Eating After the New York Times


Photo by jules:stonesoup/Flickr CC

On the week after I stopped visiting restaurants for the sake of reviews, I had roast chicken four nights in a row.

I had it on the first of those nights, at Vinegar Hill House in Brooklyn, because it was the most straightforward of the half dozen entrees, because the price was right, and because it seemed to me that both of those attributes made it the perfect pivot away from five and a half years of approaching dinners out in a much more intricate and grandiose fashion.

I had it on the second of those nights, at the restaurant Flatbush Farm in Brooklyn, because I could do that now: eat a great many bites of one kind of thing rather than a few bites of a great many things. When I'd been a restaurant critic, variety was obligatory, and I'd dined in groups of four so that we could order four different entrees, four different appetizers and four different desserts, each sampled rather than devoured. I'd too seldom dwelled on one dish. But now, fresh out of the job, I decided to do some dwelling.

It's clear to me, just a month since I published my last review as the New York Times restaurant critic, that the job will shadow me--and, in particular, the way I eat--for a while.

And so, on the third night, at the Half King in Manhattan, it was roast chicken once more. This was the most economical and least satisfying of the roast chickens to this point, but I relished it as much as the others, because it was only with this chicken that my experiment in newly monochromatic dining began to take on a satisfying perversity. Two consecutive nights of roasted chicken can be chalked up to a fluke. Three nights has meaning.

And four nights has even more. The climax of my poultry pageant was home delivery, from Chirping Chicken, a small, humble Manhattan chain whose birds deserve a slightly better reputation than they have. Chirping's Buffalo wings are a disappointment, and their ribs unremarkable. But their chickens have glistening, lavishly seasoned skin and tender flesh. I ordered a half bird. And while some out there might deem that a rut, it felt to me like a rebellion--and a happy one at that.

It's clear to me, just a month since I published my last review as the New York Times restaurant critic, that the job will shadow me--and, in particular, the way I eat--for a while.

I get asked frequently about that: about whether I approach meals differently as a result of my tenure. Do I have changed tastes? More exacting standards? Am I still drawn to restaurants--still in love with them? Has my yearning for food intensified or lessened? How much am I eating?

The last question stems in part from the recent publication of a book, Born Round, in which I document my funny, painful mishaps with food and my funny, painful struggle to develop a healthier, steadier approach to eating.

In Born Round I describe the job of restaurant critic as a sort of structure that actually served me well, stabilizing the rhythms of my eating, steering me clear of the feast-famine, binge-purge cycles that were a problem for me in the past. So a few of the people who've read the book or interviewed me about it want to know if the dismantling of that structure has left me unhinged.

Not so far. But I'm encountering other oddities that arise from my five-plus years as restaurant critic, oddities in both my own behavior and that of the people with whom I eat.

The chicken-palooza was one example, short-lived. In its wake I've noticed that I want to cook more than I ever did in the past, and on the few occasions over the last few weeks when I've been with friends and cooking was called for, I've found myself volunteering. I've also found myself fretting, fussing, wanting the basil-and-pine-nut pesto to be absolutely perfect, sweating the choice of cheese for grilled burgers that were meant to be a dinner requiring minimal thought and work.

Gruyere? Cheddar? I considered and dismissed both, going instead with Emmenthaler and blue. It was crucial to me that I give my three dinner companions a choice, and as I later pondered why, I realized it might be because I thought I had to live up to something, though I'm not entirely sure what.

In a good way, in a sometimes exhausting way, I'm less casual about food. By that I don't mean that I devise or seek out fancy meals, from which I find myself in a sort of retreat. There was a surfeit of fancy meals in the critic days. They'll hold me for a while.

I mean that I give more thought to meals. I'm more reflective about them. It's a sort of habit instilled by the job. It's a legacy of all that mental note-taking. With my eating these days, little is spontaneous and nothing's accidental--not the chicken, not the cheese.

On a flight from New York to Seattle, I immediately notice the chef Todd English's imprimatur on some of the Delta cuisine, and in my head I'm grading him on, and admonishing him for, the "grilled chicken gyro in pita" that I decide to try. It's much heavier on the Romaine and diced cucumbers than on the grilled chicken, and the pita pocket is stuffed so full that there's no way to get the "tsatsiki sauce" on the side into it at this point. The sauce should already be in the sandwich.

The whole production is messy, and then it unravels entirely, the too-thin, too-floppy bread crumbling. Without meaning to, I keep a catalogue of the sandwich's shortcomings, a running commentary, and minutes go by before I realize that I have the option of pulling the plug on it.

At the Seattle airport, the woman picking me up has an apple waiting for me on the dashboard of her car. It's a honey crisp, one of her favorite kinds of apple, plucked from the farmers market that morning, and she wants my assessment of it. I'm tickled. I'm touched.

But I postpone a taste of it--I assure her I'll try it later on--because I'm not hungry right then and because, well, I'm trying to segue from all the opining, to turn some of it off and tone some of it down. How quickly and deftly can I do that?

Before my head hits the pillow that night, I notice the apple on my nightstand and take a bite. It has a jolting tartness and a crispness all its own. Wow. I take a second bite. And before I take a third, I start thinking about seeing the woman in the morning, and about how I can't wait to report back on this fantastic piece of fruit.