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Rocco DiSpirito, a booth, a binchotan box
Rocco DiSpirito, a booth, a binchotan box
Jonathan Pushnik/The Standard [Official Photo]

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A Wild Night Contemplating the Return of Rocco DiSpirito

Critics Robert Sietsema and Ryan Sutton debate the comeback of the great seafood chef at the Standard Grill

Two weeks ago my good colleague Robert and I had a somewhat protracted meal at the Standard Grill, which marks the unexpected return of Rocco DiSpirito to the New York dining scene. Yes, that Rocco, the Union Pacific seafood maestro, the reality food TV star, the unlucky aspirant on Dancing With the Stars, the more successful contestant on a Guy Fieri game show, and the wellness cookbook author behind Negative Calorie Diet: Lose Up to Ten Pounds in Ten Days, and its less (or more) ambitious cousin, Lose Five Pounds in Five Days.

And now, after a decade-plus hiatus, he’s cooking in a restaurant again, serving up some of his greatest seafood hits, some assorted skewers from a binchotan (Japanese charcoal) grill, and, well, something called game-changing toast. Like almost every dish on the menu, it is gluten- and dairy-free.

Our visit occurred in the wake of positive reviews from Adam Platt of New York magazine and Pete Wells of the New York Times, though Hannah Goldfield of the New Yorker had a more skeptical take.

We have a lot of ground to cover here, so let’s kick it off: How was our $386 dinner?

The Room, The Famous Raw Scallops, The Wait

Robert: I didn’t much like the atmosphere of the place, which is dark and what is often called “clubby,” but I found parts of the far-flung and frankly weird menu likable. And I especially enjoyed seeing DiSpirito cooking again, and not as a preening TV star.

Ryan: I thought the atmosphere (and decor) was wonderful. The Gustavino-style ceilings reminded me of the old Grand Central Oyster Bar, a fitting match for one of the city’s top seafood chefs of yore. ’Twas fun seeing such a tony crowd, including food critic emeritus Alan Richman and ex-Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. Though things got weird quickly —our spotty meal felt like the work of a restaurant that was less than a week old.

Shishito peppers grilled over the binchotan
Shishito peppers grilled over the binchotan
Jonathan Pushnik/The Standard [Official Photo]

Robert: When you and I entered, the hostess steered us toward a tiny table by the front door. The menu was expensive enough and featured all sorts of seafood, but the problem was that it wasn’t the restaurant we’d come to try. That actual Rocco DiSpirito restaurant was unmarked and through a pair of flapping blue curtains. I can’t help but think that a bit of bait and switch was involved, and that many guests come to try DiSpirito’s cooking and end up eating in the wrong place.

Ryan: But what’s crazier of course is how long we waited for our food to show up. And there was something distinctly odd about the waiter giving a short speech about a $39 Bordeaux blend — by the glass — when we were about to eat reasonably light raw fish.

Robert: You’re right, Ryan, we waited almost an hour before the amuse appeared, while tables on either side of us plowed through multiple dishes, including a couple of food-world celebrities. (I don’t mean to say a pair of celebrities were consumed.) And the amuse was just a couple of swatches of unremarkable smoked salmon with apple matchsticks on top.

Ryan: It was bad. The salmon had been smoked so hard it was almost impossible to tell it was salmon; it was as if all the luxurious oils had been leached out.

Robert: But when our full raw seafood platter on a huge hump of crushed ice actually arrived, the components were unfailingly fresh, including live uni in the shell that had a striking carmine color and slid down the tongue like a child on a sled navigating a snowy hillside. Then, in his most famous dish, that uni also reappeared nestled alongside shards of Peconic Bay scallops — in their own shells — like some orange interloper.

Peconic bay scallops with uni and tomato water
Peconic bay scallops with uni and tomato water
Jonathan Pushnik/The Standard [Official Photo]

Ryan: That’s beautiful imagery, Robert, but I disagree. The scallops with uni, which should have been an elegant study in seafaring sugars and musk — with tomato water for floral acidity — turned out to be nothing more than bland, icy seafood. The components were overchilled and devoid of flavor. What did you think of the tuna tartare, a fancier version of which apparently had a human moaning in the Ruth Reichl review?

Robert: It was like poke from a chain store.

Ryan: Yes, it was just fine, a forgettable snack, chunks of cool fish laced with cilantro. It’s a dish that shouldn’t have turned heads twenty years ago. And now, this chic hotel is peddling it for $21 (there’s also a $37 toro tartare with caviar), alongside a plate of “game-changing toast.” I know you had some thoughts about that, Robert.

Concerning That Bread-Free Bread Service...

Robert: Seedy and dry, the bread was like something from Scandinavia gone stale over a period of decades. Not really bread, either, and I mean that technically.

Ryan: Yes yes, it wasn’t really bread. It’s this blend of chia seeds, oats, hazelnuts, psyllium husks, and chia seeds that looks like a plank of petrified wood from the Cretaceous era. It completely overwhelms the uni, tartare, anything it comes with because everyone knows that roofing shingles tend to overpower whatever food is placed on them. And when you bite into it those shingles turn to gravel.

Black truffle risotto
Black truffle risotto
Jonathan Pushnik/The Standard [Official Photo]

Robert: The meal was exceedingly low on carbs. Incidentally, at one point in the meal, I looked over my shoulder into the kitchen and there stood DiSpirito himself all in black, like the priest in a Satanic cult, vigorously stirring a small bowl of risotto. Then he disappeared as if in a puff of steam. When it arrived, that risotto reflected Rocco’s elbow grease, with a perfect creaminess. Dotted with delicious baby pink shrimp, which must have been tossed in at the last moment and cooked for perhaps 15 seconds more, it was the best thing we ate all evening.

At $35 the bowl was quite small, but then again it was also speckled with big hunks of black truffle. Big chunks of truffle? It sounds luxurious but, cooked into the risotto, the truffles themselves had no flavor and only distracted from the grain’s texture. To have had maximum effect, the truffles would have had to have been shaved tableside at the last moment, as shown in the picture at the left, which doesn’t look like what we got. We didn’t get any shaved truffles.

Ryan: I agree — partly. This was the risotto of a lifetime for me. Al dente without being chewy, creamy and rich without being leaden, intensely oceanic thanks to those silky shrimp, and powerfully truffly yet not oppressively so. But regarding truffles, I find that the evanescent and ethereal aroma of the white variety does in fact necessitate tableside shaving, while black tartufi impart their flavor with cooking. I thought those large black chunks of truffle had brilliant profound notes of earth, olive, and chocolate.

The Binchotan, The Arsonist, The Future of Rocco

Robert: At least there was plenty of tableside service, this being 2019 (though the dining room feels like 1971). Tiny brochettes of chicken heart, quail, and squid so small their mother might have overlooked them get put in a rickety wheeled wooden box like an antique street vendor’s cart. The cart stops, and your order is nestled into a bowl and placed in front of you ceremoniously.

Priced at three for $28 or six for $49, these brochettes are available in nine permutations (including “wild shrimp wrapped in sea lettuce,” which sounds like the title of a Dali painting). These skewers can be quite good, but only if your pockets are full of cash, because six are not even enough to make a dent in your hunger.

Ryan: You’re right, they can be quite good. Or just the opposite. The grilled scallops were sandy. The tuna belly, normally so fatty it nearly melts in the mouth, was torched to such a degree that it instead exhibited a dense texture and a charcoal sting. Better were the chicken hearts, packing a succulent meatiness, and the lilliputian squid, which were pleasantly squishy with a delicate oceanic tang. Robert, remind me how you liked dessert?

Robert: We split an order of baked Alaska, which was all curlicues of meringue, with little cake and less ice cream inside. An elegant gentlemen in a bespoke suit set it aflame.

Baked Alaska at The Standard
Baked Alaska at The Standard
Robert Sietsema

The menu is a curious one, and that’s a strength for this establishment. Some of it recalls DeSpirito’s work at Union Pacific, especially the short dishes that reflect his preoccupation with raw seafood. So does the “whole truffled poussin Perigordine.” The small bird with most of its bones removed tasted faintly of truffles, but what I like better was the mashed potatoes that had settled underneath.

Ryan: Yeah nothing really special about that $36 bird. And to your point, the menu is indeed curious, and that’s why I think the Standard is ultimately promising, our crazy night notwithstanding. I think it’s cool that a hotel restaurant is doing Japanese-style skewers. I’ve long believed the classic French-American brasserie suffers from severe stasis, so respect DiSpirito’s decision to internationalize the format with a binchotan. But if he’s gonna be charging these prices he’s going to need to learn to execute — and create — especially with more imaginative and reliable raw fish chefs like Ignacio Mattos of Flora Bar.

And one more thing, I don’t begrudge the years he spent outside of professional restaurants. Anything that can give a human mental (and financial) relief from the daily grind of running a top kitchen is something I support. That all said, I’m stoked he’s back.

The Standard Grill

848 Washington Street, Manhattan, NY 10014 (212) 645-4100 Visit Website
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