NEW YORK, NY, USA
PRICE PAID: $275 (pre-challenge)
FINAL SCORE: 5.0/10
I'll start this review with three of the English language's most lethally condescending words:
In Their Defense...
The Chef's Table is an extremely unique physical space. I'd like you to imagine what fine dining on a submarine might look like, and your first draft of that idea is actually just perfect. Imagine how people might move, how they might bump and sidle around each other, how they might squeeze themselves into seats and bulkheads. Now, in your imagination, also cram in a bulky Molteni stove and about 1,500 pounds of copper cookware, and you're closer.
You enter a cramped portal where a dosey-do must occur between you and the host in order to remove your jacket. Special note- try to go in the summer, or wear your least awkward coat. After removing said coat, you'll glance up to notice that no matter how many patrons, chefs, and staff members occupy the space, they are all now making direct, intimate eye contact with you. From the moment you walk in to the 6x6x6-seat "Chef's Table" area, you have the feeling that you've now entered the flight deck. Or, like I said, a submarine.
César Ramirez, a wunderkind chef who has gotten the culinary world's attention as much for his restaurant's business model as his dishes, worked his way up from a cult dining establishment to a full three Michelin stars in only a few years. He's gotten rave reviews from the Times and many others. I'll admit to having higher expectations here than most of the other restaurants I have visited.
Of special note to bloggers, writers, or others seeking to memorialize their special private dining experience - you may not. Being the obstinate fool that I am, I failed to read down to the seventh paragraph of my email confirmation, which clearly stated:
In Their Defense, I should point out that I'm thrilled with restaurants that take a strong stance on building their guests' experiences. Over the moon, in fact, in a world of social media and (hey, the exact space this blog occupies) exploitive food photography (I shudder to say food porn). I'd like to think that there's a difference, though, between classily asking customers to refrain from photos and angrily hissing to remove my camera and notepad from the table space. An extremely awkward first interaction with the person occupying the center of that 6x6x6 space turned out to be a bad omen for the rest of the meal. He also turned out to be the waiter/runner/expo, and the only wait staff I would speak to all night besides a clueless, silly sommelier with a full page of $2,000 Romanée Conti bottles on offer. Absurd, by the way.
I'll do my best to summarize some high points. Early courses were smallish dishes of seafood lightly prepared- Japanese big eye tuna with shiso, with a bright, shiny, herbaceous flavor. Japanese anchovies, fried fish with wasabi that had a killer kick, and then the crown jewel of the evening, by a long shot. Cooked sea urchin on a small square of toast, which tasted like pure liquid buttery goodness. The product was fresh, and had been prepared only seconds before I ate it, and it was absolutely perfect.
The best course was, however, also an embodiment of the worst parts of the experience- that waiter/runner/expo I told you about (you'll remember, because it will be the only person you speak to) saw his role as that of some kind of perverse announcer. He would scurry back and forth in his small stainless steel pen, bringing two dishes at a time from the kitchen to the diners. He would pause with care, and place the dishes in front of his customers. Then, with a flair, he would look up with intensity, and with just the right amount of effete accent, say: "Sea Urchin. Prepared On Toast." Hold that eye contact an extra second, and then he'd vanish back across the pen to the kitchen to make a similarly dramatic pronouncement to the two people sitting less then three feet away, who had very much already heard him. It was really weird to watch this happen many times in a row for each course.
The second half of the meal was notable and fun- lamb with white asparagus that was perfectly salted and minted, shiso sorbet and milk chocolate foam that melts away as you eat for dessert, Meyer lemon and chocolate cookies. But, I never really got over how forced the behaviors were, how unpleasant this stilted environment was. As we shoved our way down the narrow hall, the second seating's guests were roughly jostling inside and throwing off their coats, I felt a wave of relief wash over me with the chilly Spring night air.