Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The People's Critics

[ed. I still think this is my favorite Pete Wells review.]

For one of his last meals as the chief restaurant critic of the New York Times, Sam Sifton ate at “the best restaurant in New York City: Per Se, in the Time Warner Center, just up the escalator from the mall, a jewel amid the zirconia.” He (re-)awarded it the Times’ highest rating, four stars, and was so moved that he savored one dish as one “might have a massage or a sunset.” And of course he did: No one would have expected any less for Thomas Keller, long considered one of America’s greatest living chefs.

That was five years ago. Earlier this month, Sifton’s replacement, Pete Wells, declared that “the perception of Per Se as one of the country’s great restaurants, which I shared after visits in the past, appear[s] out of date” and stripped the restaurant of two of its stars. Even though it had been anticipated, it’s hard to overstate the magnitude of Wells’ review in the restaurant world: It’s maybe sort of like if people still cared what music critics said about albums and the most important one of all wrote that, like, Radiohead’s new album is not that good and certainly not great but especially not perfect?

Anyways, Wells’ takedown was received with rapt and thunderous applause: It became one of this most-read reviews in his more than four years as the Times’ chief restaurant critic and sucked the sage-scented air out of almost every other conversation in the dining world, at least for a moment. And why not? People love to watch falling stars, especially when the crash is this spectacular: The greatest restaurant in New York from one of the greatest chefs in the country is in fact a smoldering garbage fire, and has been for a year, or maybe even longer. (...)

But there is something that distinguishes Pete Wells’ run as critic, and it’s not just his deep awareness that his potential audience is both larger and different than his predecessors—a savvy on full display in his atomic obliteration of Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen & Bar or four-star crown for Sushi Nakazawa (whose chef is mildly famous for being the apprentice who cried when he made the egg sushi correctly in Jiro Dreams of Sushi). It would be hard to overstate how profoundly high-end dining has changed since Per Se opened in 2004, during a decade or so that has been largely marked by the democratization of high-end cooking: Or, in a picture, carefully grown and obsessively sourced food, radically composed and meticulously prepared, then dropped onto your cramped table with deeply uncomfortable seats by a cranky, tattooed and taciturn waiter for tens of dollars a head. What might have seemed like sorcery in 2004, “hunt[ing] down superior ingredients—turning to Elysian Fields Farm for lamb, Snake River Farms for Kobe beef—and let[ting] them express themselves as clearly as possible” through “cooking as diligence and even perfectionism”—amount to mere table stakes for any remotely hyped restaurant in gentrified Brooklyn (or Manhattan or any major city) in 2016. What was praise from Bruni in 2004 reads like a recipe for inducing nausea today, in a world where the kind of diner who would save up for a meal at Per Se probably dreams of eating a single scallop off of a bed of smoking moss and juniper branch at Fäviken:
Sybaritic to the core, Per Se is big on truffles, and it is big on foie gras, which it prepares in many ways, depending on the night. I relished it most when it was poached sous vide, in a tightly sealed plastic pouch, with Sauternes and vanilla. The vanilla was a perfect accent, used in perfect proportion.
Leaving aside the dismal execution that Wells experienced, part of Per Se’s problem, in other words, is that it is no longer elite enough even in a city host to merely the fifth-greatest restaurant in the world. (Eleven Madison Park, which Pete Wells loved, by the way, is now more inaccessible than ever, with a starting price of $295 a head for dinner.)

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Image: John