It’s a bit sad to watch David Chang’s team at Má Pêche fumble their way around. Chang’s Momofuku restaurants in the East Village practically defined their era in the mid-aughts. They remain crowded and popular today.
It hasn’t gone as well in midtown, where Chang was tone deaf to a clientele comprised of mainly tourists, shoppers, and business travelers, in a neighborhood that hardly anyone considers a nightlife destination.
If it were a standalone place, Má Pêche would be closed by now. But it’s in the Chambers Hotel, which guarantees a captive audience. A hotel without dining is considerably less useful to prospective guests, and it would take many months to build a new restaurant. I’m sure the Chambers would be loath to see it go. Nevertheless, I’ll be surprised if Má Pêche is still around in five years.
Chang has re-tooled Má Pêche several times since it opened in 2009, but nothing has quite done the trick. There’s a regular parade of offers and special deals, to say nothing of constant infotising on Eater.com. And yet, the place was half empty at 7:00pm on a recent Saturday evening. It doesn’t look good.
It’s hard to itemize all of the changes, or when exactly they took place. Reservations and dessert are now available (they weren’t originally). The huge X-shaped communal table has been broken up into several smaller ones. On a prior visit, a hostess insisted that I sit at the counter, even though the tables were almost all empty. Now, no one sits at that counter.
Paul Carmichael replaced founding chef Tien Ho in October 2011. The menu started to drift away from Ho’s faux Vietnamese, and by April 2012 it had evolved to “American cuisine” (menu left; click for a larger version).
If this is American, it’s not any particular idiom you’ll recognize. Chang has long claimed to serve “American food” at all of his restaurants. It has never really been true, except in the loosest sense.
Remnants of the former approach remain. There are still chopsticks at every table, even though they’re not needed for any of the food, and they’re hardly usable for most of it. You’ll have to ask for silverware.
The menu is divided into several categories: “Raw” ($15–18), Small Plates ($13–18), Large Plates ($29–32), “For Two” ($40, $75), and Vegetables ($10–14). The server rather unhelpfully suggested 1½ to 2½ dishes per person, which is a rather wide range of the amount of food and what you’ll pay. We erred on the lower end of that range.
Portions are rather dainty, and a couple might even be considered insulting.
Half-a dozen oysters (above left) were $20. A sliver of cheese (above center) was $6, and so were bread and butter (above right). That butter was a superb specimen, one of two kinds offered. They could serve it at Per Se. The bread, warm and crunchy, was wonderful, and seconds came out without extra charge. But in the context of the prices here, it should come with dinner.
Trout ($15; above left) and Soft Shell Crab ($18; above center) were small but acceptable portions. Duck ($32; above right) was downright offensive, with just three modest slices. It was all pretty good, but portioned for a health spa. A solo diner could have placed our order, and gone home hungry. Our party of three shared it, with no indication from staff that it was on the light side.
Servers are generally more casually dressed than the customers. In fact, there seems to be no staff dress code at all: t-shirts, torn cutoff jeans, you name it. I don’t personally care what the staff wear, but the approach here doesn’t quite fit the neighborhood.
And at a restaurant where the bill can easily soar above $100 a head, can’t they do better than a stack of DIY paper napkins on each table? What’s with serving martinis in juice glasses? Even the server couldn’t help but be embarrassed: “Sorry, we don’t have martini glasses.”
Service was eager and friendly—but not fast, attentive, or competent. We were warned that plates would come out family style. The oysters, bread, cheese, and trout, appeared with alacrity, but we waited about 30 minutes for the last two plates, as our order was stuck behind a “large format” dinner (10 people, $450, for lamb, chicken, and veggies).
We were ignored for long stretches: plates weren’t promptly cleared or replaced. No one noticed we were ready for a fresh round of drinks. When we finally ordered those drinks, they didn’t come out until we were done eating. There didn’t seem to be any hierarchy in the dining room: you’ll give your order to one server, and then another asks again.
For all that, there are the bones of a good restaurant at Má Pêche. This was my fifth visit, and if it lasts long enough I’ll probably go again. The food, although overpriced, is pretty good. Poor service can change with the day of the week, and the staff clearly want to be helpful, when they can and know how to do so.
I don’t have much hope for Má Pêche. It looks like David Chang is just phoning it in.
Má Pêche (15 W. 56th Street between Fifth & Sixth Avenues, West Midtown)
Food: An American/Asian mash-up with excellent American-sourced ingredients
Service: Eager but inattentive and poorly organized
Ambiance: A striking, high-ceilinged dining room; casual, perhaps to a fault
Rating: Neighborhood spot
Why? Food is better than the West Midtown average, although over-priced