From 2004 to 2009, as the chief restaurant critic for the New York Times, Frank Bruni ate his way through all manner of New York City eateries, from elegant Manhattan sanctuaries oozing with expense-account excess to the new wave of sandwich shops, noodle bars, and hip dining outposts in New York’s outer boroughs.
Since penning his final review a year ago, Bruni — who now writes features for the paper’s Sunday magazine — has been busy promoting his most recent book, a food memoir titled Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite, in which he reveals how food defined not just his job as critic but his entire life.
During a recent breeze through Portland, Oregon, Bruni tried chicken and rice from a popular downtown food cart, which I had boldly presented as the best six-dollar meal in the country. Like many nervous Big Apple restaurateurs, I hoped not to be disappointed by his reaction. It was a safe move. Bruni has retired from the business of food reviews — but the experience is still fresh.
A few years ago, Ruth Reichl published her own memoir, Garlic and Sapphires, about life as the Times restaurant critic. She’s noted that during those years, celebrities would constantly query her for restaurant recommendations. Did you experience the same phenomenon?
That did happen, but more often I would receive emails out of the blue from readers announcing they were coming to New York from, say, Oklahoma. They would be arriving on a Tuesday with Aunt Bertha, staying in Midtown, and were looking for great Italian food at a certain price point.
Did you find this flattering?
Absolutely, but it could also cause moments of exasperation. I’d want to respond to all of them, but that just wouldn’t be possible.
What about the celebrities? Any good stories?
As a restaurant critic, one invariably becomes a walking human Zagat, and sometimes you’ll find yourself at a party giving nothing but endless restaurant advice the entire evening.
A few weeks ago, at a fairly small book party, I walked in the door, and there was Mayor Bloomberg. When he learned who I was, he asked, “Where should I be eating?” Thinking that he was the mayor and would probably enjoy someplace formal and fancy, I recommended a restaurant called Marea. A couple of weeks later, I see an email in my inbox from “Mike.” It was Mayor Bloomberg, thanking me for the recommendation. He told me the food was good, but the ambiance was a little formal and fancy for his tastes.
As critic for five years, you wrote more about the outer New York boroughs than anyone.
I think I probably reviewed more Brooklyn restaurants than any of my predecessors. This wasn’t because they weren’t doing their jobs. It was because my tenure coincided with the rise of Brooklyn, which, starting in about 2002, really came into its own as a dining destination.
Does that mean Manhattan residents rush to Brooklyn in droves for supper?
I wouldn’t say that. Ten years ago, if you lived in the West Village and planned to meet friends who lived in Park Slope, the West Village would win. Now, that’s just not the case. You’re just as likely to meet up in Brooklyn. If you visited the Brooklyn restaurant Franny’s in the Prospect Heights neighborhood on a weekend, probably three out of 10 of the guests came from Manhattan.
While you were a critic, how often did you have the opportunity to dine on your own dime where you wanted — to take a night off?
Almost never. One of the greatest pleasures is be a regular, and that’s denied when you’re a critic. Now that I’m not a restaurant critic, I’m able to go frequently to the restaurants I love, and I usually order the same thing repeatedly. I no longer have to be concerned about the entire menu.
So where does Frank Bruni spend his money to eat?
I go to The Breslin frequently for the lamb burger. There’s a place called Vinegar Hill House that has one of the three best pork chops in the city. I like Peasant in Nolita. I just went to Torrisi Italian Specialties, and I have every intention of being a regular there.
What about cheap eats?
I go a lot to Szechuan Gourmet on West 39th. It’s very affordable and good. There’s a little place called Bedouin Tent on Atlantic with a sausage sandwich rolled into a pita, and a leg of lamb sandwich with lemon-mint aioli. Both are $6.95 and crazily tasty. For some reason, the intersection of good Italian and affordable eating is hard to find. With Middle Eastern cuisine, it’s tough to beat.
You just spent five years eating at the best restaurants in New York and in the world. In your opinion, in which direction is food going?
I think there is an ever more intense and ongoing effort to identify the best ingredients and showcase them in the best possible ways. The conversation among chefs and diners is ever more ingredient-centric in a fetishistic and ultimately exciting way.
Does the dominance of ingredients threaten the era of celebrity chefdom?
No. They’ll be leading the way.
Mike Thelin, a writer based in Portland, Oregon, was the 2010 Host City Chair for the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Conference. His company, Bolted Services, produces food events all across the country.
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