Criticizing the Critic

The January 10 issue includes part of a letter from David Hahn of Denver. Here it is in its entirety, along with Jason Sheehan's response:

Let me just say that I am officially done with considering Jason Sheehan a food critic. It's not that I consider him a bad writer - I find his writing entertaining and even funny at times - I have reached the conclusion that he just has bad taste and should write about something other than food. I began to question his taste when he glorified that Vietnamese-Texas fusion steakhouse Cowbobas along with his obsession with barbeque in a town with very little good barbeque. I count two good barbeque places in this city (one on Tennyson, one on 28th) but he seems to find a new "its so good it's the second coming of Christ" barbeque place in this town every couple months.

But my latest and final issue with his opines on gastronomic delights has come with his most recent column: his 2007 Year in Review piece. I failed to get past the first few paragraphs because he openly admitted that he passed up dinner at Le Bernardin for the Brooklyn Diner.

Yes, I will repeat myself: He passed up Le Bernardin for the Brooklyn Diner. For those who do not know, Le Bernardin is one of only three "Michelin three-starred" restaurants in New York City. There are only a handful of three-starred restaurants in the country and he passed up dinner to go to the gimmicky Brooklyn Diner! (Yes, any place that advertises itself as being a taste of Brooklyn in Times Square is gimmicky.) The equivalent of this transgression would be the Pope deciding to skip Easter mass to watch a Tivo-ed episode of his favorite soap opera that he had already seen twelve times! Or better yet, this would be like Tom Brady ditching both the Super Bowl and Giselle to play Super Nintendo Mario Kart and drink Busch Light with some random homeless dude! Any food critic that would commit this sort of transgression does not deserve to have a reservation ever again at Le Bernardin and I certainly hope Eric Ripert hears about this and black-balls Mr. Sheehan from his glorious restaurant forever.

No more will I consider the culinary ramblings of Mr. Sheehan to be remotely authoritative. He just chose a two-day old McDonald's double-cheeseburger over one of the best gastronomic adventures in the country, if not the world. Shame.

May I wish him the best of luck in his career as a writer, just not as a food critic.


David was not the only person in Denver horrified by my decision to not eat at Maguy Le Coze and chef Eric Ripert’s Manhattan temple of haute, piscine gastronomy, Le Bernardin. He was only one of a gang who, the minute I admitted to bailing on dinner at what is, almost inarguably, among the the best restaurants in the United States, started howling for my blood --or at least for my immediate resignation.

All because of a dinner I didn’t eat.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I understand the animosity. I understand how plainly stupid such a thing must sound to the hordes of foodies who’d gladly sell their grandmothers into slavery or dance naked in Times Square for a Christmas-time reservation at Le Bernardin. It is, after all, Eric Ripert. And it is, after all, the house that Gilbert Le Coze built. But you know what it also is?

It is a jacket and tie. It is three hours in a luxe straightjacket fussing over oyster forks and langoustine shells; a negotiation with the kitchen over making a plate of lamb with sunchoke puree or black truffle tagliatelle because my darling wife (for reasons that confound me) has decided that she is not going to eat any seafood, ever; an expectation of excellence, restraint, beauty and properly appreciated genius on a night when all I really want is a big, fat, bloody cheeseburger. Full disclosure: I couldn’t get a reservation at Le Bernardin on my own, anyway, but I have a friend who owes me a favor and could get me in. And one of my reasons for not going was that I didn’t want to burn that marker on a dinner I didn’t really want to have.

Fine dining can be hard -- particularly when you’re talking about Michelin-starred fine dining. There are nights when I’m up for it, when I’m down not only for the food, but for the rugby scrum at the door, the stress of seating, the pressure -- worse than any high school cafeteria environment -- of mixing with the world’s swells and holding your own with dignity (not wiping my nose on my sleeve, lighting anything on fire or doing langoustine puppet-show of the gravedigger’s scene from Hamlet with shrimp heads on my fingers). But then, there are also nights when I am not.

Because of my job, I am in the rare and enviable position of never being denied a good meal. I want foie gras? A plate of imported salami? A sandwich made of egg salad and truffles? I know just where to go and, better still, can whenever I like. Which, I think you’ll agree, is just about the coolest thing in the world. But I also know where to go for a great meatball sandwich, some finger-lickin’ barbecue, wonderful bun bo Hue and Shanghai shrimp dumpling soup. Some nights, I’ll murder you over the last slab of foie gras terrine en gelee if you happen to be standing between me and it. Other nights, I’ll just shrug my shoulders, dig my hands in my pockets and go down the street for a foil-wrapped gyro dripping with tzatziki and steaming in the cold.

And the night in question? Well, that was a night I was happy to pass on the opportunity to have Ripert’s bacalao salad and monkfish with truffled potato emulsion in favor of something simpler, easier and more to my taste. I’d already had a full day, anyhow. I’d done some business in Union Square; tried (as best I could) to reacquaint myself somewhat with Manhattan by walking the forty-odd blocks (less detours) back from there to my hotel. I’d seen the world’s largest T.G.I. Friday’s and lived to tell the tale.

Granted, I didn’t go inside. I’m crazy, but I’m not that crazy. I was out on the street, in Times Square, lamenting (minorly) the loss of Manhattan’s sleaze merchants, grindhouse movie theatres and quasi-classy '70s porno emporiums where, once, the rich and fabulous lined up to see Linda Lovelace take it in the face on the big screen. Now the theaters all have a dozen small screens, most of them showing family fare, the doors emptying straight into the crush of tourists lining up for a seat at the ESPN Zone or the world’s largest T.G.I. Friday’s.

And me? I’m peeking in through the windows, slyly. I’m negotiating the knot of field-tripping high schoolers and their goggle-eyed chaperones, the Army (which has set up a recruiting station right in the middle of everything -- two freezing grunts in body armor, holding enlistment brochures rather than rifles, standing in front of a truck painted in jungle camouflage with wheels bigger than I am) and the rush of foot traffic headed uptown. I’m standing out front of the world’s largest T.G.I. Friday’s talking to a small Asian man about his nuts.

His hot, roasted nuts, in particular. Chestnuts. Big ones, kind of pale and grayish, each the size of a squirrel’s head, sitting in a foiled warmer hanging off the front of his cart. I was curious, because I know that selling roasted chestnuts on the streets of Manhattan is something of a holiday tradition, but I also know that roasted chestnuts are more or less totally gross. I’ve never had a good one, have always ended up spitting out the masticated pap of sour, bitter nutmeat into the most convenient trash can or potted plant available.

And on that night, the small Asian man seemed to be just giving his nuts away. They were sitting there nastily while he warmed his hands over his grill and squinted into the wind. I asked him how long he’d been doing this and, misunderstanding, he said, “All day.” I asked him if anyone had shown any interest in his nuts and he smiled, laughed thinly and asked, “Why? You want nuts?”

“No. I’m asking, has anyone else wanted to buy any nuts.”

He shook his head adamantly. “No,” he said. “Not today. Maybe tomorrow.”

Who would’ve ever thought of Manhattan as an optimistic place?

The world’s largest T.G.I. Friday’s is, as you might expect, big. There are two floors at least, an ocean of tables, enough crazy crap on the walls to fill six Bennigan’s or Spaghetti Factories. And it was, at the height of the early, tourist dinner rush, packed with a terrifying assortment of people who really ought to know better. I mean, here you are: Christmas in Manhattan, suppertime in one of the greatest restaurant cities that the world has ever known. You’ve just spent a full day touring the Empire State Building, not buying hot roasted chestnuts, getting lost in Central Park and getting nose-prints on the display windows at Macy’s (where that babbling death’s-head, Willard Scott, is featured, leering out of spinning video monitors, talking about how he can ’t get Santa on his cell phone), and this is how you cap it off? With jalapeno poppers at T.G.I. Friday’s? The same T.G.I. Friday’s and the same jalapeno poppers you could get back home in Minneapolis or Secaucus or Amarillo? Come on… Why not Babbo or Per se, right? Why not Le Bernardin?

But I was tired, and what I wanted just then was a cheeseburger. So I headed north, putting the neon and Army men behind me and ending up with Laura at the Brooklyn Diner -- one of a chain of two, the northernmost once having been a perfectly respectable joint called the 7th Avenue Diner or something like that, according to semi-dependable sources, but now the kind of place that makes excellent, bloody-rare bacon cheeseburgers with fried shoestring onions on homemade rolls (I’d forgotten how good even the most pedestrian breads can be in New York), layered with strips of thick-cut smoked bacon and charges $16 for them without causing rioting among the neighbors.

At a proper diner, there’s only one thing that’s a bargain at nearly twenty bucks: a dime bag bought in the parking lot. And this place didn’t even have a parking lot. Also, it wasn’t a diner by any stretch of the imagination except that it served a few diner-y plates (goulash and burgers, club sandwiches, egg creams and root-beer floats) and had the vague look of a high-class railroad dining car jammed inside a Brooklyn sandwich shop— which, in a weird way, is kind of the Platonic ideal of East Coast, non-Greek diner décor.

It may not have been Ripert’s tasting menu, but still, it was a damn fine cheeseburger and the floor was jammed shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip from the minute Laura and I walked in (getting the last table by the windows, apparently a favorite of Jay Mohr and Kristin Chenoweth) until the moment we left. The kitchen was getting crushed, the staff were sweating into the soup, and yet they managed to hold it together. We had a good (if murderously expensive) meal—certainly better than anything any of those dimwits at the world’s largest T.G.I. Friday’s were eating, if only because my burger had actually once been part of a cow and Christ only knows where Riblets come from—and then went looking for more. Drinks here, some snacks there. I wasn’t exactly wasting my time is what I’m saying. I wasn’t exactly picking up McNuggets from Mickey-D’s. And if, by some weird fluke, Ripert does end up hearing about some half-bright and extraordinarily lucky young restaurant critic in Denver who, for his own very good and respectable reasons, decided to skip a meal at his house in favor of a burger and fries with the hoi polloi, I do hope that he—a guy who, like me, can eat anything, anywhere he damn well pleases and, from what I understand, does not subsist exclusively on foie gras and caviar—doesn’t blackball my ass. Because I’ve had his food before and I hope to one day have it again. Just not when I’m craving a burger and a couple beers at the end of a long day.

Oh, and David? A few last things. One, I love Cowbobas precisely because it is a Texas-Vietnamese fusion restaurant. Because it is cheap, easy, accessible, makes steaks that remind me of the steaks my dad used to char to death on the backyard grill when I was a kid and serves instant Vietnamese coffee sweet and powerful enough to take the varnish of a barstool. Two, I don’t know the Pope personally, but I’m willing to bet that he’s had days when kicking back with a cold one and watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer on his TiVo sounds a whole fuckload better than purging the souls of another thousand Christian faithful. And three, I’ve never compared a BBQ place in this town to the second coming of Christ (believing, as I think most BBQ aficionados do, that proper barbecue has more to do with the influence of Old Man Splitfoot than his better half upstairs), but believe you me: when and if Jesus ever does come back, I think he’d find his way considerably smoothed if he came carrying a traveler full of rum and hurricane mix in one hand and a big plate of Carolina pork shoulder in the other. He manages a trick like that, and I’ll be the first one in line for the sacrament. – Jason Sheehan