I’ve always been suspicious of TV chefs. Yes, they can make food that looks good, but what about food that tastes good? So when Cat Cora of Iron Chef flew into town, figuratively speaking, to open her first full-blown New York restaurant Fatbird, I couldn’t wait to check it out. The place is auspiciously located across the street from Apple and one block south of Google on the edge of MePa.
Not that this is her first outing in the restaurant world. Cora has a place in a Singaporean aquarium serving seafood; five in American airports featuring tapas, sandwiches, and bread dips; another in an airport that concentrates on beer and pub grub; a corporate pop-up Mediterranean restaurant called Olilo with locations in over 30 states; and, in the build-out stages, a wine bar in a Connecticut casino. Fatbird, however, dabbles in a cuisine close to the heart of this Jackson, Mississippi native: Southern food.
When a friend and I arrived, we found a restaurant in disarray. Here are the things that went wrong at Cat Cora’s Fatbird. (The chef herself was not there.)
1. The drinks menu runs 12 pages, while the food menu, tucked away at the back of the spiral-bound volume, only three. The drinks are sweet, made with ungainly combinations of multiple boozes and fruit juices, and served in jars ranging in size from one pint to two gallons, nearly all priced from $16 to $99.
2. An example: Honky Tonk Hippie Juice — “Get your happy on with this boot, scoot, and fruity concoction of watermelon vodka, triple sec, coconut rum, strawberry pink lemonade, and muddled strawberries!”
3. My companion wanted to start with the lead-off item on the menu, called “Not Yer’ Mama’s Jello Shot” [sic]. Priced at $6, it was the cheapest alcohol on the menu, a bilevel concoction of tea and lemonade in a sort of satanic Arnold Palmer. The waiter told us the restaurant doesn’t have it yet.
4. Instead, she ordered a pilsner. The waiter brought an I.P.A.
5. I went for a mint julep. “You mean our pineapple mint julep?” asked the waiter, pointing to a drink on page 11. When the drink arrived I tasted it and spit it out. “The bartender mixed up the salt and the sugar,” the waiter later confessed, as he brought me another hopelessly weak mint julep.
6. The deviled eggs strewn with bacon bits (five halves for $10) were fine, but the grilled blue point oysters (three for $12), were repulsive, rubbery and spilling over with brownish “chipotle garlic butter” which tasted like none of those ingredients.
7. We asked for fried chicken and waffles ($25). The waiter told us the waffles “haven’t arrived yet.” We suppressed an impulse to ask, “Where do you expect them to come from if you don’t make them here?”
8. Chicken is offered in two varieties: “famous Fatbird fried chicken” and “Nashville style hot chicken,” both priced at $26 for a half bird. The trouble is, the online menu offers the half chickens with any two sides from a choice of 11, but the menu before us specified they’d only be served with a biscuit and kale slaw. When the bird arrived, there was only a biscuit and no kale slaw. For two sides with a half chicken, it’s $34 for the “Fatbird Special,” which is what we ordered.
9. In the two varieties of chicken, both halves were massive, with swollen breasts, mushy and unevenly applied breading, and no crisp skin. The flesh was virtually flavorless.
10. The Nashville hot chicken was the biggest disappointment. It arrived thickly drenched with a spicy tomato paste, overwhelming the bird with its heat and sweetness.
11. The biscuits were good, but had been unaccountably split in half and grilled before delivery, as if they had been prepped already for the menu section titled Dessert Biscuits.
It is rare that I’m so critical of a restaurant on a first look. But the combination of bad booze and bad food is a problem that Fatbird must overcome. Do New Yorkers or even New York visitors want a menu so heavy with frankly stupid drinks served in jars? In a town already brimming with great fried chicken (Dirty Bird is just down the block), who wants expensive and mediocre fried chicken? More important, can a restaurant that’s a disaster in its opening days turn itself around? Here’s hoping it will.