The Bruni Digest

In which I sit on a dirt mound somewhere in Brooklyn with my ears pricked, waiting for New York Times head restaurant critic Frank Bruni, who I imagine to be a Venetian count in a huge ruffled collar, to dole out stars from the inside breast pocket of his brocaded chamber robe. This blog is predicated on the suggestion that every Wednesday, in the Times Dining Out section, Frank lays a huge faberge egg of hilarity.

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Location: New York, New York, U.S. Outlying Islands

I am fiscally irresponsible, which means I have weak bones and a dorsal fin. And a penchant for dining out, even though I am, in the words of many rich people, a "poor people". I make a different face when speaking each of the foreign languages in which I am shittily proficient.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Best of Bruni 2005

As the Count's first calendar year as New York Times Restaurant Critic comes to a close, let's look back over our shoulders at the tantalizing trail of panties that has led up to this point: the Best of Bruni 2005.

"But," you protest, "how can you choose? It's like picking among your own children!" Well, I don't have children, but when I do, I'll clearly pick for favorites the prettiest and least gin-damaged ones.

Jules: Well, doc, is it a boy or a girl??
Doctor: I don't know how to say this,'ve birthed several ounces of Juniper berries.
Jules: Perrrrrfect.

Most Pervy

Yumcha: “If you sense in those descriptions a blurring of boundaries - a sort of pan-Asian embrace coupled with a French kiss - you understand Yumcha's wiles. It christens its come-on ‘modern haute Chinese.’” I mean.

Taboon: "The restaurant Taboon was built from the ground up in a peculiar and particular sense. Its back story is a tale of love and parquet." It gets randier from there.

Sushi of Gari: "I am ashamed of my past. Horrified by it, really. I need to glance back only a little more than a decade to catch a glimpse of my wantonness, to see myself treating something precious as if it were just so much flesh. When it came to sushi, I was a cad. I degraded it with excess wasabi paste, and my use of soy sauce was nothing short of promiscuous." That's a winner.

Most Carb-Celebratory

Barbes: "Few carbohydrates could have triumphed so handily over Atkins and South Beach. But pasta thrives, insistent and ineluctable, like Paris Hilton.”

Bistro du Vent: "Mr. Pasternack...has created his own private Idaho, a place where...diners heretofore victorious over starches are bound to meet their Waterloo.”

Most Irrelevant

Frederick's: "To be clear, Frederick's neither composes an interesting enough menu nor performs consistently enough to lure many diners with no other business in the East 60's.” Grrrrrreat.

Bette: OK, sure, a Diner's Journal entry was justified. But 30 days later, Bette round II? "In this daisy chain of dauntless gawking, necks craned violently and heads swiveled abruptly. Was Bette a restaurant, or a cunning plot by business-hungry chiropractors?” Genius.

Biggest Winners

Sripraphai: "By the time [my friend] sampled the restaurant's roasted duck salad, its curry rice noodles and its sautéed 'drunken' noodles, I had traveled in his estimation from cretin to genius, villain to hero, a culinary Columbus who had discovered an untrammeled new world." This one was November 2004, techincally outside of the calendar year. But it marks, according to many, the most scandalous thing in Frank's record to date: 2 stars for a dumpy takeout place in Queens.

Bistro du Vent: Two Stars? Just for Serving Potatoes?

Biggest Losers

Alain Ducasse at Essex House: Frank brought the restaurant down to 3 stars from 4; this was just pre-Digest, although a few months later I did have a comment on the resulting curb-kickage of Exec. Chef Christian Delouvrier.

Ninja: This was more like a huge-handed birthday clown spinning around open-palmed in a tight circle of children: non-stop hilarious smackdowns of poor assholes that didn’t see it coming.

Koi: “Like an aged pop star on the latest of several proclaimed farewell tours, Koi ultimately relies on pose more than performance.” Just say "Cher," ok? You don't have to protect her, she's made of Teflon.

Most Distinctive:

Keens: A trip to Colonial Restaurantsburg, complete with 200-year history of mutton in America.

Della Rovere: CHOCK FULL of cheezy jokes.

Prem-on Thai: Inexplicably, done entirely in prayer format: “Let us now praise the crispy fish, which has swum and sizzled its way onto the menus of so many Asian restaurants in our fair city, determined to prove that seafood can taste as ecstatically naughty as anything else.” (Tied for Most Pervy)

Jules' Favorites

THE RED CAT. "The Red Cat feels vaguely colonial and tavernlike, except when it feels downtown-gallery cool, and apart from those moments when it feels modestly and eclectically elegant.” Wha??

Periyali: Next on Montel--"Fried rings of calamari...made all those reckless pub versions seem like so many oily bread crumbs with specious claims to maritime paternity.”

La Esquina: 'The harder it is to get in, the more fun it is to be in,' she said, articulating a maxim of Manhattan night life and a guiding principle of La Esquina, which is sort of like Studio 54 with chipotle instead of cocaine."

Aburiya Kinnosuke: “You definitely won't find elaborately constructed, kaleidoscopic sushi rolls, the kind that look more like kites than supper, or whimsically shaped stemware filled with neon-colored potions, the kind that look more like chemistry experiments than drinks.” Well, I usually don't dine at Willy Wonka's Shagadelic Thrift Store From Hell, anyway.

There are amazing, pants-shattering Brunisms I'm forgetting; so please feel free to comment or email me and I'll add 'em to the list.

OH GOD! I almost forgot: The Shitsposee-- Frank's toilet review, although really more of a revue.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Pylos: Why Pymore?

At the East Village Greek spot Pylos, the fact that the ceiling is conspicuously covered in thousands of clay jugs is bound to take center stage. When I look at the jug-laden ceiling, I can’t help but feel

a) kindred (I’m totally jug-laden!)

and b) like there are 1,000 bosomy virgins waiting outside the restaurant and some woefully unattended spigot somewhere. I mean, it’s like if there are 1,000 razor scooters parked on the ceiling don’t you kind of look around and go, “Where’s the horde of helmet-clad librarians in Reeboks?”

But sitting at his large Vegas-showgirl vanity bureau, chewing thoughtfully on the end of his ostrich-feather pen/ tickler, Frank thought long and hard—not about how to approach these imposing jugs, but about WHICH PUN to use. He scribbled on the leather pages of his Ferragamo notepad:

It’s gettin’ pot in here
The grapes of carafe
Dungeons and flagons
You’ve lost that oven-baked ceiling...

Then it came to him-- the Count clapped and giggled and set quill to calfskin:

“The clay’s the thing.”

With that, the salons of the Upper West Side tittered with glee. A damsel swooned.

Well, "ate pavement" really.

The Count continues…

“[Clay is] what more than 1,000 unglazed pots attached to the restaurant's ceiling are made of. They hang upside down, dramatic and seemingly perilous, drawing your eye and maybe even making you feel a little chicken. This sky really does look as if it could fall.”

Nothing like a little survival-instinct tremor when you’re filling up on pita. Reminds me of that SUPERHOT Italian restaurant in the city in the 1970’s that wrapped your shins in pancetta and dangled you over a shark tank.

It ruined a few Bar-Mitzvah-Dancer careers early, but it sure was exciting! Are you listening, Batali? A sniper tucked in the olive barrel at Casa Mono would be a good start.

“Pylos [is] (pronounced pee-LOHS)…”

As in I have to pee-LOHS now than I did ten seconds ago.
Um, speaking of which, my pants asked me to ask you guys if anyone has any spare Resolve. Thanks.

Oh, and my office chair says to "make it snappy."

“[Pylos] opened in 2003, replacing a more casual restaurant called It's Greek to Me.”
THANK GOD. That’s all I have to say about that.

Bruni cites Pylos's “determination to stand out from other Greek restaurants by moving beyond lamb, whole grilled fish and stuffed grape leaves.” This smacks of one of my favorite Bruni reviews of all time-- Periyali. It was the most recent occasion, before Pylos, that Frank had jumped into a senatorial toga and elaborate mandals, and hit up a Greek joint. As you recall, he was impressed at various modica of ingenuity from such swill-diving shit-eaters as Greek people.

A delighted patron at Greece’s as-yet-michelin-unrated “Sloppy Nikos’ Crap Pit.” That bucket is Limoges, you know!

"Pylos also musters a hipper ambience than Greek restaurants usually attempt, the clay canopy playing a major role in that."

Earthenware vessels make the place cooler? Since when is rustic peasant gear “hip,” Frank?

I stand corrected. I also stand alarmed at the HUGE Franken-hand coming in from stage right.

But overall, while he rides the fence (like a pony) about the food, Frank has nothing but praise for the layout and the décor.

"Pylos rewards adventurous wine drinkers with a long, all-Greek wine list. After a few glasses, the clay pots, more than three pounds each, become even more transfixing."
So to answer your question about the wine list at Pylos, yes, it is alcoholic.

"Mr. Valtzoglou said he initially thought he would import pots from Greece, but learned that a nonprofit group on his block taught teenagers to make pottery. He contracted to get his reddish-brown pots from them."

Nonprofit? SUCKAZZZZ. The kids in my 'hood who sell pot are making a killing.

"Each pot is secured with heavy wire: no danger of a claystorm or clayslide here."
Oh good. There's nothing more reliable than a sturdy crockstrap!

No matter where you keep your stoneware.

And P.S.: A shout-out to Frank for his impeccable, correctionless record this year, as noted by Gawker. I'm sure that in accuracy-wrestling match, I'd go down like a Kappa Gamma Phi at the Anything-for-Money mixer. In an arm wrestling match, clearly the winner would be the concept of "nanciness."

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Barca 18: Stephen Hanson Discovers Something Called "Tapas"

Ahhhh, yes: One of the small perks of being a little wooden Pinnochio writer, stitched at the seams with pure H&M polyester and painted, like a Cherry Tavern pousse-cafe, in many layers of cheap alcohol, is that I don’t have to fuck around with C-cedilles. It’s the little things, you know? Thank goodness, as I walk across the Manhattan bridge, that my 1992 Dell laptop is strapped to my enormo-tits like a ragged and cold Slovenian cigarette girl’s case of wares, so that my two hands are free to flip two birds at Barca 18’s c-cedille. And now I’m retracting my middle fingers, and preparing to make a really sarcastic face as I form the “shocker”:

Because despite Frank’s admirable attempts this week to inject his review of Barca 18 with shock or surprise—it defies expectations! It doesn’t defy expectations!—the simple fact is, the “king of the one-star restaurant world” turns out to have dropped another shiny, lacquered one-star deuce on our island. Yawn.

I couldn’t help thinking of Maureen Dowd as Frank experimented with choppy, snappy fragments:

“You … get to your table, and think: Got it. The crowd, chaos and cocktails are the point of Barça 18. The food won't be.”

“Then the tapas begin to come. Big surprise."

"Lobster and mayo with a crunchy frame instead of a heavy roll: Is this genius or what?”
I can't answer that question, since I have NO IDEA what a lobster "frame" is.

But I feel like this guy might own one.

“Four pieces [of lobster] must be divided three ways. You've seen friendships sundered by lesser hardships.”

Totally, like in Beaches when CC Bloom and Hillary Essex, besties since their fateful childhood run-in on the boardwalk, have a violent falling-out over a 6-inch Cold Cut Combo from Subway (Hillary was allergic to provolone but CC needed the diary so she could fart the horn accompaniment to “Wind Beneath my Wings”.)

"Oops! Sorry, Hil, I tooted the King of Spades off the desk again..."

So the food’s good: Those of use who thought it'd be a kinda plastic pseudoswank moneypit were “dead wrong about Barça 18...

Except you weren't.”


"The music swells, ominously and monotonously: thump, thump, thump. Is this a disco inferno?"

I don’t know, Frank— are you stuck inside this CD case?

“And is the hellfire lapping at the entrees? Three of them …are overcooked…It's what can happen when a kitchen is rigged for volume. Churn, baby, churn.”

And so with that gross slogan, Frank concludes that at Barca 18, “the exceptional jousts with the banal.”

Well, at least the socially maladjusted doesn't joust with the rurally isolated.

“The explanation for that unevenness may lie in the oddness of the couple who spawned Barça 18: the restaurateur Stephen Hanson, who bankrolled it, and the chef Eric Ripert, who clambered down from the tower of Le Bernardin to develop the menu and tutor the kitchen staff.”

What’s so odd about that? In classic New York fashion, we have a finance guy with a beautiful lady on his arm. The tower he "clambered down" is clearly the one he shares with Rapunzel. Ripert can be quite an enchantress: remember when he stole Frank's heart? I do. And Hanson is a worthy and clever Prince Business Acumen.

“Mr. Hanson is practiced at identifying countries with fetching culinary traditions…China (Ruby Foo's), Mexico (Dos Caminos) and Italy (Vento Trattoria).”

That Stephen Hanson sure is a visionary! You know, it seems obvious now, but before Ruby Foo's, no one had identified those cuisines as viable for American diners. Cut to black-and-white reel of Hanson facing a roundtable of investors:

Stephen Hanson: CHINA!!! China food tastes good! Let’s make a restaurant with China food!

Investor: (throws stack of papers into the air) You’re a madman, Hanson!

Stephen Hanson: How ‘bout Mexico? Mexico make good food, too!

Investor: Hanson, you’ve got to be realistic here, we’re trying to build a business, not an experimental global culinary laboratory!

Stephen Hanson: What about ITALY? Italy pasta food make yummy country!

Investor: You. Make. A. MOCKERY of these proceedings. Get out! Get out and don't come back 'til you have a plan for a Sumatran Stir-Your-Own Bean Stew Shit-hut!

Hanson is also famous for the tough-love guidelines he imposes on all his staff, including a rule that allows them to dress in their own (black and white) clothes as opposed to wearing a uniform. Bad call?

“The servers dress in black, including - egad - turtlenecks.”

Hi, I’m distracted by the whiff of my own adrenal gland in the wind; this wedding ring? It’s a sham. Can I take your order??

And so we wrap up with desserts, which can't save Barca from its own deliberate mediocrity-- there were "more flops than hits"; but they CAN save me from falling asleep at my desk, by inciting Frank to write this phenomenal Brunism: "a warm baked apple was hard and hard to eat - a pie that never happened; cobbler interruptus."

And with that, I wish you all a Merry Chri--uh, I mean a Festive Solstice Earthjam.

Friday, December 16, 2005

You'll Probably Just Be Getting Back from a 10K Jog Around Then, Right?

I'll be on local Air America radio (1190) tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m., discussing the Digest, Frank, the Times, and whatever else comes up on WLIB's food show, "Leftovers."

So set your alarm clock to "Radio" and assure that I will enter your nightmares far more concretely than usual!

Also, for anyone who might have been made curious about Chicago's Alinea restaurant by the New York Times "Year in Ideas" piece, you can read about my experience there last week.

It was fun and futuristic.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Keens Steakhouse: Dead Presidents and Burlap Britches

This week, we are taking a class trip to Colonial Restaurantburg, and Frank is going to be our informative yet distractingly-attired docent.

Frank: And so Eli Whitney’s cotton gin revolutionized industry as we know it. Any questions?
Small child: Sir?…this is just really inappropriate…

Frank begins:

“There’s a secret to the surprising mellowness of the "legendary mutton chop" at Keens Steakhouse, a restaurant long synonymous with that gargantuan slab of meat. (The menu announces it with a verbal trumpet blast.)”

Artist’s rendition...OK, Idiot's rendition.

But the following paragraph needs no artistry. It is the equivalent of a man getting hit in the face by his own boomerang or a bride catching on fire in America’s Funniest Home Videos: it's pretty hilaire, au natural.

“Nix the trumpet and commence a drum roll: it is lamb. The mutton lore is a mutton lie. For at least two decades and perhaps many more, the legendary mutton chop has indeed been a matter of legend. The following sentence is inevitable, as is the one on its tail. Diners have had the wool pulled over their eyes...”

Wait for it...wait for it...

“But they haven't been fleeced.”

At this point, dexterous reader, you will dislodge yourself from the noose that you, albeit resourcefully, fashioned out of your flannel pajamas. Yes, it was a little painful, but talk about historic: you just witnessed the officially most pun-intensive, word-play-laden Brunism of all time. That puts you in the pantheon of people that heard Pavarotti at La Scala in 1972, sat behind the goal when the Rangers took the Stanley Cup in 1994, or watched David Lee Roth get his “fruit cup” stuck between his guitar strings during the filming of Van Halen’s “Hot For Teacher” video. And it just gets wackier.

1980’s, man, not a comfortable time for balls.

“No restaurant in New York City pays the kind of lavish, often kooky, sometimes even touching tribute to the past that Keens does.”

Lavish, kooky and touching? Soooo…a gilt-copper statue of Carrot Top in an Oscar de la Renta wedding gown pulling a copy of Schindler’s List out of his prop bag?

Nope, weirder!

“Keens had what it called a pipe club, with members including Babe Ruth and Theodore Roosevelt. Even after smoking in restaurants went the way of absinthe, Keens inducted honorary members into the club, famous customers as diverse as Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Dr. Renee Richards, Liza Minnelli and Stephen King.”

Q: Hey, what do you get when you put Dr. Ruth, Liza Minelli and Stephen King in a pipe room?
A: Something terrifying and perverted.

“There are pipes bearing their signatures in a glass case beside the main entrance.”

This one’s handy ‘cause you can also barf Rum into it.

Keens turns out to be a little like TGI Friday’s, stuffed to the gills with “flare” that is somewhat more significant than your average anonymous sports pennant or fake antique doll:

“On a poignant note, in a room often used for private dining, Keen has what it identifies as the theatrical program that Abraham Lincoln was holding when he was shot.”

You can enjoy this Bloody Pequot while admiring a pewter urn full of Aaron Burr’s diahhrea on the mantle!

But wait! It gets even funnier!

“On a humorous note, in the main vestibule, it has what it identifies as "dinosaur sirloin," supposedly a fossil from the Red Rocks area of Utah. It looks like reddish-brown marble, and a sign with it says that in the opinion of Keens, it has not yet been aged long enough to be cooked.”

Then the restaurant pulls a quarter out from behind your ears, tells you about walking to school in 1937 and makes a doodie all with a fork Fixadented to the side of its face.

“It proved itself to be not only one of the city's most charming and diverting theaters for testosterone cuisine but also one of its most reliable.”
You know, reliability really is key in a testosterone theater. My personal fave, the Ram-Rod Shak just outside Newark, is really a coin-toss most nights.

Neeeeeever know when you're gonna get the experimental BELGIAN guy.

Frank continues:
“Keens is mischievous like that. Cue the mutton.”

And now Docent Frank really whips out the history lesson:

“Keens began with real mutton, which is often defined in this country as sheep of about a year or more in age. In 1935, the restaurant reached and publicly celebrated a milestone: one million mutton chops served. Apparently, Keens was an early, upscale McDonald's of mutton.”

Anybody who counts stuff and publicizes it is a McDonalds. That’s why China is the McDonald’s of Female Babies.

“9 Billion Served to the Silent Tide of the Yangtze!” j.k., guys, don’t come after me.

“World War II came. Deprived Americans ate more mutton than they wanted, and as it later fell farther and farther out of fashion, getting fresh mutton of reliable quality became iffy. At some point Keens had to turn to lamb, choosing a cut with a winged shape that mimicked the mutton chop of yore.”

YAMMA YAMMA BLAH BLAH BLAH through the 1980’s and to the present. See, here’s where, like a middle-school dork, I desperately feign making fun of Teacher, yet I actually enjoy his mutton lesson. To question whether it belongs in a Times review is to rearrange deck chairs in the Hindenburg viewing basket.

“Um, that's my seat, I believe I said ‘fives’”

Nevertheless, being cool is more important than genuinely engaging your interests. So I feel I should defensively deride him while hiding my true love for non-fiction culinary history. (read this next part with a “headgear lisp”) WHAT’S NEXT, FRANK?? A HISTORY OF LETTUCE STARTING AT THE FIRST NUCLEAR SUPERNOVA??? HAHAHAHA OR LIKE, A HISTORY OF VOUVRAY STARTING AT THE PLEISTOCENE ERA?? WHATEVER.

Frank lands his Hindenburg where he left off originally, with mutton, safely bypassing many other things about the restaurant's food. “That doesn't make it mutton, but it does seem to give it a more robust taste, like lamb with an exponent, lamb on steroids. Call it near-mutton. Call it extreme lamb. Go ahead and call it legendary. In more ways than one, it warrants that tag."

I have to say, it makes me want to run to Keens and try this thing. Two stars, what many people call Frank's default, is no paltry rating. So be it by exponents or by steroids...

The East German Swim Sheep
...Keens should be happy.

Now let's go buy some souvenir soap made of beef fat hand-shaped by a William and Mary sophomore, visit the silversmithy, and head home.

I mean, again...just awkward.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Cookshop: Like UNICEF but more delicious

Frank’s review of Cookshop this week begins with a focus on the restaurant’s sanctimonious streak:

At Cookshop, “they don’t list daily specials." Instead, they “celebrate the restaurant's ‘favorite farmers,’ an honor roll of principled stewards and good shepherds who aren't exhausting their land, immobilizing their livestock, tweaking genes or toying with hormones.”

Candyslot Van der Muff: sadly not among this week’s gold-star organic champions.

“Along with an elite fleet of chosen fishermen, these farmers stock Cookshop's larder, and they are more or less local, or at least regional; the governing religion demands it."

Religion?...Frank has a habit (much mocked here) of using religious language to talk about food-- the sins of flesh, the redemption of sauce--

"In Habitus Homo Smokus" as the Latin goes.

But this week, that tendency hit its pinnacle:

"On a given night the number of them on those boards may rise as high as 10, just like the Commandments.”

10, just like the Commandments! I was hoping to this sort of exclamation would be repeated(the chicken was nailed to a plancha—just like Jesus!) but alas, the references remain general: cookshop is “selling virtue,” and is “suffused with it,” from domestic oak tables to recycled menus. But you want to know what I think when I think virtue? I think BORING. There’s a reason everyone loves hookers, cable, and the Netherlands, and it has nothing to do with being made out of thrice-processed domestic balsa mulch.

Boring loser.

American Hero.

“So you can sip, sup and simultaneously congratulate yourself, all of which might be a bit much but for this: You can also have a merry, heedless time.”

When I go out with my friends, there’s nothing I want to do more than SIP, SUP and be MERRY, even HEEDLESS. Additionally, nothing makes me more jubilant than putting ribbons in my hair, skipping about in my pinafore, and waiting for papa to return from the Franco-Prussian War!

Jules and her Boo, ready to get crunk.

No matter how anachronistic the slang, the point here is, Cookshop is as purely enjoyable as weirdly ethical. Frank is getting poetic about it!

“With the exception of those chalkboards, Cookshop renders its call to conscience as a murmur, audible to anyone soothed by the sound and ignorable by those who just want to chow down.”

And now, I will finish the poem that Frank started:

It’s hard for a hard-hitting journalisto,
A J-school man with talent ‘nuff to flaunt
To find his pride burned like neglected frito misto,
To find he’s a for-hire bon vivant!

I used to have John Paul and Berlusconi,
Not to mention Dubs and all his crew,
On my Buddy List under the title “Homies”
And now I spend my time with saumon cru.

And I’m dropping like three thousand dollars nightly
On the world’s best kitchens, (not to mention cellars!)
My compunction is acute ‘til I remember
That the money in the end is all Bill Keller’s. (phew!)

So a place like Cookshop feels like a cold compress
Pressed against my horseback-riding rash.
It makes you feel like Ol' Mamma Theresa
Except your makeup's better (obvie, natch!)

So: delicious? Yes, it is! But that’s not why
I’m giving Cookshop stars galore and raves:
I applaud their bold not-serving Snowy Owl,
And their moralistic not-hiring of slaves!

Cookshop, says Frank: "a place where eating well and doing good find common ground."

Hey hey hey! Retract your awkward dog paws, Mister Owl: you're 100% safe here!