Note: Rouge Tomate closed in August 2014, due to “economics.” The huge space was never full, but somehow, Rouge Tomate eked out a Michlein star and held onto it for five years. As the review notes below, we weren’t impressed at all, but perhaps the restaurant improved. The owners re-opened in 2016, in a new space dubbed Rouge Tomate Chelsea.
It’s a coincidence that we dined at Rouge Tomate just days after Frank Bruni’s one-star review came out—we made our reservation weeks ago. I went in suspecting that Bruni had been too stingy. I went out convinced he was too generous.
Rouge Tomate is a health lecture disguised as a restaurant. Its “mission” is to provide “a harmonious alignment of balanced cuisine, well-being, and social and environmental consciousness.” It adheres to the principles of Sanitas Per Escam (S.P.E.), a Latin phrase meaning “Health Through Food.”
Perhaps a better principle would be, “Avoid restaurants with mission statements.”
There’s a serious chef: Jeremy Bearman, who has worked for Joël Robuchon and Daniel Boulud. You almost get the sense that if he could toss the S.P.E. rule book, Bearman could rustle up a a memorable meal.
But almost nothing we had at Rouge Tomate tasted very good. With the exception of one dish, it was all very bland and forgettable. And it doesn’t come cheap. Although a $72 prix fixe was wisely jettisoned in the restaurant’s early days, dinner for two still set us back almost $175 (before tip), including cocktails ($12 each) and a $42 bottle of wine.
The bread service (above left) was typical of the many culinary blunders at Rouge Tomate. The bread itself was wonderful, but puréed spinach was a poor stand-in for butter. We love spinach—truly, we do—but in this role it was miscast.
The trio of amuses bouches (above right) were a mixed bag. Puréed beet leaves were awful. A beet gelée tinged with horseradish was arguably too intense, but at least it had flavor. A “beet tartare” had very little flavor at all.
Market Potato and Farm Egg (above left; $15) got a boost from a poached egg, but the potato hash and a streak of “foraged mushrooms” contributed no excitement on their own.
The mushrooms were a more welcome presence in a faux risotto with barley, winter truffles, parmesan, and a Maderia wine reduction (above right; $19). This was the only really enjoyable dish we tasted at Rouge Tomate.
In the Daily News, Restaurant Girl gave Rouge Tomate an improbable four out of five stars. Among her standout dishes was the Rabbit Fleischnacke (above left; $27), a concoction of minced rabbit, chestnut pasta, apple and celery root. But we discerned no flavor at all in the rabbit, while the poor chestnuts proved a poor substitute for flour in pasta.
Duck (above right; $28) was competently prepared, and served in an ample portion. It came on a bed of root vegetables and barley with all the flavor cooked out of them.
The stunning bi-level décor makes an instant impression, but after a while it seemed as soulless and sterile as the food. We were at the far end of the dining room, cut off from whatever warmth the space might have had. Another couple seated near us had to ask twice to be moved. We couldn’t imagine why the staff hesitated, since there were plenty of empty tables to choose from at 8:00 p.m. on a Saturday evening.
With that curious exception, the service was excellent, to the point of suffocation. We appreciate being asked if we’re enjoying ourselves, but various servers and managers must have asked the question eight or ten times.
Eagerness to please is not the problem at Rouge Tomate. The “mission” is.
Rouge Tomate (10 East 60th Street between Fifth & Madison Avenues, Upper East Side)
Service: Very Good