The 60-Minute Critics

From Le Bernardin to Le Cirque, Morrells to Masa, the city’s chefs, restaurant owners and the many, many others who

From Le Bernardin to Le Cirque, Morrells to Masa, the city’s chefs, restaurant owners and the many, many others who consider themselves food-world insiders are getting antsy. In the three months since New York Times restaurant critic William (Biff) Grimes left the position, the paper’s Dining Section and its interim critics, Amanda Hesser and Marian Burros, have ignited the ire of practically the entire Manhattan restaurant industry.

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The griping has approached its boiling point in the case of Ms. Hesser, who has shown an unpredictable hand with The Times ‘ precious stars, not to mention its journalistic guidelines: First she took a star away from Drew Nieporent’s formerly three-star Montrachet, saying the Tribeca pioneer “even smells old”; then she awarded three to Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s “fancy street food” emporium Spice Market. Shortly thereafter, on March 31, the paper was forced to run an Editors’ Note stating that-oops-Mr. Vongerichten’s glowing blurb for Ms. Hesser’s recent book, Cooking for Mr. Latte , should have been ‘fessed up to in Ms. Hesser’s glowing review. (“Amanda Hesser’s charming personality shines as the reader experiences the life and loves of a New York City gourmet,” Mr. Vongerichten enthused on Ms. Hesser’s book jacket. ” Cooking for Mr. Latte is perfectly seasoned with sensuality and superb recipes.”) Even the Village Voice has weighed in, calling for the Times to “strip Spice Market of its stars and start from scratch.”

Upon hearing of Ms. Hesser’s review of Montrachet, Mr. Nieporent-who has been one of the leading voices of the New York restaurant scene for the past two decades-was apoplectic. “I’ve added too much to the landscape of New York dining for someone to come in and say, after 19 years, somebody else was right, but now they’re wrong!” he said later. “When you’re interim, you don’t rock the boat. You don’t knock somebody’s head off.” Ms. Hesser declined to comment.

The way in which Mr. Nieporent got the news of his downgrade didn’t help matters. Ms. Hesser appeared on New York 1’s NY Close-Up on March 16, the evening before the review hit newsstands. NY1’s Sam Roberts asked her on-camera, “When a restaurant goes from a three-star to a two-star, does it really have an impact?” Ms. Hesser giggled. “I guess they’ll be disappointed!”

Mr. Nieporent and his staff huddled around the television in his storefront office between Nobu and Tribeca Grill, two other restaurants he owns watching her pixilated image, flabbergasted.

Mr. Grimes wasn’t exactly beloved by the city’s restaurant industry-many considered him sensationalist, too transfixed by his fine-tuned prose to appreciate or even understand the joys of the table-but now his controversial tenure seems like the good old days. “Having an interim reviewer is not fair to a community that lives on longer than the reviewer does,” said chef-about-town Rocco DiSpirito, whose Flatiron showplace Union Pacific was downgraded to two stars from three on Feb. 11 by Ms. Burros. “People tend to be less fair at the beginning and end of their tenure.”

The Times , for its part, is pooh-poohing complaints about its interim critics. “Our consistency in the matter of restaurant criticism is assured by our trust in the people we put in the chair, for however long they are asked to sit there,” said Dining section editor Sam Sifton. Besides, Mr. Sifton pointed out, the paper uses many different movie and book reviewers, and “readers learn to take each on his or her own terms, not expecting total conformity to a single standard of taste.”

As for the recent changing of the stars at traditionally first-tier restaurants, Style department editor Barbara Graustark pointed out that the stars awarded to restaurants will inevitably evolve. “Stars aren’t ranks awarded permanently, the way the Army awards somebody, say, a colonel’s insignia,” Ms. Graustark said. “A star is part of the review. The reviewer writes the review and has no obligation to heed an earlier reviewer’s reaction.”

Former Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton, author of Eating My Words , a book about her experiences in the job, said interim critics were “inevitable.” “If they have not found anyone who they like, who wants to work for them, they have to have a critic, and after all there are at least three movie critics,” she said, adding that “all reviews are controversial.”

But this stretch of interim critics has seemed particularly rocky. Besides the controversial star-removals from two of the city’s culinary institutions, there was an unfortunate error that had to be corrected when Ms. Burros awarded Bread Tribeca two stars on Jan. 14, and only one was printed in the paper. Bread’s owners, Luigi Comandatore and Bob Giraldi, were furious. The paper let Mr. Comandatore and Mr. Giraldi run an ad saying “A Missing Star Is Found” at a bargain price. The Times has also printed the retraction twice. “I would trust that, in the future, they would be more accurate,” Mr. Giraldi said. “Mistakes happen even to the esteemed New York Times . It’s unfortunate that Marian had to go through that.” Perhaps, he said, there was even a bright side: Given all the controversy, now the industry knows more about Bread Tribeca than ever before. “But sometimes mistakes alter people’s livelihoods,” he added. “In the end, it got corrected. I know we have a two-star restaurant.”

The once high-flying, now suddenly beleaguered Mr. DiSpirito’s situation has not come to such a happy ending. After the hubbub died down from his much publicized and criticized reality-television show, The Restaurant , Mr. DiSpirito decided to completely renovate Union Pacific, which had received three stars from Ruth Reichl in 1998. On Jan. 23, Ms. Hesser wrote a Diner’s Journal piece singing Mr. DiSpirito’s praises. “With the menu, Mr. DiSpirito has made the vital leap from frustrated artist to man with a plan-and his fame has certainly attracted good talent to his kitchen,” she wrote. But two weeks later, Ms. Burros came out with a devastating review, dropping Union Pacific’s star rating down to two. Ms. Burros wrote that it looked like the chef was spending more time at his “television-created spaghetti parlor” than Union Pacific, and included details such as “silver cloches cover main dishes (sadly many of them are dented).” She had to wait, she wrote, an hour and 40 minutes for her entrée.

“I remember the night she was referring to,” said Mr. DiSpirito. “I myself was very concerned because her guests were almost an hour late. While her description is accurate, the reason for the delay is entirely her guests’ fault.” He said her review has cost him a million dollars in sales. “If that isn’t personal, what is? After the TV show there was a backlash-the food community thinks, ‘He’s not a serious chef anymore.’ We were counting on a good review after an extremely beautiful renovation to compensate for the stupid economy we’re living through. Now we’re slow, we’re a lot slower than we projected.”

As for Mr. DiSpirito’s accusation that her negative review had something to do with his television show. Ms. Burros said, “I never saw that program. The review had to do with the quality of the food.” Ms. Burros said she chose to review the restaurant because “it was redone and recast; he was now off his spaghetti-restaurant program and back paying attention to this other place and that makes it relevant.”

Mr. DiSpirito was not convinced, “I think I was punished.”

Not surprisingly, conspiracy theories are also circulating about Ms. Hesser’s review of Montrachet. One restaurant-industry insider opined that she chose to review Montrachet because “she had a premise and she was looking for a restaurant to write it on. She thought, ‘Let me write a downgrading review of a restaurant that’s been around for a while.'” Another theory making the rounds is that Ms. Hesser was getting back at Mr. Nieporent for writing her an angry letter after she allegedly misquoted Montrachet’s sommelier in an article about Wine Spectator magazine’s awards. Mr. Nieporent said he found it odd that Ms. Hesser barely mentioned wine in her review, when his restaurant is known for having one of the best wine cellars in the country. The angry letter, he said, was the only explanation he could think of. “People said to us, ‘Your mistake was writing her the letter, not somebody above her.’ I would understand if we got a two-star and it was a two-star write-up, and it meant two stars, but where at any moment in the history of this restaurant has there ever been a blip on its reputation?” He was even more aggravated with Ms. Hesser after her Spice Market review. “They didn’t even bill themselves as a three-star restaurant,” he fumed.

Even apart from the three stars, Ms. Hesser’s Spice Market review caused a stir for failing to mention the restaurant’s chef, Gray Kunz, while ladling on the praise for Mr. Vongerichten, the owner. “I don’t know why she didn’t put him in there,” said Mr. Vongerichten. “When she called for the fact-check, we told them Gray Kunz was with us, but I can’t control what people write. The review was more about the food. With a review like that you can please everybody. She should have mentioned him but she didn’t.” He said that since the review the food world keeps buzzing with gossip about him and Ms. Hesser. “The last thing I heard was yesterday I slept with her, and who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow.” he said. “I met Ms. Hesser one time five years ago and I don’t even know what she looks like. New York is like a small village.”

Just why is it taking so long to fill the paper of record’s restaurant critic’s spot, anyway? The Times doesn’t think the wait has been too long at all. “This is a very important position, which is typically held for a considerable period of time, four to five years,” said Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis. “It behooves us not to rush the process.”

The Times reportedly approached four different writers to fill the position-Bill Buford, former New Yorker fiction editor and author of Heat: An Amateur Cook in a Professional Kitchen ; Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City and a columnist at House & Garden magazine; Julian Barnes, British former television critic and author of Flaubert’s Parrot ; and Michael Bauer, food critic at the San Francisco Chronicle -and all turned it down.

Clark Wolf, president of a New York–based restaurant consultancy, thinks the paper’s Dining Section needs to come down off its high horse. ” The New York Times can be a little puritanical about food. Food is the largest industry in the world and the most powerful topic there is. Everything else in The New York Times will be useless, but try not eating.”

What will really be the test of The Times is whether or not their reviews continue to have influence in a rapidly changing restaurant scene. A review that was once ominous may now merely be just one more voice amid the din. On Saturday, April 3, Montrachet’s two back rooms were still packed at 10:30 p.m., and its parmesan-encrusted Chilean sea bass and kiwi and passion-fruit croustillant still felt like an experience, a special occasion, that no review could ruin. At another restaurant slighted by Ms. Hesser, Asiate, the chef, Nori Sugie, was still receiving gift cards and flowers for his pan-roasted scallops, and there was still a line outside the door all weekend. And despite the storm he’s weathered, Mr. Nieporent remained upbeat: “We will survive because we’re every bit as good as when we opened that restaurant.”

-Alexandra Wolfe

He Kilt Connery

Sean Connery looked pretty damn robust in his tartan-plaid kilt and W.W.E.-sized sporran as he shook the hands of well-wishers who crowded up against him. The Scottish actor had just left the stage of the Highland Park Dressed to Kilt fashion show at Sotheby’s East on York Avenue where he’d kicked off the evening’s festivities by noting in his buttery burr that “a lot of good whiskey has been flowing and I just hope you’ve had your fair share.” But as he walked the gauntlet of gladhanders back to his seat, ceremonial dagger tucked into his tall socks, a fair-haired man wearing a kilt and mischief in his eyes called out to the former James Bond: “I said you were dead!”

Though Mr. Connery didn’t seem to hear and soon disappeared behind a door, he was being hailed by Phil Cunningham, Scotland’s famed accordionist and composer.

Mr. Cunningham, who was wearing a powder-blue suit and vest, explained that approximately three years ago, in the hours before a concert in Madrid, Spain, he was watching a Spanish-language television newscast and saw Mr. Connery’s picture flash up on the screen. At that moment, Mr. Cunningham said, “I decided I could speak Spanish and that the news was that Sean Connery had died.” So Mr. Cunningham went onstage that night intending to pay tribute to his fellow countryman. “We played a slow tune for him,” Mr. Cunningham said. “You should have seen it-4,000 people in Madrid waving their cigarette lighters because they think Sean Connery has died.”

Unlike Franco, however, Mr. Connery was very much alive, and some time later a few of Mr. Cunningham’s musician friends were at a party at comedian Billy Connolly’s house. Mr. Connery was there too, and when they filled the actor in on what had happened in Spain, Mr. Connery decided to call up the man who declared him dead.

“They had me on speaker phone,” Mr. Cunningham remembered. “And Connery said to me: ‘It would serve you well to stop laughing and listen to what I have to say, you little shit.’ Mr. Cunningham distinctly remembered the “little shit” part of the conversation, but he said Mr. Connery was not really angry. “He was just winding me up,” Mr. Cunningham said, adding: “I’ll never wash my phone again.”

Speaking of wind-ups, partygoers noticed that up in the windowed V.V.I.P. booth overlooking the kilt-heavy fashion show (high point: Jimmy’s Downtown restaurateur Jimmy Rodriguez channeling his inner J. Lo in an all-red kilt and suit and a floppy red hat), Mr. Connery seemed to be getting along quite well with Scotland’s First Minister Jack McConnell, contrary to press reports across the pond that the two are feuding. Mr. Connery reportedly had snubbed Mr. McConnell’s attempts to meet him here in New York during Tartan Week (of which Dressed to Kilt was part) because he reportedly felt that Mr. McConnell has been slow to use him to promote Scotland abroad.

-Frank DiGiacomo

When You’ve Got Lemon ….

In 1972, President Nixon was a little paranoid. It was the first year that 18-year-olds could vote, and because it seemed that American 18-year-olds liked rocker/activist John Lennon, and Lennon’s politics were left of Nixon’s, 18-year-olds might therefore not vote for Nixon. Thus, to prevent such a crisis, Lennon should be kindly removed from America, thank you very much.

And, because American politics even from last century seem the stuff of great fiction, this whole magilla is now being played out at the DR2 Theater in Ears on a Beatle , a play by Mark St. Germain which opened on March 28 and stars Dan (the dad from The Wonder Years ) Lauria as a hardened F.B.I. agent on Lennon’s trail and Bill Dawes as his young protégé. The characters are fictional but the facts-and F.B.I. documents on view in the theater’s lobby-are real.

But a little ways uptown, there’s a real character who played a major part in this now fictionalized event and is largely left out of the play, although he consulted on its production. He’s Leon Wildes, the immigration lawyer who bucked the F.B.I. and made it possible for Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, to stay stateside.

In January 1972, Mr. Wildes was asked by a friend who was Apple Record’s attorney to talk to Ms. Ono and Lennon about their immigration woes. He suggested that Mr. Wildes go meet them at their Greenwich Village apartment. “Why can’t they just come to my office like everyone else?” he asked his friend. His friend explained they were important people.

When he went back to Forest Hills later that night after his first meeting with the celebrity couple, his late wife asked why any client would get such special treatment.

“I said it was a man named Jack Lemon-he’s with some singing group and his wife is this bright Japanese lady,” he recalled.

“He called her ‘Quasimodo,'” said his son, Michael Wildes, who is now the mayor of Englewood, N.J.

“And my wife said, ‘John Lennon!’ Where have you been? How could you get so stupid!”

Stupid is the last thing Mr. Wildes ever was. While other lawyers had shrugged off the Lennon/Ono case, he devoured it. Their main reason for wanting to stay in America was to look for Kyoko Cox, Ms. Ono’s daughter from a previous marriage. While visiting the child the previous year, her ex-husband absconded with her and hid in a maze of communes throughout the country. Two courts had ruled in favor of Ms. Ono having custody of the girl, but she couldn’t actually be found. (Now a Colorado schoolteacher, Ms. Cox remained completely out of contact with Ms. Ono until the late 90’s when she had her first child and tracked her mother down.)

The couple’s largest problem when it came to their inability to stay in this country, however, was Lennon’s inability to get a visa because of a conviction against him in England for possessing cannabis resin (better known as hashish). Cunningly, Mr. Wildes-who admits he had no idea what cannabis or hashish were during that first conversation over a cup of “tay” in the Lennon/Ono kitchen-suggested that cannabis resin might not be written into the law that kept convicted drug possessors out of the country. It wasn’t. Yet this English conviction was the basis of the effort by President Nixon, F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover and U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond to deport Mr. Lennon.

Or Mr. Lemon.

“One of the first times I left their place in the village, I asked a long-haired cab driver who this guy was and he said, ‘You really don’t know? He’s the biggest name in music …. More people will know John Lennon’s music than Beethoven,” he said.

Mr. Wildes also had the feeling that it’d be unlikely in a high-profile case involving a couple looking for a small child for the government to let one of the spouses stay without the other. He was wrong. Obstacle begat obstacle and soon he realized that his phones were being tapped and documents he was filing with the courts were going missing. He got permanent residence for Ms. Ono, but it took three suits against the government and five years to win permanent-resident status for Lennon. Lennon, Mr. Wildes said, had an amazing sense of humor throughout the ordeal. One time, he bent down and shined the prosecuting attorney’s shoes. “But there is no question they were trying to violate his First Amendment rights,” he said.

“When I read the play today, I thought, you know, since 9/11, I have this uneasy feeling that our rights-our constitutional rights, our civil rights, our civil liberties-are in jeopardy because everything is being done in the name of security,” he continued. “The whole immigration department has been turned over to the homeland-security department and they’re not interested in immigration and they’ll hold up an application for an extra year till they get together to check out, [for instance], a little old lady from Israel. It’s the same feeling I had during the Watergate years.”

Although he still looks like a buttoned-up square, Mr. Wildes listens again and again to the full collection of Beatles LP’s and records from Lennon’s later days that the late musician personally gave him. “His music is his personality coming through in an artistic way,” he said. “He wasn’t my normal kind of friend, and I was certainly not his normal kind of friend … but I loved that man.”

-Anna Jane Grossman

The 60-Minute Critics