Frank Bruni loves the menu at New York's Standard Grill, where we've met to discuss his new memoir, Born Round. He's lukewarm about the food, but the menu gets four stars. "I love the paper stock," he says, rubbing the heavy ecru sheet between his fingers. "It feels like it could have been Elle Woods's résumé in Legally Blonde. If I ever have to send out résumés, I'm going to do it on this paper stock."
Bruni's not on the market for a new job, but it makes sense that he's thinking in terms of career change. After five years as the restaurant critic at The New York Times, he's just left the Dining section to promote Born Round, a chronicle of his lifelong struggle with food and his weight, which at one point approached 300 pounds—and that was before he became a food critic.
When we meet outside the restaurant, a Mediterranean brasserie in New York's meatpacking district, Bruni doesn't look like a guy who, in his reporter days, used to devour several pieces of precooked chicken in the three-minute drive from the grocery store to his house. He looks fit in jeans and a polo shirt. Everything about him suggests a regular Joe out for a casual bite, not a man heading to work. Even so, once we sit, it's obvious he's a pro.
He won't be reviewing the restaurant, but he still approaches the menu with a serious sense of purpose. Bruni starts at the top, with the appetizers, which he finds cautious. "Octopus has been in vogue at restaurants like this for a couple of years," he says. "Pairing squid and sausage, they're also trying to catch a wave there." More impressive is the chilled almond soup, a Spanish dish he doesn't often see.
He moves on to the entrees, noting the "Million Dollar" roast chicken for two. "We're in such a big chicken moment right now." We are? "Because of the economy. It's a cliché, but I do believe the way a restaurant cooks a chicken is indicative." Moving on: "Trout you see on every menu; currant and pine-nut relish, not that surprising, though I believe pine nuts are never a bad idea." He returns to the chicken. "If they're asking two people to commit to it, they're putting more chips on that card." If he were reviewing this restaurant, he'd definitely try the dish, but as it is, neither of us is having a chicken moment.
The impressive number of side dishes strikes him as more of an attempt to pad the bill. "A series of sides stretched to 10 makes me arch my eyebrow. There's a lot of stuff here that's borrowing, either sagely or cynically, from proven hits elsewhere. So they've got duck-fat smashed potatoes. The Harrison"—a similar restaurant—"has always been famous for their duck-fat fries. They're taking a cue from there. It will be interesting to see if our waitress can answer why they're advertising Calabrian mozzarella, when of course the most famous mozzarella in the world is from the region of Campania." Of course.
The waitress flubs the mozzarella quiz, but Bruni doesn't ding her for it, though he would elsewhere. "If you were at Per Se"—one of the six restaurants he gave four stars—"and the waitress gave an answer like that, it would be ridiculous, because you'd also be paying $20 for that mozzarella." The almond soup arrives. "Look, a pine nut!" he exclaims, then corrects himself, slightly disappointed—it's just a sliver of almond.
Bruni has several spoonfuls of soup, but takes at most three bites of the subsequent dishes. Nibbling like this is how he managed to maintain his waistline while eating out every night of the week (sometimes visiting multiple restaurants in a night). Were he reviewing the Standard Grill, he'd come back at least twice, and sample a minimum of 10 dishes. "We've only had four things. To assume, based on those dishes, that this restaurant is more disappointing than exciting would be the height of irresponsibility." Even so, he's eaten sparsely for a man who claims he has "horrible metabolism and too big an appetite." He says his job has taught him to eat for taste, not satiety or emotional sustenance. And if he has to pay for his own Million Dollar chicken from now on, at least he's confident he won't be inhaling it on the drive home.