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There’s Something Seriously Wrong With The New York Times’ Restaurant Reviews

new-york-times-3.17.11The New York Times has long been an arbiter of where to eat in the city. Restaurants are reviewed, and when they’re reviewed by the chief critic (currently Pete Wells), they can be assigned star ratings. One star means good, two stars means very good, three stars means excellent, and four means extraordinary. As of this posting, only five restaurants in the city have four stars.

But there’s something very, very wrong with the way the stars are assigned. In January of this year, Wells wrote the review of Thomas Keller‘s Per Se, less formally known as “the review heard ’round the world.” He titled it, “At Per Se, Slips and Stumbles.” Per Sé has long been known as one of the city’s greatest and most special restaurants, and Keller (who is also the chef at San Francisco’s French Laundry) is a treasure. The article was a takedown of epic proportions. He described the place as being “respectably dull at best to disappointingly flat-footed at worst.” He said that the mainstays on the menu were “lame,” and he called the new additions to it “random and purposeless.” He said that a mushroom bouillon was as “murky and appealing as bong water.” He didn’t like the service. And with its sky-high prices, he said that the meal ranks “among the worst food deals in New York.”

He gave the restaurant two stars: very good. In February, Wells reviewed Little Pepper in College Point. He described a whole fish entree there as being “lip-smacking and deeply flavorful, like a Bolognese by way of Chengdu.” He wrote this about the fried potato in hot sauce:

How did crinkle-cut fries get into a Sichuan restaurant? How can I be so helplessly, irretrievably crazy about them? Why, when they cool and lose their allure, do I want to ask the waiter to drop them back into the fryer again? Is something wrong with me? What is this wild desire? And where is the hot sauce?

He said that the place, currently, is his favorite Sichuan food in all of New York. That’s some seriously high praise from the chief restaurant critic at the paper of record. Upon reading that review, I felt the urge to purchase myself a car so that I could get myself to College point. I was craving those fries, and the whole fish, and pretty much everything else on the menu.

He also gave Little Pepper two stars: very good.

How is it possible that what he called one of the “worst food deals in New York” and what he called his favorite Sichuan restaurant in New York earn the same number of stars?

When we thought about it initially, there were people who said that a fine dining establishment like Per Sé would view two stars as an insult. After all, it was knocked down to two from four. For a casual Sichuan place, on the other hand, two stars might be viewed differently. Except, that’s not the point of stars. Isn’t a good restaurant a good restaurant regardless of how fancy it is?

Today’s review is of Pasquale Jones, a restaurant that, on a scale of fast food to fine dining falls somewhere in the middle. It’s a cool not too fancy Italian restaurant in Little Italy. You’re not going to go in your gym clothes, and it’s a great spot to bring your parents, but you’re also not going to drop hundreds of dollars on a multi-course tasting menu. It has been praised by pretty much everyone and Wells is all in. He described the sauce that topped a pasta with blue crab as being “so full of vitality [he] wanted to shoot it into a vein.” In the first paragraphs he essentially says the place is a reason to be in favor of gentrification.

For Pasquale Jones? Two stars: very good.

How is a sauce so good that Wells wants an IV of the stuff into his veins comparable with a mushroom bouillon that’s as “murky and appealing as bong water?” How is there no explanation for Per Sé’s two stars?

Obviously, there is something up with the rating system. What gives?

Follow Dana Eisenberg on Twitter.

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