Reviews Reviewed: the New York Times

First off, I just want to deliver an important message to Oliver Schwaner-Albright, the fellow who wrote the mini-review of Dirt Candy in the New York Times this past Wednesday: you’re not ugly, but you may want to get new friends. Here you are, presumably paying for dinner, and you write in your review that your friend gets a little tipsy on Pete’s Organic beer and turns to you and says, “You don't look so hot.” You can blame the lighting, but Dirt Candy blasts the dining room with amber light so that a) you can see your food and b) you look your best. Hitting someone hard with amber or pink light is known as the “drag queen’s face lift” because the amber gives you a golden glow and the pink gives you a rosy blush both of which remove wrinkles and make you look ten years younger. Plus, I’d say on a scale of 1 to 10 I’d definitely give you at least an 8 and probably a 9, and so I think your dining companion really crossed the line with their comment. It's things like this that cause low self-esteem!

..The New York Times is the Godzilla of restaurant reviewers. Although they don’t wield as much power as they once did, they can drive crowds to a restaurant by giving it stars and  they can drive a chef to despair by taking stars away. In the past, their Dining Briefs were the first, rough assessment of a restaurant before it got its full-length review, an early warning shot fired over the bow that told a place what they were doing right, and what needed to be fixed, before the reviewer weighed in and passed official New York Times Judgment. These days there’s no longer that close connection between the Dining Briefs and the official reviews, but it's still nice to be noticed.

Last week when I found out the Times was going to run a Dining Brief on Dirt Candy I knew in an instant what the review would say: they'd slag on the name, hate the pappardelle and love the portobello mousse. I’m not psychic, but I’m also not stupid and it’s pretty easy to pick up on a theme. One thing that did surprise me, however, is the fact that the Times seems to think it’s competing with the internet and that it needs to review places before they’re ready for the full weight of The Gray Lady to descend upon them. Blogs and food websites have sped up the review process, pressuring big, established players like the Times into jumping the gun with some reviews for fear, I guess, of getting scooped. At the risk of sounding repetitive, I think they really made a mistake by reviewing Shang within two months of its opening. A restaurant that big needs three, four or even six months of service to get the kinks out and really be firing on all cylinders, especially if the reviewer eats there two or three times.

Dirt Candy isn’t in the same class as Shang but I was surprised they were going to write anything on Dirt Candy because about a month ago I got a call from Schwaner-Albright, the writer of this review, and he expressed his dismay that reviews of Dirt Candy were already appearing, especially since we didn't have gas. He said that the Diner's Journal was working on a piece about restaurants being reviewed too early and he wanted to talk to me about this. We chatted pleasantly for a while and when the call ended he said, "We’ve been talking about it and we don’t think you should be reviewed yet." What a difference a few weeks makes! Suddenly last week the photo desk is calling to set up a photo shoot of the restaurant. What is it, I ask, a review? No, no, no. Just "a piece," they tell me mysteriously. Well, sort of a review, they admit. Okay, not really a review but a new thing we do which is, well, it's a piece. Our publicist was able to get in touch with the writer, who emailed back and said, "While I wish the gas was turned on I think it’s time to give our readers some insight into the restaurant: Dirt Candy has been open for over four months, and every time I’ve gone it’s been packed." I guess I can sort of understand his point but I’m not sure what insight this Dining Brief is offering that readers couldn’t find in a dozen other places online. I guess I wish they'd waited and done something more comprehensive and thorough, but then again I also wish I had a million dollars left on my doorstep by a monkey in pajamas every morning, and I don't ever get that either.


"I bring you gold!"

Anyways, the Times sends their photographer who spends two hours getting in our way and snapping pics. "Boy, it sure is crowded in here," she says, stepping in the path of our server for the umpteenth time. "Yes," I said. "It is crowded." Then I give her a withering look, but I think I need to work on my withering looks because she didn't wither. Instead, she just kept on getting in our way. I’ve noticed that Times photographers seem to think that they’re covering a war whenever they go somewhere to take pictures: jumping into the middle of the action and snapping hundreds of pictures. It’s nice they approach their work so seriously but it does seem like something of a wasted effort when you finally see the photograph they used: a single, close-up shot of the portobello mousse that could have been taken at any time when the restaurant wasn’t in service. I guess I could have said "no" to the photographer, but given the number of pictures she took I can only assume that they’re planning on running a story a week about Dirt Candy and who wants to get in the way of that?


Kind of what it was like.

Then the Times went into a tailspin because our pastry chef, Debbie Lee, had left sometime between the last time Schwaner-Albright was here and now. We’re still executing her desserts, but they seemed to think it was a matter of national security. When did she leave? In mid-February but we’re still executing her desserts, I told them. What day did she leave? Exactly, at what moment, to the hour and the minute, did she walk out the door? What happened? We have to know! I’m all for accuracy in journalism, but come on. What part of “Mid-February but we’re still executing her desserts,” is hard to understand? I’m surprised they didn’t send someone to audit our time sheets.As for the content of the review itself? I’ve been around – I’ve been threatened with a suit by Jeffrey Chodorow and I’ve worked for Matthew Kenney in two restaurants and to say he’s not easy to work for is an understatement. In all that time I’ve had to grow a pretty thick skin. I don’t mind if a reviewer hates the food at Dirt Candy or loves the food at Dirt Candy, but all I ask is that they engage with it seriously. Working in restaurants you read the New York Times and, like an actor rehearsing their Oscar acceptance speech in the mirror, you dream of the day when the New York Times will weigh in on your food. Not because you want your ego stroked with empty praise but because reviews are one of the ways you learn about the food you make. A well written review will give you something to take away and think about, or it will give you a new perspective on what you’re doing.The review of Dirt Candy in the Dining Brief kind of left me with nothing. Maybe it’s the short length of the piece, but it didn’t develop or present its ideas in a way I found personally useful. For example, he thinks that using microgreens is “fussy.” I use them for a couple of reasons but, more importantly, I don’t understand his yardstick for “fussy.” If he thinks microgreens are fussy then he should check out a place uptown called Per Se. That’ll drive him bananas.

"Funnily enough, I don't even like


He also seems to really object to the portobello mousse being served in a cube, and I have to agree with him. This is limiting! From now on, diners can pick the geometric form in which they want their mousse to be served and we will comply. Dodecahedrons! Pyramids! Cones! However, no Moebius Strips, please. And we reserve the right to refuse to make any orders for Koch Snowflake-shaped mousses or mousses in any infinitely recursive self-similar set. Here at Dirt Candy, we don't do infinite forms. Just cubes and other basic geometric shapes and volumes.


The future look of the portobello mousse?

(Read the full review-lette)