Off the Record

In February, New York Times food critic Frank Bruni reviewed Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. Mr. Ducasse’s restaurant, the city’s most expensive when it opened in 2000, had overcome initial carping about its prices and pretensions-a choice of pens for diners to sign the checks-to win four stars from The Times’ William Grimes in 2001. But Mr. Bruni took it down a peg.

“I did not experience the intensity-or rather consistency-of pleasure that should accompany the prices,” he wrote on Feb. 2. Mr. Bruni downgraded Mr. Ducasse to three stars.

Three months later, Mr. Ducasse fired his chef de cuisine, Christian Delouvrier. The Times story about the dismissal, written by Florence Fabricant, left no doubt about the cause: “As Restaurant Falls to ***, Ducasse Drops **** Chef,” the headline read.

“I am at the top in Paris, in Monte Carlo and in Tokyo, and I cannot remain with three stars in New York,” Mr. Ducasse told The Times. A month before his one-year anniversary as Times restaurant critic, Mr. Bruni had claimed his first scalp.

Mr. Ducasse and Mr. Delouvrier declined to comment on the firing. But in the aftermath, the New York restaurant world is still digesting the upheaval in Mr. Ducasse’s kitchen-and Mr. Bruni’s role in making it happen.

“In the food world, this is the equivalent of the C.E.O. of Boeing getting let go, or Ken Lay at Enron,” said Mario Batali, the chef-owner of Babbo and an ever-expanding constellation of New York restaurants. “I’m not surprised. When [Bruni] bumped Ducasse down to three stars, I thought after that, it wasn’t long before he let Delouvrier go.”

“It’s The New York fucking Times, man! People actually care what they say,” Anthony Bourdain, the chef at Les Halles and author of Kitchen Confidential, wrote in an e-mail from New Zealand.

Mr. Bruni would not comment for this article, saying, “My reviews speak for themselves.”

That they do. Times food writers of recent vintage have hardly hesitated to share their personal lives with readers-from Ruth Reichl’s pioneering first-person work to Amanda Hesser’s frothy accounts of romancing Tad “Mr. Latte” Friend. But Mr. Bruni swiftly established his own writerly persona, flourishing a combination of rococo prose and personal revelations in his reviews and essays.

TV-viewing habits? At Lure Fishbar, Mr. Bruni wrote, the “seafood endures more costume changes and a zanier array of accents than Jennifer Garner in Alias.” Psychological development? Mr. Bruni “vividly recall[ed] how special being at Indochine made [him] feel” when he dined there in the 1980’s. Philosophy? He believes that “to live deep is to eat deep … and nothing gets at the unfettered, unrefined core of things like marrow.”

And on it goes. In his younger sushi-eating life, his “use of soy sauce was nothing short of promiscuous.” His grandmother baked cookies that “were best dunked in coffee, which rather crucially moistened them.” He admires “the smoothness and logic of an aural segue from Squeeze to Wilco.”

There are apparently no limits to where Mr. Bruni is willing to take the reader-including with him into the toilet stalls at the Modern, where “someone in the communal area would rattle the door, not to mention my composure.”

And among the things Mr. Bruni has made explicit is the reasoning behind his stars. On Dec. 29, he paused in the middle of his review of Masa to explain that he was giving it a four-star score, and that it was “the first Japanese restaurant to receive four stars from The New York Times since Mimi Sheraton gave that rating to Hatsuhana in 1983.”

Rather than simply raving about the food and putting four stars in the box, Mr. Bruni made the bestowal of the stars the pivot of the whole piece. Having argued that Masa, “despite its chosen peculiarities and pitiless expense, belongs in the thinly populated pantheon of New York’s most stellar restaurants,” Mr. Bruni proceeded to defend his decision to place it in the uppermost crust. Though he conceded that Masa “speaks a culinary idiom distinct from that of New York’s other current four-star establishments,” he argued:

[Masa] is very much a restaurant of this time and place. Of a dining culture in which linens and petit fours are no longer nonnegotiable badges of class. In which a blockbuster main course often cedes its eminence to a subtler succession of small plates. In which a chef’s seriousness is judged not only by his skill but also by the distances he will reach-and the courier bills he will amass-in the service and worship of superior ingredients.

But who is Mr. Bruni to declare that the rules about judging food have changed? Restaurateurs, chefs and the city’s food-addled consumers raised eyebrows at his hiring. Craig Claiborne had studied cooking in Switzerland. Mimi Sheraton was 50 years old when The Times named her critic, after she had attended the Cordon Bleu. Bryan Miller studied culinary arts at Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island and worked for two years in a Connecticut bistro.

Mr. Bruni-a 40-year-old former White House correspondent, fresh off a hitch as the paper’s Rome bureau chief-had no professional cooking experience whatsoever when he was picked for the job in a search headed by former Times Magazine editor Adam Moss.

“We hired him because he had a palate, a passion for food, and because-like the long line of restaurant critics who preceded him-he would never be pompous,” Times Style editor Barbara Graustark wrote in an e-mail. “Bruni’s writing is among the best in the paper, far and away.”

But Mr. Bruni’s florid-Everyman approach is not exactly un-pompous, either.

“The way he inserts himself into his reviews is just so stylistically overboard, it’s absurd,” said Julia Langbein, a 23-year-old arts-program specialist for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, and a part-time comedian who twice weekly posts to her blog, the Bruni Digest, which imagines Mr. Bruni as a beruffled count. In response to Mr. Bruni’s Masa review, a reader wrote to The Times on Jan. 5: “any meal for two that ‘can easily exceed $1,000’ simply should not deserve four stars. At those prices, a guest at Masa is simply demonstrating that he has so much money he can waste it.”

The chief precedent for Mr. Bruni’s omnivorous gusto at The Times would be the grand, globe-trotting antics of the big-eating R.W. “Johnny” Apple, as several restaurant professionals have said.

Mr. Bruni has the biography of an illustrious Times person, too: raised in White Plains and in Hartford, Conn.; educated at Loomis Chaffee, the University of North Carolina and Columbia Journalism School. After stints at the New York Post and Detroit Free Press (where he was a runner-up for a feature-writing Pulitzer, behind Howell Raines), Mr. Bruni arrived at The Times at age 30. There he rose from Metro to the 2000 campaign trail to a spot as The Times Magazine’s Washington staff writer. George W. Bush nicknamed him “Panchito.” Within seven years he was Rome bureau chief.

Elizabeth Helman Minchilli, an American food writer based in Rome, said she dined often with Mr. Bruni while he was abroad. “He’d go out eight nights a week!” Ms. Minchilli said. ” … I’m always getting asked about food advice and where to eat, and that includes whoever is the correspondent for American magazines or newspapers based in Rome. But with Frank, as soon as he landed, the tables were turned. He was giving me restaurant advice!”

Back in the United States, Mr. Bruni doesn’t eat alone. Adam Nagourney, Frank Rich and Marian Burros have all dined with him. His dinner companions say Mr. Bruni approaches both eating and drinking with glee.

“He likes steak. He’s one big meat person,” said Mr. Nagourney, who dined with Mr. Bruni at Cru in Greenwich Village late last year. “He likes martinis, too. I noticed this more and more: He likes to order really good off-beaten-path wines. When we go out, he normally does two bottles, one about $40 and the other $70.”

Bottoms up on the Sulzbergers!

“Going out with Frank is always a pleasure,” Ms. Burros said. “Not only does he know what he’s looking for, and what he thinks, but he has such a keen eye for when they’re onto him. He knows immediately.” One night, Ms. Burros recalled, Mr. Bruni had spotted the restaurant’s owner discreetly eying their table. The service soon improved.

Flamboyance aside, chefs, restaurateurs and industry professionals largely said they regard Mr. Bruni as fair in his judgment. He has granted four stars to three restaurants-Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin and Time Warner Center outposts Masa and Per Se-while, as of press time, having only granted one sub-star review, to Indochine.

Still, questions hover about the way Mr. Bruni allocates his stars, particularly under the rigid Times system, which lacks multiple categories. Using that scoring system, Mr. Bruni placed Queens Thai eatery Sripraphai-which has no liquor license and offers prepackaged desserts-on the same two-star plane as Danny Meyer’s restaurant the Modern in the redesigned MoMa, where former three-star chef Gabriel Kreuther is in the kitchen.

“I think the problem comes when Sripraphai is stranding next to the Modern in a two-star category,” Montrachet owner Drew Nieporent said on the phone from London, “which obviously seems completely unfair …. How can you lump it into the same category in terms of time and money?”

“If there was any doubt, Frank Bruni’s review of Sripraphai makes clear that he is waging an all-out assault on the star system as we have come to know it,” one reader posted on the foodie Web site eGullet.

But some food-world insiders noted that traditional French dining, the old standard of excellence, is what’s declining. In 2004 alone, Lutece, La Caravelle and La Cote Basque all shuttered their doors.

“I think in New York today, very few of the classics remain,” said La Cote Basque owner-chef Jean Jacques Rachou, who reopened his restaurant as a lower-priced brasserie last June with a $28 prix-fixe dinner. “At La Cote Basque, we didn’t accept ladies in pants …. There’s not the formality, the ceremony.”

Mr. Bruni’s newly anointed elite-granting four stars to stratospherically priced sushi temple Masa and Thomas Keller’s Per Se-may be reflecting this trend, or accelerating it, depending on who is on the receiving end of the review.

“I don’t think [Frank] deliberately intends to redefine an old guard,” said Mr. Batali, whose Babbo won three stars in Mr. Bruni’s first Times review last June. “But he might be trying to define a new guard. The Masa review was certainly aimed to do that.”

And who’s in Mr. Bruni’s new guard? His April 20 review of downtown seafood hot-spot BLT Fish offers a clue: “Like many an Oprah’s book club selection or a typical Best Picture nominee, BLT Fish affirms the enormous appeal of the middlebrow, the special spark when high tips its hat to low, refinement links arms with accessibility and art consorts with commerce.”

Did someone say middlebrow spark?

“Look at how much chatter he’s caused on the Web,” Mitchell Davis, the publications director of the James Beard Foundation, said. “People want to have a conversation with him, they see themselves almost on equal footing with Frank. It’s as if everyone wants to have dinner with him.”

-Gabriel Sherman

“Was it any longer possible,” a New York Times committee wrote in a May 9 report on the paper’s relationship with readers, “to stand silent and stoic under fire?”

The answer, explicitly and implicitly, was no. In an interview with The Boston Globe to discuss the report, Times editor Bill Keller endorsed the idea of some form of self-defense, noting that the paper has a tendency to “ignore critics or react slowly.”

The committee itself, chaired by standards editor Allan M. Siegal, disavowed “a defensive crouch” in favor of a multi-part program of measures to increase responsiveness and accountability: more lines of communication, more reviews of its journalism, more outreach. The Times, the report said, should make it easy for readers “to see more than unanswered attacks on our ethics and professionalism.”

Mr. Keller did not respond to a request for further comment about The Times’ proposals.

But if The Times is resolved not to stand still under fire, the report suggests that it can’t quite decide whether to shoot back or to duck. In a memo announcing the report, Mr. Keller wrote of “rededicating ourselves to the principles that set this paper apart from much of what passes for journalism.” That prideful tone, however, is rarely echoed in the document itself. Instead, there’s something like surrender.

Besieged by cranky bloggers, sneered at by the President, and nagged by media critics, The Times is feeling the strain of constant scrutiny. Reporters, Mr. Siegal said, have to “get used to the idea we don’t do our journalism behind a curtain.”

So the report imagines erecting a Panopticon on West 43rd Street. If all of its policies and suggestions were adopted, Times writers would post their interview transcripts online. They would be open to e-mail from anyone who reads a story online. They would be encouraged to follow up with the sources of their stories to see if they got things right.

And if they didn’t get things right, a secure electronic system-modeled, Mr. Siegal said, on software used by The Chicago Tribune-would track their corrections internally. After each error, the writer would fill out a form explaining “how the mistake happened and how it could have been avoided.” Should anyone accuse writers of improper citation, plagiarism-detection software would stand ready to check their pieces.

Some of the steps would be voluntary or optional or private, to be sure. “We have no wish to undercut our reporters or have them doubt that their editors are solidly in their corner,” the report declares. But the editors are a small band of people. It’s the public that doesn’t necessarily trust The Times. That’s why the apparatus of distrust would be there: to reassure the readers-and nonreaders-that trust isn’t necessary.

Institutional principles are beside the point. In a section on separating news from opinion, the report conflates the missions of the news and opinion departments. “In part because the Times’s editorial page is clearly liberal,” the report says, “the news pages do need to make more effort not to seem monolithic.”

But if the news pages are taking any cues at all from the editorial pages-even negative ones-doesn’t that violate the whole premise? Shouldn’t the news operation ignore the editorial side entirely? Maybe in a perfect, abstract world, Mr. Siegal said. Under actual conditions, he said, “We do have to care because readers tend to make assumptions about the editorial page influencing the news report.”

And The Times has internalized its critics. Throughout, the report seems to echo the work of public editor Daniel Okrent-particularly his columns about the paper’s institutional liberal inclinations and the blurriness on the editorial-opinion divide. The report even replicates Mr. Okrent’s specific March 27 complaint about the inadequacy of the ragged-right format as the identifying mark for columns.

But where Mr. Okrent’s in-house criticism was part chiding, part observational, the report’s self-criticism seems abject. Mr. Okrent had noted that The Times had missed certain stories about the downsides of gay marriage; the report goes further: “By consistently framing the issue as a civil rights matter-gays fighting for the right to be treated like everyone else-we failed to convey how disturbing the issue is in many corners of American social, cultural and religious life.”

Did Mr. Okrent’s collected works provide the template for the committee’s recommendations? “I don’t know which is the chicken and which is the egg,” Mr. Siegal said. Mr. Okrent’s position, the standards editor noted, was created in the first place by recommendation of an earlier Times-reform committee.

-Tom Scocca

Will The New York Times of the future be delivered via three-quarter-inch copper pipe? Among the speakers at a gathering of New York Times Company executives from May 4 to 6 was Home Depot C.E.O. Robert Nardelli-interviewed onstage about his corporate leadership by Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

The conference, held at the Hamilton Park Hotel and Conference Center in Florham Park, N.J., was attended by some 160 Times officials, including the newsroom masthead. It was titled “Leadership Driving Growth.” And with New York Times Company stock hovering near a 52-week low, the agenda was business-not so much the newspaper business as business in general.

Hence Mr. Nardelli’s presentation, in which, according to an attendee, he explained how he had boosted Home Depot’s performance by scheduling shipments at night. Frederick Smith of FedEx briefed the Times brass on his company’s global expansion. (Hey, FedEx won’t deliver if you don’t have a doorman, either!) Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase and John J. Brennan of financial-services giant Vanguard sat on a panel titled “Focus on the Customer” with Estée Lauder chief William Lauder and Sony Pictures chairman (and former Times man Bernard Weinraub’s spouse) Amy Pascal.

At least one presentation was industry-specific: Renetta McCann, chief of the Starcom MediaVest Group, offered a talk titled “The Changing Nature of Media,” discussing the growing importance of P.D.A.’s and cell phones for media companies.

The C.E.O.’s provided their time and wisdom for free, according to Times spokesperson Catherine Mathis, and they were booked directly rather than through speakers’ bureaus. A spokesperson for FedEx said the shipping giant does not charge for Mr. Smith’s appearances, and that bookings are made based on availability and the topic.


The Saturday edition of The Wall Street Journal, scheduled to launch Sept. 17, has already lost one struggle for weekend primacy: At Dow Jones printing plants, the Saturday Journal will have to go to the presses early to make room for Barron’s.

The Journal has a circulation of 2.07 million, while Barron’s has a circulation of 300,040. But the recently redesigned business weekly will be slotted second, according to a Dow Jones spokesperson. Journal deadlines will be shortened by 45 minutes to accommodate the daily’s corporate cousin, though the spokesperson said exceptions will be made for breaking stories.

“We plan for normal delivery of Barron’s while adding the Weekend Edition to better serve our Journal advertisers and subscribers,” the spokesperson wrote in an e-mail statement. ” Barron’s will continue to be delivered on its normal schedule.”


New York Times pundit standings, May 3-9

1. Paul Krugman, score 17.4 [rank last week: 1st]

2. Thomas L. Friedman, 13.5 [2nd]

3. Maureen Dowd, 12.0 [4th]

4. Frank Rich, 9.0 [3rd]

5. Bob Herbert, 4.0 [5th]

6. Nicholas D. Kristof, 3.0 [6th]

7. John Tierney, 2.0 [8th]

8. David Brooks, 1.0 [7th]

Hugs all around! “Ugly Children May Get Parental Short Shrift” may have been the most e-mailed Times news story of the week, but there was no such thing as an unwanted pundit this time. All eight Op-Ed columnists cracked the scoreboard. Among ideological sibling rivals, Maureen Dowd moved ahead of Frank Rich this week, while John Tierney and David Brooks swapped positions at the bottom of the chart.

-T.S. Off the Record