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VOL. 126 | NO. 177 | Monday, September 12, 2011

Food Critics Contrast Old vs. New School

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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Every realm of human endeavor is subject to controversy and scandal, from politics, history and religion to sports, the arts, love and marriage, and just about any other effort, belief or philosophy that bears influence on our hearts and minds. How would newspapers and magazines, television and the Internet function without the constant fuel provided by the controversies and scandals that seem to engulf global culture?


The fairly circumscribed world of restaurants and restaurant reviewing is no different, though perhaps not commanding as much of the world’s fanatical attention as the death of Amy Winehouse or the dismissal of sexual assault charges against Dominic Strauss-Kahn.

Still, the invective that chef, author, extreme diner and television personality Anthony Bourdain and chef, author, diva of Southern cooking and television personality Paula Deen have been flinging at each other recently musters some power to amuse and appall. More interesting, however, and probably more important ultimately, is the contention surrounding the negative review by Alan Richman, longtime restaurant writer for GQ, of a briefly and giddily famous establishment in Queens called M. Wells.

M. Wells opened in a refurbished Art Deco-style diner in Long Island City, Queens – which to most New Yorkers might as well be Mogadishu – in the summer of 2010, brainchild of Canadian chef Hugue Dufour and his American wife Sarah Obraitis. Sam Sifton, restaurant reviewer for The New York Times and arguably the most important arbiter of dining out in the country, reviewed M. Wells on April 5 and, not to be excessive about it, went bananas. On the newspaper’s blog, Sifton called M. Wells “remarkable” and placed it, on the culinary map, “right at the intersection of hippie idealism and punk-rock cool – with excellent food.” He celebrated the restaurant’s spontaneity and over-the-top qualities, describing, for example, the meat loaf for four, served with stroganoff gravy, spaetzle and foie gras as “a ridiculous dish – a perfect meal.”

Alas, after such acclaim – and the review itself was controversial in food and restaurant blogging circles – Dufour and Obraitis announced two months ago that they were forced to close M. Wells because of a rent dispute with their landlord and that they would hold a series of farewell dinners before shuttering the place at the end of August.

Into this situation steps Richman, winner of 14 James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards and a writer himself not unstained by controversy; Bourdain called him “a douchebag.”

Richman and his companions dined at M. Wells three times, His review of the now-closed restaurant ran in GQ’s September issue. He found much to praise about the food though was critical of details, felt ambiguous about the atmosphere and completely deplored the service.

“Obraitis,” Richman wrote, “ … runs the front of the house with considerable charm and little attention to detail. Or maybe the chipped plates, distracted staff, and badly washed glasses are intended to enhance an unceremonious ambience.” He goes on to say that particularly on the disastrous third visit the service was “dreadful.”

Richman spends a few sentences deploring the “hipster mentality” of uber-popular restaurants in New York and the fact that diners have enabled a sense of informality so complete as to seem crude yet somehow tolerable.

“Critics like me,” he says, “deserve some blame for the current proliferation of impossibly low service standards in so many casual New York restaurants. We tend not to censure lackadaisical conduct, thinking this is what customers want and that we would appear out of touch if we disapproved. … I wish I had never been so forgiving in my reviews ... I should long ago have paid attention to this disastrous decline in service. Casualness in restaurants does not automatically make customers feel more relaxed. It often has the opposite effect.”

Now we arrive at the point that really interests me, because it turns out that precisely the elements that Richman denounces at M. Wells are the qualities that endeared the place to Sam Sifton.

In Sifton’s valedictory story, which ran in the Times on Aug. 17, he writes: “Always the meals were chaotic, undisciplined affairs – wildly delicious if sometimes roughly served.” The single-course “over-the-top” meal served on his last visit he calls “a little messy and totally exciting.” He looks forward to “a great deal of fun” when Dufour and Obraitis open a new restaurant “devoted to the same hapless, occasionally reckless energy of their first.”

Notice that Sifton speaks of the chaos and lack of discipline, the rough service, the mess, the haplessness and recklessness, as well as the excitement and wild deliciousness, as if they were the restaurant’s chief virtues.

Sifton was born in 1966, about the same time that Richman was earning a Bronze Star in the Vietnam War. Of all the restaurant reviewers for the New York Times that I have followed avidly over 25 years – including Bryan Miller, Ruth Reichl, William Grimes and Frank Bruni – Sifton is the one who most emphatically connects the establishments he reviews to the larger milieu not only of New York’s cultural and social contexts but to the national scene. He fills his reviews with references both broad and insidery to movies, rock groups, television programs and celebrities; his praise and sense of detail can be lavish, dreamy and highly personal, though as generous as he is with tribute, he is rightly stingy with his star ratings.

Is Richman a hopeless old fuddy-duddy, stranded in a staid and passé world of dining formality? Is Sifton a harbinger and advocate of a new age of hipsterism and eclecticism, of insouciant casualness and kiss my foie gras attitude?

I will have much more to say about these issues next week.

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