Does the New York Times restaurant critic hate food?

I’ve tried to give him a chance to get his writing legs under him, but the New York Times new chief restaurant critic Sam Sifton has made a mess of his beat. His style of writing isn’t the main problem for me, though it is for others (here and here). Yeah, I don’t like his writing, but let’s chalk that up to my preference.

The problem is that Sifton doesn’t write about food very much, considering he’s supposed to be doing restaurant reviews. He thinks the whole experience of going to a restuarant as performance art, as best as I can tell, so the food is just one point to note. And the food might not be the most important point, judging by the ledes of his reviews. Rarely does a review mention food before you’ve read half the article. Talk of the service you’ll find at restaurants is almost nonexistent.

If food was important to Sam Sifton he’d write about it before 500 words fly by. I’m wondering if this guy has an editor, because an editor with good judgement wouldn’t let that happen. As they say in sports highlights shows, let’s go to the tape.

In his latest review published Feburary 17, 2010, Sifton wrote 1,096 words but doesn’t get to a full paragraph about the food until word 717. What did he write before getting to the food? Basically the history of pizza restaurants in New York City and the chefs who head them, including someone who has since moved to San Francisco.

Here are the first two paragraphs of the review (113 words):

THERE was a television crew in Motorino in Williamsburg a couple of weeks ago, Michelle Park from NY1 shooting a segment with the restaurant’s chef, the elegant young Mathieu Palombino. He smiled shyly in chef’s whites.

There have been others. Fame stalks the restaurant, which has locations in Brooklyn and the East Village. Vice magazine came to film an episode of its “Munchies” program, which streams on VBS.tv. Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli, who run the Frankies restaurants and Prime Meats out of a compound in Carroll Gardens, were the ostensible subjects, but they ventured to Motorino to eat pizza. They ended up spiriting Mr. Palombino back to their lair to make meatballs.

Blah, blah, blah, so it goes for 717 words. Summarized, the introduction to the restaurant Motorinio is letting the reader know that it’s famous.

Let’s look at one other example, a review published January 27, 2010. The review is 1,054 words long; his first paragraph about the food comes at word  582. What did he write for more than half the article? London, of course! (The restaurant has another operation there.) Here’s how Sifton began this review:

IN London, the restaurant called Le Caprice holds a place somewhere between our Michael’s, the news media hub on East 55th Street, and the Sardi’s of old in the theater district. It is not so much a restaurant as a club.

At its best, the British version of Le Caprice is filled with lords and skeevy barristers, hacks and publicists, actors on the make, drooping aristos, pop stars and spectacular women. There is a wonderful story about the punk-rock chieftain Ian Dury crashing through the place, drunk and outstanding on his cane. It ends with Omar Sharif punching him in the face.

You don’t hear so much about the food at Le Caprice. But a meal there might be a novel in three courses, or a short story told in gin and diet pills.

That’s right, Sifton’s first 135 words are about a restaurant in London where “you don’t hear so much about the food.” Perfect. And how does Sifton begin his first full paragraph about the food he’s reviewing?

There are a few good things to eat.

Sifton’s passion about the food jumps off the page (kidding). He doesn’t give the restaurant a very good review, which is fine, but write about the food with passion, damn it! I don’t think this guy loves food. Maybe he’s happy eating Top Ramen everyday?

Who loves food and is writing good restaurant reviews today?

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