Thursday, August 20, 2009

I come not to praise Frank Bruni...

So Frank Bruni has ended his five year reign having the greatest job in the world (NY Times food critic).

I say farewell with mixed emotions.

Regular readers of this blog know that I have taken Bruni to task on some of his sillier opinions -- but I get the feeling that anyone in that chair would have gotten similarly hazed by the likes of me.

My primary objection to Bruni was the fact that he didn't seem to know a great deal about food. He's now giving the various exit interviews (to promote his new book, Born Round) and in one of them he said that he does not cook -- which kind of astounded me.

What kind of food writer doesn't cook?

Not that you need cooking skills to say whether you like a dish or dislike it. But getting to the heart of how a piece of meat is cooked, rested, seasoned, etc., is, uh, a big part of the job.

You want an educated palate. Someone who can see what a chef's intentions were and where they succeeded or went awry. Not some shmuck who just walked in off the street.

My godfather, for example is the former Daily News restaurant critic and host of Food Talk on WOR, Arthur Schwartz, who is the author of numerous cooking books. He is also a wonderful chef, who runs a cooking school in Italy. (Which my readers know I attended last year.)

Before he was a writer about food, Arthur wanted to become a veterinarian. He studied agriculture and animals and spent time on farms. He was cooking since he was a child. He knew the entire trajectory of how a piece of food came from the ground and onto one's plate very intimately.

Now, while I wouldn't say that Frank Bruni is some shmuck who just walked in off the street, he really isn't in the same league as someone like Arthur.

Also, there was a sort of erratic quality to how he judged a restaurant.

My editor and I were talking last night about his review of Anthos, which he appeared to flip out over -- throwing around words like "inspried" and "intoxicating" -- which he decided to award a grand total of... two stars to.

Huh? Shouldn't it have gotten more?

In any event, those were my objections to Bruni.

On the other hand, an uneducated palate is not necessarily a bad palate. Most of the places he flipped out over that I tried were, indeed, excellent. (Not that I can afford most of the restaurants he dined at.)

Nor was Bruni a bad writer -- on the contrary, he is actually a good writer.
(Better than most food critics -- which, I suspect, is how he came to land the job.) A look at, say, his last article for the section -- which was about the people he took to dinner with him over the years and how they ate -- was very good. (And I really loved his review of Robert's Steak House a few years back.)

And I think he was right to give a few spankings to certain restaurants that were resting on their laurels.

But the most memorable thing about Frank Bruni were the out-and-out mean reviews. I'm thinking specifically of Ago and Kobe Club. These were delightful, inspired pieces of writing -- even if they helped kill both restaurants. But Bruni was within his rights. Diners should be protected, and he fought the good fight for them.

Overall, as a critic, I give him two stars.