Friday
Apr162004

He's Hired!

Cigar entrepreneur Bill Rancic, 32, is Donald J. Trump’s newest employee. Rancic prevailed over fifteen other candidates on the NBC-TV reality series, The Apprentice. He won a $250,000-a-year job managing the construction of a 90-story luxury tower in Chicago, his home town. How’s that for an entry-level job!

Over the course of 13 weeks, Trump gave the candidates a series of business tasks, “firing” one of them at the end of each episode. The choice came down to Rancic and Harvard MBA Kwame Jackson. In Thursday’s season finale, Rancic had to manage a celebrity golf tournament, and Jackson a Jessica Simpson concert.

Bill and Kwame presented contrasting management styles. Despite the artificiality of a made-for-TV job interview, the outcome was a textbook lesson in business. Both candidates chose a trio of cast members fired in previous episodes, who served as their “employees” for this final project. Kwame delegated everything and asked his staff almost no questions, assuming they would complete their assignments without direction. Bill was immersed in the details, at times annoying his team by constantly reminding them what needed to be done.

But in the end, Bill’s golf tournament came off without a hitch. The closest he came to a mishap was when a sponsor’s promotional sign was misplaced. Bill himself found it just in time, when he had the inspiration to look for it in a dumpster. Bill was probably more visibly tense than a golf tournament director should be, but given the stakes you can’t blame him for leaving no stone unturned.

In contrast, Kwame was always calm in the eye of the storm, but his team kept dropping the ball. His only defense was, “As an executive, you have to delegate, and trust that your people will get things done.” In fact, successful executives delegate only what their employees have proved they can handle. As the Russians used to say, trust, but verify. After thirteen episodes with these people, Kwame should have known their weaknesses.

Kwame’s biggest mistake was relying on the series villain, Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth. Over and over again, Omarosa had proved she couldn’t be trusted. We the audience knew more of Omarosa’s treachery than Kwame did, but Kwame surely had seen enough to know that Omarosa was a loose cannon. And Kwame’s other employees, Troy and Heidi, were also poorly coordinated. None of their errors were fatal in the end, but perhaps that’s just because Kwame got lucky. Kwame seems to just trust everybody, and hope for the best.

Even had Kwame been lucky enough to stay out of trouble, I suspect that Trump would have chosen Bill anyway, as his hands-on style is much more to Trump’s liking. Kwame’s blind faith in a team that kept letting him down made Trump’s decision easy. Kwame is a likeable guy, and I believe he’ll be very successful over time, but his actual performance throughout the series was just mediocre. There’s more to good management than just delegating and being a nice guy.

What are we to make of Omarosa? Throughout the series, she fought with teammates and fumbled one task after another. Not content with blowing her own chances, she also sank Kwame’s. After her firing, she complained to a national magazine that another candidate had called her a nigger. The other candidate vigorously denied it, and producers say there’s no videotape evidence. Omarosa was caught lying outright several times, so there’s little reason to believe her. Omarosa has acquired a variety of nicknames on Apprentice fansites: Assarosa, Assinina, Assahola, Assorama, and most wickedly, Osamarosa. For a more glowing portrait, you can visit her own website, http://www.omarosa.com/, but I suspect her fifteen minutes of fame are about up.

I don’t watch much TV, but The Apprentice had me riveted. Unlike most so-called “reality” series, The Apprentice actually resembled real-life. Sort of. The tasks were constrained to fit in weekly one-hour episodes, but they were real projects that we could all recognize: selling lemonade, renovating an apartment, developing a marketing campaign, securing donations for a charity auction, and so forth. Contrast that with Survivor, another show that knocks off a contestant every week till only one is left. In that show, the weekly “challenges” are elaborate made-up games that wouldn’t occur anywhere else.

The Apprentice’s least realistic conceit is the requirement that someone be fired every week. Some episodes had a clear-cut goat, but other times there was no candidate who obviously deserved to go. Nevertheless, Trump summoned the losers to his “boardroom” for a ritualistic performance review, ending in the trademark phrase no candidate wanted to hear, “You’re fired!” We often winced along with them, but Trump’s critiques were always fair, specific, principled, and dead-accurate. The Apprentice was compelling, because as Trump observed, “Everyone’s been hired, and everyone’s been fired.” I disagreed with a couple of his firings, but in the end Trump found the right apprentice: Bill was the cream of a very fine crop.

Don’t shed any tears for the non-winners. They all seem to be doing very well indeed. Three have gotten engaged since the series wrapped last fall. Another is pregnant. Trump was so taken with winsome Amy Henry (the last to be fired before the final episode) that he has offered her a job as head of sales in Trump World Tower, at Columbus Circle. Amy has other options, and is mulling the offer. Troy McLain is considering a career as a motivational speaker, at which I think he would excel. Kwame has been offered $25,000 for a one-week gig pitching chicken for KFC. Omarosa is doing a shampoo commercial. Two other candidates have started a clothing line. The series’ other loose cannon, Sam Solovey (fired in the third episode, but indelibly memorable nonetheless), is so flush that he offered Trump $250,000 for the chance to work for him. A dumbfounded Trump accepted Sam’s suitcase full of cash and said he’d think it over, but I expect him to politely decline.

NBC has Trump signed for two more seasons. In a recent casting call, 250,000 people submitted applications for the chance to get fired next fall.

Thursday
Apr152004

NYC Apartment Ownership an Impossible Dream

Today's New York Times reports that the average apartment price in Manhattan hit $1 million during the first quarter of 2004, a new record, and an increase of 32% over the same period last year. The previous record was $920k, set during the third quarter of 2003.

The median apartment (or middle of the market) is now at $625k, which is up 21% from a year ago. This suggests that the super-heated high-end of the market (apartments that cost well above $1 million) is what's pulling up the average so quickly.

But for $625k in a decent neighborhood, you're only going to get a one-bedroom. If you want two bedrooms, you're going to be spending over $1 million, or making serious compromises (a bad building, a bad location, or both). The article discusses a recent transplant from California, who was shocked to discover that she couldn't get a decent two-bedroom apartment for under $1.8 million.

The survey is limited to Manhattan below 112th St on the West Side, and 96th St on the East Side, which are the traditional boundaries separating the Upper West and East Sides from Harlem. These divisions are increasingly irrelevant, as Hudson Heights and Washington Heights become more gentrified. But don't expect any great bargains up there either. Half-a-million dollars in Washington Heights doesn't buy much any more.

In Manhattan, at least, home ownership for most of us is becoming the impossible dream.

Tuesday
Apr132004

Bravo, Lincoln Center

The troubled redesign of Lincoln Center has had more lives than a cat, but it finally seems to be on the right track. Today, Lincoln Center announced the first stage of redevelopment, a stunning transformation of West 65th St between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. The $325 million project will turn the desolate street into the complex's "dynamic front door."

I must admit I had my doubts that West 65th was capable of the dramatic improvements promised for it, but the photos on Lincoln Center's website convinced me. Some highlights from the press release:

The West 65th Street project will feature new street-level entrances, transparent street-level facades, dramatic lighting, elegant modernist variations on the traditional theater marquee, and informational and directional signage to give a strong street identity to each of the seven constituents and facilitate visitor orientation. The cultural corridor will also provide easy access to new indoor and outdoor facilities for dining and refreshments.....

The street would be narrowed, eliminating one car lane. The curb cuts in the center of the block also would be removed. On the south side of the street, the sidewalk would be expanded to 27 feet in width, creating a safer pedestrian street environment for the thousands of pedestrians who throng across the street in the pre-theater hour. A narrow, translucent footbridge that opens up the street to sunlight and enhances visibility would span West 65th Street and provide safe and easy access for Juilliard and School of American Ballet students. Paul Milstein Plaza could be configured to encompass the reflecting pool and terrace in the North Plaza, further enhancing the overall unity of the new design.....

At street level along West 65th Street, the now solid travertine base of the [Juilliard] school will be opened up with a transparent new facade. This facade will reveal Juilliard's theaters and their lobbies and frame a sweeping grand stair to a welcoming, light-filled lobby and student lounge on the second floor overlooking the rest of the Lincoln Center campus. High technology graphic displays incorporated into the facade would provide comprehensive event information on the hundreds of free public presentations offered by Juilliard.

Now, let's see them raise the money!

Tuesday
Apr132004

JFK Airlink: Two Weeks and Counting

In January, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation announced four design alternatives for bringing JFK Airport and LIRR trains to the World Trade Center, with the preferred alternative to be announced in April. It's mid-April, so we should know their decision within the next two weeks.

According to Newsday, the LMDC is leaning strongly towards contributing the $1.2 billion remaining in its coffers to the JFK-LIRR rail link. Multiple surveys (e.g., see here) have shown that the community would prefer to see that sum devoted to broader-based initiatives, such as affordable housing, job training, parks, and so forth.

I wouldn't necessarily put much weight in surveys, as the average person doesn't really appreciate the economic effects of building a new rail line, but the impact of repairing a dilapidated sidewalk is immediately visible to all. As the LMDC has already spent $2.3 billion on the kind of tactical initiatives the community prefers, perhaps it is not unjust to commit the remaining $1.2 billion to a Big Idea that could be transformational in the way that little grants here-and-there cannot.

But even the lowest estimates put the cost of a JFK-LIRR downtown rail link at $2.0 billion. History shows that initial guesses for projects of this complexity are usually wildly off-the-mark. If the real cost is more like $5.0 billion, then the LMDC's contribution only gets us 25% of the way there. What's good is that?

Even more important than the actual design is whether there's any way of paying for it. Let's hope that it's not all smoke-and-mirrors, like the Mayor's Far West Side development program.

Sunday
Apr112004

Second Avenue Subway to be Built In Stages

The Daily News reports that the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway will run from 96th to 63rd Streets, connecting to the existing Q line at 57th and Broadway. The phase would add just four new stations (96th & 2nd, 86th & 2nd, 72nd & 2nd, and 63rd & Lex). Construction could be underway by the end of this year, and the extended Q line could be in service in about seven years.

The full-length Second Avenue Subway ("SAS"), from 125th St to Hanover Sq, could be completed by 2020 if all of the funding comes through, but New Yorkers have every reason to be skeptical. Several tunnel sections for the line were completed in the early 1970s, but were never used because the city ran out of money. A Long Island Railroad tunnel under the East River at 63rd St was built around the same time, and it still has never carried a single passenger. (A project called East Side Access, which will finally put that tunnel to use by bringing LIRR trains into Grand Central, is still years from completion.)

However, it seems entirely reasonable to phase in the SAS's benefits, and the section from 96th to 63rd is the most logical starting point. It allows the SAS to connect to the existing unused connection to the Broadway Line, and it will reduce crowding on the Lexington Avenue Line by giving UES reidents another way to get downtown.

Details of the plan should appear on the MTA website within the next several weeks.

Sunday
Apr112004

Churrascaria Plataforma

Note: The Tribeca branch of Churrascaria Plataforma closed at the end of 2013 (the midtown branch is still in business). As of September 2014, the space is chef Floyd Cardoz’s new restaurant, White Street.

*

Churrascaria Platforma has been serving Brazilian Rodizio in midtown (316 W 49th near 8th Ave) since 1996. As the website explains:

Churrascaria (choo-rah-scah-REE-ah) is the name used to describe a restaurant that serves meat, mostly grilled, and Rodizio is a method of serving the different cuts of meat that originated in the south of Brazil in the early 1800’s.

The concept is to serve a wide variety of different cuts of beef, pork, lamb, chicken, etc., in succession, to each diner individually right at their table, thus there is not a traditional menu. The restaurant features a fixed-price continuous tableside service.

A TriBeCa branch opened 2½ months ago. According to the maitre d’, it’s smaller than its uptown cousin. The high-gloss decor keeps up with the Joneses on a street that has Montrachet just to the north, and Bouley just to the south.

The young lady who escorted us to our table initially took us to a spot at the back of the restaurant, up against a wall. “I’m not supposed to do this,” she said, “but would you prefer a better location?” Of course we would. She next showed us a table adjoining the kitchen, which didn’t seem to be an improvement. Finally we got a table with a great view of the appetizer bar, the live band, and the sommelier’s station. Why didn’t she just start with that?

The maitre d’ brought two coaster-sized plastic discs, which he placed in front of us with the red side facing up. He explained that dinner starts with the appetizer bar, but he cautioned us not to fill up, because there are 18 main courses after that. When you’ve finished your appetizers, you flip the plastic disc onto its green side. That signals the servers to bring on the meat and fish courses, and they’ll keep coming till you turn the disc over once again.

The appetizer bar was hard to resist, offering a range of salads, cheeses, sushi bites, and seafood. Tuna tartare was perhaps the most memorable of the bunch, but there were many I just had to ignore, knowing that the 18 main dishes were the reason we had come. You could go home well fed if the appetizer bar were the whole meal, but of course it is not.

The main courses arrive faster than you can eat them, but not in any kind of order. Generally they come on skewers (a few are wheeled around on carts), and the server cuts off as small or as large a piece as you want. They tend to offer small portions, which is sensible considering there are 18 of them. Anyone who can try them all must have a prodigious appetite. I could not.

No single dish makes the meal, and indeed they are uneven. Ribeye steak and filet mignon were mouth-wateringly tender, and two different lamb dishes were done to perfection, but a chicken entree was leathery, and pork ribs stubbornly clung to the bone. Yet, the overall impression is so favorable that one hesitates to criticize the occasional item that fails to work. For fish-lovers, Plataforma offers salmon and sea bass, but don’t make the trip unless you’re a carnivore.

Plataforma has no menu, so you’re never sure what you haven’t seen yet. By the time beef ribs and suckling pig came along, I was simply too full to give them a try. Had I known they were on offer, I would have made sure to leave room. If you happen to know that you’d like a particular dish, the maitre d’ will have it brought to you. But you don’t always know what you haven’t seen.

A menu would also help clarify in advance what the $45 prix fixe actually includes. It turns out the appetizer and main course are in, but dessert and coffee are not. I didn’t feel the least bit overcharged at $7 for a piece of cheesecake and $2 for coffee, but when you’re told “fixed price” you might reasonably assume it includes everything but the liquor.

Churrascaria Plataforma is a fun night out. I stumbled home several pounds heavier, but satisfied.

Churrascaria Plataforma (221 West Broadway between White & Franklin Streets, TriBeCa)

Food: **
Service: *½
Ambiance: *½
Overall: **

Sunday
Apr112004

Mad for Meatpacking

It’ll tell you how hopelessly un-hip I am, that, until yesterday, I had never been to the Meatpacking District since it became anything other than a neighborhood where wholesale meats are sold. The area is bounded roughly by Gansevoort St on the south, 14th St on the north, and Ninth and Tenth avenues. I say “roughly,” because like any hip neighborhood its boundaries are stretching. My Manhattan street atlas limits the district to the two square blocks bounded by Little West 12th, 14th, and Ninth and Tenth Avenues. But nowadays, even places on 15th St have Meatpacking aspirations.

A lot of the district’s hip nightclubs hadn’t opened their doors when my friend and I walked by in the late afternoon, but we were able to get a look in many of the restaurants. After a long walk from the Financial District, we were ready for a short break. Zitoune (46 Gansevoort St) snootily refused us an outdoor table when we ordered soft drinks, claiming a $10 minimum outside. We tried Macelleria next door, where they happily accepted our order for soft drinks and biscotti (ironically, we spent more than $10 anyway). The whole time, Zitoune never did use the outdoor table they denied us.

There’s a large triangular space where Gansevoort, Little West 12th, Ninth Ave, and Greenwich St converge at odd angles. At one of the outdoor tables at Zitoune, Macelleria, or nearby Pastis (9 Ninth Ave) you get a panoramic view of the Meatpacking crowd’s comings and goings. The intersection seems to demand a life-size statue of Mr. Gansevoort (or whoever/whatever that street was named for). If we were in Europe, it would have one.

I wanted to see what Spice Market (403 W. 13th St.), Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s latest hit, was about. From the outside, you’d barely know it’s a restaurant. Inside, the $5 million decor overwhelms the senses. It seems no one opens a destination restaurant in New York these days on the strength of the food alone. We peeked in around 6pm, as the place was just beginning to fill up, and the staff didn’t mind terribly that we were there only to gawk.

We were particularly intrigued by the sensuous private rooms at the back of the downstairs bar, where you pass through curtains of gauze into a world of your own. I wonder how those creamy white luxuroious sofa pillows will look after red wine is spilled on them a few times, but for now they look inviting. Whether or not Spice Market deserves the three stars the Times awarded, as eye candy it amazes.

Many other restaurants caught our eye, but we were struck by the friendly reception we received at Vento (intersection of 9th Ave and 14th St), which doesn’t even open to the public until April 19th. The staff are just practicing for now, and the tables were all set for a friends-and-family dinner. The flatiron-shaped building, dating from the Civil War, is all the decor Vento needs.

Thursday
Apr082004

Hessergate

The New York Times hasn’t had a full-time restaurant critic since William Grimes stepped down from the post at the end of last year. As Grimes is still with the Times, working on other assignments, you’d think the paper could have persuaded him to stay in the chair a few months longer until a permanent successor could be named, but for whatever reason that wasn’t possible. Evidently Grimes couldn’t take eating out 10-12 times a week (and the rumored $150k+ expense account that goes with it) for a day longer. Marian Burros filled in for a while, and for the last couple of months it has been Amanda Hesser. Hesser is a fine writer, but she has made a mess of things, and no doubt the Times will heave a sigh of relief when a permanent successor to Mr. Grimes takes over.

Hesser got herself in trouble with a glowing, almost fawning, 3-star review of Spice Market (403 West 13th Street at 9th Avenue), the Jean-Georges Vongerichten-Gray Kunz homage to Asian street food that’s the latest rage in the trendy meatpacking district. Well, it turns out that JGV wrote a glowing jacket blurb for Hesser’s book Cooking for Mr. Latte. It is safe to say that Hesser benefited enormously from such a high-profile endorsement, and her review looks like a quid pro quo.

Bear in mind that, according to the Times, there are just five 4-star restaurants in New York City, and all of those are temples of French haute cuisine. A 3-star review of a place that sells “street food” is thus highly unusual, if not unprecedented. Coming from the Times, such a review instantly puts Spice Market at the top of the pile. To add insult to injury, Hesser failed to mention JGV’s partner, Gray Kunz, and she praised the desserts while failing to credit the pastry chef. The review mentioned Vongerichten’s name eleven times.

The embarrassed Times says it stands by the review (how could it do otherwise?) but had to issue a correction:

A restaurant review in the Dining section last Wednesday about Spice Market, on West 13th Street in Manhattan, awarded it three stars. The writer was Amanda Hesser, The Times’s interim restaurant critic. Last May, before her assignment to that post, Ms. Hesser published a book, “Cooking for Mr. Latte,” that was praised in a jacket blurb by the restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who later opened Spice Market. He wrote: “Amanda Hesser’s charming personality shines as the reader experiences the life and loves of a New York City gourmet. `Cooking for Mr. Latte’ is perfectly seasoned with sensuality and superb recipes.” The review should have disclosed that background.

Reviews of Spice Market have been mixed, which only adds to the perception—whether justified or not—that Hesser had no business awarding it three stars. (Although Hesser’s lack of disclosure may raise eyebrows, the rating is defensible. Andrea Strong praises Spice Market just as highly as Hesser did, sans conflict-of-interest. So does Hal Rubenstein in the April 19th issue of New York.)

Hesser’s problems didn’t start or end there. On February 24, she reviewed Asiate, awarding just one star. Now, from all I’ve read Asiate is an extraordinary restaurant that isn’t yet clicking on all cylinders. Nevertheless, to award just one star is practically an insult, and nothing in the review itself seemed to justify such a hard slap. She ends the review with this bon mot:

There is also the view. You sit atop an urban canyon, as the sheer cliffs of Midtown drop off into the park. From this height, the traffic below seems to glide and swirl without an ounce of contention. The pressures of city life ease a little. And for that alone, I might order a glass of sake, stay for the gougères, then feign illness and steal across Columbus Circle to Jean Georges for a meal that never disappoints.

Once again, a bouquet for Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

When not praising her favorite restauranteur, Hesser has been stripping restaurants of stars previously won. On March 17 Montrachet was demoted from three stars to two, while today Compass got the shove from two stars to one, despite the installation of a new highly regarded chef, Katy Sparks.

This passage of her Compass review showed another lapse in judgment:

A renovation is planned, and I hope it includes the service, which vacillates between comically inept and smothering. One night, I asked the waiter if he could describe the venison entree. “It’s awesome!” he said. Later, when we were having dessert, the waiter popped open a half-bottle of Bruno Paillard Champagne and began pouring.

“What did we do to deserve this?” I asked.

“It’s nothing,” he said. “I forgot to serve it to another table, and I didn’t feel like taking it back to the bar. So here you go.”

It’s pretty well known that the Times does not permit its critics to accept free food or drinks. Does Ms. Hesser really believe that the waiter was unaware whom he was serving, or the lame excuse he offered for giving her a drink she neither ordered nor paid for? Obviously the restaurant’s largesse did them no good in this instance, but why did Ms. Hesser accept it, in clear contravention of her paper’s stated policy?

And if a “renovation” is planned, why review Compass now? Given that the Times cannot re-review a restaurant very often, would it not have made considerably more sense to wait until after the rehab was complete?

Between keeping up with new openings, and cleaning up the mess Ms. Hesser has made in her brief tenure, the Times’s new restaurant critic will have his or her hands full. (Update: The Times has now announced that Frank Bruni, presently the NYT’s Rome bureau chief, will become the new restaurant critic. His first review will appear June 9th.)

Thursday
Apr082004

Fish by the Pound

Note: Click here for a full review of Thalassa.

*

In Steve Cuozzo’s Menus from Hell piece in yesterday’s Post, he reserved the bulk of his criticism for Megu (cited below) and Mix in New York. But he also mentioned that “Manhattan’s modern Greek seafood places make you order fish by the pound; miscalculate and you’ll go broke on enough livraki to feed the whole room.”

I wondered where on earth that could be, but sure enough I wandered yesterday into Thalassa. Sure enough, its pricey entrees are listed by the pound. I didn’t stay for supper, but I was sufficiently intrigued to take a tour.

Now, Cuozzo’s exaggerating when he says that you could order enough to feed the whole room by mistake, but he nevertheless has a point. Precisely how much Dover Sole are you getting, and how much will it set you back, when you choose that entree?

Thalassa is yet another suave, chic, designed-to-the-hilt newcomer in TriBeCa. Coincidentally, two colleagues were there yesterday sharing pre-dinner drinks and munchies, and they urged me to check out the raw fish on ice, “so fresh, they wink at you.” I was startled when a prawn wiggled its legs. The lobster didn’t seem to move, but the maitre d’ assured me they’re just sleeping. As the real dinner crowd hadn’t arrived yet, he was only too happy to show me around the place and explain every fish on offer that day.

Thalassa has been open fifteen months, but it has yet to earn a mention from the Paper of Record.

Thalassa (179 Franklin Street between Greenwich and Hudson Streets, TriBeCa)

Wednesday
Apr072004

Mega Megu

Note: Megu in Trbeca closed in October 2014, as did a second outpost in midtown, across the street from the United Nations. A new Megu opened in late 2016 in the Dream Hotel, in far west Chelsea.

*

Call it the Law of Unintended Consequences. In today’s Post, Steve Cuozo railed against restaurant menus that are “less comprehensible than the federal tax code.” As Exhibit A he cited Megu, the 13,000 sq. ft. Japanese destination in TriBeCa.

Cuozo is absolutely right. But because Megu is on the way home, his non-review prompted me to stop by anyway. In a word, Wow! This place is designed to the hilt. At Nobu prices it’ll have to be good, but the place is spectacular.

I dropped in just to have a drink. I wound up having two, plus a couple of pieces of sushi, and that set me back about $45. However, it is not busy yet, at least not at 6:30pm on a weeknight, and the bartenders treated me like royalty. They conceded that the menu is a work in progress, and they admitted the version they showed me was half the size of what they started with.

You can see what Cuozo was getting at. As he put it, “What it lacks are such basic facts as which items are suitable for starters and which for main courses; which dishes are best shared — to say nothing of what ‘mysterious vegetable’ might be.”

But Megu astounds with the gorgeous modern Japanese fusion decor. To judge the food on two pieces of sushi would be unreasonable, but the menu certainly competes with the best of high-end Japonoiserie. For now, two stars.

Megu (62 Thomas Street between Church Street and West Broadway, TriBeCa)