Sam Sifton's Greatest Hits

Tara Taghizadeh

The late Samuel Goldwyn once said: “Don’t pay attention to the critics – don’t even ignore them.” However, in an age where anyone with a laptop and an opinion qualifies as a critic, it’s hard to ignore the avalanche of “reviews” that float around the dark, dank world of the Internet.  


Though the era of has ushered in a slew of foodie opinion-makers who, with a click of a mouse, post their starred dining experiences in 100 words or less, notable food critics, particularly those who write for prestigious city papers and influential food magazines, still relish the power of making or breaking a restaurant. So much so that a restaurateur in Los Angeles recently ousted L.A. Times critic S. Irene Virbila out of his restaurant, then posted her photo online in a successful attempt to blow her cover.  


Perhaps no other food critic is more influential than Sam Sifton of the New York Times. With more than 20,000 restaurants, the Times critics opine on the city’s wealth of eateries in the most influential newspaper in the country.  


Sifton, who has been at the helm since October 2009, has a certain flair for the written word. His reviews are frequently, for lack of a better word, flowery, and replete with vivid descriptions –sometimes apropos, other times downright odd – that add a certain flavor to his prose (pun intended).  


We read Sifton religiously, but some of his restaurant reviews leave us scratching our heads. Without further ado, here are a few excerpts of Mr. Sifton’s (sometimes  poetic/sometimes confusing) greatest hits:  


Masa: "Much of my time was spent in a fog of pleasure, sitting dumbfounded on the shores of excess."


"The sushi particularly astonished. Takahiro Sakaeda, the chef who prepared two of my meals, paced the evenings with the studied wickedness of a great D.J. or playwright, building acts into the meal, replete with turning points, subplots and rising action."  


Desmond’s: "An order of crisp-fried lobster tails with tarragon and caper mayonnaise can whisk you right back to Park Avenue and 71st Street, however. The tender, sweet little nuggets are of the sort you might run into as hors d’oeuvres at a dinner party in one of those magical old apartments where it is possible to get lost. And if they are not world-changing or radical, they are at least base and exciting. Eat one and it’s as if you are Earl Long looking at Blaze Starr for the first time."  


Empellon: "And suddenly it does not matter that Genesis-era rock is playing loud in the background and a shouty office party next to your table is screaming as if one of them is on fire. The restaurant’s food and drink are a balm for nerves scraped raw by its din. Even when the room is half full, some will consider leaving before ordering even a chip. No one will come to talk quietly of friendship or grandchildren, finance or literature."  


Osteria Morini: "Mr. White’s pastas glisten with pork fat, with butter, with cream, with oil. They are aggressively salted. They hang around on the outskirts of Too Much." "…Polenta with wild mushrooms is a dish the size of a pie, and arrives from the oven the temperature of molten glass. It is all comically overmuch, a Pixar vision of Italy’s upper thigh, a place where everyone rides Ducatis down highways the color of egg yolks."


Il Matto:  "Crème brûlée arrived soon after, a savory appetizer, the custard infused with pecorino beneath its sugary crust, served with red-onion jam and deeply reduced balsamic vinegar. The combination was weird, fantastic, a fun-house treat. A bowl of buffalo mozzarella came as well, melted into heavy cream to create a soup, served with tomato ice and fried eggplant. It ripped familiar flavors from their moorings. It conjured something new."


"Il Matto’s is food to chuckle over and think about. It is a book of short stories, worth reading."  


Marc Forgione:  "Mr. Forgione’s food is sometimes sweet. Other times, it is salty, sour or spicy. Sometimes it is all four — and loudly so. The brashness is deeply and above all American."


"Recently there has been on his appetizer menu a dish called barbecued oysters, a riff on an old Paul Prudhomme recipe. Mr. Forgione naps four oysters in a Cajun béchamel, with a little bit of pepper-jack cheese and a dot of barbecue sauce, then runs them under the high heat of an industrial broiler. With a dusting of fiery spice powder — Ararat blend, from La Boîte à Epice — these come to the table in the manner of a postcard from Chartres Street, New Orleans. …They taste of time travel, of a realization that sometimes the future lies in the past."  


Ciano:  "The first is Mr. Gallante’s food, which is ambitious, beautiful and flavor packed, a kind of Italian home cooking made grand and attractive, rich as Berlusconi, not as oily."  


Kenmare: "It is crowded nightly, first with dinner parties that seem pulled from rejected “Sex and the City” scripts and then with a late, late, late show of models and people with incredible collections of music and sneakers and phone numbers, accompanied by the people who went to college with them who now work on Wall Street."


"There are enough pretty young things and the people who chase them at Kenmare to recall Bret Easton Ellis novels, Scissor Sisters songs and the whole first season of HBO’s “How to Make it in America.” The incessant rumbling of the nearby Lexington Avenue subway vibrates up into a table-hoppy, air-kissing, haven’t-seen-you-since-Quogue bubble of nighttime excitement."  


Peels: "A platter of ham from Burgers’ Smokehouse in Missouri  provides a different reaction: a lover’s postcard, sent from the Ozarks. (The Romaine Holiday salad, with buttermilk dressing and bacon, meanwhile, reads more like Dear John.)"


"…scrambled eggs with sausage and pepper-jack cheese, for instance, tastes on its airy, salty host as if it had risen in a Mississippi dawn. It makes you want to hunt ducks."  


Graffiti: "Entrees offer a return to whimsy, with platings that owe something to Kandinsky. They are brightly colored, severely abstract, occasionally Bauhaus."


"For dessert, Mr. Núñez offers madness: most notably in a dish of beets and meringue, with a jalapeño jelly. This is much, much better than that description implies, but still has no real reason to exist beyond provocation, beyond a forced quirkiness."  


Author Bio:

Tara Taghizadeh is the Founding Editor & Publisher of Highbrow Magazine.                              

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