Note: Well, I predicted this thing wouldn’t last, and it hasn’t. Just two months in, opening chef Hok Chin is out, replaced by Bradley Anderson. That didn’t fix it either, and Duo closed in January 2014.
I hope that Sabina and Lorraine Belkin, owners of the new restaurant Duo, enjoy reading this positive review. Because I don’t think there will be very many of them. Yes, I liked my meal at Duo. But I’ve seldom been more sure that critics would hate a place.
You’ll either love, or loathe, Duo’s over-the-top décor, with massive, lushly-painted murals depicting the owners in sensuous poses. Oh, but there’s so much more. Haute Living tells us, “Gold-leaf accents and crocodile-skin columns are scattered about the space, while the velvet walls sparkle with hand placed Swarovski crystals.” With a seven-foot-tall crystal chandelier and mohair bar stools, it all feels very luxurious. There are purse stools for the ladies, with an army of footmen to carry them in and out of the dining room. (They really got a work-out when a party of six women sat down.)
A restaurant needs menus, but for Duo, not just any menus would do. So they imported, custom-made, backlit menu folders, designed for reading in low light. At first, you think they’re iPads; then you realize they’re far too large for that, and they’re static—the text doesn’t change. It’s just an electric appliance that turns on when you open the cover, and off again when you close it. But they are heavy, and far too big for the table. With two of these and a wine list, there is no room to put them down without knocking something over.
The establishment’s full name, Duo Restaurant & Lounge, suggests the type of crowd it hopes to attract. So too does the owners’ last place, Duvet, a quasi-restaurant where most of the “tables” were beds. The State Liquor Authority closed it down in late 2009 after multiple incidents, the last being a rape in a bathroom stall, perpetrated by an ex-con hired as a bouncer. Duo is altogether more serious than that, but when you see a DJ perched high above the dining room floor, you wonder how serious?
They spent millions here. Although I liked it, I think most critics will loathe it.
They sure are trying hard. The service is attentive, and against all odds the food is pretty good. The chef, Hok Chin, isn’t exactly a household name. He has worked at Solo, and also at Sugar on Long Island, yet another place that seems to be more of a club than a restaurant. The menu is eclectic and somewhat difficult to characterize. I suppose it has a slightly Mediterranean lean, with such dishes as Black Truffle Pizza and Braised Veal Osso Bucco Tortellini, along with basics like Organic Free Range Chicken and a 20 oz. Aged Prime Ribeye.
Prices are in a wide range, with appetizers $10–20 and entrées $22–42. You could get out of here inexpensively, if it wasn’t for the wine list: most of the bottles are way over $50. It is not a very long list either, and one assumes it can never be more than two facing pages, or else it would outgrow their imported, custom-made, backlit menu folders.
The meal begins with lovely, just-out-of-the-oven bread loaves (above right), marred by freezing cold, just-out-of-the-fridge pats of butter.
A Vegetable Tartlet ($13; above left) in lemon tarragon beurre blanc was wonderful. What was billed as a Golden Beet Terrine ($17; above right) was really just a deconstructed beet and goat cheese salad. While the plating was lovely, the ingredients lost something by being served in separate pieces.
Hanger Steak au Poivre ($31; above left) was another triumph of plating technique, the steak resting impossibly on a tower of roasted fingerling potatoes and wild forest mushrooms, with a very good green peppercorn sauce and a stack of onion rings. The steak itself was just average.
Glazed Duck ($28; above right) on a bed of French lentils and baby carrots was wonderful, but when you bathe the duck in caramelized peaches and honey-ginger ponzu, it can’t help but taste very rich indeed.
They have 120 seats to fill here, and less than half of them were occupied at 9:00 p.m. on a Friday evening. It was only their fourth day in business: they have their work cut out for them. Most people in the food community will assume that Duo is not a serious restaurant, for all the reasons I gave at the top of this post, and the nightlife community is notoriously fickle—assuming you can even get their attention. The location is a difficult one for restaurants, as the prior tenant, Olana, quickly discovered.
I liked Duo, and its plush luxury didn’t bother me at all. The food, if not uniformly great, was not bad for a restaurant in its first week of service. But to break even, they probably need 300 covers on weekends, and I am not sure where they’ll come from.
Duo (72 Madison Avenue between 27th & 28th Streets, Flatiron District)