That time of year has come again to praise the year’s good food and damn the bad. Well, this is the damning part, featuring the worst things I ate this past year, things that etched themselves into my nightmares and still provoke a gag reflex. Ironically, many of these dishes are from otherwise good — or even great — places, making the fall from grace they represent even more painful. This year many of my worst food experiences came in the ubiquitous food courts, where fierce competition for a dwindling diner’s dollar provokes wild and intemperate invention.
Grilled Oysters at Fatbird — The Nashville hot chicken was bad enough at this MePa newcomer, glopped with a ketchup-like sauce, but even worse were the grilled oysters. They came drowned in something identified as chipotle butter — runny, greasy, coagulating around the edges, and not spicy in the least. Who’d do that to a pristine oyster?
Charred Broccoli at Delicatessen Taco — This otherwise decent place in the Gansevoort Market specializes in smoked deli meats crammed inside a tortilla, but it really took a flyer with its vegetarian offering, a bowl of charred broccoli topped with cheese. Every bite was bitter and burnt, and the cheese made it worse on the two occasions I tried it.
Chicken in a Cone at Chick’nCone — I’m not a fan of boneless fried chicken, nor am I fan of breast meat cut in small chunks and placed in an ice cream cone, covered with a cloying sauce. The purpose of this food market vendor is ostensibly so you can eat chicken with your fingers, but don’t you eat fried chicken with your fingers anyway? And then what do you do with the cone when you’re done? Find some ice cream to put in it?
Barbecued Meat Assortment at Butcher Bar — New Yorkers like to crow about our great barbecues, but we also keep our mouths shut about the bad ones. Butcher Bar began life in Astoria as a barbecue attached to the meat market, but the market eventually disappeared, leaving a pit that more often than not served up gray brisket, over-charred ribs, and other meats delivered thickly cloaked in sauce. And the Lower East Side branch was no better.
Tuna Tartare at Cecconi’s — Yes, a gorgeous setting — in this case, along the East River with the Manhattan Bridge towering overhead — can do a lot to make up for mediocre food, but not so much in this case. This tuna tartare is a perfect example: It’s really more of a poke, and it became necessary to play a game of “find the fish” in the undressed salad.
Spicy Tuna Sandwich at Kotobuki — Fusion went out of control and so did gluten-free when this so-called sandwich came out of the starting gate at this Long Island-based Japanese mini-chain with a branch in the East Village. The “bread” is compressed rice, and the filling is more shredded surimi than actual tuna. The whole thing is awash in mayo and thick gooey teriyaki sauce.
Pickle Me Roll at Beyond Sushi — This denizen of food courts produces a colorful and low-carb vegan product that is doubtlessly wholesome, but can it be called sushi? The “pickle me roll” dazzles the eyes, but slippery avocado makes it hard to eat and the pickled vegetables (mainly carrots) so tough you could crack a filling trying to chew them. The useless orange sauce comes comically in what looks like a condom.
Smoked Brisket Ravioli at Pig Bleecker — There must be some reason nobody has wrapped noodles around barbecue before: Oh, yeah, it’s a horrible idea. Smoked brisket does fine all by itself without turning it into ravioli and artistically spurting sweet red sauce all over it like it’s done at this Greenwich Village restaurant.
Okra in Peanut Butter at Alley 41 — Sichuan food is evolving in some interesting directions in Flushing, but bar food isn’t one of them. From the bar menu at Alley 41 comes a dish called okra in peanut butter, and that’s a perfect description — plain steamed okra standing up in nearly unreconstructed peanut butter like whiskers sticking out of a wart. One bite, and you’re done.
Falafel Taco at Empellon — I’m a fan of the tacos at the various branches of Empellon, and could down a pastrami, duck carnitas, or hash brown taco any day of the week. But this sense of wild invention also carries some risk that a big dud must occasionally occur. Such is the case with the falafel taco, a cross-cultural experiment that takes effort to masticate, and doesn’t taste good, with carbs clashing.