Except for a brief interlude in the 1940s, the Japanese have always enjoyed a reputation for graciousness and hospitality.
Stay away from the Kipper Paté — it looks, smells, and (one guesses) tastes like cat food.
Nothing about this restaurant is as remarkable as its reputation.
He has been dead for seventeen years, yet his ghost haunts my prose like the specter of Antoine Careme over a chocolate sculpture.
Acid-tongued, razor-sharp, narrow-eyed wit defined his prose. A curmudgeon through and through, his reviews are works of art unto themselves, untethered from the prosaic, dismissive of something so pedestrian as evaluating a sauce or a piece of fish. For him a restaurant was a holistic experience — an encounter he dissected from the front door to the petit fours. Calling him acerbic is like calling water wet.
New York restaurateur Drew Nieporent once described him as a Larry David-type writer, seeing things in a restaurant no one else saw. And he did so with precision and barely a wasted word. True, some of his sentences were longer than Tolstoy but, as food writer Regina Schrambling put it:
“What he did was so pared down. You got such a rich sense of the place in so few words. These days I’ll read a review, and I’m just reading and reading and reading and, oh, my god, I’m just trudging through this. You don’t have to tell us about every forkful, and you don’t pull back enough to give us a sense of a place.”
I think about him whenever I read some sad attempt to describe a dish by a too-eager amateur (and quite a few professionals) of what I call the “I liked how the flavors of cardamon and tarragon played off the crunchy spaghetti bathed in vindaloo foam” school of food over-writing.
When Seymour said “they get good produce here” you believed him, there was no need to detail the tomatoes.
Part of the needlessly flowery descriptions that have plagued food writing for the past decade can be laid squarely at the feet of chefs — to whom writers ceded the high ground of food nomenclature when they let them get away with logorrheic elucidations like:
Carpaccio of Maldivian long line caught yellow fin tuna’ – fanning an island of Rio Grande Valley avocado creme fraiche, topped with young coconut, with a splash of Goan lime, coriander and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds
Chefs love to pad their menus with fancy descriptions like these (so they can charge more), and invariably, food writers rise to the bait and think they have to follow suit. (Mix. That. Metaphor!) Do we need to know the limes are Goan, the line was long, and the coconut young? Only if you require reminding that the fish were once swimming.
What we are left in the 21st Century is the overwrought and the under-baked. Flowery, meaningless prose, or spoon-fed pablum in pictures, videos, and Tik Toks — infantilizing our tastes as they numb our brains.
What made Seymour so entertaining was he had humor and a point of view. Good luck finding either in food writing these days.
Food writing has gotten so boring (and political) it is no surprise that videos and influencers have stepped in to fill the void. True, a picture is worth a thousand words, and our societal attention span now rivals that of a housefly, but in the end, internet influencing is just another marketing wolf aimed at those in sheeple’s clothing.
Instagram does not inform or compare. There is no depth; there is no substance. The only point of view is that of the camera’s. Thus, in less than a decade, has food journalism been reduced to a visual — no imagination needed — a two-dimensional enticement requiring nothing more than a blank stare. To paraphrase Frank Lloyd Wright: restaurant writing has devolved into chewing gum for the eyes.
If you’re in a charitable mood, you might say our communications about food have come full circle. People have always eaten with their eyes, and forever have trusted others to tell them what was tasty. It was only in the latter half of the 20th Century, when the printed word was king, economies were booming, and photojournalism was in its infancy, that paragraphs were used to convey what used to be done with a grunt.
Britchky may not have been everyone’s cup of mead, but he made you think. And he put you right there, in the place where he had sat, and let you know what to expect and whether it was worth your hard-earned cash. His only filters were his own sensibilities, and that’s what made him so much fun.
He got put out to pasture in the early 90s — a relic of a time when reading about food was almost as much fun as eating it. To this day I think about him every time I sit down to chronicle any meal I’ve had, and to my dying day I will appreciate this:
Mamma Leone’s has been called the most underrated restaurant in New York, which tells us more about the ratings than about the restaurant. There are worse restaurants in New York, but those are the ones which cannot be described in words, the ones that can only be rendered by example or anecdote. The English language can cope, however, with Mamma’s place – it is stunningly garish and ugly, the food is decent, the service automatic, the customers contented and unliberated cows with bulls and broods in tow.
…over a worthless word salad like this:
A wild array of textures—the shattering, airy crunch of meringue at the edges, and the softer one of toasted almonds, with rolling bubbles and pockets skittering across the surface. They’re more relaxed than a Florentine, more lightweight than a brittle. And they’re altogether really lovely over a cup of coffee with an old friend.
One tells you everything you need to know without mentioning a single dish; the other tells you too much and nothing at all at the same time.
As an ending tribute: a poem about him written after his death by an admiring young woman who was once his neighbor. It captures the essence of Mr. Irascible more than my words of praise ever could. Like me, Bolt is a fan. Unlike me, her view of Britchky’s world is refracted through the prism of New York reality, as well as a gimlet gaze.
Appetite of a Dead Connoisseur
by Julie Bolt
When I was nine I rang Seymour Britchky’s
downstairs apartment asking for
an egg. He retorted:
Food critic for The New York Times?”
and turned brusquely, slamming the door.
I stood there stunned for minutes.
My husband is frustrated
by my ongoing predilection for ordering
and eating out, much like Seymour Britchky;
I never have an egg.
Seymour once wrote,
“Sardi’s most famous dish
Is its cannelloni,
Cat food wrapped in noodle
And welded to the steel ashtray
In which it was reheated under
Its glutinous pink sauce.”
When I sold Girl Scout Cookies,
Seymour intently purchased
six boxes of Thin Mints
and fourteen Peanut Butter Patties.
I met my Girl Scout goals.
Beard and bowtie,
Belly bordering on the rotund.
But only bordering, since Seymour
walked, walked everywhere, swiftly.
Seymour sneered at my friends
hanging on our Greenwich Village stoop.
With tallboys, hidden joints, and bad posture.
He seethed to my mother: they are thugs.
Embarrassed, she tried to shoo them away.
Did they not know we were hungry and hopeful?
1) In New York Seymour was known for:
a) Literary flourish and acerbic wit
b) Pissing off chefs
c) Really, really pissing off chefs
2) In June 2004, Seymour died of pancreatic cancer at age 73.
3) Despite his constant presence on paper, in the city streets, and his name clearly placed in our building directory, Town Hall has no record of any persons in New York by the name of Seymour Britchky.
I’m back to my vacant childhood home
after a decade of desert, ocean, mountain, sky.
Back to the simmering souring city I love;
I expected to see Seymour weaving through streets
Sneering and smiling; greeting, rebuking
Because he is this building, this block,
All the contradictions of this place.
Seymour beamed each time
he passed our sheltie, Skippy.
On those rare days, he greeted us:
“Flight of angels!”
Seymour’s dead and so is my youth
But oh we are both hungry, greedy, hungry
For words, brioche, provocations, trout almondine
Cruelty and soufflé aux fruits de mer,
Peanut butter patties and beauty
Angels in the form of smiling dogs
Hungry for roast squab and squabbling
Greedy for the name in print
Even when it?s a pseudonym and upon death
There?s no proof of existence, only footprints
From Mojave to Café Loup on West 13th
Where I just passed, and Seymour Britchky,
or whatever his name was, often drank alone.
Oh Seymour, could you ever have guessed, as you were hunched over your Olivetti, pecking out some lacerating putdown forty years ago, that an aging food writer in Las Vegas, in 2021, would be penning his own homage to your words? I like to think you would be slightly flattered, but from what I’ve read of you, I doubt these adorations would raise even a smile. There were no awards for Seymour Britchky. No television appearances, national recognition, public feuds or fawning fans. All you got was a poem — a poem that I like to think would’ve amused you. Only two chefs showed up to your funeral. Something tells me that would have amused you, too.