You want to say your reaction isn’t personal. But with Graham Elliot, it’s always personal.
You’re greeted at a host stand made from stacked amps. You walk by the open kitchen, where later, a few servers and cooks will launch into an impromptu sing-along to “Don’t Stop Believin’.” You’re seated next to a row of saint candles repurposed to honor Elliot’s heroes, from Grant Achatz (“Patron Saint of Visionaries”) to Phish’s Trey Anastasio (“Patron Saint of Hippie Torch Bearers”). You’re handed a ratty, thrift store–salvaged record sleeve, and from it you pull an LP, onto which is taped a menu.
This is enough to make you wonder whether you’re going to be enjoying a meal or merely consuming someone’s brand. If the food is impressive, there’s no reason it couldn’t be both. Then the beet salad arrives.
The menu, which is written in such a way as to reinforce the restaurant’s “three components per dish” concept, reads “beet + burrata + arugula.” The beets are undercooked to a point that no respectable chef could pass off as al dente, the burrata—that creamy cheese with the almost-liquid center—is as stiff and oozeless as standard-issue mozzarella, and even the arugula becomes defenseless, thanks to an overly sharp hand with the lemon.
Never mind that nowhere on the menu does it say that the risotto has mussels in it. You’re just thankful that the napkin isn’t cloth, because into it goes a bitter mussel with its scruffy beard still firmly attached. Never mind that every article you’d read about g.e.b. promised that nothing on the menu would cost more than $20, yet it turns out there isn’t a single entrée on the menu priced less than $20. You’re just grateful no one’s watching when you discreetly eject from your mouth a bite of steak so densely fatty no amount of chewing is making it digestible.
It’s not all bad. The roasted asparagus is sprinkled with a take on gremolata that cleverly plays on the flavors of an everything bagel. On another visit, the sockeye salmon proves a beauty, its deep pink flesh sealed with a thin layer of lardo, cured pork back-fat. The chicken is impressively moist, and the beignets filled with gianduja (Nutella-like spread) are by the book—and that’s a compliment.
These are surefire hits. Yet they’re buried in a minefield of a menu. Fried calamari are uncommonly light—except if you get a bite with one of the gritty, tough green chickpeas inexplicably added to the dish. Shrimp is sweet and tender, but the bowl of plasticky yuca strips on which it sits could generously be described as challenging. The kitchen, where Elliot has installed Jacob Saben as the chef, botches the spaetzle that accompanies the salty trout—it’s structureless and mushy. It bungles the lasagna, bland sheets of noodles with undercooked cubes of eggplant. It can’t even make a decent chocolate-chip cookie (listed on the menu as “cookie + and + milk”), sending out a version that’s dry and charmless.
This—not the records or the candles or even the g.e.b.–branded foam beer koozies—is the problem with g.e.b. Did it help things that the swaggering wine guy, a caricature of the role, attempted to turn a $28 bottle of wine that the restaurant was out of into a $48 substitute with the argument, “It’s mind-blowing. It’s so fucking good”? Certainly not. But that’s personal.