Frank Bruni, the Times’ new restaurant critic who took over from the ur condescending William Grimes, is attempting to outdue Grimes’ noblesse oblige. He has written an odd review of the Duane Park Cafe (The Old Kid on the Block) that is alternately effusive and damning with minute praise. Here’s his opening sentence:
I pity the Duane Park Café, but I respect it. I fear for it, but I root for it, this solid supporting player in the company of so many actual and aspirant stars, this earnest tradesman in the proximity of so many self-conscious, self-aggrandizing artists.
OK, Frank what is it–did you like it, did you hate it? A little bit of both seems to be his answer.
Facade of Duane Park Cafe
(credit: Alex Di Suvero for NY Times)
But it’s his reasons for hating the Cafe that really irk me. He compares it to its celebrity culinary neighbors like Bouley, Danube and Nobu and seems to find it wanting because it isn’t them. Well, of course it isn’t aspiring to be at the culinary apex of New York food culture. It is aspiring (& succeeding admirably) at being a fine neighborhood bistro serving thoughtful, inventive and delectable food. My wife and I have eaten there twice on separate trips to New York and were pleased each time. Here’s what I wrote about it in one of my posts: “Duane Park is especially lovely with a quiet, elegant, but informal atmosphere and wonderfully inventive, fresh food.” All I can say, Frank is…nyah, nyah, nyah! You really missed the boat on this review.
Listen to some more of Bruni’s tortured rhetoric:
I returned to Duane Park for an additional reason. At some point during my first visit – perhaps when my fork slid through a beautifully grilled fillet of John Dory with fennel and blood orange, or when my spoon sank into an immensely appealing chocolate and banana brioche pudding with cranberries – it occurred to me that there was a moral and a message in the relative anonymity of this restaurant. That the way it fades into the woodwork of New York was illustrative and instructive.
Duane Park speaks to what a surfeit of options for sophisticated dining we New Yorkers enjoy. It tells us this precisely because it makes such a small impression.
It serves pheasant breast and venison osso buco, and yet it would be aptly characterized as an unpretentious neighborhood bistro. It does a terrific job with sautéed Chilean sea bass, which comes with a celery and verjus reduction, and with roasted rack of lamb, which is embellished with blueberries and pickled walnuts, and yet it enjoys only run-of-the-mill regard.
In many other American cities, Duane Park would probably create a fair degree of notice and lay claim to being one of the more interesting restaurants in its neighborhood. In New York City it’s pretty much an afterthought.
So, Duane Park is a failure in Bruni’s book because it does not aspire to greatness, and instead aspires to present really good food in a plain, warm wholesome (but not glittery) setting. So what’s the crime here? To be good and successful does every restaurant have to be a Bouley?
I don’t care whether Frank Bruni thinks that Duane Park “makes such a small impression” or “enjoys run of the mill regard.” By me, it’s one of my favorite Tribeca restaurants and in part that’s because it doesn’t pull out all the stops like its more august neighbors.
Bruni criticizes the restaurant because “its dining room feels boxy and banal” and “a slightly downbeat visual spirit persists.” Take a look at the picture accompanying this paragraph and tell me whether you agree. I don’t expect extraordinary elegance from a bistro dining area. I expect a nice, cozy informal setting and that’s what Duane Park’s room delivers.
This critic seems utterly conflicted in writing the review. He knows there’s something good about the place and at the same time he feels that ultimately it’s a failure. There is something of this confusion in his closing paragraph, which in any other review would constitute high praise:
The food at Duane Park often reflects pride, care and a commitment to fresh and very fine ingredients, qualities that were evident both in the rich, dark ribbons of air-cured duck breast in an arugula salad that I sampled and in the moistness and delicacy of a semolina-crusted halibut that I tried.
I do agree with a portion of the following statement: “In many other American cities, Duane Park would probably create a fair degree of notice and lay claim to being one of the more interesting restaurants in its neighborhood. In New York City it’s pretty much an afterthought.” In Seattle, where I live (after living and eating in New York CIty and its suburbs for many years) Duane Park would be one of the more interesting restaurants in the entire city (not just its neighborhood). And in New York City, it is a fine participant in the dining culture–and only an afterthought in Frank Bruni’s hoity-toity dining universe.
Don’t listen to Frank’s dismissal. Duane Park is worth a visit and I think you’ll like it far more than he did.
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