocake said.

Steingarten comes across as staggeringly open minded about food - the introduction to The Man Who Ate Everything describes his resolution, on becoming a food critic, to rid himself of his most entrenched prejudices.

He goes to staggering (sometimes frightening) lengths to research his topics, and manages to wrap it up in something that's astonisingly easy to read.

I can't read that book without longing to try the dish/ingredient/method/restaurant described in whichever article I'm reading at the time.
posted by monkey closet at 1:40 AM on June 11, 2003

..and I apologise for overuse of the word 'staggering'.
posted by monkey closet at 1:44 AM on June 11, 2003

AA Gill from the Sunday Times needs a kicking, yesterday.
posted by dmt at 1:45 AM on June 11, 2003

gill is the man !

hugh canning from the sunday times is best read in a deep booming voice for maximum comedy value.

they should make them swap roles sometime.
posted by sgt.serenity at 2:37 AM on June 11, 2003

Forget New York. The best restaurants in the U.S. are in Philadelphia.
posted by drinkcoffee at 5:15 AM on June 11, 2003

AA Gill is truly fantastic. He once described a dish in a restaurant review as "smelling like the inside of a mortician's sock-drawer".

(He also described Vanessa Feltz's outfit as looking like "a gay elephant's body-bag" - such descriptive gifts only come once per generation...)
posted by bifter at 5:39 AM on June 11, 2003

As I understand it, Zagat's was relevant when it was a tiny grass-roots survey of the Zagats' and their friends (much along the lines of asking your friends where their favorite places are). It just got so big that it became homogenized, at which point the noise starts to overwhelm the signal...

In Manhattan, at least, I've found some pretty decent meals by walking down a few blocks and looking in windows. If the decor/customer demographic/posted menu/prices appeal to me, I give it a shot. So far, so good.
posted by Karmakaze at 6:06 AM on June 11, 2003

AA Gill from the Sunday Times needs a kicking, yesterday.

AA Gill sounds like he would be a complete prick if you knew him personally, but I still always read his column. He's a fantastic writer (what other critic could get away with devoting only 10% of the review to the actual restaurant?) - one of the few that's worth buying a newspaper for.
posted by Summer at 6:23 AM on June 11, 2003

I only wish we had a decent food critic in Madison. We have some truly outstanding restaurants, but all the critics seem obsessed with either quaintness or pretension, take your pick.

I'll stick to the food, thanks.

But to share my NYC experience, I ate at these places and found them wonderful:
Les Alles
Chip Shop (in Brooklyn)
Shanghai Joe's
posted by rocketman at 6:37 AM on June 11, 2003

i find Grimes benign, mostly because i don't read his reviews as eagerly as i did those of Ruth Reichl, my favorite food writer. her books are good, but her reviews are amazing, as entertaining as they are insightful. i used to look up all the old ones from LA on LexisNexis...nerrrrd alert.

as for snobbery, the Times is fully covered in that respect by Amanda Hesser, who i loathe the way some people loathe Martha Stewart or Hillary Clinton. she writes fairly well, but her articles are larded with boastful personal details about her perfect taste, her perfect husband (Tad Friend of The New Yorker, of course)...and those little watercolor waif drawings! GRRRRRRRRRR!

as for where to actually eat in NYC, i second Les Halles, or Becco in the theater district -- tiny, a little pricey, but delicious, run by Lidia Bastianich's family. if i were going to blow the budget, i think i'd go to The French Laundry, for the atmosphere, not a temple of pretentiousness in nyc.
posted by serafinapekkala at 9:27 AM on June 11, 2003

I guess it depends on what you're looking for. The Washington Post (both under the former Phyllis Richman and now Tom Sietsema (who is, apparently, not related to Robert)) tends to review fancy-schmancy places (with some exceptions, of course). Great if you're wondering where to spend $100. But I want to know hole-in-the-wall ethnic eateries.

The DC Chowhound list seems to be divided between the gourmets and what I would consider a chowhound, someone like me (of course). A writer will ask for dinners that range $30-$50 per person, and he'll get suggestions for the prix fixe $58 place, which adds up to at least $70 after tax and tip, not to mention wine--not very helpful.

The Washingtonian is my favorite. They produce two lists annually--Very Best and Cheap Eats. What I think is fantastic is that there are quite a few restaurants on both lists.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:36 AM on June 11, 2003

This Cheap Eats is the only food review column I read.
posted by Hackworth at 9:48 AM on June 11, 2003

In Manhattan, at least, I've found some pretty decent meals by walking down a few blocks and looking in windows.

Amen! No substitute for walking the beat (or driving it, as in the case of one food maniac I used to know who would literally screech to a halt while driving down Queens Boulevard, holler "I smell garlic," and leave the car to fend for itself while he tracked down the source).

i don't read his reviews as eagerly as i did those of Ruth Reichl, my favorite food writer.

Amen again. I miss her. She was always pissing off the pretentionistas by giving "too many stars" to cheap Chinese places. How dare she dilute the sacred Times star! And she wrote wonderfully; Grimes is merely workmanlike.

Miguel: Of course it's not a coincidence; those are the restaurants Grimes favors. Not some evil conspiracy; just his taste. You always have to know, and allow for, the biases of the reviewer. I persist in finding the presentation of your post unnecessarily contentious.

By the way, I impressed the hell out of Sietsema when I met him by immediately saying "Sietsema... that's a Friesian name, right?" Ah, the joys of a languagehat!
posted by languagehat at 10:01 AM on June 11, 2003

Personally, I don't trust anyone that considers themselves a food critic.

Amen. Me, I look at the prices first and then peek in the window to see how large the portions are. For gosh sake, it's food: restaurants are just gas stations for the body.

Following the fashions has often led to disappointments, although the Gramercy Tavern, I must say, is everything it's cracked up to be. I rely entirely on my Culinary Academy-trained chef friend to find the rare jewels. And Chowhound? Yeesh, talk about your much ado about nothing flame war battlefield ...
posted by hairyeyeball at 10:13 AM on June 11, 2003

You know, while we're on the subject, the NYT has terrible wine reviewers as well. Ironically, they seemingly suffer from the tendency to dumb down whatever they write, rather than raising their collective nose in the air like Mr. Grimes.

By trying to be make their wine reviews less threatening, they dilute their tasting notes to the point of being useless.

Gourmet has Gerald Asher, a great wine writer, to go along with Ruth Reichl.
posted by MisterMo at 12:25 PM on June 11, 2003

Les Alles
Chip Shop (in Brooklyn)
Shanghai Joe's

Er, that would be...

Les Halles (2 blocks from my house; famous French bistro & great steak frites)
Joe's Shanghai (famous for Shanghai soup dumplings)
posted by gen at 6:14 PM on June 11, 2003

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