It has long been my objective to only eat things that taste good. Naturally, an occasional failure accompanies this endeavor. Still, most of what I eat proves soul-satisfying or at least interesting. But every once in a while something so awful comes along that it attains an almost poetic level of badness. Every December, I round up and corral these gastronomic failures. Ironically, some come from restaurants that mainly deserve praise, proving that even talented chefs can take a culinary tumble. Indeed, some of these dishes have already disappeared from their respective menus. Next week I’ll publish my 15 favorite dishes to more than counterbalance the bad.
Smokehouse Brisket Sandwich at Arby’s: It was with some excitement that I peddled toward the new Arby’s just south of the Port Authority, after reading a couple of years ago about the deleterious impact the sandwich chain was having on the nation’s brisket supply. Well, the sandwich turned out to be horrible in all sorts of unpredictable ways. First off, the brisket looked and tasted more like bacon than beef. But the meat flavor was obscured by a thick slice of gooey smoked gouda and clouds of mayo. There was barbecue sauce, too, and some onions that tasted like they were shaken from a can. I feel a little queasy now remembering it.
Steak Omakase at Cote: After reading so many raves about Cote Korean Steakhouse, I had to see for myself. Pulling out all the stops, I opted for the steak omakase at $125, which promised seven types of beef grilled over gas flame, plus plenty of other Korean goodies. Well, about half the steak cubes burst with flavor while the other half were dull. The signature cube was a prime ribeye aged for 120 days, pride of the steakhouse. When it arrived, it glinted purplish, and once grilled and bitten into, it delivered an overwhelming reek of ammonia. Not sure how often this happens, but someone at the restaurant should have given the meat the sniff test before sending it my way.
Charred Avocado at Gitano: It descended on us like a spaceship. Originating in Tulum, Mexico, Gitano was a temporary outdoor bar and restaurant that appeared last summer at Sixth Avenue and Canal Street in a former parking lot, inauspiciously fenced with big sheets of what looked like tar paper. All the food was cooked in a small hearth, and the menu’s greatest failure among many was a charred avocado littered with slivered almonds and squirted with ponzu sauce. The burned taste of the fruit dominated, and the citrus made it worse.
Boneless Chicken Wings at Anchor Bar: It caused some excitement when Buffalo’s famed Anchor Bar announced plans to open a branch on 57th Street. Anchor Bar, you see, is the place that claims to have invented the country’s foremost bar snack in 1964. I tried these wings in their hometown a few years back and found them superb. But when I visited our new branch, the food needed some work. The boneless wings — which were served because the restaurant ran out of the bone-in variety — were gooey and covered with thick breading. Real Buffalo wings are fried without breading. The steak fries were chalky, too.
‘Nduja at Una Pizza Napoletana: I loved the pies at Una Pizza Napoletana, a San Francisco joint newly removed to the Lower East Side. But the side dishes were another story. Not only were they superfluous in a pizzeria, but too many seemed like an episode of Chopped, the show where befuddled contestants are offered three hilariously incompatible ingredients and asked to cook with them. The ‘nduja — itself a faddish form of salami that looks like it has been run over by a truck — is matched with bitter nasturtium leaves and bland raw turnip, neither of which really adds anything to the salami. I’m sure the dish made for some stunning Instagram photos, though.
Cauliflower Al Pastor at El Toro Blanco: Some dishes are so perfect that they actively discourage innovation. Pork al pastor is one of those, fragments of pork fitted together into a cylinder that rotates on a vertical spit, constantly bathed in juice from a pineapple affixed to the top. The pineapple juice is a natural tenderizer that softens the meat as it cooks and crisps. So who would substitute a cauliflower, a vegetable so easily overcooked, and pool Oaxacan mole amarillo underneath? The scatter of pine nuts over the top at El Toro Blanco only furnished a distraction.
Pho at Chef Pho and Peking Roast Duck: Stick with the fried rice, the fried dumplings, or even the General Tso’s chicken at this semi-elegant Hell’s Kitchen spot, and you’ll have a fine meal. But don’t tarry in the Vietnamese soup division of the menu. There, you’ll find several versions of pho in which principal ingredients are baby corn (seemingly pulled from a can), barely cooked button mushrooms, and green bell peppers, which send the flavor spinning off in a completely undesirable direction.
Special Sushi at Nusr-Et Steakhouse: Perhaps the most ill-conceived dish of the year is the so called special beef sushi at Salt Bae’s restaurant Nusr-Et, which was all misplaced panache and no flavor. Tiny lozenges of sushi rice are formed, then smothered in miniature cloaks of raw shaved beef. They are then incinerated with a blow torch as awe-struck diners look on, partly in fear. Finally, some potato straws are crushed on top for this meager appetizer (three pieces for $20). One piece barely constitutes a single bite.
Texas Links at Jax BBQ: It seemed there was disappointment around every corner when I visited barbecue newcomer Jax, located behind the Port Authority in Hell’s Kitchen. Served with what tasted like bottled blue cheese dressing, the item called Texas links turned out to be plain old Italian pork sausage instead of the real Texas hot links I’d hoped for, or even the more common beef links of Central Texas. As a former Dallasite who depended on hot links for my high school lunches, it was an emotional disappointment in addition to a culinary one. They didn’t even taste like smoke. Management must have figured that no real Texan would ever wander into the place. The ribs and pulled pork — smothered in a sickly sweet barbecue sauce — were equally off.
Deli Style Reuben at Butcher’s Daughter: This modish restaurant that styles itself a “vegetable slaughterhouse” is all vegetarian and also mainly vegan and gluten free. It’s also jammed with customers most of the day. But one element of its veganism is the use of meat substitutes and soy cheese, and those substitutes taste uniformly terrible, whether imitating corned beef, merguez, or a slice of American cheese. The café’s Reuben is particularly loathsome, disrespecting a sandwich that’s a New York City icon. And on white bread, too.
Check out previous worst dish round-ups: