N.Y. restaurateur turns tables on Times critic

NEW YORK Angered by a review of his new Kobe Club, restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow fired back at The New York Times Wednesday morning with a full-page ad in the paper's dining section, accusing reviewer Frank Bruni of taking a personal swipe.

Chodorow said Bruni's review of Kobe Club, a steakhouse featuring Kobe beef, "was as much more about me than it was the restaurant." He alleged that Bruni and other Times reviewers "have been very hard on me" since Chodorow collaborated with chef Rocco DiSpirito on Rocco's, the focus of DiSpirito's reality show, "The Restaurant."

"I don't know what I actually did to engender these attacks," wrote Chodorow. "I opened Rocco's with the best of intentions." His objections were presented in the form of a letter to Pete Wells, editor of the Dining In/Dining Out section of the Times.

Bruni said Chodorow's assertions are unfounded. "I understand Mr. Chodorow's disappointment with the Kobe Club review and other assessments I've made of some of his recent restaurants," Bruni said in an e-mail to NRN, "but I assure you that these reflected my honest opinions, not any personal bias against him."

Bruni, the Times' main restaurant critic, rated Kobe Club "satisfactory," one of the lowest grades in the Times' rating system. Restaurants can be awarded up to four stars; Kobe Club was awarded none.

In the Feb. 7 review, Bruni noted the restaurant's proficiency with Kobe beef - "the fabled flesh," as Bruni put it - but said the place presented "too many insipid or insulting dishes at prices that draw blood from anyone without a trust fund or an expense account." He cited such prices as the $190 charge for a four-flight sampling menu of wagyu-style beef and American prime, or the $48 for a 12-ounce fillet. "What's more," he wrote, "servers seem intent on plumping up the tab."

He also cited "a rubbery roast pork chop," "limp" iceberg lettuce and "gluey" mashed potatoes. Bruni also reported that some of the items were "alarming" because their taste was off. A clam had a metallic tang, he said, and a strip loin "had a sourness that didn't taste like aging or, for that matter, like anything anyone had intended."

In his open letter, Chodorow acknowledged the "errant" clam. "Unfortunately, bad clams happen," he wrote. But that didn't warrant a no-stars rating, he asserted. He pointed out that Kobe Club had been favorably reviewed by "respected" critics such as Gael Greene of New York magazine; Bob Lape of Crain's New York; and John Mariani, who writes for Esquire.

Chodorow said he wrote the open letter to let Wells know that Kobe Club's staff - the "innocent bystanders" - were the ones likely to be hurt by the review. He also cited his desire to sound off about Bruni's lack of training to be a critic, noting that the reviewer was previously a political writer.

Chodorow concluded with the revelation that he had started a blog where he would subsequently review restaurants that had been critiqued by Bruni and "After Adam," an apparent reference to New York magazine reviewer Adam Platt.

The brouhaha is the latest in a long run of dust-ups between New York restaurateurs whose places have been poorly reviewed and the Times. More than a decade ago, Alan Stillman of New York-based Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group threatened to pull his considerable ad schedule from the paper after then-reviewer Molly O'Neill suggested that the city's restaurants had taken a decidedly elitist turn. Bryan Miller was sued after he asserted in a review that the celebrity photos on the wall of an Italian restaurant were not given to the place by the stars themselves, and Mimi Sheraton and Miller were separately thrown out of New York establishments while visiting them for upcoming reviews.

Chodorow's other restaurants include China Grill, Asia De Cuba, Hudson Cafeteria and Tuscan Steak. His company, China Grill Management, is based in New York.