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The Best of 2011 Thread


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It’s that time of year when critics start posting their “best of...” lists, so I thought I would start a thread for collecting and discussing them. First off is Bloomberg's Ryan Sutton.

 

Like practically everyone who makes such lists (except Wilfrid), Sutton includes restaurants that received their first review in 2011, even if the restaurant opened near the end of 2010. In one case, I think he's cheating (Roberta's), but I think the others are all reasonable candidates, although my list will certainly be a lot different than his.

 

His top 10 in reverse order:

 

10. Empellon

9. Fatty ‘Cue (West Village)

8. Roberta’s

7: La Promenade Des Anglais and Boulud Sud (tie)

6. Brushstroke

5. The Dutch

4. Ciano

3. Kin Shop

2. Ai Fiori

1. Tertulia

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tertulia? You are not qualified to review restaurants if Tertulia came out on top of that list.

Tertulia got a lot of rave reviews. I don't agree with them (it probably won't make my top 10 at all), but it's not a totally crazy result, given all of that critic love.

 

What's problematic, though, is that he gave Tertulia 2½ stars, but he gave Ai Fiori three stars (and the text says Ai Fiori has even improved since then). He also gave Brushstroke three stars, and yet it is only 6th on the list.

 

Call me simple-minded, if you'd like, but in my book three stars is better than 2.5. Unless he gave three stars to any other restaurants this year, it seems to me that by his own reckoning Brushtroke and Ai Fiori should be 1/2 (in some order), and Tertulia can be no higher than third.

 

I think the CW has turned on the Dutch after the PR filled opening. I've seen very little positive coming out of any outlet not pitched by PR folks.

I can't blame him for rating it according to the way he reviewed it, although I thought his initial review (2½ stars) was too high, even when The Dutch was on its best behavior.

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You know what? If you look at the stars the right way -- meaning the way we do (that stars connote levels of luxury and ambition as much as sheer quality)-- a very very good two-star could be better, in your final evaluation, than a middling three-star. Indeed, a very very good two-star could be better than a very (only one "very") good three-star. (This could not, I'd note, be the case with three and four stars.)

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You know what? If you look at the stars the right way -- meaning the way we do (that stars connote levels of luxury and ambition as much as sheer quality)-- a very very good two-star could be better, in your final evaluation, than a middling three-star. Indeed, a very very good two-star could be better than a very (only one "very") good three-star. (This could not, I'd note, be the case with three and four stars.)

Over time, I've come to the conclusion that that approach is far too subtle for the average reader. The commonsense understanding is that three stars are better than two, full stop.

 

This is not to deny that, depending on your mood, budget, time frame, and other factors, you might prefer a particular one- or two-star restaurant on a given day. Most people get that. But if you try to explain to the "average reader" that a very good two-star is sometimes better than a middling three-star, their eyes will glaze over.

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I'm not even sure that The Times agrees with you -- witness all of the places with "ambition and luxury" that clearly were "built for three+ stars," but received fewer than that: The Modern, Gilt, SHO Shaun Hergatt,....

 

I've never heard any critic say that "Foo is better than Bar, but I was required by the system to give Bar the higher rating." Critics DO sometimes add caveats, to explain that their ratings are valid only for diners who would favor a particular kind of experience. Bruni did that at both Le Cirque and Momofuku Ssäm Bar.

 

And no critic can avoid the tyrrany of their own preferences. Bruni clearly preferred Italian cuisine to French, but he was professional enough to call the shots at French restaurants somewhat reasonably, even if, had he been dining on his own dime, he would never have visited them.

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The Times may not agree. But we've all been saying, all this time, that the Times (or rather, individual critics like Bruni) hasn't understood the way the star system works. (Ironically -- Alanis usage -- I think Sifton had a far truer understanding of that than Bruni.)

 

If the star system really is nothing more than a numerical representation of personal preference, then I would call for its elimination even more urgently than I do now, as it would be even more pernicious than the star system as currently understood (by us) in its false presentation of a sense of objectivity and precision.

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Otherwise, what's to stop a critic from giving three stars to The Barroom at The Modern and two to The Modern itself? (I know this actually happened. But NOBODY here thought it was justifiable.)

 

Because you know what? Speaking just for myself, I prefer The Barroom to the dining room as well. But there's no way in hell I would give The Barroom a separate three-star rating -- or only two to the dining room.

 

In an end-of-the-year roundup, however, I could imagine singling out The Barroom over the dining room for praise.

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Otherwise, what's to stop a critic from giving three stars to The Barroom at The Modern and two to The Modern itself? (I know this actually happened. But NOBODY here thought it was justifiable.)

 

Because you know what? Speaking just for myself, I prefer The Barroom as well. But there's no way in hell I would give it a three-star rating -- or only two to the dining room.

 

In an end-of-the-year roundup, however, I could imagine singling out The Barroom over the dining room for praise.

Just to clarify what I meant...as I fear I was misunderstood:

 

I think all of the city's criticseven the utterly incompetent onesrealize that they're professionally obligated to review a wide range of restaurants, including those beyond their own personal preference or comfort zone; and that those restaurants need to get a fair shot, even if the critic himself isn't fond of the genre.

 

The obligation to set one's biases aside can get you only so far, which is why Bruni and Sifton both uncorked a few real howlers, including those mentioned above. But mistakes are mistakes, even without the stars. Would Bruni's Gilt review or Sifton's SHO review be unobjectionable, had it been published without stars? They were both pans of restaurants that deserved better, and although the stars made that clear, you didn't actually need the stars to know that they were wrong.

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I agree with you, of course. But (unlike, apparently, Bruni's) my preference for The Barroom at The Modern over the dining room isn't based on any preference I have for casual dining over formal dining. All things being equal, I prefer formal dining. I just think, in that case, that The Barroom does casual better than the dining room does formal. But what I see as the dining room's minor failings (others like it a lot more than I do, I acknowldge) aren't great enough to deprive it of a three-star rating. Conversely, what I see as The Barroom's complete success isn't enough to catapult it into the higher three-star category.

 

So I prefer The Barroom because I think it does what it sets out to do better than the dining room does what it sets out to do. But the dining room still gets the higher rating -- because of what it's setting out to do (and does).

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