What does a two-star review actually mean? Specifically, what does a New York Times two-star review mean? That you should skip the restaurant and move on, or drop everything and go immediately? Depends: The paper's critics have used the two-star review in different ways over the years, at times elevating a lesser-known spot like Cafe Altro Paradiso, and other times demoting a famous four-star restaurant. A two-star review can make you want to check out a promising little spot before the crowds descend, or it can warn you that a restaurant that opened with huge anticipation, tons of press hoopla, a celebrity chef, or an extra-pricey or flashy menu doesn't quite measure up.
So, in the case of NYT restaurant critic Pete Wells's June 8 review of La Sirena, Mario Batali's latest Manhattan restaurant, how to interpret the two stars?
Let's review La Sirena's basic elements: Superstar pedigree: check. Tons of press surrounding the launch: check. Loads of public anticipation: check. A super-pricey or noteworthy menu: not especially. La Sirena's menu isn't particularly expensive or adventurous for an NYC Italian restaurant in 2016. But with 3 out of 4 of those elements in place, La Sirena seems poised for a higher ranking. What happened?
As Wells notes, the menu "offers a little for everybody except, maybe, the person curious for fresh insights into Italian cuisine. The ground it covers is mostly the middle one." But he's not actually griping about that. Wells points out that La Sirena's familiar dishes are often executed beautifully in the hands of Josh Laurano, the executive chef and partner who runs the kitchen: "What you notice are not dishes you’ve never seen before but ones you have: hulking meatballs, soft and pale inside with melting grated cheese...clams baked under bread crumbs and oregano, jolted with a dab of chopped chiles in oil and a sweet slice of lemon."
Despite the lack of fireworks, "what Mr. Laurano does, he tries to do with care and vigor and enough flourishes to keep your mind from wandering too far," Wells points out; and the chef "gives the main courses layers of complexity that go beyond standard trattoria cooking."
Photo courtesy of La Sirena.
So far, so good. Then things start heading downhill. Wells uses his trademark spot-on similes to describe dishes that fail: The pork chop Milanese has a too-dense breading "that made me think of the apron you wear when you get your teeth X-rayed." The linguine with clams is like a "mop of bland noodles."
But in the end, the winning dishes in the review, not counting the desserts, outnumber the failures by more than double (or even triple, depending on how you're counting). And the desserts? They're "nothing but sophisticated pleasure. All in all, the review would seem to teeter between two or three stars.
So is this the issue that pushed it over (or under) the edge? The staff, mostly attentive if not entirely on top of their game, dropped the ball big-time when they served sesame breadsticks to Wells's son, who has a serious sesame allergy. Wells had even mentioned the allergy to two different servers. File under "What Never to Do If You're Waiting a Table, Any Table (Not Just the New York Times Restaurant Critic's)."
As Wells points out near the end, Mario Batali was frustrated about the sesame incident, so there's a solid chance something like this will never happen again at La Sirena. With an incident like that, even once is one time too many. But on Wells's return visit, things did look more promising on the alert-waiters front.
Been to La Sirena and feel stumped by the two stars? As Wells himself suggests in an earlier article about how to interpret NYT's reviews, feel free to throw the newspaper—or your laptop—across the room.
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