During the most difficult days of COVID, professional restaurant critics cushioned their blows, soft-pedaling negative comments out of fear their words could threaten the survival of restaurants. My own annual worst dishes list was thought to be inappropriate and wasn’t assigned in 2020 and 2021. At the time, it made sense: Who needed more negativity in an already deeply negative time? But now that restaurants have survived and even flourished, and meals have suffered severe price inflation, vehement criticism seems germane again, and the public seems to love it.
Note that many of these worst dishes are flukes in otherwise great menus, and appearing on the list doesn’t mean other things aren’t worthy of praise. For that praise, look to next week’s 15 best dishes list.
Banana split at Daddies: So many desserts these days are composed along Instagram lines, brimming with bright colors, extraneous ingredients, and all sorts of other bells and whistles, substituting for the plain-looking treats of the past that actually satisfied. Daddies’ banana split is a great example of a contemporary dessert fail, a compendium of inferior ingredients including supermarket-level (freezer-burned) ice creams and syrups. Every bite is high-caloric torture, down to the unripe banana that tastes like it needed a few more hours in the ethylene gas. The stale wafer on top is the worst, which reeks of raw alcohol. You really can’t tell what type of alcohol, but don’t want to take another bite to find out.
Burrata and salad Olivier at Slava: The appearance of burrata on area menus — really just a runny form of mozzarella — was a blessing at first, but it gradually began showing up everywhere in dishes it didn’t belong. It quickly became a nuisance ingredient, one that you were expected to plow through and pay extra for that didn’t really add anything. Thus, newcomer Slava, a supposed Ukrainian restaurant that never seems to have consulted a Ukrainian cookbook, uselessly plopped a burrata down in the middle of an Olivier salad. This Russian side dish basically adds mixed vegetables to mayo potato salad and the result is nearly always mediocre. But now put a big indigestible ball of burrata in the middle and — you get the idea — meh added to more meh. (The dish recently disappeared from the menu.)
Linguine and meatballs at Renato’s Piccolo Angolo: Is quantity by itself a virtue? This question was recently put to the test at Renato’s Piccolo Angolo, a little West Village spot packed every night and even more so after the death of its charismatic founder several years ago. This Italian American classic dish is characterized here by absurdly big meatballs, causing patrons to catch their breath as the platter emerges from the kitchen with either anticipation or dread. I was cautious, because who wants to eat two meatballs the size of a prizefighter’s fists, weighing in at an estimated half-pound apiece? These clods have no discernible flavor — oniony, herbal, or otherwise. Tell me, who can eat a full pound of unflavored ground beef in one sitting?
Peking duck roll at Brooklyn Dumpling Shop: When Brooklyn Dumpling Shop opened last year on First Avenue and St. Marks Place, I wondered at the name. Are East Villagers supposed to be drawn to the “Brooklyn” part, as if their own neighborhood lacked Brooklyn’s glamour? Moreover, what association does Brooklyn have with dumplings, apart from several excellent Chinatowns, where beautiful thin-skinned dim sum is cheap, delicious, and plentiful? Well, the dumplings here were none of the sort — thick-skinned and soggy, they came in plastic envelopes. I dutifully returned this year to find a vastly expanded menu including egg rolls. I ordered the version stuffed with duck and received a pitiful serving of over-fried wrappers falling apart filled with dull-tasting protein.
BBQ brisket at Dickson’s Farmstand Meats: Dickson’s at Chelsea Market is one of my favorite butchers in town, and I don’t hesitate to stop there for a steak, rotisserie chicken, or a great hot dog delivered in a bun with mustard. Recently, it installed a prepared meat cafe in the basement, peddling burgers, charcuterie, and smoked meats among a flock of comfortable tables. My heart quickened at the promise of barbecued brisket, but when I ordered it, the sliced meat was reheated on a griddle, destroying its barbecued texture and flavor and leaving the wobbly fat repulsive, an unappetizing shade of battleship gray. It had also been smothered in bad barbecue sauce, but that’s another complaint entirely.
Buffalo pork rinds at Myron Mixon’s Pitmaster Barbeque: Who can argue with such a big tray of pork rinds for less than $10? Even if they taste of cellophane bag and are a little stale. Squirt them with Buffalo-wing sauce and throw on the kind of blue cheese that never saw the inside of a cave in France — you know, the kind subsumed into bottles of dressing — thereby losing its identity as cheese entirely. This cheese doesn’t stick to the chips, perhaps luckily, so it takes some effort to rescue it from the bottom of the tray and re-sprinkle it on each dry bite, which is like something salvaged out of the wood chipper (I won’t say, “in Fargo”).
Rarebit dogs at Snowdonia: Snowdonia is a delightful Welsh dive bar in Astoria, probably the city’s only one. It is decorated with some old musical synthesizer equipment occasionally used for shows. It has an off-the-wall food menu that sometimes triumphs and other times dive-bombs. One of its notable shortcomings is the rarebit franks. Normally, rarebit is a beer-laced cheese sauce, but when the pair of hot dogs arrived it seemed to involve nothing of the sort. Two weenies had been breaded and deep fried, giving them an alarming texture, then sluiced with a dense red sauce, tacky to the touch and with a strange indefinable flavor. Was this the rarebit? There seemed to be cheese in the breading too, so maybe that was the rarebit.
Pumpkin blossom zeppole at One Fifth: As far as I know, there’s really only one thing to be done with squash blossoms — these light and luxurious harbingers of harvest season must be kept intact, stuffed with ricotta or another fluffy filling, then carefully battered and deep fried. The result is semi-crunchy and fully creamy, the perfect showcase for a flower that aspired to be a zucchini. But at this otherwise good restaurant, they are violently chopped into something unrecognizable and incorporated into a thick batter, which does violence to their delicate texture. And the use of the word zeppole — conjuring up visions of sweet summer festivals — does further damage.
Steak tartare at the Lavaux Wine Bar: This West Village wine bar is one of the best places in town to linger over a pot of fondue, a simple mixture of wine-laced cheeses heated to just the right consistency. But when it comes to beef tartare — a dish seemingly ubiquitous in NYC restaurants — stay away! Tartare should be a coarsely chopped mixture of lean steak with maybe a caper or two. But at Lavaux the meat has been so gobbed up with additions that include tomatoes, chiles, cornichons, and grainy mustard, as well as capers, that it looks and tastes more like a sour vegetable salad than a steak tartare.
Mozzarella bagel at MozzLab: I’m not complaining only on my behalf, but on behalf of mozzarellas everywhere. MozzLab is a soft-cheese manufactory rather obscurely located in Carroll Gardens and it makes some pretty good fresh mozz in several permutations. Its apparent invention of the mozzarella bagel is the work of mad scientists — pressed into an innertube shape, the cheese develops the texture of a 10-day-old bagel. Hard and difficult to chew, it destroys everything that makes mozzarella great. The grilled vegetables inside are tasty, though, so pull them out and throw the “bagel” away.
Check out previous worst dish round-ups: