Update: This is a review of THOR under Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner, who has since departed. As of 2008, THOR was on its fourth chef, with Jesi Solomon (a former sous chef at Stanton Social) having replaced Mark Spangenthal, who replaced Kevin Pomplun, who replaced Gutenbrunner. Later Update: THOR closed in May 2009. It was replaced by a new concept called Levant East.
THOR is short for The Hotel on Rivington. It’s also the name of the restaurant that occupies the ground floor of that hotel. I don’t know what possessed somebody to put a 21-story hotel on the Lower East Side, although it is surprisingly easy to reach (just 2 blocks from the F train’s Delancey St stop).
The building sticks out like a sore thumb in this trendy, but still gritty neighborhood of low-rise tenements. Who could be staying there? You get no immediate idea of the hotel clientele when you visit, because the entire ground floor seems to be occupied by the vast lounge and restaurant. Indeed, you wouldn’t even know that it is a hotel, except for the name. There is no check-in counter, bellhop, or concierge to give it away.
The host that greets you seems oh-so-annoyed to have landed in the maelstrom of a successful restaurant. You get the sense that he’d be happiner in a far less hectic profession. Just beyond his station, a capacious lounge area awaits, filled with beautiful young bodies sipping their drinks. Loud music thumps in the background. “This is very Lower East Side,” my friend remarked.
The seating area is just beyond the lounge, and it is not far enough. I have not seen a serious restaurant that goes to a more sustained effort to ensure that your ears will be battered and assaulted during your meal. THOR’s 21-foot ceiling offers plenty of hard surfaces for the sound to bounce off of, and the sound happily obliges. Your eardrums may need a medical checkup after the meal is over. The large tables (apparently the same ones you find at BLT Steak) offer plenty of room for the food, but to communicate you’ll have to shout.
If you survive the aural onslaught, you’ll be treated to some of the best and most creative food in New York. Of restaurants I’m familiar with, only nearby WD-50 offers a comparable exercise in culinary experimentation on this level. Practically every dish on THOR’s menu offers surprising combinations from superstar chef Kurt Gutenbrunner.
I had my doubts about THOR, because Gutenbruner is now on his fourth restaurant (with Wallsé, Café Sabarsky, and Blaue Gans also in his stable). Perhaps, like many a celebrity chef, he’s taken his eye off the ball. But Gutenbrunner is obviously as good a manager as he is a chef. THOR’s kitchen staff turns out his creations expertly, and the service (despite the din) is nearly perfect.
Gutenbrunner told Frank Bruni that “he considered Thor the culinary equivalent of a chance to move from orchestral music to rock ‘n’ roll.” You can see what he means. At his flagship Wallsé, the Austrian cuisine is excellent, but largely traditional. At THOR, he lets his wildest urges run wild, with spectacular results.
The menu is needlessly confusing. My friend, who hadn’t researched the restaurant in advance (and one shouldn’t have to), was initially baffled. In a preface, Gutenbrunner explains that there are plates of various sizes, allowing you to construct a tasting menu of your own design. But there is no indication of which plates are small, and which are large. Instead, the menu is in sections labeled “Cold Plates to Start,” “Warm Plates in the Middle,” “From the Market on the Side,” “Hot Plates” (a fish list and a meat list) and “Sweet to Finish.” Since when did the traditional captions — “Appetizers,” “Entrées,” “Side Dishes,” and “Desserts” — need to be replaced?
Anyhow, after all that my friend and I each ordered a “Warm Plate,” a side dish, a meat course, and a dessert. And we were transported. To start, my friend ordered the “Grilled shrimp skewers with green tomatoes, peppers and quark powder” ($14), and I the “Ravioli with farmers cheese, mint and hazelnut butter” ($13). My dish came with three ravioli, and they were wonderful; the ingredients worked marvelously together.
The side dishes are all $7. Many of them are traditional vegetable sides, but a terrific mushroom risotto is offered, which my friend and I both ordered. This is one of THOR’s better bargains, given the intensive labor required to make a risotto. It could have been an appetizer in itself, but it came out with the main courses.
I hardly ever order calves liver; indeed, I can remember ordering it only once before in my life. It wasn’t a bad experience, but calves liver is simply one of those dishes that you don’t want every day. “Glazed calves liver with apples and scallions” ($24) seemed too intriguing to pass up, and my willingness to take a chance paid off. If all calves liver dishes were this good, nobody would be ordering foie gras.
My friend had “Roasted rack of lamb with broccoli puree and 14K golden nugget potatoes” ($28), which offered two hefty chops, which she said were spectacular.
For dessert, I tried the pumpkin cheesecake with maple syrup ice cream ($9), which Frank Bruni had described as “a happy nose dive into the heart of autumn.” My friend ordered the petits-fours ($5), which come with what looks like a tube of toothpaste, but it actually contains hazelnut chocolate, which you squeeze into a small basin in the center of each cookie. WD-50’s Wylie Dufresne and Sam Mason would be kicking themselves, and wondering, “Why didn’t we think of that?”
The wine list is organized by region, but there is also a section labeled “Sommelier’s Discoveries,” featuring growers and/or regions that don’t get a lot of publicity. The friendly sommelier came over unbidden and made a wonderful suggestion from that section. It was a 2003 Blaufrankisch by Feiler-Artinger, from Burgenland, a region of eastern Austria. Better yet, I had requested a wine between $35-45, and it was $39. Sommeliers who don’t try to gouge every last dollar earn my everlasting respect. The restaurant uses stemless wine glasses from the Austrian firm Riedel. Somehow, you feel strange drinking wine from a stemless glass, although the Riedel catalog is in fact highly regarded, and pricey.
The individual dishes on the menu are all reasonably priced, but if you heed Gutenbrunner’s advice to construct a “tasting menu,” the bill can mount in a hurry. Our meal of an appetizer, side dish, main course, and dessert apiece, plus wine, was $192.56 (including tax and gratuity). Had we ordered cocktails, more tasting plates, or a different wine, it could easily have been a lot more. For cooking this good, we considered it money well spent.
THOR is full of contradictions. Kurt Gutenbrunner’s serious cuisine finds itself in a clubland setting designed for twenty-somethings who probably don’t realize how special it is. Many of those who would appreciate it are no doubt put off by the location, the clientele, or the noise. (We are in our forties, and seemed to be among the oldest people there.) But if you can put up with the racket, you’ll find that THOR is serving some of the finest food in the city.
THOR (107 Rivington Street, between Essex & Ludlow Streets, Lower East Side)