Looking for Vacation Restaurant Recommendations? There are No Guarantees

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Cognac front

As a restaurant critic, I’m used to being asked by locals and visitors for recommendations on where to dine, whether in my home area of Central Florida or in the various cities I’ve visited on my own travels.

(And no, to answer a question I’m often posed, I don’t mind being asked for recommendations. In fact, I’ll mind it very much when people stop asking.)

Especially when we travel, we want to know that a restaurant will be as close to a “sure thing” as possible. I’m no different. Yes, I enjoy the thrill of finding an out of the way place that no one else has written much about that delivers an extraordinary dining experience. But if I’m vacationing in, say, France, I don’t want to waste a meal on mediocre food. I want all of my meals to be exceptional.

So then, how does a restaurant critic find new places to visit when traveling? Well, sometimes I do the same thing others do: consult my counterparts in the cities I’m visiting. I also do other research, reading online reviews, though being careful to take extreme praises and condemnations with the proverbial grain of salt, and looking through articles and comments.

I also look for more oblique clues.

Such an indirect clue led me to Brasserie Cognac in New York recently. I cancelled a reservation I had for an Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side and made one at Cognac all because of an interview with Eric Ripert that was published in the New York Times earlier in the month.

Ripert is the celebrated chef of the much lauded Le Bernadin just a few blocks away. (I also revisited Le Bernadin on the recent visit and will share my experience there with you soon.) In the opening sentences of the interview, by reporter Jeff Gordinier, Ripert is described as sliding into a banquette and ordering without even opening a menu. If Ripert, a native of France, finds the restaurant so classically French, and an exceptional place to be interviewed in, I’m there.

What a huge disappointment it was.

Nothing about the experience suggested France, and the meal was among the worst I’ve had in more than 75 trips to New York. A Soupe à l’Oignon was sweet and overly glopped with cheese. An appetizer of Cheese Gougeres was a $9 basket of air. Cassoulet was flavorless and had me begging for salt. The meat of the Steak Frites would have been the best part of the meal if it hadn’t been overcooked. (I requested it medium-RARE, emphasizing rare, which the waiter repeated.) The menu said the dish included “hand cut French fries.” I should have been forewarned by the use of the word French instead of just fries. Beyond that the frites were soggy and limp.

The staff members I had contact with weren’t remotely French — something that a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan can’t really be faulted for. But they also didn’t seem very well versed in French terms. I had hoped to be transported to Paris for a moment, anticipating discovering a new favorite restaurant in New York.

Like I said, a huge disappointment.

So what went wrong? Maybe Brasserie Cognac was just having a bad night — though the number of empty tables at 8:30 on a Friday night might be an indication that locals know better. Is the owner a friend of Ripert’s? Re-reading the article I don’t see any overt recommendation from Ripert that he endorses the restaurant, or that he chose it as the place to conduct the interview, or that he enjoyed his meal. (Though he is quoted as saying the cheese soufflé reminded him of his mother’s — some sons are better cooks than their mothers.)

Maybe I simply misread the clue. That happens, too, even for an “expert.”

So as we enter into vacation season, many of us will be looking for restaurant locations. I’m happy to tell you about places I’ve enjoyed and to caution you about those I have not. But know that there are no guarantees. Sometimes you find a wonderful dining experience that makes the vacation memorable.

Other times you find a Brasserie Cognac.