Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Zagat's the way it goes.

Last week's New York Times "Dining Out" section featured an article by Frank Bruni with the headline "Restaurants Stop Playing Hard to Get." It begins with the question: "Has a restaurant hugged you lately?" Mr. Bruni bets it has. The reason, of course: the recession.

This strummed a mystic chord of memory going back 35 years, when I had just returned to New York from a two-year Army stint, and bought a copy of Jim Quinn's Word of Mouth: A completely new kind of guide to New York City restaurants--1973 edition, which I keep, despite ninety percent of the restaurants it reviews no longer being in business and its considering a $25 dinner "expensive", simply because it's great fun to read. Perhaps one of the "completely new" aspects of Quinn's book was its willingness to trash the competition. Of Gael Greene's Bite, a contemporaneous restaurant guide, he observed that the author is "a textbook case of social-climbing masochism."* In support of this, he quoted her:
During the arid recession-spooked summer of 1970 there were a few shocking breakdowns in the town's haute conspiracy of snobbisme...Soon some of the town's snob restaurants were a blinding glare of empty white tablecloths. For certain New Yorkers, being wanted is the cruelest blow. We want to go where we are not wanted...the fact that we are not wanted is the surest sign that we are storming a retreat worth wanting.**
Quinn took Greene at her word concerning La Cote Basque, then one of New York's best French restaurants, which he said Greene described as "a snob's idea of a fun restaurant" where "[c]lass lines [are] rigidly drawn."
Forewarned by Gael, I and my dinner companions have dressed to make trouble. I am in a cotton velour suit that looks like it was made of 200 gerbil skins, all stitched together sideways and brushed in the opposite direction. My long-time roomy and a poet of anthology rank are both glittering, braless, in ankle-length dresses that make you gasp when they walk. We are up for stalking out if we get the least bit of shit. We get the best table I have got in an expensive restaurant.
When it came to the most important task of the restaurant reviewer, describing the food, Quinn could deliver. Consider this account of filet mignon at Lutece, once New York's most celebrated French restaurant, and the only place to get an "A" grade from Quinn, who marked on a severe curve:
Filet mignon de boeuf en croute Lutece...is a big piece of tender, tasty filet, delivered rare, but charred dark outside, wrapped in good (if not spectacular) pastry and slathered with an extraordinarily good perigourdine sauce--one of the few in Manhattan that actually tasted of truffles. It comes accompanied by a generous serving of mixed vegetables that seem steamed and sauteed rather than boiled and include oddities like genuine flageolets as well as carrots, celery, and tiny peas.
In describing bad food, Quinn could be quite vivid, as in this conclusion to his review of a steak restaurant near Times Square:
Now dig in. Your grease has cooled enough to give the illusion you're eating vaseline; the steak has been tenderized so thoroughly that it has all the texture and taste of an expensive kid glove--after someone wearing it changed and drained a dirty crankcase. The potato is awash in neatsfoot oil; your garlic bun is slowly expanding, like a dry sponge dropped in a rendering vat. And as a special bonus you won't need to add any salt: the chef sweats on the meat.***
Quinn wasn't the only exponent of the restaurant-review-as-art. Seymour Britchky, an occasional Lion's Head visitor, whose stated qualification for the job was that he "ate three meals a day," wrote a monthly newsletter and compiled an annual anthology, under the title The Restaurants of New York, that lasted from 1976 through 1991. I used to have copies of several of the anthologies; unfortunately, somewhere along the way, they got lost in the shuffle. Like Quinn, Sy could be devastating. In a review of a famous Broadway theater area eatery, he wrote:
Sardi's most famous dish is its cannelloni, cat food wrapped in noodle and welded to the steel ashtray in which it was reheated under its glutinous pink sauce. Makes your mouth parch, doesn't it?
(Quoted in Richard Corliss, "That Old Feeling: Three Reasons to Love New York", Time, July 31, 2004.)

Then came Tim and Nina Zagat, with a splendid idea: let's put together a restaurant guide that's both compact and comprehensive, covering just about any respectable or semi-respectable dining spot in the City in a format that can easily fit a jacket pocket or small handbag. Moreover, let's make it democratic: instead of relying on one or two people's possibly unusual tastes, let's allow anyone who wants to rate a restaurant send us their numerical grade (on a scale of one to 25) for food, service, and decor, then average these. In addition to grades, the reviewers can send us pithy comments, the best of which we'll include in the one sentence "reviews" of each place.

When the Zagat guide first became available, I was delighted. It put lots of information at my fingertips, and I could carry it around in my attache case. Still, I had my Britchky available for more enlightening discussion of a place's qualities, or lack thereof, or sometimes just for the sheer pleasure I took in his prose. The trouble is, Zagat became, as they say, a category killer. When Sy stopped putting out his annual Restaurants of New York in 1991 (he died in 2004), no one tried to carry on his tradition (Quinn's Word of Mouth was, for whatever reason--unfortunately, in my view--a one-off). In an age of short attention spans, three page, discursive, idiosyncratic reviews were out. Of Henry's End, my favorite Brooklyn Heights eatery, Zagat tells us its street and web addresses and phone number, that it scored 24 out of 25 for food, 15 for decor, and 23 for service, and that
"[a]dventurous" types who "love wild game" tout this "quirky" Brooklyn Heights New American where "unique", "savory" meats are paired with an "extensive wine list"; "cozy closet"-size quarters are trumped by "value" pricing and an "exceptional proprietor."
As Mr. P. Pig says, "Th-th-th-that's all, folks." I can't gainsay anything about the ratings (although I might move the service rating up a notch) or the "review," so far as it goes. Henry's End does feature a wild game menu in the fall, and some unusual meats throughout the year. The wine list is "extensive", though not encyclopedic; more importantly, I've found the wines on it unfailingly good. Quarters are tight, but the noise level has become manageable, thanks to acoustic tiles now obscuring a gorgeous tin ceiling (so a few points off for decor; Cafe des Artistes this ain't). Prices are reasonable, by New York standards. Mark, the proprietor, is nothing if not "exceptional": he is--how you say?--a mensch.

But this one sentence write-up is, to begin with, seriously misleading in that it invites the reader to think this is exclusively a "wild game" place. The menu has plenty of beef, veal, pork, chicken, seafood, and pasta dishes. Moreover, it gives no flavor of the food, beyond calling the meats "savory". If I were reviewing Henry's End, I'd make special mention of the soft-shell crabs, available in season, and note that, of the three preparations offered, my favorite is with "Moroccan butter," a sauce with an earthiness and richness that, to my taste, perfectly melds with the delicate sweetness of the crabmeat.

Are there worthy successors to Britchky and Quinn today? There are some encouraging prospects. To begin with, there's the man quoted at the beginning of this post, Frank Bruni, whose reviews can be found in the Times on paper and online, but as yet not in book form. Mr. Bruni's reviews are, however, collected in a Times blog called Diner's Journal. I've just recently begun to explore the realm of food blogs. I surveyed wine blogs first; having found three favorites here (also discusses food), here (also discusses ardent spirits), and here (also discusses love). As for blogs that review restaurants, apart from Diner's Journal I've found (without extensive searching) one, Vittles Vamp, written by a fellow Heights resident I haven't yet met, that strikes me as quite good. The Vamp discusses recipes and ingredients as well as reviewing restaurants, and she seems a promising talent at the latter.

If you know of any other really good websites or blogs that review restaurants, particularly in the New York area, please let me know.

__________

*Social masochism evidently wasn't Ms. Greene's only kind. Her 1978 novel Blue Skies, No Candy, described by Chris Haines in Salon as one third of the Holy Trinity--the others being Erica Jong's Fear of Flying and Judith Krantz's Scruples--of the genre called the "shopping and fucking novel," included this (perhaps slightly paraphrased from memory) description: "His sweat was sharp and tangy; his asshole tasted like apple cider." This was quoted in Spy with the observation, "Ms. Greene is the food editor of New York Magazine."

**During that very "recession-spooked summer" I left my bar exam cram course lecture at Town Hall one evening about eight and walked east through midtown until I found myself in front of La Grenouille, then and now a grand French restaurant. Being hungry and feeling flush, I went in and was promptly ushered to a small table, ordered a beer while I studied the menu, and another to accompany my dinner, received polite and attentive service, and left with my wallet less than $30 (in 1970 dollars, but still a bargain) lighter, tax and tip included.

***I don't identify this place because this review was written at least 35 years ago, and the last time I looked (about two years ago), it was still in business. I've never eaten there, and therefore have no view on the quality of its food which may, for all I know, have improved dramatically since Quinn's visit.