Note: A few weeks after our visit, Frank Bruni reviewed Varietal for the Times, awarding (without much enthusiasm) one star. Within days, executive chef Ed Witt was fired, and pastry chef Jordan Kahn announced that he was leaving to start another project in California. Wayne Nish (formerly of March) replaced both Witt and Kahn, but the restaurant was not able to survive, and has since closed.
We first visited Varietal for dessert about a month ago, having heard about pastry chef Jordan Kahn’s inventive creations. Kahn, who previously worked at The French Laundry and Per Se, is a major talent. We were smitten, and promised ourselves we’d return for a full meal.
Varietal is a restaurant that you desperately want to root for. It has no irritating vanities, such as an overwhelming décor, a globe-trotting absentee chef, or snooty staff who act like they’re doing you a favor. To the contrary, Varietal is an earnestly serious restaurant, with a service team who genuinely want you to be pleased. At least five different people, from the owner on down, asked us if we had enjoyed ourselves.
Alas, Ed Witt’s savory courses don’t live up to Kahn’s desserts. Indeed, the letdown is so great, that we struggle to imagine how it could have happened. Did we order the wrong things? Did we catch Witt’s kitchen on an off night? How can a restaurant so serious about its desserts fumble the rest of the cooking so badly?
The amuse bouche was a small spoonful of Cured Tasmanian Trout with fennel and olives. The olives were too dominant, completely obliterating the trout. At another table, my friend saw four diners grimace in unison as they tasted it.
Everything on the menu comes with a long list of ingredients, often with funky names, and usually at least one too many. We were both intrigued by Prawns with Chamomile Consommé, Baby Carrots, and Forbidden Rice. The dish consists of a few small bits of pre-sliced shrimp, flecks of rice, and a bland salty broth that could have come out of a soup can, added tableside. The dish is entirely uninteresting. We had no idea what was “forbidden” about the rice. At $13, it was one of the lower-priced appetizers.
Entrees are expensive, with most over $30. My friend had the Roasted Pork & Cider-Tobacco Braised Pork Belly ($31), which read much better than it tasted. The roasted pork was like a dull sausage, while the pork belly was surrounded by an unpleasant layer of fat that hadn’t been fully rendered.
Duclair Duck ($34) was a bit more successful, with a deliciously crunchy exterior contrasting the tender meat. But Marcona almonds and baby turnips seemed utterly superfluous, and a small cylinder of “Medlar braised leg” (whatever that means) was far too dry. For that matter, what is “Duclair” duck?
That brought us to dessert, which seems to be the only attraction for which the restaurant can be seriously recommended. Whatever you order, it takes a while to arrive—the reason is abundantly obvious when you see the photos. They are works of art, and it seems almost a crime to bite into them. But they are just as much fun to eat, even if one cannot begin to figure out how they were made.
My friend had the Wolfberry (lime sabayon, tonka bean, broken macaroons, ketjap manis; $14) , which we had so much enjoyed when we had the dessert tasting a month ago.
I wanted to try something different, so I had Absinthe (liquid sable, black sesame, ricotta, sour apple sorbet; $12), another happy choice on a menu where one really cannot go wrong.
Service was generally excellent, with only a few minor lapses that are hardly worth mentioning. The staff dress in dark suits and ties, and comport themselves with all due seriousness. With only a little bit more polish, I could easily imagine awarding three stars for service, if only the food lived up to it.
The room might be accused of sterility, with the all-white walls adorned only with large photos of grapes. But the chandelier made of inverted wine glasses is a work of sheer genius. At the bar, there is a companion sculpture made of wine glasses tilted horozontally (not really clear in the photo below, despite my best efforts).
You would expect a restaurant named Varietal to have a serious wine program. Indeed it does, although it may be far too over-priced for its own good. When we sat down, we were presented with a champagne menu, with no choices below $17. This seemed to us grossly excessive, when you consider that we had an excellent glass of sparkling wine last week at The Modern for just $15. The main wine list has some reasonably priced choices, along with some insanely excessive ones.
Varietal appears to be struggling. The dining room was only about half full, surely not a good sign on a Friday night. The front bar area seemed to be doing a brisk business, but it is not large enough to support the full restaurant. Most of the patrons were a lot younger than we are, and they probably won’t be choosing from the higher end of the wine list. In a dining room dominated by twenty-somethings, who will order the $500 bottle of dessert wine?
Four new reviews of Varietal are on the way. The coming week will see reviews from the New York Observer, New York Sun, and Adam Platt in New York. The owner told us that Frank Bruni has already visited three times, so his review is surely no more than a few weeks away. Varietal probably needs a couple of good reviews to pull in the crowds.
If Varietal survives, I suspect my friend and I will be back again for dessert. We would not be drawn back for a full meal unless future reviews suggest a considerable improvement over what we experienced. Jordan Kahn’s superlative desserts deserve to play on a stage with a much better supporting cast.
Varietal (138 W. 25th Street between 6th & 7th Avenues, Chelsea)
Food (savory): No stars
Food (dessert): ***