Witnessing Arlington Club’s Laurent Tourondel & Paul Goldstein Respond To NYT Review

While the steakhouse remains a particularly American concept, nothing’s more enjoyable than the sound of a Frenchman saying “piece of boeuf.” And though the pairing of chef Laurent Tourondel’s steakhouse variation with a punch of TAO Group atmosphere is less than conventional, it seems more than a good idea. Arlington Club, which opened last fall, has already made itself necessary; it’s a fine-dining spot on the Upper East Side with the energy to push past a nine o’clock bedtime.

The high-ceilinged, vaguely steampunky dining room lends itself to a party more than Maloney & Porcelli’s equestrian portrait hall, but conversation dictates the volume; there’s no Rihanna-fueled dancing on tables a-la sister properties TAO and Lavo. But the front bar is buzzing enough to have a waiting list of its own, and greeting one’s neighboring table is common practice.

The menu, which still features a 28-day dry-aged New York Strip and filet, has a pretty loose adherence to steakhouse orthodoxy. The two cuts that come most recommended—a cote du boeuf (for two) and an American Wagyu skirt steak—are abutted by seven available sauces. The macaroni and cheese comes as a ramekin of rigatoni noodles, stood on end like soldiers and crusted on top (with a crème brule torch?). The meal starts with a bowl of hot popovers, cheese-crusted on top, and just-baked on the inside. Old-school touches, like Brooklyn-gassed seltzer bottles and halved pickles, trade off with more novel steakhouse offerings. For example, they’re doing brunch.

But so far, the only sticking point has been the presence of sushi in the top corner of the menu (the main roll is an Osaka-style spicy tuna with Sriracha). But as critics scrunch their noses, the chef contends they’ve barely kept up with the demand from guests. That’s not to say the reviews don’t matter—Tourondel’s BLT restaurants and LT Burger have garnered him an esteemed reputation among critics over the years.

And when I sat down with Tourondel and TAO Group partner Paul Goldstein last week, their publicists were compulsively tapping their phones to refresh the New York Times Dining page. Halfway through this interview, Pete Wells’ piece went up. Wait for it.

You started cooking in the French Navy, but did they train you as an infantryman?
Laurent Tourondel: Yeah, I’m a sniper.

Really?
LT: No, I’m joking. But I was in France—I was in a hotel, actually. They put me at the private hotel of the Admiral. So we were, like, fifteen [of us] inside the private hotel of the Admiral, clueless about the Army, clueless about the Navy. And one day we receive a phone call from the base. And they say someone’s going to attack the Admiral’s house, and it’s going to be an aircraft carrier from America. So the Marines, they attack the house. And in something like three minutes and fifty seconds, they tied me up, tied the guy up. And we were like, what are you guys doing? We’re not here to do war! But it was an exercise. Someone had told us there was going to be an exercise, but we didn’t know when, it was very vague.

Is the steakhouse a uniquely American thing?
LT: Definitely, I don’t think there is any other meat-specializing restaurant around the world.

Then what drew you to steak and burgers?
LT: Well, it was not really French cooking, so for me it was something different to explore. I like learning different things so, you know, it was a big challenge for me to make it successful. You know, I’m a big fan of this meat—the American beef.

Do you have strong opinions about which cuts you like and which ones you don’t?
LT: Very much so. If you come to eat and you ask me, I’ll tell you, I dis-recommend a porterhouse. I will recommend you a skirt steak, I will recommend you a good New York steak because here, we actually have an amazing New York steak. It’s prime, top quality beef.

There are a handful of steak sauces on the menu. Is that something that gets the thumbs-up?
LT: Yeah, I think it’s good to give people options. It’s part of the sharing process at the table, and sharing is what we oriented this restaurant around. It’s very much about the center of the table—everybody shares.

Is Arlington Club looking to build an atmosphere similar to Lavo and Tao?
Paul Goldstein: It’s a bit toned down. We go into every one of our properties with a vision, but we also just go with it. Lavo wasn’t meant to be this dancing-on-tables-and-chairs party atmosphere, but it just kind of played out like that, and it worked. And we thought Arlington Club was going to be a little bit more fine dining than any of our other restaurants, and it is. But we’re getting a fun crowd, which is creating a little bit of a buzz. You know, at a point we thought it would be fine dining, and now it’s just more fun dining. We get that earlier crowd that likes that fine dining, and then 7:30pm, 8pm, it turns into the Upper East Side who’s who.

How have you managed to be successful at bringing in crowds late at night in this neighborhood?
PG: We create a buzz. It’s turned into a little bit of a destination spot for the downtown crowd.

So people are coming up?
PG: Some people are coming up—I think it’s more of the downtown crowd that lives uptown, that doesn’t want to go downtown. I heard a story about Blue Ribbon—when they started Blue Ribbon, it was dead. And they were like, we got to push it, we got to stay with it, we want to be that late-night spot. And two, three years into it, the chefs started coming, people started hearing about it being a late-night spot, and it’s now obviously what it is today, packed ’til four, five o’clock in the morning every single night. And that’s kind of something that we always think about. If we keep on pushing it, and keep on pushing it, we’ll eventually be able to get that crowd.

Is it difficult to get through that three-year period before you wind up where you really want to be? Is there the threat of things shutting down before you get there?
PG: Fortunately, you know, we’re there. I don’t want to be, um . . . I just think that we have a decent reputation for creating a bar scene, creating a little bit of a vibe. And we’re getting it. Guests like coming in later.

LT:It’s amazing to me because I had a restaurant on 77th street, and we used to do early seatings. But last night, it was like ten o’clock, and we had, I don’t know, seventy people that just sat down. It was crazy, you know?

And that’s not something you’ve experienced before?
LT: Not in this neighborhood, no.

PG: (to his publicist) Did it come out?

Publicist: We’re being told that, yes.

PG: And?

Publicist: Opening it. 2 stars.

(A moment later, applause erupted from the kitchen. Pete Wells gave the restaurant a great review overall, pointing to the sushi as the one awkward mistake, and diagnosing an “identity crisis” based on the deviations from standard steakhouse food and atmosphere).

PG: He loves that. The whole “identity crisis” thing.

Well, what was the inspiration for combining sushi with a more traditional steakhouse menu?
LT: You know, I think what we wanted to do was provide a different kind of appetizer. So instead of, you know, the typical crab cake you have on every steakhouse menu. We still have it here, but we modernize it a little bit.

At this point in your career, do you still get nervous and excited about reviews?
LT: It’s funny, I didn’t think about it today until [our publicists] came, like an hour ago. I’ve been rated probably eight times, ten times, I don’t know. Three times I’ve gotten a three star, bunch of times two stars. We have to pay attention to it because our clientele around here is very much the Upper East Side, and they read the New York Times everyday.

PG:This will help where we need help. This will help the five o’clock seating. Restaurants in New York, they’re busy from seven-thirty to nine. That doesn’t impress us. To be busy at five-thirty? That’s impressive. To be busy at eleven-thirty? That’s impressive. And the crowd up here, they go to good restaurants, and they go at five-thirty. And two stars—that’s a great restaurant. I know it’s two out of four, and some people would say it’s fifty percent, or whatever, but two stars for the style of service we have is top-notch.

What does the vibe become at 11 o’clock at night?
PG:A lot of chatter, a lot of talking. This table getting and up and saying hi to that table, tables combining. We never raise the volume of the music higher than the noise of the guests speaking. Whereas in our other restaurants, as the volume of the guests’ speaking raises, we raise the volume of the music to kind of, you know, add fuel to the fire. Whereas here, as the volume of the guests go up, we actually lower the music and let that be the atmosphere.

I don’t often think of steakhouses as being brunch restaurants, but you guys have it.
LT: It’s a good point. But besides being a steakhouse, we’re also a neighborhood restaurant. And I don’t think there’s much going on around these couple blocks at the time of brunch, so we could be really busy, doing maybe a late brunch, with some great drinks. Maybe more family oriented, you know, on Sunday.

PG: The partnership that we have, although it’s the first, I think it’s really worked out. It’s taught me a lot. He deals with the back of the house, and they let us do what we do at the front of the house.

Top NYC Restaurants and Bars of 2012

The end of 2012 brings excitement for what’s to come in 2013, but also a slew of tasty memories from dining and drinking out for almost 365 days this year. Of all the places I tried, these nine New York places, people, and events stuck out.

1. Xixa: Opened by the team from Traif, this cozy, yet swank Mexican food restaurant proved a real winner in my book. From their delicate butterfish ceviche, to the fresh braised artichoke guacamole, to the whimsical wine list dedicated to fierce woman in show business, this Brooklyn eatery is worth going back to in 2013.

2. Mission Chinese: Yes, it’s that good, not to mention fun and comforting. But don’t take my word for it, when Danny Bowien opened up his second location of Mission Chinese in the Lower East Side, the first being in the Mission district of San Francisco, he hasn’t had a moment to breath since the press and fandom has been so great. Aside from that, he makes a mean mapo tofu. 

3. Charity: Pete Wells said it best in his New York Times article, “What made an equally deep impression on me, though, was the restaurant industry’s response to something else that seemed to come out of nowhere, the beating the city took when Hurricane Sandy trampled over the region.” All over the city, and country for that matter, service people rallied to help restaurants and bars that had been hit hard by the fall storm. You go NYC. 

4. The Expansion of DavidsTea: When this Canadian-based tea company came to the West Village in 2011, no one really knew who they were, or what they were about. But, between an energetic staff and tea blends including a cinnamon-green called Exotica, and coffee mixed with mate or pu’erh, they now have a solid following, which means, they keep opening up new shops all over the city and that makes me happy.

5. Gallow Green: I can’t help it, I adore Sleep No More. Now, with the airy Gallow Green bar on the roof, you don’t have to drop $75 to get a little theatrical entertainment at the fabled McKittrick Hotel. There they have live music, small bites, and excellent craft cocktails like Blonde in Peril, which mixes vodka, Lillet, and crimson port. 

6.  Yunnan Kitchen: For a first venture, Erika Chou and chef Travis Post nailed it. Impart that’s because the food is phenomenal, but the other part is due to the lack of Yunnan-style Chinese food in the city. After traveling in the Yunnan province, Post learned to serve up stellar plates of tea-smoked duck and fried pork belly, which people flock too, even if NYC’s Chinatown is just a few blocks away.

7. The Pines: At the end of September, the owners of Littleneck opened The Pines next door to their shop in Brooklyn. The inside looks like an abandoned lodge, which makes sense given they scored dishes, signs, and knickknacks from a summer resort bearing the same name as the restaurant. Not that you would just go for the décor—it’s chef Angelo Romano’s cooking that won us over with dishes like his oxtail cappellacci and the pork shoulder with chestnut, pineapple and rye berry.

8. Justin Warner: Watching the quirky chef and co-owner of Brooklyn’s Do or Dine team up with Alton Brown on Food Network Star had me actually paying attention to the show for the first time. Plus, he won!

9. Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria: The vibe this NoHo restaurant exudes is a modern-industrial-meets-Italian-village sort of thing, and it works. So does the food expertly prepared by chef Justin Smillie. Of all the new Italian places that have opened in 2012, Smillie’s plates of bucatini cacio e pepe and gnudi with brown butter and cherry tomatoes shine through the rest.

Is Guy’s American Kitchen Really That Bad?

It’s odd to walk into a restaurant on the day it got incredibly slammed by the New York Times. There is a hush to it, almost as if you are doing something daring and bold for walking through those condemned doors. Last Tuesday, that’s exactly how it felt when I checked out Guy Fieri’s first New York restaurant, Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar, which opened two months ago in Times Square.

As we sat down in one of the immense, plush booths, I couldn’t help but wonder if the food would turn out as bad as restaurant critic Pete Wells made it seem in his now infamous NYT review. So, we started with that “blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste” and a caliente margarita. The former tasted like a watermelon Jolly Rancher and the margarita had no heat, but where they terrible? Not really. I mean, I don’t really want to drink a beverage that sweet, but I don’t like appletinis either.

But, many people do like appletinis, and it’s obvious that those are the people Fieri’s restaurant is catering to. Lest us not forget, he opened the 500-seat eatery in Times Square. As to the food Wells complained about, true, the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders aren’t very awesome and lack any hint of smoked almonds or salty pretzel, but they didn’t exude “chewy air.” The Guy-talian Nachos taste like an Italian hero was dumped on chips and heated up, and Guy’s Famous Big Bite Caesar salad proved uninspired and definitely not a “big bite,” but it is a side salad, and on that note, a huge portion.

Actually, all the portions are hefty, just like many Americans want them to be, and the food, while not spicy enough for me and way too sweet, is actually the flavor profile many Americans crave—especially Americans traveling to New York to eat in Times Square.

Last week I ate there as their guest, so on Saturday I decided to pop in on the sly to see if the food remained decent. Short answer: yes. The only real difference was the service, but where during the week it remained quiet, it was packed with people waiting to sit down on the weekend. And of those, not one person I spoke to lived in the city.

At the bar, a woman from Colorado and her 16-year-old daughter waited for a table, they had come to celebrate the teen’s birthday. On my left, an older couple from Philadelphia was visiting and wanted to check out the restaurant because they love Fieri’s show. The woman shook her head and commented on how mean the review was and her husband elegantly pointed out, “This is fun dining, not fine dining.”

No one in the culinary world is really standing up to say Guy’s American Kitchen is a great restaurant, but I don’t believe anyone ever thought it would be. After all, it’s cut from two molds: Food Network stardom, and Heartland Brewery’s corporate model. It’s like Applebee’s or, as the clever mock-paper The Onion pointed out, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.  It’s not a place meant to be taken seriously, and it appears Wells did, or does, or whatever. FierI told The Today Show that he felt Wells had an agenda, and even if that’s true, the real question is, should the New York Times be reviewing a place like this? It’s hard to say, but one thing is for sure: now curious people are flocking to check out Fieri’s spot, for better or for worse. 

The Ten Best Questions Raised In The ‘NYT’ Review Of Guy Fieri’s Times Square Restaurant

My new favorite game is reading New York Times celebrity profiles out loud—sometimes just to myself! Nothing is more fun than really hitting home the super congratulatory, handjob-in-words kind of writing that shows up in the arts section of that paper. But last night I thought I might have a heart attack when food critic Pete Wells published his review of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar, a Times Square joint (well, if "joint" can describe a 500-seat restaurant) eagerly visited by Midwestern tourists and bloggers who have given up on ironic dinners at Applebee’s. It’s quite a review. Here were the best lines that I read aloud in varying accents. 

1. "When you saw the burger described as “Guy’s Pat LaFrieda custom blend, all-natural Creekstone Farm Black Angus beef patty, LTOP (lettuce, tomato, onion + pickle), SMC (super-melty-cheese) and a slathering of Donkey Sauce on garlic-buttered brioche,” did your mind touch the void for a minute?"

2. "Were the ‘bourbon butter crunch chips’ missing from your Almond Joy cocktail, too?"

3. "Why is one of the few things on your menu that can be eaten without fear or regret — a lunch-only sandwich of chopped soy-glazed pork with coleslaw and cucumbers—called a Roasted Pork Bahn Mi, when it resembles that item about as much as you resemble Emily Dickinson?"

4. "Any idea why [the watermelon margarita] tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?" [Ed. note: how does Pete Wells know what either of those things taste like?]

5. "If a customer shows up with a reservation at one of your two Tex Wasabi’s outlets, and the rest of the party has already been seated, does the host say, ‘Why don’t you have a look around and see if you can find them?’ and point in the general direction of about 200 seats?"

6. "Has anyone ever told you that your high-wattage passion for no-collar American food makes you television’s answer to Calvin Trillin, if Mr. Trillin bleached his hair, drove a Camaro and drank Boozy Creamsicles?"

7. "Is this how you roll in Flavor Town?"

8. "Somewhere within the yawning, three-level interior of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar, is there a long refrigerated tunnel that servers have to pass through to make sure that the French fries, already limp and oil-sogged, are also served cold?"

9. "[W]hen we hear the words Donkey Sauce, which part of the donkey are we supposed to think about?"

10. "Why did the toasted marshmallow taste like fish?"

Soooo, we’re still on for tonight at seven, right?

Follow Tyler Coates on Twitter.

Last Man Standing: How Gwynnett St. Beat The Odds

Even today, there are parts of Williamsburg, Brooklyn that aren’t that popular. The stretch of Graham Avenue where Carl McCoy’s Gwynnett St. is located has proven to be one of those spots, but in the last year as places around it like Motorino shut down (for alleged building issues) or concepts got completely flipped like the chef changes at Isa and Extra Fancy. The 10-month-old Gwynnet St., however, has remained strong. I went to the restaurant to find out how McCoy and his chef Justin Hilbert do it. The first step in successes, well, was McCoy’s decision to open up in Brooklyn.

“I think Brooklyn is the next kind of scene,” he said on a recent Friday night in the dining room. “I wanted to do a Manhattan-style restaurant with really good food, decent prices, and a neighborhood setting. With a lot of hard work and a really great professional team, I think we have accomplished that.”

Of course, he added, the good reviews helped. Hilbert agrees, and said, “I am thankful for Pete Wells’s review for The New York Times, people didn’t know who we were or where we were before that.” Now, the modern, sleek-lined room fills up most nights and critics continue to rave about the food and concept.

“We try to make food that tastes good and is a good value,” said Hilbert. “We are here to make food people enjoy and not just show off as chefs, though we do use some esoteric ingredients—but, they make sense.”

This means on any given night you can find a rotating list of dishes including one composed of carrots done in numerous ways from roasted, shaved, pickled, and made into flour. “Essentially, it’s bowl of carrots, but it’s elevated,” said Hilbert. “Our focus is to create dishes understandable to everyone, but a little more fun.” Hilbert, who trained under molecular gastronomist Wylie Dufresne at wd-50, tries to think about food through a different angle, and, like his mentor, he likes to play with textures and flavors most people wouldn’t think could work. Soon, he said, look out for his next creative dish revolving around sea vegetables.

Even though Hilbert has his fun with some of the menu items, another thing that keeps Gwynnett St. going strong is the comfort side of the menu. This can easily be seen in the their staple whiskey bread, which comes from a modified recipe Hilbert got from his friend’s Irish grandmother. It’s so good that every reviewer has raved about it, and it’s the one thing that they won’t take off the menu as long as they are there.

“We have had good receptions,” said McCoy. “People come in not knowing what to expect, and so far, we can sort of wow them.”

Thai to Wait For: Pok Pok Ny Continues to Wow

If you were biding your time to try Andy Ricker’s famous Pok Pok Ny until the hype, and the lines, died down, you bet wrong. With today’s two-star review by New York Times writer Pete Wells, Pok Pok is still all anyone can talk talk about. Who ever thought Thai food would be all the rage?

While the ubiquitous fusion food trend tends to strike Asian cuisine the hardest, Ricker’s straightforward menu doesn’t cross any boundaries. His solid Thai cuisine first gained a following in Portland, where he opened the original Pok Pok in 2005. There, he went on to open Pok Pok Noi, Whiskey Soda Lounge, and soon he will add another restaurant to the line up. That’s not all, in 2011 he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast, and this year he debuted Pok Pok Wing in the Lower East Side before opening Pok Pok Ny in Brooklyn. The people have been queuing up since.  

Of course, despite the hype, Pok Pok Ny isn’t perfect. Wells writes in his review:

There are other ways in which Pok Pok Ny hasn’t synchronized its watches yet. An order went missing for ages, then showed up in duplicate. And one night I ran into two or three dishes whose flavors seemed to be napping, including a fried egg salad and even a papaya salad. I left downcast, humming Peggy Lee: Is that all there is?

No, it’s not. In my next visits I was thrilled to taste more remarkable dishes than the table could hold: prawns in smoky noodles simmered with soy and ginger in a clay pot; an eggy pancake of juicy, sweet mussels with garlic chives; a stunningly complex pork laap. Compared with other pork laaps I’ve had, this one seemed to have eight or nine extra dimensions. The memory of it will be enough to keep me docile next time I wait for a table.

In the meantime, if you want to good, authentic Thai food without the wait, try Zaab Elee, which not only is authentic and delicious, but inexpensive. For a modern twist on Thai, chef Hong Thaimee does some amazing things with papaya and lobster at her East Village restaurant Ngam. And, if you really want to go the extra mile (literally), go to Queens and eat at chef Duangjai Thammasat’s Ayada in Elmhurst or Sripraphai in Woodside.