Note: Plein Sud closed in August 2013. This is a review under chef Ed Cotton, who left the restaurant in October 2011. Reviews were mostly unfavorable, but Cotton lasted for quite a while afterward, so there may have been other reasons for the split.
Hotel Restaurants have rules all their own. Practically all hotels must have a restaurant, so they bring in an established operator, who can be guaranteed—at least, as much as anything in this business can be—to run a reliable operation.
The operator gets a subsidy, which limits his downside risk. In exchange, he must offer room service and serve three meals a day. The menu can’t be anything so terribly challenging that guests will find it off-putting. Of course, what works in the Four Seasons would fail in the Holiday Inn, but the principle remains the same.
The Thompson Hotels, a boutique chain with five New York City properties, offer an eclectic mix of restaurants: Kittichai at 60 Thompson, Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill at 6 Columbus Circle, The Libertine at Gild Hall, Shang at the Thompson LES, and now Plein Sud at the Smythe. I suspect that at least two of the five (Shang and The Libertine) would be doomed as stand-alone restaurants.
Plein Sud adheres to the pattern of the other Thompson hotels, in that it has an operator with established credentials: Frederick Lesort of the now-shuttered Frederick’s Madison; along with a chef, Ed Cotton, who worked at (and was fired from) three-star Veritas.
The South-of-France cuisine seems calculated to meet the hotel’s requirements, with safe choices that won’t offend any guest. Even those who didn’t take French in high school will guess the contents of Le Burger Royale au Fromage, Coq au Vin, and Pasta Printemps. The menu does not stray far beyond these brasserie standards.
Over the course of half-a-dozen visits (the first chronicled here) I’ve found the cooking always at least competent, though singularly lacking in ambition. One wants to think that Cotton, who has worked at much better places (and is a current contestent on Top Chef), is not content to stop at this.
There’s a range of appetizers in various categories to satisfy bar grazers. On another visit, I tried the Tart Flambé, an oven-baked flatbread with smoked bacon, onion, and cheese. It’s a perfect snack, though better for sharing, as it wears out its welcome. (Gael Greene has a photo on her blog.)
We tried the large charcuterie board ($21; left), which allows you to choose five of the six meats on the menu. They were all just fine, though served with not enough bread. Dozens of places in town offer the same.
We wondered: if all you have are six selections, why not just give slightly less of each, and serve all six? Figuring out which one to leave out—we chose the air-dryed Wagyu beef—seemed odd. (There is also a small charcuterie board that offers three of six for $15.)
Steak au Poivre ($32; above left) was clearly better than the average non-steakhouse New York Strip, though well short of Minetta Tavern level. The fries were perfect. Pasta ($21; above right) with Merguez sausage and goat cheese was another solid effort.
Over the course of my visits, I’ve found a mixture of considerate and clueless service—never offensive, just sometimes aimless. Having now seen the AvroKO décor from every angle, I am inclined to be less charitable than before. Like everything else at Plein Sud, it won’t offend anyone, but it seems to be a retread of ideas the firm has used before, with filament bulbs hauled in from the company store room.
What we have here is a solid and reasonably priced neighborhood restaurant that seldom disappoints but never wows. I freely admit to a bias in favor of this type of cuisine. Most of the New York City critics will be bored by such a place. Do the owner and the chef aspire to anything more? Or are they happy to serve hotel guests and curiosity-seekers who happen to just wander by? That’s an open question.
Plein Sud (89 West Broadway at Chambers Street, TriBeCa)