On a celebrity-chef pedestal, it’s easy to believe your own hype—get caught up in the mythology of it all—fawned over by fans and high TV ratings. Masaharu Morimoto, original star of The Iron Chef, is an icon across generations and borders, with adoring diners filling his high-end Japanese restaurants in Mexico City, Waikiki and New Delhi. But, like Anthony Bourdain turned game-show host, Morimoto, capitalizing on his fame, has started flailing around outside his wheelhouse.
A few years back, he tried a fast-casual concept in the D.C. suburbs, a P.F. Chang’s rival that fizzled with only one branch. Tribeca Canvas, his slightly more upscale return to the same lowbrow arena, is destined to be just as much of a flop.
With a sprawling menu riffing on Tex-Mex, Chinese takeout and barbecue, the place has a sort of Battle Junk Food restaurant theme. While its long, dark dining room is certainly attractive—a virtual forest draped in canvases painted with haunting black trees—the food and decor are way out of sync with each other. Morimoto, entering new territory, has abandoned his usual classic Japanese simplicity for Guy Fieri–style kitchen-sink cooking.
And so there are nachos—a fried-on-fried mess—with grease-soaked shrimp tempura nuggets, black olives and cherry tomatoes, covered in overkill paint splatters of creamy ranch dressing and hot-chili aioli. A steamed Chinese bun is filled with braised shredded lamb, sweet mushy meat with the unfortunate taste and texture of a school-lunch sloppy joe. And a sort of gourmet Kraft mac and cheese features overcooked elbow pasta slicked in a bland, chalky cheese sauce—the mascarpone, fontina and cheddar combining to channel Velveeta—with a poached egg, panko and basil on top.
While not all of the restaurant’s East-West creations are as far off the mark, there’s not a single improvement here on its source material. Guacamole—served with lotus root chips—is not bad with wasabi and ginger, but would be better still with jalapeño and cilantro. And while pork ribs braised in sweet soy are one-dimensionally tasty—with fennel slaw tossed in Kewpie mayonnaise—they’re no match for great American barbecue. The fried rice “risotto,” also served with those ribs, might as well be reheated Chinese delivery slop, cooked down with Parmesan cheese to a gruel-like consistency.
Desserts, all saccharine crowd-pleasers, aim just as low as everything else. An ice-cream sundae in a spring-roll skin basket has a whole lot going on, none of it particularly good, with washed-out rum ice cream and a cakey Sara Lee–style brownie hidden beneath bananas, apples and too much airy whipped cream.
On TV, a lot of these dishes might earn points for under-the-gun ingenuity against the clock, but they fall far short on taste—a real imperative in a restaurant setting. Morimoto, tackling bottom-of-the barrel American cooking, has drifted off course. He still serves excellent Japanese food, though, everywhere else.
Eat this: Guacamole with lotus root chips, pork ribs
Drink this: Morimoto, king of the branded drink, sells sake, beer and shochu under his own label. The Canvas Negroni—house shochu with gin and Campari—is a fine, balanced riff on the classic cocktail ($12). Morimoto’s large-format Soba Ale, produced by Rogue Ales in Oregon, has a great nutty finish ($16).
Conversation piece: The interiors are the work of California artist and designer Thomas Schoos, a longtime Morimoto collaborator (he’s done four of the chef’s restaurants). Schoos painted the canvases covering the walls and ceiling, and made tangled light fixtures from coiled Indonesian vines.
By Jay Cheshes