A Brief Meditation on the Poetry of Sam Sifton


Sometimes Sam Sifton seems less like the redoubtable restaurant critic of The New York Times than a frustrated spoken-word poet: Reading his musings is often like having a front-row seat at Open Mic Night. It’s understandable. Who among us office drones doesn’t harbor a smoldering desire to unleash his or her barbaric yawp, to meditate upon the filaments of existential wonder that come submerged in a steaming bowl of lamb intestines? Or to replay that kiss in a rock club over and over again, the memory imbued with new life by the rapt attention of a captive audience?

Sifton is obviously a busy man, far too busy to give his poetic outbursts the fuller expression they demand. So we’ve taken the trouble of doing it for him. The following lines are all lifted verbatim from his actual reviews, and are best read by the glow of a red light, saxophone playing somewhere in the distance, a curl of cigarette smoke drifting into the night, as lonely in its ascent as a motherless child.

Saturday night in the neighborhood that once gave America fever
sad old men sitting at the bar in the lobby of the Gramercy alongside stooped former artist’s models, with smoke curling up toward the ceiling on exhalations of gin breath and despair
A man in a ponytail fiddles with his earring. Someone laughs.

lobster bordelaise so deeply flavored as to recall both veal stock and opium smoke
like postcards from an Italy of the mind, color swatches to recolor your world.
it tastes of funky sophistication, illicit rides in late-night cabs
of sun-baked bad guys and beautiful women, smart cops and mean situations

It tastes like a date you don’t want to end
soft on the tongue, a kiss in a rock club, right after the show
It’s light, delicate even, slightly sweet, with a backbeat. You can dance to it.
rich and earthy, quietly elegant, sensual: it’s bedroom fare.

a slash of crème fraîche, a Mexican debutant
the dim sum you had one hung-over morning in a city not your own
It offers exactly the sensation as kissing an extremely attractive person for the first time
like Sammy Hagar emerging from dry ice to sing

everyone leans into the table to talk.
Fat grouper are in there, black bass, eel, crab, crab and crab stacked tight.
Is that a daughter or lover in the corner with that old lion?
Hey ho, let’s go!