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Top Ten Restaurant Disappointments of 2011

It’s time once again for the annual wrap-up. I’ll talk about disappointments here, and favorites in a subsequent post.

Just a few ground rules: I only write about restaurants I visited. Does the “neurogastronomy” restaurant Romera belong in the top ten or the bottom ten? So far, I’ve not been tempted to drop $125 a head to find out.

Except for the bottom section below (“Sad Goodbyes”), every restaurant on the list opened in 2011 or late in 2010, and was first reviewed here in 2011.

My standards for this type of list are a bit different than other people’s. I didn’t have many actively bad meals in 2011, though I didn’t have many great ones either. It was a mediocre year for restaurants in New York. Unlike professional critics, I don’t visit places I know (or strongly believe) are bad, out of journalistic obligation to review them. Once I’ve had a bad meal, I seldom pay the second or third visit a professional critic would, before passing judgment.

So, the list below is not a list of ten bad restaurants, though there are a few of those. Instead, it’s a list of places that, in my judgment, missed an opportunity to be better, or are not as good as they ought to be. I’ve even included a couple of critical darlings that, as I see it, are resting on shaky laurels.

As a point of comparison, Lincoln was #1 on last year’s most-disappointing list. I did not dislike Lincoln: I had given it 2 stars and have gone back frequently. But in relation to what it could and should be, Lincoln was the most disappointing restaurant of 2010. (For the record, Lincoln is improving, though it’s not yet the three-star restaurant it aspires to be.)

On with the list:

Missed Opportunities:

10. Marble Lane. This was my worst meal of the year. With career mediocrity Manuel Treviño as chef in a clubby Meatpacking District hotel, why on earth did I go there? But it’s not merely my bad judgment that got Marble Lane on this list. I found the place empty, so apparently everyone else in town had figured out what I had not.

9. Left Bank. This was my second-worst meal of the year. It wasn’t really all that bad, and the problems are fixable, but other restaurants have failed in this location; most of the pro critics ignored it; and they chose a meaningless name that is too easily confused with other establishments.

8. Casa Nonna. Jimmy Haber broke up with Laurent Tourondel, so that he could do this? Why doesn’t he just open an Applebees?

7. WallE. We actually liked WallE, the unbuttoned spinoff of Chinese standard Chin Chin. But despite great opening press, it got very few reviews (Steve Cuozzo of The Post panned it), and the quasi-lounge ambiance is a real downer. These guys should have left the lounge business to those who know how to do it.

6. Duo. The folks from Duvet (the restaurant/lounge where guests dined on beds) opened Duo, a strangly posh restaurant with illuminated menus, footmen, and purse stools. We wouldn’t mind those things in the right place, but here it seemed silly. The opening chef was pretty good, but he was fired after two months, and there are no professional reviews to date.

5. Tenpenny. A lot of folks loved Tenpenny, a place that proved hotel restaurants don’t have to be bad. But just six months in, managing partner Jeff Tascarella left the restaurant to open the new Daniel Humm/Will Guidara place in the NoMad hotel. Chef Chris Cippollone followed him out the door two months later.

Not As Good As They Should Be

4. Fedora. Like most of Gabe Stulman’s growing clutch of West Village restaurants, Fedora is a solid neighborhood place. But with an alum of the sainted Montreal restaurant Au Pied de Cochon in the kitchen, some of us expected the fireworks generated by the short-lived M. Wells in Long Island City. What we got, instead, was forgettable and ordinary. Fedora isn’t struggling. Not one bit. If he actually cares, this is Stulman’s chance to do something better.

3. Tertulia. I was so surprised by the critical hype for Tertulia that I did something I rarely do: visited three times, to see if my first and second impressions were mistaken. Though not bad, the dishes I tried were hits and misses in equal measure. Having made it on just about every critic’s top-ten list, I realize that chef Seamus Mullen isn’t going to change a thing. Why should he?

2. The Dutch. Much like Fedora and Tertulia, The Dutch isn’t bad, but I think it is coasting, and the claims of some critics that it made Minetta Tavern “irrelevant” are just plain daft. Sam Sifton named The Dutch Restaurant of the Year, yet another absurd judgment from him that makes me happy he is no longer writing reviews.

Sad Goodbyes

1c. What Happens When. Dovetail chef John Fraser had a terrific, crazy idea: a restaurant that would change everything (menu, décor, cuisine) every month—but only for nine months, and then close for good. I’d hoped to go more often, but only made it there once. In the end, a stupid dispute over a liquor license forced him to close after just five months. Had it been a permanent restaurant, I likely would have given it 2½ stars.

1b. Daniel Angerer’s Empire. This chef had a pretty good thing going, with Klee Brasserie, Brats and the Little Cheese Pub in the heart of Chelsea. Within a matter of months, he closed Brats, announced plans to turn Klee into a wine bar, and then sold both remaining places outright. Angerer now runs the kitchens for the Dig Inn Seasonal Market chain.

1a. Alto and Convivio. If anyone had an annus horribilis in the NYC restaurant industry, it’s Chris Cannon. In January, he officially announced his break-up with the chef Michael White. In February, he announced new chefs at the two restaurants he retained, Alto and Convivio. And then, most mysteriously, Alto and Convivio closed a month later. On the same day. The simultaneous closure remains unexplained: neither restaurant was believed to be struggling. There are rumors, which I will not repeat; Cannon himself has been mum. In one day, two of the city’s best Italian restaurants, with nine Michelin and New York Times stars between them, were gone.

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