Recently, I wrote here about my interest in the latest book on the food business, Setting the Table, by acclaimed New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, he of Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, and Shake Shack fame. Mr. Meyer is brilliant. I love his medium rare tuna at Union Square as much as I do the cheeseburger at the Shack, even when one hour of waiting outside in a line precedes its arrival. James and I pigged out at Blue Smoke, another of his boites, and I could not get the blue cheese dip with house-made barbecue chips out of my mind.
Enter Frank Bruni, chief restaurant critic for The New York Times. In a city on which Mr. Meyer has had such a positive impact, one would think its chief paper's chief food critic would be hospitable to the man. No such luck. As Meyer admits in his book, he was very frustrated to receive only two stars from Bruni for his most ambitious restaurants yet: Eleven Madison Park, the temple to haute cuisine on 24th Street, and The Modern, a sleek accompaniment to the Picassos in the MOMA.
Basically, Bruni thinks Meyer is more in the business of food than into food. He's no Mario Batali. Bruni feels Meyer's restaurants are formulaic; he thinks there is something weird about the fact that servers and hostesses smile and seem genuinely interested in what you are eating and how you are doing. I have never quite gotten Mr. Bruni's beef, but I was very surprised to read in last week's New York Times' "Dining" section that he was re-reviewing Eleven Madison Park and The Modern, and in fact, giving each three stars. Well this is news, I thought.
No such luck. It appears Herr Bruni still has it out for Monsieur Meyer: Brutus, I mean Bruni, awards Modern and Madison with three stars, only to strip two other of Meyer's restaurants, Union Square and Gramercy, of their lustre! The nerve of this guy! To wit:
Every time I left Eleven Madison Park, it was with at least one dish, and usually several, lingering in my thoughts and prompting me to rave to somebody the next day. That’s not the case with most restaurants, and that hasn’t been my experience in recent years at Gramercy Tavern or Union Square Cafe. They may have the more steadfast retinues of loyal suitors. But the crowns rest uneasily — and perhaps unjustly — on their heads.
That is a back-handed compliment if ever I have heard one.
Speaking of Union Square Cafe, I dined there yesterday on the occasion of a cousin's 40th birthday. It was a girls' lunch: several female relatives, my mother, and I. The servers were as kind as ever, but I dare say the food was a tad undistinguished. For instance, our appetizer of fried calamari was, horrors, mushy, when crispiness is the essential element of this dish. I ordered the yellow-fin tuna burger and it tasted fresh, gingery, and oniony, but I did not swoon--not as I had over a Greenmarket strawberry crumble I devoured at the Cafe over the summer.
Danny Meyer makes a lot in his book about the regrettable layout of USC, how it is below street level, plain, and with airplane cabin-sized restrooms. I typically find the room pleasant, but yesterday I did feel a bit as though I were dining in the cabin of a ship; I kind of kept wanting to peek out the window for air. Yet, if one of Meyer's goals is to sustain the room as a canteen for the publishing industry, he still achieves that, as I ran into an editor with whom I had worked at Talk magazine, back when it still existed.
My lack of a rave for yesterday does not trouble me too much. James and I prefer the bar at night, anyway. Although, the last time we checked it out--a Monday, 9:30pm or so--there was a 45 minute wait...for the bar! Despite Bruni's hemming and hawing, I don't think Meyer has much to fret about.