For the past week, the New York Times has been publishing questions to and answers from Frank Bruni, their restaurant critic and arguably the most influential restaurant critic in the world.
In particular, one question/answer stood out to us. In reponse to a reader’s somewhat critical inquiry about why Bruni visits restaurants so soon after they open. Bruni talks a little bit about newness and buzz and how reviews play into that. But he also makes a very interesting journalistic point:
Waiting a lot longer to make visits and write the review would, in my view, contradict the very nature of a newspaper, break one of our implicit promises to readers and ignore why they come to us: they want to know and hear more about what’s new. They want their curiosity rewarded. They want timely information. I don’t think they want a review of a restaurant that a lot of people are talking about to come along months after those people fell silent.
It was with that quote buzzing in our brains that we read Pat Bruno’s review today of Erwin, a restaurant that has been open for fourteen years. They don’t have a new chef, they haven’t recently overhauled their menu or remodeled their restaurant. We have no idea why Bruno is visiting this restaurant — he doesn’t rave about the food, which sounds good but unexciting. Dishes like fried green tomatoes with bacon and arugula, pasta with prosciutto and goat cheese, crab cakes, and chicken with roasted brussels sprouts get nondescriptive shout-outs as “good cooking ideas,” which to us implies looking at the menu, thinking “hey, we could make this at home for minimal effort,” and then doing just that. It really doesn’t get much more adventurous from there — gorgonzola-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon? They were pulling that trick at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba back in the ‘90s.
Bruno’s justification for this seemingly arbitrary choice of restaurant is a claim that Erwin’s menu serves good food at exceptionally low prices. The thing is, the prices — while reasonable — aren’t so reasonable to merit passing comment, let alone a dedicated column. This is doubly true in a city teeming with highbrow cheap eats (prices at Erwin are comparable to those at, say, Mado), and triply so considering how many special deals and slashed prices are popping up everywhere, courtesy of our twenty-first century recession. Maybe it’s a matter of bad math: Bruno claims that Erwin’s entrees average $16, but our calculations point to an average of $21.09.
It’s important for us to note that none of this is a knock on Erwin, which by all accounts seems like a lovely place to have a really good dinner. Our eyebrow is raised firmly in the direction of Mr. Bruno — it was one thing when his reviews were short on substance but made up for it in topicality. But a content-free review of an unremarkable restaurant seems like a waste of time, column inches, and precious, precious internet.
[Photo via Chicago Burger Project]