Frank Bruni vs. Frank Bruni vs. Frank Bruni

New York Times dining critic Frank Bruni’s recent savaging of Ago — the Italian restaurant in part owned by Robert De Niro — was the source of water-cooler chatter and foodblog amusement this week. Like most critics, Bruni is always most entertaining when he’s got his claws out. So how does his trashing of Ago compare with one of his most legendary bad reviews, that being a ritual execution of Ninja, a ridiculous theme restaurant with a readily guessable motif? Let’s discuss! And just for comparison’s sake, I’ll throw in Bruni’s high praise for Robert’s Steak House, the widely acclaimed meatery nestled in the voluptuous folds of the Penthouse Executive Club. Yes, it’s steak with a side of strippers. Go ahead and pretend that bothers you.

SETTING

Ago: “[Owners Agostino Sciandri and Robert de Niro] 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. … 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.”

Ninja: “Ninja New York deposits you in a kooky, dreary subterranean labyrinth that seems better suited to coal mining than to supping. … An American offshoot of a restaurant in Tokyo, Ninja intends to evoke a Japanese mountain village inhabited by ninjas, a special breed of stealthy warriors. In this case they come armed not only with swords and sorcery but also with recipes, which may be their most dangerous weapons of all.”

Robert’s @ Penthouse Club: “You can find bliss in the soulless cradle of a strip mall. Why not the topless clutch of a strip club?”

SERVICE

Ago: “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 … A food deliverer conflated veal and lamb into some hybrid beast, the juveniles of two species in one.”

Ninja: “In the service of table-side derring-do the restaurant spotlights what it calls a meteorite pot, a milky brew with Thai seasonings and slices of pork loin. A ninja cooks it in close, sizzling proximity to diners by heaving a large, hot rock into the broth. It’s a soup and a sauna, not to mention a pointless effort for the thin, dull outcome.”

Robert’s @ Penthouse Club: “[A house stripper] said she was running low on cabernet. I took the cue and asked if I could buy her a fresh glass. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘And you can pour it on my toes.'”

MENU

Ago: “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. … And no pig should perish for a pork chop as dry as one at Ago.”

Ninja: “It has a stringy crab dish served on a grapefruit that belches smoke, a ridiculous dessert in the shape of a frog and a whole lot of nerve. … In the name of ‘new style sushi’ Ninja employs rice cakes as beds – or sometimes graves – for a rectangle of truffle-flecked omelet (it tasted like soggy French toast), a sliver of sautéed foie gras (pleasant, but how could it not be?) and a finger of seaweed-crowned mackerel (fishy in the extreme). … It trots out a golden tower roll, which inexplicably embeds uni in spongecake, and a spring snow roll, which engulfs eel in an obliterating puck of sweetened cream cheese.”

Robert’s @ Penthouse Club: “At Robert’s Steakhouse I got char, richness, depth and a more pronounced degree of aging, an unmistakable tanginess that accentuated and stretched out the beef’s flavor. … cream and bacon turn a side of brussels sprouts into something naughty, though not as naughty as the most unusual dessert. It’s called a buttery nipple, and it involves one of the women straddling your lap, tilting your head back, pouring a combination of Baileys Irish Cream and butterscotch schnapps down your throat, and squirting Reddi-wip into your mouth.”

HAPPY ENDING

Ago: “… nearby … diners … looked miserable.”

Ninja: “It should also advise its ninjas that it’s not nice to brag about having entertained a Hollywood celebrity who, by the account of the ninja in question, was the apparent beneficiary of recent breast augmentation.”

Robert’s @ Penthouse Club: “The [stripper] coated her hands with moisturizer and, less seductively, antibacterial gel.”

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