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Diving Head First Into Donald Trump's Culinary Abyss

Robert Sietsema and Nick Solares explore Trump's contributions to New York Dining

Times to gripe, "Evidently, New York needs to make salvation of this kind of landmark mandatory and stop expecting that its developers will be good citizens and good sports."

The demolition was largely accomplished by a crew of over 150 undocumented workers, who came to be known as the "Polish Brigade." They put in 12-hour shifts without construction helmets, and many camped out at the site for the duration of the months-long operation. In addition, the new building was erected by S & A Concrete, a firm owned by "Fat" Tony Salerno and "Big Paulie" Castellano, head of the Genovese and Gambino crime families, respectively, as reported by CNN.

In shades running from pink to dark red, 2,500 tons of gleaming Italian marble went into the tower’s 5-story lobby and atrium, making the soaring space seem like the mausoleum for some Renaissance prince. The sheets of marble scamper up a rear wall to form the uneven backsplash for a 60-foot waterfall that constitutes the atrium’s focal point, creating a muted babble in the background. A bridge spanning the chasm communicates with the Trump Bar — sporting a coruscated crimson awning that might have been ripped from the Renaissance Faire. Nick Solares and I stopped there for a drink, as part of a program to eat our way around Trump Tower to see what it revealed about the presidential candidate.

Trump Bar was nearly empty at midafternoon. (The same proved true of an evening visit three days later.) Two monitors overhead were tuned to Fox News, as a bartender in a green vest and security guard with an earbud stood on either side of the bar kibitzing. Eventually the image of Donald Trump, hair flying, flickered on the screen, and one of them asked the other in hushed tones, "Are you going to vote for the chief?" The other snickered, "Who else is there, Hillary?"

[Trump Bar]

Open from noon until 10 p.m., Trump Bar seats around 40 in three small rooms, including one deep in the interior that affords a discreet exit onto 56th Street. In a video commemorating Trump Tower’s 30th anniversary, The Donald rambles on about his self-branded tavern, perhaps unconsciously echoing Barbra Streisand’s song "People": "People come, they meet other people, they fall in love, numerous people have met people and gotten married just by meeting at the Trump Bar." But his ability to become enthusiastic about the alcohol at the bar is severely limited: Trump’s a teetotaler.

The menu features signature cocktails that are high priced even by Midtown standards. Yet who could resist the Billionaire Martini ($20)? Fabricated from Chopin potato vodka and Noilly Prat vermouth, the rim is spanned by a skewer of pimento-stuffed olives and baby plum tomatoes, which dribble grease untidily onto the surface of the cocktail. Much more distinguished is a Bordeaux blend that comes from Trump Winery (Formerly, Kluge Vineyard) in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump acquired the property through a heartless piece of real estate chicanery in 2011.

[The Billionaire's Martini]

Offering only a small selection of beers and wines, the menu’s focus is on outlandishly named mixed drinks, which include the Snickerdoodle (Fra Angelico and crème de cocoa [sic]), The Boardroom (a cucumber-mint gimlet), and "You’re Fired" (a conventional bloody mary). The last two refer to the Trump reality TV show, The Apprentice, which was filmed upstairs. Trump Bar also boasts a menu of snacks, which do little to affirm the luxury that the place aspires to. There are no silky pates, oysters mignonette, or steak tartares. Instead, the bar snacks, which might have come from a 60s bridge party, include potato chips with sour cream dip, mozzarella sticks, and beef chili.

Instead of those, we went for broke and blew $13 on a "grilled jumbo chili cheese dog." It took 20 minutes to arrive (it had to be fetched from somewhere in the bowels of the complex), during which time we sat contemplating the awful martini. When it finally landed the frank proved to be of decidedly normal length, split in half and littered with chili, cheese, and chopped raw onions. Not great date food. "This is a very good frank," observed Solares, "but it doesn’t need all this crap on top, and it’s way too expensive."

Trump Bar is the only one of the four dining and drinking establishments at Trump Tower located in prime, street-level real estate. The other three – Trump’s Ice Cream Parlor, Trump Café, and Trump Grill (sometimes spelled Trump Grille) – are all situated on the below-ground level of the atrium. Visible from above, it looks like an idle marble quarry during much of the day. The trip downstairs is by a dizzylingly fast escalator that furnishes an inadvertent thrill ride.

At the end of the atrium floor is the Trump Café’s steam table, a 40-foot-long affair that might have been borrowed from a public high school. It’s divided into five sections, each with its own menu: hamburgers and pizzas, soups, do-it-yourself salads, sandwiches, and entrees. One day I tried the bacon cheeseburger ($12.40) and found the patty rubbery and way overcooked, real prison food. A couple of slices of half-melted American lay wanly on top like spent runners, and some terrible fries tasting of burned vegetable oil accumulated on the side.

Later that day I sampled freely from the 10-item entrée menu, which changes daily, though it invariably favors Italian pastas and deep-fried stuff. The fried chicken ($13.50) had a thick breading and consisted of three dry pieces of breast. It wasn’t inedible, though the flavored steak fries that accompanied were. On the same pass I also ordered "beef tacos" ($13.50) which turned out to be a fried tortilla bowl heaped with romaine lettuce, grated yellow cheese, and plain ground beef that was so devoid of flavor, it rendered an insult to Mexicans every bit as profound as Trump’s previous pronouncements. Trump food is bland food.

Trump food is bland food.

I went another day to sample the breakfasts at the Trump Café, and found the floor darkened, except for spotlights on a few tables. (Indeed, much of the Trump Tower public amenities are dead during much of the day.) The promised menu was much diminished, and food — including French toast, oatmeal, and skimpy three-egg omelets — is all prepared for carryout, whether you choose to eat it there in the dark or not.

If you decide to dine at Trump Café (officially open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., but winding down much earlier), seating is provided next to the waterfall’s pool and in little pockets of tables here and there around the basement floor.

[Trump Ice Cream Parlor]

Tables also surround the Trump Ice Cream Parlor, a free-standing counter with an old-timey feel. Available in 12 flavors, including cappuccino crunch and cake butter, the ice cream is almost too soft to be scooped. ("It’s made in New Jersey," one soda jerk exclaimed, doubtlessly a Chris Christie supporter.) The Tahitian vanilla we tried was nearly flavorless, while the strawberry reeked of artificial flavoring. We had it incorporated into a freshly made crepe, which the guy criss-crossed with Reddi-Wip and Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup. Once again, these products didn’t quite square with the luxury pretenses of the tower.

The two of us eventually made our way to the flagship of the underground fleet, the Trump Grill. It consists of three rooms at successively higher levels clad in stained woods, separated from the rest of the basement by brass rails but fully visible to any malcontents lingering outside. Over the bar hangs a rather mournful oil of Donald Trump’s mustachioed father, Fred, and nearby hangs a 19th century genre painting showing a cloaked gentleman in a tri-corn hat looking around the corner cautiously as he conducts a lady clutching what we suppose to be his bastard baby, probably intended to communicate a moral precept. Like most of the cultural markers around the complex, it seems apropos of nothing.

[Trump Grill. Bottom: lobster ravioli and steak.]

I won’t bore you with all the details of our meal, which was lunch, since that’s the only one served in the Trump Grill. There were perhaps five other diners in a restaurant that seats around 80. The food here was of a higher quality than at the café or bar, but that’s not saying much. The Caesar salad ($12) was perfectly edible, though skimpy on the croutons and nearly devoid of anchovies; a half serving of large lobster raviolis ($14) was far exceeded in volume by its cream sauce, with a good quantity of lobster meat in round pouches far too thick-skinned.

Elsewhere, Nick Solares will appraise the meat main we consumed, one a burger, the other a sirloin steak. As a general principle, the menu was totally unadventuresome and predictable, though competently prepared, like food you might find in a country club: chicken paillard in lemon-caper sauce, pan seared Atlantic salmon with steamed broccoli and cauliflower, shrimp scampi, and lobster roll with shoestring fries. Avoid the fries at all costs. The entrees were priced mainly in the mid-20s. This is food chronically afraid to take chances, food for timid people with digestive problems.

A gold-colored plaque prominently displayed awards Trump Grill the Star Diamond Award of the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences. (Who knew hospitality was a science?) It’s signed by three prominent chefs: Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Alain Ducasse, and David Bouley, and dated 2015. As you exit the Trump Grill, it’s hard to avoid fantasizing about forcing all three chefs to eat there together, under the portrait of Trump’s dad, and wonder what they would say about the food. Would they repeat their endorsement again next year?

The lobby and atrium of the Trump Tower is considered a pubic amenity, so mandated by zoning concessions that permitted the tower to be built 10 stories taller than would have been allowed under the law. Disingenuously, much of the space in this public facility is devoted not only to Trump-branded restaurants, but to stores and kiosks flaunting Trump merchandise: a bomber jacket with TRUMP in giant letters across the back, a white Trump teddy bear, tie tacks, leather golf accessories, cardigan sweaters, baby onesies, Trump-authored books, female perfumes and male colognes, and baseball caps that read, "Make America Great Again," the slogan for Trump’s presidential campaign.

After a visit to Trump Tower, it’s hard to see the presidential candidate as anything but a small damaged ego plagued with the infantile obsession of putting his name on everything. A man whose shallow pronouncements are more likely to elicit guffaws than thoughtful reflection. Of the Trump Tower he says, deadpan, "It’s just about the number one tourist attraction in New York." Visit the facility and look around you at 7 p.m. some evening, and see if you agree.

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