Restaurant reviewers take other food writers on reviews all the time, but while they’ve worked the same circuit for five years, the two top critics, New York’s Adam Platt and his departed counterpart at the Times, have never broken bread together. With Frank Bruni now gone to promote his memoir, Born Round, it seemed a good time to get them together in the same room (chat room, that is) so they could compare notes. Here’s what the city’s most esteemed eaters had to say about the star system, their least favorite restaurants, the matter of anonymity, and more.
Bruni: Hi, Adam Platt! I feel like we’re old friends even though we’ve crossed paths, what, twice or three times?
Platt: I think I’ve spied you in distant corners once or twice, looking furtive and enviably thin.
Bruni: It must have been the lighting. Was it in a very dark restaurant?
Platt: Congratulations on the book, which my mother, for one, will be lining up at Barnes & Noble to purchase. She has a long experience with chubby little boys and their complicated relationships with food.
Bruni: Your Mom and mine, then, have much in common.
Platt: What do you think you’ll miss most about this crazy job?
Bruni: This is going to sound corny or such, but it really IS a neat privilege, don’t you think, to be able, when you have something delicious, to shout it to the world, and to have this great megaphone that you and I have. I’ll miss that. And the expense account.
Platt: The (dwindling) expense account ain’t bad. But I have to admit, after the eighteenth foie-gras preparation of the week, I feel the need to purge.
Bruni: Be careful about that word, “purge”! (Smile.) Remember whom you’re talking to here!
Platt: What will you miss least about the job?
Bruni: That’s easy. The scheduling.
Platt: What’s your record, as far as the number of meals ingested in a single week?
Bruni: If the week I did fast-food restaurants across the country counts, and if those drive-throughs count as meals (a very generous term, from a gourmand’s perspective), then it’s over 35, maybe over 40, though I nibbled rather than chomped. And there was a weekend in Atlantic City where I did seven dinners over three nights. Interspersed, of course, with blackjack.
Platt: Jesus, God. Seven dinners in three nights? Were you furiously changing disguises as you dined? I gather from the book, you (unlike, say, me) experimented with those.
Bruni: I experimented with those only a few times, and not in Atlantic City. In fact, I remember at one point being three feet from Bobby Flay, in his steakhouse, as he chatted up customers, and I knew he knew what I looked like, but when you show up in a context where you’re not expected, like A.C., no one notices. He looked at and past me. Triumph!
Platt: I wish I could boast of similar triumphs. Being a giant, rotund lumberjack with no hair, they spot me coming through the door. Of course it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. Or does it?
Bruni: Adam, I’ve seen you, and you’re not rotund. In all the years, also, I bet you did a disguise once or twice, didn’t you? You must have a handful of those stories. As for whether disguises make a difference: I think they and anonymity are not the most central things here. I’ve heard/read what you’ve said on the topic, and agree with much of it.
Platt: I am rotund! Just ask my wife! Actually, I’ve never experimented with disguises. With a false beard and bifocals I’d look much more ridiculous than I already do. I also find that if they’re looking for you, they will eventually find you, and that in an opening, first-run restaurant, it doesn’t make much of a difference. Where it does make a difference is when your job is to go back, after a few years, and add or subtract those goddamned stars.
Bruni: You’re right … During my visits to Union Square Cafe, I was — for most of them — undetected. Because even though this was a Danny Meyer restaurant, they weren’t on the lookout for you or me or any other critic right then. Timing matters more than disguises, for sure.
Platt: Those poor Union Square Cafe guys got mousetrapped. Anyway, what was the worst restaurant of your tenure? I nominate Kobe Club.
Bruni: Before I do worst restaurant, I must say, re: dishes, that I remember, at Armani restaurant, in the company of Josh Ozersky, in fact, having some cod creation that was inedible. And it was weird, because the Italian chef there has seafood cred. Worst restaurant: Wow. That’s tough. I think the one — of the few I gave “Poor” ratings to — that offended me most was the Cipriani on Fifth. How can you charge those prices for that food? It’s insane.
Platt: Ozersky?! Don’t mention that bug-eyed Brutus!
Bruni: Oh, dear. Forgive me. Will you ever forgive JOSH?
Platt: I already forgave that rotund fool. Anyway, what about the damn star system? For me, it’s a constant source of complaint.
Bruni: You know, it’s imperfect, but it’s user-friendly; it has a long tradition. As many flaws as it has, I think most readers, and even most restaurants, would miss it, don’t you?
Platt: I’ll admit, grudgingly, that you’re probably right. But these days, with the profusion of upscale burgers, pork bars, etc., the scale keeps conflating, I fear.
Bruni: I think it’s something to keep an eye on, to always leave open to question. It’s sometimes painful to have to decide between one and two or two and three with a given place. With other places, it’s almost clear from the get-go, don’t you think? Some places are so squarely or roundly or whatever-ly an exact number of stars, it’s almost funny.
Platt: And now, for the grand finale, please give us Bruni’s worst goddamned restaurant of all time.
Bruni: The restaurant, whose name I can’t remember, across the street from my apartment in Rome. You know that old saw that you can’t get a bad meal in Italy? Untrue! You can get a TERRIBLE meal, and I once paid something like twelve euros for a rubber-hard chicken drumstick in this restaurant. I was horrified.
Platt: All right, Frank. Thank you for your time, and good luck with the book. We’ll miss you around the feed troughs.