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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Tasted Four Times, with Consistent Notes

Pete Wells' review of Guy Fieri's new Times Square restaurant makes for a great tasting note
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 15, 2012 3:00pm ET

Surely you've read it by now. The savage review from the New York Times' Pete Wells of Guy's American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square, the new restaurant from celebrity chef Guy Fieri.

It was low-hanging fruit for sure. Guy Fieri is best known for his passion for comfort food and his outsize personality, both of which share the spotlight on his popular TV show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. I'm not sure what the New York Times readership gained from the review—I wouldn't expect many of them to be interested in the restaurant in the first place. But it obviously had an impact. Fieri was given rebuttal time this morning on national TV via the Today Show (Fieri claimed Wells clearly had an agenda and it's not fair to review a restaurant in its first two months of being open).

New York restaurant critics are known to give a special Bronx cheer when out-of-town celebrity chefs set up shop here. Whether the chefs are low or high on the culinary totem pole, New York critics can really give them the what for. Remember the lashing Alain Ducasse got for being presumptuous enough to offer a selection of pens with which to sign the check at his Essex House restaurant? Ouch.

What I admired about Wells' review, based on four visits to Fieri's new restaurant, was its rhetorical style. Not just the brilliant use of a series of rhetorical questions, but its deft use of descriptors. It read, to me, like a great tasting note.

"Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita?" Wells asked in the review. "Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?"

Wait, radiator fluid and formaldehyde? Has Wells actually tried either of those two substances? Have any of you? I can actually claim "yes" to one of them, thanks to losing a bet in junior high school science class. But I'm guessing I'm in the minority.

Still, the imagery is terrific. Even if you haven't tasted either, you know exactly what Wells is getting at. And that's what a great tasting note does.

It struck me as curious that Wells' colleague, Eric Asimov, the chief wine critic at the New York Times, has often poked fun at tasting notes, and even questioned their fundamental usefulness. (Disclosure: He's singled my tasting notes out for criticism a few times.)

When we're tasting wine or food, we conjure up both actual flavor sensations and imagined ones. Great wine and food can transport us to someplace else. They enhance our day, our mind, our soul. They bring up fond memories, as when the cartoon critic Anton Ego in the animated movie Ratatouille drops his lower jaw in astonishment and is transported back to being in his mom's kitchen as a young boy after his first bite of ratatouille at Gusteau's. When bad, wine and food can outright revile us, merely disappoint us or leave us with a laughing memory of a bad time.

But either way, good or bad, wine and food stick with us. And as a consequence, we naturally long to relate those experiences to others. We want to recount them with the friends we shared them with at the time. We also want to effectively describe and explain those experiences to others who were not there, to pull them in, to pique their interest, to perhaps gain a new ally in the never ending quest for the next great bottle or meal.

To do that, we need the tasting note. And every wine writer (and food writer for that matter) needs to do two things. The first is rely on the standard lexicon used by the general population of writers in that field. By having a base line, readers can move between one critic and another, finding common ground to compare their own experience to the sensation the writer is trying to convey.

Second, writers must find our own voice and style while also being consistent. True, one person' plum is another's currant. But if the individual writer is consistent in their identification and approach, then creating the baseline needed is easy. And the writer's own voice takes over and the reader can decide for themselves which critic is giving them information in a way they enjoy and can use effectively.

The wine tasting note isn't going to disappear. I hope it's augmented and developed further, not only by new writers, but existing ones as well. I'm always on the look out for tasting note inspiration, whether it's from the bins holding a half-dozen different kinds of pears at the farmer's market or in a field of garrigue blowing in a gentle breeze. And on the flip side, there's soggy tree bark and swamp gas. And yeah, I've savaged a few wines in print too … low-hanging fruit can be fun from time to time.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.

Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  November 15, 2012 5:48pm ET
Well said James. Fieri is from here in Sonoma County and he's a big boy and fair game. While I thought the review was indeed funny and well written, I wonder if readers would have been better served by a more straight-forward review. As it is, the writing distracts from the greater point that Fieri has some serious work ahead.

Fieri, as I see it, is like a good value Merlot - many of us expect more but let's not forget it can be a gateway to better drinking for others. Why knock it?
Charles Mcgrath
Florida —  November 15, 2012 5:55pm ET
James, quick opinion on the Perrin famile, lOustalet CDR wine?
Thanks
Charles
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  November 15, 2012 6:49pm ET
Charles: Sorry, but I need a bit more info...vintage? and L'Oustalet is the restaurant they own in Gigondas, not the name of a wine...
Richard Gangel
San Francisco —  November 15, 2012 7:49pm ET
Tim, my take on Pete Wells' review is that it was a satirical view on what appears to be a culinary joke on the part of Guy Fieri. What I don't understand is how he can open a restaurant that is so flawed in every way imaginable. If he were truly serious (which is questionable) he would have spent the time in New York making sure that everything was as close to right as it could possibly be. Don't just take things for granted that everybody will come because your name is on the front door. After what happened I wonder how long he is going to stay in New York to try to fix the problems instead of hopping back on the plane to SFO.

James, as for your mention of the pretension of Alain Ducasse's restaurant in the Essex House, I recall that when Cyrus first opened in Healdsburg the maitre d' would pick up the phone in the front of the restaurant to call the chef to inform him of the diners' arrival. I'm not sure how long they continued with that routine, but I thought it was silly. At least from the beginning Cyrus was a superb dining experience whereas Ducasse's restaurant had a number of flaws that had to be worked out. I will truly miss Cyrus and hope that they will soon find another location.
Matt Ploetz
Milwaukee, WI —  November 15, 2012 10:32pm ET
My favorite James tasting description is Linzer torte. Someday I will be lucky enough to come across one of these tortes. I will eat it and think of CdP and James with a smile.
Tom Hailey
Raleigh, NC —  November 16, 2012 12:15am ET
Matt, it's all good and well to eat Linzer torte with some fine CDP, but the ideal pairing is actually Kenya AA coffee.
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  November 16, 2012 7:33am ET
Tom: Don't forget the Valrhona chocolate....
Richard Lee
Napa —  November 16, 2012 11:15am ET
James: Don't forget the figgy pudding...
William Matarese
Florida, USA —  November 17, 2012 1:31pm ET
I thought Wells' review was hilarious. Yes, a lot of it was tongue-in-cheek, but it seems that the food and service were SO incredibly bad that it was impossible to take the place seriously. At some point, people need to call out these "celebrity chefs" and "TV personalities" that put their names on these awful, over-priced restuarants.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  November 19, 2012 2:06pm ET
Wow, that was FUNNY! Based on my limited experience of viewing Mr. Fieri I wouldn't have personally taken him to task for low-grade food any more than I would blame Paula Deen for my obesity. It's easy to be mean, and so I think Mr. Wells took the petty/easy road.
John Wilen
Texas —  November 20, 2012 8:48am ET
See the 'SNL' Guy Fieri spoof that didn't air:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/people/2012/11/20/snl-did-guy-fieri-spoof-but-not-on-air/1716415/

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