Note: The Lonesome Dove Western Bistro closed in March 2007, not long after it had opened, after receiving mostly terrible reviews.
The Lonesome Dove Western Bistro carries a 27 out of 30 Zagat food rating in Dallas. If it were in New York, that would put Lonesome Dove on a par with such standouts as Alain Ducasse, Chanterelle, Gotham Bar & Grill, Masa, and Veritas.
Celebrity chef Tim Love has opened a New York branch of the Lonesome Dove. His version of western cooking is fun, but the restaurant is befuddled with service problems and has already received one pan at the hands of the Post’s Steve Cuozzo. Based on our experience last night, I suspect more are coming. [Update: The critics did indeed give the Lonesome Dove a thrashing, with both Adam Platt (NY Mag) and Frank Bruni (NY Times) awarding zero stars.]
The signature dish is called the Tomahawk Chop, a portion for two that includes a 24–30 oz ribeye with an 18-inch “tomahawk” bone (Love designed the cut himself), a lobster tail, seared scallops, yukon gold mashed potatoes, and baby asparagus. The menu doesn’t show a price, a conceit whose absurdity Frank Bruni has already pointed out. Are they hoping people will order it without realizing they’re on the hook for $125? [Update: Per Bruni, the restaurant denied they were trying to trick anyone. The price ($120) is now printed on the menu.]
Anyhow, we already knew the price and were happy to give the Tomahawk Chop a try. There is nothing subtle about Love’s cooking. The scallops, asparagus and steak were slathered in butter. Did such a heavily marbled cut as ribeye need any more fat? I wasn’t sure what Love did to make the mashed potatoes and the lobster so spicy, but they both packed plenty of heat. Even a margarita came laced with jalapeño peppers. The whole meal was solidly prepared, if not transcendent.
The staff at Lonesome Dove are enthusiastic about the food, and they don’t hesitate to tell you so. Their enthusiasm doesn’t translate into good service. It took ages to order a drink at the bar. Getting a bar tab also took forever (they would not transfer it to the table), and finally I just plopped down cash. Once seated, we asked for tap water, but none arrived. Our server asked us about water again later on, having completely forgotten that we’d already asked for it. We ordered wine; a few minutes later, she was back to clarify what bottle we wanted. A wonderful warm homemade bread was served with butter, but no butter knife.
We had probably the worst seat in the house, looking directly into the open kitchen. We don’t blame the restaurant for this—after all, someone has to sit there. But if the kitchen is open, it ought to be neat. What we saw was a cluttered mess. A server dropped a pair of tongs; she picked them up, shrugged her shoulders, and took them out to the dining room to serve food with. Another server appeared to sneeze into a customer’s water glass. The washroom clearly hadn’t been cleaned in hours, as used towels had overflowed the wastebasket and were covering the floor.
All of the chefs wear cowboy hats, including Love, who was in the house. Our server boasted that if we ordered the Tomahawk Chop, Love himself would personally carve it for us tableside. Someone carved it for us, but not Love. (We did see him carve a steak at one table, and share a glass of tequila with friends at another.) I couldn’t care less who carves my steak, but servers shouldn’t be selling an audience with the Great Man unless he is able to follow through. The server at our table didn’t even leave that gorgeous 18-inch bone behind for us to admire; at another table, they did.
Chef Love takes credit for the décor, but it’s nothing to be proud of. There’s a cowskin carpet outside, a stuffed buffalo head on the back wall, some cheesy watercolor paintings, and a lot of exposed brick. The ugly space is at war with the false elegance of the white tablecloths. The wine list is a serious one, but it’s presented as loose sheets fastened to a clipboard. In everything it does, Lonesome Dove fails as a fancy restaurant, but it also fails as a rustic cowboy restaurant.
There is much that is clever in Tim Love’s cuisine. I’d love to come back and try the prairie butter (buffalo bone marrow), the kangaroo nachos, the quail quesedillas, the deer chops, the wild boar foreshank, or the stuffed tenderloin. But what Love clearly needs is a service manager—someone who will whip the lackadaisical staff into shape. As we were leaving, we asked for business cards. The hostess produced a card for the Dallas restaurant’s beverage director, wrote a New York number in pencil (having first looked it up on a computer screen), then handed it to us. Doesn’t that sloppiness just sum up what’s wrong with the Lonesome Dove?
Lonesome Dove Western Bistro (29 W. 21st St. between Fifth & Sixth Avenues, Flatiron District)
Service: needs a ton of work
Overall: * (just barely)
Update: The restaurant closed in early March 2007. Tim Love contacted me by email shortly before the restaurant folded. He said:
In your review of my restaurant you do not make one comment on the flavor, texture or presentation of the food. While you did comment on the water color paintings (which are actually oil), the buffalo head (which is actually a Hereford steer) and a clipboard for a wine list (which is actually a cowhide mounted with saddle spurs made by one of the most famous saddle makers in the world, Leddy’s).
Love conceded that service was sub-par in the restaurant’s early days, though he insisted the problems had since been fixed. He felt that I, like other reviewers, were criticizing West-of-Mississippi cuisine without having any basis for evaluating it. He thought it was like dining at Lupa, and comparing it to a sushi bar.
Love’s message gave no hint that the restaurant was about to close, but as the announcement came just a few days later, clearly he must have known. He probably thought that the New York critics were out to get him. Truthfully, I wanted to like the Lonesome Dove. I just wasn’t wowed, particularly given the sloppy service and stratospheric prices.