Declaring War on The New York Times
“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” wrote A.J. Leibling, the late, great New Yorker journalist.
If you want to pony up $30,000 to $80,000, you can buy a full-page ad in The New York Times and write a long letter that says pretty much anything you like.
Last Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2007, three such letters appeared:
1. From aggrieved restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow, whose new steak house was dissed by The New York Times food critic, Frank Bruni.
2. From JetBlue founder and CEO, David Neeleman, apologizing for the mess he made in dealing with the ice storm the week prior.
3. From Douglas Durst and Anthony E. Malkin of the Continuing Committee for a Reasonable World Trade Center on a forthcoming Port Authority vote.
All three writers made serious errors.
I just hate it when people spend a lot of money to communicate and then do it badly.
I have had several spiffy lunches in top New York City eateries as the guest of iconic restaurant critic, Mimi Sheraton, whom I adored.
This was in the late 1980s. I had a newsletter about junk mail, WHO’S MAILING WHAT!, and Sheraton had a newsletter about food. I forget who introduced us, but every now and again she liked to pick my brain about the newsletter nitty-gritty—customer acquisition, offers, renewals and the like, and so would invite me to lunch.
Sheraton did not like to dine alone, and she is very, very good company. Buy me a nice lunch and you can ask me anything.
One time she called and told me to make a reservation in my name for the upstairs room at “21.” A Time profile of Sheraton explained that she consumes all meals incognito. “Sheraton refuses to pose full-face for the camera, to make it harder for restaurateurs to identify her and proffer extraordinary service.”
I arrived at “21” a few minutes early and confirmed my reservation. Sheraton arrived and we were led upstairs to our table where one of the owners and the head chef greeted us.
So much for incognito, but hey, the folks at “21” took very good care of us!
The Kobe Club Kerfuffle
One of the three open letters in the Times last Wednesday was from Jeffrey Chodorow, a restaurant entrepreneur, who late last year opened an upmarket Japanese steak house on West 58th Street in Manhattan, Kobe Club.
One critic likened the décor to something out of the Marquis de Sade—stark black everywhere—walls, tables, booths and waitpersons’ uniforms, with occasional touches of brown.
I would call it Damoclean, because 1,865 Samurai swords hang points down, over the diners’ heads. “Watch them quiver when you try to leave without paying,” wrote Bloomberg’s Ryan Sutton.
Did I call it “upmarket?” It is up-up-upmarket. Entrées can run into the hundreds. An 8-oz. Japanese wagyu filet mignon is $160 while a 28-oz. Australian wagyu porterhouse for two goes for $390. Too rich for your blood? Have the $35 extra large shrimp with garlic, lemon and butter or the mustard-rubbed organic chicken for $32.
On February 7, Frank Bruni, the restaurant critic of The New York Times, unloaded on Kobe Club with a 1,137-word review. Among Bruni’s beefs:
But more of the food was disappointing, sometimes even infuriating, be it a rubbery roasted pork chop, perhaps left too long in its brine; limp iceberg lettuce, propped up insufficiently by blue cheese; those mashed potatoes, gluey; or a crème brûlée in dire need of a crunchier hood.
And some of the food was alarming. A clam in an underwhelming cold seafood platter had a metallic tang, while an American strip loin had a sourness that didn’t taste like aging or, for that matter, like anything anyone intended.
A Remarkable Response
Jeffrey Chodorow had three options: (1) Ignore it; (2) Run a series of upbeat, positive ads with quotes from delighted food critics and customers; (3) Declare war on The New York Times.
Amazingly, Chodorow chose door number 3, and bought a full-page ad in the food section of The New York Times. His 1,200-word diatribe was addressed to Pete Wells, the editor of the Dining In/Dining Out section of The New York Times, and critic Frank Bruni’s Boss.
It is not pleasant when a grown man whines.
He referenced positive reviews from three well-known, New York food critics and followed with a paragraph that would cause even the most junior PR operative to follow Steve Brody off the Brooklyn Bridge and into the East River:
As anyone who read the review can see, the review was as much or more about me than it was the restaurant (as opposed to the three reviews referenced above which were solely about the restaurant). Ever since my ill-fated collaboration with Rocco DiSpirito on the TV show, The Restaurant, critics for the New York Times (and certain other publications) have been very hard on me. This was no exception. Admittedly, there was that one errant clam (out of a 3-tier seafood tower). Unfortunately, bad clams happen … occasionally, but how does a review in which the main player, Kobe beef, is acknowledged by Mr. Bruni to be perfectly prepared, warrant zero stars?
The review was emphatically not about the restaurateur personally. True, the review catalogued his spotty history with several unsuccessful restaurants—Mix, Rocco’s, Brassario Caviar & Banana.
But if Frank Bruni cared to get personal, he would have mentioned the felony conviction for money laundering and brief 1996 hiatus in the pokey.
But where Chodorow blew it big time was this line:
Admittedly, there was that one errant clam (out of a 3-tier seafood tower). Unfortunately, bad clams happen …
Whoa! An “errant clam” in a $500 dinner?
I had a piece of fishy, nose-wrinkling bluefish in a neighborhood saloon here in Philly and have never been back. Every time I walk by the place with my dog in the pre-dawn hours, I am reminded of that “errant” bluefish.
Chodorow ended his review by questioning Bruni’s credentials as a food critic. “In fact, there hasn’t been a real food critic with food background (except perhaps Amanda Hesser) at The New York Times since Ruth Reichl (now editor-in-chief at Gourmet magazine),” he snarled. “Perhaps that’s also why your reviews are so all over the lot, with great restaurants getting bad reviews, fair restaurants getting great ones, one star reviews that read like two star and three star reviews that read like one star.”
Mimi Sheraton Weighs in
I lost touch with Mimi Sheraton for more than 15 years and wasn’t sure she was still with us until I read her take on Jeffrey Chodorow’s screed in Slate.com. It was just great to see that she is very much in business and still funny as hell:
This was not the first time a negative restaurant review engendered such a violent and costly response in the Times (estimates in the press for what Chodorow spent on the full-page ad range from $30,000 to more than $80,000). During my stint as that newspaper’s food critic between 1976 and 1984, there must have been at least half-a-dozen such ads, all greatly appreciated as a source of unexpected revenue, albeit at a paltry $10,000 a shot. “We make more money when you give a bad review than when you give a good one,” A.M. “Abe” Rosenthal, then the executive editor, used to say.
Chodorow, of course, was an idiot to have run such an ad. For one thing, it does worlds of good for the critic, indicating he or she has a strong following, and that his or her words can make or break a dining place—in itself a measure of proven dependability. Chodorow questions Bruni’s credentials, but one might also ask: What qualifies Chodorow to be a restaurateur? Simply having eaten out a lot since childhood, as he explains on his new blog, doesn’t quite do it.
Worse, Sheraton points out that, “the most damaging result to Chodorow’s restaurant from his blow-up is the added exposure of the negative review to so many who may never have read the original.”
She’s spot-on. I had never heard of Chodorow or Kobe Club. Now I know all about his tumultuous career, his felony conviction, his $390 steaks, his petulance and rotten clams.
The Ads I Would Have Run
Were I Chodorow, I would have bought myself a half-page vertical ad in the Times paper and repeated it in New York Magazine and The New York Observer with the following copy in huge type:
It’s wildly expensive and chichi, too, so I’m not expecting thrills. But then sublime excess in overstuffed crab cakes arrives—“double stuffer,” it’s inelegantly called. And I’m gone.
—Gael Greene, New York Magazine
Don’t miss the terrific crispy “Crab Cake Double Stuffers,” … meaning jumbo crabmeat married to lemon zest, chopped chives, breaded with panko crumbs, dry mustard, and mustard seed; this is mixed with diced cornichons in a warm sesame-chile aïoli into two crab patties: it is one helluva starter.
—John Mariani, from his Web site www.johnmariani.com
Kobe lives up to its name big-time, with some of the most remarkable and lush beef to hit plates here to date. There are dozens of styles for presenting this rich meat, which is bred and raised in Japan, Australia and America with methods that ensure the highest level of fat marbling.
The tartare, prepared tableside, blends beef from all three sources. American Kobe beef cheeks are superb in ravioli bathed in truffle broth. Speaking of truffles calls up another exercise in extravagance: black truffles, sprinkled over extra-thick applewood-smoked bacon.
—Bob Lape, New York Business
How to Create an Open Letter in a Full-Page Ad
“A letter should look and feel like a letter,” said the late, great guru Dick Benson. All three of the open letters that day were disasters—ill-designed and uninviting.
* Jeffrey Chodorow’s Harangue
What may have saved Kobe Club from oblivion was the fact that Chodorow’s ad was printed in double-spaced, 12-point sans serif type that stretched 10” across the broadsheet newspaper page. It was gray and unreadable. See it for yourself at http://www.slate.com/id/2160484/ and try to read it all the way through.
* David Neeleman’s Apology for the JetBlue Catastrophe
Neeleman took all the blame for the monumental screw-up. In every media appearance—and he showed up a lot—the embattled CEO played the ultimate decision maker and go-to guy who manfully fell on his sword. Yet in his full-page letter in the Times to “Dear JetBlue Customers” he used the word “we” 11 times, “our” four times and “us” twice. Not once did he use “I,” “me” or “my.” What’s more, on the JetBlue Web site, the letter was personally signed by Neeleman, but in the Times version, the signature was JetBlue’s corporate logo. He went from the warm, believable “I screwed up” on his Web site to frosty corporate-speak in the Times. Why? You can see the text of Neeleman’s letter at http://tinyurl.com/29g9hj
* Durst’s and Malkin’s Letter on Freedom Tower
Like Chodorow’s tirade, this was in sans serif type—albeit larger—and stretched across the entire page, rendering very difficult to read. No salutation, no signature. Just one big ho-hum.
- New York City