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Westchester Magazine. What’s a Review Really Worth?

billyparsons Oct 5, 2007 09:11 AM

Westchester Magazine. What’s a Review Really Worth?

In the October issue of Westchester magazine, there were two interesting reviews printed from Julia Sexton, who I’ve been following for quite some time through Westchester Magazine, as well as the New York Times, and the team of Marge Perry & David Bonom.

I’ll begin with the latter of reviewers and their “4 star” take on Palomino (Old Greenwich). Now, understand that I’ve been to both reviewed restaurants, so I’m going to approach this post with quite an objective view. What really got me was the award of 4 stars to Palomino vs. Julia’s 3 star review for Nessa (Port Chester).

First off, I’d like to throw out a few quotes from the Palomino review. There are 4 that really say it all.

1. “It would have been unfair to expect every dish to thrill us. But only one truly disappointed. A seared magret duck breast was oddly tough, thickly sliced, and even somewhat mealy. It was a shame…”.

2. “… if only the meat had been good.”

3. “Many desserts fell short.”

4. “…it’s gummy thick filling, and the soggy-crusted and somewhat bland Key lime tart.”

Now, here’s my question. With these quotes right out of page 202, does this sound like a 4 star, top of the line, nothing can top this, best on the block review? If your answer is yes, please stop reading and begin again from the top of the page. Repeat as necessary.

What happens when a really amazing place comes along (uh, like, duh… say… uh… on the Hudson)? Can Westchester Magazine all of a sudden say “crap guys… we need to add a fifth star to our reviews cause Marge & David were giving out 4 stars like candy!”? Well, I would surmise probably not.

How about an easier solution; tougher standards for Westchester! Yea! Hooray!

Anyone that’s seen Julia Sexton’s work knows she’s frugal with her ratings. Read her food blog and you’ll get the distinct impression she’s not out to make friends when it comes to food writing. Case in point; Nessa in Port Chester.

Nessa is loud, yea I agree. And yea, the menu can sometimes be a bit confusing. But I’ve been there a few times and crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge just to go there. I’m not sure if Palomeno can really be categorized with Nessa. But I’ll admit, that’s my subjective opinion. But why the heck did Julia only award 3 stars while Marge & David threw 4 stars out to Palomino?

The answer is experience and acceptable standards.

Julia, being a contributor to the New York Times, has set herself to a bit higher of a standard, benchmark if you will. Don’t agree? Well, I didn’t make this up.

Earlier this week I had a few customers sitting at my bar talking about reviewers and discussing past issues of Westchester Magazine. I can say for sure at least one them worked for the magazine. Seems as of right now, the hottest draft going around the office at Westchester Magazine is Julia’s newest review of Peter Kelly’s X20. Since I’m not looking to make any friends here either, and these guys were a bit obnoxious anyway, I’m pleased to tell you that she gave X20 the 4 stars they deserve. If you don’t see the review in November, it’s probably because they caught wind of this post.

So here’s my dilemma. With a November (possibly now December) review of 4 stars for X20, and a 4 star review for Palomino, how much credibility can you really give the Westchester Magazine review process? Do readers really respond to a review with “yea, but who wrote the review?”

As a quick footnote, anyone that’s ever dined at X20, taken their glass of wine out to the steel balcony overlooking the Hudson, can’t help but say the same thing; holy crap, there’s nothing like this. If anyone ever contemplates suicide, bring them to the deck at X20. All of a sudden, life is good again.

Not so long ago I provided links to the review of Avenida on Greenwich Avenue that showed this particular New York Times reviewer, Patricia Brooks, had given the last 3 reviews she published as “2 Excellent(s) & 1 Very Good”! That’s absolutely insane! When I see this reviewers work, I just flip the page. I’d rather read the comics or make believe I’m completing the crossword puzzle.

So here’s where I’d like to set the stage. I know I prefer a hard line reviewer like Sexton (actually I live for Bruni’s reviews every Wednesday), but how about the chowhound community. Do you enjoy reading sugar coated reviews only to get there and be let down? Or do you prefer a 3 star review that you know will lead to an evening of stellar food, great service and a smile on your face when you pay the check?

  1. snoballz Feb 25, 2008 03:55 PM

    This magazine is a joke. After living in Westchester County a number of years, I moved back to NYC. While living in Westchester, I somehow got on Westchester Magazine's mailing list. Now after four years back they continue to forward the magazine to my place in Manhattan. Moreover, sometimes there would be a front cover stating that it would be the last issue I would receive unless I sent them back a postcard, which I never do. Yet I'm still getting issues.

    Is it to maintain there subscription rate so they they get lure advertisers such as restaurants? Are these restaurants getting biased and favorable reviews because they advertise in Westchester Magazine. Thinking back (it's been awhile since I read a review in the magazine) I don't ever recall a critic ever panning a restaurant that he/she reviewed.

    1. d
      doc_k55 Oct 21, 2007 10:54 AM

      I agree - I'd rather get an honest review. I find the ones I read here in Westchester interesting but I don't rely upon them for accuracy. However I am in a different "food" period of my life. With a small child constantly in tow, our meals primarily consist of child-friendly places. I've discovered a new wish: wouldn't it be great if besides reviewing a restaurant for food and adult ambience, the reviewers also let you know when and if you can go with a child? I don't want to eat at diners for the next ten years!

      1. f
        Foodiefuss Oct 20, 2007 09:08 PM

        I find your post very interesting and I you post very passionately. Do you have any direct interest in the restaurants you mentioned. It doesn't matter but the reason I'm asking is you felt the need to voice injustice and that is important. It's the process of validity and fairness. I want to know more about your thoughts to understand myself if its really the magazines responsibility of a true review or that... and again I'm going to be careful. How the reviews were obtain, how the pay process works, or is it that simple for anyone to be a food critic for a fre meal...Sorry my responce is long...but you raise a very good point ad it must be explored further.........thank you

        1. MuskMan Oct 17, 2007 02:18 PM

          Billy Parsons...where is this "bar" of yours. And are you a chef? If so...where? People want to know these things.

          1. jfood Oct 12, 2007 04:27 AM

            Well CT is "blessed" with Patricia Brooks whose dartboard approach to reviews has driven jfood crazy for years. And this past month her colleague wrote the following on a resto in CT. Read the review and the punchline is at the end.

            The review:
            :
            Rabbit terrine - "occasionally fancy"
            Jonah crab salad - "too much horseradish"
            Scallop threesome - no comment, did the reviewer like it?
            Clam Chowder - "bland"
            Zucchini blossoms - "lackluster"
            Striped bass fritter - "OK", this must be a NY Times technical term

            On her "well nigh-perfect" encounter:
            Corn brulee - "too sweet"
            Tomato and Mozzy - reviewer liked it. hooray she liked something. Need a lot of cooking talent to make tomato and mozzy
            Cod - liked
            three creme brulees - reviewer does not even comment on them other than they are served "in little white ramekins"
            And the chef choices - a bun with tomato jam "alternating between...peach gazpacho" what the heck is alternating between, you receive some gazpacho then a bun then gazpacho? then you receive a tomato with some goat cheese (jfood loves that combo by the way) and romaine, ham and parm in rice paper (also sounds very good)

            And for this the reviewer gives the resto and EXTRAORDINARY.

            So we feel your pain in CT as well.

            1. spottieottiedopealicious Oct 11, 2007 10:16 AM

              bp, i like how this is a review of the reviewers; and i agree that the NY times and Westchester mag are the two best places to look for Westchester food. but i would argue that a lot of the other articles from other publications are a lot worse.

              U should write restaurant reviews. The times is probably a tough gig to get, but have you ever approached either to write?

              1. r
                Reposado Oct 8, 2007 10:21 AM

                Haven't been to Palomino yet, so can't comment on it, although I've been to Sonora many times and like it -- might even give it 3 Tootsies. Nessa, however, I like quite a bit, again despite the noise -- they really should do something about that. It probably deserves 3 stars for its food, but it has service issues and, oh, did I mention the noise? If I were the reviewer, I would downgrade it a half or whole star on those grounds. As for X2O, only been once and didn't think it lived up to the tremendous hype. The front desk was a disaster, the room (view -- which is fantastic -- aside) was just okay in a sterile, industrial way, and the food was only satisfactory (have had much better meals at Xavier's and Rest. X), except for dessert, which was fantastic. The service was good, however. I was there on a Saturday night, and the place hasn't been open that long, but all things considered, it deserved no more than 2 Tootsies on that occasion.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Reposado
                  kamcc12 Jan 3, 2008 10:55 AM

                  Totally agree about X2O. Three Tootsie's at best.

                2. p
                  Pete Oldtown Oct 7, 2007 01:44 AM

                  I happen to know Patricia Brooks. Her son is a friend of mine. She must be about 80 now, so I wouldn't be too harsh with her. There's a reason she's been doing the suburbs for about 40 years.

                  I agree with you. I vastly prefer an honest review, and if your best is four stars, it should be saved for only the best. I would consider tough, chewy duck a deal-breaker, even if everything else was pretty good. That's not four stars.

                  Frankly, I read reviews as entertainment. Chowhound does an amazing service by allowing me to get a bunch of recommendations from people who actually paid for the meal themselves (critics don't actually pay, their company pays, and that seems to me to add an "expense account" layer of meaninglessness to the whole proposition).

                  The critics here in Chicago are, on the whole, awful. I stopped reading them a long time ago because to most of them, every meal is great. The Chicago Reader's quick takes on the restaurant scene are far more reliable.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: Pete Oldtown
                    billyparsons Oct 7, 2007 06:52 AM

                    Problem has been that with food boards (not blogs) you never know the "standards" of the reviewer. You also don't know if the reviewer is the restaurant owner themselves. I've had posters respond to me as "over critical" many times here.

                    In New York, only 5 restaurants have garnished 4 stars. If Patricia Brooks or the team from Westchester Magazine was permitted to write for NYC NYT's, it would be a mess! There would be 489 restaurants with 4 stars. What would it even mean at that point?

                    I actually wish that the NYT's could have found a way to patent the "star" system. This way you could differentiate them with say, Westchester Mag, which would give out, say, 1 to 4 sea shells or maybe Tootsie Rolls. This way restaurants would be a bit more hesitant to hang their "Westchester Mag awarded us 4 Tootsie Rolls" review on the wall.

                    1. re: billyparsons
                      j
                      JRBlack Oct 7, 2007 12:35 PM

                      Without commenting on the reliability of any reviewer, food writer, blogger, or poster, I don't think a star system in general is all that helpful, even in the unlikely event that everyone who writes about restaurants agrees to and adheres to the same set of criteria. It's an arbitrary shorthand that doesn’t tell you enough about a restaurant to decide if you want to spend your money and time there. Give me useful prose over ratings any time. A thoughtful description that covers the food, the service, the environment, a sense of the pricing, and the overall feel of the experience provides the kind of information that helps the reader make up his or her mind.

                      And by the way, I had to chuckle about what I assume was an inadvertent pun: those five restaurants in New York garnered, not garnished, four stars. It did give me an image of gleeful chefs artfully festooning laminated reviews with rosemary sprigs.

                      1. re: JRBlack
                        billyparsons Oct 7, 2007 02:55 PM

                        Garnish: "any decoration added as a trimming or adornment" Don't you get it? Frank Bruni garnished these 5 restaurants with 4 stars!

                        OK so I'm reaching here. I stand very much corrected. Worst part is that I've been bastardizing that term for 10 years. Thanks for the correction.

                        My point in this post was to take the quotes from the reviewer(s), set aside all the fluff, and then make heads and tails out of the resulting "garnishment" (kidding). Do you think that after reading that set of comments, a rating of 4 stars should have been awarded or, as you would say, garnered?

                        I still say some reviewers should not be permitted to use stars until they've mastered my tootsie roll system (patent pending).

                  2. SweetPea914 Oct 6, 2007 07:38 AM

                    Great info. I agree with you 100%. I can't stand "sugar coated reviews". I've only lived here for about a year and learned quickly that the reviews in Westchester Magazine should be taken with a few grains of salt! What is the point of giving a mediocre restaurant more stars than they deserve? It just makes you untrustworthy as a journalist.

                    1. southernitalian Oct 5, 2007 10:46 AM

                      Really good post. I've said it before and I'll say it again Billy: if you aren't already, you really need to get into food writing. Your posts make me homesick for Greenwich.

                      1. Marge Oct 5, 2007 10:16 AM

                        Great post, I've been long lamenting the lack of professional objective restaurant reviewing in Westchester publications (and specifically the Journal News). What I also like about Julia Sexton is that she protects her anonymity (covering her face for her photo in the magazine). I am more than weary of the glowing fluff published by so-called restaurant reviewers about their paid advertisers and/or cronies.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: Marge
                          d
                          Dim Sum Diva Oct 5, 2007 10:21 AM

                          Can you post the link to Sexton's food blog?

                          1. re: Dim Sum Diva
                            billyparsons Oct 6, 2007 06:45 AM

                            Sure can. It's here:

                            http://www.westchestermagazine.com

                            Scroll down a bit and see the link on the right side. It's hard to link to the blog because the URL is very long and sometimes comes up with errors. Westchester Magazine's internet department is probably outsourced to the lowest bidder, or run by the owner’s brother, son or nephew. They're not taking the website all that serious yet.

                        2. c
                          corky Oct 5, 2007 09:35 AM

                          you've nailed it again bp...bless you

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