I had a terrific dinner at Au Cheval last week, and everything—from the bacon-topped burger to the welcoming service—was exactly right. The only problem was that I had this meal after my dinner next door at OON.
When I walked into the restaurant, which has décor such as yellow cone-shaped lights over the bar and abstract paintings on the walls, "Sweet Caroline" playing overhead and dark wood tables occupied by tourists, everything felt dated, but not in a chic retro way. A glance at the menu, though, feels anything but old. The cocktail and dinner menus are appealing and everything includes at least one intriguing ingredient, from togarashi-infused tequila on the cocktail side to yuzu-soy dashi on the food side. I can overlook a staid environment if the dishes coming out of the kitchen are good. And if these drinks and dishes were as enticing as their descriptions, we’d be hailing OON as the most creative opening of the year. But they’re not—chef Matt Eversman’s attempt to tweak traditional Asian flavors can’t seem to result in a cohesive dish and execution trouble was evident throughout the meal.
Eversman, formerly of Saigon Sisters and our Breakout Chef of the Year in the 2011 Eat Out Awards, walked around the room, visiting tables and suggesting dishes for guests to order. We took his advice and ordered the chilled udon, a pile of gluey noodles topped with a yuzu-soy dashi broth with crab, mushroom and chili-lime vinaigrette that’s a clash of flavors. The disjointed feeling continued in another chef recommendation, the grilled octopus, a beautifully presented dish marred by chewy, overcooked octopus—“This isn’t grilled, this is charred,” my dining companion said—even chewier wheatberries and a smoked strawberry puree that spent too much time being smoked.
Over-smoking was also an issue in the BBQ tofu, served with a kimchi slaw and corn bao. There are not enough interesting vegetarian dishes in this city (a discussion for another day), and on paper, this play on traditional BBQ sounds great. In reality, the tofu tasted like pure smoke and the kimchi was weak and watery. The corn bao, a corn bun filled with fresh corn, was a fun and different twist on a classic, and an example of what Eversman was hoping to do here.
I love the idea of foie pho, a twist on the Vietnamese soup, in which foie gras is supposed to melt into the broth and create a rich layer on top. Instead, we were served a flavorless bowl of noodles, thin shards of duck breast and a piece of foie gras bobbing in the one-note broth. I also loved the idea of a sake and Letherbee Malört cocktail, but the first few sips were pure Malört, and I had to wait for the ice to melt a bit and stir the drink with my spoon to make it taste balanced.
The server asked if we were too full for the skirt steak with chimichurri and curry noodles. Perhaps she wanted to give us an out. We didn’t take it, then regretted it—a dish that included chimichurri, curry and peaches should have had a lot of flavor, but it somehow did not. We kept going, thinking maybe the desserts would be worthwhile, and ordered a plate of the spiced doughnuts, which sat on a thick bed of chocolate and came with an orange ginger sauce. No luck—the doughnuts were raw in the middle and completely unappetizing.
Dragging this meal out even longer was the service; our server would disappear for 30 minutes at a time and the seven dishes were split into five courses, with long waits between all of them. The dinner was 3+ hours, and we felt every minute of it.
After leaving, we stood outside the restaurant and debated where to go for food and a stiff drink, since we didn’t finish anything we ordered. The Publican? Blackbird? Maude’s? Au Cheval? With this many great options in the neighborhood, there’s no room for OON.