Pete Wells, The New York Times's restaurant critic, played a clever trick on the staff at Daniel, the famed Upper East Side restaurant of master chef Daniel Boulud (who is the subject of a New Yorker profile this week) and one of the few restaurants that has garnered a four-star rating from the Gray Lady. He sent in a decoy to eat at a separate table; because that decoy didn't get the same treats that Wells did, the reviewer took away one of the restaurant's treasured four stars (which had been given by Frank Bruni in 2009, following William Grimes's similar assessment in 2001).
Grub Street offers a summary of the demotion:
Wells received two amuses, it turns out, while his friend only got one. Servers bent over backward to top off his wine and bring him napkin-covered finger bowls of lemon-scented water to rinse away any lingering traces of frog's-leg lollipops, but his buddy received no such perk.
Restaurants love their New York Times stars the same way Anne Hathaway loves her Oscar. Now, imagine ripping that award away from Anne's bony fingers. In other words, this is a big loss. Taking away Daniel's star, as Grub Street points out, also means there are now only five four-star restaurants left in a city bloated with restaurants. And the reason he did it is, well, because of you, or umm, us. See, The Times was speaking up for the plebes, the ordinary Joes willing to plunk down $195 for six courses.
The review is still glowing. Wells certainly loves the atmosphere of the place, writing that "certain restaurants, if you can afford them, can knock down the barriers between you and happiness for a few hours." And the food, as prepared by executive chef Jean François Bruel, reportedly remains stellar (we wouldn't know):
I have never tasted more calmly flavorful veal tenderloin, or fresher and more gently handled swordfish, or a more skillfully roasted breast of guinea hen.
Certainly, this is nothing like Wells' famous pan of Guy Fieri's American Kitchen. But people are nevertheless treating the twist of having a decoy eat alongside Wells as a gentle indictment of Daniel's treatment of its guests:
Our meals were virtually identical. Our experiences were not.
The kitchen sent two amuse courses to my table. His got one. A few remaining sips of my wine, ordered by the glass, were topped off. His glass sat empty at times while he waited to be offered another.
Yes, the staff at Daniel (and the employees at many Manhattan restaurants, for that matter) know what Wells looks like (and if you clicked on that link, now you do, too). You can't really blame Daniel's staff for wanting to show the chief restaurant critic of the nation's most influential dining section their best.
Maybe the whole issue could have been avoided but for the lemon-scented finger water bowl of inequality:
We both ate extraordinary fried lollipops of filleted frogs’ legs on a long stick of bone, but only I was then brought a napkin-covered bowl of rosemary- and lemon-scented water for rinsing my fingers.
People are already applauding Wells's move, not only for (kind of) sticking it to the man on behalf of the little guy, but also for revealing the truth that critics get special treatment, which in turn probably skews the reviews they end up writing.
Eater has a good recap of food critics' various strategies, including disguises, to skirt such special treatment. It also notes that, on the whole, Wells hearts Daniel:
But Wells found much to praise about the New York City institution, noting that Daniel has "the finest French beef stew in existence" and "exuberant" desserts
Really, you have to also remember that a three-star Times rating, which Daniel ultimately received, is still better than that of 99.99 percent of restaurants in the city. Many chefs would break their own jaws for a positive Times review. Daniel Boulud, meanwhile, can probably afford to train his servers to be a little more solicitous.
Photo by ZagatBuzz via Flickr.