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Regime Change

August 17, 2010

It’s times like this that I really miss Mrs. Fussy.  There is some important and timely local food news to comment upon, but unchecked, my tone may come off as smug, pompous or self-important.  Perhaps even a combination of all three.  Luckily I’m aware of my tendency towards self-promotion.  So I will try to keep this subdued.

Most likely the recent changes at the Times Union had nothing to do with what I have written in the past about Ruth Fantasia nor the policy of which restaurants receive starred reviews.

Here’s the executive summary.  We have a new sheriff in town, and her name is Cheryl Clark.  She is taking over restaurant reviews from Ruth Fantasia and Celina Ottaway.  Ruth Fantasia will stay on as features editor, so I suspect her hand may still be felt in the restaurant reviews for the foreseeable future.

I’m excited for the change, and have high hopes for the reviews to come.  There are pros and cons to every potential reviewer.  My biggest concern given Cheryl’s close relationship to the restaurant community, is does she have the fortitude to pan a restaurant that sorely under performs, or will she look for the silver lining.  In my mind it makes no sense to have a four-star scale and only use three of the stars.

But I digress, because beyond the change in the reviewer, there is also a change in policy which I think is even more notable.

Almost two years ago, the Albany Times Union published a policy statement about which restaurants would receive starred reviews.  It went like this:

Beginning this week Life Today will contain a wider range of restaurant reviews. Critiques of fine dining establishments, published under the title “Matters of Taste,” will run every other week. On alternate weeks reviews of less expensive restaurants will run under the heading “Order Up.” Because it is unfair to invite comparison between restaurants serving $8 entrees and those asking three times as much, star ratings will not given on “Order Up” reviews.

I didn’t like that one bit. And I even got into a bit of a dust up with Steve Barnes on the matter.

About a year ago, the tide seemed to change.  Although there was no formal change in policy, Steve Barnes wrote a three star review for Jake Moon, which is exactly the kind of inexpensive restaurant that I thought should be considered in the same league as its significantly higher priced competitors.  And after that, I was glad to have found some common ground with the Times Union reviews.

Still, I was delighted—absolutely delighted—when I read the following revised policy statement from this past Sunday’s paper [boldface added for emphasis]:

The general dividing line between the two categories is the price of dinner entrees: less than $12 or $13 for Order Up, higher for Matters of Taste. A restaurant’s style and aspirations will also dictate whether it receives a starred or nonstarred review. An eatery that offers comparatively expensive takeout would still be an Order Up review even if customers spend $20 or more person, for instance, but a little bistro with table service and a respectable wine list would qualify for a starred, Matters of Taste assessment despite charging only $10 or less for entrees.

Clearly, the reviews were moving in this direction anyway.  But it feels great to have it formalized and in print.  Also of interest is Cheryl’s definition for her star ratings.  She went on the record saying:

No stars means truly unworthy of consideration, with no redeeming qualities. One star: below average for the area. Two stars: average. Three stars: above average. Four stars: exceptional, the best the market can offer.

A careful reader will see, “for the area” and, “the best the market can offer.”  These two small phrases don’t sit very well with me.  But I’m going to give it time and see how it plays out.  In the meanwhile, I’m going to once again applaud the Times Union for recognizing that great food can come at all price points, and I am glad that these worthy establishments will be getting their chance for a full starred review.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2010 8:21 am

    I don’t see why you would have a problem with judging restaurant “for the area”, or “grading on a curve”. Local eateries don’t have a Batali budget. Big city players blow $5 million to open a place, and shut it down in six months if it isn’t performing up to expectations. A classical definition of “the best” in New York City- a Michelin Three Star or NY Times Four Star restaurant would no doubt serve dishes that require expensive ingredients that are only available via next day air, with wait staffs that outnumber the number of diners, and wine lists that include verticals that start with a comma in the price of the youngest bottle. Local expense accounts (unless you include state senators and lobbyists) can’t cover that. And – Why three stars instead of four? What’s the difference if the criteria are set out for each? Four gives the reviewer a little more wiggle room, and (hopefully) eliminates the need for the 1/2 star cop-outs.

  2. August 17, 2010 9:51 am

    Wow. I didn’t recognize the name – Cheryl Clark. I just read the announcement on the TU page. We are in for a treat. Cheryl’s weekly e-mails to Chez Sophie customers were legendary. Her comments about the restaurant, and her family, and the local farms and markets were blogs before there were blogs – and were eagerly anticipated. Her restaurant – especially the original diner space in Malta – was without question one of the best in New York. Her knowledge of the business, and her journalistic skills will bring a new dimension to the column. I very much look forward to her commentary.

  3. August 17, 2010 9:59 am

    I am thrilled that Cheryl Clark is back in the area, and downhearted that Chez Sophie is gone. It was our favorite place for such a long time. I’ll never forget the time we arrived late for a reservation, having called ahead to explain we’d been in a car accident and would be there as soon as we could, and the parchments for our tasting menu were entitled, “The Anniversary Menu for D and L, Having Survived Automobile Mishap.” I have great faith in her taste and discretion, and look forward to see the direction the TU will take with her at the helm.

    Please tell me her husband is cooking somewhere and I can go and eat his food…

  4. wendalicious permalink
    August 17, 2010 12:52 pm

    I’m not optimistic. I found Cheryl’s Chez Sophie newsletters to be pedantic and obnoxious. Plus, don’t forget that she was half the team that managed to destroy a legendary Capital Region restaurant. And, for the record, it was not “her” restaurant – it was her mother-in-law’s.

  5. August 17, 2010 12:59 pm

    Did they “destroy it” or just shut it down? The food was still phenomenal, the new location in The Saratogian stunning and intimate, if dark and a 180 from the diner. What was the scuttlebutt when it closed, beyond the family’s plans to move to France and open a B&B at a vineyard?

  6. wendalicious permalink
    August 17, 2010 1:35 pm

    They destroyed the Chez Sophie that Sophie created. They did not stay true to her vision or her recipes. They lost tons of money, for various and sundry reasons, not the least of which was a bad location – as a hotel restaurant. And, you cannot ignore the fact that the plans to open a vineyard in France fell through, for reasons that were not explained.

    She may be a journalist, but she’s no restaurant expert. Though she may think she is.

    Again, I’m not optimistic.

  7. Sarah M. permalink
    August 17, 2010 2:23 pm

    Sorta bummed that all the attention’s on her credentials vis a vis conflicts of interest instead of her use of the words “dithered,” “cartilaginous,” “hankering,” “intramuscular,” and “oenophilic,” all in the first review! It’s like a word of the day calendar.

  8. wendalicious permalink
    August 17, 2010 2:34 pm

    I agree with commenters who brought up the conflict of interest argument – one I hadn’t previously considered. Now I am not going to be able to read a review without wondering what kind of special treatment she and her husband received.

    @Sarah M – see what I mean about pedantic?

    • Sarah M. permalink
      August 17, 2010 3:01 pm

      I don’t know… I think I prefer it over her predecessor’s style. “The calamari was fried and squid. It was light brown on the outside and served with a red sauce. The water was wet.”

  9. wendalicious permalink
    August 17, 2010 3:18 pm

    Ha ha! You’re right about that, too. Maybe I should reserve judgment for a bit…

  10. August 18, 2010 9:55 am

    I’m confused. How is formerly owning a restaurant a conflict of interest? I see it as a big plus. And don’t let the big words scare ya. It just means she’s a journalist, not a writer.

    • Sarah M. permalink
      August 18, 2010 11:22 am

      I think the concern is with grafs like these:

      Choosing the wine sparked a spirited oenophilic discussion with Sandy, and before long, we found ourselves chatting companionably at the table where the Pogues dine together nightly. (Sandy recognized my chef husband from previous visits to our former restaurant.) Brialy popped over, giving us a chance to ask about some of the dishes we had tried.

      The conflict of interest idea doesn’t hold water with me, but I could see how it could turn some people off. (Although those same people adore Steve Barnes, and I don’t understand how they don’t see him as a restaurant biz insider.)

      The big words joke was on Ruth Fantasia, not Ms. Clark.

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