How Was The, Ummmm, Food, Frank?

When one reads a book review, one hopes for a review of the book. When one reads a film review, one hopes for a review of the film. Likewise, when one reads a restaurant review, one hopes for a review of the restaurant.

Not so with Frank Bruni’s review of heavily hyped downtown hotspot La Esquina in today’s New York Times.

In a 25-paragraph piece, Bruni muses for the first 15 paragraphs on the exclusivity of said restaurant and his guest’s inability to make it past the hostess, and, of course, throws in a gratuitous cocaine simile:

The hostess claimed not to have any record of our reservation.

“She wouldn’t let the guy ahead of me in either,” my friend reported. “We both stood there pleading.”

Finally, my friend said, a manager intervened, recognizing her as the straggler in a group already seated and green-lighting her chutes-and-ladders passage down a harshly lighted staircase, along a corridor with kitchen supplies, through the kitchen itself, and into the contrived darkness of the vault where we waited.

I asked her if she was miffed.

She gave me the derisive, pitying look that a sane person gives a lunatic.

“The harder it is to get in, the more fun it is to be in,” she said, articulating a maxim of Manhattan night life and a guiding principle of La Esquina, which is sort of like Studio 54 with chipotle instead of cocaine. “I’m already in love with this place.”

Bruni doesn’t mention actual food until the 16th paragraph, where he writes almost tenderly of the kitchen’s light touch — the “fine corn tortillas,” the “fine flour tortillas,” the blessed lack of “eddies of guacamole.”

Is this the sort of stuff that the Times thinks its readers are clamoring for — an ersatz Gawker-cum-People magazine review of a restaurant that has already been mentioned at least twice in the Times within the last two weeks?

We think not.

Bruni has done this before, and his reviews illustrate a problem particular to restaurant reviews on the Internet — the lack of a counterbalance. The Times’ review of a restaurant is the bellwether in New York, and arguably the U.S., and unlike book, music, and movie reviews, there has been no real democratizing force from the ‘net. There exists no reader review system for restaurants, no Pitchfork, which can make up for a bad (or badly written) review from the Times. While there are gourmand Web sites like eGullet and ChowHound where readers post their own reviews (and opine on those of others), they simply don’t have the cachet or the oomph necessary to provide a counterweight to Bruni at his most vacuous.

It is for precisely this reason that one longs for Bruni to focus on what makes a restaurant a restaurant — the food, the presentation, the service — and leave the star-gazing to others.

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Bill McDermott was CJR’s Webmaster.