In this week's review, New York Times critic Pete Wells took a star away from chef Daniel Boulud's 20 year old flagship restaurant, Daniel. (The last time Daniel was reviewed by the Times it got four stars from Frank Bruni back in 2009.) In his review, Wells finds fault with both the food and the service at the long-time four star restaurant. In a sneaky move, Wells — who's not exactly anonymous — used a decoy. He dined 15 minutes apart from one of his more anonymous colleagues and compared his experience to that of a standard diner. His findings were informative.
Wells explains: "Our meals were virtually identical. Our experiences were not." Wells received two amuse bouches, his colleague one. Wells got a fancy finger water bowl, his colleague did not. Wells' wine, ordered by the glass, was topped off, his colleague's "glass sat empty at times while he waited to be offered another." Wells doesn't fault Daniel for taking care of a critic. Rather, he suggests that the restaurant "can be faulted, though, for turning its best face away from the unknowns, the first-timers, the birthday splurgers, the tourists."
The issue of critic's anonymity and their ability to have a representative meal is not a new point of concern. Many critics make a concerted effort to pay attention to the quality of the service at the tables around them. British critic Jay Rayner explains that practice in an interview with Forked:
There are various answers to the lack of anonymity... I do pay attention to what is going on around me in terms of service because clearly service is something they could buff up. I remember being told once by a senior restaurant manager that if ever they got a critic in, not only did they pay attention to the critic's table but also to the four tables immediately around it and my view is that, fuck it, if they can do that, they deserve the good review.
Similarly, Boston magazine critic Corby Kummer has a strategy of arriving at restaurants later than the rest of his party. He explained in an interview with HuffPo that arriving late allows him to see how his table made out without him and, since food is likely already on its way, a chance to dine as his guests would.
Wells' experience (and his decoy's) can most easily be compared to that of former New York Times critic Ruth Reichl, who famously wore elaborate disguises in effort to receive representative treatment. Back in 1993 In one of her most notorious reviews, Reichl dined in disguise at Le Cirque, and wrote a review comparing the experience to her experience dining as herself. The difference in experiences lost the restaurant its fourth star, just as it did for Daniel.
It's worth noting when considering the lost star that Wells found certain dishes at the restaurant wanting. In his review, Wells writes that "the restaurant gave the impression that it was trying to garnish its way to greatness." He gets specific: "A variation on Mr. Boulud's classic roasted sea bass with syrah sauce came with radicchio so bitter I wanted to slap it." But Wells found much to praise about the New York City institution, noting that Daniel has "the finest French beef stew in existence" and "exuberant" desserts.
But still, using a decoy is a next-level strategy to compare the experience between VIPs and commoners. Tweeted Eater co-founder Ben Leventhal:: "So, @pete_wells sent a 2nd group into Daniel to dine *in parallel* to him. Not a new move, but decidedly serious. #thenewanonymity." It's unclear if the Times paid for the second dinner, but it's cheaper than a proper wig, perhaps.
Also see from Eater NY:
· These Are New York's Four Star Restaurants [-ENY-]
· The Top Tweets and Comments About the Daniel Review [-ENY-]
· Serving the Stuff of Privilege [NYT]
· All Pete Wells Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Daniel Boulud Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Critic Coverage on Eater [-E-]