Entries in Café Gray (5)


End of Dayz for Grayz

Crain’s reports today what many had already guessed: Grayz will close at the end of the year. Kunz was pushed out of the restaurant six months ago, and it made no sense to continue operating a place named for a guy who’s no longer there. On our last visit, we found Grayz less than half full. There was some terrific food, but the whole misguided concept was designed for an economic climate that no longer exists.

The owners will re-open as “Gneiss” (“nice”) in the same space, with Kunz’s former chef de cuisine, Martin Brock, still in place. We don’t have much hope for this reincarnation, starting with one of the dumbest names we’ve seen. The story of Grayz is that of one fumble after another. These owners still don’t know how to run a restaurant.

Along with the doomed Café Gray, this is Kunz’s second failure this year. We strenuously disagree with Cutlets, who exonerates Kunz in both of these failures:

While technically true, neither Cafe Gray nor Grayz was really Kunz’s restaurant. The first was a gilded deathtrap, that not even Fernand Point himself could have broken out of, and Grayz, with its strange corporate concept, was a similarly Sisyphean struggle.

Café Gray was Kunz’s concept. He is as accountable for the failure as anybody. (We’re not sure if “gilded deathtrap” accurately describes Café Gray in any case; Cutlets, the ultimate cheeseburger guy, is probably not the one to understand such places.) Kunz was very much the minority partner in Grayz, but in signing up for the concept, he must take some knocks for its demise.

Kunz is one of this town’s best chefs, but he has turned out to be a terrible business man. Both Grayz and Café Gray suffered from conceptual flaws that Kunz either failed to see or couldn’t correct. Kunz needs a backer with better business instincts—a Drew Nieporent or a Danny Meyer—so that he can concentrate on the one thing he does well, which is to cook.


Gray Kunz Retools His Kitchens

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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.


Gray Kunz and the Short Rib Derby

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Left: Café Gray; Right: Grayz

Note: Café Gray and Grayz have both closed. Café Gray will be replaced by a clone of A Voce. Grayz re-opened in January 2009 as Atria, with Gray Kunz’s former chef de cuisine, Martin Brock, as executive chef. After four short months, it bit the dust.

Café Gray will shortly be closing, a victim of sky-high rents at the Time Warner Center. That will leave the talented chef, Gray Kunz, with just one restaurant, Grayz, which struggles with problems of its own.

Linking both restaurants is one of this town’s great chefs and his destination dish, the legendary braised short ribs. He served a version of the dish at the four-star Lespinasse, and it anchors the menus at both Café Gray and Grayz.

Recently, I tried the short ribs at both places. I wondered: how are they different? how are they alike? I also wanted to bid farewell to Café Gray, and to see if Grayz is as good as some message board enthusiasts say it is.

* * * 

cafegray_inside2.jpgAt Café Gray, one can’t help escaping the glimmer of what might have been. In previous visits, I’ve never had the slightest doubt about the food: Kunz can cook rings around anyone. But the room: oh, the room! It’s noisy and ugly, and it interposes an open kitchen between diners and the world’s best view.

If you’re going to visit Café Gray, its final weeks are the best time. I found it mostly empty on a Wednesday evening. There’s no escaping the bone-headed design, but at least I had a pleasant supper without contracting a migraine.

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Left: amuse-bouche; Right: petits-fours

Service was polished and seamless. The amuse-bouche was a small spoonful of chickpea yogurt, and there was a nice plate of petits-fours at the end.

I left Café Gray with a bit of sadness. This restaurant should have been, could have been, so much better.

* * *

grayz_outside.jpgGrayz is living proof of what happens when a promising restaurant botches its opening. The trouble here was that Kunz couldn’t decide if he was opening a bar that served snacks or a restaurant with a bar. The muddled concept was confusing, and early reviews weren’t favorable.

The menu has been revised, and it makes more sense now. The entrées, which numbered just three when I visited in the early days, have now been expanded to six. Whether you want a full meal or just to…well, “graze”—Grayz can accommodate you.

The interior design betrays indecision about the concept. You still feel like you’re in a bar that serves snacks, but the service is very good, and the food is first-class. Think of it as an elegant restaurant where the bar is closer than you’d like it to be, like a social misfit elbowing in on your privacy.

Despite its flaws, Grayz deserves your attention.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for a restaurant to get the word out after the early review cycle has concluded. The tables were less than half occupied on a Wednesday evening, and according to reports I’ve read elsewhere, that’s not unusual. The GM came over after my meal, greeted me warmly, and gave me his card. Grayz is still trying to cultivate a following.

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Left: Bread service; Right: Weisswurst

To begin, Grayz offers the same wonderful spears of warm bread as before, with a Lebanese yogurt, spice, and olive oil dressing. I was better behaved this time: I stopped after only one.

I ordered the Weisswurst ($12), or German sausage, which comes with a homemade brown mustard. I’m not a connoisseur, so I don’t have much to compare it to. I loved the delicate casings, but the mustard was definitely needed, as the meat didn’t have enough flavor on its own. The bright-red cast-iron serving dish got in the way of my knife and fork.

grayz06.jpgTo close, the petit-four was a hollow cylinder of crisp brown chocolate on a bed of sugar.

The cocktail menu here is a cut above the norm. I tried two of them, the Badminton Cup and the Aviation, both $14. My table was close enough to the bar that I could hear the conversation between the bartender and one of his customers—a post-modern meditation on the “art of cocktails.” I thought, “This is so 2008.”

* * * 

So, what about the short ribs?

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Short ribs at Café Gray (left) and Grayz (right)

As you can see from the photos, they are quite similar. The manager at Grayz said he believes the meat is prepared identically. At Café Gray, it’s served on a bed of soft grits; at Grayz, it’s creamed spinach. The price is $41 at Café Gray, $39 at Grayz.

If I could have only one before I die, I’d choose the Grayz version. It was served on the bone; at Café Gray, there was no bone. At Grayz, it was slightly more tender, and spinach goes better with beef than grits. You could argue, though, that $39 is awfully dear for short ribs, even Gray Kunz’s.

* * * 

Kunz says that Café Gray will re-open at another location—rumored to be the current Oceana space.. He’s known to be a slow-poke, so I wouldn’t hold my breath for it. Wherever he goes, his first act should be to fire himself as an interior designer. But while we wait for Café Gray’s reincarnation, Grayz will be quietly chugging along.

Give Grayz a try. You could be pleasantly surprised.

Update: Grayz will close on August 10, 2008, for a facelift, re-opening on September 1. The downstairs catering space will become a proper restaurant, and the upstairs space—reviewed here—will presumably become what it was meant to be: a lounge.

Grayz (13–15 West 54th Street between Fifth & Sixth Avenues, West Midtown)

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



Return to Café Gray

Note: Café Gray closed on June 21, 2008. A branch of A Voce will replace it, though not with its original chef, Andrew Carmellini. Click here and here for my parting thoughts on Café Gray.

Last night, I returned to Café Gray, my first visit since November 2004. My early impression remains my impression today: it is a wonderful restaurant, but not without its share of miscalculations.

Chief among these must be the boneheaded interior design, surely the most obscene waste of a great view in dining history. Instead of giving customers a priceless view of Central Park, Café Gray puts an open kitchen in the way. Walls studded with hard surfaces ensure that the noise carries—and, oh boy, does it carry.

At the table next to us, a man was delivering what sounded like a lecture in musicology to a hearing-impaired companion. The next table over had a Japanese family with two toddlers, one of them quite loud. Ninety minutes later, thanks to the din, I left Café Gray with a mild headache.

I have the Café Gray website open in another window as I write this. I’m not fond of websites with a sound track, but this is one of the dumbest ones ever. People chat and laugh, glasses clink, wine is poured, music flits in and out in the deep background. About its only merit is that, if you quintuple the volume, you have precisely the aural experience of a meal at Café Gray.

The food is an altogether happier story and deserves better surroundings. My friend was grateful to be steered towards the mushroom risotto ($22) and the braised shortribs ($36), both signature dishes that Gray Kunz made famous at Lespinasse. They are indeed special, but as I’d already had them the last time, I wanted to see what else the kitchen could do.

I started with the Seared Foie Gras and Quail ($24). Foie is pretty much infallible, but the quail was a succulent surprise. For the entrée, I chose the sautéed pork chop with housemade sauerkraut ($35). The chop was about half again as thick as one normally sees. To get the interior to the house-recommended temperature of medium, the exterior had to be slightly over-cooked. The sauerkraut was wonderful.

We didn’t have dessert, but I noted that the available choices were between $14-18, which is excessive for this type of restaurant. (My friend and I got into a long discussion about how high the rent must be.) Wine options under $50 were in short supply, but when we chose something at around $48, it was one of the better wines we’ve enjoyed at its price point.

Many restaurants in town have a disappointing bread service, but Café Gray served a loaf of homemade sourdough bread that I’d love to eat every day. The amuse bouche was a small beet in a mildly spicy sauce that I’ve now forgotten.

Overall, the kitchen at Café Gray does a first-class job, but the surroundings disappoint.

Café Gray (10 Columbus Circle, 3rd floor of the Time-Warner Center, West Midtown)

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


Café Gray

Note: Café Gray closed on June 21, 2008. Click here and here for later reviews, and here for my parting thoughts.

A friend and I had dinner at Café Gray on a Friday night in November of last year. It was a 5:30pm pre-theatre dinner, but we reserved only on Monday. Even when we left at around 7:00pm, the restaurant was not yet full.

At first, we were seated near a family with young children. (I can’t comprehend taking small children to such a place, but one sees it all the time.) They were well enough behaved, but to be on the safe side we asked to be moved. The staff offered us a nice table for two right next to the kitchen area, and this worked out perfectly. Service overall was top-notch.

So many people have recommended the mushroom risotto and the braised short ribs, so I ordered them. These dishes are indeed delicious, but they are also the most expensive items on the menu. After each of us had had a martini, a glass of wine, an appetizer, an entrée, and a cup of coffee, the bill had come to over $200 with tax and tip. This is not an unreasonable sum to pay for dinner at a nice restaurant in New York, but the city has better bets for that amount of money.

Some people love the space at Café Gray, and others hate it. After reading so many of the “hate it” posts, I’d expected something a lot worse. Café Gray is lovely, although the point of exposing the kitchen still eludes me. We had a nice time, but we were not transported. Putting such an elaborate place in the middle of a shopping mall looks like a gamble, and I’m not yet prepared to say whether it has paid off.

Café Gray (10 Columbus Circle, 3rd floor of the Time Warner Center)

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