Whoever coined the phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” must have been a food critic, or a chef.
Although the papers have not yet gone to press, the almighty Frank Bruni, Food Critic for the New York Times has just shook the food world’s skies with his latest review: “In Air So Rarefied, Only Ambrosia Will Do.” Within one article, the food giant, Alaine Ducasse’s eponymous restaurant at the Essex House loses a star. It has been demoted from what, by all accounts, an unquestionable four-star restaurant to a three-starred “Excellent”.
What does this mean? I’m not sure… but I will bet that things are not happy in the Essex House. For those who will not see the article until tomorrow’s print version hits the streets, I’m sure there will be a wave of cringes rolling through restaurant kitchens in the wee hours of the morning…
Will (wealthy) diners care? Probably… and in some ways, I don’t blame them. If I’m going to spend $150+ on a dinner, why not go for the best (ie. a four-star restaurant)? But what is the best? Is Yale Law School the best law school just because U.S. News and World Report ranks it the hightest? Has Ducasse truly (ie. objectively) slipped? Has the legendary and magical culinary experience at his New York restaurant become “spine less binding” as Bruni suggests? Has he been distracted by his ever expanding restaurant enterprise: neglecting the Essex House and spending too much time opening up his newest restaurant, Mix, at the Hotel Mandalay Bay? Or, is Ducasse’s restaurant shy of “Extraordinary” just on the basis of Mr. Bruni’s palate and preferences? And so goes the endless debate and controversy over the power of food criticism…
On a recent three-night trip to New York, I planned my meals such that I could hit three of the then-four-starred restaurants: Le Bernardin, Daniel, Jean-Georges, Per Se and Alaine Ducasse at the Essex House. (Since then, Masa has been added to the New York four-star constellation club). In a quandry, I considered the options (and budget) very carefully and decided to visit the first three (my reviews are fothcoming). Here was my reasoning:
1). I had just read “The Fourth Star” by Leslie Brenner, so Daniel was a must.
2). I love seafood, so Le Bernardin was another must.
3). What to do with spot number 3? I didn’t have much lead time, so getting a reservation at Per Se was out of the question. It came down to Alaine Ducasse or Jean-Georges… two very different creatures with two very different approaches to food (not to mention two very different price tags). However, my decision didn’t come down to cost. I chose Jean-Georges because of his more innovative approach to food. His restaurant seemed to promise more “adventure” than Ducasse’s traditional French cooking.
And so it went. I had a blast. Sated, I left New York not knowing, or indeed caring, what I had missed at the Essex House. By all accounts, Alaine Ducasse was an experience not to be outdone, the pinultimate dining experience in New York, or perhaps the U.S. That may have been, and still might be… but, I’m sure I’ll have my day(s) with Alaine Ducasse. For what it’s worth Alaine, I don’t think less of you for being a star short… look at it this way, you’re still in great, and now more, company!