[Note: Frank Bruni did not pose for that picture.]
The dinner was set for Monday, October 22nd, and the e-mail came on Thursday, October 18th. It said: “We’re going to check out ___… at 8:30 p.m., reservation for four under surname ___.” (E-mail’s been censored for obvious reasons.) Then, on the 21st, another e-mail came with the subject: “Monday night location and slight time change.” A new place was named for 8:45 and the instruction was given: “They don’t take reservations, so first person there should just check in and give a name, any name other than mine.”
Me being an anxious, obsessive person, I arrived at said location 15 minutes too early and was stunned to find that the place was closed. How could this be? Did I get the place right? Were there two places with this name and was I at the wrong one? What if I got the night wrong? The time wrong? I did all the research I could on my cellphone and concluded that this had to be the place and that I was, indeed, here on the right night at the right time. As if on cue, Friend of Bruni #1 arrived and introduced herself. She too was surprised that the place was closed but assured me that we were in the right spot. The street was a bit empty and soon a man came walking across the street and Friend of Bruni #1 called to him.
“Is that Frank?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “That’s (Friend of Bruni #2.)”
“Oh,” I said, embarrassed. But what did I have to be embarrassed about? Isn’t it Frank Bruni’s job to be unrecognizable?
I met Friend #2 and then, a few moments later, another man came walking across the street.
“It’s closed,” called Friend #1.
The man laughed. By process of elimination I knew who he was but I almost couldn’t believe it: he seemed so young, so calm, and–dare I say it–skinny that I couldn’t believe this was the food critic for The New York Times.
I put out my hand. “Hi,” I said and then added, unnecessarily: “I’m Adam.”
He smiled and shook. “I’m Frank,” he said, also unnecessarily, and with that I’d officially met the city’s most powerful critic.
The group (minus myself) instantly began assessing the situation: didn’t the P.R. for this place say it was open seven days a week? Bruni checked the paperwork (which he had with him) and, sure enough, it said it’d be open Mondays.
“Ok,” he said. “So where should we go instead?”
He was asking us? I was completely silent: what could I possibly suggest? Friend #1, who we’ll call Layla just to make things easier, began rattling off places that’d just opened.
“There’s __,” she said, “and __ and __ and __. Oh and __ is supposed to be good. Oh and __.”
It was wildly impressive: I’d never heard of any of these places, any of these chefs, and they were all viable candidates, it seemed, for a New York Times review.
Bruni considered and then presented his own options. I’d also never heard of any of them (shows how disconnected I am from the frantic world of New York dining) and after some discussion we settled on a place that was a cab ride away.
Finding a cab was a bit of a chore since cabbies were on strike at that time (seems like everyone’s on strike these days) but finally we climbed in and on the way to our destination, Frank kindly asked me about my book, my blog, my traffic, etc. I got the impression–and I think it’s a correct one–that his world is so inundated with food personalities, food writers, food experts, bloggers and the like that it’s impossible to keep track of who everyone is and what they do. But I was glad to have something to talk about.
Once at the restaurant, Friend #2, who we’ll call Brian, spoke to the host while the rest of us sat at the bar.
Frank, Layla and Brian all ordered “normal” drinks–meaning drinks that you can get anywhere (I don’t remember specifically what Frank got)–and I ordered a frou frou drink off the special drink menu. We waited about 30 minutes for our table, during which time I spoke to Brian and Frank spoke to Layla. It was a cool space with candles and such and the drink helped me, a bit, to calm my nerves. I felt a bit out of sorts in such highly distinguished company.
Once at the table, Frank explained the process: we would all order an appetizer and an entree, each of us ordering something different. He told us what he’d had the last time he was there (he was there once before) and so we were to avoid those dishes. Still, there was plenty of room to choose what we wanted and since I like eating everything I waited until everyone else made their choice before choosing mine.
After we ordered, I had a glass of wine (to catch up with everyone else, having finished their drinks and moved on to wine by the glass) and joined in the conversation. It’d be uncouth of me to report on what was said, and so this is the point where I’ll pull away from the story and offer some general observations about the meal, about Frank, and about the process of reviewing a restaurant for The New York Times.
When most of us go out to eat, we don’t hold a restaurant’s fate in our hands. We can relax, soak things in, make observations about the food, the service, and the decor without feeling like these observations will impact lives and livelihoods; without worrying that the gum we chewed before dinner might throw off the taste of that lobster bisque, rendering an unfair review that might humiliate a chef, putting a knife in the heart of his or her signature dish.
Bruni handles all of this with grace and good humor. That’s what struck me most about him: his humility and his sense of fun. He has perspective on what he does and when it comes to evaluating food, he is measured and thoughtful. He doesn’t exclaim, he doesn’t pout–he eats, he considers, and then he softly shares his opinion.
I didn’t always agree with him. There was a lamb dish that he adored that I simply enjoyed; there was another dish he didn’t care for that I did. What was clear, though, was that his evaluations were careful and considered–he doesn’t mince words, he speaks his mind and then listens to what others have to say. To me, that’s model behavior for a food critic: rational, thoughtful, and open-minded. In fact, that’s model behavior for most things in life
By the second bottle of wine, I was feeling a bit dizzy and the desserts weren’t helping the situation. Before I knew it we were outside and I was walking by myself to the subway. Dinners sometimes unfold that way: you get so caught up in the event, time shoots by and then you’re outside and it’s over.
But I’m grateful to Frank for having me along (after an e-mail exchange, I asked if I could meet him and he said yes). The evening was many things for me: evidence that people are just people, no matter how seemingly important and/or powerful; validation of my own efforts here on this lowly little website and, mostly, just a fun evening out with lively, intelligent people. I hope I get to do it again.