Barton Seaver: The Country's Best?
Congratulations to Barton Seaver. In its November issue, Esquire Magazine will name him "chef of the year" and Blue Ridge, Seaver's farm-to-table restaurant in Glover Park, one of the best new restaurants in the country.
Seaver's magnetism is strong. In May, I profiled Seaver and his quest to redefine and simplify sustainability. "I'm not trying to save the fish," the chef, formerly of sustainable seafood restaurant Hook, told me. "I'm trying to save dinner."
But is Seaver really the country's best new chef? This award puts him in the same category as Dallas's Stephan Pyles, New York's Michael Psilakis (whom we will write about later this month) and San Francisco's Dominique Crenn. Esquire critic John Mariani calls him "a voice of reason at a time when priggish, competing factions – from vegans to slow-food zealots – deal more in polemics than real solutions." Among the "masterful creations" that Mariani praises are Seaver's "aged country ham, a perfect chicken potpie with hot rosemary-flecked biscuits, and sweet-potato fritters with honey mustard."
Local critics seem to disagree.
Our own Tom Sietsema gave Blue Ridge a
half one-and-a-half stars out of four. "Count me among the disappointed diners," he wrote in his Aug. 16 review. The "house-fried potato chips served with a charred-onion dip [are] reminiscent of the stuff some of us baby boomers used to whip up using Lipton onion soup mix," he said. And that (in this case vegetable) pot pie? "Four small rosemary-buttermilk biscuits provide a top crust, a clever idea that gets erased by your first taste of the filling. It's a pale-yellow glue that is not quite solid, not quite liquid and definitely a waste of good vegetables."
Tom isn't the only one who was underwhelmed. "It's cool but is it good?" Washingtonian's Todd Kliman wondered in his initial take: "Seaver’s flavors are timid: The redeye gravy that comes with fried eggs and a biscuit had no soulful punch, while an appetizer of fingerling-potato halves stuffed with the same pimiento cheese was bland."
And the City Paper's Tim Carman was even less kind in a Sept. 30 write-up: "I’ve visited Blue Ridge on three occasions now, and every time, the kitchen has screwed up one preparation or another. Once it was the bluefish, grilled into an almost moisture-less block and served with an overly bitter mint-pecan pesto (which has since been ditched). Another time it was an heirloom tomato salad, served with bitter frisée and funk-forward smoked-cheddar croutons, the entirety of which was salted as if the kitchen were trying to preserve the thing… I expect more..."
Mariani has been criticized for his approach to restaurant reviewing. One Chicago chef accused him of making lists of demands including a reservation at his favorite hotel and a comped meal. Mariani calls the charges "patently false" and "verging on libelous." (This Los Angeles Times article outlines the charges and Mariani and Esquire's responses.)
In an interview, Mariani told me that he visited Blue Ridge once for lunch with several guests. Seaver knew he was there and sent out what Mariani ordered as well as dishes he thought best represented what he was doing. He says Esquire did (and has always) paid for the food he ate.
Like me, Mariani was impressed by Seaver's vision and sensible approach to sustainability. "I love that he says restaurants can only serve so many people and to change the way we eat, we have to start at Wal-Mart and A&P," Mariani said.
"As for the restaurant itself. I liked very much what I ate. It seemed a reflection of what he was doing. There was a lot of emphasis on vegetables but not on being a vegetarian. The chicken and pork was cooked very well. That southern style of cooking is not easy to find, even in your neck of the woods. They were of supremely good ingredients."
Do Seaver and Blue Ridge deserve such accolades? What do you think of the man, his mission and the food?
-- Jane Black
October 1, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories: Chefs | Tags: Barton Seaver, Jane Black
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