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.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Mr Chow Tribeca: What kind of sarcastically goes up must come cruelly down

Sometimes, in elementary school, a new kid shows up. The new kid is always going to be the subject of scrutiny, but if he/she is stupid or annoying, the others can be merciless. And if additionally that kid is pretentious and snotty…

"No, we've never heard of New Canaan."

…there’s no question: the other children want to beat the shit out of the stupid, uppity new kid, ‘cause that’s just how kids are, all kids.

I’d like to beat the shit out of that bastard!

And as you’ve guessed, Mr. Chow is the stinky new kid, entering a ferocious arena with little to no merit and audacious, bald-faced pretension. The critical lions have already ripped him to shreds.

And enter Frank.
There’s always one girl, slightly older or maybe just tall, a notebook-clutching rule-abider who steps in, shaking a finger and reminding everyone that "Mrs. Fussbottom wouldn't want us doing this." This is really just a show, of course, and secretly she’s a huge bitch just exerting her temporary height advantage over everyone, which she’ll lose just in time to become a big old slut.


My point is, Frank sticks up for Mr. Chow—throws himself in front of the dirty new kid and says we should expand our point of view, try to understand him! He’s just different!

Defensively, then, Frank begins:

“IT'S easy to see the bad in things and harder to see the good.”

Thank you, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Is Pa dragging the laundry through lard out back, or is he with Ma stuffing blankets with corn?

“Take Mr. Chow Tribeca. There are sane, prudent, well-intentioned people who will tell you why you should avoid this new outpost of a nutty empire, and they'll be indisputably correct.”

“But with a slight adjustment of perspective, a certain generosity of spirit and a bit of willed enthusiasm, many reasons for embracing it can be found.”

But he can't be serious: i.e. lower your standards and expectations, and you might just come around! It’s like a “spoonful of sugar” chant for the undiscerning!

You thought you were above nudie photos-- but with “a slight adjustment of perspective, a certain generosity of spirit and a bit of willed enthusiasm,” anything’s possible! That’s right! Out come those hooters, you courageous pioneer!

And just as the schoolyard protectress will, minutes after she’s defended the wastrel, take him out behind the latrines, put him in a Nelson and sucker punch his tender bits, so Frank’s generous façade fades and his 4 “reasons” for visiting Mr. Chow emerge as bitchy jokes. Yay!

“Reason No. 1: You can participate in a strand of social history and mull over the eccentric genius of Michael Chow.”

This might be sarcastic, but it seems like Frank appreciates the entrepreneurial genius behind Chow’s proto-PR knack--

“Regulars included Andy Warhol who, Mr. Chow has said, didn't so much eat his food as play with it. An understandable decision.”

Not as understandable a decision, Mr. Warhol?

Peeing all over a canvas.

“Reason No. 2: Once you've visited Mr. Chow Tribeca, you will appreciate your favorite neighborhood Chinese takeout place like never before.”

Don’t bet on it, Frank:

The pantry at my local Chinese joint.

At Mr. Chow, the pricing reaches into the $30’s for entrees that don’t come close to earning it:

“If I learned that [a lamb shank entrée] had been plucked from a freezer after the better part of a decade and then nuked in a microwave for the better part of a day, I'd be shocked. It didn't taste nearly that tender or flavorful.”

Well now it's clear-- the bitchy sunshine has emerged from behind the dour clouds of kindness, and Frank is cleaning the floor with Chow. The best part:

“Reason No. 3: You will encounter a kind of service so aggressive at certain times and incoherent at others that it becomes a divine comedy.”

To borrow the language of internet chat, Frank had me “totes LOLing” in this part:

“At the start of each meal, servers push expensive Champagne. (‘For a toast! How about a toast? Don't you want to make a toast?’)"

"Make a toast! Celebrate something before I stick this Korbel in your eye, fucker!"

"Reason No. 4: You can get excited about spotting a celebrity, though you may not actually lay eyes on one."

It's kind of adorable that the Count still wriggles giddily in his high-powered boots when he--an admitted US Weekly fan!--gets allGawker Stalker. It's a sport to him! He was a whole strategy!

"I like to hide behind the bread cart, and when they come into view, BAM! 300 CC's of barbituates right to the jugular with one arrow!"

"You know that the possibility [of seeing celebs] exists, because Mr. Chow is the kind of restaurant whose opening is noted in Us magazine, not Saveur."

"US WEEKLY" will do just fine. Nice try. Nobody reads "Playboy News and World Report" either.

"But celebrities are like the best animals at the zoo: theoretically present in the designated exhibit but always obscured by a bush or boulder just when you're looking."


"I arrived at Mr. Chow late one Friday night to be told by a waiting companion that I had just missed Tobey Maguire. Had my companion seen him? Well, he said, sort of, but..."

Alright, enough. Toby Maguire couldn't save this place. The celebs couldn't even come through. Kiss of death. No stars.

But at least now we know what the Count's billiard room looks like!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

In the words of Dag Hammerskjold, "Peace Out, My N's!"

As long as Frank is spinning his crazy gold high in the turrets of the Dining Times, I will be the Rumplestiltsken drinking moonshine from a boot outside his castle and not knowing my own name. But beginning this summer, I'll be doing it from Chicago, instead of New York. My leaving town is a great excuse to host a comedy show with some of my favorite performers. Be you a one-time reader of the Bruni Digest, a loyal fan, or some pervert who googled "pussy" and landed on a Cats! image, please come check out the show, have a couple laughs and see me in my element, i.e., holding a tumbler and air-humping.

Dona: I Dona Understand a Damn Word.

Is it just me or is Frank’s review of Dona just plain weird? I usually feel like Frank’s reviews are written by an effete yet avuncular she-clown/Bible scholar, but I feel like this one was written by a foreign exchange student. Like, an Asian one.

Frank opens with praise for chef Michael Psilakis’s strip steak, which Psilakis serves with a bowl of fat and a bowl of gremolata—

“he completes the Sparks-meets-Sparta composition with creamed spinach, tucked in a chalice of crunchy phyllo. You see it, you taste it and — holy Zorba! — you get it. It's an unbound classic, spanakopita with a skylight…”

Sparks meets Sparta? Holy Zorba? Spanikopita with a SKYLIGHT? I really don’t get it.

Moussaka with a porch extension. I don't know, people.

The name Dona refers to Donatella Arpaia, the sassy blond restaurateuse whose name seems to be everywhere these days (see Ama for more on that…) Frank sets the two up as a sort of cross-cultural “Who’s the Boss?” situation:

“She's Italian. He's Greek. Dona is a little of both and a lot of neither…”

In the trite sit-com opener, this would be where she hops out of a three-foot-long aluminum Fiat holding a bowl full of pasta while her ass doubles in front of our eyes, and then the camera pans over to Psilakis who’s sitting on a rock, counting one Drachma over and over while his teeth fall out.

She's wearing Gucci! He's wearing old diapers! It's the Italian and the Greek!

Except that’s not what happens at all. Instead (I think), they’ve decided to pair up, shun their oily Aegean trappings and go for fancy,

“vaulting past ethnic tags into the frillier realm of haute hodgepodge, where a foam anoints this dish, a broth is poured tableside over that one and abundant truffling occurs.”

No, someone did not put your brain in a blender, and yes, the above quote is from the NY Times. Ahem.

Although Greek and Italian cuisines are “best loved for their simplicity, he and Ms. Arpaia have more elaborate, affected designs."

And here we go: "It seems the mâche is always greener on the other side of the fence.” I can only picture the faggiest lamb ever saying that.

Could I have my dressing on the side? Nonfat Raspberry, natch.

Like a passive-aggressive teacher to a learning-disabled second grader, Frank both applauds Psilakis for his effort and also considers him an annoying spazz.

“Entrees like that [cumin-crusted tuna]— and like a fillet of marlin that was hijacked by an intrusively sweet orange vinaigrette and a too-salty twofer of caper berries and olives — make you wish Mr. Psilakis wouldn't try so hard.”
What’s the matter, Frank? You didn’t like Psilakis’ Sherbet-poached halibut in overalls with a spare tire and ten dancing gnomes?

Seafood antipasto at Dona.

Acutally, the chef’s strongpoint does seem to be seafood. In this city, you tempt Frank’s wrath by serving raw fish, if it isn’t inventive in some way. He hates to see restaurants shamelessly catering to South Beachers, but Psilakis seems to have passed the test. Among the crudo:

“He dressed botan shrimp with feta, blood orange and red onion, and in this mash, unlike several fish entrees, the coordination of accessories was impeccable.”

And so teacher gives the spazz not one but two little gold stars. No surprise there. A solid dessert roster later, it’s time to do the usual— drop some celebrity names, and get a little pervy.

“One night [Arpaia] spoke Italian to a table of dapper businessmen. Another night she breezily chatted up the actor John Leguizamo. Tapping into the alchemy that innately talented restaurateurs possess, she has filled Dona with a vibrant energy and a pampering air. If you took 40 years off Sirio Maccioni and gave him curves and a cocktail dress, you'd wind up with someone like her.”

Artist's rendering of Sirio Maccioni in a dress/DVD cover for Halloween IV: The Nightmare Continues.

“She undoubtedly has more restaurants to come, and so does Mr. Psilakis. Dona is good enough to see to that. But it's probably not the best that a guy who teases a strip so cleverly can do.”

I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THAT MEANS. But it begs for a strip-tease image. So here you go. Have a nice day, everyone.

I don’t know who hates me more right now, Gloria Steinem or M.C. Escher.

Gloria Steinem. Clearly.