Overrated?

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2003/12/05 10:35:03 (permalink)

Overrated?

Not Roadfood, for the most part, but this article from the Wall Street Journal certainly references a few places that have been discussed here....


The Overrated Restaurant
By RAYMOND SOKOLOV
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL


Bastide is the hottest new place to eat in Los Angeles, and the buzz in foodie circles is deafening. Booking a table there took long-distance calls, waits, epic negotiations and finally a faxed contract -- requiring not only our credit-card number but our consent to surrender $100 for each no-show in our party.

Our French hosts have a word for the three-course set dinner that followed: le letdown. We could have eaten as well staying home on the other side of the country, without having to take our shoes off at airport security.

Caveat Foodie: We live in a world in which overrating restaurants is as rife as grade inflation in the Ivy League, thanks to what seems like a conspiracy of food writers and gourmets who hype by reflex. Like turf writers who are in the business of picking winning horses, food guides call what they think are the good bets -- and don't waste time on the also-rans. Think about it: When was the last time you read a negative restaurant review in a magazine or a book? And it's no small matter. For those of you not on the brink of marriage or buying a house, picking a restaurant is probably the most expensive decision you'll make this week -- and the gastronomic equivalent of an inflated "A" can lead you astray by hundreds of dollars.


I should know. I just wore the metallic strip off my credit cards crisscrossing the country twice, from New York and Florida to Nevada and Texas, compiling my collection of America's 10 most overrated restaurants. (And in the spirit of fairness, I also went hunting for 10 underrated restaurants). These aren't greasy spoons with repulsive, health-endangering food. They're the spots that get the ink and the encomia in the likes of Zagat, Esquire and Gourmet -- but somehow fail to live up to their hype. To narrow down my (admittedly subjective) list, I called on years of experience as a food writer that's taken me to hundreds of highly rated temples, as well as whispered tips from foodie friends around the country.

High ratings are often deserved, of course, and I've found plenty of haunts that can justify their hype -- like the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., and Arun's, where you get Chicago and the nation's best Thai meal, and Il Cenacolo, in Newburgh, N.Y., for its top Tuscan dishes and wines that make the Hudson seem like the Arno. But I've also found that five-star ambrosia isn't always what it's cracked up to be. Take Alice Waters's storied Chez Panisse, where New American cuisine got its start: It's a fine place, yes, but it's been wildly hyped by itself and others, and now there are dozens of restaurants that beat it at its own game.


Emeril's, New Orleans, La.
The hyping of restaurants isn't part of a deep, dark scheme. Big slick food magazines aren't normally in the business of knocking restaurants off pedestals, after all. Word of mouth is well-meaning, too, but even more unreliable: If everyone you know tells you about the best restaurant in town, you're likely to go there -- and keep on repeating the word "best" -- even though a little voice kept telling you "not best." In many cases, this chorus of euphoria adds up to a conspiracy of benevolence: New York's departed Coach House, a favorite of food luminary James Beard and now the site of Mario Batali's own much-hyped Babbo, remained popular for years after it ceased to be fabulous. Perhaps because no one had the heart -- or the pugnacity -- to speak ill of a beloved shrine.

But we do. Below, our first annual Your Tummy Matters, with 10 places that -- in our opinion, of course -- didn't cut the mustard of their fame:

Norman's, Coral Gables, Fla.
The Rep: American and Caribbean traditions, creatively interpreted
Our Take: A hodgepodge of ideas and ingredients

When I stopped at a gritty gas station in Miami's Little Havana and recited an address, the men there knew instantly I was going to Norman's. Norman Van Aken is a star in these parts -- just ask him. Still and video images of Norman fill the restaurant's Web site, Norman is immortalized in a life-size painting in his eponymous restaurant, and he is the fulsome chronicler of his own dishes. During a "recent spate of interviews," he wrote in October's menu, he had recalled to journalists how he had hitchhiked to Key West many years ago -- and so he was inspired to devote the month's tasting menu to that other creative wanderer, Jack Kerouac.

The Kerouac menu -- $85 for five mini-courses, plus $55 for matching wine flight -- bore the unmistakable stamp of Norman's febrile genius. The North Beach Cioppino was a perfect distillation of the San Francisco tomato-and-fish soup -- except for the addition of a generous dollop of sea urchin roe, whose powerful flavor made you wish it had been saved for another occasion. (Norman's, like most restaurants on our tour, said afterward it was sorry to hear the meal didn't meet expectations.) Lest you think such a dish was atypical, Norman's regular menu includes the Mexican classic, Veracruz red snapper -- Normanized with oyster mushrooms, mustard gnocchi and huitlacoche sabayon. I was not able to taste this improvisation. Perhaps next time. As Jack Kerouac puts it on the menu: "...we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies."

Chez Panisse, Berkeley, Calif.
The Rep: The Vatican of New American cuisine
Our Take: A dinner party thrown by aging hippies with a really great vegetable garden

The first thing that struck us as we revisited Chez Panisse is how dated it seems now. Back in 1971, this was a revolutionary outpost of French cuisine in Le Far West. Founder Alice Waters soon brought in influential chef Jeremiah Tower (author of the gossipy "California Dish"), and mixed French tradition with American ingredients, specializing in local, often very small vegetables. Chez Panisse deservedly won hearts and palates, and by the late '70s excellent clones around America were fetishizing fingerling potatoes and chipotle mayonnaise.

By now, Alice Waters is no longer the mother of modern American cooking, but its grandmother. And our meal was great but no longer edgy. (Ms. Waters, for her part, says her restaurant is still one of few with a commitment to sustainably farmed foods.) The set menu began with a farmer's market beet salad, the essence of garden and season. Sea scallops with a saffron risotto exemplified the rich strength of slow-cooked, small-grain rice. Grilled rack of lamb showed the virtues of grass-fed, free-range livestock. The message was clear, but it is a message that has been received and acted on elsewhere. If you're going to Berkeley, speed-dial a month ahead for booking. If not, look closer to home.

Emeril's, New Orleans
The Rep: TV star takes Cajun/Creole cuisine national
Our Take: Better versions a short paddle away

Because I watch only reruns of "Law and Order," I have never seen Emeril Lagasse on TV. This, I feel, places me in a vanishingly small minority. Clearly, the ubiquitous Mr. Lagasse has millions of admirers who'll flock to the growing network of restaurants he is opening in every middlesex, hamlet and town. I limited myself to visiting the grand and spectacularly well-run mother church of Emerilism, in New Orleans's gentrifying warehouse district.

There's no reason in the world why Emeril, the Julia Child of Cajun, should limit himself to authentic renditions of hometown bayou dishes. But when he starts serving hybrids (foie gras compound butter, Creole calamari) on the same menu as a hyper-Cajun pecan-crusted redfish, he has vaulted himself into a limbo where he is neither catfish nor guinea fowl. Is Emeril's a great Cajun/Creole restaurant? Not if you compare its gentrified no-okra gumbo to the real thing in the rest of the Big Muddy. By the same token, his French-Creole inventions don't stack up to real French food -- available in fine fettle at nearby Peristyle.

Restaurant 66, New York
The Rep: Chinese cuisine rethought by a French genius
Our Take: Pale classics presented chicly by overextended cook-entrepreneur

Much about this new Tribeca dim sum palace seems calculated to mislead. We imagined the name meant this was the 66th restaurant to spring, fully formed, from the head of the gifted Jean-Georges Vongerichten. No: It actually refers to the side entrance on 66 Leonard St. We also hoped the giant fish tanks that separate the dining area from the kitchen signaled that their gorgeous salt-water inhabitants were there, as they would in a real Chinese restaurant, to be eaten. Dashed again.

Instead, the kitchen turns out pallid if artfully plated versions of such Chinese classics as Peking duck, scallion pancakes and egg roll. It's the glam presentation -- lotus-seed crust on fried crab -- that separates these pricey nibbles ($4.50 to $14.50 per dish) from the classics you'd find in Chinatown just a stroll away.

Peter Luger Steak House, New York
The Rep: America's best steak
Our Take: Brooklyn's best steak
Peter Luger Steak House is in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, meaning many diners arrive there after a long cab ride from Manhattan -- unless you happen to live in this Hasidic neighborhood and don't mind splurging on non-kosher meat. Securing dinner here also requires the patience to make advance reservations, a tolerance for unreconstructed German saloons with charmless waiters, and the fortitude to overcome your fears of youthful neighborhood predators who must know that well-heeled carnivores are afoot in their turf. (You will be carrying cash; Luger's doesn't accept major credit cards.)

Why do reasonable people go through this exercise in masochism? Red meat must be earned -- and, yes, Peter Luger serves an impeccably broiled porterhouse (à la carte steak for two costs $71.90.) But so do many other steak temples. As an anti-Luger choice, we recommend midtown Manhattan's steakly optimal Sparks, which has a remarkable wine list -- and won't sniff at your plastic.

Bastide, Los Angeles
The Rep: Best high-end food in L.A.
Our Take: Best high-end food in L.A. -- but sadly, it can't match other cities' top spots

There are plenty of great restaurants in West Hollywood, but few require that you cleave to them heart and wallet before eating even a morsel of amuse-bouche. Phoning in recently, there was a wait (recorded French voice read us a menu of options, none of which is to book a table), a pop quiz (are you familiar with our prix fixe menus?) and a recitation of regulations (valet parking, yes; corkage, no), plus a few more hours spent locating a fax-endowed friend to return our contract to dine.

When we finally appeared beneath the spreading olive trees in Bastide's outdoor dining area, we chose the seasonal fig menu, an olio of dishes that included opulent, local black figs. Our tablemates chose the equally yummy traditional menu, and all the dishes showed the imaginative gifts of chef Alain Giraud. Service was much more relaxed than the reservation policy presaged, and, all in all, we could see why Bastide is on every feinschmecker's lips. On the other hand, if Bastide really is L.A.'s best restaurant, we think there must be room in town for a truly top-flight place. Especially considering the cost -- with wine, we paid about $120 per person -- Bastide won't bowl over people from New York, Chicago or San Francisco.

The Ivy, Los Angeles
The Rep: Hollywood's foremost place to do lunch and see stars
Our Take: A self-consciously unglittery place with decent but unremarkable food

The Ivy is Tinseltown's place for filmland biggies to be seen or for the rest of us to see them: After Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez called off their wedding, they put on a happy face by fetching up here for a meal. Still, this is a homey place -- with a white picket fence outside and old-fashioned English ceramics within. Add the odd cinemogul (New Line Cinema's HQ is across the street) rumored to relax here in a natural, deliberately fuddyduddy habitat, and you've got a recipe for selling lots of crab cakes.

But I don't kid myself that The Ivy is any more than a friendly hangout with a diverse menu of moderately interesting food. From the tangy Cajun Bloody Mary ($11.75) to the tart Tatin ($10.75), there were no disappointments, but also nothing creative or flashy. And on the night we visited, there were no recognizable glitterati, and no one who even looked like a starlet -- except for my own companion, Thisbe Fishchurch.

Le Cirque, Las Vegas

The Rep: Fancy dining comes to Vegas
Our Take: An overpriced road show

Get me the Nevada Gaming Commission -- someone's inflating the odds. In an effort to raise the fine-dining bar in Sin City, the big names in fine dining have opened outposts here, and restaurant-guide Zagat is on the scene to provide some superlative handicapping. There's Emeril's in the MGM Grand ("absolutely fabulous"), Jean-Georges' Prime steakhouse in the Bellagio ("transcendent," with a stratospheric food rating of 27 out of 30), and Nobu at the Hard Rock Hotel (another 27).

Zagat, of course, says its ratings are entirely the opinion of diners who participate in its public survey. So when these gamblers and their dining companions duly report that Le Cirque is "as good as the NYC original," I have to wonder. The 27-rated food isn't as good as the 25-rated fare at the New York original, and in the Big Apple, I doubt founder Sirio Maccioni would allow his sweetbreads and veal cheeks to flounder in a sea of mashed potatoes, as they did here. ("We do our best," Mr. Maccioni later told us.) So instead, I'm lining up for the Bellagio's sprawling all-you-can-eat buffet for only $15.95, with exemplary cold shrimp, superb soy-marinated steak -- and a Zagat rating of 25.

The Mansion on Turtle Creek, Dallas
The Rep: Grand dining in a great house
Our Take: Painful and pricey attempt to make a dowager hip again

The Mansion is as grand as it gets in Dallas -- a cotton tycoon's neo-Renaissance home turned posh hostelry. The dining room couldn't be cushier, and its chefs have clearly whipped themselves into an Emerilistic frenzy dressing up down-home Texas foods. Call it grandson of Alice Waters gone hog wild: They propose you fill your feedbag with Chilean sea bass accompanied by Pueblo corn crust on crabmeat white cheddar hash and "ranchero" tangerine sauce ($40). Or Southern chicken fried lobster on bourbon sweet corn and barbecue broiled on Yukon Garlic mashed potatoes with country braised green beans ($55). We got mental indigestion just reading the menu.

We'd rather drive the short distance to Fort Worth's Museum of Modern Art, where the Café Modern serves a more elegant, and simpler, take on dressed-up Texan -- like a grilled sausage sampler (apple smoked duck, venison and chipotle buffalo) with mango mustard sauce, grilled onions and potato rolls, for $7. Oh, and their fake lake out front is prettier than Dallas's real creek.

Joe's Stone Crab, Miami
The Rep: An endless wait for the best stone crab in creation
Our Take: A stone crab is a stone crab is a stone crab

Joe's is a Miami Beach monument, and a tropical ghetto success: Owner Joe Weiss discovered the virtue of cold local crab, and set up shop on the southern tip of the island in 1913, when Miami Beach's original developer wouldn't let Jews above 5th Street. Now, Joe's sells 500,000 pounds of stone crab from mid-October to mid-May, with 1,000 patrons a day braving waits of up to two hours for a table in this sprawling, informal space.

By the time Thisbe Fishchurch and I had emerged from the fray, we were sated with jumbo and medium (Joespeak for small) crab claws of equal tenderness and savor, the canonical mustard sauce, creamed spinach, crisp if underseasoned fried chicken, Key lime pie and a wonderful apple pie. The valet parkers were at full tilt. I loved my dinner at Joe's. So why do I say it is overrated? Because its legend is an example of popular delusion and the madness of crowds. I am reliably informed that Joe's doesn't actually cook its crabs on the premises -- fishermen supply them precooked to Joe's and other restaurants. (Joe's later confirmed this for us.) So you don't have to eat at Joe's to eat at Joe's. But you will want to anyway: The stone crabs at the Miami Airport hotel may be indistinguishable from the ones at Joe's... but where would you rather be?

Updated December 5, 2003

#1

12 Replies Related Threads

    CheeseWit
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    RE: Overrated? 2003/12/05 10:55:22 (permalink)
    I read the article in today's WSJ. For the most part, I agreed with the viewpoints of the reporter. The reputations of restaurants live and die on word-of-mouth and sometimes that reputation is based on observations made years earlier and the word of mouth that is spread is outdated.
    #2
    1bbqboy
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    RE: Overrated? 2003/12/05 11:37:58 (permalink)
    where's the underrated list? I would be more interested in it, as "our"
    type of cuisine might rate a mention or two. I'm not likely to grace any of the overrated temples soon
    #3
    CheeseWit
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    RE: Overrated? 2003/12/05 11:49:10 (permalink)
    It's time to start that list. Just open the Sterns' books and read.

    quote:
    Originally posted by bill voss

    where's the underrated list? I would be more interested in it, as "our"
    type of cuisine might rate a mention or two. I'm not likely to grace any of the overrated temples soon
    #4
    lleechef
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    RE: Overrated? 2003/12/05 12:30:18 (permalink)
    I've eaten at all the overrated restos on that list except the two in LA. Chez Panisse was wonderful back in the early 80's as were most of them when they opened. I remember looking at the line down the sidewalk in front of K Paul's in NOLA 10 years ago and shaking my head. Two weekends ago, on a Saturday night at 7:30, there was no line. These restaurants start out with honorable intentions of serving good food at a price that is.....well, on the high side, but still reasonable for what you get. Then they get written up in Gourmet and all the other pseudo-food magazines, the telephone starts ringing off the hook, a month to get reservations and everyone goes kookoo and says, "****, we can get $22.00 for the appetizer of pan-seared scallop on top of the leaf of arugula with the raspberry vinaigrette with the touch of tobikko!!!!" So instead of paying $100 for two for dinner, it's now $350!
    I have to add one more restaurant to the overrated list: The French Laundry in Yountville, CA. It normally takes 6 months to get a reservation (grrrrrrr ) but I got in through some of my Napa winery friends in short order. Thomas Keller likes to serve you about 15-20 courses, all of which are ONE BITE. That's it, just one. Are all these little bites good? Yes, they're very good, even outstanding......BUT....are you willing to pay $600 for two to eat little bites??? Good God! Some consider the Laundry the "Best Restaurant in America".
    Just take me back to Dreamland in Birmingham for more ribs and more ribs and more ribs.
    #5
    hermitt4d
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    RE: Overrated? 2003/12/05 14:16:37 (permalink)
    Great article. Thanks for posting it. I haven't eaten at any of those places, but loved seeing them skewered . Best morning read I've had since Calvin and Hobbes stopped publishing.

    The author is correct about the scarcity of negative reviews. Other cliches: ever seen anyone on a TV cooking or restaurant show taste a dish and say anything less than "Ummmm, that is sooooo good," much less "Ugh, that's not very good." Or taste for seasoning and decide the dish does NOT need more salt .
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    Oneiron339
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    RE: Overrated? 2003/12/05 14:26:24 (permalink)
    Reading this makes me glad I'm a roadfooder and not a "gourmet." Sokolov is one of the famous restaurant critics, and many try to imitate him, but I still find the whole scheme pretentious. I much prefer the reviews I read here and will more often than not grace these establishments than the types listed above. That's the price for being un-hip I suppose.
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    Spudnut
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    RE: Overrated? 2003/12/05 14:48:45 (permalink)
    I've got to interject a respectful disagreement regarding the French Laundry. I thought it was one of the best and most satisfying meals of my life. To me, it was all about exposure to distinct and powerful flavors. Paced properly, I feel as satisfied and full with a meal like that as I do with a more traditional appetizer/main course/dessert meal.

    The real reason I'm writing is about Peter Luger's. It's one of my favorite restaurants, although I have no real disagreement with the author because I believe it's considered TOO superior to other restaurants of its ilk (although I wouldn't penalize it for the "sin" of not being in Manhattan.) But, I don't get his remark about "youthful predators." I've been there 20-25 times, and have never seen one. The neighborhood is mainly Hasidim, who certainly aren't immune to criminal behavior but generally don't tend to be muggers, I don't think.
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    lleechef
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    RE: Overrated? 2003/12/05 15:04:25 (permalink)
    quote:
    Originally posted by Phil J.

    I've got to interject a respectful disagreement regarding the French Laundry. I thought it was one of the best and most satisfying meals of my life. To me, it was all about exposure to distinct and powerful flavors. Paced properly, I feel as satisfied and full with a meal like that as I do with a more traditional appetizer/main course/dessert meal.

    The real reason I'm writing is about Peter Luger's. It's one of my favorite restaurants, although I have no real disagreement with the author because I believe it's considered TOO superior to other restaurants of its ilk (although I wouldn't penalize it for the "sin" of not being in Manhattan.) But, I don't get his remark about "youthful predators." I've been there 20-25 times, and have never seen one. The neighborhood is mainly Hasidim, who certainly aren't immune to criminal behavior but generally don't tend to be muggers, I don't think.


    Oh, I won't disagree with you about Keller's flavors or inventiveness or his brilliance in pairing strange things to make them into culinary nirvana.....BUT.....since we're talking about being overrated, I did not think that this was sublime enough to merit the $600 tab.
    About the small portions and many of them: in Brazil they love to eat tiro gusto which is small portions of grilled meats, cheese, etc, they eat it with toothpicks. I don't like gargantuan portions in front of me, but tiro gusto for two in Brazil is about $20.
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    rbpalmer
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    RE: Overrated? 2003/12/05 15:24:47 (permalink)
    quote:
    Originally posted by bill voss

    where's the underrated list? I would be more interested in it, as "our"
    type of cuisine might rate a mention or two. I'm not likely to grace any of the overrated temples soon


    List or no, as a confirmed carnivore, I still plan on going to Peter Luger's at some point.
    #10
    Hillbilly
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    RE: Overrated? 2003/12/05 15:52:18 (permalink)
    quote:
    Originally posted by rbpalmer

    quote:
    Originally posted by bill voss

    where's the underrated list? I would be more interested in it, as "our"
    type of cuisine might rate a mention or two. I'm not likely to grace any of the overrated temples soon


    List or no, as a confirmed carnivore, I still plan on going to Peter Luger's at some point.

    I was in NYC for a 3 month project this summer and happened to be there for my birthday. When I said that I wanted to go to Peter Luger's for my birthday, our son, who has lived in Manhattan for the past 9 years and had never been to Luger's, said "Oh dad, that place is a dump where you have to sit at wooden picnic tables and they are living on their past reputation". SO I let him take me to Union Square Cafe for my birthday on Friday, and I made reservations for Saturday at Luger's and invited him and his girlfriend to go slumming with my wife and me. After eating at Luger's they acknowledged that it was better than "Frankie and Johnny's", "Smith & Wollensky's", "Ruth's Chris" "The Palm"or any other steakhouse we had tried in NYC. We were all raving about the porterhouse, the cheesecake and the Bacon, tommato and onion appetizers. Over-rated? Sometimes I think it is just the "in" thing to be contrary.

    I still prefer a the chateaubriands at a couple of North Carolina steakhouses (Angus Barn in Raleigh and Staley's in Winston Salem), and Johnny's at the Omaha stockyards, but Peter Luger's is absolutely not over rated!
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    Michael Stern
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    RE: Overrated? 2003/12/05 16:02:04 (permalink)
    Sokolov's a savvy guy, and while I agree with most of his debunks (the ones that I've eaten at), I would gladly have a steak from Peter Luger and tart tatin from the Ivy for my last meal.
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    tiki
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    RE: Overrated? 2003/12/05 17:06:42 (permalink)
    quote:
    Originally posted by Phil J.

    The real reason I'm writing is about Peter Luger's. It's one of my favorite restaurants, although I have no real disagreement with the author because I believe it's considered TOO superior to other restaurants of its ilk (although I wouldn't penalize it for the "sin" of not being in Manhattan.) But, I don't get his remark about "youthful predators." I've been there 20-25 times, and have never seen one. The neighborhood is mainly Hasidim, who certainly aren't immune to criminal behavior but generally don't tend to be muggers, I don't think.


    Really---my daughter lives in that neighborhood!!!Youthful predators indeed!
    #13
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