Entries in Kenmare (4)


NYC's Ten Most Disappointing New Restaurants of 2010

In a previous post, I listed my top ten new restaurants of 2010. Now, here are my top ten disappointments. The list ranges from those that were truly bad (Kenmare), to those that merely failed to live up to outsized expectations (Lincoln).

As before, the list is based on my actual experiences at the restaurants, not what others have said, what the chefs are theoretically capable of, or what may have changed since I visited. Some of these places will eventually earn return visits, but remember: I’m spending my own money. I usually wait a while before giving a second chance.

1. Lincoln. No restaurant opened with higher expectations than the new luxe Italian restaurant at Lincoln Center with former Per Se chef Jonathan Benno. I’ve read reports of some great meals here, but ours was mediocre, and most of the pro critics were unimpressed. The space is terrible, and that can’t be fixed, but Benno won’t go down without a fight. If Lincoln is the year’s biggest disappointment, it’s also the one most likely to improve.

2. Colicchio & Sons. Coming from a chef with Tom Colicchio’s pedigree, this place figured to be excellent. But Colicchio botched the roll-out, opening with an à la carte menu, switching to an expensive prix fixe after just a month in business, and then switching back less than a month later. Practically all the reviews were negative, except for a bizarre trifecta from Sam Sifton of the Times. The restaurant is now off the radar, and we’ve heard nothing that would justify a return visit.

3. John Dory Oyster Bar. The re-located April Bloomfield/Ken Friedman seafood place bears no comparison to the original John Dory, which was in a poor location, but was otherwise a very good restaurant. Our meal here wasn’t bad, but it’s nowhere near what this team is capable of. Let’s hope that April is able to find her mojo, as she has done at The Spotted Pig and The Breslin.

4. Kenmare. This Italian restaurant from chef Joey Campanaro was probably the worst new restaurant we visited in 2010. Given Campanaro’s track record (Little Owl, Market Table, and before that The Harrison and Pace), who would have expected it to be this bad? Was ever a “consulting” gig more phoned-in than this one?

5. Zengo. This restaurant, built on the site of four failed Jeffrey Chodorow places, is so comically bad that the critics couldn’t even bring themselves to review it. The Latin–Asian fusion concept is unfocused and poorly executed. The nominal chef, Richard Sandoval, has fifteen restaurants in five U. S. cities and three countries. This one never got the attention it needed.

6. Lotus of Siam. This is the New York branch of a legendary Las Vegas standout, which Gourmet critic Jonathan Gold anointed the “best Thai restaurant in North America.” But none of the Las Vegas staff moved to New York: the original chef spent just a few weeks training the New York staff, and then went back home. The result is a watered-down version of the original. It’s such a pity to see a great opportunity missed.

7. Bar Basque. I had high hopes for this place, despite the involvement of Jeffrey Chodorow, who builds failed restaurants at a prolific pace. There’s a serious chef here, and a number of critics have had better meals than we did. But there is no getting around the Chodorrific service and the irritating space. Over/under on a new chef or concept: 18 months.

8. The Lambs Club. This was supposed to be Geoffrey Zakarian’s big comeback, after his pair of three-star standouts, Town and Country, imploded after long declines. Our meal here did not live up to Zakarian’s talents, to the space, or to the excellent service team. On the first night of service, we saw Zakarian dining at Lincoln, which tells you how committed he is to the project. We’ll be giving a pass to his other new restaurant, The National.

9. Nuela. This pan-Latin restaurant was in gestation so long that the original chef, Douglas Rodriguez, gave up. With Adam Schop now in charge, we found an overly long menu (60+ items) with far too many duds, a horrific décor and an overly-loud sound track. This restaurant concept was sorely in need of an editor.

10. Plein Sud. Here’s another case of missing expectations. Plein Sud offers serviceable comfort food, but chef Ed Cotton (who made it to the finals of Top Chef Season 7) did far, far better work at Veritas and BLT Market.


Not About the Food?

I’d like to deconstruct and debunk a sentence from Sam Sifton’s blog post about this week’s restaurant review, Kenmare. It’s a small point, but that’s why we’re here, so be forewarned.

Here is what Sifton said, with the offending sentence in bold.

I don’t like it much as a restaurant, but that may hardly matter. Places like Kenmare aren’t really about the food. They’re about who’s there and whether they know you. It’s a big city. That works for some people.

“Not about the food” is a lazy meme often trotted out by foodies, food writers, and food-boardists. The restaurants tagged with that epithet are usually those: A) Where the food isn’t very good; and B) That attract a “scene” (models, celebrities, nightclubbers), consisting of people that are somehow determined not to care what they’re eating.

I’d like to challenge that.

In the first place, I think there are very few places that actually set out to serve “inconsequential” food (Sifton’s word). Joey Campanaro, the named chef at Kenmare, has seven New York Times stars to his credit, including a couple of deuces at places where he is still on duty, the justly acclaimed Little Owl and Market Table. I doubt that they would have hired him if they didn’t want a bit of his pixie dust, and I doubt that he would have signed on if knew the food was doomed to be panned—as it has been.

If Kenmare is serving bad food, it’s not by design. Cooking, like books, plays, albums, paintings, and every other kind of creative endeavour, fails sometimes. But rarely is it because the creators never actually cared whether they succeeded.

A commenter to Sifton’s blog post put Pulino’s in the same category, i.e., “not about the food.” But the same owner’s Minetta Tavern has three Times stars and a Michelin star. It throbs with celebrities and pretty young things. Did Keith McNally intend for Pulino’s to be bad (assuming that’s true)? Of course not!

Now, you might argue that regardless of the owner’s intentions, restaurants can be characterized by what their customers intend. But how, exactly, do you put all of Kenmare’s customers into the same bucket? Surely it has (or had) patrons like me, who had enjoyed Joey Campanaro’s work at other restaurants, and wanted to see if he could perform the same magic in another setting.

Visit Sifton’s review, and at the top of it you’ll find a photo of six young, attractive women sitting at a table with drinks, and no food. The caption says, “Kenmare’s owners say it is not a nightclub, but not everyone is going there to eat.”

The women, no doubt, have less experience than Sifton—in the food department, I mean. But who’s to say that, because they are young and attractive, they do not care if they’re served terrible food. (I am assuming the photographer caught them before the food arrived, not that they didn’t order any.) The Times has no idea whether these women ever returned to Kenmare. It just assumes that because of what they look like, they couldn’t possibly tell a good restaurant from a terrible one.

Am I the only one offended by the suggestion?

A couple of Sifton’s other examples—Carmine’s, which has just closed after 107 years at the South Street Seaport; and Nello’s, which received a New York Times goose egg several months ago—seem to me entirely different kinds of places than Kenmare. These are old established restaurants that, for good or ill, have a clientele built up over years or decades that likes what they’re doing, and doesn’t see any need for change.

But Kenmare, a brand spanking new place with a well known chef, has no regulars to fall back on, and the so-called “scene”—those who visit places simply because someone told them to—have a predictable habit of moving on after a few months, or a year at the most. No sensible operator would open such a place intending to serve bad food. That it happens is simply because restaurants fail sometimes.


Review Recap: Kenmare

Today, Sam Sifton lays a goose-egg (“FAIR”) on Kenmare, the restaurant chef Joey Campanaro probably wishes he could forget:

Joey Campanaro, the man behind a vest-pocket Greenwich Village gem called the Little Owl, and a partner in that neighborhood’s well-received Market Table as well, wrote Kenmare’s menu. He is acclaimed in press reports as Kenmare’s chef. Here’s hoping he is well paid for that. Mr. Campanaro is a serious and excellent cook. Kenmare is unlikely to enhance his reputation…

Entrees continued the trend of mediocrity, time after time. A Milanese-style veal cutlet, essentially a breaded and fried laptop case, was served with lemon, arugula, ricotta salata and a garish, oily salsa verde. (Credit where it’s due: It came this way twice, a month apart.)

Campanaro already had two deservedly successful places, The Little Owl and Market Table. He didn’t need Kenmare. Soon, he will probably be rid of it.

One thing this piece demonstrates is that pans are much easier to write: you just tee up the jokes and hit ’em out of the park. Perhaps this is why Kenmare is one of Sifton’s most entertaining and well-written reviews, despite the relative unimportance of the restaurant.

The fact that our own review arrived at the identical rating (“FAIR”) has nothing to do with it. Promise.



Note: Consulting chef Joey Campanaro left the restaurant in February 2011. As of April 2011, his replacement was Gilbert Delgado, a Del Posto/Breslin/Spotted Pig alum. Kenmare closed in October. As of 2013, the space is a Japanese small-plates restaurant called MaisonO.


The aughts have been awfully kind to Joey Campanaro, with big hits first at The Harrison (two stars from William Grimes), then at The Little Owl and Market Table (two stars each from Frank Bruni), with a failure at the short-lived Pace as the only blemish on his resume.

Much as we liked Little Owl and Market Table, we thought that Bruni overrated them. The Little Owl owed its reputation to just a few basic dishes (the sliders, the pork chop, the burger). Everything there was nicely done, but it wasn’t destination dining and shouldn’t have been portrayed as such. Our opinion of Market Table was much the same.

With Kenmare, which opened recently in the failed Civetta space, there are signs that Campanaro’s imagination is finally running close to exhaustion. The restaurant is larger than the Little Owl and Market Table combined, and lacks both the intimacy and polish of its predecessors. The menu is dreary, the kitchen’s work slapdash.

A Risotto du Jour ($14; above left) was a sign of sad things to come: it was served in an unwarmed bowl and was already slightly cool when it reached us. We liked the gooey egg yolk on top, but there was no sign of the promised black truffles, except for some itsy bitsy black specks that made no flavor impression.

The Chicken ($19; above right) is clearly supposed to remind you of the Little Owl’s signature dish, The Pork Chop, though it is a poor substitute. The chicken itself is beautifully prepared, but it wasn’t helped by dull and lazily-plated escarole and butter beans.

Veal Cutlet ($25; above left) was a disaster. A diner would be embarrassed to serve it. The runny salsa verde tasted like barbecue sauce out of a bottle, and the veal was tough. We gave up after a few bites.

Cauliflower and broccoli with toasted breadcrumbs ($6; above right) was a fine, if uninspired, side dish.

Rhubarb Crisp is in season. Kenmare’s version ($9; right) is very good, although we haven’t found a bad one. If you visit Kenmare, perhaps you should skip the savory courses and go straight to dessert. 

Aside from that, nothing at Kenmare impressed us. The décor is lively and bright, but you’ve seen it a hundred times before. Tables are tightly spaced. The serving plates look like they were bought second-hand. The place has been open for only a month, and already some of them are chipped.

The rather abbreviated wine list is fairly priced, but uninteresting.

Kenmare has been packed in the early days, thanks in large part to the reputations of Little Owl and Market Table. If those places were slightly overrated, at least they were charming, and fulfilled their modest ambitions admirably. Kenmare can’t even do that. It’s just a big box, and not a very good one.

Kenmare (98 Kenmare Street between Mulberry Street & Cleveland Place, NoLIta)

Food: Fair
Service: Decent
Ambiance: Fair
Overall: Fair