The New York Times did something uncharacteristic this week putting a story about a New York City restaurant on its front page(!). So what was the big deal? Apparently, a little neighborhood boite in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill had the temerity to knock out some of New York’s finest eating establishments in the most recent Zagat ratings (The Grocery came in 7th overall).
I’d agree that that’s a pretty interesting story, but even more interesting was the utter condescension shown to the Grocery by Florence Fabricant, Zagat Listing Jolted by a Small Brooklyn Spot in her story; and especially by William Grimes in his accompanying food review, On Second Thought: It’s Still Quite Good.
The Grocery’s high rating has set the New York restaurant world (and the chefs at The Grocery) in a tizzy. How could it have the chutzpah to compete head-on with such food lions as Le Bernardin, Bouley, Daniel, etc.? Well, I’ve got news for food snobs like Grimes, sometimes the simplest things trump the most complex.
A gripe I’ve always had with the Zagat guides is that they invariably rank a swank French restaurant as the top establishment in any given city. I challenge you to look at Boston, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, etc. You’ll find one of these French bastions of gastronomitude celebrated with the top, or close to top ranking. I once read an airline magazine article by a former New York Times restaurant critic in which she criticized the snobbishness and Francophile prejudices of the Zagat guides. I couldn’t agree more. There seems to be an innate, inborn prejudice among Zagat reviewers for the French style. Nothing wrong with that style. The French know what they’re doing when it comes to cooking and deserve high marks. But what about the rest of the mere mortal restaurants that don’t aspire to that French food quidditude? Why should they be discounted because of their lack of Frenchness or lack of aspiration to French complexity?
The Grocery is a perfect case in point. Grimes in his annoying review seems to gasp at the sheer effrontery of the Grocery being seen in the same league with darlings like Daniel. It almost offends him so he must twist and turn to explain it to himself: how COULD Zagat rate the Grocery and Daniel in the same breath? They’re trying to do such different things foodwise!! The Grocery has such small ambitions compared to Bouley! Too few reviewers reviewed the Grocery to have a represenative sampling (actually Fabrikant wrote this). Something’s wrong with Zagat’s lack of differentiation among different types of restaurants and their inability to rank like with like, etc. etc.
I have to admit it is a little strange to have a bakery, coffeeshop or casual dining place ranked alongside the city’s finest restaurants (Seattle’s Zagat ranks a bakery among the city’s best eateries). But that’s the way Zagat has set up the rules and until they change them you will continue to have the possibility that the unlike will be mixing it up with each other.
Now, let’s take on Mr. Grimes. How about starting with the condescending title: ‘On Second Thought: It’s Still Quite Good.’ Damning with faint praise aren’t we, Mr. Grimes? After sniffing: “the Grocery has a rating of one star [the horror] from this newspaper,” later, he goes so far as to admit: “For what it is, the Grocery is about as good as it can be.” Even this admission of perfection is marred by the preface: “For what it is…”
Then, Grimes makes a few egregious analogies which I strongly take issue with:
perfection at one culinary level does not compare with perfection at a higher level. Olympic diving might offer the best analogy. A perfect reverse somersault with one turn cannot earn as high a score as a perfect reverse somersault with two and a half turns. By the same token, the perfect three-minute pop song cannot grip the imagination and hold it the way a three-minute polonaise by Chopin can. Subtlety, finesse and refinement deserve a higher score. Art trumps craft. The best bistro in New York should not be considered the equal of a Daniel or a Le Bernardin.
What annoys me so deeply about this paragraph is its sheer wrongheadedness. I know something about music, both popular and classical. While I would acknolwedge that Chopin and a pop song are differerent musical forms attempting to achieve different musical goals, I would NEVER say that Chopin is ‘better’ than a pop song. I certainly would never say that the best pop song ‘cannot grip the imagination and hold it’ the way say, Yesterday can. Grimes clearly doesn’t feel the same deep fondness for popular culture as most of the rest of us do. And that’s OK, no one expects every person in the world to feel the same way about every cultural artifact. But I’d ask Grimes to restrict his reviews to what he knows and not to go too far afield to areas he isn’t comfortable with and doesn’t understand…like casual food and popular culture. The sheer snobbishness and dismissiveness revealed by his review offends deeply.