Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Parties, and New York’s shifting food writer hierarchy

November 18

I’m not a first-tier food writer in New York City.

You probably already knew that, but if you didn’t, I hope you’re not disappointed.

Chefs tend to enjoy getting mentioned in Nation’s Restaurant News, in print or online, but, well, if Food & Wine declares you one of the year’s ten best new chefs, that’s better, by a lot.

A friend of mine who’s a restaurant manager here in the City told me recently that getting a restaurant mentioned in my blog was a good second-tier hit, which was nice of him, and generous. New York has a lot of tiers. I think I’m probably around tier number four.

That’s okay. I have enough oomph that chefs return my phone calls more often than not, and restaurateurs let me come to their parties (not to brag; that’s true at tier 6, too). And really it takes the pressure off of me. If you’re in a top tier — say a critic at the Times or New York magazine — people take your words seriously. Losing a New York Times star can cost you not only prestige, but money. Even if I were a critic I couldn’t break a place, and that’s a relief. All I can do is spread a little sunshine, or very occasionally hurt someone’s feelings.

And any commenter on Yelp! can hurt restaurateurs’ feelings. They’re sensitive.

The people at Oceana certainly had hurt feelings when I was there for lunch yesterday. New York had just given them a hostile-sounding one-star review. The restaurant had recently relocated from an upper-midtown townhouse to a giant space in the McGraw Hill building that most recently housed a Strawberries clothing store. I’m a food guy, not a décor guy, but I loved the place — big and fun like a brasserie. And it was doing a robust lunch business for a buttoned-up clientele — I was glad I’d worn a suit that day.

But New York critic Adam Platt mostly didn’t like it, and he hated the space.

The chefs and owners were obviously disappointed, but they were also nervous, because the Times was reviewing it today (turns out it got two stars, which would be nice, except until today it had three stars).

Back to the different tiers of New York food writers, I think it’s fair to say that the new Times critic, Sam Sifton, occupies the top tier by himself, and Mr. Platt is on tier 2.

Then again, maybe not. The Times remains the religion of a large group of New Yorkers, but as media outlets multiply and publishing empires crumble, there’s a fair amount of apostasy going on. How Oceana’s loss of a star — or the drubbing poor Aureole took in last week’s one-star review — will actually affect sales remains to be seen. Up until now, business at both restaurants has reportedly been good, and it hasn’t been the fickle trend lemmings filling the seats, from what I understand.

Anyway, what got me thinking about this whole tier thing had to do with some of the parties I went to last week — at the opening of Obao a food writer from one web site was just a tiny bit miffed that he wasn’t invited to Eleven Madison Park’s eleventh anniversary the night before, even though people from had been invited.

The Eleven Madison Park party was good, but there actually wasn’t a whole lot of media there. I think most of the guests were simply good customers of the restaurant. I mostly spent the evening with my bosses, Pam Parseghian and Ellen Koteff, but I did enjoy a story from a caviar salesperson explaining how her competitors stole business from her: Their tactic was to call the restaurant on the chef’s day off and just say, “hi, I’m calling about your caviar order.”


And my friend Akiko Katayama, practiced networker that she is, introduced me to Financial Times reporter Nick Lander, who shared with me the interesting fact that, although Indian food is tremendously popular in Great Britain, it’s only popular at dinner. People don’t eat it at lunch.

The geniuses at Eleven Madison Park were waiting outside with full-on coffee service in to-go cups for people as they were leaving. This is no surprise as the place is ably led by general manager Will Guidara, who many NRN readers might be interested to know is the son of chain restaurant veteran Frank Guidara, who currently heads up Uno Chicago Grill.

Akiko also was at the opening on the following night of Obao (Michael Bao Huynh’s new place; I ate oxtail soup and crunchy pork belly cubes on skewers), which I got to late, so she was going as I was coming, because Bar Henry was opening that night, and she had a dinner to go to after that.

No, you won’t see grass growing under Akiko’s feet.

I was soon at Bar Henry, too, having taken the subway with Metromix's Alexis Loinaz and a friend of his whose name I have forgotten.

I hadn’t bothered to read anything about Bar Henry, but it was soon evident that it had a serious wine list, because high-tiered wine writer Alice Fiering was there.

Alice does not suffer fools lightly and would not set foot in a random bar opening. No way.

And soon Food & Wine’s Kate Krader was there, too.

We were drinking good wine throughout the party, but, you know, it was opening-party wine.

But they pulled out the good stuff for Alice and Kate, and soon I was enjoying a 1999 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Hurray!

(A brief aside: Châteauneuf-du-Pape comes specifically from Avignon, which was where the head of the Catholic Church relocated for much of the 14th Century; this is easy to remember because the wine’s name means “the Pope’s new castle.”)

We had good conversation, too, although perhaps I shouldn’t have called Kate the spotted pig-lady. Really, I meant “The Spotted Pig lady,” which is to say she was a key player in garnering fame and attention for New York’s favorite gastropub, The Spotted Pig, but out of context it doesn’t sound very good.

I could also call her the Momofuku lady. Maybe I’ll do that next time.

What I ate at Oceana:

marinated oysters with cucumbers, apple and toasted spices
Taylor Bay scallops with shoyu and togarashi
a poke trio of tuna, hamachi and wild salmon
fluke tartare with cashews, mango and young coconut
snapper ceviche with roasted corn, hearts of palm and cilantro
Thai style red snapper with silk squash, jícama and kaffir lime-coconut water broth
Arctic char á la plancha with sautéed root vegetables and cranberry-apple coulis
Frozen pear chiboust with yogurt lemon grass soup and angel food cake croutons
Persimmon cake with apple sorbet
Assorted doughnuts


Michael said...

your posts are always a good read. And fun too....I particularly like food reviews which actually have a little of the writers personality in them....
And quite often, a decent review of yours has put me at that restaurant far quicker than the Times reviews which I tend to read rather cynically.

JB said...

I enjoy these and if anything, would like to see extended discussion and background from these because of your ability to entertain and inform at once. BTW is it the 20 year anniversary of the Hot Pot Turkey?

Bret Thorn said...

I would have written that for Thanksgiving of 1987, so 22 years.

nyrestaurantfoodie said...

Yes, Bret, I agree. You rank among the top tiers in my book, and your thoughtful commentary often means more than someone who's criticizing for a medium that dictates the critics point of view. You are objective, and you know how to order (I think the scallop sashimi at Oceana is one of the best dishes I've had in a long time! Super simple, reliant upon perfect seafood, and shockingly delicious!). Keep writing, please!

Bret Thorn said...

Thanks nyrestaurantfoodie, but for the record, I didn’t order at Oceana. I just let chef Ben Pollinger and pastry chef Jansen Chan send out whatever they wanted.

Mike said...

Great post. Being a fellow "writer-for-the-industry" rather than for consumers, I have pondered the tiers. Your line "All I can do is spread a little sunshine, or very occasionally hurt someone’s feelings," hits the mark perfectly.