The Other Critics

Get to Know Your New Times Critic: A Sam Sifton Reader

As it turns out, Sam Sifton also contributed to the Times’ Diner’s Journal column for a brief time in 2004 (he filed reviews between William Grimes’s departure and Bruni’s first review), and we’ve now had a chance to look back on his archive. The writing is punchy, showing a flair for creative food description (he recounts “a wrist-size hunk of braised pork belly strewn with enough honey-glazed garlic to make a mockery of the divide between sweet and savory”) while also evincing some of Bruni’s humor. In reviewing Craftbar, he describes Hearth as a “Xanax restaurant,” meaning it’s an escape from the urban fray. (Sifton, like Bruni, doesn’t seem to be a fan of restaurant noise, if his Spice Market review is any indicator.) Sifton also has an eye for the anecdote: He spends two paragraphs describing a funny incident at Junior’s, wherein a man asked the host after his mother (“a big woman”). He knows his way around a simile and isn’t afraid of pop culture: Megu is “situated on Thomas Street in Tribeca in the manner of a caparisoned elephant stuck in an alley,” and it’s interior is “part Lost in Translation, part Kill Bill.” Perhaps most promising of all, he’s willing to mock restaurants while also acknowledging the good in them — for instance the $25 edamame or the absurd menu at the aforementioned eatery. All told, we don’t expect this to be a radical departure from Bruni — here’s a buffet of highlights from his Diner’s Journal entries.

Grand Central Oyster Bar

In any event, the oyster pan roast is the same, wonderfully silky concoction that Mimi Sheraton called elegant in the New York Times in 1983 and that the restaurant has been serving practically since its opening in 1913.
Fried belly clams, scratched from the mud of southern New England, are terrific this time of year, fat and packed with flavor. Likewise the cherrystones on the half shell and the Glidden Point oysters and the bluepoints and the gigantic West Coast behemoths and all the rest … But thus it has always been: a sharing of life’s glories, bread and roses, oysters and beer.

Bar Masa:

To wit, shockingly flavorful baked oysters with bits of black truffle placed beneath their top shells, $15 for three and about the finest pairing for a dry martini as has yet been invented by man. Also, sake steamed clams, $15. Who knew New England had it so wrong all these years? Rice wine raises a common dish to uncommon heights. And three little skewers of grilled and buttery chicken yakitori are a welcome snack (they are far superior, anyway, to a long and greasy ”sea eel tempura with shiso leaf” that appears to be made mostly of tempura batter).…

Because there is a good argument at Bar Masa for apostasy in the matter of raw fish, the best dish on the current menu is a simple bowl of Kobe beef yaki soba, tender, fragrant and packed with beefy flavor. Dig into that on the fourth floor of the mall, with a glass of Harushika sake as a chaser, and you can imagine yourself far, far away from New York City.

Spice Market:

Of course, quality comes at a cost. It seems every sling-backed publicist who ever appeared as an extra on the late HBO show Sex and the City has been granted an early reservation. And because there is a lounge in the restaurant’s basement, there is music, anonymous and jittery, with an accompanying thump-thump-thump that is not unlike a headache. But you suffer for art. And Spice Market is enormous, so a lot of the noise gets lost up in the ceiling. It’s decorated in the manner of ABC Carpet & Home, so it’s comfortable and luxe and exotic all at once. And the food — tricked up versions of Southeast Asian street grub, prepared by Gray Kunz and a team of talented sous-chefs — is astonishingly good.


The menu is an absurd document: Fourteen pages of tiny type and large numbers. Consultation with your waiter, even the manager, is advised. But early visits suggest a few winners, most notably the shishamo, fat smelts grilled over hard ”bincho tan” charcoal from Wakayama, Japan, which have a delicate smokiness beneath the salty crust of their exteriors, and the hon maguro ”heaven,” which sees cuts of sushi from all parts of the blackfin tuna, literally head to tail, presented together on a long and elegant plate.”


There are times in this city when the pulse rate quickens and sweat breaks out on the brows of the citizenry and it seems for one horrible moment as if everyone in sight is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It’s just you, though.

In another place — in the cool sylvan embrace of Portland, Oregon, say, or under the dappled sun of Charleston, South Carolina — people so suffering would go home and soak their heads. In New York City, they go to restaurants. Restaurants of a particular sort, that is. New Yorkers are nothing if not precise in their self-medication.

Craftbar, which Tom Colicchio opened at the beginning of 2002 to serve as Banana Republic to his more Prada-like Craft restaurant next door, is one such restaurant, a spare, welcoming room serving rich, comforting food and exceptional wine. The place has a new chef, Akhtar Nawab, and on a recent jittery evening, in hopes of keeping the demons at bay, some friends stopped by for dinner to see how he was doing.

BLT Steak:

History will record that one of the great moneymakers of the early-21st-century restaurant game was the aggressively segmented menu, in which meals are divided into their component parts — entrée, sauce, starch, vegetable or side dish — and sold piecemeal.This technique, which was finessed by Tom Colicchio at Craft in New York in 2001, allows restaurant guests the fiction that they are ”building” their own meals instead of having to follow the strict rules of some unseen chef. Not coincidentally, it also allows restaurateurs to charge practically by the ingredient. In practice, a $36 meat entrée may be financially palatable to you. But add potato and a vegetable to that, and the price can start scratching up to $50, which may be simply another indignity of modern urban life or just plain ridiculous.


Océo’s menu is probably best described as post-global. A warm salad of curried chicken, with tiny dumplings flecked with coriander and lemony yogurt sauce, sits beside a delicate composed salad of hearts of palm with earthy pickled mushrooms and a piquant lemon-chili oil. There is a fabulous braised lamb shoulder served in a crêpe wrap with tomato marmalade and cool raita — Indian and French all at once.


You might have before you monkfish liver on a long, elegant ski jump of an appetizer plate, served next to a low plait of char ceviche. These two combine into some kind of crazy elegance in the mouth. And then, to follow, a wrist-size hunk of braised pork belly strewn with enough honey-glazed garlic to make a mockery of the divide between sweet and savory: bacon, idealized and good enough to cheer.

But there are stumbles. It sure is hot up there on the mezzanine, where the music skips along at what seems like 500 beats a minute. A portable air conditioner struggles to keep up, even as the temperature outside plunges. One minute sushi is unavailable, the next — presto! — it’s back. And the waiters, servers, busboys, and coat-check personnel are still in training; it often takes three to do what one might accomplish over at Aquavit, where Mr. Samuelsson first made his name. More food, please, and fast.


So it’s not the Four Seasons. Nor even an Odeon, which more than two decades into its run has become a kind of La Coupole for the downtown Manhattan set. It’s not even a Katz’s, with its thin-sliced deli meats and goofy Greatest Generation charm. Those are all good places to eat. Junior’s isn’t really. Junior’s is something else entirely, although something great: a window into the Brooklyn of memory and the Brooklyn of now, where there is no problem that cannot be solved by a dill pickle, a hot twin roll with soft butter, a freshener on your cup of coffee, a fat slice of cheesecake, a smile … Because there are truths in this world, and here is one of them: An open-faced white-meat turkey sandwich, smothered in gravy, extra cranberry sauce, with relatively indeterminate steamed vegetables on the side, can be a glorious meal, especially taken with friends as waiters gather round to sing.


As the shaky old men at the bar down at Milano’s on Houston Street used to put it over ice-flecked Rolling Rock on a long stream of tobacco smoke: ”Once you’re a pickle, you can never be a cucumber again.” For Mr. Hanson, exploitation of the market is natural law, as immutable as death and delays on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. And so the menu runs roughly parallel to the one at Fiamma, offering a highlight reel of all that is expected of an Italian menu in New York City right now: crudo to begin, some pizza in the middle, or pasta, followed by fish, or pork, or steak.

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Get to Know Your New Times Critic: A Sam Sifton Reader