In case you didn't pick up the Lonely Planet guide to Buddakan, the larger half of Stephen Starr's Vatican-sized restaurant complex in New York's Chelsea Market, here's a brief tour of what you'll witness around the Chinese-esque mess hall: four hostesses, only one of whom will take your coat, the type of inoffensive club music one might encounter at a duty-free airport shop, a red vase room (Siberia), a blue Buddha room (as inviting as a cargo plane), a chandelier room that my real estate buddy got a prime seat in after greasing the right person, a VIP library room with fake books, staircases steep enough to keep your drinking in check, cocktails average enough to make you quit drinking $16 potables forever, an odiferous ashtray inches away from the Shaq-sized entrance, and a Renaissance-style painting of a naked guy outside the men's room, whose visible penis, if you're "Tom Cruise height" like me, is at face level.
Now here's what you won't encounter at the 380-seat establishment: the smell of food. Not the sweet perfumes of sizzling beef, chicken fat, fish sauce, cumin lamb, toasted cinnamon, or torn cilantro. Buddakan, at nearly ten years old, continues to serve an olfactory-neutral, sterilized brand of Chinese fare that wouldn't feel out of place at a luxury hotel chain where Westerners shack up for $500 a night to avoid germs, tripe, foreign languages, and locals.
Mapo tofu, normally a showcase for the numbing qualities of Sichuan cuisine, sports an out-of-left-field sweetness that makes it taste like it was prepared by Chef Boyardee. Dan dan, a classic pairing of egg noodles, pork sausage, chile oil, and scallions, smacks of bitter hand soap. What's advertised as soft-shell crab bao buns turns out to be under-steamed sliders. And black pepper beef, a stomach-warming dish from China's Guangdong province, is a mess of overcooked ribeye in a KC Masterpiece-like sauce. The beef arrives in a stale "bird's nest," packing the taste and texture of a paper doily. If you closed your eyes and successfully identified the Chinese names of all four dishes, I'd buy you dinner at Meadowood.
The Way We Ate Then
Such ignominies beg the question: why does this restaurant exist? Buddakan, along with the Japanese-themed Morimoto, together Starr's first forays into New York dining, were born in a different era. Both venues, transplants of their Philadelphia originals, opened in 2006, when New York was riding the tail end of its Second Gilded Age.
For the time, these restaurants served a purpose.
And for the time, these restaurants served a purpose. Starr's critically-acclaimed Buddakan was a hipper, younger, clubbier analogue to older, expensive, white tablecloth venues like Mr. Chow, Indochine, and Shun Lee Palace. And Morimoto, with a $200 tasting counter, was the larger, logical extension of the Nobu 57 model, a sprawling den of aioli-slathered rock shrimp and $150 tastings that received three stars from the New York Times. There was enough room for everyone. Until there wasn't.
The economy started to tank in 2007. And in the years that followed smart restaurants would adapt to our new spending habits, putting the focus on the chef and the food over the maitre d' and the creature comforts. The David Chang Way started to take hold: leaner, meaner, let's eat at a noisy bar and charge everyone a little bit less. And diners, fueled by the knowledge of a burgeoning class of bloggers, food writers, and uber-locavores like Rene Redzepi and Dan Barber, started to value regional creativity and authenticity over generic extravagances.
The Case for Diluted Dining
So why would New Yorkers go to a single watered down pan-Chinese restaurant when they could visit three tastier and cheaper regional spots? Because Buddakan is selling a good time in an adult playground. It's selling culinary dilution and safe exoticism, which is fine in the right places; the China pavilion at Epcot Center wouldn't do too much business if kids wearing Mickey Mouse hats had their faces go fully numb from Sichuan peppercorns. Most of the folks at Buddakan, after all, are better dressed for dancing than dealing with the effects of chile oil splattered on white shirts (spoiler: much everything here is splatter-free). But the catch is that the diluted version of anything should inspire novices to try the original. It should taste good.
Try asking the bartender for a bit of drinking advice. "I usually recommend the Haze, Fate, and Charm cocktails for the ladies," he says. Why's that? "One comes in a flute. The other's like a mimosa." Now you know. Order something called a "Solid" (don't ask), and he presents you a check immediately. Can't he transfer it? "Bar is separate from the restaurant." You then order a few bites from the lounge while waiting for your companion, and the cocktail waitress brings another check (lounge must be separate too). Finally you have dinner, and by the end of the night you have three checks, three separate transactions, for a single meal, under a single roof. These people should get into the airline business.
Taking Out the Trash
Char Siu pork, at its best when the exterior is crispy and caramelized, with a touch of sweetness, is simply a pile of under-rendered pork butt with sugary black bean sauce. Shrimp toasts are burnt. Spare ribs are cold. Broken chile chicken is as flavorless as anything out of the freezer section at your local Gristedes. Pork belly strips pack the desiccated texture of sun hardened shingles on a New Mexico home. Singapore king crab is passable if you can tolerate the salt levels; same goes for the fried black bass. Edamame dumplings are all about mush: a gluey wrapper and a leaden, sludgy, green interior. I could go on.
Then the smell comes. We're sitting at a table overlooking the bar's trash can, whose contents slowly stink up the nearby environs. As the bin fills up, the stench becomes paralyzing, nearly triggering my gag reflex. It's all enough to make you wonder: If Starr can afford to build a restaurant with a host stand that's larger than the old Momofuku Ko, maybe he can find the room to place a garbage can outside the olfactory radius (or sight line) of patrons?
Morimoto: Then Versus Now
Shortly after Morimoto opened in 2006, I dined at the restaurant's omakase counter for a meal of at least 13 courses, served by Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto himself. The tasting marked my first sampling of black winter truffles (over soft tofu), my first live sea urchin (with a neon-orange hue), my first freshwater clams (very mild), my first liquid nitrogen affair, and my first fugu encounter. The tone of the counter was reverent; diners were required to remove their shoes in the traditional Japanese zashiki-style. The cost was $200. It was, without question, one of the great meals of my life. And I'm sad to report that the space largely lay fallow during my recent meals at Morimoto, acting as a storage area for servingware. But the restaurant still offers a $135 tasting every night, and that menu features some of the city's most unremarkable high-end sushi.
That menu features some of the city's most unremarkable high-end sushi.
At good raw fish bars, chefs sauce the nigiri themselves and serve them one piece at a time. This allows diners to contemplate each morsel individually, as the grains of warm, vinegared rice bring slices of barely cool fish to a single glorious temperature on the tongue. But during a chef's tasting at Morimoto's sushi bar, the nigiri course included five pieces served all at once, with cool rice and un-sauced fish. The result is average sushi, about on par with a chain spot like Blue Ribbon.
Things Get Weird
During that prix fixe dinner, which also included a generic toro tartare, gorgeously unctuous seared madai, and an impossibly delicious salad of raw sockeye and shaved bottarga, I was seated next to someone who, instead of eating her dessert, texted on her iPhone while perusing fashion sites on her MacBook Pro for the better part of an hour. I thought about saying hello. And then she put on her headphones. Maybe this was coffee shop night?
The 185-seat Morimoto, alas, is a weird and beautiful place. Patrons are greeted by sliding doors and a display case that shows off 30 copies of the chef's cookbook. A lucite bar and a "water wall" of 17,400 LED backlit plastic bottles do their best to make the restaurant feel like planet Krypton. Men might wear sunglasses indoors; ladies might don beauty pageant sashes (a hen party, for sure), and on certain unlucky nights, the men's room door might not close, leaving a row of urinals in full display for passers-by. On a final visit, I watched a gentlemen in khakis go barefoot at the downstairs counter, with his polished brown loafers kicked to the floor. He would've fit right in at the omakase counter.
The a la carte menu offers a basic and boring approach to luxury. Three preparations contain foie gras; five contain toro and nine dishes boast Wagyu. Some will order that indulgent beef as part of a $22 tartare, a $24 over-salted carpaccio, or a $34 DIY barbecue dish, wherein guests sear the meat over a hot Mt. Fuji lava stone. By the time you try to warm up the final pieces, the rock is nearly cold, and the end product is gray and undercooked. The flavor is similar to the Australian wagyu strip on the tasting menu – soft and buttery, with as little beefiness as supermarket filet mignon.
How about some foie gras-topped oysters? The oceanic and livery flavors shine through. Gorgeous. Then you drink the liquor, which turns out to be a mouthful of teriyaki sauce. Nasty stuff. The "duck duck duck" course is billed as containing foie gras butter, none of which was detectable. That preparation, a modern take on Peking duck, involves an excellent bisected croissant, soggy skin, under-cooked fat and overcooked meat. Finish with a green tea tiramisu, a thick cloud of mascarpone, matcha cream, and sour cherry gelato. It's enough to feed three, which is why it has no place on a tasting menu for one.
Stephen Starr Still Rocks. But...
Stephen Starr, in the decade since he brought Morimoto and Buddakan to New York, has become a veritable Berkshire Hathaway for the hospitality industry, a Warren Buffett of sorts with a knack for snatching up established talent and giving them the high-profile platforms they deserve. He brought Britain's Jason Atherton to the Clocktower. He gave Justin Smilie a proper stage at Upland. He gave ex-Momofuku chef Peter Serpico license to run a risky small plates joint in Philadelphia. Starr restaurants are usually good restaurants. The man knows his craft well. But you don't really need to eat at Buddakan or Morimoto anymore.
Cost: Starters and sides are $14-$22. Mains are $22-$58.
Sample dishes: Chile rock shrimp, soft shell crab bao buns, scallion pancakes, general tso's dumplings, sesame shrimp toast.
Bonus tip: Don't eat here. Instead, try RedFarm, Cafe China, Legend, Savor Sichuan, Oriental Garden, or Mission Chinese,
Cost: Starters are $11-$54 (caviar excluded); mains are $28-$85. Sides are $7.
Sample dishes: Toro tartare, foie gras and grilled eel, braised black cod, Wagyu everything, tableside tofu.
Bonus tip: Ask for a seat in the main dining room; the side rooms and downstairs bar can feel empty and lonely even when the rest of the venue is bustling. Alternatively, try having dinner at 15 East, Ichimura, or Nakazawa instead.