As far as American culinary plaudits go, a four-star review from the New York Times is like winning the Pulitzer, despite Michelin's attempts at stateside gastro-kingmaking. Sam Sifton, the Times' restaurant critic, who replaced Frank Bruni over a year ago, has not yet placed a quad-asterisk crown atop an NY restaurant -- until today. And the winner is...Del Posto, the first Italian restaurant to have that sacrosanct honor since 1974.
What makes this a story of note for us non-New York food lovers is the review itself. While any hack can write a smarmy take-down, only the best food critics can write eloquent praises that are enjoyed for their own merit. Also, a persuasive four-star review instantly puts a restaurant on the Must-Conquer List of every fervent and far-flung foodie.
Here are the opening paragraphs of Bruni's excellent 2004 review of Per Se, a piece that was the eventual-catalyst of an incredible meal, and a considerable budget re-allocation, of mine earlier this year:
The butter-poached lobster almost did it, but not quite. I had been wooed with succulent lobster before. The Island Creek oysters and Iranian caviar, mingled in a kind of sabayon that I was served during that same dinner and during others, made a seductive case. But I was wary of such ostentation.Sifton's review seems limp by comparison:
In the end, it was a different night and a nine-course vegetable tasting, of all things, that made me drop any reserve, cast aside any doubts and accept the fact that I loved Per Se — and that this preening, peacock-vain newcomer deserved it.
I ordered the meal out of a sense of duty, with a heavy heart. Jicama ribbons? Warm potato salad? How transcendent could those be?
Silly, cynical, carnivorous me. The jicama was sensational, so packed with moisture and so faintly sweet that it could have been a new, undiscovered fruit, and the cilantro and avocado that came with it were like idealized essences of themselves, so flavorful that they seemed to have been cultivated in a more verdant universe. The bite-size marble potatoes in the potato salad popped like grapes in my mouth, and an exquisitely balanced mustard-seed vinaigrette gave them a subtle zing.
Lobster is easy; potato salad is hard. And a restaurant that turns a summer picnic staple into a meal-stopping, sigh-inducing dish — and makes that dish a legitimate course in a $135 tasting menu — cannot be denied. Per Se is wondrous.
Great restaurants may start out that way. But an extraordinary restaurant generally develops only over time, the product of prolonged artistic risk and managerial attention. An extraordinary restaurant uses the threat of failure first as a spur to improvement, then as a vision of unimaginable calamity. An extraordinary restaurant can transcend the identity of its owners or chef or concept.Here's the full review, not nearly as excellent as the food it describes.
And of course an extraordinary restaurant serves food that leads to gasps and laughter, to serious discussion and demands for more of that, please, now. The point of fine dining is intense pleasure. For the customer, at any rate, an extraordinary restaurant should never be work.
Consider Del Posto, which opened in 2005 on a wind-swept corner of that grim Manhattan neighborhood that is neither Chelsea nor the meatpacking district, in the shadows below what is now the High Line park. The restaurant’s owners, Joseph Bastianich, Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali, and its chef, Mark Ladner, envisioned a temple to Italian cooking to match any ever built to honor a European cuisine in New York, a 24,000-square-foot palazzo of mahogany and marble devoted entirely to the pleasures of Italian food and customer satisfaction.
Five years later Del Posto is that and more, a place to sit in luxury and drink Barolo, while eating food that bewilders and thrills — an abalone carpaccio to start your meal, perhaps, and absolutely a celery sorbetto to end it, as well-played Gershwin and Kern tinkle in the background.
Del Posto’s is a pleasure that lasts, offering memories of flavors that may return later in a dream: a tiny cup of spiced gazpacho, say, rimmed with a salty dust of dried capers; or a plate of the square-cut whole-wheat pasta known as tonarelli, with fiery little chickpeas, fried rosemary and bonito flakes in place of the more-traditional bottarga; perhaps a nectarine cooked into slow and amazing submission, with a savory grilled lemon cake and intense basil gelato. And, oh, that wine!