Side Bar: The Best of the Worst

I just read Ryan Sutton’s review of Wild Ink at The Hudson Yards.  The full headline for the Eater piece is “Wild Ink Is an Overwrought Yet Underachieving Fusion Disaster at Hudson Yards:  London-based group Rhubarb’s New York City debut goes wrong at every turn with Frankenstein fusion.”  Ah, this was going to be a good read.

While amazing restaurant experiences are wonderful to read, the horrible ones allow critics to really showcase editorial color and prowess. They are really, really fun to read.  The Sutton piece got me reminiscing so I am now sharing some of my own favorite worst restaurant reviews.  Here are a few of the standouts with a few priceless lines pulled from each review. The one by Jay Rayner of Le Cinq is literary genius.   

Frank Bruni, New York Times review of Ninja (2005, restaurant closed)

  • Ninja New York deposits you in a kooky, dreary subterranean labyrinth that seems better suited to coal mining than to supping.
  • Each party of diners receives its own nook, which quickly takes on the aspect of a jail cell.
  • You are greeted there by servers in black costumes who ceaselessly bow, regularly yelp and ever so occasionally tumble, and you are asked to choose between two routes to your table.The first is described by a ninja escort as simple and direct. The second is “dark, dangerous and narrow,” involving a long tunnel and a drawbridge that descends only when your escort intones a special command, which he later implores you to keep secret. I recommend a third path: right back out the door.

Pete Wells, New York Times review of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square (2012, restaurant closed)

  • Did you discern any buttermilk or brine in the white meat, or did you think it tasted like chewy air?
  • Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita? Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?
  • Why did the toasted marshmallow taste like fish?

Jay Rayner, The Guardian review of Le Cinq in Paris (2017, still has three Michelin stars)

  • The canapé we are instructed to eat first is a transparent ball on a spoon. It looks like a Barbie-sized silicone breast implant, and is a “spherification”, a gel globe using a technique perfected by Ferran Adrià at El Bulli about 20 years ago. This one pops in our mouth to release stale air with a tinge of ginger. My companion winces. “It’s like eating a condom that’s been left lying about in a dusty greengrocer’s,” she says. (ed: bold is is mine.I will never forget this line)
  • My lips purse, like a cat’s arse that’s brushed against nettles.
  • We’re told it has the flavour of French onion soup. It makes us yearn for a bowl of French onion soup. It is mostly black, like nightmares, and sticky, like the floor at a teenager’s party.
  • Pictures of plates are snapped. Mind you I also take pictures, but mine are shot in the manner of a scene of crime officer working methodically.

And finally, the review that got me waxing nostalgic about bad restaurant reviews, Ryan Suttons review of Wild Ink.  

  • I winced as I took a bite. Chefs infuse the meat with inhumane levels of sugar and salt  . . the pies are glazed in a creamy white-cheese sauce. It turns mealy and sticky quickly, causing the puffs to adhere to the plate like a gum on a shoe. . . In place of classic bulgogi, diners are treated to a veritable Frankenstein of a dish, an unholy triad recalling microwaveable Hot Pockets, airline Korean food, and hospital-quality Welsh rarebit.
  • General Tso’s sweetbreads, which are more akin to Heinz 57-flavored chewing gum than the Cantonese-American staple.

And the review starts and end with quotes from staff which is pretty incredible.  

  • My server suggested a few dishes on the Asian fusion menu, and then added, without prompting, that she could “not recommend the bulgogi puffs.” It was a curious statement. I hadn’t asked about the bulgogi puffs, nor was anyone nearby tempting me with their puffiness or bulgogi-ness. The waiter simply felt the need to warn me, preemptively, that a signature preparation was garbage.”
  • . . . let me end by paraphrasing the words of my honest bartender: I can’t recommend that you eat here.

And there you have it.  I never dined nor will dine at any of these restaurants but oh, the reviews were a complete joy to read.

Pete Wells and His 2-Star Reviews

It feels so random. . .

Like many New Yorkers, I look to the The New York Times restaurant reviews for recommendations on where to eat (or not as the case may be). While there are several reviewers on staff, only one critic that gets the Restaurant Review headline and appoints the star ratings– Pete Wells. And it’s been over seven years that he has been cranking out reviews.  

I’m going to guess that it was probably after the first year or so that I realized that I had no insight into Pete Wells’ tastes and preferences.  Even today, over seven years later, I still don’t get him. It seems to me that most restaurants he reviews start and end with two stars. It is an ongoing joke in our household that whenever anyone announces a new NYT restaurant review, I would bet it got two stars.

This morning, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and actually break down the ratings since November 2011 when he took over the reigns from Sam Sifton.  It was a rather long and grueling process given some product glitches but I believe I have a reasonable guestimate for about 280 reviews*:

4 stars = 4
3 stars = 37
2 stars = 130
1 star = 96
Satisfactory = 9
Fair = 5
Poor = 1

Aha!  Two-star ratings are indeed the most popular of the seven categories, and almost half of the reviews Mr.  Wells has given fall into this bucket! My gut was rooted in reality!

Two stars for The New York Times is ‘very good’ and given the decline in popularity of formal dining and the rise of non-Western fare and fast-casual meals, it’s no surprise that the range in this category would be wide.  

How wide you ask?  Examples of two-star establishments include Superiority Burger (fast food),  Aviary (high-end bar with small plates), L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (fine dining), Marta (rustic pizzeria) and I Sodi (Tuscan fare).

And what type of restaurants do not get two stars? Three-star or ‘excellent’ ratings have gone to a casual pizza place in Brooklyn (Razza) and a one-star or ‘good’ rating was given to Manhatta, a puzzler given that there were enough tasty dishes to offset the mediocre, and if you read the comments, I am not the only one that didn’t understand the review and how it lead to the one-star rating.

Henry gets one star but gets into the Top 10 New Restaurants of 2018 list.  Why wouldn’t this restaurant pushing African cuisine in such an interesting manner get a better rating if it’s one of the city’s best? And why didn’t other new restaurants that received higher star ratings make the list?

It’s a rhetorical question for I know I am looking for a throughline or standard around these measurements where there are none.  At the end of the day, reviews are subjective and so it goes with the territory that the weighting of variables can seem random. . . and that the overall rating can seem random.

And so this brings me to the point that while the restaurant scene has changed, the rating system for many publications have not.

I have been mulling over how to perhaps improve the rating system without having something like  Yelp reviews which for the most part, I tend to disregard.

But I will save those thoughts for another day. . .

*Restaurants that have closed are not included in the restaurant search results; and some of these reviews have had their ratings stripped making an accurate breakdown of the roughly 330 reviews by Pete Wells difficult. I did get through enough of the 50-odd closed restaurant reviews to see that two-star ratings were still popular, and one-star ratings were not going to outnumber the overall two-star total.