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Blenheim Forgets to Pair Haute Service With Haute Cuisine

Blenheim, at first glance, is Yet Another Neighborhood Farm-to-Table Restaurant. The food is garnished with pretty little flowers. Al fresco seating is available. Gimlets are anointed with a velvety succulent called ice plant. Waiters talk about how said ice plants are grown at the restaurant's hydroponic greenhouse. Outdoorsy stuff like rakes, yokes, and saws hang on the walls. Squash soup is topped with red walnut granola. The butter requires explanation — doesn't it everywhere? Kale gruyere omelets are offered on Saturday mornings. And kale bacon salads are tossed on weekday afternoons.


Then you notice there's also a nine-course chef's menu. It costs $115. Add on wine pairing, tax and tip, and your dinner date for two is nearly $500. This is when you realize maybe Blenheim isn't a typical neighborhood farm-to-table spot.

Blenheim, brought to us by Morten Sohlberg and Min Ye, the husband-and-wife duo behind Smorgas Chef, isn't a typical tasting menu restaurant either. Culinary establishments that serve long, expensive menus don't usually serve brunch. Blenheim does. Ever have eggs Benedict at Per Se, Blanca, or Momofuku Ko? Didn't think so — doesn't really jibe with that style of dining. Those venues don't traditionally offer outdoor seating either, as chefs who are finicky enough to mandate low-choice menus tend to want to control the dining environment too.

But at Blenheim, diners are free to order the nine-course affair outside on 12th Street, while inhaling second-hand cigarette fumes from Beatrice Inn revelers next door.

Blenheim cocktail
Blenheim
Blenheim

Top: Bar manager Jonathan Russell making a Maple Flip; Left: Razor clams with Trinidad peppers, finger limes, and fried sunchokes; Right: Corn cremeux with peaches and apricot kernel ice cream.

Chef Ryan Tate once ran Le Restaurant, which served nothing but a 10-course, $100 dinner menu. It was awesome. It earned a Michelin star. But the gourmet market housing that tiny restaurant closed. So Tate found a new home in July when he landed at Blenheim, where he balances a tasting menu with the demands of a full-service restaurant open from 11 a.m. seven days a week.

See Tate in the kitchen? He's slinging tiny pitchers of corn soup with gouda and Espelette pepper. He composes breathtaking amuses of razor clams with warming Trinidad peppers (just a whisper of heat) and cooling finger limes (the caviar of the fruit world).

He covers king crab in sea lettuces, as if to mimic a crustacean in camouflage. The meat is aggressively crabby, while the sea lettuces seem to evoke freshly mowed grass watered with good Sancerre. Pair that with the Maple Flip, an unusually balanced mix of rye, egg white, and lemon juice, and you've got yourself a proper 10 p.m. snack.

"Perhaps in a few months Blenheim will be good for a full meal."

Perhaps in a few months Blenheim will be good for a full meal as well, and I'll be able to write a review that pays homage to the bespoke Catskills farm that supplies so much produce and protein to the restaurant. (When you get your bill, there's an insert advertising "shares" of whole Heritage pig for $360-$540.) But that review isn't possible now.

Let's start with a late, last-minute Thursday night reservation. I sit for ten minutes at a nearly empty counter and watch the bartender polish silverware, punch in orders, assist the wine steward, walk back and forth, and stand in silence before I nod my head and ask for what most good waiters already know to provide, a dinner menu.

"I'll do the tasting." Sorry, sold out.

Blenheim meat

Hanger steak with farmer's cheese, dandelion, onion ash, and meadow herbs.

I could go on. And I will: One can finish a course, get up to use the restroom, and return to a table filled with dirty plates and an unfolded napkin. Wine advice solicited before a course isn't provided until that course is finished. At the bar, water, like menus, sometimes only comes upon request.

Could Blenheim accommodate my friend with dietary restrictions (mostly vegetarian, some fish) for the full tasting? No problem, says a receptionist. But when we show up, the waiter states that only a five-course option would be available for my companion, even though there appear to be enough dishes, like roasted king trumpet mushrooms with sauerkraut and spaetzle, on the a la carte menu to make up the difference.

So as I enjoy a proper tasting, my companion sits with an empty placemat for multiple courses. And while one shouldn't necessarily blame Blenheim for what was surely a mutual misunderstanding, it would've helped smooth things over if the waiters actually offered my companion bread (or some sort of supplement) during those gaps in his meal. Not cool.

"Some of the staff are a bit green around the collars," the new service director tells me. Perhaps that guy could use a little brushing up himself, as he fails to show me the bottle or provide a pre-purchase taste on a Slovenian Ribolla blend, which is a nice courtesy when you're paying $22 for a single glass from the Coravin.

"Such service missteps would be excusable at a day old mom-and-pop shop, not a four-month-old restaurant that can afford stunning interior design."

Such service missteps would be excusable at a day old mom-and-pop shop, not a four-month-old restaurant that can afford stunning interior design. And a farm. That's all too bad because Tate's food, at its best, still merits that Michelin star he once held. There are radish custards with achingly rich truffled guinea fowl sauce. There are pine mushrooms in a broth redolent of a coniferous forest. And there's sous-vide hanger steak with too many sweet herbs to list (surely an ode to this cow's impeccable diet).

Then you get a mediocre mixed-green salad with under-salted ham. Guinea hen breast, with a dense chew, sports under rendered fat, while hefty pork, as average as a cheaper cut elsewhere, requires a sturdy use of the knife to cut. Worst of all, the tasting menu caviar course involves one-note, low-grade hackleback. That $115 price tag starts to burn right about now.

Savory sorbets (wild thyme, basil, pineapple sage) manage to both evoke their component ingredients and taste delicious, a difficult balance for such herbaceous flavors. If only that was an offering on the tasting menu, where the penultimate dessert is a ghastly blend of juniper creme anglaise and cloying sun berries.

Blenheim
Blenheim pear

Left: Herb sorbets with nasturtium; Right: Maple syrup-poached pear with squid ink and stuffed with rabbit mousse.

And then there's the final course of milk chocolate gelato, mint sorbet, and chocolate ganache. It's offered only to me, not my companion, because his set menu only includes a single dessert. No option is presented to my friend to order an additional sweet. And the kitchen doesn't even send out a second set of utensils so we could share.

Is this simply an oversight on a busy night? Perhaps. But it's the type of omission that can, and I'm biting my tongue here, make a guest feel unwelcome. That's no good when you're spending $350. And that's why, the talents of chef Ryan Tate notwithstanding, Blenheim ranks among the most disappointing hospitality experiences I've encountered in the past decade.

Edit Note: Ryan Sutton awards gold stars on a scale of zero (disappointing) to four (exceptional). His colleague Robert Sietsema awards his own set of (different colored) stars.

Photographer: Daniel Krieger

Blenheim

283 W 12th St, New York, NY 10014 (212) 243-7073
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