What to make of the new resto-club
Our critic reviews Hotel Griffou, The Gates and more.
Wed Sep 2 2009
Hotel Griffou; Photographs: Lizz Kuehl
Throughout the city, drinking establishments are hedging their bets—and padding their bottom lines—by adding dining to the booze-addled mix. Shuttered bars reopening as lounges with food and new nightspots inhabiting old restaurant venues are further blurring the boundaries between places to party and places to eat. Do we really need to meet all our nocturnal needs under one roof? (The answer, below, is an unequivocal no.)
It’s strictly style over substance at Hotel Griffou. The tenants—veterans of Freemans, Goldbar and the Waverly Inn—have split the subterranean venue into a fun house of cozy rooms with illusory walls and flickering candles in every brick-lined nook. If there were a sinister supper club hidden in Hogwarts, it might look like this. Though the cocktails from the bustling bar—like the icy mint juleps and pineapple and rum “Navy grogs” (both $14)—have a retro bent, the food may remind you of a school lunch. Despite his pedigreed rsum, young chef Jason Giordano (Mia Dona) cooks like a novice. Lobster Thermidor fondue ($16)—cheese dip with very little lobster—may assuage your hunger, but it won’t thrill your taste buds. “Marie Griffou’s sauted pork” ($26), named for the hostess who supposedly ran a hotel here in the 19th century, is a gray plate of overcooked pork with brittle mushrooms and dull rosemary jus. Desserts, like eggy bread pudding ($7), have a similar clumsy home-cooking quality. While Hotel Griffou is first and foremost a restaurant, it’s the scene, not the food, that keeps it packed. 21 W 9th St between Fifth and Sixth Aves (212-358-0228)
A few months back, management at the Hotel on Rivington handed its failing restaurant to professional club kid Matt Levine (the Eldridge) and changed the name from Thor to LevantEast. The new version, which looks exactly like the old one, still serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, but now morphs late at night from restaurant to club. To service the high-rollers who would presumably be descending on the rechristened space, Levine added sticker-shock cocktails, bottle-service bubbly ($3,200 Dom Perignon ros) and booze ($2,200 Patron). Though the cash-cow drinks may bleed some late-night rubes dry—the $19 for an Irish Rose (whiskey, gin, rose liqueur, ginger ale) might not be quite so alarming if it didn’t taste like Gatorade—they haven’t done much for the place as a restaurant. In fact, at 9pm on a recent weeknight, LevantEast was among the most desolate spots on the Lower East Side. Chef Laurent Brunacci (Jules) has created a menu with a mix of salads, pastas, and basic grilled meat and fish. Nearly all of it is so poorly executed—mealy shrimp cocktail ($14) giving way to rubber-band duck breast with sawdust couscous ($26)—Levine might consider scrapping food entirely. The guy was enlisted, after all, for his night-owl connections, not his restaurateur chops. 107 Rivington St between Essex and Ludlow Sts (212-475-2600)
One evening before the bouncers arrived to keep throngs at bay, we settled into a velvet couch at the Gates for dinner and drinks—specifically, $18 fruity, overthought cocktails (the Pickles Julep is bourbon, cranberry and raspberry puree; the Thai Sunrise has grapefruit juice, Red Bull and orange liqueur). We’d like to tell you that they’re as cloying as they sound, but unfortunately, that evening the bar wasn’t serving any of them.
“Sorry, we don’t have the ingredients tonight,” admitted the waitress.
“How about a glass of white wine?” we inquired.
“We have pinot grigio and chardonnay.”
“What’s your pinot?”
“Oh, we only have chardonnay.”
The comedy of errors continued as the food began to arrive. Though this marble-walled, chandeliered venue last housed a top restaurant—Gary Robins’s Biltmore Room—no one should go to the Gates for the food. This is bottom-of-the-barrel disco dining, featuring food to impress only the truly blotto. The bar snacks include greasy rock-shrimp tempura ($10), cardboard pizza with congealed cheddar and funky barbecued pork ($12), and veiny skewers of beef ($12). Not even a $14 electric-green apple martini (a cocktail the bar was actually able to make) could wash them down. The Gates might not be a viable venue for dinner, but it’s certainly a contender to jump-start bulimia. 290 Eighth Ave between 24th and 25th Sts (212-206-8646)
There’s much more to running a drinks destination than a great cocktail palate and flair with a shaker. Which explains why Ward III, a new Tribeca bar launched by a team of seasoned mixologists (vets of Macao Trading Co., Odeon and Grace), nails all of its drinks but flubs so much else. An austere shell with just a few tables and nothing but mirrors as decor, the place—neither sufficiently decrepit to be a dive nor adequately stylish to be anything else—has virtually no personality. While it’s not quite a restaurant, the menu is extensive enough to tiptoe into gastropub territory. The drinks list features some inspired creations. The Singer ($14), combining muddled raspberries and rye, packs a balanced punch. The Sweeter Heater ($12)—a margarita with white pepper, basil and hot sauce—is a harmonious mix without too much fire. The basic bar snacks—dates wrapped in bacon ($6), flaky spinach-cheese phyllo pockets ($10)—are the most solid food options. More ambitious dishes mostly show off the kitchen’s limitations. While duck meat sliders ($14) are dry, gummy Irish potato pancakes ($10), served with blue cheese and barbecue sauces, are simply bizarre. Though a cinnamon-scented Moroccan potpie ($16) was more complex, the chicken inside is simply overdone. It’s just as well that the food is so hit-or-miss: The generic setting doesn’t invite settling in. 111 Reade St between Church St and West Broadway (212-240-9194)
If you’re trying to open a serious restaurant, you probably don’t want the sort of buzz that preceded the Mott. One early partner—socialite party girl Emma Cleary—talked up the venture’s impending red-hotness long before anyone had any idea of the shape it would take. When the place finally opened, Cleary was no longer involved. Talk of a sizzling scene had given way to more sober exhortations about the chef and his food. The basement bar, the owners insisted, would be an afterthought annex to the restaurant upstairs. And indeed, hard partyers crashing the Mott this summer were in for a rude awakening. Not only was the bar still under construction, the restaurant didn’t even serve booze (the liquor-license hearing is scheduled for this fall). But that’s not the worst of it: Despite hiring a chef who last worked for David Bouley—Upstairs alum Brian Bieler—the food was a snooze. A meal in the votive-lit room felt like the worst kind of dinner party, with half of the menu already sold out by 8pm, and available dishes just palatable enough to get through without offending the cook. Though a dead-simple bowl of red and yellow tomato soup ($9) was sufficiently bright and refreshing, a sirloin steak with unseasoned hunks of zucchini and squash ($26) was chewy and bland, while duck breast on a heap of dull spinach ($23) was so fatty, we needed a saw to cut it. The desserts—generic warm chocolate cake ($8), run-of-the-mill crme brle ($7)—won’t help build a case for the Mott as a dining destination. Cleary may have had the right idea; unless the lounge that’s coming is as red-hot as she hoped, this restaurant may be doomed. 173 Mott St at Broome St (212-966-1411)
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