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.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Freemans: The Day the Edgy Emo-Music Died

Alright people. It’s been a big week and I know I'm a bit late, but put on your American Apparel leggings and get ready to hipstercise.

If my college improv group, a university-funded exercise in pot-fueled public make-believe, had been reviewed by then theater critic Frank Rich, he would have said “These assholes are idiots, and they should put down their nancetry kits of wigs and tutus and get back in class.” He would have been totally right, but still, we had our place on campus.

Who else would the intramural badminton team have been cooler than?

The Count’s serious pan of Freeman’s this week seems like an analogous reaction to the one above: an older dude having the nerve to apply grown-up standards to a group of young dorks who just want to have some ironic fun.

But I think the Freeman’s KO might stand forever as a touchstone incident of Old Media v. New Hipster. Listening to Frank describe Freeman’s Appalachian 1950’s décor like it’s something strange (it’s not—it’s everywhere) is like listening to a foreign exchange student describe American college Greek life:

“The children divide into drinking teams, where they are brothers and sisters, and they label their beer teams in an ancient alphabet. What psychos. Now I will target-practice on housepets.”

Right off the bat, Frank invokes the staple brands of Hipsterville: “Like the folks who market Pabst Blue Ribbon and Converse sneakers...the impresarios behind Freemans understood that the nexus of retro and downscale is a lucrative spot”

The nexus of retro and downscale didn’t prove lucrative for Spanky’s Pants-Optional Jukejoint.

Must’ve been the health inspection fines that did them in. Because the shakes were delicious.

Owners William Tigertt and Taavo Somer “do it with a whimsical wink, which is what the artfully nicked walls, the stuffed ram’s head, the stuffed goose and all those antlers are about.”

I wonder if any of the snake-wrassling Appalachian types whose walls are loaded with their kill have any idea that taxidermy is now the instantaneous semaphore for hipster irony.

Doubt it. No irony here. Just bloody antlers and billowing shorts.

He's dropped some hints that this is going to be a pan...

"But first the positive:”

The positive: the décor of the place is “oddly hilarious” and sweet. This is his version of the “You did great in the baseball game!” that a parent uses to preface something like “Hey, Sport, no camp this summer. We’re going to Cincinnati to watch Grandma die.”

I think the smoking finally got her. Everyone hop in the Subaru!

Frank makes an odd comment about people coming in and out of Freemans. I’m assuming he’s referring to the way they react to the Wunderkammern walls, but all the giggling and smiling makes no sense to this frequent Freemans visitor:

“…I smiled every time I watched someone else arrive. That person invariably did a double take, then giggled. It’s sweet of a restaurant to make that happen.”
Are people really doing double-takes at the entrance?

I mean, I never thought twice about the white Indian ball-flasher at the door, but maybe other people do. Hm.

But now the fun is over. The Count must whip out the scimitar of duty:
“…it’s wrong to let so much else fall by the wayside,” he says, and embarks on a wince-inducing takedown.

I think the Victorian décor really got to Frank. The food doesn’t just suck, it sucks with pathos:

“Baby back ribs longed for succulence, while grilled trout with thyme and lemon cried out for a dash of excitement and a dew drop of moisture.”

That, my friends, is classic Frank. A Desperate Housewife of a trout, pulling its shirt open and crying out for a dash of excitement and a dew drop of moisture.

Maybe he’s on to something. He should talk to the execs, run it by them.

Speaking of catty bitches, Frank has zero appreciation for the surly Parisian-style staff: “A hostess had all the cuddly charisma of Cujo.” Nice. Classic moment of Frank’s misunderstanding hipsterism: Bitchy staff “had no place in a restaurant as studiously unfussy as Freemans.” Wrong!! Anomie and attitude are part and parcel of youth culture, Grandpa Frank.

But here’s the crux of the suckage for Frank:

“ of the ways it pales beside a peer like the Spotted Pig” is that its food “could be quickly and easily replicated at home. If cooking were a sport involving a pool, a springboard and numerical degrees of difficulty, nearly everything Freemans does would be a swan dive. There’s not a triple flip in the bunch.”

Listen, not all competitions are the same. Maybe a swan dive is enough for some people.

Unless performed by a pregnant teen, a triple flip won’t get you points at the Tuskeegee Olympics, my friend.

But seriously, Freemans is in a different realm, and Frank hints at it:

“Freemans must be commended for keeping the average price of entrees to about $20.”

THAT, that right there is the point.

You know, as usual earlier this month I was having my fall suit tailored (it’s a nice mohair) and my prostate examined (also mohair) whilst reading men’s Vogue and noticed that the Count had penned a little piece ostensibly about his workout regime. But as those of us who read the piece know, indelibly, intimately, it had almost nothing to do with exercise (he runs; he has a trainer). It was a captain’s log for the S.S. Pricy Pigout, a laundry list of indulgent, mostly super luxe items gobbled in quantity and with relish (“I had downed osetra caviar as if it were Orville Redenbacher popcorn”). Item after item.

I know what you’re thinking: “Stop writing and show us a stupid picture already.” FINE.

But now I'm going to keep writing.

My point is, Manhattan is squeezing out its mid-priced restaurants, and I love Brooklyn, but sometimes you just want to wear a party dress and go to the Big Island. Freemans’ popularity isn't a perverse result of its hidden locale. Freemans is crowded because people without a ton of cash can have a rich night out in a place full of character. And the artichoke dip is nothing to shake your Osetra tin at. Which doesn't mean it deserves a star.

The last sentence of Frank's review smarts. It so perfectly reduces the whole playland sophistication of Freemans to its childish props. You can hear the air sucked out of the nursery as Frank pops his head in.

Of the diners lined up outside Freemans he warns that "what awaits them isn’t a memorable feast. It’s iceberg with ranch dressing under a stuffed boar’s head."

In other words, Grow up.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Trestle on Tenth: Break out the Juice!

Well it’s only midafternoon but I’m about to open a bottle of Chateau British People, aka Gin. The Count’s review of Trestle on Tenth is all about the wine list, probably because, as the headlines of all the other articles in the Dining section suggest, it’s Beverage Theme Week at Times Dining! Everyone has to come to work dressed up like their favorite beverage.

That Bittman’s such a sport!

Bruni delves into chef Ralf Kuettel’s past so that we can better understand Trestle on Tenth’s wine list, which Frank calls a “principled document”.

In short, “From 2001 to 2005, Mr. Kuettel wallowed in wine.”

Sure, it sounds like fun, but it made household chores difficult.

Over the years, Mr. Kuettel “became a grape geek of the most fetching, infectious kind.”
“Fetching” and “infectious” haven’t been the happy conclusion of something since that pack of hunting dogs got mono.

Best infection ever!!!

Ralf Kuettel’s years of careful research and learning (“What smells like bloody pennies?” “Oh, Ralf soaked his pants in Grenache last week to see if they’d rot”) have yielded a list heavy in the unusual (lagreins, gamaret, savagnin).

In comparison, “so many other wine lists seem to have been assembled by a computer program — with France and California meted out in predetermined measure and enough generically velvety pinot noir to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool…”

An Olympic size swimming pool full of wine? … mmmm…that’s my second biggest wish come true!

My first biggest wish? I just wish my ex-boyfriend would talk to me, you know? It’s so awkward when we see each other at parties and he just rearranges his cloth diaper and pretends not to notice me.

CALL ME, Eustace!!!!

A term Frank has employed before for cute places, he calls Trestle “a hug” : “a warm little hug that beckons those at hand.” Which is actually an underhanded insult: it’s not good enough to travel for. If it were, maybe Frank would call it a “lively hickey” or “embracing dry hump” of a place.

GET IT? DRY HUMP? (Cut to me hi-fiving myself as I’m pushed offshore in a burning rowboat.)

Speaking of burning rowboats, Frank is really unimpressed by the food at Trestle, unfortunately. Such a letdown after the all the boozing and the hugging.

I’m also surprised at Frank's ambivalence, since he tends to reward food that refuses to pander to South Beachers, and according to Frank, Trestle “challenges vain, health-conscious New Yorkers to wade into the starchy and dive headlong into the flabby."

This would be the "About Me" on Frank's MySpace profile.

But Ralf’s helmets-on approach to fat may have been a little overboard: “Trestle on Tenth is the kind of restaurant at which, no matter what you ate, you feel as if you had brisket.”

I guess that’s an insult, but brisket happens to be my fave. I mean, I don’t like to advertise my other projects on this site, but this seems a propos:

What's for dinner? You are, with my line of savory, high-quality kosher baubles.

But it’s not just the brisketiness at Trestle that did it in:
Generally, "too much at Trestle on Tenth didn’t stand out or succeed.”

If Ralf is looking for constructive criticism, he’s not going to find it here: cauliflower soup, sautéed frogs’ legs, roast chicken and steak are just “bland” and a pig’s foot terrine is “unfocused.” Inscrutable, no? -- “Hey Ralf, your spatzle was illiterate your paté was rococo.” ?????

Even though the fatty food got no more than one star from The Count, I think I might check it out. Something about this Octobery weather screams "Eat Fat!" and lord knows I love to drink.
Which reminds me, one more quick plug before I sign off:

The Jules doll from Mattel (not included: handle of gin, karaoke set, and twelve gay Kens.)

PS: If you've not had your fill of the Count, check out a Hamburger Today's burgerrific interview with Frank Bruni. Be prepared to have your heart broken a little-- turns out he's a ketchup only man, which to me is like leaving the house only wearing a top.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Japonais: I Can't Tell Asians Apart Anymore

As throaty teens make their Fantasy Football draft picks and college freshman assemble the rickety Ikea beds that will shatter under their first Pabst-breathed peccadilloes, we restaurant folk prepare for our season. The Times Restaurant Preview today laid out quite a daunting itinerary of new restaurants for Frank this fall-- I secretly prayed to God that the Count's laureled head get stuck between someone’s motor-oiled boobs at Hawaiian Tropic Zone.

The odds of this happening are slim to EXCELLENT.

But in reading the paper today, I couldn't shake the feeling that Frank was sad, in the doldrums. I wanted to take ol' Frank aside, the way Danny Tanner might pull DJ or Steph under his huge, pervy wing and say, “Hey, what’s wrong? Do we need to have a talk?”

“Girls, Kimmie has rabies and Uncle Joey has to shoot her."

In his write-up of New York outposts of wider empires (“Making It There Before They Make It Here”), the Count bemoans the specific conditions in New York that discourage creative and mid-size financial risk, and encourage the safe expansion of sturdy, oversize chains. Of Alan Yau, Thomas Keller, and Gordon Ramsay he says: “Their restaurants, too, are brands— more rarified and less ubiquitous versions of the Olive Garden and the Outback Steak House…” YOWCH!

Gordon Ramsay's associates en route to kick Frank's ass

And of New York, he says the unbearable: “At times it’s hard not to feel as if our bragging rights are endangered.”

No no, Frank. Listen hard. When New York’s restaurants can all be found in other American cities, when “unique New York” is nothing but an empty phrase repeated aloud by little minigays in theater camp to warm up their tongues, we will STILL be able to brag that at least…

we’re not…

the rest…




Ahem. Sorry everyone. It had to be said.

So when Frank takes on East Side newbie Japonais today, he’s really throwing it under the bus to underscore the points he’s made in his trend piece-- that the scene is getting boring and redundant. Japonais fits his profile of a slick, oversize pseudoasian transfer (it started out in Chicago.) Frank does Japonais one worse than panning it-- he makes it seem trivial.

He begins:

“’Haven’t I been here before?’ a companion asked me one night as we entered Japonais…”

Get it? Because it's so BORING. Although someone had a good time:

The main dining room’s “many-limbed sculpture looks like the offspring of a supersize bonsai tree and a French poodle.”


You will experience a similar déjà vu if you’ve “managed over the last few years to drop into Megu or Morimoto, Ono or Nobu 57. The list goes on…” which explains the title of this review: “An Asian Fantasy, Reproduced,” which I wrongly assumed was a side-reference to the Suri Cruise photos.

When Frank calls Japonais “invariably theatrical, obliquely Asian and ostentatiously huge” is he really talking about a restaurant? Or a huge fake alien baby? You tell me. I’m putting it out there.

These restaurants “provide food with visual appeal and a (quickly diminishing) touch of exoticism. They…stroke many senses at once.” In other words, much like at Seaworld, the inclusion of a well-timed HJ still doesn't make the experience worth it.

"Oh jeez...the orca's reciprocating! Honey, get the kids out of here, this is disgusting."

The food is hit or miss-- "Unevenness was the norm." The staff was braindead-- "I don't even know what panna cotta is" said a server. As we all know, it's Italian for the "cooked underpants."

Traditional open-air panna cotta.

In the end, Frank says his friends actually liked the place. But to be fair, they were a group of neolithic pelt-shitting cave-dwellers who "hadn't been to many restaurants like this one. For them it had an intrigue that eclipsed its shortcomings."

"You know, I thought the duck was excellent. I thought the decor was kind of neato. I'd come back."


Hey Frank, buck up. There's still plenty of good food around. And if you don't think NY is special any more, you can come hang out on my old stoop in Brooklyn and have a drunk homeless guy sic stray cats on you. Can't get THAT in Vegas! HA!

Or can you...