Mimi Sheraton, dining critic at The New York Times from 1975 to 1983, isn’t a fan of the person who currently occupies the position. She just really doesn’t like Sam Sifton’s writing.
“I don’t like it at all,” Sheraton told Capital New York in an article about the changing food landscape of New York City. “It’s food writing for an audience less interested in food and more interested in the experience and the theater of it… I always told people what the place was like, but these long, long introductions about the scene — I usually skip the first column and a half and get to the food, because that’s what I think it’s about.”
A figure from another era, Sheraton opined on such modern phenomena as the Brooklyn culinary renaissance (“I’m not going to Brooklyn to wait on line. Not when there are 10 good Italian restaurants in Greenwich Village.”) and the popularity of high-end street food (“I don’t know where they eat it, that’s what I can’t figure out about a truck. Where the hell do you eat it?”) but it’s the harsh dismissal of Sam Sifton’s entire approach to food writing that’s the juciest part of the piece. It seems there’s some barb-slinging afoot.
How, then, should this score be settled? How about we compare their respective reviews of the same restaurant. In 1980, Sheraton took a look at La Grenouille, a French restaurant in an echelon with perhaps two other places in the city. By 2009, just months after Sifton took over the dining critic’s chair, he revisited La Grenouille — at that point rendered peerless by the closures of any of the classic French restaurants in its class.
Here’s the opening incantation to Sheraton’s review:
With its sparkling mirrors reflecting spring-green walls, lipstick-red banquettes and the glorious, impressionistic floral bouquets, La Grenouille is clearly the most stylish and graceful of these four-star restaurants. Small wonder that it has become the favorite and most flattering setting for members of the high-fashion world.
And here’s Sifton’s intro (not that Sheraton would have read it):
LA GRENOUILLE turned 47 on Saturday, the last great French restaurant in New York. As on its birth night, there was snow outside the old stable at 3 East 52nd Street, and this made the soft, glittering light of the brocaded interior seem all the more inviting, the flowers towering out of the corners all the more welcoming, the sheer elegance of the place all the more arresting, important, rare.
Yes, it seems Sifton is on a grandiosity kick here. To wit: the snow, old stable, and glittering light implies a very specific birth night.
What about the clientele, Mimi?
Amid all this elegance, only the service is occasionally flawed, either by an overbearing maitre d’hotel who takes unknowns by the elbow and literally pushes them to the bar when he wants them to wait there, or an intrusively obsequious captain who interrupts conversations with his unnecessary ‘Bon appetit’ and ‘Is everything all right?’
Sifty seems a bit more enthusiastic, or at least gleefully entertained, when speaking of the men and women eating near him.
The crowd is amazing. There are city patricians, upscale travelers, romantics celebrating anniversaries, cads with escort-service friends, priests drinking Burgundy and spooning soup past their dog collars. There is jewelry everywhere, evidence of plastic surgery.
There are Thackeray characters come to life in a modern age. Some have spent too much time in the sun, doing nothing much more than turning the pages of a book. Others, eyes darting back and forth, examine the restaurant and chart customers as handicappers do horses at Belmont: Are the flowers less resplendent than in years past? Perhaps, ever so slightly, yes. Is the carpet threadbare? Not in the least, though those waiters may qualify! Is that a daughter or lover in the corner with that old lion? Oh, please. Have the Montrachet to start?
Ah, yes, ’tis quite like Vanity Fair. Looks like you paid attention to your Victorian lit prof at Harvard, Sam (Class of ’88, no?).
Which brings us to their conclusions. Sheraton keeps it mostly straight…
A waiter brings sherbet long after other desserts have been served from the wagon because, he says, sherbet, like coffee, comes from the kitchen and why should he make two trips? Although high-fashion regulars sit in the front room, the back room always seemed more comfortable to us.
…while Sifton, savoring the souffle, drums up a booming crescendo.
It is a magic-trick dessert, a dreamlike concoction from the night kitchen: perfection unsullied. And it stands, in its way, for the importance of La Grenouille. This is the bastion now. It is worth the expense to put on your best and experience it. It is part of why you are here.
The styles are indeed polar opposite. There’s little doubt as to why Sheraton can’t stand Sifton’s prose — the ink often bleeds purple, so to speak. But perhaps that makes it more exhilarating? Let’s just leave it at this: Whichever review makes you hungriest will reveal the the food critic that’s right for you.
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