Friday, June 15, 2007


Suicide Watch

The new (third) season of Top Chef began this past Wednesday, and looks like it will be entertaining as ever. The first guy eliminated was Clay, a Mississippian who asserted that he would bring southern-style cooking as well as entertaining southern personality to the table.

His rap about being entertaining had a bit of a forced, anxious quality, as if he were trying to make an argument to the show's producers to keep him even after he bombed the initial "quickfire" challenge. The chief judge, Chef Tom Colicchio, has asserted in the past that the entertainment value of the contestants is not a factor in the judges decisions, and, strange as it may sound, I believe him. Clay was obviously out of his league in terms of cooking know-how, and the only concern I had about his elimination is that he told us that his father, too, had been a chef, and had committed suicide. Uh-oh.

As I've said before, I find Colicchio charming, in his gruff way, and feel that he brings a measure of integrity to the show. He seems to really know his stuff about food and how to run a restaurant. So it was with very high hopes and a strong willingness to be pleased that B and I visited two of his New York eateries: last summer, his sandwich place, 'Wichcraft; and last month, his informal bistro, Craftbar.

I really enjoyed the upscale sandwich fare at 'Wichcraft, but Craftbar was a different story. The afternoon before our dinner at 'Craftbar, B and I had a portentous celebrity sighting on a Soho streetcorner near our hotel: Dave, one of the near-finalists of Top Chef season one, of all people! This was the whiner whose claim to fame was his supposed "invention" of the verbal smackdown, "I'm not your b*tch, b*tch," which he claimed was so damned original and clever that he wanted to market it on a T-shirt.

I suppose an occupational hazard of being a celebrity food judge is that Colicchio's own patrons will seat themselves at an imaginary "judges' table" when they sit down to a meal at his restaurants. I know I kept thinking -- what would Colicchio say about this if one of the Top Chef contestants made it?

The dinner opened promisingly with perhaps the best breadsticks I've ever had (I usually don't even bother to eat breadsticks), and menu descriptions that sounded very appetizing. From there it went downhill. Not disastrously downhill, but kind of a slowly building roll down a gentle slope.

Our two appetizers -- a homemade sausage and a fried tofu thingy -- sounded great in the menu. But while the flavors were interesting, the texture and presentation were odd -- kind of like fish sticks on a bare plate, with no garnishes for the eye. What's more, both items were too dry and "needed something." That something was supplied in the form a tasty dipping sauce, but the amount of dipping sauce provided -- less than a tablespoon it seemed -- was incredibly stingy, and when we asked for more, they said "no"!

For a main course, I ordered braised short ribs. Usually, you get this sort of thing in a thick, carmelized gravy, but the dish arrived in soup dish sitting in a pool of thin broth. The overall effect was something between a soup and a watery stew -- the strangest thing. I couldn't help thinking that Colicchio would have gone nuts (in a bad way) had a Top Chef contestant served up this dish.

One last thing about the Colicchio restaurants is that there seems to be something weird going on in terms of personnel management. Maybe it was just random -- two instances is not that many on which to judge, really -- but both at 'Wichcraft and Craftbar, we witnessed some service, uh, issues.

At 'Wichcraft, things seemed to be going okay behind the counter until the store manager had a meltdown and reamed out one of the line workers in plain view and hearing of the customers. An awkward moment.

At Craftbar, the service swung between friendliness and formality. This is understandable, since it must be devilishly hard to please everybody on that score: formal and obsequious service makes people like me uncomfortable, while other patrons want that. But the service also veered strangely between overattentiveness -- constantly refilling the waterglass, or wiping crumbs, or asking to clear plates that were not quite done -- and making you feel sort of ignored and small: a long wait to catch a waiter's attention for our ultimately denied request for more sauce, for example.

And I had to laugh (while gritting my teeth) when the waiter, bending over to flirt with the two women dining at the next table, kept his hand on the back of my chair to brace himself. This lasted for a couple of minutes. (What should I have said to the waiter... "Get your hands off my chair, b*tch?")

Whatever the cause, the overarching vibe I get from his restaurants is feeling vaguely uncomfortable, like I'm waiting for something else to go wrong. Is this random, or is there something about Colicchio's personality filtering down to his staff?

Actually, in Episode One of the new season of Top Chef, the less likeable side of Colicchio's personality emerged. Instead of just focusing on Clay's food preparation, he kept harping on the fact that Clay initially said "I stand by my dish," but then admitted there were cooking shortcomings to it. As if to say, "you're not just a bad cook, you're also a wimp." Boy will he feel bad if Clay ... well, let's not go there.

More sauce! Sauce is not a luxury; it's a god-given right.
I'm a neophyte to the Top Chef but I plan to watch for future stinginess from the judge. Stingy with the sauce/stingy with the love.
We went to Gramercy Tavern last year, before Tom left there as executive chef. There were four of us, two New Yorkers. The service there was great, attentive without the overbearing quality of trying too hard. (My NYC friends said that the service in NYC is notoriously bad, like the wait staff had the attitude that they are just there until they win their Tony.)

The food was otherwordly. We each had the tasting menu which had a few different options on it. Each of us ordered something different and shared, including my first tast of sweetbreads.
About the sauce: I had a vision of what was really going on in the kitchen, some disaster of Fawlty Towers proportions, in which the huge vat of sauce was ruined or spilled, and they were only able to save a pint or two that had to last the entire dinner seating, so they decided to dole it out in tiny portions. (since it takes all day to make. Or something.)

And maybe Colicchio is trying to be mean on purpose to compete with the fellow running Hell's Kitchen on Fox or whatever network it's on. I've only seen the ads of that chef abusing contestants, throwing food on the floor and possibly slapping someone, but I could be hallucinating that.

I was also in NY this week, and my Swiss friend treated me to dinner at Sardi's. The best part was when the Maitre'D asked us "What show are you in?" in all seriousness. (We were there at 5 PM, and the place was filled with People Who Probably Are Actors (or other Broadway Bigwigs). I was informed that the crust on the creme brule was 4 times the correct thickness. But that the creme inside was very good.
This is a great blog! Come check out mine! Make sure you let me know what you think :) Southern Style Cooking
Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]