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Frank Bruni is useless

  • c

[This post will probably not be very interesting for the thousands of chowhounds who never go near Manhattan. My apologies for my parochialism).

Frank Bruni is the reviewer for the New York Times, and he's useless.

The man reviews restaurants that don't need reviewing. Did the world really need a non-reappraisal of Le Bernadin? Or Cafe Boulud? Or Eleven Madison? The Times has published two reviews of Masa in the past year. As Andrea Strong pointed out, last week he reviewed a diner.

Or take today's take-down of the Modern. Not two months ago Frank Bruni pronounced (actually, he repeated the -- I think unfair -- received wisdom ) that Danny Meyer restarants never go for anything special, they just meander along will good-but-not-spectacular food. Then today we find that the Modern is too ambitious, that it shoots for great things and occasionally misses. We are also told that it has not yet found its stride, and that it will no doubt be another triumph for Meyer (in which case it might have been a good idea to wait a little longer before reviewing it). We find in a separate article that what really got Bruni's bladder in a bunch was the bathroom.

The man loves to repeat the little jokes his servers tell him, as if this somehow reflected "the service." I know that detail is important, but
1. Bruni's details are so specific that one would have to have the exact same server to have a similar experience, and
2. Bruni rarely factors in the fact that he is, by now, easily recognized.

[In the bathroom article, Bruni recounts an episode where he carries a glass of wine up a spiral staircase to go to the bathroom. That's just bizarre.]

In general I think the New York Times's star system doesn't make sense. With Michelin, the stars are for food and food only; anything else you have to read the copy. With Zagats, you get itemized indexes of decor, food, and so forth. But with the Times, stars reflect some ephermeral index of the reviewers experience. So Aix, Cafe Sabarsky, and Aureole all get the same rating. Bruni has not helped matters. Apparently if Batali would turn the music down a little, he'd get four.

I will give Bruni this -- I like his writing. If his job is to fill up newspaper space with readable copy, then he's doing it. I think it is funny that BLT Fish might have something to do with Oprah's book club. Alas, I have no idea what that means. To the extent that Bruni is responsible for communicating useful information about restaurants in New York, he's useless.

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  1. Actually, Chuck, I found both separate articles by Frank Bruni in the May 4th NY Times to be very useful.

    I believe it's about time that a critic took these fancy restaurants to task for creating such confusion about bathrooms and 'gussying' them up so much and putting them on different floors that nobody seems to know where to go. I don't like washing my hands in a communal sink such as Pastis like some farmhand. To take this article one step further, I dislike bathrooms that don't have proper lighting and now are lit with candles and the overhead light switch is hidden. The automatic flusher never really works nor does the automatic sink. Frank Bruni is not useless for putting that article on Page 1 of the Dining Out section of the Times.

    I also believe his review of The Modern was timely and he did say the dining pleasures from his visits from February through April were inconsistent. IMO The Modern is not in the same category as other restaurants because it is in the Museum of Modern Art and is attracting visitors from all over the world and reviews need to be updated more often than the regular trendy Orchard/Stanton/Clinton Street standbys.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Flynn

      I don't disagree with you about bathrooms. I still think taking a glass of wine to the bathroom is bizarre.

      My point about the Modern review was that Bruni said exactly the opposite things about Danny Meyer from what appeared a mere two months ago in a review of Eleven Madison.

      I don't think the fact that the Modern is in MOMA means that it should be reviewed differently. What is most likely to happen now is that the kinks will get worked out at the Modern, and then Bruni will either not say anything, or he will have to write another review. And one of my biggest problems with Bruni is that rather than letting readers in on new gems or expanding horizons, he keeps returning to old standards.

      1. re: Chuck W.

        A year ago, many Chowhounds and others were complaining about the lack of objectivity in the NYT's food reviews and reviewers. Has it occurred to you that perhaps Bruni is revisiting these places to provide a more second (or third) opinion of "controversial" (because of the reviewers' opinions) restaurants? And while you seek "new gems," you also call Bruni to task for reviewing a diner.

        Personally, I enjoy reading Bruni's reviews. But I read them for his writing style and commentary. I make my own decisions about restaurants, after tryiung them.

        1. re: Kirk

          None of the restaurants I mention are "controversial." With the one possible exception of Ducasse, Bruni has revisted precisely those places where there is general agreement, and he has repeated the conventional wisdom.

          The diner in question was hardly a new discovery.

          I think Bruni is hillarious. I just don't think he makes any sense.

      2. re: Flynn

        I can think of one advantage to having a communal sink: only the most shameless patron or employee would leave a WC and fail to use it.

      3. I agree with you that he's useless but disagree that his writing is good. His style is so verbose and flowery that it's hard for me to read sometimes without cringing. He also, as you said, throws in a bunch of asides that have nothing to do with the topic at hand. Worse though, it seems from my own experiences and from consenus that many of his ratings have been wrong (The Modern, BLT Fish, Petrosino, Bouley, maybe Ducasse). He's an embarrassment of a food critic and he needs to go.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Bowfinger

          How can a rating of something so subjective as food be "wrong"?

          1. re: neighbor

            When you only have a choice between one, two, three and four stars, the gaps between each are quite large. For instance, it is "wrong" to say a place like Jean Georges is a one star or a place like Shake Shack is four stars. Bruni hasn't done anything that egregious, but when a large group of people disagrees with many reviews, you have to wonder if maybe his tastes (and especially his criteria) are off.

        2. I was under the impression that service is also a factor in the awarding of stars by Michelin - am I wrong about that?

          2 Replies
          1. re: MMRuth

            No you're not wrong about it. It is well known that the Michelin folks are mysterious about their criteria for awarding stars, and it's also well known that some form of "luxury" factors in, along with the quality of the food. Achieving 3-star status usually comes with a price because it requires service with top quality wares and surroundings, which cuts into the profits for the restaurant. Many 3-star restaurants have been struggling, with some going bankrupt. I know I've read more recent accounts of this, but couldn't find them via Google, besides these slightly dated articles.

            http://www.salon.com/march97/wanderlu...

            http://www.time.com/time/europe/eu/ma...

            1. re: Eric Eto

              Thank you - I had thought there was some kind of "mystery" factor, as you call it. The sort of thing that leads Alain Ducasse to have stools for handbags and an array of pens for signing the check!

          2. I live in California and buy the New York Times every day to do the crossword puzzle. I do like Wednesday's edition for the recipes and food articles. I usually enjoy reading reviews of any dining experience but was pretty amazed to find Frank Bruni so mundane for such a notable newspaper and the reputation a critic as achieved to be in that position. Very disappointing.

            I especially do not get why he does not disguise himself. According to Ruth reital (sp?), the dining experience would be completely different when she was recognized. What a waste.

            To visit NYC, I would never reference his reviews when chosing a dining establishment.

            1. Here's a link to a blog wherein a young woman named Jules has great fun at Bruni's expense. You'll laugh 'til you cry.

              Link: http://brunidigest.blogspot.com/

              1 Reply
              1. re: GG Mora

                Genius. I love the parody of the Ama review: Bruni-as-count decides to toss the food to the ground and pull out the photo-album. Clemency for the server! Such regal benevolence.

                Count Bruni. He really could be on Sesame Street: "ONE overcooked appetizer, TWO tasteless entrees, THREE varieties of raw fish.. ohhh how I love to count!"

              2. I thought his article on bathrooms was very funny and also very timely. I live on the other side of the country so I have not been to the restaurants he reviews but he has a casual tone that I like. In San Francisco we have reviewers that treat some chefs and their restaurants like temples that should be approached on your knees.

                1. Like a lot of other correspondents, I'm a non-NYC reader - I get my NY Times by email, whereas my daily paper is the LA Times. I did enjoy reading about the weird restrooms, though I enjoyed the story more than I did the writing, and I too wondered who the hell would take a glass of wine to the potty with him.

                  More troubling is this business of being non-anonymous. It's understandable in a smaller town - I know a restaurant critic in Nashville, and she'd have to use elaborate disguises to be completely anonymous - but in such a market as NYC or LA it should be expected as a matter of course that the Mystery Guest would go unrecognized, so as to be treated as any schlub off the street might be treated.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Will Owen

                    Hear, hear, Will! Us schlubs in the hinterlands east of El Laaay and west of Neeew Yawk agree.