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Savage review of Fieri restaurant talk of the food world

The front bar of Guy's American Kitchen and Bar in Times Square, Manhattan on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012.

CASEY KELBAUGH/The New York Times
Published: Wednesday, November 14, 2012 at 7:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 7:08 a.m.

How burned is Guy Fieri, the Santa Rosa celebrity chef, by this week's New York Times review that sliced, diced and skewered his new 500-seat restaurant in Times Square?

Facts

THE REVIEW

Read the New York Times review of Guy's American Kitchen & Bar here

Fieri, whose new restaurant, Guy's American Kitchen & Bar, is housed in the former New York Times building on West 44th Street, wouldn't say Wednesday.

His response last month to a similarly scathing review in the New York Post suggested how he might fire back this morning in a scheduled appearance on the NBC Today show.

“I know the success of my food,” Fieri said on the CBS Morning Show last month. “I mean, you can't have eight restaurants and be doing it wrong, or that wrong.”

The Times' savage review, published Tuesday, spread quickly across the country through social media and TV talk shows to become the topic of the day among foodies and celebrity watchers alike. One day later, it remained the most read and e-mailed story on the Times website.

The Times' chief restaurant critic, Pete Wells, told the journalism organization Poynter Institute on Wednesday that he visited Fieri's new eatery four times before sitting down to write.

Then he drove a truck through it. Repeatedly.

He gave it zero stars. He panned the service. He said almost all the dishes were “inedible.” He lamented that it “treated with so little respect” the homestyle American cooking Fieri celebrates on his popular TV show, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

“It was the most vicious review, without an ounce of smirk,” said Clark Wolf, a food and restaurant consultant who divides his time between Guerneville and New York City.

Fieri has stumbled badly on one of the world's biggest, most unforgiving stages, Wolf said.

“I'm not sure he and his team knew what he was getting into,” he said. “Even the most successful restaurateur knows that getting into New York is very tough.”

The review prompted schadenfreude to spare in Sonoma County, where Fieri launched his Johnny Garlic's and Tex Wasabi's restaurants before he became a TV culinary star.

“I'm not going to name names, but everybody I know in the industry — and I know a lot of people in the industry — is saying it's pretty fair,” said Noah Bolmer, owner of the Barley & Hops tavern in Occidental.

“Guy Fieri is riding the coat-tails of the American comfort food scene and getting the benefit of it, without producing anything of value,” said Bolmer, who termed the food he serves “elevated pub grub.”

On the other hand, said Wolf, “The headline is, that not everyone in America knew that Guy had opened a restaurant in Times Square and now they do.”

Wells wrote the review as a series of questions.

“Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste?” he said of the restaurant's watermelon margarita. “Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?”

That was just one such sharp query in an approach that delighted restaurant critics around the country.

“It's something that is probably the most difficult part of the job, keeping it fresh and entertaining and not falling into something formulaic,” said Leslie Brenner, restaurant critic and dining editor at The Dallas Morning News.

“I couldn't help but cheer and laugh because he managed to break out of it, which is so hard to do, and yet he did it in a way that is once hilarious, but reads as though it is absolutely fair,” said Brenner, chairwoman of the Association of Food Journalists' critics committee.

In Sonoma County on Wednesday, the news of the review spread fast among those who know Fieri, an outsized personality with spiky bleached-blond hair. A decade after he opened his first Johnny Garlic's restaurant on Farmer's Lane, Fieri skyrocketed to fame in 2006 by winning a Food Network reality show. He went on to host an NBC primetime game show, “Minute to Win It,” and can be seen more than 35 hours a week on various Food Network shows.

The Times' review made supporters cringe.

“It was bad; I got like 10 emails this morning,” said Evelyn Cheatham, whose Santa Rosa culinary apprenticeship program, Worth Our Weight, has, to its advantage, been spotlighted by Fieri's show.

Such support for local restaurants — and a range of charitable causes — has endeared Fieri to many.

“He's always been very nice and cool with us and everybody here,” said Alma Mendez, owner of La Texanita, a Mexican restaurant on Sebastopol Road that is a Fieri favorite.

And, while a battery of people who said they were from Sonoma County echoed the reviewer's conclusions on the websites of The Press Democrat and The New York Times (which sold The Press Democrat in January), there were also supporters of the Fieri-style cuisine.

“I keep going back,” said Caitlyn Hunt of Santa Rosa, speaking on Fourth Street as she left Tex Wasabi's after a sushi lunch. “All his restaurants are good.”

Others suggested that Fieri's California eateries can captivate in theory but fall a bit short in practice — and that may be the problem in New York.

“There's great themes — I mean who would have thought of barbecue and sushi?” said Michael Hyman, whose downtown Pawn Advantage shop is next to Tex Wasabi's, where he sometimes eats lunch. “But you have to go the whole way and finish it.”

But Fieri is used to criticism of both his style and his food, and he will rebound, Cheatham said.

“It's sort of like a hazing,” she said. “The guy is thick-skinned. He's going to weather this just fine, and he's going to make a lot of money out there.”

Some friends and associates suggested the review couldn't help but bruise.

“This is a time that he needs some support,” said Brett Hutchison, chief operating officer for Fieri's five Johnny Garlic's and two Tex Wasabi's restaurants, all in California.

“He's my brother,” Hutchison said, speaking figuratively, “and I love him to death. People love him, or I guess sometimes people don't.”

Needless to say, the Guy's American Kitchen & Bar website does not include the Times' review. It does though feature a New York Times Dining Section brief from August noting the $8 million restaurant's imminent opening.

It also includes a Zagat review that says, with some apparent surprise, that the food “was actually pretty good.”

Fieri has a small window in which to move toward the Zagat review and away from Wells' devastating criticism, said Wolf.

“New York loves a hit, it loves a flop and it loves a comeback,” he said. “After Guy fires the general manager and chef, which he ought to do by this afternoon, he's probably got until spring.”

Wolf said he went to Guy's American Kitchen & Bar to review it for a radio show. But he never got past the foyer.

“I stood for about five minutes or longer, and no one came up to me. I was on a deadline so I had to leave,” he said.

Staff Writer Heather Irwin contributed to this report.

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