Last week, we thought we had New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells all figured out. Want a multi-star review from him? Serve him clearly envisioned, refined food in a subtly cool environment and make sure there’s someone there who knows how to mix him a good drink. He likes restaurants and chefs with a defined point of view, and menus with pricing that won’t give you heartburn.
We guess that adage about the number of ways to skin a cat is true (though incredibly cruel, really), as this week Wells awarded Bowery Meat Company two stars and an accompanying review that explains that Bowery Meat Company’s culinary category is not easily defined.
What really has us baffled is the seeming inconsistency (once again) between the number of stars and the prose explaining his reasoning behind the given grade. Wells describes the menu in a rather unappealing way, stating simply that “on it you will find seven cuts of beef and a burger, potatoes cooked at least four ways and a spinach side dish” before asking the question, “Is it possible that Bowery Meat Company doesn’t know it’s a steakhouse, the way Bruce Willis in ‘The Sixth Sense’ doesn’t know he’s a ghost?” This is the where our previous theory of what pleases Wells is shattered, as we were sure he detested eateries that were trying to be something they’re not, or that resist being assigned a genre to which they clearly belong.
This is followed by little more than a simple report on the décor and a few of the dishes. The dining room appointments “call up the heyday of Palm Springs and gibsons and Pall Malls and, yes, steak, along with other meats.” On the menu, there’s “shrimp scampi, woozy with garlic and butter,” and “broiled oysters under slightly scorched bread crumbs, New Orleans style.” Did Wells think they were properly executed? He does not say.
The only dishes that received any critical commentary were the zucchini carpaccio that “is very good now; it will be excellent when squash is in season,” a terrine of chicken livers and foie gras that is “true luxury,” and pastry chef Katie McAllister’s desserts, which Wells describes as “unabashedly sweet, sometimes to the point where you lose interest, although the s’mores sundae is uncannily precise, down to the ice cream that tastes exactly like a campfire marshmallow.”
He then runs down a few of the chops available. The “imposing” veal chop is treated with some citrus and spice that Wells declares “a terrific solution to the boredom sometimes caused by plain broiled lumps of animal muscle.” The signature Bowery steak from celebrity butcher Pat LaFrieda isn’t exactly to the critic’s liking, and he describes it as “intensely flavorful, but I wish Mr. Capon would leave the garlic-heavy raw chopped herb sauce on the side.” Oh, and they serve an “ultratender” burger.
To us, it sounds as if Pete Wells didn’t hate Bowery Meat Company, but he didn’t seem impressed by it either. So why two stars? Why not simply one? Wells’ colleague William Grimes said at a recent restaurant critics’ panel that he believes the real gauge of a vibrant restaurant scene is the number of one-star eateries it holds, but perhaps Wells has adopted the ways of Ruth Reichl — Grimes’ predecessor — who had a reputation of giving two stars to most restaurants as a kind of baseline.
Another Times writer, Maureen Dowd, recently wrote that “only the Shadow knows” what the Clintons are really up to, but we think she was actually talking about her colleague and his method for assessing the city’s restaurants.