Critiquing the Critics: The Bad $200 Beef Platter vs. the $40,000 NYT Ad
I received an email early last Wednesday from an AP writer in New York.
"For good juicy restaurant gossip, make sure you check out the full-page ad Jeffery Chodorow (sp?) took out in the NY Times today."
Seeing as I hadn't even had my coffee yet, I didn't give it much thought, until another email immediately popped through, this one, from the editor of a major food website.
"If you have today's NY Times, please save one for me! A restaurant took a full-page add against Frank Bruni. I reallllly want to see it."
Not wanting to be last in the loop, I padded downstairs and opened the Times' Dining In/Dining Out section, and there, on page 5, was a full-page letter of several thousand words, signed by Jeffrey Chodorow. What had prompted Chodorow, owner of twenty-four splashy restaurants, to take time from his schedule and slap down a purported $40,000 for the ad? Why, that would be a review published in the Times two weeks earlier and written by Frank Bruni, the paper's lead restaurant critic, about Chodorow's latest New York City venture, Kobe Club.
Now, I'd read that review, entitled "Giving Luxury the Thrill of Danger," in reference to the 2,000 samurai swords that dangle from Kobe Club's ceiling. Gimmicky, I'd thought, as I'd stared at the accompanying photo, of steel blades glinting just above diners' heads, the sort of stratagem used to distract customers from what's on the plate and what it's costing.
"New York: Hell with Good Restaurants." (Sometimes.)
As a restaurant critic, I know that whenever there's a suit of armor at the head of my table, goldfish swimming in my drink, or a waiter who blindfolds me in order that I can "better experience the br√ªl√©e," the meal is pretty much guaranteed to stink.
This had pretty much been Bruni's assessment of Kobe Club. After spending $195 for tasting portions of beef that sprouted "toothpick flags identifying the country," he pronounced the food "insipid or insulting," and gave the restaurant zero stars out of four.
"What are you laughing about?" my husband asked, as I read over Chodorow's epistolary retaliation; his use of CAPITAL LETTERS and "quotation marks" to let Times readers know that Bruni-nay, nearly all the paper's food writers in recent memory-were "not really food critics." More, that Bruni had committed "personal attacks" on Chodorow, and while he, Chodorow, was "too successful and battle-hardened to be affected by this," it didn't matter, anyway, because - ha ha ha ha ha -- business was "booming."
I was howling at this point, not because the letter was so over-the-top, but because it was so typical. In the past, I've received near-identical missives from restaurateurs unhappy with my reviews, as have all my reviewer friends. A sampling:
"I thought this was one of the most off point reviews I have ever heard. It read like [you had] a personal vendetta against _____."
"I think maybe you went to _____ for drinks and were so overwhelmed by the Mojitos and the sheer beauty of the room that you stumbled outside and went up to PF Changs. In short you are a terminal fool."
"Your review is flip and lacks journalistic integrity. It is embarrassing... You really should change your line of work or figure out how to pay for your nails in another way."
"You did _____ a terrible disservice. You did Portland a terrible disservice. You shamed the [newspaper]... you have set up a terrible, destructive, no-win situation. It was your choice. I live with the consequences, as do... the fifteen crestfallen people in the kitchen and the 20 floor staff. Sleep well tonight, Nancy. And don't embarrass yourself by ever coming coming [sic] to _____ again. I will post your photograph at _____ also for the staff who will instructed to refuse service to you."
[As my friend and fellow blogger Cathy Seipp wrote about that last comment, "Why didn't they say, 'And you shamed Oregon, and the United States, and the universe, and anyone who has ever so much as written, 'The cat sat on the mat.' "]
I can appreciate feelings of impotency and rage on the part of restaurateurs, even if I do find it puzzling they don't consider the obvious: that we didn't like the food, or that the service was sucky, or slow, or sanctimonious. Or that, you know, we just didn't see the delight in the swords hanging over our heads.
But they don't consider this; instead, they list all the people more qualified than you who love their food (including, in Chodorow's case, that of John Mariani, who in 2005 was outed for taking free restaurant meals, and later choosing these establishments to be part of Esquire magazine's "Best New Restaurants" list). They tell you that you wouldn't know a good steak if they shoved it down your throat. That you have not been fair, and, as God is their witness, no one is going to lick them!
Chodorow, it turns out, thinks he knows how to even the score, and writes that, "in the interest of fairness," he's created a blog wherein he will make follow-up visits to the restaurants the Times critics critique, and writes reviews of their reviews.
Sounds like a Chinese box to me. And one has to wonder at the efficacy of the chod-o-blog, when Chodorow's first post assures readers, "This blog will only be about positive experiences," and receives as its maiden comment, "Chodorow is a fat egomaniac-that's clear."