The New York Times published its first restaurant review on May 18, 1962. And on that date Craig Claiborne, then the newspaper's food editor, became the city's — and country's — first published restaurant critic. There have been 11 NYT critics in the years since, including Ruth Reichl, Mimi Sheraton, Frank Bruni, Sam Sifton, and current sitting critic Pete Wells (the subject of a glowing profile in this week's New Yorker). And while the Times' critics and editors almost always briefly step away from New York City to write about something interesting in Paris or on the West Coast, it's a side project, a vacation report, and not a formal review.
But hidden at the bottom of today's Times review — for Cassia, a well-regarded restaurant in Los Angeles — is a new missive designed to stretch Wells' appetite and aptitude for restaurant meals:
The Times has published starred reviews of restaurants in the New York metropolitan area since 1963. Starting today, we will occasionally offer such reviews of restaurants in other cities as well, applying the same standards that govern our reviews in New York: a minimum of three anonymous visits to the restaurant.
Eater's roving critic and restaurant editor Bill Addison noticed Cassia's splendor last year, and this year he included it in his list of the best new restaurants of 2016:
Cassia comes at you like a blockbuster. [...] Bring friends to share splendors like the majestic pot au feu that ripples with pho spices; lamb breast tingling from Sichuan peppercorn, cumin, and sambal; and laksa, the Malaysian seafood noodle soup whose soothing coconut milk richness is thrillingly undone by rousing curry spice and shrimp paste.
The year it opened Cassia received glowing reviews from the city's local newspapers, including the LA Times and LA Weekly. The Weekly's Besha Rodell gave it four (out of a possible five) stars:
[T]he excellence of Cassia kind of sneaks up on you. Dish after dish, you find yourself exclaiming, "This is fantastic!" — and after a few meals I realized I had said exactly that about everything that had hit the table. It may look and feel like just another trendy restaurant, and certainly there is a sense of taking all that's fun about big, fashionable places and pouring those elements on thickly. But Cassia delivers so much more in the substance of the cuisine, so much more heart and flavor and ingenuity. If the setting is big and loud and fun, all the better.
Rodell's review is reminiscent of today's Times review, in which Wells gives Cassia three (out of a possible four) stars and writes of its place in LA's dining scene:
If I were to recommend one meal that captures some of the energy in the Los Angeles dining scene right now, I might come up with reasons not to mention Cassia. It is an outlier. It's not exploring new horizons in fermentation, like Baroo. It doesn't offer a direct connection to another country's cuisine, like the dizzyingly good Sichuan mini-chain Chengdu Taste. It isn't impossibly, irresistibly tiny, like Petit Trois or Le Comptoir. It doesn't have the take-it-or-leave-it bravura of Night & Market (Song). It isn't alluringly scruffy, like Gjusta, serving bialys to Venice beach bums. It's not making an explicit appeal to the generation that grew up thinking of Los Angeles as the easternmost city in Asia, as Roy Choi's places do.
All these other options would flash through my mind. And then I'd wonder if maybe I were overthinking the question. Because, while Cassia is not the epitome of any particular trend, most of the food coming out of its kitchen is just really delicious.
For some context, last month the NYT killed off its regional restaurant (and theater and arts) reviews. So there may not be any more coverage of the hottest new restaurant in Westchester County, but frequent fliers out of JFK will no doubt profit from Wells' reflections on the dining scenes in America's most promising food-focused cities.
Besides being mentioned in today's NYT Food Section, Wells' new role was included in a parenthetical aside in this week's New Yorker profile. The timing of the profile and announcement (based on the review dinner mentioned in the profile and the date that review ran) suggests that Wells takes two to four months to review a restaurant. If he's reviewing restaurants out of state how often will he be flying out? The logistics sound challenging.
It's worth noting that Wells follows in the footsteps of Eater's Bill Addison who has been filing regular restaurant critiques and dining analyses from cities across the country for nearly three years. Last year Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema set his sights beyond the East Coast when he began filing regular city-specific dining features outside of D.C. Wells will be the first newspaper critic to file starred reviews of restaurants outside of his home city. How often this happens remains to be seen, but now the country's most promising restaurants have one more face to fear.
• At Cassia in Los Angeles, Asian Food of Balance, Not Extremes [NYT]
• A Timeline of All New York Times Restaurant Critics [ENY]
• Besha Rodell Bestows Four Glowing Stars Upon Cassia [ELA]
• All Food Media Coverage [E]