There’s an art to effectively internalizing, reflecting, and then translating a very specific lived experience in a manner that shares it with the world; even more so when that experience happens to (literally) leave a bad taste in the mouth. Enter the globe’s top restaurant critics.
As per annual tradition, here’s a look at some of the worst restaurant experiences professional critics endured this year. Many critics found plenty to pile on about at President-elect Donald Trump’s various restaurant properties, while elsewhere, celebrity chefs like Mario Batali and Dominique Ansel took major stumbles, according to critical palates. Others endured appalling service at Michelin-starred and chainlet restaurant locations, menu sticker shock, and of course, plates and plates of overcooked, undercooked, and badly cooked food. So how did critics translate those meals into some of the sharpest barbs of 2016? Read on:
Pete Wells at Per Se, New York City
When can a two-star restaurant review feel like a slam? When the restaurant in question is Thomas Keller’s once-lauded Per Se, which the New York Times’ Pete Wells demoted from four to two stars — adding to the growing sentiment that the fine-dining icon is past its prime. Consider the service ("servers sometimes give you the feeling that you work for them, and your job is to feel lucky to receive whatever you get"), the iconic dishes ("the sabayon in ‘oysters and pearls’ had broken and separated, so fat pooled above the tapioca"), and the missing feeling of effortless perfection that once imbued the restaurant (Wells now calls the whole affair a "no-fun house"). Per Se is ultimately deemed "grand, hermetic, self-regarding, [and] ungenerous," an assessment so damning that Keller himself issued a public apology two weeks later.
For the kill: "I don’t know what could have saved limp, dispiriting yam dumplings, but it definitely wasn’t a lukewarm matsutake mushroom bouillon as murky and appealing as bong water."
Robert Sietsema at Trump Bar, Trump Grill, and Trump Cafe, New York City
Before Donald Trump became President-elect of the United States — and even before Trump’s ridiculous "taco bowl" Tweet drove the morbidly curious into the bowels of Trump Tower — Eater NY’s Robert Sietsema subjected himself to several meals inside the "culinary abyss." Not surprisingly, the Tower’s four dining establishments represent "food chronically afraid to take chances, food for timid people with digestive problems." Among the dishes are a bacon cheeseburger akin to "real prison food," steak fries deemed "inedible," and elsewhere, shoestring fries that "should be avoided at all costs." (What does the Trump culinary team have against potatoes?) And making an appearance is the soon-to-be-infamous taco bowl:
For the kill: "On the same pass I also ordered ‘beef tacos’ ($13.50) which turned out to be a fried tortilla bowl heaped with romaine lettuce, grated yellow cheese, and plain ground beef that was so devoid of flavor, it rendered an insult to Mexicans every bit as profound as Trump’s previous pronouncements."
Jay Rayner at Tapas 37, London
Leave it to the Guardian’s notorious curmudgeon Jay Rayner to literally wish for an act of God to disrupt a spectacularly bad meal. "I wouldn’t wish a fire on anybody’s business," he writes of a visit to Tapas 37, a tony hotel restaurant. "But at least if we had been evacuated by a false alarm I wouldn’t have had to eat their food." By the end of the review, the reader wishes the same for the restaurant’s sake, as at least it would have been spared the evisceration: A dish of tinned sardines "looks silly [and] tastes worse," croquettes are indistinguishable from one another, and a dish of "deconstructed" boeuf bourguignon featured so many errors it’s deemed "the systematic dismantling of all my culinary hopes and dreams." The restaurant, perhaps not surprisingly, is now closed.
For the kill: "[The croquettes are] also our introduction to the kitchen’s version of tomato ketchup, a gummy condiment full of machismo and casual violence."
Ryan Sutton at Vandal, NYC
The headline of Ryan Sutton’s zero-star Vandal review says it all: "If you’re going to Vandal, it’s not for the food." Eater NY’s chief critic points out several inexplicable details (the casual sexism of servers’ attire, the fact that tables for walk-ins aren’t available until after midnight, the outrageous pricing on certain dishes), but it’s the cluelessly on-trend menu that inspires many one-liners. A "banh mi'eatball" slider delivers an $8 "two-bite travesty," while beef tartare is served over a hot pretzel, "resulting in hot mush." But the worst dish — eaten among puddles of spilled beer, thanks to oblivious service staff — gets the nod below:
For the kill: "Chicken Caesar pizza… looks like what you'd expect if a cook emptied a bottle of parmesan dressing onto a pallid spa cracker, applied a squeeze bottle swirl of romaine pesto, and let the musky crumbs from a pre-shift meal of KFC waft down over that pizza. It is profoundly awful."
Lesley Chesterman at Les Enfants Terribles PVM, Montreal
For restaurants seeking a guide for how not to approach service, the entire first half of Lesley Chesterman’s zero-star Montreal Gazette review serves as a cringeworthy lesson. Step one: Don’t send waiting guests to a 12-degree outdoor patio. Step two: Do not roll your eyes when a guest asks if her table is ready. Step three: For the love of god, don’t do this: "The manager arrived with three glasses, placed them in front of us and poured an inch of red wine into each. ‘This is for making you wait,’ she said. ‘No, thank you,’ I answered. But she insisted we take her complimentary inch of wine, while patting me on the shoulder. By now it was getting comical." From there, the food is mostly serviceable, minus a dry and beefy-tasting lamb burger, a "sad salmon tartare prepared without an ounce of love," and the desserts, which are uniformly bad.
For the kill: "There are several words I can drum up to describe the treatment I received at Les Enfants Terribles PVM, but let me limit it one: shoddy. No, wait, remembering the manager patting our shoulders time and again, I would add: patronizing."
Tina Nguyen on Trump Grill, NYC
Vanity Fair magazine reignited its ongoing feud with President-elect Donald Trump in spectacular fashion simply by sending a restaurant critic to survey the food at Trump Grill, inside NYC's Trump Tower. In the resulting review, Tina Nguyen declares that "Trump Grill could be the worst restaurant in America," as evidenced by "inconsistent menus," misused fancy ingredients, and the overall impression of "a cheap version of rich." Sichuan dumplings hide "flaccid, gray innards," fries are once again "overcooked woody batons," and that famous taco bowl (surprise!) is deemed inedible: Its meat is something "NASA might have served in a tube labeled ‘TACO FILLING’ in the early days of the space program."
For the kill: "Renowned butcher Pat LaFrieda once dared me to eat an eyeball that he himself popped out of the skull of a roasted pig. That eyeball tasted better than the Trump Grill’s (Grille’s) Gold Label Burger, a Pat LaFrieda–branded short-rib burger blend molded into a sad little meat thing."
Besha Rodell at Little Pine, Los Angeles: Musician Moby owns a vegan restaurant. And LA Weekly’s Besha Rodell hates it. In her one-star review of Little Pine, pastas are deemed "under-seasoned and textureless," dishes arrive without promised key ingredients (or sometimes, salt), and there’s an odd avoidance of fresh produce. For the kill: Even moments of faint praise, like for a farro and squash salad, come with caveats: "Still, you could get something similar — and probably more dynamic — from the Whole Foods cold case."
Besha Rodell at Otium, Los Angeles: Rodell clearly knows how to deliver a sick burn. It’s not quite a slam — the restaurant overall gets two stars from the LA Weekly critic — but the headline calling this much-anticipated restaurant "Arrogant" says it all. Many dishes shine, but Otium’s tendency to reflect a "souped-up version of every trendy restaurant in town" often manifests in service so sluggish and ineffective that Rodell wonders aloud if there’s a "caste system" in place. For the kill: "I get the feeling that your experience at Otium can depend massively on who you are and possibly even on how you look."
Jay Rayner at Gino D’Acampo, London: Gino D’Acampo enjoys celebrity-chef status in the UK, but the Guardian critic isn’t biting. The restaurant is responsible for, among other things, the "silliest presentation of a dish I’ve come across in a long while," price-gouging seafood dishes, and generally speaking, "crimes against Italian food." For the kill: "The risotto with scallops is where hope goes to die."
Craig LaBan at Aqimero, Philadelphia: Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig LaBan drops a goose egg on Aqimero, a project by chef Ricardo Sandoval that’s an "out-of-touch and bungled attempt to create a destination restaurant." LaBan unravels a laundry list of poorly cooked dishes: "The ‘perfectly al dente’ seafood risotto was as mushy as wallpaper paste," several supposedly grilled dishes are missing any sign of flavor, and flatbreads in particular achieve the impressive feat of being "simultaneously stale and doughy." For the kill: "And who's going to come here for a poorly made $19 sushi roll that sags in the middle with only the scantiest evidence of lobster?"
Ryan Sutton at Cut by Wolfgang Puck: Eater NY’s Ryan Sutton experiences a series of sticker stocks and a parade of bland steaks at the NYC location of Wolfgang Puck’s upscale steakhouse chain, netting the spot a scathing one-star review. Among a $33 charge for Evian water and a $135 porterhouse steak that "packs less beefy flavor than the $15 Pathmark version" are steaks that disappointingly taste like "the bovine equivalent of chicken breast." For the kill: "It was, and I mean this as someone who loves Japanese Wagyu, objectively terrible."