Bon Appétit magazine has released its annual list of the 10 best new restaurants in the country, and there is a New Orleans restaurant on the list. It is the Elysian Bar, and I want to make very certain that all of you understand me when I say that the Elysian Bar is a very good place that deserves mention in an article such as this. It’s Chef Alex Harrell’s new joint, and he’s awesome. Go and look at the menu at the place. If you tell me you don’t want to eat most of it I will call you a Philistine.
It is not the Elysian Bar’s place on the list (5th) that I wish to discuss, but rather the concept of national publications trying to rank the best new restaurants in the entire country and doing so in a way that makes me feel older than my 50 years would otherwise.
I understand that restaurant criticism is by its nature a subjective thing. I am very much in favor of the idea that one can have a great meal at a “casual” restaurant. Some of the best meals I’ve had in my life have been at places that never saw a white tablecloth and wouldn’t know what to do with one if they did.
But sometimes it seems to me that food writers for national publications have chosen to value obscurity and “hipness” over food. I have no reason to doubt that the places in the Bon Appétit list are good, because the authors were savvy enough to recognize the Elysian, and the two of them seem to understand good food.
But then there’s the first paragraph of the piece that names Konbi the best new restaurant in the country:
This story begins with hand soap. The brand: Kerzon. The scent: eucalyptus, but, like, real, woodsy eucalyptus—not potpourri-esque. Nine months ago I made a mental note of the tall teal bottle in a restaurant bathroom in Los Angeles. Then, because I was confident that this soap would improve my life, I ordered it on the flight home. (It’s not even on Amazon!) Every day since then I have thought about Konbi.
Look, I like hand soap as much as the next fellow – perhaps even more than the next fellow, depending on who that fellow might be. But if that’s the thing that strikes me about a restaurant, the odds are high that the food sucked. Hand soap?
I have not been to Konbi and cannot comment on whether it is good or not. I am 50 years into this life and have three children and the odds I will dine at a spot in Echo Park that serves “Japanese style sandwiches, seasonal vegetable dishes, French pastries, as well as a selection of coffee & tea” are somewhere between slim and are you f*cking kidding me?
But this, according to Bon Appétit, is the best new restaurant in the country. Here is another quote:
American chefs talk about opening “odes” to little spots they stumbled upon in Tokyo, and while this 10-seat space is indeed Montgomery and Akuto’s ode to Japan’s konbini (24-hour convenience stores), there is a palpable intensity to their level of study that makes Konbi entirely its own.
I swear to God I did not make this up. This is a place that is an “ode” to convenience stores in Japan. There is absolutely nothing more hipster than a ten-seat place that is an ode to convenience stores in Japan, run by kids who worked for David Chang, in Los Angeles. Konbi has a very well-manicured moustache and tastefully scuffed, yet expensive shoes, is all I’m saying.
So the place that got No. 2 on the list is in the well-known food mecca of Dallas. Here’s the opening paragraph, and again, I am not making this up.
There are approximately 12 dishes on the menu at Khao Noodle Shop, each only a few bites or spoonfuls, and none costs more than $8. So in my attempt to understand what exactly the chef and owner Donny Sirisavath was trying to do, it was easiest just to order them all.
Now I love places that serve small plates, and I love Lao food and this sounds like a spectacular restaurant that I’d love to visit if it wasn’t in Dallas (apologies to those of you in Shreveport).
But if the description above is correct it also reminds me of a television commercial from my youth in which the catchphrase was, “Where’s the beef?” If there are 12 dishes and each is only a few bites or spoonfuls, then are you not expected to order all of the dishes? Is this a restaurant or some sort of stop of the way to a restaurant?
Is the plan to hit Taco Bell afterwards? Because otherwise you’re going to order all dozen dishes and you’re into the place for around $80 by my math. I suspect that’s before drinks. I bet the dishes are all very good, though. Have I already said that about this place? Because I want to stress I haven’t been to any of these places and have no idea whether the food is so very very good that a place in Dallas serving dishes of a few bites or spoonfuls at $8 and under is one of the best new restaurants in the country.
Next up is a place in Richmond that looks awesome from the photographs and the descriptions thereof. I have no reason to believe the journalists who wrote this piece don’t know what they’re doing. I mean, I have a little reason to believe that based on the above, but they seem to have nailed third place.
Fourth place is a bakery in Detroit. The description is a timeline that starts at 8:43 a.m and ends at 9:28. There are also pictures. The food looks good. Then again it is 10:35 p.m. and I am eating a bread pudding made out of leftover brioche from the Tiger Bakery, a stale English muffin, a peach that went on a walkabout earlier this week and some chopped, toasted pecans I also had leftover from dinner. Who am I to judge?
Fifth is the Elysian, about which you will hear more in the near future and which as I’ve said is undoubtedly deserving of the honor of being named one of the best new restaurants in the country.
Sixth is Kopitiam, in NYC, described as “a hole-in-the-wall Malaysian coffee shop on the border of Chinatown.” Place sounds fantastic, and from the website it appears to be more than a coffee shop.
Seventh is Tailor, a restaurant in Nashville with two seatings per night of 8-10 courses by chef Vivek Surti. It began, you may be surprised to learn, as a popup and again the food looks good though odds are good none of you will eat there.
Hey, you may be asking, what restaurant is eighth on the list, and why is it on the list to begin with? That restaurant is called Le Comptoir du Vin, and here is something that a person wrote about it:
It all starts with the delightful couple who opened it: Rosemary Liss, an artist whose residency at the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen involved making a quilt out of dehydrated kombucha mothers, and Will Mester, who was chef de cuisine at the restaurant that used to be in this same space, Bottega.
That is not all the person wrote about Le Comptoir du Vin, and to be fair some of what she wrote in addition to that is pretty nifty, for example, “For dessert they make crazy things like Grandpa toast, in which foie gras is shaved onto a piece of well-crisped bread, and it’s exactly what you think a frozen waffle smothered in butter and maple syrup is going to taste like but never does.” I don’t know if I’d like it, but I like the way she writes about it.
Ninth is a taco joint in Oregon and the author apologizes because it’s a barbecue taco truck and it’s not in Texas and sometimes I do things for you people like read Bon Appétit “ten best” lists and I wonder if you appreciate it? I don’t like “fusion” tacos and while I’m sure the brisket made by this New Jersey native in Oregon is just dandy God help me I just don’t care about barbecue tacos in Oregon and neither you nor Bon Appétit can make me.
The last restaurant on the list is in Denver, and it’s called The Wolf’s Tailor and I want to hate it based on the name alone because you know the wolf in question wears a vintage jacket but doesn’t talk about it too much apart from sort of mumbling that he got it at a yard sale and it really keeps the chill out when he’s riding his three-speed bicycle everywhere, but the place looks and sounds really awesome. I’m a sucker for charcoal grilled food done right, and it appears that’s among the things they do at the Haberdasher Disguised as a Lamb. That and house-made pickles and I am shocked that the 10th joint on the list is the first where house-made pickles were mentioned.
I kid, of course, because for the most part the writing in this piece was excellent – evoking the food and the atmosphere of the places covered very well as far as I know. It’s not the authors’ fault that none of us will ever visit most of the places they wrote about, and why should places that seat 300 people a night be recognized more than places that seat 30?
In New Orleans we know that casual, neighborhood restaurants can be every bit as good as fine-dining places. I’ve had sublime dining experiences at August, Coquette, Herbsaint and Bayona but I’ve had equally satisfying meals at Domilise’s, Mosca’s, 9 Roses and Turkey & the Wolf.
For those of you reading this outside of Louisiana, I suspect Domilise’s and 9 Roses, at least, are probably not in your future any more than Konbi or anyplace in Dallas are in mine, so I will agree that I am a hypocrite. I sincerely hope that I am wrong about the likelihood that you will visit any one of the restaurants in the Bon Appétit list or the restaurants I’ve mentioned over the last few years in New Orleans that may be off the beaten track.
If you make it to the noodle shop in Dallas, I’m particularly interested to hear your thoughts.