Every day this week, we'll feature a Shitshow Week Review—a new assessment of a restaurant that at first glance seemed totally and completely off the rails. To give these places a fair shake, we revisited to pass new judgment. The fundamental question: shitshow or not a shitshow?
Before we get into the whole shitshow/non-shitshow question, a little background. The restaurant space on the bottom floor of The Hotel on Rivington has a sad and disappointing history. It opened, like the hotel, to much buzz and a modicum of acclaim, mostly because the skillful Austrian chef Kurt Guttenbrunner manned the stoves, and it was a time when gaudy and overpriced hotel restaurants weren't so out of vogue. Eventually, he took off, and the place got gutted. A number of chefs (Jesi Solomon, Mark Spangethal, and Kevin Pomplun) went through the revolving door, and it became a restaurant/hotel lobby that no one would ever go to even in spite of its prime location. Until!
Until nightlife man, fashion designer, savvy spokesman, and reality star Matt Levine took over both the restaurant and the roof deck, signaling the final end/apocalypse of Hell Square. His dream: to fuse "the culture and vibrancy of the Lower East Side with the fun-fine-dining experience of a classic French bistro fused with the culinary American classic cuisine with a Mediterranean influence." Oh la la. Sounds perfect. Ok, there's the setup. Here's what it's like.
The sad: there's nothing sadder than having waitresses dressed in short backless body socks teetering in ridiculous platforms when there's no one around to watch them. Yet, upon a recent 8 p.m. Friday night arrival about half a dozen patrons sat at the bar, while three people dined in the massive main room. When we left at 9:30, the population was just double that.
The predictable: But let's get back to that arrival. We tell the beautiful body sock we'd like a table for two. Do we have a reservation? No. She gives us a hesitant look and wanders off. A full six minutes later, she returns, saying she's ready for us (entry!) and brings us to an almost empty dining room. What took the six minutes? We will never know.
The Space: The dining room itself is a bit overdone, a tad gaudy, but overall it's a pleasant place to dine. The problem here is no one from the street knows the space is back there, through the THOR doors, beyond the hostess stand with the Amazons, and past the bar. Given the drunks spilling out of every other corner of the LES, it could actually be a nice quiet oasis for some people.
The Service: Lovely, upbeat.
The Music: There is a DJ booth in the dining room, from which a little man in galoshes, fingerless leather gloves, a floppy Kangol hat, and a silly outfit emerges and reenters every ten minutes. At first the music seems a little too nightclubby, but in the end it's totally fine, hip, enjoyable. MGMT mixed with Madonna, Radiohead, Annie Lenox, etc. If the restaurant weren't empty, we wouldn't have thought anything of it.
The Food: Actually good! The surfeit of truffle oil on the menu and the need to include fruit like grilled peaches in almost every dish (which is perhaps what Levine means by "uniquely crafted spa-fused dishes"), is a tad dated. There are some presentation snafus (see picture 2). However, the halibut was cooked perfectly, the steak, almost perfectly. The sauces, the salads, the veggies—all delicious. Credit where credit is due to chef Laurent Brunacci.
The Prices: Too high. The dinner menu is slightly more expensive than it should be, but there aren't too many items over $30. At issue here are those signature cocktails. Given there was more of a crowd in the bar area than the restaurant throughout the night, it's obvious why they do it, but it's still reprehensible. A $22 margarita, delicious or not, is not something a restaurant on the LES should serve, whether it's in a hotel or not.
The Crowd: Again, place is a ghost town. But the half of dozen people who did pass through included what looked to be a couple of PR girls, some Real Housewives types, some B&T ladies. Almost all women.
The Bathrooms: In a word, weird. One must descend a bizarre black tunnel into darkness before finding a black hallway of bathrooms.
The conclusion: It's sad, it's lonely, it's overpriced, it will never succeed as a restaurant. But is it a shitshow? As painful as it is to type this, No. She's not a shitshow.
· THOR's Levant East Heralds Hell Square's Final Fall [~E~]