Along with a blog post that preemptively explains "it’s time for the restaurant critic of The Times to cast a wider net," Pete Wells ventures outside the five boroughs today and files a glowing review of Saison in San Francisco in place of his regularly scheduled New York City review. After taking careful note of the various costs and rigid menu structures at Joshua Skenes’s recently overhauled restaurant, Wells praises the chef-owner’s psychoanalyst-like ability to help raw ingredients "unlock their hidden potential before meeting anybody new." By the end, he gushes and calls Saison "extraordinary."
But that’s not all: It turns out the San Francisco visit is the second of many such dispatches (if you count Wells’s review two weeks ago of Oxheart and Underbelly in Houston)*. Wells will file reviews on other restaurants outside of New York, but they won’t be rated in the same way as their New York counterparts. Maybe he’ll pop up in Chicago next? "What these reviews won’t have," he writes, "at least for now, are stars."
The former editor of the "Dining" section, who took on the role of critic in November of 2011, carefully explained the out-of-town work yesterday. The Times has a global presence, and young cooks take on stages all around the world, cross-pollinating plating ideas and deployment of new ingredients. Why shouldn’t reviewers attempt something similar?
There’s no doubt that Times has a local name and a global voice. (Over a tenuous Skype connection one crisp day last November, Grub Street’s grandma-in-law informed us — from her home in the Nairobi suburbs, somewhat excitedly — of a new restaurant called Guy’s American Kitchen that we needed to check out because it had been "slammed" by a critic.)
On the other hand, some argue that the New York Times should stay in New York. After all, the weekly review format means that, at most, 52 restaurants will get coverage, so the limited bandwidth means Wells won’t have the same amount of column space to devote to his hometown.
Yet others are excited about the prospect of an expanded dialogue between reviewers and restaurant cities as a new wave in the form. Perhaps more critics should follow Wells’s lead. If a review gets people talking, and the conversation makes your dinner better, how can this not be a big win for appetites everywhere?
*This post has been update to reflect the fact that Wells actually started his non-New York reviews a couple weeks ago.