Entries in Gray Kunz (9)


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: **



The Payoff: Grayz

In tomorrow’s Times, Frank Bruni awards one star to Grayz, as I had expected. He actually loved the food—there have been three-star reviews that weren’t this rapturous—but ultimately the restaurant’s “befuddled and befuddling” concept is its undoing:

These dishes demand fuller attention than the setting allows, and the prices — $39 for the short ribs — only make total sense if eating is the point of a visit. There’s an awkward mix of signals that distracts you from the kitchen’s efforts, which are noteworthy nonetheless.

I also stand by what I said earlier today: Grayz cannot coherently get two stars while Café Gray is also carrying two stars. Bruni’s version of the star system has its quirks, but I thought this review simply had to be one star. Now, if this had been a double-review, with Café Gray upgraded to the three stars it arguably deserves, then Grayz might have had a chance at two.

We win $4, while Eater loses $1, on our hypothetical one-dollar bets.

          Eater        NYJ
Bankroll $60.50   $69.67
Gain/Loss –1.00   +4.00
Total $59.50   $73.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 25–10   26–9



Rolling the Dice: Grayz

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews Grayz, the small-plates and private dining emporium from Gray Kunz. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 8-1
One Star: 4-1
Two Stars: 3-1
Three Stars: 5-1
Four Stars: 10,000-1

The Skinny: Frank Bruni has uncorked some weird ratings over the years, but the two stars Eater is predicting would be a travesty. That’s the same rating he gave Café Gray, and no one—not even Gray Kunz himself—would tell you that Grayz is meant to be, or that it is, as good a restaurant as the mother ship.

Now, Bruni has been known to turn the ratings hierarchy on its head, but he’s not likely to do it for a glorified bar that serves only three entrées (all fairly expensive), and that’s basically only a money-spinning sideshow to the chef’s main restaurant.

Besides that, I don’t think anyone so far is particularly thrilled with the food at Grayz.

The Bet: We predict that Frank Bruni will award one star to Grayz.




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

Whatever he does, Gray Kunz seems to take his time. After he left the four-star Lespinasse, it was six years until he opened a new restaurant, Café Gray, which was much delayed—the last to appear of the originally announced restaurants in the Time-Warner Center.

grayz_logo.jpgThen, Grayz was announced. The Times featured it in their September 2006 fall dining preview section. In October, the Post broke the story that plans had been scrapped, apparently due to a dispute with the construction company. In January, it was back on again. Two weeks ago, Grayz finally opened in the former Aquavit space, in the landmarked 19th-century Rockefeller townhouse.

I have never warmed up to Café Gray. While no one would dispute Kunz’s talent as a chef, the restaurant is crowded, loud, and distinctly unpleasant. I dined there twice, and wasn’t happy either time. For his next venture, I hoped that Kunz would open the kind of refined restaurant that his breathtaking talent deserves, but with Grayz he has gone in the opposite direction. It’s mainly a catering place, with a lively bar that serves finger food. Kunz’s finger food may beat everyone else’s, but Grayz is still a place for…well, grazing, not dining.

Frank Bruni previewed Grayz in a June blog post. He included a sample menu, which is fairly close to what Grayz is offering now. He described it as “a theater for fancy private parties.” The dinner concept, according to a publicist, is “one big cocktail party.” The lunch menu is supposed to be more traditional (which would be wise), but Bruni had no lunch menu to show, and as far as I know the lunch service hasn’t yet begun.

Bread service

I was seated immediately when I walked in at around 6:00 p.m. on a Thursday evening, but an hour later the place was packed. Kunz’s catering strategy had already paid dividends, as the downstairs room was booked for a private party by the accounting firm KPMG—not bad for a restaurant that had only been open for 10 days.

The menu offers nine appetizers, captioned “Small Plates and Finger Food” ($13–22) and just three entrées ($16–33). Included among the latter are Kunz’s famous short ribs, which are also a mainstay on the Café Gray menu (and were offered at Lespinasse, as well). I asked the server how many small plates would make a meal. She cautioned, “They are small!” So I ordered three of them, after asking her for suggestions.

 Homemade bread sticks came, with a wonderful yogurt dipping sauce that tasted like a soft goat cheese. I finished all of it, and could probably have eaten more. (I apologize for the quality of the photos, but note the elegant silver tray—typical of the service at Grayz.)

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Salt Stone Grilled Prawns (left); Crisped Calamari (right)

Grilled prawns ($18) were served on a hot stone, with a kaffir rémoulade seasoning. This appeared to be the most popular dish, as I saw more prawn orders coming out than anything else. The Crisped calamari ($12) with a lemon–honey chutney was much more delicate than the usual deep-fried calamari. (As New York revealed, Kunz makes it with Nabisco graham crackers and Cream of Wheat.) It was the largest portion of anything I ordered, but I got bored with it about halfway through.

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Pasta Fiori and Tomato Concassée (left); Cheese and marinated vegetables (right)

Pasta Fiori ($15) in a lemon thyme broth was the best item I tried. A soft pillow of silky pasta in a delicate tomato sauce, it would be at home in any four-star restaurant. Good as it was, it seemed out of place at Grayz, as the portion was far too small to be shared, and it certainly wasn’t finger food.

The cheese course ($11), which I ordered from the dessert menu, was a miscalculation. The marinated vegetables at the corners of the plate were miniscule, while the pile of shaved cheese in the center tasted like supermarket provalone. (It also came with bread; not shown in the photo.)

Service was first-rate, with beautiful platings, and fresh silverware delivered for every course. It almost seemed overwrought and a little too precious. Every plate was left in the middle of the table, as if to be shared with an imaginary companion (I was there alone).

The total for three appetizers, a cheese course, one cocktail, and two glasses of wine, came to $100 before tax and tip. That’s a high total for finger food. The menu could evolve considerably as Kunz figures out what works, and what doesn’t. For now, I’d say that it’s worth dropping in if you’re in the neighborhood, but it’s nothing I’d rush back for.

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

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


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: **



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.)