Entries in Tailor (5)


New Year's Eve at Tailor

Note: Tailor closed in late 2009, after Chef Sam Mason left the restaurant. The space re-opened as the Hawaiian-themed restaurant Lani Kai.


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.

(Someone at Tailor can’t count. Though described as a “7 course tasting menu,” nine courses were listed, and nine were served. Click on the image for a larger version.)

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)

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


Cocktails at Tailor


Note: Click here for a more recent review of Tailor.

Most restaurants go through an adjustment period after they open, as chefs figure out what works, and what doesn’t. Those adjustments were somewhat more dramatic at Tailor, where chef Sam Mason had to eat a huge helping of humble pie, after his restaurant was roasted and pilloried by every critic in town.

In an early visit, I found the restaurant promising, but the menu didn’t have enough choices, and the lack of a serious wine list was a serious drawback. Mason has rectified both. The current menu offers about a half-dozen each of appetizers ($15–17), entrées ($24–27) and desserts ($12), though it must be noted that portion sizes remain small, and hearty eaters may need to order more than three courses to go home full. A seven-course chef’s tasting menu is $90, which seems exorbitant when you consider that Momofuku Ko serves ten courses for $85.

tailor_bar.pngThe wine list has been fleshed out too. Early on, Mason conceded that “Wine’s a little beyond me,” but he finally figured out that customers want wine with food. From the beginning, Eben Freeman’s cocktails won high praise, but I still think they pair poorly with food. They need to be enjoyed on their own.

Last night, I dropped in for a couple of cocktails before heading uptown for dinner. The bar area is downstairs, and it is one of the loveliest bar spaces in town. Both of my visits have been quite early (around 5:30 p.m.), when it is still relatively empty, and the bartenders have time to chat.

tailor01a.jpg tailor01b.jpg

One feature of Eben Freeman’s cocktail menu is that almost every item has ingredients you never heard of. I asked for something “not too sweet,” and the bartender recommended the Mate Sour ($13), which is made from Yerba Mate, Queberante Pisco, Lime Juice, Honey, Egg Whites, and Angostura. Half of those ingredients are as unfamiliar to me as they probably are to you. But it had a nice cool, bracing taste.

Freeman also serves a tasting of three “solid cocktails” ($12), captioned Cuba Libre, Ramos Gin Fizz, and White Russian. The menu is unhelpful—it lists only the short names—and I wasn’t about to give the bartender the third degree. I’d describe them as interesting, rather than good, and they disappear awfully quickly.

tailor02.jpgI asked the bartender about a mysterious unlabeled bottle, which he said was tobacco-infused bourbon. None of the cocktails on the printed menu actually uses that ingredient, so I asked him to make one up for me. So he put some tobacco-infused bourbon, Jim Beam, and a couple of different bitters into a mixing vessel, and voila! Out came the drink shown on the left, which resembled an Old Fashioned.

Last week’s Time Out New York named Tailor “Best restaurant you were sick of before it opened.” That captures the contradiction, which is that Tailor is very good, but suffered badly from early over-exposure. I didn’t eat any of the food this time, but it looks like Tailor has matured. Those who were sick of it should consider a second look.

Tailor (525 Broome Street between Sullivan & Thompson Streets, SoHo)

Food & Drink: **
Ambiance: **
Service: **
Overall: **


The Payoff: Tailor

This week, Frank Bruni concluded the review cycle for Sam Mason’s Tailor, awarding a very weak one star. Although a one-star rating supposedly means “good,” this was one of those reviews that actually sounded like it meant “not-so-good”:

Mr. Mason’s personal vision trumps your pleasure. His conviction matters more than your response. This, I suppose, is the very definition of artistic integrity. But it’s not the prescription for a great restaurant.

Tailor is certainly an ambitious restaurant, and an interesting one. It has the courage to showcase the kind of experimental cooking — eccentric, provocative flavor combinations; unusual textures like foams, powders and that most appetizing of au courant coinages, “soils” — that’s been a tough sell in New York…

Mr. Mason, who made his name as the pastry chef at WD-50, belongs to a group of brainy iconoclasts (Will Goldfarb, Pichet Ong) who are challenging the usual segregation of savory and sweet. At Tailor, for example, the ice cream with a rum-braised banana is the flavor of mustard, and not even honey mustard at that.

But his infatuation with his own imagination doesn’t leave room enough for a self-appraisal of the results, for dissent from collaborators who might flag the foolhardy creations among the clever. Tailor winds up with an intermittently exhilarating but ultimately frustrating mishmash of the two.

Bruni’s review came late enough to take notice of recent menu changes at Tailor, but those changes are too new to evaluate. Ultimately, Tailor could turn out to be a much better restaurant, but for now it is saddled with a bunch of reviews that are largely mixed to negative.

Eater and NYJ both win $3 on our hypothetical one-dollar bets.

          Eater        NYJ
Bankroll $58.50   $67.67
Gain/Loss +3.00   +3.00
Total $61.50   $70.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 25–8   25–8

Rolling the Dice: Tailor

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, Frank Bruni reviews Tailor, the first solo venture of the offbeat former WD–50 pastry chef, Sam Mason. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 6-1
One Star: 3-1
Two Stars: 4-1
Three Stars: 750-1
Four Stars: 25,000-1

The Skinny: It has been a rough ride for Tailor. Mason’s first mistake was chronicling his project in a Grub Street featurette called The Launch, thereby guaranteeing that the inevitable delays would make him look foolish, and ensuring the the restaurant would be so over-hyped that it could never live up to expectations.

Then the reviews started coming in, and frankly, no critic yet has been wowed. Indeed, the two stars I gave it might even have been too generous. The problem was a menu limited to about half-a-dozen smallish savory courses and an equal number of desserts. When you give the customer so few options, practically all of them need to be knockouts. And that’s a tough mark to hit when you’re playing with flavors in funky ways that people aren’t used to.

According to Tailor’s eGullet supporters, the menu has grown, which may be too little, too late. Bruni’s impressions will likely have been based on the original menu, which in the view of most critics, didn’t offer enough for a serious restaurant. The best items on Tailor’s menu are surely worth two stars (if not more), but too many of Mason’s best ideas are still in his head.

Eater is taking the one-star odds today, which seems smart. Bruni seldom rates a place higher than the rest of his colleagues, and he has been no great fan of avant-garde cuisine.

The Bet: We agree with Eater that Frank Bruni will award one star to Tailor.



The exterior, clearly unfinished. Across the street, the no-photo rule clearly doesn’t apply!!

Note: Click here for a more recent review of Tailor.

Sam Mason is the latest pastry chef to open his own restaurant, following in the footsteps of Will Goldfarb at Room 4 Dessert (now closed) and Pichet Ong  of p*ong. Mason’s solo act is called Tailor. The website says that it’s “named as an ode to the skills of a seasoned craftsman.” Tailor shares with R4D and p*ong a creative approach to desserts. This is no cherry pie and vanilla ice cream place. Mason’s former gig was as at the avant-garde WD–50, of which Tailor’s cuisine is strongly reminiscent.

For a while, I wondered if Tailor would open in my lifetime. Grub Street had a recurring feature called The Launch, chronicling Mason’s pre-opening adventures. As of last December, Tailor’s debut was expected in “late February or the beginning of March.” After a while, the delays became almost comical, and Mason wisely stopped posting. Well, Tailor is finally here, and eGullet is ecstatic.

I was happy to find that Tailor is only about 5 minutes’ walk from the subway station I use to get home, so I thought I’d drop in after work. The bi-level space is modern chic, but nicely done. There is an ample bar area downstairs with a dining room on the ground level. The dining room is arguably more comfortable than WD–50, and it is certainly more so than p*ong or the late lamented Room 4 Dessert.

Service was as polished as at just about any three-star restaurant. Although there are no tablecloths, there are cloth  napkins. Silverware was promptly replaced. Empty glasses and finished plates were promptly whisked away. My bar tab was transferred to my table without complaint. And when I asked the bartender about an unusual pear cider in one of the specialty drinks, he volunteered a free taste of it.

The food has three-star potential, but with some serious limitations. At the moment, only six savory courses and six desserts are on offer, making Tailor’s menu the skimpiest of any comparable establishment. None of the items individually is very expensive (sweets $11; savories $12–15), but as the servings are small, the costs can mount in a hurry.

Mason made a considered decision to feature cocktails, rather than wine. The cocktail menu features twelve very clever selections by mixologist Eben Freeman, but only five wines by the glass (none by the bottle). Freeman’s offerings ($12–15 each) are excellent in their own right, but they are small, and they overpowered the food.

Frank Bruni thrives on the unpredictable, but if he is unwilling to award three stars to WD–50, it seems unlikely he’ll do so here, as Tailor is in many ways far more limited. Two stars seems to me about the best Tailor could expect, unless the menu choices expand and a real wine list is added. It seems almost a crime to have such a polished service brigade, and so little to serve.

Although the dining room was empty, the staff insisted that I not take photographs. Why Thomas Keller can permit this with a full dining room at Per Se, while Mason won’t allow it in an empty one, is beyond me. Apparently he wants to keep the food a secret. I will therefore accommodate him by not describing what I had. I’ll say that there was an amuse-bouche. Of the two dishes I paid for, one was very close to the best thing I’ve had all year; the other one wasn’t.

I had planned to order more, but after the no-photography edict I decided to go home. What’s the deal with the no-photo rule? Gordon Ramsay was the last jerk to pull that stunt, and look where it got him?

Tailor (525 Broome Street between Sullivan & Thompson Streets, SoHo)

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