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Plate to Prose

A New York Times food critic looks back



This fall, editors at The New York Times killed the regional restaurant reviews that had long run in the paper’s Sunday pages. After 14 years of passing judgment on restaurants in Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam counties, I got the proverbial pink slip. 

My first response was relief; I could now eat out without regarding the plate in front of me as a sort of algebraic equation, and then wrangling scribbled notes into publishable prose. I would be free to have a stiff drink with dinner. And I would never again in my lifetime feel compelled to order fried calamari or chocolate lava cake.   

People often remarked that my job must be fun. It was not. Sizing up a restaurant’s performance and calling it as I saw it—in The Times’s rubric, Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair, or Poor—carried with it a certain weight of responsibility. It was about as much fun as grading papers written by 12 year olds who’d had help from their parents, a task that fell to me in an earlier career as an English teacher. 

Readers, editors, and especially chefs and restaurateurs seemed to put an awful lot of currency in the bold-faced “grade” (websites and ads would crow: “New York Times: Excellent!” even after the chef who had earned the accolade had long departed).  

To my mind, it was the 750-word review itself, the nuanced assessment that dealt praise when it was earned and leveled (sometimes stinging) criticism when it was not, that best served the reader. I argued with editors over the years that the rating system was flawed, that a restaurant meal—unlike a painting or a book or a movie, none of which was subject to ratings when critiqued in The Times—was a product of the moment, cooked on demand, a confluence of luck and talent and ingredients. You crossed your fingers that the chef was in the kitchen. A review was subjective—I liked something or I didn’t. The opinion was mine. Readers should read the fine print and take from it what they would. We stuck with the grades to the bitter end. 

I sweated over my reviews. Having worked as both a waitress and a sous chef, I was a sympathetic diner; I knew how hard it was to get it right. But I was also a fussy (okay, discerning) eater, and easily disappointed. I always visited a restaurant at least twice, and sampled, at minimum, six appetizers, six entrees, and six desserts. Indigestion was an occupational hazard. I made reservations under various fake names, and as far as I could tell I was rarely recognized. As time wore on, unfettered use of cell phones and proliferation of food bloggers made my job infinitely easier. Instead of furtively writing notes in my lap, I could boldly take photos and openly record thoughts in my Notes app without raising suspicion. 

I survived the era of quinoa and kale, of chipotle and aoili (“It’s mayonnaise,” a guest once said, fed up with the pretension). I grudgingly came to accept the category of dishes labeled “to share.” I grew weary of sauces squiggled from squeeze bottles, of waiters asking, “Are we liking everything?” or “Would we be interested in dessert?” in widespread abuse of a perfectly good pronoun. I always liked the waiter who mercifully kept his name to himself and took more than a fleeting interest in the wine list.  

Despite what is commonly celebrated as the “food revolution” of recent decades, menus in the northern suburbs still peddle top hits and safe bets (think grass-fed burger with melted gruyère on a brioche bun). New places sprout up, with names that invariably include the street address and words like “local,” “social,” “community,” “kitchen,” and “table” merrily linked together with ampersands. 

I always held out hope that my next meal would be at the hands of a gifted chef cooking outside the box. Herewith, a short, subjective list of chefs who did not disappoint:

Vicky Zeph, of Zeph’s, in Peekskill, master of the sour cherry pie; Dan Barber, whose brainy food is best enjoyed among fireflies on the patio at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills; Brian Galvin, formerly of Bistro 22 in Bedford, and now the owner of Ocean House in Croton, who won me over with his sautéed skate with brown butter and capers; David DiBari, of The Cookery and The Parlor, both in Dobbs Ferry, whom I met when he was firing pizza with his mom at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Italian Feast; Kenyon Hart, of Hopscotch in Croton, who gets farm-to-table just right; and Alex Sze, of Juniper in Hastings-on-Hudson, who is moving his remarkable little French-inflected BYOB operation to bigger digs this winter.


TOP CHEFS Dan Barber (pictured above), co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills and a champion of farm-fresh everything, and Brian Galvin (pictured left), who owns Ocean House, a tiny temple to seafood in Croton-on-Hudson, are two local chefs who most impressed the author, a former restaurant critic.

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December 2018

The magic of the season is tangible throughout the Rosen House! Take part in Caramoor’s great tradition of holiday music with charismatic musicians, festive decorations, and tea service in...

Cost: $65

Where:
Rosen House Music Room
Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
149 Girdle Ridge Rd
Katonah, NY  10536
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Sponsor: Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
Telephone: 914-232-1252
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Sunday, December 9th at 3:00 PM. Open to all ages. Come to watch several short silent comedies at this fun event hosted by renowned silent film accompanist and historian Ben Model. Ben Model...

Cost: Free

Where:
Ruth Keeler Memorial Library
276 Titicus Road
North Salem, NY  10560
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Sponsor: Keeler Library
Telephone: 914-669-5161
Contact Name: Carolyn Reznick
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Meet friends and neighbors at the KMA for a day of fashion fun! Show off your wearable art at a Pop-Up Runway Show directed by artist and author Lesley Ware. Enjoy activities throughout the Museum;...

Cost: Member price: Free Non-Member price with Museum admission: Free

Where:
Katonah Museum of Art
134 Jay Street
Katonah , NY  10536
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Sponsor: Katonah Museum of Art
Telephone: 914-232-9555

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On November 3rd, Heather Gaudio Fine Artis set to open “Room for Play,” a group exhibition featuring works by Ellen Carey, Deborah Kass, Robert...

Cost: Free

Where:
Heather Gaudio Fine Art
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840
View map »


Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
Website »

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James Lancel McElhinney, journal-artist, author, Yale alumnus and  Pollock-Krasner Grant recipient will unfold the epic story of painted books, from the Age of Exploration to the digital era. He...

Cost: 0.00

Where:
Ridgefield Library
472 Main Street
Ridgefield, CT  06877
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Sponsor: Ridgefield Library
Telephone: 203-438-2282
Contact Name: Laurie McGavin Bachmann
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The magic of the season is tangible throughout the Rosen House! Take part in Caramoor’s great tradition of holiday music with charismatic musicians, festive decorations, and tea service in...

Cost: $65

Where:
Rosen House Music Room
Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
149 Girdle Ridge Rd
Katonah, NY  10536
View map »


Sponsor: Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
Telephone: 914-232-1252
Website »

More information

On November 3rd, Heather Gaudio Fine Artis set to open “Room for Play,” a group exhibition featuring works by Ellen Carey, Deborah Kass, Robert...

Cost: Free

Where:
Heather Gaudio Fine Art
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840
View map »


Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
Website »

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Using graham crackers, icing, and candy we'll create fun little gingerbread houses for decoration! Ages 6-10 Registration required - call 914-864-0130 Sponsored by the Friends of the Mount Kisco...

Cost: No Cost

Where:
Mount Kisco Public Library
100 East Main Street
Mount Kisco, NY  10549
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Telephone: 914-666-8041

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Ayurveda advocates seasonal detoxing to strengthen your immune system and help your body function at its best. Weather shifts can wreak havoc on your entire system. “Spring-summer-fall-winter...

Cost: Free

Where:
North Castle Public Library
19 Wippoorwill Rd E
Yellow Monkey Village
Armonk, NY  10589
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Sponsor: Dr. Kaushik's Ayurvedic and Naturopathic Clinic
Telephone: 914-875-9088
Contact Name: Dr. Kaushik
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The magic of the season is tangible throughout the Rosen House! Take part in Caramoor’s great tradition of holiday music with charismatic musicians, festive decorations, and tea service in...

Cost: $65

Where:
Rosen House Music Room
Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
149 Girdle Ridge Rd
Katonah, NY  10536
View map »


Sponsor: Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
Telephone: 914-232-1252
Website »

More information

Join Us for Botanical Jewelry Making - Great Holiday Gift! Tuesday, December 11th 6:30pm to 8:30pm Create your own wearable succulent art. These botanical bracelets make beautiful and...

Cost: $100

Where:
Kahlo
65 Westchester Avenue
Pound Ridge, NY  10576
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Sponsor: KAHLO
Telephone: 917-604-5596
Contact Name: Tami McCarthy
Website »

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On November 3rd, Heather Gaudio Fine Artis set to open “Room for Play,” a group exhibition featuring works by Ellen Carey, Deborah Kass, Robert...

Cost: Free

Where:
Heather Gaudio Fine Art
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840
View map »


Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
Website »

More information

You'll have fun welcoming winter when you cut out your very own snowflakes using model clay and cookie cutters! Materials will be provided.  Ages: 6-12 Registration required - call 914-864-0130...

Cost: No Cost

Where:
Mount Kisco Public Library
100 East Main Street
Mount Kisco, NY  10549
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Telephone: 914-666-8041

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Wednesday, Dec. 12. The Bedford Chamber Concert Series continues its 2018-19 season, featuring an all-Vivaldi holiday program. Anthony Newman and the Bedford Chamber Ensemble will perform “The...

Cost: $45 per person

Where:
St. Matthew's Church Fellowship Hall
382 Cantitoe Street
Bedford, NY  10506
View map »


Sponsor: St. Matthew's Music Committee
Telephone: 914-522-5150
Contact Name: Anthony Newman
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The magic of the season is tangible throughout the Rosen House! Take part in Caramoor’s great tradition of holiday music with charismatic musicians, festive decorations, and tea service in...

Cost: $65

Where:
Rosen House Music Room
Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
149 Girdle Ridge Rd
Katonah, NY  10536
View map »


Sponsor: Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
Telephone: 914-232-1252
Website »

More information

Sign up for this community workshop to get important year-end info.  www.martinhouseworkspace.com/event-listings

Cost: no charge

Where:
Martin House Workspace
69 Westchester Avenue
Pound Ridge, NY  10576
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Sponsor: Martin House Workspace
Telephone: 914-764-3128
Contact Name: Erin Trostle

More information

On November 3rd, Heather Gaudio Fine Artis set to open “Room for Play,” a group exhibition featuring works by Ellen Carey, Deborah Kass, Robert...

Cost: Free

Where:
Heather Gaudio Fine Art
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840
View map »


Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
Website »

More information

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Show Less...

The magic of the season is tangible throughout the Rosen House! Take part in Caramoor’s great tradition of holiday music with charismatic musicians, festive decorations, and tea service in...

Cost: $65

Where:
Rosen House Music Room
Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
149 Girdle Ridge Rd
Katonah, NY  10536
View map »


Sponsor: Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
Telephone: 914-232-1252
Website »

More information

Attend 1, 2 or all 3 of this three part series giving you to the tools to help find you the right job!  Session 1-How to Nail that Job–Thursday, November 29th–5:30-6:45 pm Session 2–Resume...

Cost: No Cost

Where:
Mount Kisco Public Library
100 East Main Street
Mount Kisco, NY  10549
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Telephone: 914-666-8041

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Mario Tacca – Music Director Mary Mancini Tacca – Artistic Director/Manager OUR MISSION STATEMENT: To have fun and gather with friends! To make great music together! To...

Cost: $33.00

Where:
Taormina Restaurant
59 Hudson Avenue
Peekskill, NY  10566
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Telephone: 914-737-8872
Contact Name: Mary Mancini
Website »

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On November 3rd, Heather Gaudio Fine Artis set to open “Room for Play,” a group exhibition featuring works by Ellen Carey, Deborah Kass, Robert...

Cost: Free

Where:
Heather Gaudio Fine Art
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840
View map »


Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
Website »

More information

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Please join us Friday, December 14, 2018 at 7pm for our annual concert of joyful Christmas music at the Church of the Assumption in Peekskill, NY.  Performers include Internationally Acclaimed...

Cost: $17

Where:
Church of the Assumption
131 Union Avenue
Peekskill, NY  10566
View map »


Sponsor: Church of the Assumption
Telephone: 914-737-2071
Website »

More information

On November 3rd, Heather Gaudio Fine Artis set to open “Room for Play,” a group exhibition featuring works by Ellen Carey, Deborah Kass, Robert...

Cost: Free

Where:
Heather Gaudio Fine Art
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840
View map »


Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Join us as the Traveling Lantern Theater brings a beloved classic Christmas story to life - The Story of Ebenezer Scrooge or: "A Christmas Carol". Light refreshments will be...

Cost: No Cost

Where:
Mount Kisco Public Library
100 East Main Street
Mount Kisco, NY  10549
View map »


Telephone: 914-666-8041
Website »

More information

This a cappella vocal quartet brings their exquisitely blended voices to the Music Room in Sing Thee Nowell, a program of sacred Christmas music spanning seven centuries. The Rosen House,...

Cost: $25, $35, $50, $65

Where:
Rosen House Music Room
Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
149 Girdle Ridge Rd
Katonah, NY  10536
View map »


Sponsor: Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
Telephone: 914-232-1252
Website »

More information

This a cappella vocal quartet brings their exquisitely blended voices to the Music Room in Sing Thee Nowell, a program of sacred Christmas music spanning seven centuries. The Rosen House,...

Cost: $25, $35, $50, $65

Where:
Rosen House Music Room
Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
149 Girdle Ridge Rd
Katonah, NY  10536
View map »


Sponsor: Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
Telephone: 914-232-1252
Website »

More information

On November 3rd, Heather Gaudio Fine Artis set to open “Room for Play,” a group exhibition featuring works by Ellen Carey, Deborah Kass, Robert...

Cost: Free

Where:
Heather Gaudio Fine Art
66 Elm Street
New Canaan, CT  06840
View map »


Sponsor: Heather Gaudio Fine Art
Telephone: 203-801-9590
Contact Name: Rachael Palacios
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

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