Last week, South Gate restaurant replaced its paper wine lists with iPads. It struck me as a gimmick to get the critics back to a restaurant they largely ignored—out of kindness, I suspect—when it opened two years ago.
This is the fourth electronic wine list I’ve seen. The old Aureole had one. It was so difficult to use that we just gave up, and asked the sommelier for assistance. Adour has a wine list projected onto the counter at the bar, though at the tables it relies on paper. I found the electronic version finicky, and as I’d done at Aureole, gave up and asked for the printed version.
SD26 is the only other New York restaurant that currently dispenses with paper entirely. As I noted after my visit:
I quickly figured out the user interface, but found it frustrating. On a traditional wine list, I can flip through the pages quickly, getting an instant sense of its breadth and depth. A small screen that shows only a few bottles at a time is disorienting. You have no idea what you’re not seeing. It’s probably a lot, given an inventory of 1,000 bottles. Response time isn’t bad, but turning a page is a lot faster.
The iPad wine list at South Gate has much the same problem. The user interface is pretty easy to figure out, but you have to dig through several layers of menus to get to a list of bottles. Along the way, you have several decisions to make:
- Bottle, glass, cocktail, small format, large format, or beer? [I choose bottle]
- White, red, sparkling, or dessert? [I choose red]
- A particular grape, a particular country, or “all red”? [I choose country]
- Which country (out of 14)? [I choose United States]
- Which Grape (out of 4)? [I choose Merlot]
After all that, I find that South Gate has only one United States Merlot, and I later discover that there are only five U.S. bottles overall. So this is clearly not the strength of the list, which it has taken me a bit of searching to find out. On a printed list, you’d quickly see at a glance that the largest selection is French.
Response time for any given menu option ranges from one to four seconds, which doesn’t sound bad, but the minutes add up quickly, while you’re still not sure how big the list is, or how much you’re missing. Fortunately for me—but not for the restaurant—the place wasn’t busy, and the server let me hold onto the iPad for about 45 minutes, so I had plenty of time to browse. This wouldn’t work at a busy place, unless they’re prepared to invest in a lot of iPads.
Eventually, someone will develop the killer wine list app that beats paper, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Kerry Heffernan, the original chef at Eleven Madison Park, has been at South Gate since it opened. The Tony Chi-designed room has no charm; it could be a soulless hotel dining room anywhere.
The city’s most expensive non-Japanese restaurant, Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, was once in the same building, so you don’t expect it to be cheap. And it isn’t. Practically all of the entrées are north of $30. Even the three-course pre-theater menu feels expensive, at $49.
A more gently priced bar menu was introduced recently (though, as at most places, you can get the full menu at the bar, too). I wasn’t hungry, so I sampled just one item.
Try to imagine Fried Macaroni & Cheese ($12). Does your mental picture agree at all with the photo on the left? I thought not.
A confused runner dropped the dish in front of another patron. He was sure he hadn’t ordered it, and handed it off to me. I thought it must be a mistake, but I couldn’t find a server and didn’t want the dish to get cold.
I had eaten four out of the five little fritters before the server returned, and assured me that this was, indeed, the fried macaroni & cheese. I didn’t taste much macaroni, but the dish wasn’t bad. I’m not sure that five bites are worth $12, but when the roast chicken is $30, I suppose it is not out of line.
A glass of wine and a bar snack were all I had, but I must have spent an hour there, as the server seemed in no hurry to…you know, serve. It’s not much of an improvement over my first visit, when the place was new. Inexplicably, I gave South Gate one star. I am not sure why. Nothing I saw here makes me want to return.
South Gate (154 Central Park South between 6th & 7th Avenues, West Midtown)