In his review this week, Pete Wells tackled two of New York restauranteur Danny Meyer’s establishments, and awarded them two different star ratings. The critic deemed North End Grill worthy of two stars, while he judged Blue Smoke deserving of one. Both restaurants recently underwent chef changes — Jean-Paul Bourgeois took over the Blue Smoke kitchen last March, and Eric Korsh began his stint as North End Grill’s chef last spring — as did the Dining Room and the Bar Room at the Modern. These shifts have revealed an opportunity to revamp each restaurant, and Wells believes that Meyer’s team at the Union Square Hospitality Group are cleverly taking advantage of this chance, as he writes that, “What is clear is that a company with a healthy respect for loyalty and stability has taken advantage of the turnover. The new chefs are far from cautious caretakers; they’ve moved decisively to refresh menus that, in some cases, had begun to stagnate.”
Blue Smoke is the first he dissects, and while he believes chef Bourgeois is talented, the overall concept of the restaurant sets it and its chef up for less-than-greatness. The establishment is supposed to specialize in multiple types of American barbeque, which Wells points out, means that “its meat would be compared to Texas brisket, Carolina pulled pork and St. Louis ribs, and also guaranteed that the verdict would not favor Blue Smoke… today Blue Smoke also faces competition from local pitmasters who produce great barbecue more consistently than it does.” Some days, the critic claims, you’ll be happy with what you’ve been served, while on others you’ll receive “a pulp of gray, lifeless, smokeless pork or a tough, stringy sparerib.” Still, Wells puts stock in Bourgeois’ “contemporary Southern cooking,” which he claims, “is at the head of the pack [in New York].” He proceeds to describe dishes using flattering prose, like “very fine;” “tender, juicy;” and “outstanding.” However, this was not enough to garner more than a single star from the critic, as, along with judging the overall concept as flawed, he also received “the worst service I’ve ever had at one of Mr. Meyer’s restaurants.” Wells begins his review of the sister restaurant with the blunt statement, “It’s less clear that North End Grill needed a course correction.” This signaled that, as long as he did not encounter any major let-downs, the restaurant would most likely at least keep the two stars he awarded it in 2012. He admits that even though he originally bestowed multiple stars, he found former head chef Floyd Cardoz’s menu “hard to pin down: It had an egg section, but also lots of fish, and meat cooked on the wood grill seemed to be important, too.” He asserts that new chef Eric Korsh “has a more unified approach, one tilting toward France. The level of cooking may not be different now, but Mr. Korsh hits more high notes, and hits them more often.”
And with that judgment, it becomes unclear to the reader why the critic did not upgrade his rating of the restaurant; the paper does not award half-stars, so perhaps Wells did not believe it deserved three and had to round down. Still, if there is improvement in the execution — and he makes a point to paint Korsh’s offerings with a wide, positive brush, with comments like, “His charcuterie is worth a visit all by itself,” “he served a loup de mer the way I’d like to see it done at La Grenouille,” “I loved the way Mr. Korsh had seared and deeply scored the skin side of a raw Spanish mackerel… I admired how precisely each piece of seafood in his bouillabaisse was cooked,” “Smoke and char bring a primeval thrill,” and “the Berkshire pork… is a piece of meat for the ages; it could do for the pork chop what Peter Luger did for the porterhouse”— it would only seem logical that these more consistent “high notes” the chef is hitting would justify a third star. However, since the critic gives no explanation as to why he chose not to upgrade North End Grill’s star rating, the method to his ranking madness will have to remain a [culinary] mystery.