Have you ever watched your favorite restaurant going down the tube after being discovered by too many and not being able to cope? Sadly, this seems to be happening to my favorite restaurant reviewer, Ruth Reichl. When she debuted at the New York Times She shocked many, although it seems now a case of "the status quo will never be the same". Just consider her credentials: she was transferring from the L..A. Times. Then she proceeded to dish out stars like a new firmament was needed: obscure non-French restaurants (de riguer in the old star system, under the watch of Bryan Miller) were getting 3 stars; ethnic establishments in Queens were being reviewed. There goes the institution, I thought, and started watching the ratings with glee. I enjoyed observing these stellar cataclysms, fatburning what new order they would bring in the New York restaurant universe. Her strategy worked: some outrageous rating got me to read the accompanying piece. It didn't make me regret Bryan Miller's exquisite prose and her bias for unusual, ethnic food seemed as obvious as Miller's for "classic" French cuisine. Soon she started taking on established myths, signaling that nothing was sacred. In a milestone, truly amusing piece, she reviewed Le Cirque in two parts: part one, as an unknown diner, part two, as a most beloved customer. Her stature grew even taller when she reviewed my favorite Italian restaurant. Although she gave it only 2 stars, I clipped the review to show ignorant acquaintances claiming to have had a bad meal there. "Order the right dishes and Barolo is a great Italian dining experience. Order wrong and Barolo is awful," she wrote in a delight fully constructed piece full of testimonial anecdotes, concluding, "You don't have to be Italian to love Barolo. But it helps. If you are not, you risk coming away with the feeling that you walked into a restaurant where everyone is eating well except you." Needless to say, her pieces became the highlight of the weekend section, left for last, after the mandatory art reviews (unrateable reading). I was moved by her 4 stars rating to Lespinasse, the excellent restaurant of the St. Regis Motel: I discovered when it opened years ago and sampled many a delightful Sunday brunch priced (in pre-4 stars days) below $30. I clipped that review, too and many others I found interesting. I even started using some elements of the dishes she described in my own recipes and one blissful, recent afternoon suntanning on my roof, I was so inspired that I found myself reveling in the ultimate New York life nightmare, as if it were the ultimate fantasy. Would it not be nice if the restaurant downstairs went bankrupt and I took it over? I was already chasing after staff I would be training in shopping for ingredients and preparation of foods I would serve, creating the atmosphere I wanted in the new decor I would install and imagining the tableware I would have. The honeymoon seems to be over. Last night I ventured to sample an unknown, 3 Reichl stars suggestion. C.T. stands for Claude Troisgros, an overrated Brazilianized French chef with restaurants in New York and Rio. "In a world of copycat cooks, he is unique", writes Reichl. And so is the food, from its elaborate architecture to the invented language of the menu. The only shortcomings are in the taste, which does not level with the words and looks used to present it. The problem is not "unusual" tastes, but the altogether: It is not mind-blowing (while the bill is, for what one gets), It is o.k. This and the decor, which can be described as Sottsass in a bombastic vein goes to L.A. in the 80's make it a not totally pleasant experience. The giant slabs of pastel "frescoed" walls and the square tables almost obscured by giant, yellow glass dishes, complemented by a loooong communal bench on which I sat (Yes, it is comfortably upholstered, but it gives that distinctive diner feeling), made me want to walk out. I did not, but if I had had to fork out $150 for two persons (only one had a couple of glasses of wine) it would have spoiled my evening.
When I got to today's weekend section, I must say I was scrutinizing it more than reading it. "I had tried his mushrooms which were sliced and arranged on a bed of polenta with a nugget of goat cheese melting in the middle. I wasn't thrilled: the mushrooms and the polenta seemed oddly mismated" Too vague. Ms. Reichl, are you saying that it is an unhappy choice to match polenta and mushrooms or these particular mushrooms didn't go well with the polenta? If so, which ones were they, since you do not give a hint of a description or of which ones would go well with polenta? I left a message to this effect with her voice mail seeking comment. I grew up in Northern Italy, on, among other things, polenta and mushroom, which is a classic. To say that they are mismated is equivalent to saying so for onion and cheese in onion soup. And there is no mismating, polenta is a starch, like pasta and arborio rice: it can be "mated" with everything and it has been for hundreds of years. It is poor people's food, like most of the Italian nouvelle cuisine so popular (and not so poor) now. The first consideration in the making of a recipe was: what is available? what goes well with what? Hundreds of years of trials did the rest. Does she know that?
And finally, the penny dropped. I remembered reading about this restaurant recently, very recently. For the second week in a row, Reichl and the critic of the New York Observer reviewed the same restaurant (last week Dava, this week, Zucca) . Do these two writers share a propensity for bi-syllabic exotic names? (zucca means pumpkin in Italian; dava, gift in Croatian) Or is it just an amazing (amazing!) coincidence? Come to think of it, it is not even the first time this happens. MY hunch is somebody in Public Relations is doing a really good job, a bit too pertly. When a writer is involved, though, whom at the beginning of her stint at the Times used to note whether she had been recognized, it is like finding out that Snow White had been sleeping with the dwarves all along. Two quotes for the day: There is indeed nothing sacred and the status quo will never be the same.
(Sante Scardillo: Me, as a critic, -vs- Me, as an artist )
Perhaps you can help me. I found your web site because I was doing the New York Times "Challenge of the Century Contest." On Thursday, the clues consisted of quotes from an article written by one of the following: Paul Goldberger, Holly Brubach, Ruth Reichl, and Bernard Weinraub. Well, I was stumped, so I began searching the web for anything about these people. Your site was the most helpful, so I am hoping you will know if Ruth Reichl wrote the article from which the quotes were drawn. Please let me know if you need me to send you the quotes. This has been the only Challenge of that series that I have not been able to answer. I look forward to hearing from you. Mary Ann White