Entries in Asiate (3)



You are not going to believe this review. I am writing from experience. Publish a favorable review of a restaurant totally off the media radar, and people say, “It just can’t be that good. This blogger doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Say it all you want, but I’m sticking to my guns. For a certain type of elegant, special-occasion dining experience, Asiate in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel is superb. It does not warrant the 3½ stars I improvidently awarded it 5½ years ago. But neither does it deserve the one-star slam Amanda Hesser dumped on it in 2004. The argument is where in between Asiate should go.

No one, I think, will dispute that the room is beautiful, and the panoramic view over Central Park is perhaps the city’s best. Asiate is perennially at the top of the Zagat rating for décor, with 29 out of 30 points. (It gets 24 points for food and 25 for service, both well above average.)

But it is completely off the food media radar. Asiate doesn’t even try to get attention. Between hotel guests and those lured by lofty Zagat ratings, the restaurant doesn’t need any help: it was close to full on a Tuesday evening.

After the initial round of reviews in 2004, Asiate received practically no media mentions I’m aware of, aside from a review eighteen months ago by Alan Richman in QG. He was peeved—as I certainly would have been—when he requested a window table, called back to confirm he’d be getting one, and was still not seated near the window. (Besides that, he thought Asiate “in some ways . . . excellent.”)

Nothing like that happened to us: we were offered the choice and chose the window. Who wouldn’t?

The name—pronounced AH–zee–ott—suggests a vaguely Asian theme, translated as Western produce with pan-Asian spices and accents. Once upon a time, it would have been called Asian fusion, before that term went out of fashion. The opening chef is long gone. Brandon Kida is the current chef de cuisine. Although he’s been there from the restaurant’s inception, the menu is much changed from the one I wrote about in 2005. There’s no sign of the nouvelle cuisine that Amanda Hesser hated.

Asiate charges three-star prices: $85 for a three-course prix fixe, or $125 for an eight-course tasting menu. The tasting menu, which we had, is the better deal, in that it includes three dishes that normally carry supplements, albeit smaller portions of them.

It’s almost evil to plop down a dozen warm gougères (above left) in front of two hungry people. The bread service (above right) is very good, but the butter was cold.

The amuse bouche (above left) is a dainty fruit sphere, which explodes in your mouth. The first course (above right) was a quintet of tartares and crudi.

“Buckwheat and Eggs” (above left) is, I assume, a miniature version of an appetizer with the identical description that carries an $85 supplement on the prix fixe menu. It was also the evening’s best dish: soba noodles, Osetra caviar, and uni cream, all in superb balance.

Balance, indeed, torpedoed the next dish (above right), with a scallop, blue prawn, and crab meat. The individual ingredients were well prepared, but there was no idea that brought them together.

Sea Bass (above left) was beautifully done, complemented by a lovely ginger consommé. Butter poached lobster (above right) was slightly tough, and the accompanying vegetables had a grab-bag quality. (Compare the version of it that we had at Ai Fiori, which was much better.) But the same dish has disappointed me at Per Se, too.

Wagyu beef tenderloin (above left) can always be counted on for default luxury, and it was indeed excellent—perfect, really. The vegetables, again, had that grab bag quality.

Why serve one dessert when you can serve five (above right)? They were all good (if unremarkable), perhaps topped by the carrot cake (top left in the photo). And as it was my friend’s birthday, an extra piece of cake was on the house.

The wine list is a hefty tome and would repay repeated visits, if for no other reason. A 1981 Eitels Riesling was $95, which struck me as a very good price. (Afterward, I saw the 1990 vintage on the web at $60.)

Service in the dining room was excellent, once we were seated. But as Richman reported two years ago, the staff seem to have trouble finding you in the adjoining bar, even when you’ve checked in and told them you’re there. Service at said bar is too slow, bearing in mind the $19 tariff for a cocktail. But I loved the one I had, the Baby Buddha (Hendrick’s gin, fresh cucumber, cilantro, sake).

A tasting menu that offers Asiate’s greatest hits might not be typical of the average diner’s experience, ordering off of the prix fixe. But this was certainly a very good meal, one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.

Asiate (Mandarin Oriental Hotel, 80 Columbus Circle at 60th Street, 35th floor)

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



Note: Click here for a more recent review of Asiate.


A friend had asked where I’d like to be taken out for my birthday. I chose Asiate, where we dined on a wonderful Saturday evening in late November. This must be the most spectacular room in New York City, particularly at night. At one end of the room is a massive wall of wine bottles; on the ceiling, a glass tree-branch scuplture. Most striking are the wraparound windows offering unobstructed long-distance views of the skyline. On a clear evening, as it was last Saturday, we felt like we were suspended in space, looking out on a futuristic fantasy city.

Asiate’s evening menu is $75 for three courses, or $95 for the seven-course tasting menu. We selected the tasting menu with wine pairings at $145. Chef Nori Sugie has been at Asiate from the beginning. His adventurous way with food reminded me of what Wylie Dufresne has been doing at WD-50. He misfired occasionally, but the overall impression was highly favorable. Amanda Hesser’s one-star assassination of the restaurant is a disgrace. Since I’ve been reading the Times, no review has under-shot the true merit of a restaurant by so wide a margin.

The menu was as follows:

Slow Poached Egg, Bonito, Ginko Nut
Ruinart Brut Blanc de Blancs, Reims

This amuse totally misfired. I did eat the whole thing, waiting for the pleasant taste sensation that never came. My girlfriend abandoned it after one bite. It resembled an eyeball suspended in a turd, and tasted not much better than that. I would guess that an awful lot of slow poached eggs have been sent back. Reading our minds, our server advised, “It gets better.” So it did.

Seasonal Tasting Dishes
Strub Riesling Spatlese “Niersteiner Paterberg” 2003, Rheinhessen
Tentaka Kuni “Hawk in the Heavens,” Junmai Sake

This is the set of six appetizers served in a bento box, much written about. The printed menu I took home doesn’t note what they were, but for me the highlight was a candied foie gras that reminded me of WD-50’s treatment of that same dish. There was an oyster suspended in a tangy green sauce. There was a delectable sliver of grilled striped bass. And three other items I don’t recall. We much appreciated the pair of contrasting wines that went with this course.

Caesar Salad Soup
This was totally funky — soup that looked like espresso, but tasted like caesar salad.

Fish of the Day
Zoémie De Sousa Brut “Cuvée Merveille,” Avize

This, I believe, was a black bass fillet, and probably the best single course of the evening. Tender, supple to the touch, and absolutely delicious.

Pan-Roasted Venison Tenderloin,
Braised Shoulder Meatball,
Spaghetti Squash Salad, Butternut Squash,
Bitter Chocolate Beggars Purse, Civet Sauce

Robert Craig “Affinity” 2001, Napa Valley

This meat course had two cubes of venison that unfortunately had both the look and the consistency of marshmallows. The spaghetti squash salad and bitter chocolate beggars purse were rather more successful. After a string of perfectly chosen wines, the Robert Craig “Affinity” was an unremarkable cabernet-merlot blend that was not up to the elegance of the menu.

Sakelees Goat Chees Bavarois,
Beetroot Plum Granite
Roasted Pear Soup, Spiced Cake, Hazelnut Ice Cream

Gosset Brut Grand Rosé, Ay

At this point, we were ready to be wheeled out of the restaurant, after this much food and drink. On top of all this, we were served a birthday cake that was so good it should be added to the menu as a regular dessert.

Our server was highly attentive, friendly, helpful, and professional. We were made to feel as if this was our special evening, as we had wanted it to be.

Asiate is one of the most romantic spots in the city. If Chef Sugie’s concoctions aren’t always hits, certainly enough of them are, and he has my support for serving some of the most creative cuisine in the city. I look forward to returning. And shame on you, Amanda Hesser!

Asiate (80 Columbus Circle at 60th Street, in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel)

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




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.)