The New York Times food critic Frank Bruni reviewed Café d’Alsace, the new restaurant in New York City with its own Beer Sommelier. That fact has been written about already and has garnered a bit of press on its own, but the review is another reason I hate it when the mainstream press sends a wine and/or food geek to do a beer man’s job. Jules at The Bruni Digest already did a great job dissecting the review but I want to address the beer aspects of his review.
His review begins in a futile search for cloves:
CLOVE?” I asked, not quite sure I had heard him correctly.
“Clove,” he answered without hesitation.
“Huh,” I said, for two reasons. The first was that I was already hoisting the beer to my lips for another sip, so I had to be quick and economical with my syllables. The second: I was flustered. Try as I might to latch onto them, the promised notes of clove in the brew eluded me.
But I had hope. The beer sommelier had also foretold currents of orange, and their presence in this Leffe Blonde from Belgium was incontrovertible. He had talked about the “aromatics” at work, and there was indeed a citrusy, flowery perfume.
Could he be wrong about the clove? I concentrated. I searched my palate for what was behind the orange or maybe in front of the orange or possibly on the side of the orange.
No clove, at least not for me. But I was having what I suppose I should describe as a heady time rooting around for it.
Frank begins his review with the word “CLOVE?” in all caps with a question mark like he’s found a hair in his soup, like there’s meat in his veggie burger, like he’s surprised as hell that cloves should be one of the aromas in a beer. In other words like he’s an idiot, at least in beer sophistication. Because even your average beer aficionado would be unsurprised, indeed would expect, to find cloves in many different Belgian-style beers (not to mention German and even Americans craft beers making those same styles) and would know it’s not magic, but simply a result of using particular strains of yeast. The fact that he couldn’t find such a pervasive aroma in Leffe Blonde speaks volumes as to how undeveloped his palate is. I might expect that from the average person, but Frank is the food critic for the New York Times for chrissakes. He’s supposed to be familiar with all manner of aromas and tastes. Is it too much to ask that he have some passing familiarity with beer, especially when reviewing a place known for its beers? Hasn’t craft beer and great imported beers been around long enough that no food critic’s education is complete without knowing about beer? We certainly expect a food critic to know wine and spirits, in fact any beverage that compliments the food. So why do so many get a pass when it comes to beer? At a minumum Frank should have been man enough to step aside and let someone else, someone who knows a little about beer — say Eric Asimov — review the restaurant in his place.
We should expect food critics to recuse themselves when in unfamiliar territory just like I would never presume to review a wine. I enjoy wine but lack the sophistication to tell others more than whether or not I like it. If I tried to describe a wine, I’d sound like an unsophisticated wine drinker, which of course is what I am. But at least I know that. And as a result I restrict my wine descriptions to friends and loved ones. Frank Bruni and many of his colleagues do not seem to realize that they should stick to talking about what they know, too. I wish they cared enough to learn about what they don’t know, but that seems fated to never happen. You’d think given the efforts of Garrett Oliver in New York City that so prominent a critic as Bruni would take the time to become a complete food critic. Apparently you’d be wrong.
Next he remarks that Café d’Alsace “has more than 110 kinds” of beer and “[i]t assigns them bin numbers and groups them under different headings: “wheat,” “bock,” “lambic.” Uh, those “headings” are called styles, and they’re like varietals you moron. Think of lagers and ales like whites and reds, if you have to, and “bock” and “lambic” as pinot and cabernet. Is that too hard? If so, how about simply the different “headings” taste different? Is that simple enough? I know I’m sounding churlish, but I find this kind thing completely unacceptable, especially when it’s from someone who’s supposed to be so well respected and associated with one of the most quoted and well-regarded newspapers in the country, if not the world. If they can’t get it right and indeed go so horribly off the tracks then what hope is there that small town newspapers will competently cover beer?
Okay, cut to the finale:
Let’s face it: I also got a buzz from the beers. One night I tried the effervescent Belgian Deus Brut de Flandres, which comes in what looks like a Champagne bottle and is served in Champagne flutes. Another night I ventured into the sour realm of the lambic — and beat a hasty retreat.
And yet another night I heeded the advice of Aviram Turgeman, the beer sommelier (I had to use the phrase just one more time), and started out with the Belgian golden ale Duvel, which he said would “cleanse the palate and awaken the stomach.”
That seemed like a lot of responsibility for a beer. But time and again, we’ve asked as much of wine. Why not, on occasion, let a lager carry the load?
He got a buzz from the beers? Why should we have to face that? Even most of the strongest beers weigh in at 10% a.b.v. or below, well under the strength of your average wine. How many of his reviews contained the phrase “let’s face it: I also got a buzz from the wine?” I’m willing to confidently guess that number is zero. So are we to conclude he can handle his wine but not his beer? Or is it more likely he doesn’t know what he’s talking about?
Next he summarily dismisses sour lambics — they’re called Gueuze, Frank — and while they’re clearly not for everyone he never explains why he “beat a hasty retreat” from them. I could guess, but I’ll leave it to your imagination. Most Gueuze lovers I know have more sophisticated palates than Frank demonstrates, that’s for sure.
But the ending is the real kicker. Frank extolls his enjoyment of Duvel, though he seems hesitant to believe it capable of doing as much for the food and his enjoyment as wine is capable of, despite his admission it does just that. And here it is, his final thought, and it’s about the Duvel and it’s ability to work with food. Frank suggests since wine is so hard working, from time to time we should “let a lager carry the load.” I’ll pause here to give you a chance to throw your head back and laugh heartily. Hey Frank, you bonehead, Duvel is an ale. That’s like confusing Silver Oak Chardonnay with Opus One. You wouldn’t do that would you, Frank? Frank?