Visited Buddakan on their second day of opening. Overall, a rather disappointing experience.
I. the room...
Beautiful space. It's gigantic, but a well-thought out design succeeds in imparting a sense of intimacy. The lighting is gorgeous, and the choice of materials and color palette is far from boring. But a couple of complaints. The entry foyer resembles a hotel check-in counter -- a case of far more space than the restaurant knew what to do with. And the bar/lounge area is poorly conceived. The bar is tiny compared with the size of the room, causing traffic jams and intense competition for one of the few barstools. Some of the lounge tables are giant squares with room to seat 12-16 people, a puzzling choice of furniture considering the vast amount of space these large tables consume. Again, I think Stephen Starr was faced with the challenge of thinking up inventive ways to gobble up the surplus amount of square footage in his restaurant.
Terrible. The bar staff is extremely polite, and the female bartenders even accomodate the married men that insist on chatting them up (thereby leaving thirsty patrons to cool their heels behind said gentlemen). But the polite staff can't make a drink to save their lives. Martinis are not only watered down, but also feature a layer of slushed ice that further dilutes them into oblivion. Almost every single one of the house cocktails tasted of fruit juice and nothing else -- and were primarily served in water glasses with a straw and a poorly-sliced garnish of citrus. The wine list is thin.
On the evening of our visit, the food at Buddakan was so bad that it turned into a running joke between my companion and me. I asked the waiter if the frog's legs were deboned -- he cautioned they were not, but that they were well worth the effort. He was wrong on both counts. The frog's legs were not only boneless, but I questioned whether it was frog in the first place. The appetizer featured white cubes of what pretty much looked and tasted like chicken -- heavily-salted chicken, that is. The amount of sodium in this dish practically rendered it inedibe, so salty that my mouth actually started to hurt. Worse, it obliterated our palates for the rest of the evening. The beef tartare that followed -- studded with small tapioca pearls that lent the dish an interesting texture -- also tasted too salty. I wondered: was the tartare actually over-seasoned, or was the salt from the previous dish? Unfortunately, I couldn't tell (but I suspect the former).
Entrees were a little better. Rack of lamb came was accompanied by small crumbs of caramelized ginger, lending a nice sweetness to a slightly overcooked half-rack of frenched lamb chops. And the beef short rib was nicely braised, with tender meat and a rich, deep flavor. But it sat atop a mushroom chow fun that was -- you guessed it -- too salty. The portions were slightly on the small side, so my companion and I also ordered a side of the house scallop fried rice. It was a gloopy mess of rice, miniature scallops, cornstarch, eggs, and... salt.
The quality of service at Buddakan is polite -- even obsequious -- but ultimately laughable. I warned a solicitous waitress in the lounge that I already had a tab running with the bartender. She assured me my drink order would go onto the credit card. But later, our waiter ran over in a panic, inquiring about our bar orders earlier that evening. Confusion reigned. We also arrived early for a late reservation, and I asked if we could be seated when a table opened up. After waiting 1-1/2 hours in the lounge, I checked back in with the front desk and was surprised when they said we could be seated immediately. In fact, the dining room had a surplus of empty tables. Later, on my way to the restrooms, a passing waitress put her hand on my shoulder and began pushing me aside. When she realized I was a customer (as opposed to a colleague), she giggled and walked in the other direction.
But most representative of Buddakan's spotty service was our waiter. He was exceedingly polite, but so eager to please that I began to dread the mere sight of him. 95% of his sentences began with "How are you enjoying the...", and he asked the question far too frequently. I think we avoided dessert just to take away one last opportunity for him to ask it. Though I had many complaints, I didn't voice them to this chipper man -- somehow, I just didn't think he would care very much. My hunch proved correct when, at the end of the meal, he pushed two surveys in front of my companion and me. He was so adamant that we fill them out that my companion wrote "Food much too salty" on her's. When the eager waiter returned for our check, he studied her survey form while we watched for his response. He looked up, all smiles, and insisted that my companion should provide the restaurant with her e-mail address. When she declined, he thanked her and walked happily away -- never even having bothered to read her one-line comment.
V. the crowd...
Buddakan is destined for bridge & tunnel greatness. In both the average price of a filling meal and the sheer number of available seats, Buddakan can accomodate the masses in a way that few other overhyped restaurants can (by comparison, Morimoto charges much more for far better food -- at the same time, it seems more difficult to get a table there as well). But at Morimoto's lesser sibling, the crowd was an incongruous mix of cool and tool. There were of course, the beautiful people (including a local celebrity athlete at the bar). But there were also the two Jersey girls parked on barstools -- occupying valuable real estate, irritatingly underdressed, yammering incessantly, and each nursing a single precious cocktail the entire evening. And then there was the gentleman in the lounge who, when asked whether he wanted to start a tab, inquired what a tab was. When you build a mega-complex like Buddakan, you really can't be too picky about who comes to your restaurant.
VI. the verdict...
Morimoto was a great addition to New York dining -- the food is solidly good, while the outsized scene is kept tolerably in check. Buddakan is exactly the opposite. Not only does it feed off everything that is wrong with the Meatpacking District, it actually adds fuel to the fire. It will thus take that much longer for the cheesy trendiness of 9th Avenue to burn itself out. So thank you Stephen Starr, for bringing a little bit more of Philadelphia to New York. The trendseeking suburbanites across the Hudson welcome you with open arms.
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