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Throwbacks: On the House, The Bruni Journal

Next week marks a new era of Eater. So all this week, we're celebrating Eater 1.0 by republishing some favorite pieces from the vault. Ahead: Restaurateur William Tigertt's epic and heartbreaking account of the reviewing process for Bruni's 2006 Freemans goose egg.

Have a favorite post from, oh, before 2009? Hit us up.

2006_09_onethehouseA.jpgOn the House is our weekly column written by the owners and operators of the great food and beverage establishments of New York. Your resident proprietor is William Tigertt of Freemans, who it turns out will get Bruni'd tomorrow.

The Bruni Journal
Saturday August 19th – 11:40PM

It's Saturday night and I'm watching a movie at AF's apartment on the couch recovering from overeating another Lure burger when I get the call. "He's on table 21. Everything is fine, just calling to let you know." Saturday night. Table 21. Fuck. Bruni.

Saturday August 19th – 11:40PM (con't)
AF is already dressed and touching up her makeup. She has a Bruni fetish. She doesn't want to sleep with him; she just wants to eat with him. "His writing is just so good! He's a little carnivorous piggy! Brilliant!" I get jealous. AF is such a New York foodie. She's in love with the mysterious persona of the Food Critic: sneaking in to all the best places, eating the whole menu on an expense account, and then laying judgment in the most public of forums. Her dining with Bruni would be like a club tennis player playing a pick-up game with Federer – innocent fun, but something might develop. I put the kibosh on going to check him out.
"It's late. It's better if we don't hover." Both our head manager, Johnny, and our chef, Jean, are working. The A-Team of waitrons are on the floor. It'll be fine. The last thing anyone needs is the boss and his girl playing Looky Lou's. AF might even try to talk to him. We finish the movie and turn in.

I can't sleep. The most powerful food writer in the country has just left my restaurant. The electron microscope of the New York Times is trained on my back, looking at every little detail of my work. I have bad dreams. I blame the burger, but it's more than that.

Sunday August 20th
AF sleeps in, and I jet to the restaurant. Pounding coffee, I grill everyone. Bruni and company had put their name in for four, and took a walk. They had drinks at the bar, and were sat at 11:30. Bruni waited an hour and a half for the table. He was spotted by Johnny when he sat down. They were the last table sat in the restaurant. They ordered half the menu and shared plates – typical reviewer MO. Bruni had the mixed grill. It's a new dish, but I had it the night before and was pleased. They send one glass of wine back - bad. They ordered a Remonet Bourgone Blanc – good. It's a great bottle, not too expensive. They seemed tipsy and lively. Bruni liked the music. The table spilled some wine during animated conversation – a good sign. Initial reports sound promising.

I go to brunch with a now awake AF at Little Owl. I commiserate with Gabriel, one of the owners, about reviewers and the impact on business. "You should be stoked to get reviewed," he says. "Only 52 restaurants a year get the Bruni treatment. Joey and I were thrilled to just get them in here." I try to take it to heart. I am stoked. We didn't know if we'd get re-reviewed, but there is a pattern. The Spotted Pig got the "$25 and Under" Peter Meehan treatment and then Bruni gave it a luke warm one-star smackdown after they expanded and got the Michelin one star nod. August got the same double review but with a gentler two star love tap from Bruni. It could be worse. We could get relegated to The BLOG.

Monday August 21st
My business partner, Taavo, and I regroup in the morning. We talk menu. The consistency on the artichoke dip is off. In a bid to make it more gourmet, the prep cooks have been not been using the Robocoupe and to give it more artichoke taste. "That's not the point! It's all about the cheese. It's supposed to be ghetto!" Taavo is right. Don't mess with the dip. People are artichoke crazy. A few tables have ordered one as an app then ordered a second one for dessert. Did Bruni eat the extra-chunky artichoke dip? We're not sure, but Monday's batch will need to be checked and pureed on the highest setting. We're also concerned about the desserts. The ice cream sandwich is too crunchy and the ice cream falls out when you try to eat it. The summer pudding is also not as good as last year's version. Bruni had both. Adam Platt has previously written that the curse of the small restaurant is a lack of a dedicated pastry chef and supernal desserts. Taavo thinks we'll be lucky to get one star. He can be binary. It's all good or all bad. Right now under the New York Times heat and with an ailing pup, it's all bad.

I'm confident that the overall Freemans experience will warrant one star. On the flipside, two stars even with the Bruni curve would be pushing it. We make an agenda for our management meeting on Wednesday. I spend the rest of the afternoon at the Polander wine tasting, powering my way through expensive Burgundies. The restaurant doesn't need them, but my nerves do.

Wednesday, August 23rd
We have our management meeting, and do triage. We will beef up our brunch supervision. Having eaten dinner at least twice, he might strike at brunch next. We decide to change the new summer pudding recipe back to the previous tried and true one, and pull the ice cream sandwiches altogether. When they call to fact check, we can say they're off the menu. They might not mention them. It's culinary counter measures. Everything else is deemed solid. We've been around for two years, and aren't trying to pretend we're something we're not. It's just about showing our best face.

I work on the floor. Business is good, but there's a little of a late August lull. It's been a few days, and I keep expecting to see Bruni walking up the alley. Would I even recognize him from that little picture? It's a beautiful late summer night, no humidity – al fresco weather. T-minus two weeks until Labor Day and beginning of the busy season.

Thursday, September 14th
After a few weeks of no incidents, it looks like the whole Bruni thing has blown over. Labor day came and went. With all the fall openings we might have dodged the bullet. Fashion week and the crowds are back in full effect.

Then someone from the Times called to schedule a photographer to come in "for an up-and-coming Dining section piece." If Bruni snuck in again in the interim, no one spotted him. He must have a silent-munching mode. Evan, the Times photographer, comes in during peak service to shoot "action shots." It's the only time I can remember servers fighting over who gets to run the food. Everybody wants to be in the picture. Evan likes the restaurant. I'm happy to hear his praise, but, unfortunately, he isn't the guy writing the piece.

Friday, September 15th
The day after the photo shoot we get the call from Bruni. (Part II lands at 4 PM.) In a Buster Keatonish mix up of flying phones; we inadvertently hang up on him. It takes an agonizing four minutes for him to call back.

"This is Frank Bruni from the New York Times. I'd like to set up a time tomorrow when I could ask a few questions for review I'm writing on your restaurant." We make an appointment for 1:00. I get his info to send him menus. The conversation lasts all of three minutes. It's officially not a blog entry.

Saturday, September 16th
"So what's he like?" was the first words out of AF's mouth when I see her on the street after the interview.

"He was really nice and polite. He was really specific in his questions. He obviously cares about what he does."

"Of course he does, he's too good not to care. Bruni should raffle off a dinner date for charity. I know a lot of women that would jump on it." I elaborate the minutia of the interview. He asked mostly about the expansion, how our menu has changed, questions about the kitchen and décor. I tell AF that I have Bruni's contact information, and I could set her up. Her eye twinkles at the concept of a Bruni blind date, but seems to play it down out of consideration for my ego.

Monday September 18th, 2006
The Dining section fact checker, Elaine, calls and verifies all hours and info for the box next to the review. It's running Wednesday. So there's nothing to do now, but wait. It used to be a downtown tradition to go out on an all night bender the Tuesday night before your review landed. You could grab the first edition of the paper a mere forty-five minutes after 4:00AM last call. The newsstand at Astor place supposedly got one of the first drops or it might just be the closest to all the East Village bars.

It makes me sad to think that tomorrow night I will sitting in my office in front of a computer clicking reload on the New York Times webpage until carpal tunnel syndrome sets in. I would much rather be carousing dive bars with my co-workers, self-medicating our jitters, and celebrating whatever victories and setbacks the past two years of New York has thrown at us.

At this stage in the game the Big Review won't make or break us. It will put our mark in the Big Book, though. It will fix us in a point in time in the ever-changing theater of New York nightlife. After thousands of customers have come and gone, meals served good and bad; it's something permanent and a validation of our hard work. More than anything, it means that we've made it this far, and that alone is worth celebrating.

Wednesday, Sept 20th
"Surrender Dorothy"
Bruni hates us. I can't say it's fun to be on the sharp end of one of the harshest reviews he's done since Ninja. The Krug was still flowing at Freemans last night to celebrate the end of this whole drama, but the mood was more somber than festive.

At the end, Taavo was the one that called it. Ten years in architecture and fashion has given him a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to critics. He didn't stick around to see how the review came out, but he texted me later, "Critics have been slamming the Stones for decades, but they like making music and people like listening to it. Our food is simple, but people like it. We're not trying to be Phillip Glass."

Freemans

Freeman Alley, Manhattan, NY 10002 (212) 420-0012 Visit Website

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