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.