Entries in Jordan Kahn (4)


The Payoff: Varietal

As expected, the Brunmeister awarded one star to Varietal. As expected, he found the food uneven. As expected, he found it “a province of aggressive experimentation and eccentric, highfalutin name tags.” (“Highfalutin” is one of Frank’s favorite words to describe restaurants too clever for their own good.)

He was less taken with the desserts than some other critics, which I should have expected. Bruni will lament that avant-garde cuisine doesn’t have much of a toe-hold in New York, but when someone actually tries something, invariably he isn’t enthused. Jordan Kahn’s creations “will definitely get your attention. Your affection is another matter.”

Eater and I both took the one-star bet at 3–1 odds, winning $3 apiece.

  Eater   NYJ
Bankroll $7   $11
Gain/Loss +$3   +$3
Total +$10   +$14
Won–Lost 4–1   4–1

Rolling the Dice: Varietal

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, His Frankcellency reviews Varietal, the Chelsea wine-themed restaurant with blow-the-doors-off desserts. Eater’s official odds are as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 5-1
One Star: 3-1
Two Stars: 4-1
Three Stars: 30-1
Four Stars: 15,000-1

The Skinny: All the indicators this week point to one star. Varietal is primarily a wine restaurant. Frank doesn’t know much about wine, so he is unlikely to appreciate the restaurant’s main attraction. Varietal has white tablecloths, and Frank finds traditional formality a turn-off. The service at Varietal is, as Eater put it, “fussy.” Frank doesn’t like fussy. Varietal is rather expensive, and Frank tends to hold expensive restaurants to a high standard. Lastly, most critics have not been wowed by the food—other than Jordan Kahn’s desserts.

So, why even one star? Only because we think Varietal is the kind of restaurant Frank would simply ignore if he couldn’t find something good to say. Given that he’s reviewing it, we don’t think it will get goose-egged. Desserts will save the day. We do agree with Eater, however, that zero stars is more likely than two.

The Bet: For the second week in a row, we agree with the Eater bet, which in this case is one star.


Dinner at Varietal


Note: A few weeks after our visit, Frank Bruni reviewed Varietal for the Times, awarding (without much enthusiasm) one star. Within days, executive chef Ed Witt was fired, and pastry chef Jordan Kahn announced that he was leaving to start another project in California. Wayne Nish (formerly of March) replaced both Witt and Kahn, but the restaurant was not able to survive, and has since closed.


We first visited Varietal for dessert about a month ago, having heard about pastry chef Jordan Kahn’s inventive creations. Kahn, who previously worked at The French Laundry and Per Se, is a major talent. We were smitten, and promised ourselves we’d return for a full meal.

Varietal is a restaurant that you desperately want to root for. It has no irritating vanities, such as an overwhelming décor, a globe-trotting absentee chef, or snooty staff who act like they’re doing you a favor. To the contrary, Varietal is an earnestly serious restaurant, with a service team who genuinely want you to be pleased. At least five different people, from the owner on down, asked us if we had enjoyed ourselves.

Alas, Ed Witt’s savory courses don’t live up to Kahn’s desserts. Indeed, the letdown is so great, that we struggle to imagine how it could have happened. Did we order the wrong things? Did we catch Witt’s kitchen on an off night? How can a restaurant so serious about its desserts fumble the rest of the cooking so badly?

The amuse bouche was a small spoonful of Cured Tasmanian Trout with fennel and olives. The olives were too dominant, completely obliterating the trout. At another table, my friend saw four diners grimace in unison as they tasted it.


Everything on the menu comes with a long list of ingredients, often with funky names, and usually at least one too many. We were both intrigued by Prawns with Chamomile Consommé, Baby Carrots, and Forbidden Rice. The dish consists of a few small bits of pre-sliced shrimp, flecks of rice, and a bland salty broth that could have come out of a soup can,  added tableside. The dish is entirely uninteresting. We had no idea what was “forbidden” about the rice. At $13, it was one of the lower-priced appetizers.

Entrees are expensive, with most over $30. My friend had the Roasted Pork & Cider-Tobacco Braised Pork Belly ($31), which read much better than it tasted. The roasted pork was like a dull sausage, while the pork belly was surrounded by an unpleasant layer of fat that hadn’t been fully rendered.

Duclair Duck ($34) was a bit more successful, with a deliciously crunchy exterior contrasting the tender meat. But Marcona almonds and baby turnips seemed utterly superfluous, and a small cylinder of “Medlar braised leg” (whatever that means) was far too dry. For that matter, what is “Duclair” duck?

That brought us to dessert, which seems to be the only attraction for which the restaurant can be seriously recommended. Whatever you order, it takes a while to arrive—the reason is abundantly obvious when you see the photos. They are works of art, and it seems almost a crime to bite into them. But they are just as much fun to eat, even if one cannot begin to figure out how they were made.

My friend had the Wolfberry (lime sabayon, tonka bean, broken macaroons, ketjap manis; $14) , which we had so much enjoyed when we had the dessert tasting a month ago.

I wanted to try something different, so I had Absinthe (liquid sable, black sesame, ricotta, sour apple sorbet; $12), another happy choice on a menu where one really cannot go wrong.

varietal.jpgService was generally excellent, with only a few minor lapses that are hardly worth mentioning. The staff dress in dark suits and ties, and comport themselves with all due seriousness. With only a little bit more polish, I could easily imagine awarding three stars for service, if only the food lived up to it.

The room might be accused of sterility, with the all-white walls adorned only with large photos of grapes. But the chandelier made of inverted wine glasses is a work of sheer genius. At the bar, there is a companion sculpture made of wine glasses tilted horozontally (not really clear in the photo below, despite my best efforts). 

You would expect a restaurant named Varietal to have a serious wine program. Indeed it does, although it may be far too over-priced for its own good. When we sat down, we were presented with a champagne menu, with no choices below $17. This seemed to us grossly excessive, when you consider that we had an excellent glass of sparkling wine last week at The Modern for just $15. The main wine list has some reasonably priced choices, along with some insanely excessive ones.

varietalbar.jpgVarietal appears to be struggling. The dining room was only about half full, surely not a good sign on a Friday night. The front bar area seemed to be doing a brisk business, but it is not large enough to support the full restaurant. Most of the patrons were a lot younger than we are, and they probably won’t be choosing from the higher end of the wine list. In a dining room dominated by twenty-somethings, who will order the $500 bottle of dessert wine?

Four new reviews of Varietal are on the way. The coming week will see reviews from the New York Observer, New York Sun, and Adam Platt in New York. The owner told us that Frank Bruni has already visited three times, so his review is surely no more than a few weeks away. Varietal probably needs a couple of good reviews to pull in the crowds.

If Varietal survives, I suspect my friend and I will be back again for dessert. We would not be drawn back for a full meal unless future reviews suggest a considerable improvement over what we experienced. Jordan Kahn’s superlative desserts deserve to play on a stage with a much better supporting cast.

Varietal (138 W. 25th Street between 6th & 7th Avenues, Chelsea)

Food (savory): No stars
Food (dessert): ***
Service: **½
Ambiance: **
Overall: *



varietal.jpgVarietal has been open less than a month. Food blogger Augieland is already smitten, as are many of the eGullet community. The concept draws on several ideas at once, and it remains to be seen if they will gel. It is a wine bar, with some 70 selections by the glass. There are savory courses too, which have drawn mixed reviews so far.

But what has everyone raving are the inventive desserts of Jordan Kahn, who has stints at The French Laundry, Per Se, and Alinea on his resume. We dropped by at around 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night after our dinner at Applewood, and were seated after about a ten-minute wait. The dining room was nearly full at that hour, although it had cleared out considerably by the time we left.

You’ll either love or hate the décor. The chandelier (pictured above), made from inverted wine glasses, is a work of genius. But the austerity of the stark white walls is relieved only by several undistinguished blow-up photos of grapes. The all-white theme is even more apparent in the front bar area, where there is another very clever sculpture made with wine glass stems.

We asked to share the four-course dessert tasting ($35). The server blundered, and we actually got two full orders of the dessert tasting. I did not realize this when the first course arrived—assuming that the kitchen had been considerate enough to divide the portions. But it was clear, both to us and our server, by the time the second course arrived, that we’d received twice the amount we wanted. To the restaurant’s credit, they continued with double orders of the third and fourth courses, but did not charge us for them.

The four-course dessert tasting is far more than most people will want. For the typical appetite, one portion to share is ample for a couple who have already had a full dinner. Indeed, any one of the courses would be nearly enough to be a dessert on its own. The desserts are of course enjoyable in their own right, but the artfulness of the platings almost makes you regret digging in. You just want to gaze at them, as you would paintings in a museum.

Most of the desserts have about half-a-dozen ingredients. I certainly can’t remember them all, though fortunately I think I’ve found descriptions on various Internet sites.

1) Sweet potato ice cream, yogurt, yuzu, picholine olive. The actual color was closer to orange than the photo shows. The olive was dried and shredded—you can see the crumbs at the back of the photo. An excellent starter.


2) Wolfberry puree, rigid lime sabayon, broken macaroons, tonka bean cream, soybean, ketjap manis. This was the most gorgeous of the four desserts, and probably the most successful.


3) This is the only dessert for which I cannot find a description, but we enjoyed it nearly as much as the wolfberry, above.


4) Chocolate Gel, Pear Sorbet, Mushroom Caramel, Brown Butter.We thought this one was a little too similar to the third dish. We particularly admired the cylinder of pear in the middle of the dish, which was the consistency of an egg yolk and “ran” with pear juice when punctured. But after that, we left the rest of the dish unfinished.


Although our server was no doubt chastised for sending a double order into the kitchen, she proved to be quite knowledgeable about the food, describing the complex dishes without a hitch. She recommended a lovely dessert wine to go with our tasting, which at $17 was neither the most nor the least expensive they had. The courses came out fairly slowly—no surprise there, given the complexity of the platings—but we were in no hurry.

A judgment on the savory menu must await a future visit, but for its desserts alone Varietal is a welcome addition to the restaurant landscape.

Varietal (138 West 25th Street between 6th & 7th Avenues, Chelsea)

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