Those who spend New Year’s Eve in restaurants, rather than at parties or bars, face a dilemma. Most places charge crazily-inflated prices for dumbed-down versions of their regular menus. I don’t mind paying a little extra, but I want to at least enjoy the food. Three years ago, we were appalled by what Picholine passed off as dinner for $400 a person. We vowed never again to patronize a luxury restaurant on the last night of the year.
I have two criteria for a New Year’s Eve restaurant. First, the price needs to be reasonably close to what you’d pay on any other night. And second, the chef needs to be serving the same kind of food he normally serves. WD~50 passed the test two years ago, so I decided on Tailor—in many ways a similar restaurant.
A nine-course tasting menu was $100 a person (it’s normally $90 for seven courses). Wine pairings were $45 (normally $35). And chef Sam Mason, one of the city’s enfants terribles of molecular gastronomy, wasn’t about to start serving catering-hall food.
I’ve written about Tailor in earlier reviews (here, here). The restaurant had a nearly disastrous opening in late 2007 and took a critical beating. Mason continued to fine-tune the menu, and a popular downstairs bar brought in plenty of customers. I’ve no idea how the 60-seat dining room does on a typical night, but it was full for New Year’s Eve.
Mason is a cross between a classically-trained chef and a mad chemist. He tosses ingredients together in wild combinations. Some of his experiments end in disaster, but everything he serves is perfectly cooked and beautifully plated. Even where we thought he failed (in two of the nine dishes), the technical quality was first-rate.
Mason’s avant garde plates aren’t for everyone. It’s not hearty comfort food; that’s for sure. Although Tailor has improved since Frank Bruni awarded one star in late 2007, I am still not sure the Times critic would be a fan. At WD~50, Wylie Dufresne had to rein in his wilder flights of fancy before getting an upgrade to three stars. Mason just does what he wants, sometimes with reckless disregard for common sense.
I didn’t use the flash last night (though I probably could have gotten away with it), and the low-light dining room is not camera friendly. I’m including the photos anyway, though they’re not as good as I’d like.
1. An oyster (above left) was paired beautifully with kiwi and Thai peppers.
2. Rye-Cured Char (above center), served warm, was balanced by a cool dill cream and slivers of radish.
3. Tiny cubes of warm tongue (above right) shared a plate with beets, pistachio and horseradish.
4. A deconstructed “Baked Potato” (above left) misfired. A crisp curly french fry was positioned like a toast rack for a bacon chip sliced as thin as a human hair, a potato chip, and I believe a parsnip chip. These little chips were lovely, but the potato itself needed more help. A schmear of sour cream underneath it was almost undetectable.
5. “Bouillabaisse” (above center) was another deconstructed classic, but it worked. I think there were five or six different kinds of seafood in it (char, monkfish, razor clam, etc.), along with a small cube of French toast. There was nothing complicated about it, but every piece of fish was cooked perfectly.
6. Waylon Braised Brisket (above right) with sweet potato and cranberry was probably the evening’s straightforward dish, but no less successful for it.
7. A small, delicate sphere of Foie Gras (above left) was decorated with dulce de leche, apple and cashews.
8. Brown Butter Cake (above center) was not so much deconstructed as detonated. Instead of a cake, we got a pile of crumbs with a bitter squash sorbet and a so-called “maple caviar.”
9. Hazelnut Parfait (above right) ended the evening on a strong note.
For a final surprise—a play on the traditional petits-fours—we had a chocolate truffle filled with cotton candy.
The wine pairings were pedestrian, as they often are. Of the seven glasses served, the two most successful weren’t wine: a champagne-and-gin cocktail called a “French 75,” served with the oyster; and a nut brown ale served with the “Baked Potato.” The others were generic and mostly forgettable. Several of the wines were served long before the food they were meant to pair with, and the “Bouillabaisse” was served with no wine at all.
Aside from that, service was very good. I loved the bread service, with two different fresh breads and soft butter. Servers did a good job of explaining Mason’s unorthodox creations. Plates and glasses were promptly cleared. There were some long pauses between courses, which I assume was by design, as the ninth plate came out a shade before midnight. In all, the meal lasted just over 2½ hours.
The tasting menu format works to Mason’s benefit. Some of his crazier ideas are fun when they last for just a few bites, but they might not sustain interest when served in larger portions. Over a nine-course menu, you won’t mind if a few courses aren’t successful. In a standard three-course meal, even one dud is unacceptable, and there’s a decent chance of that happening, especially as it’s hard to guess what you’re getting from the printed descriptions.
We find Tailor unique and indispensable. If you have your doubts, the regular menu offers several ways to sample Mason’s cuisine without committing to a full meal. For instance, a three-course dessert tasting, which two can easily share, is just $28. Pair it with Eben Freeman’s excellent cocktails, and you’ve got avant-garde cuisine on a recession budget.
Tailor (525 Broome Street between Sixth Avenue & Thompson Street, SoHo)