What Makes a Four Star Restaurant

Food critic Frank Bruni has eaten at nearly every New York hot spot. He dishes about what wows him, his favorite meal of all time, and whether the city’s Italian cuisine is worth sampling.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What makes a great restaurant?

FRANK BRUNI: Well a great restaurant is a restaurant that fires on all cylinders. It’s one that you feel comfortable, and privileged, and even a little bit pampered to sit in. Pampered by the way everything around you looks; pampered by the way the servers are dealing with you. It’s a restaurant that has terrific service. But that means service that is calibrated well to the environment; that is as and no more stilted than the environment calls for, or as and no more informal in the environment calls for; that is certainly attentive, but without being unduly intrusive and obsequious. So then there’s that whole element. And then first and foremost, a restaurant that gives you food you want to eat; food that is distinguished in its genre; food that makes sense, in terms of the menu’s entirety; again in terms of the menu’s environment; in terms of the service. So it’s a restaurant that knows what it is, fires on all cylinders, and sends you out the door three hours later or two hours later. Or it can be 90 minutes later if it’s Momofuku Ssam Bar; that sends you out the door feeling utterly content and feeling like its promises were kept.

Question: What makes a great dish?

FRANK BRUNI: You can have just, you know, one perfect Boudin Blanc Sausage. Is that a dish? Well sure. It again boils down to something that does exactly what it means to do, and that delivers exactly what it promises in its written description and in its kind of visual form as you look at it.

Question: Does being a critic get in the way of you enjoying food?

FRANK BRUNI: In technical ways it does. There are not many nights where I can just go to whatever restaurant I want to because I have a schedule to keep, and a list of new restaurants to try, and a list of restaurants that are going to be reviewed that I have to visit a second and third or, you know, sometimes fourth or even fifth time. So in that sense yeah, I just don’t eat like a normal person. I don’t just kind of in the morning or at 4:00 p.m. say, “What do I feel like for dinner tonight?” I sometimes know four weeks in advance exactly where I’m going to be on February 28th.

Does it get in the way of just eating in terms of sitting there and just enjoying a piece of food without thinking about it to death? No! No. I mean eating is such a primal, visceral thing that I think you’d have to get very, very jaded not to be able to just bite into a juicy hamburger, you know, and just kind of hum all over without wondering exactly what composition of ground beef is in there, you know?

Topic: Italian food

FRANK BRUNI: The Italian food in New York is extremely good. It’s different in a lot of ways. If you go to most good Italian restaurants in Rome or in most parts of Italy, the approach is much simpler than it is here. One of the things that invariably happens when you’re a restaurant serving an ethnic cuisine in a city where rents are as high as New York, and where ambitions are as large, and vanity as keen as it is in New York, is you start fussing with the food a lot. And so I think inevitably and predictably the finest and most ambitious Italian restaurants here do a much more, you know, articulated, embellished, elaborate version of Italian cooking than some of your best restaurants in Rome do – Rome being actually a good example, but that’s true of other areas of Italy as well. Taking that out of the equation, and taking out of the equation the fact that we still even in this day and age don’t have quite the same kind of farm to table or shore to table systems in place as they do in certain European countries, including Italy. Beyond all that the Italian food here I think is quite, quite good.

Question: What’s your favorite Italian restaurant here?

FRANK BRUNI: I can’t do that either; again too many of them. There’s just too many. I mean there are a lot of very good ones. If you’re in a kind of laid back, don’t want a lot of fuss but want something that feels warm and homey mood, there are a lot of options, including Al Di La out in Park Slope in Brooklyn. Sfoli on the Upper East Side. But everything has an asterisk. And you talk about those two places – both of which I gave two stars to. And Al Di La doesn’t take reservations. And Sfolia it’s almost impossible to get a reservation between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m. So you know when you start dealing with like short lists, everything kind of has an asterisk or a qualification. If you’re talking about very fancy Italian; or not even very fancy, but kind of a price point above those places, there are wonderful options including, you know, Babbo and A Voche. And for a very Frenchified kind of quasi Italian, Fiama in Tribeca; Alto on the East side. I mean there are a lot of options, and it’s hard to single any one out as the perfect one.

Recorded on January 22, 2008