Looks nice, but looks can be deceiving.
I often read the restaurant reviews in my local papers and sometimes in the New York Time or other large national papers. For the most part, it seems to me that no reviewer ever goes to a bad restaurant. I know that they have to exist because I’ve had the displeasure of eating at some of them. Still, even some bad restaurants gets better reviews than they deserve, almost as if the reviewer is ashamed to admit they even ate there.
But a writer at the New York Times finally wrote a review that seems unbelievably honest. In fact, it perfectly relays one of the worse dining experience I’ve heard in recent history. The author, Frank Bruni, writes about “Ago” at the Greenwich Hotel in TriBeCa, and if there was a Pulitzer for best restaurant review, he deserves it. Here it is for your enjoyment:
No Trouble Drawing a Crowd
By FRANK BRUNI
Published: June 11, 2008
BECAUSE our 8:30 p.m. table at Ago wasn’t ready by 8:51, we were still at the bar when the great wave of white wine crashed over it.
I’m talking about the “Poseidon Adventure” of wine spills. Shelley Winters could have done the backstroke in it. I’m not sure how the bartender set it in motion, and neither was he. He kept marveling at its fury and aftermath: my friend’s wine-splashed chin, her wine-soaked skirt, her wine-sopped entirety.
He apologized perhaps 639 times, and I wouldn’t recount the incident if that were the whole of it. Spills happen.
The following shouldn’t.
At 8:56, when he asked my friend if he could help out in any way beyond free drinks, she wondered if he could maybe see about our table for four. He bolted away for a prolonged huddle with the hostesses, who had noticed (and seemed to giggle) over the sauvignon tsunami, and with a manager. He was visibly pleading with them.
He returned at 9:02 with something less than disaster relief. Our table, he said, should be ready in 10 minutes. Never mind that we’d been told at 8:45 that we had five minutes to go. Never mind that Ago has some 110 seats, giving it more flexibility than many restaurants have.
We waited. And waited. One of the hostesses finally fetched us at 9:22. I’ll do the math: that’s 52 minutes after our reservation.
She led us to a round table little bigger than a bike wheel. When our four appetizers later arrived and claimed every square millimeter of it, the waiter audibly contemplated balancing a fifth, communal appetizer that we’d ordered on top of our wine glasses.
The table was pressed so close to a column that I couldn’t lower my right arm all the way, and if my wine-drenched friend leaned back in her chair, the column obstructed her view of me and mine of her.
For its soggiest customer, Ago had made available its sorriest real estate.
This restaurant isn’t in the hospitality business. It’s in the attitude business, projecting an aloofness that permeated all of my meals there, nights of wine and poses for swingers on the make, cougars on the prowl and anyone else who values a sort of facile fabulousness over competent service or a breaded veal Milanese with any discernible meat.
The one I had one night was pounded so thin that the breading on top met the breading on the bottom without pausing for much of anything in between. A vegan could have made peace with it.
Some of the other food passed muster. The best of the pizzas from Ago’s wood-fired brick oven had blistered, smoky crusts and thin sheets of decent Parmesan. An appetizer of burrata was suitably creamy, and a juicy T-bone — cooked, like the pizzas, in the brick oven — satisfied the steak lover in me.
But this restaurant in the new Greenwich Hotel in TriBeCa doesn’t concentrate its energies on quality or consistency. It’s content to be a deafening “hot spot,” which is how it’s identified in the headline atop its inaugural press release, and when you’ve got the heat and the crowd is standing-room-only, why sweat the raw artichoke salad? The paltry artichoke was hard to find among all the frisée, and Shelley could have done the freestyle in the dressing.
Ago’s principal owners include the chef Agostino Sciandri — the restaurant, pronounced AH-go, is named after him — and the actor Robert DeNiro, who treated TriBeCa much better with Nobu. They teamed on an initial Ago in West Hollywood, another in South Beach and yet another in Las Vegas. New York is getting their sloppy fourths, emphasis on sloppy.
They poured some money into the place, which occupies a corner space with grand windows. The reclaimed wood in the beams on the high ceiling is from the 1800’s. The mirrors are antique glass. With columns bedecked in marble and a floor of terra cotta from Tuscany, the trattoria wears Prada, or whatever the decorative equivalent is.
The menu is divided into antipasti, pasta dishes (along with risotto and gnocchi), pizzas and main courses of fish and meat.
It has stabs of ill-advised invention, like a starter of gummy juniper-smoked swordfish with misshapen, oddly frayed wedges of orange and other citrus.
It has usual suspects, like spaghetti (overcooked) with clams (slightly gritty), or grilled branzino (moist, though bland) with sauteed spinach.
Apart from gnocchi with a robust lamb ragu, most of the pasta dishes — much more expensive and less reliable than those at Morandi, say, or Gemma — were on the bland side. And no pig should perish for a pork chop as dry as one at Ago.
Desserts were dead-on one night, dead ringers for Sara Lee another. Stick with the terrific gelato, made in-house.
Brace yourself for confusion.
I called in early May for a reservation in early June and was informed that everything between 6 and 10 p.m. was booked. I called a few days later to ask anew about the same dates and was informed that reservations weren’t yet being taken for that time period.
A sommelier chided me for ordering wine bottle No. 199, saying the number didn’t exist. Wrong: it was there, but the restaurant had inexplicably put it after No. 200 on the expensive list.
A food deliverer conflated veal and lamb into some hybrid beast, the juveniles of two species in one. This happened on a night when my companions and I waited 26 minutes past our reservation time. Our appetizers included a pasty tuna tartare.
Then came an entree that perplexed us, a pale slab of meat with one long bone.
“What is this?” asked one of my friends.
“The special veal chop,” said the food deliverer.
“But I ordered rack of lamb,” my friend said. I had heard him.
“Yes,” said the deliverer. “That’s rack of lamb.”
My friend pressed: which was it?
“It’s the special rack-of-lamb veal chop,” the deliverer said, at which point we sought deliverance from him and searched for our frequently vanishing waiter, whom I had come to think of as the bucatini Houdini.
When he reappeared, he identified the meat as veal. He insisted that rack of lamb couldn’t have been among the specials he’d recited because the restaurant wasn’t even serving it. My friend and I were apparently in the grip of the very same auditory hallucination.
He offered to bring us something else, but we stuck with the veal. It wasn’t half bad.
When we left we noticed him squabbling with nearby diners. They were telling him he’d mucked up their order, and they looked miserable.
They had clearly gotten the hang of the place.
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