Thursday, January 21, 2016

Q&A with NY Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, part deux

I promised not to run Pete Wells' photo, so here's a pretty iceberg
Recently I spoke with New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells for an hour.

Below is the second part of that interview. Here is a link to part one.

The Gray Report: How do you feel about tasting menus with wine pairings?

Pete Wells: Often they're not a great deal. On the other hand, often they're a great way to taste something that you might not have bought by the bottle. I've discovered a lot of interesting stuff through pairings. I'm not particularly a fan of the idea that there's a perfect match for any particular dish. But I have had pairings where I've thought, those two things are amazing together.
I myself don't believe that there's going to be one wine that's perfect for your lamb dish and my fish dish. I like wines that can dance with a lot of partners. And I think most good wines do. A good wine will go with a whole lot of things. I'm much more interested in finding an interesting bottle that has something interesting to say.

When you say that, though, what about some of these very expressive natural wines. Are you worried about the wine competing for attention with the food?

Sometimes that happens. That happened with the big wines. Now you have these natural wines that are so eccentric that it's hard to think of anything else when you're drinking it. They don't have the same quality as the old big wines, but they have their own quality that's distracting.

There's a kind of wine I've struggled for years to express my affection for, and I have a really hard time describing in a way that sounds appetizing. I like to say "quiet" wines, but that doesn't excite a reader. It's something I can't quite get at: a wine that's quiet, that doesn't say much.

Maybe it says it softly. When I think of a wine that doesn't say much I think of a generic wine. Something that's fine, well-made, but not interesting.
I used to think of Beaujolais as the kind of wine that you're talking about, that doesn't say much. But now I don't. I think it's a lovely wine. It has something to say. It just don't shout.

How do you decide between not reviewing a restaurant or giving a negative review?

There are all kinds of restaurants that if one reviewed them, would get a negative review. More than 90% of the restaurants in New York probably don't merit a star in my system. Most of them are not interesting enough to my readers to have any kind of justification for knocking them. If you're going to knock a place, you have to have some sort of reason.
Per Se just has such a reputation.
Senor Frogs, I did not like most of the food, but the place was so nutty that I thought it would make for good copy.
A couple years ago I did 21, and it's an important, historic New York resturant but I don't think it gives good value on the food for the history and location. I did an affectionate negative review. Senor Frogs is an affectionate negative review.

I read your Senor Frogs review and it didn't sound negative, not like Per Se.

I had a good time there. I don't think it's a great restaurant but as a surreal circus in the center of Manhattan it's an experience.

I'll ask this question generally, but you know what I'm talking about* so you can either answer generally or specifically. How do you decide, when giving a negative review, how many stars to give?

* (To readers: Wells gave Per Se two stars even though he called it a "no-fun house" and ripped it a new orifice; he may have made Thomas Keller cry. As a condition of our interview Wells said he would not speak specifically about that review because he doesn't want to "inadvertently say something that expands on the original criticism.")

It's hard. I try not to write many reviews that are a defense of the star rating I've given. You read some reviews that every line is a defense of the star rating. Four stars, you almost have to do that. There are so few of them. They're at the tippy-top. You have to explain why it's there.
I find that kind of review doesn't allow me to have nuances, for me to have mixed feelings. I could write it's good in these ways, it's not good in these ways. I don't want to read that.
I want to give myself some freedom to write some reviews that have some shading and hope the readers understand that not everything's all good, not everything's all bad. Readers don't all need to be led by the hand as to why this is one star or two stars.
As a result people argue about my star ratings. But they'd argue anyway.

Do you think people think about the stars too much?

Yeah, I do. I'm a writer. I'm not Michelin. I write a newspaper column. I'm not going to pretend that I have any great confidence that (stars) can be done accurately. I can take 1000 words and describe a restaurant. That I can do. If you look at the stars and you don't read the review I don't know what you're doing.

I read some reviews where it seems like the service is the key. What's most important in a restaurant?

Food most of all. The other things can be a deal breaker. If the food is good but the service is horrendous you might go once and not want to go again. To me it's the food first and foremost.

Food writing culture has changed a lot in the last five years. Increasingly food critics are reviewing places like takeout stands. The standards for what can be a great "restaurant" are very different today. Is there a minimum level of facilities for you to consider reviewing a place? If a place had, say, a great chili cheese dog for takeout, would you review it?

I feel pretty confident that a restaurant has to have seating. If you don't have seating you're not a restaurant so you're not in my column. That keeps me away from food trucks, even though I think they're interesting.
I think I pushed the limits of the facilities a restaurant needs to be reviewed with the Superiority Burger review. It's a place that's famous for its veggie burger and structurally it's a takeout place. Only 6 people can sit there and people are waiting for their food when you're eating. But there's real cooking going on there and there's real attention to the customer experience.

I read that you eat oatmeal.

I had oatmeal this morning. And yesterday morning.

What else do you like to eat when you're off duty?

I'm so rarely off duty. A home-cooked meal is such a rare treat.
I love it when people invite me over for dinner. I'm going to sound like I'm fishing for an invite, but no one ever does it. They're afraid I'm going to lash them onto the floor because their risotto is overcooked. Now I have crossed over into fishing for a dinner invitation. I just miss the pleasures of home.

Do you ever order delivery food?

Once in a while, out of a lack of planning. The kids want a pizza from around the corner, which they think is the best restaurant in the world. It's just an ordinary New York pizza slice.

To me, the pizza slice is New York cuisine. I never visit New York without having one. Do you ever eat a slice of pizza?

Not that often. For me a slice of pizza is when you're walking around and you're hungry and you forgot to have dinner. When I was in my 20s I'd be out with my friends and at 9:30 I'd say, Oh, I'm hungry. That's when a slice is perfect.

Where would you tell somebody from out of town to go that's representative of New York? Something like Katz's Deli, I usually go there. Where else would you send people?

Katz's Deli, that's a great only in New York place. I want to say the Four Seasons but the food lately is not something I'd recommend at that price, but I do love going to that bar there.
Minetta Tavern is another New Yorky feeling tavern that has pretty good food. You really feel like you're in New York when you're in that room.
That's how I feel about 21. I like a lot of old New York restaurants that don't necessarily have great food anymore.
I like being in the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station when I can get there.

I love the Oyster Bar!

But there's only maybe 3 things I order there. Oyster pan roast, or the oyster stew.
The oyster pan roast has a little chile sauce so it's slightly spicy. I'll get oysters there but I don't think it's a great place to eat oysters.

What about anonymity? When I google you your face comes up on the Internet. This used to be a huge issue for critics. I worked with Michael Bauer at the San Francisco Chronicle and I've seen him go to great lengths to disguise himself: dye his hair, wear an extra fake stomach. Do you use that kind of spycraft?

The most effective disguise is to try to be inconspicuous. I might pull my hair down over my face a little. More often I try to be quiet. Usually it works, but sometimes it doesn't.

What do you do when you know you've been outed?

Whatever you can do. I try to pay more attention to what's happening at other tables. Maybe not the one right next to me, because smart restaurants will make sure the tables left and right are getting the same treatment. I try to observe the general scene. Are the people across the room getting the same size pork chop as I am?

How often are you outed?

I'm not sure. Sometimes I thought I was spotted and found out later I wasn't. Sometimes I thought I floated under the radar and found out later they knew exactly who I was, what I ordered and what color underwear I was wearing.

Thanks so much for this conversation, I really enjoyed it. Where's dinner tonight?

I can't say. I can't say until it's too late.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Hawk_Wakawaka said...

Thanks for writing this up, Blake. I enjoyed reading it.

Unknown said...

Mr. Wells,

If you are looking for a red wine that will compliment Lamb and Fish try these: Lacrima di Morro di Alba, Aleatico, Frappato, or grapes that have been fermented with full or partial carbonic maceration.


Unknown said...

One of the most insightful interviews I have read in recent months; thanks for the great read.

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks, Rebecca and Elaine! Praise on the Internet is rare and precious.

guren said...

Well bowled, Mr. Gray. The interview was compelling from beginning to end.

Meg Houston Maker said...

I loved this two-part interview so much. It's priceless for one reviewer to peek inside the mind of another. Bravo, Gray and Wells.