Years ago, at the dawn of my accidental career as a professional glutton, this magazine’s prominent, long-serving restaurant critic, Gael Greene, invited me to lunch at Alain Ducasse’s much-hyped (and, it would turn out, doomed) new restaurant in the Essex House. “The reservation will be under Ms. Rebecca Lemos,” said Gael over the ancient landline telephone wire in a deep, hushed voice, which managed to sound both commanding and conspiratorial at the same time. Gael didn’t go in for outright disguises, like many of her contemporaries claimed to do, but she did (and still does) have a fondness for hats. I expected to find her dressed in one of her wide-brimmed Derby Day numbers when I arrived for our lunch promptly at the appointed hour. But Ms. Lemos was sitting hatless and alone in the restaurant’s baroque, ridiculously pompous bar area.
“Ms. Lemos, I presume,” I said with a mock flourish.
“Just call me Gael,” she said with a weary smile.
This weary smile will be familiar to anyone who has dined with a practicing restaurant critic and quizzed him or her on the strange, time-honored Kabuki dance that takes place between chefs and restaurateurs and the people whose job it is to cover them.
Do they know who you are? (Of course they do.) So why do you register under an assumed name? (Because chefs would otherwise prepare for my arrival.) Will they come up and say hello? (Probably not.) Why not? (Because they’re pretending I’m not here.) Why are they doing that? (Because they want to pretend I’m having a “normal” dining experience.) So ordering the entire menu in one sitting is a “normal” dining experience? (Umm, maybe not for you …)
Well, after dutifully playing my part in this dated charade, I have an announcement to make. Starting with this issue, I would like readers to know what restaurateurs around town have known for years. Adam Platt is a tall, top-heavy, round-faced gentleman who often dresses for dinner in the same dark, boxy, sauce-stained coat he bought off the rack at Rochester Big & Tall thirteen years ago. My favorite time to dine is 6:30 in the evening, or even earlier when a new restaurant is popular and it’s difficult to get a table. I can sometimes look dyspeptic while on the job, but friends will attest that I’m courtly when approached in person. And I have a well-known fondness for robust, hungry-man foods (ribs and pork chops, roast chickens), which cooks around town sometimes refer to as “Platt-nip.”
Why do I (with the prodding and endorsement of my editors) choose this particular moment to come lumbering into public view? A better question might be “What took you so goddamned long?” Dining critics in London began running their photos above their columns some time ago, and several of New York City’s most reputable critics have been out of the proverbial closet for years. Craig Claiborne, who helped invent the myth of the discreetly “anonymous” critic at the Times, used to have promising chefs, like Daniel Boulud, come and cook for him outside of their restaurants. During my lunch with Gael, Alain Ducasse emerged from his kitchen to give her a warm greeting, a dramatic gesture that did not prevent her from gleefully slamming his restaurant in a blistering cover-story review.
Over the years, this myth of anonymity has served many useful purposes. It’s worked, in practice, for the mysterious Michelin inspectors, who return to dining establishments year after year to take away or bestow their stars. It can work, also, for local critics whose publications attempt to cultivate a similar illusion of omniscience, although it’s been my experience that the handful of grand restaurants that actually have stars to lose will make it their business to spot you. Mostly, though, anonymity has been a powerful marketing tool. It’s lent a sense of impartiality and Oz-like mystery to the dark art of restaurant criticism, and if members of the clubby fine-dining world didn’t always believe it, then at least the public sometimes did.
These days, of course, much of this old magic is gone. The mannered world of Eurocentric restaurateurs that Gael and Craig grew up in has been replaced by a riotous democracy of chattering TV judges, glorified restaurant bars, and tattooed comfort-food cooks. In the old days, critics would wait months to anoint the latest hot restaurant, and now the food blogs will have that news for you in 24 seconds. In this crowdsourced age, no one’s really anonymous anymore (although if you’ve tried Googling “Adam Platt images” before today, you know that it’s possible to do a pretty good job), and thanks to Instagram and Yelp, anyone can be a member of the critic’s formerly exclusive dining club.
So is there still room for the steady (and, yes, sometimes weary) voice of the professional in a world where everyone’s a critic? Of course there is. This is especially true in the theatrical realm of restaurants, where the quality and enjoyment of your dinner can vary dramatically depending on where you sit, what time of day you eat, how long the restaurant has been open, and what you happened to order. Anonymity would be nice, but it’s always been less important than a sturdy gut and a settled palate. Most important of all, however, is a healthy expense account, because if a critic’s employer allows for enough paid visits to a particular restaurant, even the most elaborately simpering treatment won’t change his or her point of view.
Now that the Platt mug shot is officially part of the public record, I don’t plan on changing my routine very much. I will continue to book restaurant tables at odd hours, under a string of ridiculously random made-up names, because more than a wig or a set of false whiskers, the art of surprise has always been the critic’s most useful tool. I won’t be posting photos of myself over my column or making reality-show appearances. If an eager chef sends extra menu items my way, I will do my best to ignore them. A couple of months back, the proprietors of the clam shack ZZ’s Clam Bar sent a bouncer over to boot me from their restaurant, presumably in retribution for an unflattering review. Now that the great anonymity charade is over, maybe the bouncers will recognize me before I walk in the door. If they don’t, then the incensed chefs can come out of the kitchen themselves and explain to their paying, well-behaved customer why it’s time to leave.
Meanwhile, I will wander the avenues in my sauce-stained coat to root out everything that’s overrated, fashionably of the moment, and downright delicious. This year, as in years past, I’ve traveled far and wide to bring you my usual snapshot of New York’s endlessly expanding fine-dining universe. I’ve elbowed my way into crowded upmarket taco parlors, bellied up to the bar in trendy gourmet-whiskey bars, and stood in line in the rain with jolly tourists to taste that wondrous international dessert sensation the Cronut. I’ve sampled messy bánh mì sandwiches in the wilds of Midwood, slurped steamy bowls of Vietnamese phô soup with members of the Smith Street gentry in Brooklyn, and debated different grades of tuna belly in the numerous sushi omakase joints that have popped up around Manhattan like rainy-day mushrooms.
As is the custom this time of year, I’ve compiled my annual lists of the best new restaurants and chefs in town, along with all the overrated trends that I’ve tired of during the course of my endless gastronomic rounds. These are the opinions of one solitary, reasonably well-informed eater, and, as usual, they are open for debate. In this new, post-anonymous era, however, you now have a face to put on these crackpot views. So if you happen to spy a giant, slightly unkempt gentleman inhaling large amounts of food in the corner of a restaurant, you’re entitled, I suppose, to go up and (politely) give him a piece of your mind. Who knows, it might even be Adam Platt out for an early-evening feed. And after he’s wiped the sauce from his chin, he will nod sympathetically. Then he will tuck his napkin back into his collar and continue with his meal.