Restaurant Critic Pete Wells Searches for the Perfect Bite

From a Times Insider column by Emmett Linder headlined “Pete Wells’s Search for the Perfect Bite”:

On a sunny, warm Thursday evening in Bushwick, Brooklyn, across the street from a vintage furniture store and next to a locally owned thrift shop, Pete Wells walked into Eyval, a Persian restaurant, for the second time.

He planned to go back once more — Mr. Wells dines multiple times at each place he reviews to try as much of the menu as possible and to sort the genius from the strokes of luck.

His dark maroon shirt rolled up at the arms and his gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses stood in contrast to the white tile walls as he approached his table. Though he spends what seems like all of his time in restaurants, he is still excited to eat.

As we sat down at the table together, he told me: “I’m looking for stuff that’s out of the ordinary.”

There are a few competing sides of Mr. Wells, who has been a restaurant critic at The New York Times since 2012. He both reviews small restaurants with cult followings and honestly portrays renowned institutions. He dines in every culinary corner of New York City, but on his off days, he might eat crackers and sardines for lunch. One thing is certain, though: He takes his food seriously.

“When Craig Claiborne was doing this,” he said, speaking of a former Times restaurant critic, “the old idea is you’re looking for consistency and inconsistency.” He said that other critics would keep checklists to see if, for example, a fry cook was up to par every time.

“I don’t really approach it that way,” he added. Mr. Wells does attempt, though, to try as many dishes as possible.

“Sometimes you can’t eat the whole menu — you just have to give up,” he said. “I was always tortured by the idea that there was the great dish I never found.”

From the appetizer to the dessert, he allowed each plate at Eyval — the basmati rice and barbari bread; the veal shank, sturdy in a sea of black lime stew — to write its own story. In fact, Mr. Wells didn’t even bring a pen.

At the arrival of the first dish, a plate of sweet and spicy cucumbers with date molasses and spices, he reflexively pulled out his phone and opened the camera. He was not looking to capture the perfect Instagram post, but rather to catalog the dish for later review. The photos, preserved in his pocket, are enough for him to later recall each sensory experience when he starts writing his reviews. The Food desk publishes one a week, and recently, resumed its star rating rubric, which it had suspended after the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted dining.

Mr. Wells surveyed the presentation of the dish and, as he took his first bite, became quiet and stared off amid the white-noise of nearby conversation. For several silent seconds, he ruminated on the temperature, the sweetness and the heat. When eating for a review, he analyzes each dish’s taste and its place on the menu.

“This is an unnatural way to eat,” he said.

The beat is, at its essence, not natural. Mr. Wells’s name is widely known, in restaurant circles and outside them, but he makes an effort to remain incognito so that chefs won’t tailor meals specifically for him. (Even the credit cards he uses are under various pseudonyms, and he has been known to wear nonprescription glasses to better blend in.) He may choose a restaurant because the storefront catches his eye while driving, or because the menu is unique. The important thing, for him, is to review a wide range of places with different price points and traditions.

No matter how he chooses a restaurant to review, though, he will leave the meal ready to write. A theory of his guides the process: “All the things you forget don’t belong in your writing,” Mr. Wells said.

When the server presented a beef kebab, served with cumin yogurt and mint oil, Mr. Wells cut it open to get a sense of the meat’s structure and how well it was cooked. After several bites, he noticed that I was taking notes on our conversation. He protested.

“You can always talk to me,” he said. “You can’t always eat this kebab.”

While most of the dishes, over the course of nearly three hours, had invited Mr. Wells’s spoken notes on texture and flavor, a silence spread over the table after the veal shank in stew arrived. He looked up after a while, smiling: “Have I said anything critical? I think it’s really good.”

By the time Mr. Wells had finished a custard dessert, the lights in Eyval had been dimmed to a cozy glow. A server navigated the busy tables and stopped to place a check in front of the critic. He handed her a credit card — it did not, of course, read Pete Wells.

Emmett Lindner has covered international protests, worked on live briefings and asked the tough questions about frozen reindeer meat for The Times. 

 

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