★ I've solved about 3,500 NYT crosswords over the past ten years. That's either impressive or sad — probably a bit of both. What is definitely impressive: a theme I've never quite seen before. It so rarely happens that I had to sit back and marvel at today's.
Puzzleheads are familiar with "letter bank" brainteasers, those where you must form long words using a small set of letters (the "bank"). We've seen plenty of crosswords like this, and the fun NYT "Spelling Bee" feature also depends on the letter bank principle.
There are also plenty of "words within entries that describe the entry" puzzles. Heck, there's even a term for this puzzle type, called "kangaroo words." I'd never have thought to combine these two genres, though. Luci and David did a masterful job of doing just that, in an interesting and elegant way.
POLITICS AS USUAL formed out of the letter bank of US CAPITOL? That's perfect! Each of the four examples works so well, the resultant phrase described, or at least hinted strongly at, by the letter bank phrase.
There's even something for dedicated puzzle junkies who might pooh-pooh any sort of letter bank theme: the letter bank phrases use no duplicated letters. It won't matter to 99% of the solving population, but check out how US CAPITOL doesn't duplicate any letters within itself. Neither does UNEARTHS, or any of the others. It would have been fine to do so, but that would have made it much easier to find usable examples. The fact that Luci and David unearthed four great examples while under a tough constraint makes it even more impressive.
And an exemplary grid, to boot? It's everything I want from a four-themer grid — a couple of long bonuses (SOLO ARTIST, TABLE LINEN), some solid mid-length material (IM ON IT, ALL SET), and short fill that JB Smoove would approve. Not only is there little glue (SLO), but I enjoyed the tie-ins of PIG/RAT in consecutive downs, and PLUS/MINUS in the same region.
An all-around delight from these two Stanford products.