Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Star Struck

No doubt the following rant will make me wildly unpopular with some equal-opportunity foodists in New York, but I've never been afraid of a few divergent opinions. I feel it my obligation to delve a little deeper into the three-star phenomenon that has now officially bludgeoned the City.

Here's the thing: I'm a liberal, a democrat, a socialist when it comes to all things, well, social. Anyone who knows me would probably think that, in accordance with all of my other political views, I would support a system that encourages a larger cross-section of the population to enjoy extraordinary dining experiences. My confession? I am a food elitist. I do not believe that every Tom, Dick, and Harry is equally entitled to the so-called scene because, frankly (no reference to Mr. Bruni here, I swear), not every Tom, Dick, and Harry really appreciates food.

Do I believe that every American, regardless of income, should have at his or her disposal healthy, sustainable food? Of course. But the attempt to level the playing field of fine dining is nothing short of ridiculous. Changing the structure means an overhaul of the way things are and some of us still have fond memories of nice meals out, back when Chinese restaurants used real china and tablecloths, back when ordering a Shirley Temple served in a tall crystal glass with extra cherries epitomized luxury.

The process of awarding stars to restaurants based on their excellence was never an attempt to bring restaurants to the people. Refinement, class, luxury: these tenets established the framework for fine dining in New York. Three and four-star spots were meant to provide respite from the hectic world outside. A dining experience should be two hours of uninterrupted grace. The materials that don't surround us at home--silver, crystal, truffles, caviar, fine linen--surround us in nice restaurants. What we gain when we go out to eat at a nice restaurant is an experience, something that cannot be replicated and something that exceeds the corporeal need to feed our stomachs. Good restaurants feed something diminished in the human psyche.

Which is precisely why I take umbrage at the elevation of Momofuku Ssam Bar to three stars. The food is unparalleled, it really and truly is. And for the most part, it is consistent, although you can bet your pork buns that you're getting better treatment if you're Frank Bruni and you can also bet that the buns at 10pm are much better than the lackluster ones served to drunk foodies at 1am. But what you get when you enter Ssam Bar is not an experience; it's good food prepared well and it's cool and hip and yes, you will probably run into that food celebrity you've been stalking if you hang out there long enough. That's food for the stomach. That's food worth remembering. That isn't, however, the two hour meal without the clamor and clang of real life. All that Ssam Bar isn't--refined, delicate, service-oriented--is all that separates two-star dining from three.

The best two-star restaurants are an extention of our living rooms, and that's always how I regarded the Momofukus (with the exception of Ko, of course). That system wasn't so bad. At the end of the day, most of us seasoned diners visited two-star restaurants with the most frequency. Three and four-star dining was a treat, reserved for birthdays and other special occasions. So where does one draw the line? If backless stools and rude waiters have become our milieu, what will happen to the antique dining traditions that our parents and grandparents enjoyed?

I am an elitist, yes, but I am also a preservationist. Our culture demands immediacy, constant stimulation, babying. Our position as cultural critics, or conscious eaters, or lazy Americans, even, should be to care about preserving the way things were as we usher in a new era. Ten years from now, it might be impossible to sit down at a table in New York where you can still hear conversation over the din, where you can enjoy two uninterrupted hours of time with friends and lovers before returning to the real world. That predictive reality would be a sad thing, indeed.

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