August 11, 1980 | Vintage Insatiable
Eat, Drink and Be Wary
Within the serious sensualist and true aesthete, outrage seethes. How sweet it would be to expose and annihilate every source of culinary insult and nutritional malpractice. But there is a Great American Appetite for garbage -- for junk food, for selective sadism and snobbery, for food that is stale, crisply petrified, demoisturized, sappy-sweet, and waterlogged. A damp dish towel would be tastier than what passes for cheese in the average American restaurant. But there are citizen’s addicted to French-fried shoestrings and white bread.
It has never been my sworn mission to uncover little pockets of mediocrity in feeding and blow them to smithereens. A seriously bad restaurant will find either its claque (and many do) or suicide. What beg to be exposed are pretension and high-blown promise that is never fulfilled…rudeness run amok…and, sadly, old favorites that have lapsed into indifference. In my recent search for great $50 dinners for two, there were varying flaws in most of the 91 restaurants I visited, but these 10 were the worst.
The Renaissance Has Been Cancelled
I’m not sure if Crawdaddy (45 East 45th Street) has ever matched the New Orleans fantasy of its brilliant design out of a George Lang game plan for this corner of the Roosevelt Hotel. The room is a knockout, with its handsome beveled glass, gleaming white tile, and high-backed spindle chairs. The glossary of south-Louisiana food on each menu is mouth-watering, but I’d rather eat the menu, glossary and all, than the sorrows and silliness that emerge from the kitchen.
“Crawdaddy is having a renaissance,” my food-savvy informant reported. And it is certainly jammed at lunch. “I don’t know why we’re here,” the man next to me confided. “I don’t like the food at all.” The bar draws a six o’clock virus of what seems to be third-string mating action. A pianist plays jazz to a nearly empty dining room. Oysters Bienville will take 40 minutes, the waiter warns. Fifteen minutes later he brings them. “I rushed them through,” he says proudly, delivering perfectly poached creatures under a wet mattress of white bread. Next come steam-table carrots, aging catfish, asparagus that are soggy, stringy, and bile green. Crawfish is wrapped in pastry that tastes like canvas.
At lunch there’s a reasonable tearoom jambalaya; at dinner it’s served not even warmed through. I’m afraid to guess how far ahead the duck was cooked…hours? days? The ginger sauce features a chunk of ginger the size of a baby’s fist. Veal with mushrooms and oysters is a curiosity overwhelmed by the taste of uncooked flour. Pecan pie is served in what seem to be an unbaked crust. A mucky square of bread-and-butter pudding is glazed with…something sour and sweet -- I cannot guess what. That’s a good commercial apple pie with a roof of Cheddar aged to linoleum.
The staff is dedicated and polite. And the seafood gumbo is surprisingly edible. But Crawdaddy’s renaissance has apparently been canceled.
The Duck Joint was glorious in its time. “What audacity,” I wrote. “What style. What wit.” To offer duckling -- just duckling, roasted or braised, and goose -- plus a few hearty alternatives in a setting of sweet Gemütlichkeit personified then by the gusto of host Paul Steindler and his glamorous Czech skating-star wife, Aja.
The new owners play by the original East Side Duck Joint rules at their Lincoln Center clone (1 Lincoln Plaza). There is greasy garlic bread and crudités to dip in ketchup-blushed mayo, the same menu with its ten-year-old bravos from the critics, handsome charcuterie on display, and the same open kitchen. America loves duck. I love duck. This duck is ghastly.
The skin is crisped fat. The flesh is stringy enough to be played by Paganini. The sauce is essence of sweet cinnamon with a drowning of glorious fat cherries. Sweetly sincere, the waiter tries to warn us. “The braised duck is in a sauce,” he says with an expression that warns of falling skies and other potential calamities. “The goose takes 45 minutes” -- hints of worse disaster. “Potted goose livers come covered in fat,” a second equally humanitarian waiter warns. Our kamikaze crew will not turn back. We sit there wiping an ooze of fat from some poor goose’s petrified liver, munching on what looks like steamed polyurethane -- it’s a Bohemian dumpling, love. Can that be chocolate in the duck sauce? Maple syrup? I suspect that the goose has been “on hold” for some time, perhaps since Christmas.
A sensitive palate sentenced to dine here might be happy with boiled short ribs of beef (don’t dwell on the sauce) or even lamb. Both the shoulder and the rack come from the same garlicky saline stewpot (and the rack was actually a shank and some odds and ends of other anatomy), but why go to the Duck Joint if you’re longing for lamb? “What audacity,” indeed.
Dinners are very quiet at La Rotisserie (153 East 52nd Street)…so quiet you could have a steamy love affair or a nervous breakdown and no one would notice. Six years ago La Rotisserie was a fine little bistro with astonishingly good French fries. Well, the fries in their iron kettle are still better than most. A complete dinner starts at just $7.75. There is a lovely Château Bel Orme ’72 for $12.
But where is the chef? The lowliest dishwasher could be turning out the uncooked lentil salad, the decimated artichoke, the weary spinach and stringy chicken, the middle-aged duck, the sluggish veal stew, and the grim hamburger in something creamy and peppered. Celery root has an odd off-taste. Salad is a toss of the market’s toughest greens. Pork chops look and taste like leather and old fat. What a shame.
The women who wait tables smile bravely, as if nothing were amiss. And the room with its plastic bulls and treasury of old copper pots has worn rather well. If fire, riot, or pestilence happens to trap you on this stretch of East 52nd Street, you might order the blood sausage (surely they buy it readymade). Whatever you do, don’t let curiosity prompt you to order la coupe du Ton Ton ($4 extra), unless you are a fool for strawberries in melted vanilla ice cream.
How green we were. Innocents abroad on Ninth Avenue discovering coq au vin and boeuf à la mode at little French restaurants where dinner for two cost $20 and everything was wonderful. Or was it? Only recently liberated from dormitory chipped beef (it was the sixties)…what did we know? So maybe Brittany du Soir (800 Ninth Avenue, at 53rd Street) hasn’t gone drearily downhill. Perhaps it’s the same as always, frozen in a time of overcooking and underseasoning, the only high the check…now, easily $50 for two.
Come home again to the familiar dark-wood booths, the drawings of regional French costumes, overworked waitresses, checked oilcloth, dollhouse napkins, stingy little wineglasses, the same hideous plywood baguettes. Nothing is utterly inedible, but nothing is very good. To stave off hunger you nibble at greasy fried potatoes. And nothing serious has been done to detract from the innate glory of soft-shell crabs. But the soup needs salt.
Artichoke, asparagus, and string beans date from the old school of sog. The chicken is scorched and dehydrated. Sandy mussels are heaped in a listless broth. The coq au vin should carry an expiration date. That could be Miracle Whip with the graceless dried-out cut of cold poached bass. Ask for liver rare? Sorry. Filet mignon is a giant mound of tender and tasteless beef. Desserts are tacky: canned, bottled, frozen, or simply uninspired. But the cheesecake is good -- tastes rather Sara Lee. Weak espresso is served in a glass.
And yet Brittany du Soir is popular. Often there’s a wait at the bar and spirited chatter in French, confirming suspicions that the average Frenchman is no more demanding at the table than the average American. Sentiment -- and home cooking, no matter how homely -- is its own seasoning.
Not so long ago Piro’s, then on Madison Avenue near 95th Street, was treasured as a fabulous little neighborhood discovery where a slightly eccentric owner-chef turned out beautiful food…fine Italian home cooking, pure and simple, everything fresh and cooked to order, sauces done right in the pan…appetizer to coffee, $30 for two. But the temperamental chef’s quirks have blossomed into a galloping megalomania.
“Yes, we’ll take your reservation, but you’ll have to wait at the bar,” the voice on the phone confides. “We’re very popular -- I don’t know why.”
“But there are tables free,” you insist when you arrive. “Sit at the bar anyway,” the maître d’ commands. “I like you to get relaxed first.” You join the drinkers helping to amortize Piro’s move downtown (1302 Madison Avenue, near 92nd Street) to what is comparative elegance -- with its tile and bare wood tables and hanging plants. And you brood. NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR LOST PROPERTY, says one sign. No cloakroom. No pay phone. No credit cards. Our party of three is offered a cramped table for two. When we refuse, a less demanding “three” gratefully compress for the honor.
Finally seated, we order veal and get a rather sprightly chicken. “The chef thinks you’ll like the chicken,” the waiter says, shrugging. This is the house of a thousand shrugs. “We need salt, please.” Another shrug. “No one ever asks for salt or pepper here because the chef’s so good,” the waiter explains.
We arrive at ten one night: “Are we too late?” the chef emerges, stomping and waving a fist. “Not at all,” says the maître d’. “We’re sending out to Lutèce for food.” Stop at the bar for the obligatory “relaxer” -- a giant drink, granted. Plates of manicotti slide down the bar. “The chef doesn’t want you to starve.” The manicotti is elegant, subtle, pure. I feel loved. But just for a moment. “The chef is fixing you something special,” we are informed.
“Can’t we look at the menu?”
“You can.” Shrug. “But it won’t do any good. He’s going to cook what he wants.”
Chicken again: overcooked cutlets of breast meat in a stodgy sauce with mushrooms and olives. Platters of undercooked string beans and delicious linguine with garlic and butter and cream. Desserts not worth lingering for. Not very good espresso. A little masochism goes a long way.
Hisae, the More The Less Merry
Hisae was hailed as a culinary goddess in this town. She began in an easy little beanery on the Bowery, handling fish with a fine Japanese sensibility, dazzling serious becs-fins with her spiritual artistry in vegetables. Her formula was infinitely appealing. Simple setting. Bare tables. Homemade print napkins. The fish of the day steamed and grilled. Oriental accents. Vegetables in Lucullan style. And then…fie on all that Eastern purity…a dessert table that looked like a two-page spread in a 1960-vintage Ladies’ Home Journal. All at Underground Gourmet prices.
Today there are five Hisae’s around (and a sixth in Bay Shore). Unhappily, nothing I’ve tasted is quite the same. Insipid muck of Oriental vegetables at Hisae’s on East 37th Street sounded the first alarm. When Hisae settled into a 58th Street spot dressed in bawdy-house-pink draperies, rising prices seemed to keep pace with a deteriorating kitchen. Fish was often carelessly cooked. Desserts were more primitive than ever.
Hisae’s landing uptown on West 72nd is not quite the joy it might have been. There is no sure hand, no control in the kitchen. The glorious heap of asparagus that four can share as appetizer may be almost totally raw or slightly cooked. And the blue-cheese dressing seems the victim of some culinary shortcut. Mussels are wimps in a broth with no jazz. Fish can be over-the-hill, overcooked, and bizarrely garnished. The brown rice with nuts and raisins has a quality that revives my innate mistrust of vegetarianism. Smoked trout is an arid slab of cardboard. These many bumbles dim the triumphs: an occasional fish delivered in flagrante perfection. A generous bowl of good bouillabaisse (that cries out for fiery rouille). Delicious chocolate cake.
Hisae’s, alas, cannot be as easily cloned as McDonald’s.
The House of Taiwan (10 Pell Street) is the great new find in Chinatown, came the word from haute wok circles. The menu’s poetry tickles spirits riding on a mai tai high. Scarcely a single dish is not “happy,” “deliciously mellow,” “aristocratic,” or “tingly.” Yes, the service is slow, the staff rushed and harassed. We nibble hot pickled cabbage. Taste crisp, splendid scallion pancakes.
Exclaim over mandarin spareribs -- spectacular savory little pork chops. Three-treasure banquet appetizers -- beef, chicken chunks marinated in wine, and ribbons of pig’s ear -- disappoint. But even the mundane little spring rolls are super-crisp and better than most. It is a struggle for attention on a Saturday night filled with determined bacchanalia. But after the lamb, tender and savory in a dark sauce studded with scallion, something goes awry. Everything loses its oomph. The whole carp floats in a muddy sauce. Scallops and chicken with pea pods in “a white velvet sauce” proves a fizzle.
The kitchen that could produce those sublime spareribs deserved a second try…on a less pressured weekday. Sorry. The House of Taiwan is still jumping a few days later. Tonight there are three or four giant tables of banqueting schoolchildren from Boston. As they skip out the door, a busload of Chinese tourists surge in. The staff struggles valiantly. Our crew is on its second complimentary cabbage -- this one studded with whole cloves of raw garlic.
The secret of the scallion pancake is…it must be eaten hot. The deluxe wonton soup is truly a “glorification of won tons,” as the menu lyricizes. But the hot-and-sour soup is overstarched and needs vinegar. Spicy Szechwan wontons are served in a peanutty sauce fired with pepper but strangely lukewarm in temperature. Peking duck (ordered that afternoon) is a proletarian version of that aristocratic dish, with pancakes like oaktag. Soggy eggplant, sloppily cut vegetables, overdone fish in a murky sauce, waterlogged banana fritters conspire to blur the scattered triumphs.
“Love at First Bite” is the house legend. Alas, love cannot compete with the demands of a tourist feeding station.
Keep Bailing Captain
The Captain’s Table (860 Second Avenue, at 46th Street, and 410 Sixth Avenue, near 8th Street) could be denounced for aesthetic pollution alone. All those nautical doodads, the creeping lobster, the framed hodgepodge on the walls of the Village outpost, flowered cotton everywhere -- and uptown, dazzling wattage, the better to see whole fish rolled to your table raw, in a glistening nude chorus line. Frankly, this optic jangle would probably seem amusing if both kitchens demonstrate signs of once celebrated brilliance.
But the insolence of pudding-thick chowder with tough little clams, weary halibut, and slightly strong shad (uptown), and (downtown) scungilli with a strange off-taste, mussels slathered with mayonnaise straight from the jar (if anyone actually made it, I assume he’ll be too embarrassed to claim credit) breeds terminal discontent.
Uptown, slightly sandy mussels were piled in a puddle of excellent broth, and a whole bass laced with herbs and fennel, heady with a delicate edge of char, was delicious. “You see,” a Captain’s Table fan crowed, “the secret is to ignore the fancy stuff. Stick to whole grilled fish.”
Downtown, we tested the Whole-Fish Theory, stressing that we like fish cooked “rare” -- opaque but not flaking. It took a while to deliver, and perhaps interpret, that request to the chef. And the pompano ($17) was overcooked even so, though otherwise splendidly moist and fresh. The bass ($14) had seen better days in its youth. The salad provided a lackluster interlude before Black Forest cake tasting like reconstituted Twinkies and zabaglione sweetened by someone who ought to have a big investment in sugar futures. At these prices, dinner is no petty misdemeanor.
Who Stepped on My Sombrero
I’d never met an enchilada I didn’t like till a friend touted El Sombrero (239 East 86th Street) as the best Mexican place in New York. El Bum Steer. Still…tacos, burritos, tostadas, I love them. It’s my Fritos Flaw, my vice, my vulnerability. And El Sombrero looks -- for better or worse -- highly Mexican. The waiter is slow and sweet. “The paella takes one hour,” he warns. “How about 45 minutes?” I try to negotiate. “In Mexico it would take three hours,” my friend the Incurable Neophiliac reminds. “Be impressed,” he soothes. “They do it from scratch.”
Fifteen minutes later, surprise! Paella: little sausage rounds in rigor mortis, onion rings, nine peas, two mussels, ditto clams, seven chicken morsels, tow chunk of a rubber lobster, and what could have been a shrimp tortured beyond recognition. Even the guacamole here is a dud -- oily and bland. Tortilla chips are variously loaded (combinación de entremés) with refried beans, melted cheese, and fiery jalapeño (nachos), with a rather pleasant sort of chili, and with dried-out chicken shreds.
Enchiladas, tamales, and flautas were a blurred, undifferentiated mush. Something wonderful comes rolled with a stripe of sour cream. Alas, dehydrated chicken is the bird of the day. Sangría at $9 a pitcher tastes of stale wine. The steak has memories of neither grill nor marinade, just fat and gristle. And the prices are very serious -- $40 for two, or more if you’re thirsty.
I could happily make an evening of El Sombrero’s complimentary crisp tortilla chips to dip in hot sauce, and a great margarita. These are not great margaritas. Bunuelos are tortilla chips, again astonishingly refreshing under clouds of honey and cinnamon-scented whipped cream. Excellent espresso. The waiter comes from Central Casting. There is Mexican Muzak.
Dissonance at Raga
What could be more romantic than the handsome carved wood, green silk, ancient musical instruments at Raga (57 West 48th Street)? The elegant mystery of dark men in exotic turbans. The rhythmic falsetto keen of the sitar. Intimations of clove and cumin and the promise that native-born cognoscenti hold this the best Indian restaurant in town. Perhaps the captain does seem a shade distracted, impassive, and bored. Still, our gourmand quartet is confident, sipping spicy Gewürztraminer, eager for fiery curries and cooling yogurt in a sensuous concert worthy of the setting.
Alas, the mulligatawny is a bit of a cornstarch swamp. And Madras soup might as well be Campbell’s—thinned, the menu advises, with coconut milk. No one is dazzled by the oysters, but there is something to be said for dal papri -- India’s version of Fritos -- little lentil crisps in yogurt with an accent of sweet and sour. Onion kulcha seems excessively soggy, and the bhatrua is a greasy balloon. The tandoori chicken is delicious, though a skimpy portion.
Perhaps our peeves are exacerbated by the climate. It is chilly now. A request for Perrier without ice brings no response. The order for a second bottle of wine falls on four pairs of deaf ears. The third soda reminder brings it at last, iced. Temperate requests for a spoon or a clean napkin provoke frowns. I have a fantasy that the house is shorthanded and the manager has asked his son, a Harvard senior, to lend a hand. Son is deeply hostile. Sweet ’n Low? He throws it on the table. We are distracted from exquisite mur ki biryani -- saffron-scented rice perfumed with exotic herbs. The magic is shattered. Lamb, fish, eggplant…everything tastes flat and vaguely similar.
Desserts are sweet and cardamom-haunted, except for a pitiful fresh-fruit salad and ice cream. Coffee tastes twice-cooked and slops into the saucer. We’re laughing now to relieve the tension. No one laughs at a Harvard man. The bill is brought without our asking. But it takes several minutes to rouse someone to accept our credit card.
What can the shell-shocked victim do? readers often write. Well, we could have sandbagged our cozy banquette and pelted the Sweet ’n Low hit-and-runner with lukewarm kulcha. Instead we registered a formal complaint and left a bellicose 10 percent tip. In the interest of research, one day I’ll take a Valium and try again.
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