Retail-store restaurants aren't often more inviting than the shops they're tucked into. Rarely do they become destinations in their own right, stand-alone bastions of revenue muscle.
The ristorante atop the new midtown Armani flagship doesn't break much from convention, although it does serve dinner late, after the floors below have closed (during this time, an express elevator whisks you up from the street). Despite the loftier intentions telegraphed by its post-shopping operating hours, the place was barely half full when I dined there at night—and it sits even emptier most days at lunch, according to a spy whose office peers in from directly across the street.
The vanity project, insulated from the financial pressures of a typical midtown restaurant by the fashion behemoth behind it, is perfectly fine for a restorative pause before blowing a bundle on Giorgio Armani's monochrome clothes, but not much more appealing than that. Only true fashion groupies would have a reason to make a special trip. The dining room, with sunken white chairs and booths around bare spotlighted tables, is as sleek and antiseptic as a Swiss airport lounge, with LED lights in the windows forever obscuring the time of day by creating the illusion of eternal dusk.
The all-male waitstaff, clad neck-to-toe in black Armani, with identical close-cropped Ricky Martin 'dos, are as efficient (and charmless) as the sales assistants manning the fitting rooms down below. One fashion automaton, dutifully talking through the menu, enunciated Italian dishes in a stilted Midwestern accent like an aspiring actor struggling for a part he's got no chance of landing.
The encyclopedic, vaguely Tuscan offerings are designed presumably to satisfy Mr. Armani's personal cravings (in town for the opening, he complained publicly about the overcooked, oversauced pasta he endures in New York). To feed his very particular appetites, the designer enlisted Lorenzo Viani, who runs an acclaimed seaside restaurant in Tuscany, to consult on the food.
While the chef's pedigree explains the focus on seafood, the high-fashion setting accounts for the spare, waif-friendly hand with butter and fat. A light risotto of cuttlefish and chard, in a true primi portion, has just the right toothsome texture but not much real flavor. A modest tangle of tagliolini, sparingly dressed (as per Armani's strict standards) with garlicky oil and chopped shrimp and fish, is a mild and pleasant, if not particularly inspired, plate of fresh pasta.
The already lean cooking becomes downright monastic when proteins are in play. Bland, barely seared tuna, fanned like tataki in a dish that'll help you fit into that haute couture gown, comes only with an underdressed bundle of cress. The big-ticket T-bone Fiorentina ($40)—a nicely seasoned hunk of meat served with a drab bowl of white beans and nothing else—is just as spare (but will it get Anna Wintour in here to dine?).
Though the generous desserts—a dense chocolate mousse trio; a creamy pistachio semifreddo—may not quite live up to the waiter's hokey endorsement ("the best chocolate in the world"), they were in fact the high point of our meal at the Armani boutique. I'm guessing Giorgio's weakness might be sweets.
Eat this: Tagliolini with shrimp, T-bone Fiorentina, chocolate mousse trio.
Drink this: Though the wine list skews pricey, there are a few decent bottles under $50. The 2007 gavi di gavi from Villa Sparina ($45) is a fine mineral match for the seafood-rich menu.
Sit here: The sunken booths, accommodating big groups—mostly homesick Euros—are the most comfortably plush seats in the house.
Conversation piece: Giorgio Armani runs three signature eateries in his hometown, Milan—a sweets shop (Armani Dolci), a Japanese restaurant (Armani Nobu) and a casual trattoria (Caffe Emporio Armani), all inside his own block-long retail complex.