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, April 20, 2006

Jean-Georges: "I CAIN'T QUIT YEW!!!"

There are over 17,000 restaurants in New York city, and among them are only 4 (or 5, depending how you look at it) little ribbon-bonneted golden children, elite 4-star beauties, most with French accents, all with perfect A+ report cards from the critics. So, when the Times’ star-doling emissary, Count Bruni, turns his squinty monocle toward one of them, with the threat of knocking them out of their patent leather booties and into the bristling gutter with the 3-star riffraff (“But I don’t WANT to play with them! They don’t have table cloths! And they play music! FROM I-PODS!”) or even—heaven forbid, the shit-eating 2-stars, well, the world takes notice.

Either the Count this week knew his reconsideration of Jean Georges would capture a bigger audience than usual, or else his old reporter’s instinct was throbbing like a barometrically sensitive arthritis. Because this was more than one review of one restaurant. It was a question raised about all megachefs with entrepreneurial empires like Jean-Georges Vongerichten: Are they capable of maintaining their kitchens?

The phenomenon of the megachef’s overreach is sort of like, you know, how someone is really famous for his or her tennis skills, say, and then next thing you know, after a couple of perfume advertisements, late nights at Cain, and the allure of a 3-by-3-inch velveteen mole, he or she couldn’t sell “backhand” in a game of charades.

A primary example of this being Anna “I resist-waxed my midriff and rolled in white paint” Kornikova and Enrigay “This hat is mad straight, bra” Iglesias.

While they do not boast helipad-like moles, Vongerichten’s profitable restaurants in Vegas, the Bahamas, and Shanghai among other places have lured him away from the kitchen at his flagship, Jean-Georges, just as Frank says “Thomas Keller peddles haute tuna sandwiches under a Samsung sign in the Time Warner Center” and “Mario Batali travels the country to hawk cookware and hang with Nascar drivers.” Makes them sounds like dirtbag grifters, dunnit?

Frank holds his experience, this year, at Jean Georges, as the litmus test for everyone: “if the restaurant Jean Georges holds up, there's hope for all the others.” There’s hope for what others? Other chefs? Other flagship restaurants? Chefs with TV deals and product deals, or just multiple-restaurant chefs? Or…does “all the others” mean…EVERYONE IN THE WORLD?

OH NO! If Frank doesn’t like Jean Georges… THE KITTEN GETS BLENDED!

Frank sets up the review with an interrogative monologue reminiscent of an episode of Sex in the City (can’t you see Frank in a silk nightie, smoking a parliament and scrolling this across his laptop screen?):

"Was Mr. Vongerichten trading exacting standards for easy money? Was fame getting the best of him, and leaving the worst for us? Can an artist morph into an industry and hold on to the magic that made it all happen?"

Cut to interior, Martini Bar:

Samantha: So I had my pinky up some guy's ass last night and he morphed into an industry!
Charlotte [beginning to shear a lamb]: Samantha, that's foul!
Miranda: Anybody know the Steeler's score?
Carrie: This would make a GREAT topic for my COLUMN! [takes clothes off]

Before launching into a rhapsodic analysis of JGV’s cuisine, Frank’s got to open some old wounds, reminding us of Vongerichten’s V Steakhouse, a “patently foolish miscreant.” Miscreant meaning, of course, according to the dictionary "an evildoer, villain, infidel or heretic."

"Sooo, what does zat mean? Are yeu inferring zat yeu did not like ze restaurangh?"

And now, for the review. If you follow Bruni, you will recall his review of Perry Street (I certainly do) last fall. He had a sort of theory about JGV’s food—he called it “time release gastronomy” and he described every bite as a fugue of flavors. Example: “The sweetness of the fruit set the stage for, then ceded it to, the sourness and gentle heat of other players, which arrived as a second wave, a delayed epiphany.”

And nothing but NOTHING makes him wax romantic like this time-release business. Hence, the Jean-Georges review is a doozie.

And P.S., if this hyper-romantic image that accompanied the article isn’t the Dining Times equivalent of a musk-oil massage on a bear skin rug, what is?

Let the nooniness begin:

“Mr. Vongerichten loves this sort of dance, in which one effect often defers so quickly to another that it seems like a memory almost as soon as it's experienced. He isn't seeking a seamless blend; he wants each sensation to have its say without overstating its case — to frame, tame and joust with the other players.”

At one point he describes “a bevy of herbs and spices, including mint, tarragon, basil and Thai chili, each of which registered a fleeting, teasing impression. The proportions were precise. The results were dazzling.”

Most of this review reads like a romance novel.

“The proportions were precise…the results were dazzling…”

EIWWW. I mean, am I wrong? Don’t you get the impression that Frank lay down blindfolded on a white linen tarp whilst Jean Georges tickled him with springs of herbs?

And it was a physically engaging meal— Frank repeatedly had to shift tactics and focus in order to fully appreciate his courses. It’s a dominant-sumbissive thing, where Frank is submissive and JGV’s food is the leather-clad ‘matrix…

Frank is the coy doe, and the cuisine is the firm yet demanding hound.

“An initial bite of caramelized sweetbreads with a chestnut glaze and shavings of black truffle was slightly cloying. But a subsequent bite, with more truffle, was exquisite. From then on I took greater care with each forkful, determined to make it count.”

Have you ever?? A critic saying to his meal, Garth-style, “I’m not worthy! I’ll try harder!”

“Eating is seldom this absorbing, this bracing.”

But NOTHING is quite as bracing as Frank's girdle.

“The dining room's big windows, Central Park glimpses and unobtrusive palette of beiges and grays give it an airiness that other fancy restaurants don't have.”

For people who really enjoy a palette in gray and beige...
remember, you're never too young to check in to a hospice!

Frank concludes, “Those qualities”—the ability to make him a coy mistress—“may be missing elsewhere in the Vongerichten empire, but they're still here.”

Cue Shania Twain’s “Still the One,” and turn the shower to cold, this is getting gross.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Amazed at a Grudge, INDEED!





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Update: For the record, I do think about things other than the NY Times Dining Section. For the most part, if you're looking me in the eye and I seem to be listening to you, be advised that I'm technically ignorning you and 100% thinking about lunch. But the "restaruant grudge" column in the Times was so huffy and vapid that I had to write a letter, the publication of which constitutes a pretty delicious morsel for anyone with an ironic palate.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Country: Hail to the Cooks. And the Bathroom Attendants.

It’s time to whip out your glow sticks, kids, ‘cause this week, it’s a rave!

I’ve been hiding in 1996…is it safe to come out now? No? OK.

Frank loved the East Side bicameral beauty which is Country, in the Carlton hotel. The food seems to have wowed him, but the all-important décor tickled his cashmere thong no less. I have to agree with Frank on the looks of the place— only a few days ago, Michael “Dingle” Barry and I were lured from our afternoon stroll and into the restaurant by the luscious, man-clubby look of the place...

Not that it takes much to lure me into a restaurant.

Jules: This place is supposed to be great. We have to check it out."
Everyone: "But-"
Jules: "JUST APPS! We’ll just do apps!"

The place is called Country, Frank is quick to point out, not because anyone’s steering a semi or wearing hay pants, but rather because chef Geoffrey Zakarian also runs a place called Town. Frank sees this as, to paraphrase, totally douchy:

“[Zakarian] apparently couldn't resist the opportunity for matched-set cuteness, even though Country has a glittery soul that is almost entirely cosmopolitan.”

Frank assumes it was the matched-set appeal of “Town & Country” that Zakarian liked. But maybe, in fact, the chef deliberately wanted to reference the LEAST FUNNY movie of all time:

Zakarian’s next pair of restaurants will be named "Schindler's" and "List."

Frank rails further on the cutesy naming: “[Zakarian's] like a father who disregards such pesky details as gender to christen his second son Cleopatra because the first is Antony."

Above, a father who disregards such pesky details as gender.
(P.S. a male named Cleopatra is officially the gayest thing I’ve ever read in the Times. Along with today's usage of the phrase "wondrously silken," which Frank possibly lifted from an Estee Lauder ad.)

But seriously, I find parents that want to name their kids things like Hansel and Gretel, or Ebony and Ivory sort of insulting for the babies. If one little embryo, much less two, ever manages to cling to the gin-pickled ceviche of my uterus for nine whole months, you can bet I’m gonna reward those tenacious babies with their own totally original names.

Dinglemuff is already so tactile!

Frank’s review this week is front-loaded with wacky language. Then he sings a pretty straight-laced love song that essentially praises the cooks on the line as much as the chefs at the helm:

Both the upstairs and downstairs restaurants are “united and distinguished by their classically French inclinations and by unusually expert cooking” – they “wow you with their execution.” That's the line he's talking about, alright.

The Count ascribes one triumph after another to the central roast or the central braise, and not to the garnish or flourish. That said, it wasn’t totally boring:

“I liked the way seared skate was bracketed by roasted cauliflower and puréed cauliflower, the vegetable's flavor coming at me in different ways, with different degrees of force.”

The roasted cauliflower came at Frank from the left, with a schoolyard push, while the puree flanked him on the right with a fierce atomic elbow.

“I’m gonna treat you so good, daddy. YOU GET OVER HERE, FRANK!”

But stars are not earned on aggressive crucifers alone: the interiors of both the “distinctly masculine” café and the “more refined dining room” get the elusive Bruni approval. That’s not all:

“The attention to detail at Country is otherwise consistent and impressive…. In the cafe, iced tea comes with ice cubes made of tea…”

How considerate! In the dining room, steak comes with a fork made of pure sirloin, and in the bathroom, stall attendants are actually made of doodie.

It’s the little things, ya know?

Well, three big fat stars later, I’ll never be able to waltz in there off the street again, but I bet Zakarian and his gang are celebrating as any restaurant team would on the eve of a critical rave: