Entries in A Voce (7)


A Voce Columbus

Note: A Voce Columbus closed in August 2016, after a judge approved its petition for bankruptcy. Eater.com has a lengthy backgrounder, which states that the restaurant was $4 million in debt, and had been losing money since 2011. The review below was written when Missy Robbins was the chef; she left the restaurant in May 2013. The sister restaurant, A Voce Madison, remains open; one has to wonder how long that’ll last.


If you want to know what luxury dining in the city has come to, wrapped in one package, you might as well have a look at A Voce Columbus. The restaurant is clearly intended to appeal to high rollers, with its entrées mostly in the $30s and wine bottles that go as high as five figures. It was intended to earn a Michelin star (which it did) and three Times stars (which it did not).

But it remains punishingly loud, as it was when I visited two years ago. Its predecessor in the space, the failed Café Gray, shared the same drawback, and then some. As of today, the only improvement in the ambiance is that there are frequently empty tables, and hence, fewer human beings contributing to the cocophany.

Not that A Voce Columbus will be going out of business, but prime-time tables are now available at short notice, any night of the week. Thirty minutes in advance of my 7:30 p.m. reservation on a Wednesday, the staff seated me without a moment’s hesitation, once I spied that there were no vacant perches at the bar. By the time we left, the dining room was about two-thirds full.

The menu is expensive if you order the traditional four courses; on the other hand, if you order a pasta as your entrée (as my girlfriend did) and skip dessert (as we both did), A Voce becomes a pretty good mid-priced Italian restaurant.

The house-made bread with riccota cheese and olive oil (above right) remains a highlight, as it was two years ago.

The food is improved over my last visit. The menu emphasizes uncomplicated pleasures, but chef Missy Robbins does a good job in the niche she chooses to occupy. A perfect example is the Escarole Salad ($10; above left) with warm pancetta vinaigrette, a soft boiled egg, and pecorino romano.

I somewhat struggled with the point of Cassoncini ($11; above right), with a pile of prosciutto di parma, alongside a bowl of soft, swiss chard and crescenza cheese-filled pockets of warm dough—both wonderful on their own, but lacking any relationship that I could discern. My ignorance, perhaps.

Brodetto ($22; above left) with mussels was an excellent example of the chef’s skill with pasta. Lamb Chops ($38; above right) had a thick char and rich flavor, but discs of lamb sausage were too salty. If you check in on foursquare, they comp a side dish. We tried the broccoli rabe (below), normally $8, but it was also too salty.

The wine list is a 68-page marvel that can appeal to bargain-hunters and the super-rich alike, with bottles ranging from $25 to $18,000 (1900 Château d’Yquem; hurry up, only one left). There are pages upon pages of expensive Barolo and Brunello verticals, but the website says that over half of the 2,700 bottles are under $90. Indeed, there is plenty below $50, including the 2004 Alturio ($46; above right), one of the more enjoyable bottles we’ve had in a while at that price range.

For a restaurant this expensive, you’d like to see an amuse bouche and better petits fours than just a couple of sticky marshmallows (right)

Service was reasonably attentive. This isn’t the sort of restaurant where you just twitch an eyebrow to get a server’s attention, but they stay on top of things, and the sommelier circled back several times to ensure we were taken care of.

I remember when people joked about putting high-end restaurants in a shopping mall, but the location is ideal, served by subway lines on three avenues, convenient to Lincoln Center and the midtown business district.

I wish the space wasn’t so unpleasant, but if one wants to dine out, this is increasingly what we must accept nowadays.

A Voce Columbus (10 Columbus Circle, Time-Warner Center, 3rd floor)

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


Should the Star Ratings Take Price Into Account?

At the bottom of every New York Times restaurant review is this blurb, essentially unchanged for many years:

Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.

The paper never explains exactly how price is “taken into consideration.” Presumably, it means that a restaurant could receive a bonus star for being an exceptionally good value, or be docked a star for being too expensive.

I’d like to challenge that. Should the rating be price-sensitive? I can state at least four good reasons why not.

1. It is Open To Manipulation. In many notable cases, restaurants have raised their prices—sometimes substantially—just after they received a glowing New York Times review. For instance, when Frank Bruni awarded four stars to Eleven Madison Park, the prix fixe was $88; a year later, it is $125. Sam Sifton awarded four stars to Del Posto just a month ago; now, they have dropped their à la carte option, locking customers into a (minimum) $95 prix fixe.

I am not suggesting that either restaurant would lose the fourth star if the critic went back today, but these are hardly isolated examples. Country raised its prix fixe from $85 to $110 after Bruni gave it three stars. Fiamma went from $75 to $95 (later partly rolled back after Bruni called them on it). At Falai, a two-star restaurant, Bruni likewise saw a noticeable price increase (beyond the rate of inflation) when he returned two years later. In a blog post, he surveyed several other examples.

Now, I do realize that anything can change at a restaurant. But a talented chef is probably going to stay talented; an attractive dining room is probably going to remain that way. Prices, on the other hand, are merely the function of what a manager types into a word processor.

2. It Depends on Factors the Critic Can’t See. According to Joe Bastianich (partner with Mario Batali at Del Posto and many other restaurants), food is only 30 percent of the price—the rest being rent, labor, miscellany, and of course profit. The critic can see the food on the plate. He generally has no idea if the restauranteur got a sweet rent deal that enables him to undersell comparable restaurants. The restaurant might be saddled with union labor, which tacks on added costs. Restaurants that are part of larger empires might have the flexibility to run at a loss for a while, an option that independent outfits don’t have. Restaurants in hotels might be subsidized.

Lower rents, of course, are the reason why the dining scene has flourished in neighborhoods not formerly known for fine dining, like the Lower East Side, the East Village, and Brooklyn. (The same was true twenty-five years ago in Tribeca, but it clearly isn’t now.) But those chefs don’t deserve bonus stars, just because they choose to locate in a low-rent district. Critics review restaurants, not rent deals.

3. It Makes Comparisons Much More Difficult. It is already hard enough to discern whether a pair of two-star restaurants are really comparable, when one four-tiered system needs to accommodate every genre and cuisine. But it only adds to the confusion when there is a mysterious price element in the mix. Is the two-star Torrisi Italian Specialties really punching at the same weight as fellow Italian two-stars Maialino and A Voce Columbus? Or is Torrisi getting a bonus for serving a bounty of pretty good food for just $50? It’s quite a bit less than you would pay at the other two places, but is it actually as good in the absolute sense?

4. Critics Should Evaluate Quality, Full Stop. Think about the other disciplines in which The Times employs critics: music, dance, film, theater, books, fashion, architecture. In no other, does the price of the product figure in the review. A critic gives an informed reaction to the product, independent of its economics. The Times doesn’t give better reviews to plays that open in cheaper off-Broadway houses; it reviews the production, not its price.

I am not suggesting that diners don’t, or shouldn’t, care what the meal costs. Of course we do. But value from the customer’s perspective depends on factors the critic can’t easily assess. For all of the above reasons, I think The Times ratings should be based on quality, full stop. The reviews, of course, would still show price ranges (as they do now). Diners can decide for themselves if the restaurant is “worth it.”


Belated Review Recap: A Voce Columbus

I came down with a cold on Tuesday, and didn’t get around to posting a Review Preview: a pity, as New York Journal needed a win, and we would have correctly predicted Sam Sifton’s verdict on A Voce Columbus: two stars:

There are two A Voce restaurants in New York City. One opened in 2006, off Madison Square Park. It is dark and almost romantic, loud when crowded, pretty after a fashion, perfectly good. The other opened in September on the third floor of the Time Warner Center, in the space that used to be Café Gray. The second restaurant is bright and airy, loud when crowded, pretty after a fashion, also perfectly good…

But make no mistake. A Voce is a corporate enterprise, part of a master plan, and feels like it. Save for swiveling yourself around in the Eames-y leather chairs that appoint both restaurants, there is very little room for improvisation. Service is clinical, almost silent, beyond language. Wine is what a chairman would expect, what most would order: a lot of big California cabernets, excellent chardonnays.

Sifton clearly visited the downtown site. It’s a pity he didn’t squeeze in two more meals there, so that he could re-rate A Voce Madison in the same review. It’s abundantly clear that he thinks the two are interchangeable, but A Voce Madison remains on the Times’s list of three-star restaurants, courtesy of an air-kiss blown their way by Frank Bruni in 2006. That was with Andrew Carmellini as chef, and even then it was over-rated.


A Voce Columbus

Note: Click here for a more recent review of A Voce Columbus.


A Voce Columbus opened last week, taking over the failed Café Gray space. The original downtown branch is now called A Voce Madison. Missy Robbins, a respected Chicago chef who used to be a favorite of the Obamas’, heads up both operations.

I never quite bought into the hype for the original A Voce. Even with Andrew Carmellini at the helm, the food fell short of the three stars Frank Bruni had awarded. Factor in an unpleasant space and inattentive service, and I awarded the restaurant just two stars.

I am not a fan of noisy restaurants, especially expensive ones. Café Gray was crowded, loud, and distinctly unpleasant. For a restaurant with most entrées in the 30s, this was unacceptable. Consumers agreed, and Café Gray is no longer with us.

At A Voce Columbus, one of Café Gray’s errors has been rectified: the kitchen no longer blocks the entire view of Central Park, though it still blocks a good deal of it. The dumbest restaurant design of the decade couldn’t be entirely corrected without gutting the space down to the studs. They’ve done the best they could, opening and brightening up the gloomy shell of a space that Café Gray left behind.

But they didn’t fix the noise. If anything, it is worse. With nothing but hard surfaces everywhere, the room is an echo chamber. My hand was cupped to my ear all evening. Couples nearby were shouting at each other to be heard. Is this a restaurant or a NASCAR race? A Voce’s owners clearly aren’t sure.

A Voce Columbus is not as expensive as Café Gray, but it’s not a cheap date. Our dinner for two was $172.50 before tax and tip. If you order wine, you’ll have trouble getting out for much less than that. Antipasti are $11–16, primi $17–25, secondi $24–38. Service is much improved over my recollections of A Voce Madison, but it does not make up for the cacophonous space.

Missy Robbins’s food struck us as timid and uninteresting. Most of what we tried was flat, under-seasoned, and unmemorable. You’d be happy to drop in if it cost half as much. But I wouldn’t go out of my way for this food, even if the room were much more pleasant.

I give full props to the bread service, though (above right), with a terrific olive oil ricotta spread.

We shared an appetizer and a pasta. Crispy sweetbreads ($14; above left) had the texture of pork belly, and you can never go too far wrong with that, but the smear of polenta underneath them might as well have been Gerber’s baby food. Orecchiette ($19; above right) were dull, and I could barely taste the pork jowl swimming inside.

Branzino ($28; above left) and Lamb Chops ($34; above right) were cooked correctly, but they were not much more adventurous than what one might do at home. The heirloom tomatoes under the branzino had the most basic preparation; likewise the lentils and lamb sausage that came with the chops.

Crisp baked strips of flour lightly dusted with sugar passed for petits-fours.

Servers did a good job of keeping track of our table. I am always nervous when the wine bottle is kept at a central station, but the sommelier kept our glasses replenished.

I could not tell if the sommelier failed to hear me over the din, or if he was upselling. When I asked for a wine recommendation below $60, he kept pointing to bottles above $60. I finally just gave up and ordered one of his suggestions at $68—very good, but $10 more than I had asked for.

A Voce Columbus is less than two weeks old, and I am always wary of judging a restaurant so early. However, it appeared to me that the kitchen executed everything as it was intended. The food just wasn’t very interesting, especially at these prices. Of course, we sampled only a fraction of the menu, but I won’t be dragged again into such an unpleasant space to try any more of it.

A Voce Columbus (10 Columbus Circle, Time-Warner Center, 3rd floor)

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


Gray Kunz Retools His Kitchens

cafegray_inside.jpg grayz_inside_small.jpg
Left: Café Gray; Right: Grayz

Café Gray will be closing on Saturday, June 21, about a week earlier than originally planned. On my last visit, I found it almost a ghost town, so I’m not surprised they’re closing early. I won’t miss the ugly, poorly-designed dining room, though it was sky-high rents, and not the interior designer, that killed the place. A branch of A Voce, most likely destined for mediocrity, will replace it.

Meanwhile, Gray Kunz’s other restaurant, Grayz, will close on August 10, re-opening on September 1 “as a full-fledged restaurant…with a new format and a renovated downstairs dining area.” This is a welcome development.

The original concept for Grayz—allegedly a “lounge and event space”—was a blunder on all counts. I suspect that private events were supposed to pay most of the freight, and the lounge would have been gravy. The trouble is that catering is a feast-or-famine business: on the days it’s not booked, the restaurant earns zero. The downstairs “event” space was in use the first time I visited, but empty the second. In these tough economic times, I suspect the “empty” nights predominated.

The lounge space over-estimated the market for three-star bar food. To be sure, Kunz tweaked the concept over time. When I re-visited about a month ago, Grayz was finally serving a proper restaurant menu—a position it evolved into gradually. But he was still stuck with a lounge vibe, and the aftershocks of mixed reviews.

I assume that Grayz 2.0 will serve a Café Gray-like menu in the former event space downstairs, so that the upstairs can be what it was meant to be: a lounge. I’ve only had a peek at the subterranean dining room, but it looks like it could be turned into an elegant restaurant without much trouble—albeit, without windows.

Then again, if you know what Kunz did when he had windows—at Café Gray—perhaps that’s not much of a loss.


A Voce: How to Detonate a Restaurant


Update: Andrew Carmellini’s replacement has finally been named: Missy Robbins, formerly of Chicago’s Spiaggia. To learn more about the débacle that led up to this, read on.

The farce at A Voce is one of the sorriest spectacles we’ve seen in a long time.

After weeks of rumor-mongering, Grub Street reported yesterday that Manuel Treviño, a former Top Chef contestant, will temporarily replace Andrew Carmellini at A Voce. According to the report, “Treviño will oversee the expansion of A Voce to the Time Warner Center,” where it is replacing Café Gray, “but he is expected to make way for another big-name chef to be named (eventually) by A Voce’s owners.”

How many shades of stupidity can be painted in one sentence? Apparently, if Treviño does a good job at the Time Warner Center, he’ll get fired anyway. And if he does a bad job, the restaurant will have the mediocre reviews hanging like deadweights around its neck.

Remember: once the critics have reviewed a place, they seldom return. Why would anyone open the Time Warner branch with a transitional figure, get pummeled, and then bring in the chef they really want?

It gets worse. Today, Grub Street reports that pastry chef Josh Gripper has left the restaurant: “I’m not comfortable with [the ownership’s] direction, and I don’t think it would be a smart move to stay with them.” Ouch.

As a reader noted in the Eater comments section: “They might as well mail that 3rd star back to the Times right now.” We were never persuaded that A Voce was three-star material, but it’s still sad to see the owners squandering the good hand they were dealt.


A Voce

Note: Andrew Carmellini, the chef when this review was written, has left A Voce. His replacement is Missy Robbins, who comes to New York from the Chicago restaurant Spiaggia. We haven’t been back since, but click here for a review of A Voce Columbus at the Time-Warner Center.


avoce.jpgA Voce is the first solo restaurant by Andrew Carmellini, who had been the popular chef de cuisine at Café Boulud. It was one of the biggest hits of 2006, scoring three stars from Frank Bruni and another from Michelin. The restaurant is full almost every night of the week. I had wanted to visit a lot sooner, but it never seemed to be available when I was. When I saw that a 6:15 p.m. slot was available on Sunday evening, I grabbed it.

My friend and I started with the duck meatballs ($15), which every reviewer has raved about. They are indeed a tasty delight, but I must say that neither of us could find any trace of the foie gras that the servers insist is in there. A pork chop with onion glazing ($30), one of the daily specials, was done to perfection. My friend ordered the braised short ribs, at $39 the most expensive entree (unless you’re having the truffle tasting). The preparation was certainly first-rate, although it seemed to me a bit over-priced, in that the best short ribs in town, at Café Gray, are “only” $38.

The price of the short ribs, however, had nothing on the wine list, which featured many bottles over $1,000, and tons more well over $100. For a casual restaurant where the waiters wear dockers, it seemed to us incongruous. I did finally settle on a pinot noir a shade under $50. I was quite irritated to find that the restaurant kept the open bottle on a serving station, out of my reach. I generally prefer to control a bottle that I’ve paid for, especially when the serving staff are going to disappear for long stretches—as they do when A Voce gets busy.

For dessert, I ordered a maple-walnut cheesecake ($10), which seemed more like a parfait. As I see it, the word “cheesecake” conveys definite meaning, and restaurants shouldn’t be putting it on their menu unless they intend to serve something at least approximating a cheesecake.

Bread service came in the form of addictive warm home-made bread and olive oil, although there wasn’t enough of the latter.

Although the menu is expensive, the atmosphere at A Voce is informal. The space is attractively decorated, and the swivel chairs are quite comfortable. But the tables are fairly close together, the noise level builds rapidly, and the serving staff gets a little stretched as the restaurant fills up. Andrew Carmellini’s upscale Italian cuisine is wonderful, but he hasn’t really provided the elegant stage on which it deserves to shine.

A Voce (41 Madison Avenue at 26th Street, Flatiron District)

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