Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sifton Through Some Things

While it was perhaps not nearly so momentous to me as it may have been to some New Yorkers, I followed the changing of the guard for the New York Times' food critic post with some interest. Despite all the sturm and drang of late over the decline of printed media, the NYT remains one of the most powerful reviews in the country, with the perception still holding relatively firm that the doling of stars can have a profound effect on the success - or failure - of a restaurant.

The scouting reports on the new guy, Sam Sifton, seemed promising, and from reading some of his earlier work it was clear he could turn a phrase or two. His first reviews upon taking over the job seemed to engender mostly enthusiastic responses. Hey, he has a working knowledge of 1970's punk rock and can sure make Daniel Boulud's food sound really good (wait, is that so hard?). He'll venture out to Queens for Cantonese food. He looks just like that dude from Shaun of the Dead (do you think Simon Pegg is wondering why he keeps gets multiple dishes "from the chef" and such obsequious service every time he goes out in New York City these days?). And no doubt, the reviews of DBGB, Marea, and Imperial Palace prompted that "I want to go to there" reaction from me.

And yet ... certain things have nagged at me.

1. Phrases that initially sound so elegant, but upon further reflection signify little or nothing:

- A restaurant that "bears masculine charms atop its cool concrete floors." Can a restaurant bear charms atop its floors? Maybe it's that in a fit of dyslexia, I keep thinking that the restaurant charms masculine bears atop its floors. Which would be pretty cool indeed, actually.

- A burger that arrives "as if a passenger on an old Cunard ship, with confitted pork belly, arugula, tomato-onion compote and a slab of Morbier". Is that what the dress code on those old cruise ships was like?

- A dish that "offers exactly the sensation as kissing an extremely attractive person for the first time - a bolt of surprise and pleasure combined." That sounds witty, but you know what? Some extremely attractive people kiss like cold fish.

- Geoduck that "explains in one bite why men would dive amid huge swells to retrieve the things from the angry Pacific." "Huge swells"? The "angry Pacific"? Do they harvest them on "dark and stormy nights"? But perhaps more significant: geoducks are harvested from mud flats. About the worst thing that can happen is you get your pants dirty:

- "A hunk of striped bass acting as pack animal for a load of sturgeon caviar"? Actually, that doesn't sound at all elegant. And that was for a dish that he liked!

- "Sable served sizzling over more black bean sauce, like a special at Nobu or a gift from a friend." What? A gift ... of fish?

2. "food-obsessives"

This is apparently the Timesian translation of "foodie," and variations on it appeared in each of Mr. Sifton's first three reviews:

- "More food-obsessed mouths, however, will desire sausages."

- The wine list at Marea "may run unfamiliar to nonobsessives."

- "Among the food-obsessed in New York, interest in Cantonese food has faded as it has risen in the spicy (and tasty!) flavors of China's interior."

Enough obsessing over the "food-obsessives."

3. "meh"

Firstly, "meh" is no more a "New York expression" than, say, "yummy" or "delish" or "FAIL". Secondly, like those others, it has no place in any serious restaurant review. And a "Your mileage may vary" too, in the same review? Why not just "YMMV"? OMG! Please: never again.

4. Is food a question?

- "The Toulouse?"

- "Wine?"

- "Dried scallops and ham?"

- "Snow pea leaves with egg sauce?"

Apparently so.

5. The second-person restaurant review.

Let's say you're reading a restaurant review. In the middle of the review, the critic starts talking about "you." You're just reading along, and all of a sudden, "you" are hungry for this, "you" are ordering that, "you" will like this, "you" just dropped your fork. Do you like being steered around like a puppet by the writer?

- "You might start with some of the items your men with the BlackBerrys order"

- "Perhaps you'd like Mr. Leiken's take on matzo-ball soup"

- "You may order two [sausages] at a time as an entree"

- "Really, you don't need more than these"

- "You like to eat? Watch what is going to happen to you."

- "You may pass on the seppia and shrimp ragu"

- "You want a simple sentence after the complex ones."[*]

- "Wine? You ought to have lots."

- "That sweet and sour pork you ordered in a mall in Scranton came out of Canton in some way; so too the chow mein you ate in a school cafeteria, the dim sum you had one hung-over morning in a city not your own."

- "The Peking duck here is credible, but you wouldn't take the 7 train to the end of the line to eat it."

- "You could be out of the place in 20 minutes if you like."

- "You might also have wine. You should with the steak, anyway, which will be here soon enough."

- "If your order goes well with the kitchen, you can have a good meal. If it doesn't, you'll be staring down a listless Wiener schnitzel."

- "With it you'll want some of the restaurant's spectacular battered onion rings as well as an order of the papas fritas."

- just for the heck of it, one in the Dining Briefs this week too: "But you came for the prime meats, and these you shall have."

As an occasional literary device, OK. But multiple appearances in every review? You're starting to find this a little annoying. You're thinking it's as if Hubie Brown became a restaurant critic. And while it's always entertaining to make fun of Hubie Brown for talking in the second person,[**] you also find it sort of painful to listen to, right?

Despite my cavils, though, I remain a religious reader every Wednesday. After all, this is someone who, in a World Series-inspired discussion of Philly cheese steaks, can come up with gems like this off the cuff:
Overdone meat, bad bread, liquid cheese! It’s the General Tso’s Chicken of sandwiches.

And that was also a compliment.

So please: More Stooges and Ramones references. Less Yelpisms. And you really ought to lay off the second-person mode a bit.

[*]I'm still on the fence as to my feelings on metafiction in restaurant reviews.

[**]Edited to add: now with more Hubie!


  1. Excellent review of the reviewer! Overall, I like his style, but your criticism is spot on, especially with the second person language.

  2. I think he's done a seamless job slipping into what is only the highest profile restaurant criticism gig in the country. Some great critique here, though, especially re. the geoduck.

  3. Your critique of the critic, like your review below of 'Anise' was truly a "paragon of perfect simplicity". One could even say it was "happiness on a plate". Overall, it was "rich, hearty, and staisfying".
    'We' can't wait to hear what "Little Miss F" has to say about Sam Sifton's writing.

  4. I like Sifton too! Just some things that have been bothering me. Sorry to say, though, that Little Miss F has no time to see how many stars Mr. Sifton is dishing out each Wednesday; she's too wrapped up in "From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler."