This column is a continuing series by Chef Peter X. Kelly of Xaviars Restaurant Group which runs every Thursday.
Yesterday, the New York Times Restaurant Critic Pete Wells demoted Thomas Keller’s New York restaurant, Per Se from four stars to two with a scathing review that seemed more like a no star review.
While Mr. Wells did find some redeeming value in a few dishes, his description of the restaurant as a “grand, hermetic, self-regarding, ungenerous restaurant” leaves little doubt of his contempt for this sort of refined dining. Of course, since I was not at the table I cannot speak to whether his critique is accurate or not however Mr. Wells has been very clear about his notions of what a dining experience should be. His demotion last year of Restaurant Daniel, his one-star review of Le Cirque in 2012 as well as his glowing critique of Señor Frog just a few weeks ago, speaks to a change in the paradigm of what constitutes a great restaurant experience.
Of course, any criticism is subjective and should be taken as such. However, when a visit to an establishment is condensed into a numerical or ranking quotient there needs to be a reasonable way for readers to understand what constitutes or separates a one-star restaurant from a four-star experience.
I applaud Mr. Wells’ appreciation for casual dining but anointing Shake Shack, a chain burger stand with paper plates and plastic cups and no table service with a one-star review seem to play havoc with the idea of restaurant rankings. Now Per Se has the same New York Times ranking as Ivan Ramen, an Asian Noodle shop (which I love) that offers no dessert, virtually no wine or spirits program and service staff dressed in T-shirts.
The casualization of dining has been a great thing, I know because I opened the Freelance Café in Piermont, N.Y. more than 25 years ago to offer great food in a relaxed setting without many of the trappings of haute cuisine. However, if it means the end of “fine dining” as we have come to know it, this is collateral damage that must not happen.
I hope there will always be room for celebratory restaurants that offer luxurious surroundings, choreographed service, candle light, floral work, deep wine cellars, fine linens and professionals that are committed to hospitality. These are not restaurants we visit on a daily or weekly basis these are the establishments we yearn for when we want to be cosseted and treated to the very best that the culinary arts have to offer.
Thomas Keller and Per Se restaurant will certainly recover from this rant of a review because he is still one of the quintessential chefs and restaurateurs working in the world today.
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