As we count down the days to Frank Bruni’s exit, it’s time to look back on the best and worst of his tenure. This post will focus on his greatest hits. Another, dedicated to his failures, is available here.
Bruni’s best reviews were his smackdowns. It’s easy to write an entertaining bad review, but describing excellence requires a depth of knowledge that Bruni didn’t have. He couldn’t really explain persuasively why things were great; he came alive when they were awful. His other successes came when he broke the mold of the conventional review format, and I’ve selected a few of those examples, too.
Here, then, are Bruni’s 10 greatest hits:
10. Wolfgang’s Steakhouse (2 stars; 6/30/2004). This review found Bruni in one of the settings where he was truly comfortable in his critic’s skin: a steakhouse. The reviewe was mired in the tired meme that steak isn’t good for you (“Eat Up, but Don’t Tell Your Cardioligist,” it warned). But it yielded really the only example of his tenure where the positive description of something has truly lingered in my memory.
One question more than any other hovers over Wolfgang’s Steakhouse and its odds for success: are the juicy, buttery porterhouses here as delectably exceptional, in taste as well as heft, as the ones across the East River, at Peter Luger?
In other words, does Wolfgang’s manage to hold onto the beefy rapture as it edits out Brooklyn and the Williamsburg Bridge?
An answer to that required a very special journey on a very caloric night, during which a friend and I willingly (and, truth be told, gleefully) sacrificed our cardiovascular futures on the altar of Thorough and Accurate Scientific Research.
At 6:43, we had the Steak for Two at Wolfgang’s. At 9:21, we had the Steak for Two at Luger.
At 10:27, we should have had coronary bypass procedures. Instead, we called a taxi, then rode back to Manhattan in the deep silence of our shared protein comas, calculating how many years we had shaved off our lives and wondering whether we would ever again have reason, at company expense, to repeat the experiment. We certainly hoped so…
Best of all was the beef. A rib-eye steak (not on the Luger menu) yielded striations of color and texture: the black, crisp exterior gave way to soft red pinpricks in the center. A sirloin had similar virtues, and so did the porterhouse, arguably the raison d’être of Wolfgang’s and Luger.
My cholesterol-impervious friend and I tried just a few slices, knowing there would be more in another borough, at a later hour. Then we each had another slice. It was definitely time to stop. We had another.
The meat was many wonderful things at once, or in rapid succession: crunchy, tender, smoky, earthy. It induced a kind of euphoria — and a stab of guilt. We walked all the way to Williamsburg. Our gluttony demanded penance.
The Luger porterhouse demanded awe. It was, amazingly, even better, chiefly because the steak had been cut about an eighth of an inch thicker (we measured), which allowed for more contrast between the exterior and interior. Luger also hewed to our medium-rare request. Wolfgang’s had overbroiled.
But not by much. I’ll go back — in two or three months, which is when I expect my arteries to reopen.
9. The Waverly Inn (one star; 1/24/2007) and Restaurant Charles (no stars; 4/15/2009). Both reviews were written as Bruni’s alter-ego, Frannie von Furstinshow, in the form of faux e-mails to the owner of the Waverly Inn, Vanity Fair publisher Graydon Carter. Neither review said anything important about food. But if Bruni was bored with his job and couldn’t find real restaurants to write about, at least he found a way to make these two reviews memorable. First, the Waverly Inn:
Now, applause: Waverly. Love it. I laugh when I hear it called a restaurant, as if it were anything so mundane and (apologies to Demi) pregnable. How can they call it a restaurant when the official phone number yields a recording that doesn’t take messages or even acknowledge that the place has opened? Of course, we’ve all been eating there since early November. It just isn’t open to anyone and everyone.
Someday it will surely have to be. Someday the people who know you and the people who know your key staff members and the recognizable or attractive people who take the trouble to stop in, willing to submit to a visual once-over and try to make a reservation in person — someday there won’t be enough of these people to fill the seats, and you’ll have to take all callers and comers, and it will all be so much different…
You could write the book on playing coy. Or at least a key chapter in the annals of playing coy. The big red letters saying “preview” on not only every page of the menu but also on every page of the wine list? The constant public nattering about the Edward Sorel mural not being done? (Looked good to me.) The refusal to let newspapers and magazines take pictures beyond the front bar area, as if there were still dropcloths and paint cans scattered about?
Brilliant. Just brilliant. I heard you even held your ground with The Times, denying the photographer access to the dining rooms. How in the world will they get around that?
I dropped in the other night. My eleventh visit, I think. (Is there some kind of frequent flier program? Kidding! But if there is. … ) That front bar area was poignant: all those strivers with Blackberries but without reservations, waiting for a tap on the shoulder that would never come. I heard a woman who did have a reservation — her table wasn’t ready — tell her companion that they should sell it on eBay. There’s a traitor in our midst.
And then, Charles:
Graybee baby, I have a confession. Don’t be cross! But I cheated on you. For a while there — and it was just a short while — I thought I’d found something better with Charles. Something cleverer. I’m a fool, I know. But I had my reasons.
The Waverly Inn was feeling so familiar. And the Monkey Bar hadn’t gone Gray yet. Now that it has, by the way, maybe it’s you who should beg forgiveness from me, my Gray goose. What were you thinking?? A normal reservations line?!? That anyone and everyone can call!!?? My puzzlement defies punctuation.
You had it right when you set up the Waverly: getting a table should mean pleading, plotting or — for the less pitiable among us — an occasional bouquet for your assistant. Speaking of which, did he get the Easter lilies? Not as many and as pretty as last year, I know, but we all have to adjust…
I thought Charles would be a balm. I thought Charles would make me feel better. I thought — oh, I hate to imagine what you’ll make of me — that Charles would be my new Waverly.
It’s just a few blocks away. And your Waverly chef, John DeLucie, helped with the menu when it opened late last year. And it was all so enigmatic: the nonsensical name (it’s not on Charles, or owned by a Charles), the lack of any sign out front.
Actually, there was and is a sign, but it’s for the fusty French artifact that used to have the space, Les Deux Gamins. How genius is that? When I went the other night, two people who’d apparently been fans of that restaurant were walking out the door looking exasperated, and they were muttering: “It’s some totally different place now. Who knew?”…
Charles one-ups them all. While Waverly doesn’t answer its phone, Charles doesn’t even have one, at least not one that’s published. To get a table I would send an e-mail message, and some unseen, unknown, disembodied reservations deity would write back. It was like I was in a “Bourne” movie, arranging a secret meet…
My dinner with Bitsy was the next week, and when she wasn’t staring at Maggie, she was rolling her eyes. The lamb kebabs should be called tartare. That’s how close to raw they were. The salmon, supposedly pan-seared, was more like pan-spurned, by which I mean it was nearly raw, too. Charles is as stingy with heat as it is with light. Maybe it’s saving on utilities.
Honorable mention to one other Bruni review written as a e-mail correspondence with a fictitious friend: Sascha (one star; 5/24/2006).
8. Second Avenue Deli (one star; 2/13/2008). You wouldn’t expect Frank to know much about kosher food, so he enlisted companions who did: Ed Koch, Nora Ephron, and Laura Shapiro. The review was more a conversation amongst the four of them:
Ed, Nora, Laura and I focused instead on the foods that each of us associated most closely with the Second Avenue Deli.
“It had a great hot dog,” Nora said of its East Village incarnation, “with a major skin thing happening, and a burst of juicy meat inside.”
She had a dreamy look. When the waiter swung by, she asked: “What’s the hot dog situation?”
The waiter said flatly, “We have them.”
She pressed for details.
“It’s not skinless,” he said, “so it gives a nice crackle.”
Her eyes widened. “This is very exciting!” she said. “You’re saying the right words! You’re singing the song!”
After two bites of it, she judged the texture ideal, the seasoning less so. “I’m looking for more garlic,” she said. “I’m looking for more, more, more courage in this hot dog.”
The brisket was a bigger hit, especially with me and even more so with Ed, who homed in on its transcendent virtue.
“I happen to like fatty delicatessen,” he said as he bit into the fatty, messy sandwich, which he washed down with Cel-Ray soda. He had made a bib of his napkin, and wore it over his blue dress shirt and gold-striped tie.
“I will order the fattiest pastrami they make,” he said of his approach to deli food, and I nodded. I saw Nora and Laura nodding too. On this we agreed: life was too short to go any other route.
Our pastrami — on rye — turned out to be plenty fatty. It was borscht red. It glistened.
7. Russian Tea Room (one star; 12/20/2006). This was one of many single-star reviews that ought to have been zero, but it contained some memorable zingers:
It’s a safe bet that many visitors to the reborn Russian Tea Room won’t realize that it still serves chicken Kiev and beef stroganoff, or at least interpretations thereof.
These dishes aren’t mentioned in the clear print on the dinner menu’s first three pages, which cover appetizers and entrees and seem to exhaust the restaurant’s savory offerings. They aren’t mentioned on any kind of specials card.
No, they’re relegated to a typographical Siberia: an italicized blur on the mostly blank fourth page of the menu, where diners are also told of holidays on which the restaurant will be open.
“We are delighted to prepare historical Tea Room favorites, including chicken Kiev and beef stroganoff, on request,” reads the blur, which of course conveys the opposite message. If the Tea Room czars are so chirpily delighted, why not put the Kiev where people can find it?…
The chicken Kiev, unexpectedly straightforward, did a rubbery impersonation of airline food, and I mean coach…
But this restaurant’s real shortcoming is its service, unforgivably poor in the context of dinner entrees that frequently exceed $40, appetizers that infrequently fall below $18 and 30-gram servings of caviar that cost as much as $300.
Outdated menus with erroneous information were put on the table. Drinks and food were ludicrously slow to arrive. Servers responded dismissively to complaints, one of them telling us that we shouldn’t bother him with questions about a fugitive bottle of wine. It was, he shrugged, the sommelier’s problem.
And what a problem. Although we had ordered a 1998 French Burgundy for $84, we got a 2001. We flagged the discrepancy, and for the next 15 minutes, as we ate our appetizers and thirsted for pinot noir, both the wine and sommelier were on the lam. When he showed up, he presented us with a similar 1998 — the listed one was unavailable — for $20 more. He paused, seemingly waiting for us to agree to spend that.
Then, in the manner of a car salesman, he said: “I’ll make you a deal. We’ll call it an even $90.”
Could he throw in cruise control? A leather interior?
6. Craftsteak (one star; 7/12/2006). Bruni would upgrade Craftsteak to two stars less than a year later. We were mightily perplexed by the decision to grant such an insignificant restaurant a second bite at the apple, a courtesy the Times grants far too rarely these days. His first review, though, captured perfectly what was wrong with the place:
The line between freedom of choice and the tyranny of too many options isn’t such a fine one. There were any number of moments when the chef Tom Colicchio and his collaborators on Craftsteak, yet another new mega-restaurant on the edge of the meatpacking district, should have realized they were crossing it.
That moment might have come when they included, in a menu category for New York strip steaks, beef aged not only for 28 days and for 56 days but also for 35, 42 and 49 days. You look at the options, the prices of which escalate to $66 from $42 in accordance with the steak’s seniority, and wonder if you’re in a restaurant or a numerology class.
Or that moment might have arrived when they put, in a separate category for Wagyu beef, particular classes of this already particular flesh: a Grade 6 “flat-iron” steak, a Grade 8 strip, a Grade 10 rib-eye. You scan the selections, which reach $20 per ounce as a steak’s educational level rises, and wonder how much a postgraduate porterhouse would set you back.
At Craftsteak you can have hanger or sirloin or T-bone steaks; corn-fed or grass-fed beef; beef from any of several breeds or farms or continents. The pedigrees and provenances are so specific (“Ridgefield Farm Corn-Fed Premium Hereford Beef”) that my companions and I found ourselves wondering if we could inquire after a steer’s color (we’d always been partial to piebald) or sexual orientation (we figured gay cattle might be in especially good shape).
Forget the omnivore’s dilemma; this was more like the carnivore’s discombobulation. And that would have been less irksome if it had been more delicious. But apart from the Wagyu beef, which was so pricey that being tasty was less an accomplishment than a contractual obligation, the steaks at Craftsteak proved disappointing.
5. Talkin’ Smack to Jean-Georges: V Steakhouse (one star; 7/14/2004); Mercer Kitchen & Vong (zero/one star; 8/16/2006); Spice Market (one star; 6/24/09). Jean-Georges Vongerichten is a great chef, no doubt about it. But he also puts his name to concepts that are either atrocious from the beginning, or devolve to atrociousness once they cease to command the chef’s attention. Bruni re-affirmed the flagship restaurant’s four-star rating, but he also delivered smackdowns to several of the chef’s bastard children.
First, V Steakhouse:
Like most other adult mammals I know, I usually manage to ingest food without the benefit of coaching, but then I do not usually eat in restaurants as assiduously convoluted as V Steakhouse, where servers are tutors and we diners their captive pupils.
Lesson 1: The Assembly-Kit Appetizer. In front of me was a tiny bowl of melted Gruyère, a mound of croutons and a cup of onion broth. A server explained that I should dip a crouton into the cheese, eat the gooey morsel and then quickly chase it with some broth. This way, all of the components could unite in my stomach as the French onion soup they had almost been.
Lesson 2: The Deconstructed Dessert. My guests and I stared at a puck of a cheesecake and, beside it, a tall shot glass of raspberries and blueberries, which had been liquefied rather than spread atop the cake. “You take a bite,” a server instructed one of my guests, “and then you sip.” Even a straw had been provided.
V Steakhouse is rife with such shenanigans…
Then, the double-smackdown of Mercer Kitchen and Vong:
But can a chef stamp his name as wide and far as Mr. Vongerichten has and still make magic at the older as well as the newer establishments, at the fringe players as well as the flagship? You need only visit Mercer Kitchen and Vong to doubt.
Start with Mercer Kitchen. Go on a Sunday night. The restaurant is almost empty, but that doesn’t mean any extra care from the staff. A svelte hostess bestows a perfunctory greeting, as if irked at being roused from her photogenic torpor by something as humdrum as the arrival of guests.
A bartender watches you close out your tab in preparation for dinner, then lets you sit there for five minutes before telling you that he won’t be letting the hostess know you’re ready and that she probably won’t check back. It’s up to you to make it all happen.
So you do. And you order. And the food appears quickly: a mixed blessing if ever there were one. Your pea soup doubles as a salt quarry. Your hamachi sashimi comes with two incongruously gargantuan bread sticks, which Babe Ruth could have used to hit homers. The mussels in your seafood platter don’t taste right. A pork chop with a hot-cool chili glaze requires the incisors of a jungle cat…
And shouldn’t Mr. Vongerichten be called on this? His reputation is attached as firmly to Vong and to Mercer Kitchen as to restaurants that undoubtedly absorb more of his worry. It’s the same lure, but it’s no guarantee. It’s no guarantee at all.
Finally, in the twilight of his tenure, knocking the inexplicable three-star restaurant Spice Market back into the atmosphere:
When Spice Market opened its doors in the fleetly evolving whirl of Manhattan’s meatpacking district in early 2004, it was something else: the Asian mega-restaurant reclaimed from fatuous gaudiness; a theme park, yes, but an unusually classy one in which the cooking reflected nearly as much thought as the lighting.
Other kitchens around town had done the spring rolls, satays, chicken wings, laksas and curries that Spice Market cunningly recast as high-gloss “street food,” but few had shown them as much respect. Spice Market suggested the possibility of excellence in a genre often content with frivolity.
Today it suggests the steepness of many a restaurant’s decline once it has made its first, glowing impression, especially if the restaurant was conceived as, or destined to be, the parent of money-making offspring elsewhere. Said restaurant comes out of the gate strong, whipping up the buzz and establishing the brand, but once that mission is accomplished, its motivation falters. Its cooking deteriorates. Sloppiness creeps in.
There are Spice Markets at this point in Atlanta, Istanbul and Doha, Qatar. That may be good for the residents of those places. But it’s not such a happy turn for the residents of this one, left with a Spice Market considerably less enjoyable than at the start, when it received three stars in The Times from Amanda Hesser. While it still looks gorgeous, sends out the occasional superb dish and delivers a measure of fun, much of its menu is executed in a perfunctory or even slapdash fashion. Once a compelling destination, it’s now a modest diversion.
4. The Chodorow Chronicles: Ono (one star; 2/9/2005); English is Italian (no stars; 5/11/2005); Kobe Club (no stars; 2/7/2007); Wild Salmon (one star; 8/1/2007). Jeffrey Chodorow opened numerous restaurants during Bruni’s tenure—none great, many awful. Four received full reviews, while at least two others were mercifully skipped. Every review of a Chodorow restaurant was full of memorable lines, simply because so many Chodorow restaurants are so mind-blowingly bad.
Full enjoyment of a meal at Ono requires an attitude adjustment, an openness to an escapade in which the food is not precisely the point and is sometimes a considerable distance beside it. Ono, you see, is not a restaurant. It is, according to the news release that heralded its opening in October, a “restaurant concept.”
The difference? In a restaurant, what the kitchen produces has a somewhat coherent personality and occupies or never wholly cedes center stage. In a restaurant concept, the kitchen’s output is decidedly less important than the design, the drinks and the overarching narrative or underlying, vaguely specious ethnic pose. Gimmickry trumps gastronomy. Theme tyrannizes cuisine. In Ono’s case, the dizzy goal is nothing less than a “dramatic extrasensory experience,” a phrase that also appears in the news release and that sounds less like a badge of gustatory honor than like the promise of a verbally inventive and preternaturally gifted massage therapist.
The conceiver in question is the restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow, whose other conceptions include China Grill, Asia de Cuba and, less propitiously, Rocco’s on 22nd. It has been reported that Ono’s name derives from his wife’s reaction when he said that he planned to add this restaurant to an international collection of more than 20 others. “Oh, no!” she is supposed to have sputtered, two syllables that turn out to be excessively although not entirely alarmist.
Next, English is Italian:
The year is still young, but the award for most peculiar restaurant name of 2005 can nonetheless be handed out. It goes to a new establishment in the space that most recently housed Tuscan and that refuses, despite setbacks, to be denied the company of diners. The winner is English Is Italian, a loser in many other regards.
It cries out for explanation - the name, that is, although the restaurant also has some explaining to do - and one can readily be found in the chef’s family tree. Todd English, best known for his Mediterranean cooking at Olives, has Italian roots on his mother’s side. His own name, it turns out, gives short shrift to his ancestry. So does his latest restaurant, which feels as much like a perfunctory bit of brand extension as a genuine labor of love or expression of ethnic pride.
Mr. English has teamed up with the prolific restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow, who held the lease on this space at the corner of Third Avenue and 40th Street, and together they have fashioned a slightly unusual, family-style approach. English Is Italian promises to relieve diners of the burden of ordering by simply presenting them with platter upon platter of antipasti, pasta dishes and main courses, all to be passed around and shared.
Noble in intent, this promise is awkward in effect. Soon into each of my meals at English Is Italian, the table turned into a chaotic buffet, a cramped cornucopia of too much commotion, too many competing flavors and too few serving utensils. On the increasingly muddied plates in front of me and my friends, rightfully estranged sauces would mingle and unrelated species of flesh would ally.
Why linger there, when we can pass on to Kobe Club?
Hanging upside down from the ceiling in the nearly pitch-black dining room are sharp, gleaming samurai swords, about 2,000 of them. The server volunteered that number, appended with an assurance that the blades, firmly anchored, shouldn’t cause any concern.
The food and the bill should. Although Kobe Club does right by the fabled flesh for which it’s named, it presents too many insipid or insulting dishes at prices that draw blood from anyone without a trust fund or an expense account.
For the most part it feels like a cynical stab at exploiting the current mania for steakhouses in Manhattan by contriving one with an especially costly conceit and more gimmicks than all of the others combined.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the work of the restaurateur and gimmick maestro Jeffrey Chodorow, who scored big in years past with China Grill and Asia de Cuba but hasn’t had as much local success of late…
Kobe Club occupies the Midtown space once inhabited by Mix in New York, Mr. Chodorow’s cheeky, ill-fated collaboration with the French chef Alain Ducasse.
Mix wasn’t even Mr. Chodorow’s flashiest recent failure. Who can forget Rocco’s on 22nd, scene of “The Restaurant,” where Mama’s meatballs were sauced with acrimony and eventual litigation? Or its short-lived successor in that location, Brasserio Caviar & Banana?
Brasserio Caviar & Banana — the name really does bear repeating — tried a grill-from-Ipanema approach and foreshadowed Mr. Chodorow’s fascination with sharp objects. Meats came on disturbingly, dangerously long skewers.
Last, we find him back at the scene of the crime where English is Italian was committed, later reborn as Wild Salmon:
It showcases — and sometimes does justice to — the bounty of the Pacific Northwest: the oysters, crabs, mushrooms, beer and wine, from a list that reminds you how far Oregon and Washington have come.
Front and center, of course, is the mighty Pacific salmon, its reputation embattled by too much fish farming and too many bland banquet-hall fillets.
This restaurant endeavors to restore the fish’s rightful dignity by using only wild catch, getting it from the waters that nurture it best, and entrusting its preparation to a chef, Charles Ramseyer, who’s from Seattle, which presumably makes him a salmon savant.
He may never have cooked as much of it in a given night as he does here. Wild Salmon presents the fish in so many varieties and guises that the tone of a question from one of my companions wasn’t necessarily facetious.
“Where,” she asked, “is the salmon cereal?”
Jeffrey Chodorow, who put this production together, must not have thought of that. After all, few restaurateurs work a conceit as exhaustively as he does, a tendency evident in the nomenclature of the seafood platters. The smallest is called Mount St. Helens; the next biggest, Mount Shasta; the biggest of all, Mount Rainier. The amount of shellfish you get increases with the altitude of the Western peak you set out to scale.
Wild Salmon swims in the Midtown location where other Chodorow restaurants, including English Is Italian, went belly-up.
English is Italian, Kobe Club, and Wild Salmon are all long gone, and we understand Ono will be closing shortly. Will someone please just stick a fork in Jeffrey Chodorow? He’s done.
3. Robert’s Steakhouse (one star; 2/27/2007). I had a much lower opinion of the steaks here than Frank did. He loved them; I found them overpriced and overrated—and that’s before the ridiculous wine list is taken into account, and the cost of the other, ummm, temptations that await you at this restaurant.
However, as a piece of writing, it’s a terrific review—one of Bruni’s best. Of course, didn’t quite say he was gay (a fact that, before this review, many seem to have been unaware of), but one didn’t have to look far for clues:
It may be laughable when someone says he gets Penthouse magazine for the articles. It’s no joke when I say I went to the Penthouse Executive Club for the steaks.
Over the years I’d read reports that this pleasure palace, on a stretch of West 45th Street closer to the edge of Manhattan than most diners venture, peddled more than one kind of seductive flesh. And I felt obliged — honestly, I did — to check it out, knowing that great food often pops up where you least expect it.
You can find bliss in the soulless cradle of a strip mall. Why not the topless clutch of a strip club? And so, early this month, I gathered three friends for an initial trip (dare I call it a maiden voyage?) to the Penthouse club — or, more specifically, to the restaurant, Robert’s Steakhouse, nestled inside it.
We were strangers to such pulchritudinous territory, less susceptible to the scenery than other men might be, more aroused by the side dishes than the sideshow: underdressed, overexposed young women in the vestibule, by the coat check, at the top of the red-carpeted stairs up to the restaurant, on the stage that many of the restaurant’s tables overlook.
“Are you hungry?” one of these women said, making hungry sound like an X-rated word. “Ravenous?”
Speechless was more like it. We sat down in a cocktail lounge at the front of the restaurant. A beautiful woman claimed the plush armchair opposite mine. She introduced herself. I wasn’t sure I’d heard her name correctly.
“Mahogany?” I said.
“Yes,” she purred.
I was getting my bearings. “Mahogany,” I asked, “do you know where you’re going to?”
She didn’t miss a beat, noting the reference, summoning the singer, and moving on to another of the dreamgirl’s hits. “I’m … coming … out!” she sang, waving her arms, wiggling her hips. Mahogany and I would get along just fine.
She said she was running low on cabernet. I took the cue and asked if I could buy her a fresh glass. “Yes,” she said. “And you can pour it on my toes.”
Didn’t happen. And when one of her sorority sisters sidled up to us to pose a question not commonly uttered in fine-dining establishments — “Is there anyone I can get naked for?” — the response was silence. On this visit to Robert’s and on subsequent ones, I was derelict in my duty, failing to sample much of what the restaurant had to offer.
2. Harry Cipriani (no stars; 11/14/2007). The Times star system has three levels below one star: satisfactory, fair, and poor. Bruni never gave out a “fair” rating, a most curious omission, as many restaurants rated higher seemed at best “fair.” He did, however, give out “poor” three times, and two of those make the top of the list.
The review of Harry Cipriani was, of course, pointless. The only people who go there are those for whom the food is beside the point, and who aren’t likely to be swayed by Bruni’s rating, be it four stars or zero. No, the point of the review was purely entertainment, and entertaining it was:
Over the years the Cipriani restaurant family and its employees have faced charges of sexual harassment, insurance fraud and tax evasion, the last leading to guilty pleas by two family members in July.
But the crime that comes to mind first when I think of the Ciprianis is highway robbery. Based on my recent experience, that’s what happens almost any time Harry Cipriani on Fifth Avenue serves lunch or dinner.
In this gleaming room in the Sherry-Netherland hotel, the Ciprianis charge $22.95 for asparagus vinaigrette — 12 medium-size spears, neither white, truffle-flecked nor even Parmesan-bedecked — and $34.95 for an appetizer of fried calamari. That’s at dinnertime, I should clarify. At lunch there’s a whopping $1 discount per dish.
A dinner entree of fritto misto costs $48.95, even though it amounted to an extra-large portion of fried calamari with a few decorative shrimp and token scallops strewn, to negligible effect, among the generic calamari rings.
I assure you of the accuracy of those numbers, and of these: $66.95 for a sirloin, $36.95 for lasagna, $18.95 for minestrone. It’s tempting to devote the rest of this review to a price list. Nothing else I can present is nearly as compelling…
But what of the uninitiated New Yorker or innocent tourist who sees the Cipriani name, with its connotations of extravagant banquets and extraordinary privilege, and waltzes through the doors expecting something magnificent in return for a king’s ransom?
These victims in the offing deserve a heads-up on what they’re likely to find, which is service so confused and food so undistinguished it wouldn’t pass muster at half the cost.
During one of my dinners, servers first tried to deliver another table’s veal chop to ours, then began to deliver our entrees before they had cleared our appetizers.
Another night servers gave me rabbit although I had asked for duck, and then, after a profuse apology, neglected to bring my companions and me one of our desserts.
But what I remember most vividly about that particular night is the potatoes. And I hasten to add that I’m taking it on faith that they were potatoes.
That’s what they visually suggested, those desiccated yellow-beige coins that had somehow acquired the texture of Brillo and could almost have been used to scrub whatever pan they had emerged from.
1. Ninja (no stars; 10/26/2005). We finish our hit parade with Ninja, which oddly enough is still open, despite stratospheric prices, Bruni’s worst pan, and praise from no one else that we’re aware of:
Confusing the point of a restaurant with the mission of a “Saturday Night Live” skit, Ninja New York deposits you in a kooky, dreary subterranean labyrinth that seems better suited to coal mining than to supping. You are greeted there by servers in black costumes who ceaselessly bow, regularly yelp and ever so occasionally tumble, and you are asked to choose between two routes to your table.
The first is described by a ninja escort as simple and direct. The second is “dark, dangerous and narrow,” involving a long tunnel and a drawbridge that descends only when your escort intones a special command, which he later implores you to keep secret.
I recommend a third path: right back out the door. Granted, you will be denied the sating of any curiosity about what a $3.5 million design budget permits in the way of faux stone walls, make-believe gorges and mock torches. You will forgo an iota of modest amusement.
But you will be spared an infinitely larger measure of tedium, a visually histrionic smorgasbord of undistinguished food and a discordant bill that can easily exceed $100 a person with tax, tip and drinks.
Ninja acts like a Disney ride - Space Mountain under a hailstorm of run-of-the-mill or unappealing sushi - but charges like Le Bernardin. It has a stringy crab dish served on a grapefruit that belches smoke, a ridiculous dessert in the shape of a frog and a whole lot of nerve.
An American offshoot of a restaurant in Tokyo, Ninja intends to evoke a Japanese mountain village inhabited by ninjas, a special breed of stealthy warriors. In this case they come armed not only with swords and sorcery but also with recipes, which may be their most dangerous weapons of all. And they roam, romp and perform dopey magic tricks, including sleight of hand with rubber bands, over 6,000 square feet of darkened crannies and well-separated, quiet nooks…
For a toddler with a trust fund and a yen for udon and maki, Ninja might be a valid alternative to the Jekyll and Hyde restaurant.
For just about anybody else it’s nonsensical, and its climactic illusion may well be a disappearing act.
Stay tuned for The Worst of Bruni, coming next week.