It takes a lot of poached cojones to take away a famed restaurant’s stars, as Pete Wells did to American food superstar Thomas Keller’s Per Se last week, revoking two of its four New York Times stars. And of course it was a seismic event that unleashed a tsunami of comments and editorials (I plead guilty!) on the Internet.
No one wants to be disliked—respected food critics don’t toss barbs for the delight of it. And they also don’t want to hurt restaurants, which a scathing review can do. But they do want to see people have great eating experiences. Critics like Wells see themselves as a kind of Ralph Nader of restaurants, carrying out consumer reporting for diners. The New York Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, did a great “back story” editorial on the review, and quotes Wells as saying, “’There are people who save their money to go to a place like this,’ and they should know what level of service and quality they will find.”
Wells knows very well the years of learning, skill, technique and ingredient sourcing that go into each dish he ate and examined at Per Se. It’s what gives him the confidence to compare matsutake bouillon to bong water. I’m sure he considered and reconsidered the words before committing to them. To bring this issue to a local level—it’s what I did before sending in my review of Vintage Cave Honolulu 2.0 to Honolulu Magazine—it’s not easy to say a dish by Jonathan Mizukami (who happens to be a Keller acolyte) was like the oily bits you scrape from the side of a pan after frying an egg in butter, or that his gravlax was like a pencil eraser, especially when it goes against the grain of what everyone else in town says. But it’s what I experienced, and I wanted to share that before someone who saved up for six months splurged on a $295 dinner (which turns into $400 after a couple glasses of wine and tip). (Please note that Mizukami is now at Chef Mavro, where the six-course menu is a good value at $148. Vintage Cave’s menu is now $300 for “French-Japonaise” and $500 for sushi kaiseki.)
I applaud Mr Wells’s journalistic bravery. The fear of retaliation or backlash can loom large in smaller communities, where restaurant reviewers and bloggers often wind up sounding like Tony the Tiger—proclaiming “It’s great!” Every. Single. Time. The reader doesn’t benefit from that.
Note: The New York Times asked me to remove their photograph of Pete Wells I had taken from the Internet. I immediately did. Hence the wonky drawing of their photograph of Pete Wells.