When Ted Allen finally grew into the role of food guy on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which debuted in 2003, he radiated competence and knowledge. He delivered savvy advice on how to open a bottle of champagne without putting an eye out, how to invent your own personal sandwich, and generally provided short circumscribed segments that instructed his audience in cooking and entertaining. Eventually, he spun off to host chef contest show Chopped, which is one of the best of its type on TV. When asked about what he thought of carefully watching one’s diet in Season 2, Episode 6, he replied nonchalantly, “I never thought about it.”
By contrast, Antoni Porowski — the food dude on the new version of the show, who was once Allen’s personal chef — spends most of his time gleefully bouncing around with the other cast members, talking about food only occasionally. Though he looks like a younger and hotter John Mayer, with a smoldering screen presence, his culinary contributions were limited to cutting an avocado, touting grilled cheese sandwiches, and poking around in pantries making skeptical noises about the lack of healthfulness, at least on the episodes I watched.
If you’re Porowski, more matinee idol than food maven, how do you expand the brand, demonstrating food expertise not always on display in the new Queer Eye? He went the restaurant route in New York City’s West Village, where rents are high but many vacancies exist. The neighborhood is also the cradle of the gay rights movement, and a place where restaurant empires like Einat Admony’s can still be forged.
He grabbed the lease of the 36-year-old Village Den, a diner of no particular distinction, except for its excellent location, at least for Porowski’s needs. It’s across the street from a multilevel gym, the perfect audience for the health-themed cafe he intended to create.
Porowski and partners Lisle Richards and Eric Marx redid the place in modern fast-casual style, throwing up a colorful cartoon map of the neighborhood and installing individual and communal tables. Cashless orders are taken at a counter, and one’s number is called as components of your meal appear, though not at the same time.
The bill of fare displayed above the counter offers six categories, titled Coffee, Breakfast, Salads, Bowls, TV Dinners, and Smoothies. A complicated system of symbols, like hieroglyphs scrawled in a cave, identifies dishes according to food fad: Whole 30, paleo, keto, plant based, vegetarian, gluten free, and detox, among them. Need I say the science behind several of these is shaky?
It was my good fortune to stumble on what might be the best dish at Village Den on my first visit. Part of a playful category called TV Dinners, further described as “not the sad kind,” Babcia’s stuffed cabbage ($17) is a tip of the homburg to Porowski’s Polish heritage, featuring a pair of leaves with a raisin-studded turkey filling, sluiced with a light tomato sauce, and dotted with pine nuts. It was absolutely delicious, though another stuffed leaf or two would have been needed to make it a full meal.
I tried two other TV dinners on further visits, and the results were not so enticing. A roast chicken breast with no skin or bone was nearly devoid of flavor, while fish sticks with a crushed macadamia coating would not satisfy someone who’d ordered fish sticks because they adored fish sticks when they were kids. Served in a paper tray, these meals came with two sides from a list of 13. I tried nearly all of them during my four visits.
The sweet potato wedges were overcooked to mushiness, the lemongrass brown rice didn’t taste much like lemongrass, and the purple potatoes were all color and no flavor. Moreover, though the main dishes were unfailingly delivered slightly warm, the sides were room temperature, and sometimes slightly desiccated. If I remember correctly, real TV dinners came out of the oven piping hot.
Clearly, there’s a flaw in the idea of assembling meals and delivering them lukewarm. The same temperature problem also plagued the bowls I tried. The Thai chicken bowl found a heap of rice surmounted by sweet cooked purple cabbage and shredded chicken in a gooey white sauce, a little cat foody but not bad. I’d eat it again, though the price tag of $13.50 was excessive. Note that these prices are effectively less, since the Square at the counter doesn’t ask for a tip, though it does charge tax.
I liked the jerk turkey meatball bowl, too, which the menu noted was suitable for paleo, Whole 30, and gluten free diners. The salads — priced at $12 to $13.50 — were the best choice, since the greens were freshly assembled in pristine condition and served at the appropriate temperature, though the kale Caesar with almond dressing lacked the cheesy and fishy kick one expects from a Caesar. Indeed, I didn’t see any cheese on the menu anywhere, especially not the grilled cheese Porowski had touted on the show. Both bread and cheese are apparently off limits at Village Den.
Seafood was restricted to one salmon bowl and the aforementioned fish sticks TV dinner. Apart from boiled eggs, other animal-based proteins were limited to chicken and turkey. The paleos I know wouldn’t be happy.
If you want to drink your lunch, three types of smoothies are provided, in the categories Berry, Green, and Almond & PB — with PB standing for peanut butter, as if you didn’t know already. These run from $8.50 to $10. Thick and cold, sometimes containing yogurt, and displaying wild flavor combinations, these were more interesting than I’d expected. One called nuts and jolts combined almond butter and vegan chocolate, then spiked it with cold brew. Starbucks, watch your back!
Ultimately, I found it disappointing that little specific nutritional info was provided in a place supposedly devoted to nutrition. How many calories was my nuts and jolts, for example? My guess is plenty. And while some of the food was novel and well turned out, little was cooked to order, making some of the offerings seem not quite fresh. The menu suffered from being overpriced, too, considering lettuce, rice, cauliflower, and chicken breast were prominent raw materials.
Still, despite a lack of bigger ticket proteins and fancier ingredients, Village Den is certainly an interesting experiment in new ways to create and merchandise fast food with an emphasis on healthiness. Breakfast is expected to debut soon, after several delays. Let’s see if it benefits from more things freshly prepared.