Let me just say that when my date called to tell me he had made a reservation here, I had my...er...reservations. I have long been aware of Steven Starr and his empire, and I figured this was another overly-hyped meatpacking venue dishing out mediorcre food. I read some reviews, and asked the opinions of friends who had dined there, and I got nothing but raves and recommendations. And still, for some reason, I didn’t believe it.
It’s a nondescript venue from the outside, and were it not for the flashy cars and gorgeous people coming in and out, you could easily miss it. When you first walk in, you find yourself in a hallway with a long counter to your right, behind which stand about eight very attractive hostesses. It almost feels like you are about to check into a massive hotel, which does little to ease any preconceived notions.
After the lobby you walk up a set of stairs flecked by candles, through giant open doors, and into a bar/lounge area with low tables and a loud, mostly young crowd. Although we had a reservation (don’t even think of coming here without one), we had to wait about fifteen minutes until we were seated at our table.
There is no way to describe the space Buddakan occupies, which was formerly a Nabisco factory. You have to see it to believe it, but it's huge, beautiful, and totally over-the-top without being tacky. Describing the actual walk to the table would take about as long as it took to get there, but we ended up in a dimly-lit room with rows of long booths covered in dark blue leather, overlooking the chandelier-adorned “pit” in the middle of the restaurant.
Our waiter was friendly and enthusiastic, took time to go over all of his favorite dishes, and was candid about the (few) dishes the kitchen did not execute as well. Following his suggestions, we ordered three appetizers (he recommended we order two, but everything sounded so good), two entrees, and one side.
The food is described as “Modern Asian” cuisine, and everything is made to order. Although I am sure there are some “misses” on the menu, as there are at most restaurants, everything we ate was a hit. The General Tso’s dumplings, with chicken, ginger and garlic, were plump and spilled broth when you cut into them. They were moist and flavorful, and the actual dumpling was light and chewy, rather than thick and doughy as some dumplings tend to be.
I snarked on the inside when the waiter brought us the tuna spring roll – three thin, cigar-like rolls ridiculously spaced out on a large plate. However, as soon as I picked one up, I was put in my place. Packed full of fresh, diced raw tuna delicately blended with chili mayonnaise, they were light and crisp on the outside, cool and soft on the inside. A deliciously unexpected combo that I would definitely order again.
But the real surprise was the chili rock shrimp. The small bowl it was served in contained a surprisingly large amount of shrimp. They had a subtle crunch to them, they were flecked with crispy ginger, and they were lightly blanketed in a creamy sauce.
We paused to try one of their specialty cocktails, the Tranquility, which was a blend of citrus vodka and lemongrass-infused oolong tea. Unfortunately, to me the drink tasted vaguely like that artificially sweetened Lipton Iced Tea.
We ordered the “signature” miso black cod, which every Asian Fusion restaurant has to have nowadays thanks to Nobu. It was delicious, buttery, and fell apart under our forks. But it didn’t get the attention it probably deserved, because the filet stole its thunder.
It is listed on the menu as “Charred Filet of Beef, wonton potatoes, mustard sauce.” It doesn’t sound that spectacular - in fact, we had both missed it on the menu until our waiter recommended it. The dish consists of a generous amount of pre-sliced filet, served with a pot of ginger-infused butter sauce that is so delicious, you will find yourself pouring it on everything. I don’t even know why they bother with the mustard, but the fact that it’s listed in the menu description, rather than the sauce, makes the sauce a delightful surprise. Which I guess I just ruined.
The waiter came by at one point and suggested pouring some of the sauce over the potatoes (which are really just homemade potato chips), which we did. We had also ordered a very yummy side dish of vegetarian rice with coconut foam and fresh lime juice, and mid-way through eating it I couldn’t help myself and I poured some of the sauce into that, too. We even contemplated pouring it on what was left of the miso cod, but stopped before sending Nobu to his grave early, to practice rolling.
For dessert we shared the “Chocolate Mille Feuille with bruleed bananas, spiced chocolate ice cream, avocado.” It is served on a long, rectangular plate with very dramatic presentation. On one end, there is a tower of multiple layers of hard chocolate and bruleed bananas, and on the other end is a small scoop of homemade chocolate ice cream sprinkled with what tasted like candied hot pepper. Connecting the two items are light green stripes of avocado foam, which somehow work with the overall dish. This is not one of those places where the pastry chef swoops in at the end of a fantastic meal and ruins everything.
Buddakan is not cheap, and dining the way you are supposed to here really adds up – our bill was a lot. But one of the coolest things about this restaurant is that the food is really good, and it doesn't have to be. The chef’s star power (pun intended), location, and the buzz are more than enough to keep people coming. This could be a money pit even if it served mediocre food.
I entered this restaurant expecting a glorified P.F. Chang’s; I left an official Starr convert.