Thursday, January 24, 2008

Brasserie Bafflement

So, you might wonder where I've been for, lo, these many weeks. Basically it went like this: we went to NY over the holidays, I got sick and remained sick for many days, and essentially have been giving myself a three week vacation. Hah!

But there's much to catch up on, and I did want to blog, as a warning to others, the very disappointing Brasserie in The Seagram Building on 53rd St. in New York.

It wasn't the best of circumstances by any measure -- we needed a place for Christmas dinner with my Dad, and it was a last minute choice, but I must admit, I was definitely expecting a little more from this once trendy, hipster hangout.

It's a strange place, and I can't say I disapproved of the decor which is sort of sleek, Arclinea cold. I guess "Terminal"--as in "airline"-- is the idea. Except without the security gate and taking off the shoes and mailing your Swiss Army knife back to yourself stuff.

There is a weird Big Brother vibe though, in that there's a bank of TVs hanging over the bar in the main dining room, each of which shows a frame of the last dozen or so patrons to enter. Diner beware as you enter through the revolving door, you're on Candid Camera. No cleaning out your earwax or picking your nose, because the image will be displayed to the entire dining room. And THEN after checking your coat, you'll be expected to walk down a little runway ramp into the room, you ear-picker, you. I suppose if Mick Jagger or Naomi Campbell were coming in, everyone in the restaurant could gawk, but of course nowadays, it's just well... it's just us.

On the plus side, they did not lose our reservation, and seated us in a quieter room, and they do have some cute prismatic illusion menu covers, which offered my Omnivore several minutes of amusement.

Yeah. Hmmm. If only what was on the inside of the menu had been as amusing as what was on the cover.

Moving on.

So the first thing is that I was perturbed by the butter. As many of you know, I have an obsession with butter (among other things) and although I think Brasserie probably served us some nice butter, the fact that they sliced it like a sausage roll and plonked down the slice, with foil still embedded in it, in front of us, was how shall we say... not appealing?

Our habit at most places is to ask the server what his or her favorite things on the menu are. They should know, after all, right? So our server, a very pleasant man with a French accent, told us that he had "gotten very good feedback on the Short Ribs and the Guinea Hen, and the monkfish is very popular."

"Have you tried both?"

"Um, no, I have not actually personally tried them, but many guests have enjoyed it."

Beg pardon? You haven't even tried them? Don't tell me what's popular -- this isn't a primary election. I want to know what's good.

Alright, alright. Whatever. I guess we're on our own.

I ordered the Duck Confit Salad, which would have been fab if I had actually ordered a Frisee Salad. As it was, I had a bit of a time finding my confit under all that frisee. The duck cracklings, I will concede, were good. But how hard is that? It's fried duck fat. What's not to love?

Dad got the Lobster Bisque, by far the best out of the three appetizers. Reasonably smooth and tasty, it was what it was. Soup Nazi definitely makes better bisque, but this was not bad.

My Omnivore's wild mushroom tart, though, was pretty dull. It seemed like the mushrooms were under-seasoned when they were cooked, or maybe just overcooked. A universe apart from the delicious perky wild mushrooms we had at Ai Gondolieri in Venice.

Guinea Hen (while popular) was desperately overcooked and dry, as were the short ribs, while the monkfish was rather bland and unimaginative. And all I could think was that for $70 a head, we could have gone back to Artisanal and had some damn cheese.

Maybe it's that Christmas Dinner thing. I mean, the kitchen staff probably doesn't want to be there, so they're phoning in the reduced version of the usual menu. Still, I was flabbergasted at how dull everything was. No wonder our server didn't want to taste the food.

Dessert came, on a non-illusory menu, but I must confess, by this time I was feeling a bit defeated.

Ultimately, though, I will say that we did better here than with our main courses and starters.

Pumpkin Tart was flavorful and had a nice Port sauce to go with it.

Pecan Brown Butter had decent depth of flavor and was not overly sweet.

I was also so amused by the typo on the menu that read "Bouche de Noel" that I thought it might be the inspiration for a new holiday dessert.

They, of course, meant Buche de Noel, according to our French-speaking server, who only rolled his eyes a little when we pointed this out. I couldn't help thinking though, that Bouche de Noel might be more fun.

Frankly, Brasserie looks like the sort of place that's in its last gasps. It was a bit demoralizing instead of festive--throughout the dinner, I couldn't stop glancing at the crusts of dried bread on the floor, clearly illuminated by the once-trendy "frosted glass under the banquette" lighting. Once hip and happening, it's now reduced to serving the rest of us, and has consequently gone from high end dining to cafeteria--honestly, you can get better food in museum cafes in New York.

It shows in the service, it shows in the atmosphere, and in the care that goes into the menu as well as the preparations.

And at the end, I just wasn't satisfied. Heading back to our hotel at close to midnight, I couldn't help wondering if the Korean barbecue joints were any good...

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