Pete Wells has been known to champion a few chefs. He gushed about Delaware and Hudson chef Patti Jack’s commitment to regionalism and warm hospitality, and he found Markus Glocker’s food at Bâtard so good it caused him to declare “There is joy in his cooking.” The critic doesn’t have the same fuzzy feelings for restaurateur Keith McNally, but, as he revealed in his review of Cherche Midi this week, he does respect McNally’s success, and is glad that the food at his latest venture is the best he’s offered New York thus far. However, Wells does seem to detest some of his fellow critics’ exaltation of what he sees as the restaurateur’s pleasing yet formulaic approach to dining.
He makes this last point apparent towards the beginning of his review, when he calls out some of his younger colleagues, such as Eater’s Ryan Sutton and The New York Post’s Beth Landman, and their glowing admiration for Keith McNally’s empire with the biting remark, “Food writers who were still eating applesauce through a straw when he opened his first restaurant (the Odeon, 1980) write about him with the same reverence that music writers have for Leonard Cohen. He’s “the king of cool,” the restaurateur who “owns NYC.” This crowning seems strange to Wells, as he believes all evidence points to the fact that “when it comes to current dining trends, particularly those in favor downtown, Mr. McNally shows a healthy disregard, verging at times on hostility… Cherche Midi may be his most thorough repudiation of the downtown scene.”
It’s a rejection of the chef-on-pedestal syndrome, as “In Mr. McNally’s restaurants, chefs are rarely treated like stars… As a result, perhaps, their cooking is almost egoless; it’s not about what they want. It’s about what you want, especially if that happens to be red meat and French wine.” And red meat is in abundance on Cherche Midi’s menu; there’s a prime rib with “dark, roasted edges [that] had the irresistible intensity of the bark on great barbecued brisket, even on the night they were aggressively salted,” and then “The menu gives three more main-course slots to beef. Steak frites does a fine impersonation of a Parisian bistro steak… Filet mignon au poivre is far more tender, of course, with less sacrifice in flavor than usual. The tall, compact, rather lean, drip-free and wholly excellent burger is made from dry-aged prime rib; if you put your nose close enough, you can smell the meat locker right through the aroma of onion-bacon jam.”
Some other dishes that did not feature red meat got honorable mentions, but Wells believes the kitchen overextends itself at times, as explained by his judgment that, “Here and there, the kitchen tends to overembellish.” Still, he concedes, a few minor missteps by the kitchen don’t seem to be enough to sour the successful culinary recipe for a restaurant Keith McNally has employed once again in Cherche Midi. Somehow, there’s some McNally magic, and Wells has to hand it to the restaurateur, who “For three decades… has been rooting around in the same Lego kit… In his hands, these well-worn tricks give restaurants the battered nobility of a vintage Saab. When anyone else tries, they end up with a 1986 Ford Escort.”