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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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September 2018

Take a one-hour guided tour of the historic Lyndhurst mansion overlooking the Hudson River. The Gothic Revival mansion has been used as a movie set for six major motion pictures...

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On August 18, 2018, the Bruce Museum will open A Continuous Thread: Navajo Weaving Traditions. This exhibition will trace the history of the Navajo weaving tradition from the earliest...

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Bruce Museum
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Sponsor: Bruce Museum
Telephone: 203-413-6735
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Take a one-hour guided tour of the historic Lyndhurst mansion overlooking the Hudson River. The Gothic Revival mansion has been used as a movie set for six major motion pictures...

Cost: $18

Where:
Lyndhurst
635 S. Broadway
Tarrytown, NY  10591
View map »


Website »

More information

Kykuit, a hilltop paradise, is now a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was home to four generations of the Rockefeller family. Read our review of...

Cost: $25

Where:
Kykuit
381 N. Broadway
Sleepy Hollow, NY  10591
View map »


Website »

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Cost: Free to audition

Where:
Pleasantville Presbyterian Church
400 Bedford Rd
Pleasantville, NY  10570
View map »


Sponsor: Hudson Chorale
Telephone: 914-478-0074
Contact Name: Jeanne Wygant
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On August 18, 2018, the Bruce Museum will open A Continuous Thread: Navajo Weaving Traditions. This exhibition will trace the history of the Navajo weaving tradition from the earliest...

Where:
Bruce Museum
1 Museum Dr
Greenwich, CT  06830
View map »


Sponsor: Bruce Museum
Telephone: 203-413-6735
Contact Name: Scott Smith
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Take a one-hour guided tour of the historic Lyndhurst mansion overlooking the Hudson River. The Gothic Revival mansion has been used as a movie set for six major motion pictures...

Cost: $18

Where:
Lyndhurst
635 S. Broadway
Tarrytown, NY  10591
View map »


Website »

More information

Kykuit, a hilltop paradise, is now a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was home to four generations of the Rockefeller family. Read our review of...

Cost: $25

Where:
Kykuit
381 N. Broadway
Sleepy Hollow, NY  10591
View map »


Website »

More information

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Cost: $1,000 per person

Where:
Saint Andrew’s Golf Club
10 Old Jackson Ave
Hastings on Hudson, NY
View map »


Website »

More information

On August 18, 2018, the Bruce Museum will open A Continuous Thread: Navajo Weaving Traditions. This exhibition will trace the history of the Navajo weaving tradition from the earliest...

Where:
Bruce Museum
1 Museum Dr
Greenwich, CT  06830
View map »


Sponsor: Bruce Museum
Telephone: 203-413-6735
Contact Name: Scott Smith
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Take a one-hour guided tour of the historic Lyndhurst mansion overlooking the Hudson River. The Gothic Revival mansion has been used as a movie set for six major motion pictures...

Cost: $18

Where:
Lyndhurst
635 S. Broadway
Tarrytown, NY  10591
View map »


Website »

More information

Kykuit, a hilltop paradise, is now a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was home to four generations of the Rockefeller family. Read our review of...

Cost: $25

Where:
Kykuit
381 N. Broadway
Sleepy Hollow, NY  10591
View map »


Website »

More information

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Cost: Free

Where:
Department of Social Services
112 E Post Road
White Plains, NY  10601
View map »


Sponsor: United Way of Westchester and Putnam
Telephone: 914-997-6700
Contact Name: Toyae Liverpool
Website »

More information

On August 18, 2018, the Bruce Museum will open A Continuous Thread: Navajo Weaving Traditions. This exhibition will trace the history of the Navajo weaving tradition from the earliest...

Where:
Bruce Museum
1 Museum Dr
Greenwich, CT  06830
View map »


Sponsor: Bruce Museum
Telephone: 203-413-6735
Contact Name: Scott Smith
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Take a one-hour guided tour of the historic Lyndhurst mansion overlooking the Hudson River. The Gothic Revival mansion has been used as a movie set for six major motion pictures...

Cost: $18

Where:
Lyndhurst
635 S. Broadway
Tarrytown, NY  10591
View map »


Website »

More information

Kykuit, a hilltop paradise, is now a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was home to four generations of the Rockefeller family. Read our review of...

Cost: $25

Where:
Kykuit
381 N. Broadway
Sleepy Hollow, NY  10591
View map »


Website »

More information

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Cost: $80.00

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Whitby Castle
330 Boston Post Rd
Rye, NY  10580
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Sponsor: United Way of Westchester and Putnam
Telephone: 914 997 6700 X 720
Contact Name: Drew Coburn
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Martin House Workspace
69 Westchester Ave.
Pound Ridge, NY  10576
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On August 18, 2018, the Bruce Museum will open A Continuous Thread: Navajo Weaving Traditions. This exhibition will trace the history of the Navajo weaving tradition from the earliest...

Where:
Bruce Museum
1 Museum Dr
Greenwich, CT  06830
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Sponsor: Bruce Museum
Telephone: 203-413-6735
Contact Name: Scott Smith
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Presented in conjunction with Gilda's Club Westchester Join us for a very special event with original SNL Writer, Emmy-winner and Executive Producer of Love, Gilda, Alan Zweibel. Guests will...

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Bedford Playhouse
633 Old Post Rd.
Bedford, NY  10506
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Show Less...

Take a one-hour guided tour of the historic Lyndhurst mansion overlooking the Hudson River. The Gothic Revival mansion has been used as a movie set for six major motion pictures...

Cost: $18

Where:
Lyndhurst
635 S. Broadway
Tarrytown, NY  10591
View map »


Website »

More information

Kykuit, a hilltop paradise, is now a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was home to four generations of the Rockefeller family. Read our review of...

Cost: $25

Where:
Kykuit
381 N. Broadway
Sleepy Hollow, NY  10591
View map »


Website »

More information

Copland House at Merestead opens it's season with a glittering, intimate journey into the life of the charismatic  conductor and composer, and a sold-out smash at its Lincoln  Center...

Cost: $25

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Copland House at Merestead
455 Byram Lake Road
Mount Kisco, NY  10549
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Sponsor: Copland House
Telephone: 914-788-4659
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More information

On August 18, 2018, the Bruce Museum will open A Continuous Thread: Navajo Weaving Traditions. This exhibition will trace the history of the Navajo weaving tradition from the earliest...

Where:
Bruce Museum
1 Museum Dr
Greenwich, CT  06830
View map »


Sponsor: Bruce Museum
Telephone: 203-413-6735
Contact Name: Scott Smith
Website »

More information

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Legendary journalist Lesley Stahl will lead a special one-on-one event with former sex-crimes prosecutor turned BEST – SELLING crime novelist, Linda Fairstein. From the unsolved cases that keep...

Cost: $40

Where:
Bedford Playhouse
633 Old Post Rd.
Bedford, NY  10506
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Telephone: 914-234-6704
Website »

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Take a one-hour guided tour of the historic Lyndhurst mansion overlooking the Hudson River. The Gothic Revival mansion has been used as a movie set for six major motion pictures...

Cost: $18

Where:
Lyndhurst
635 S. Broadway
Tarrytown, NY  10591
View map »


Website »

More information

Kykuit, a hilltop paradise, is now a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was home to four generations of the Rockefeller family. Read our review of...

Cost: $25

Where:
Kykuit
381 N. Broadway
Sleepy Hollow, NY  10591
View map »


Website »

More information

On August 18, 2018, the Bruce Museum will open A Continuous Thread: Navajo Weaving Traditions. This exhibition will trace the history of the Navajo weaving tradition from the earliest...

Where:
Bruce Museum
1 Museum Dr
Greenwich, CT  06830
View map »


Sponsor: Bruce Museum
Telephone: 203-413-6735
Contact Name: Scott Smith
Website »

More information

The 58th annual Lewisboro Library Fair is Saturday, September 22 from 10 am to 4 pm at Onatru Farm Town Park (99 Elmwood Road in South Salem). The Fair features huge Book, “Attic Treasures”...

Cost: free

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99 Elmwood Road
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Sponsor: Lewisboro Library
Telephone: 914-875-9004
Contact Name: Liz Gabriele
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