[Pigging by Wilfrid: March 19, 2012]
Sometimes service issues can overshadow a meal. They did on this occasion; but the meal nevertheless disappointed, especially after the positive review which followed the relaunch six months ago.
Ironically, the restaurant seems to have taken its foot off the pedal just as news leaks out of increased prices - for the tasting menu and steak at least (thanks to New York's restaurant price hike spy Ryan Sutton).
Once my work moved location, the block was kind of forgotten. I noted, of course, Graydon Carter's acquisition of the restaurant in 2009 - an event of limited gastronomic interest. But my ears pricked up late last year when I heard that Damon Wise, that excellent chef from Craft, was involved in a relaunch, together with sommelier Belinda Chang and cocktailian Julie Reiner.
The good news? Cocktails can be operated remotely. You just need to follow the recipe.
The list is divided between classics and "Monkey Business" specials. From the latter, the Billy Rose was an icy charmer. A Calvados- based Manhattan in inspiration, it features both the French apple brandy and applejack as a base, sherry and orange curaçao to provide the lift, and orange bitters as the final accent. Apples and oranges in the best sense. Delicious.
Along with the miniature Parker rolls, it was the highlight of the evening. Perhaps you can sit in the welcoming bar room, all dark wood and gingham cloths, and order these together. The main dining room, with its cozy booths and spectacular murals, promised something grander than booze and bread rolls, but it never quite transpired.
This is not to say the octopus appetizer wasn't competent. It was as well-roasted a chunk of cephalopod as you might wish to find. The thing is, you can find it all over town, from Belcourt to SD26. Since vendors started tumble-drying them, tender octopi are not hard to find. This is not a destination octopus. But nice enough.
The garnishes were downbeat, though. A timbale of eggplant was exactly the kind you can make easily at home by charring the fruit well in the oven and scraping out the flesh. It was served very cold, topped with what were quite possibly chips of some root vegetable or other, but tasted like potato chips. Maybe they were potato chips, after all (I was reminded of the horrible occasion at the Restaurant Carlyle when popcorn was used to garnish a corn chowder).
Maybe I should have ordered the pork belly with crispy oyster and kimchee. Everyone seems to quite like that.
I was excited by the guinea hen I'd seen listed on the Website menu, but it wasn't available. Crescent duck instead, then, from Long Island. Good slices of breast, the fat rendered and skin duly crisped. As for Mejdool dates the menu advertised, there was one. Oyster mushrooms too. And sliced potatoes which were very undercooked. Not so much al dente, but near raw. Near raw potatoes are dispiriting.
The confit leg did not have a crisp skin. It had a flabby, fatty skin. There's no good reason for that except laziness in the kitchen (yes braise it, then crisp it before serving.
Take a look, if you will, at a duck dish my esteemed peer Marc Shepherd was served at Monkey Bar last October. It just looks a lot more interesting: like Damon Wise was involved in the plating. My dish looked and tasted like something which might be served in any half-competent hotel kitchen anywhere.
The wine list is short but has some interesting bargains. I took a half-bottle of Amiral de Beychevelle, Saint-Julien, 2006, which could reasonably have been priced at $60, but sold for $41.
Could cheese or dessert rescue the meal? We'll never know.
The greeting at the front desk had been very warm. I'd waited quite some time for my first server to deliver a menu. Then she moved on to another table, and my second server took over. He steered the meal successfully up to the point he gave me the dessert menu. Then he vanished. Vanished utterly.
I sat and waited. Waited and waited. The restaurant had been about 60% full (Friday night prime time). By ten, it was practically empty. Of customers and staff. But - annoyingly - at one table across the way a couple were still enjoying dinner. They'd been joined by the manager, who had seated himself and was plying a fork.
I waited. The busboys were the only people who noticed, and eventually I asked one of them for a check. And maybe for the first time in several years, I reduced the tip. Sitting around with no service isn't worth 20%.
Big names do not a restaurant make. I left mildly disgruntled, and with the strong sense that Damon Wise no longer has his eye on this particular ball.