For pictures, see the blog:
My brother and his camera make excellent dining companions. One is an amiable conversationalist, the other a means of verifying my visual impressions. A student of studio art and art history, my brother refuses to adjust the color balance in his photos or otherwise alter them—his artistic philosophy (or perhaps theology) demands a Spartan approach to food photography. At Café Boulud, his photos illustrate an encyclopedic meal that touched on Indian, French, Italian, and Japanese cuisines (to read more about that meal, click here). During his three day jaunt in New York before returning home, I took my brother to two notable restaurants, both with one Michelin star, both bearing the names of culinary luminaries. Although both Ruth Reichl and Frank Bruni awarded Café Boulud three New York Times stars, Sam Sifton dropped a deuce on Marc Forgione. Different times, different critics. Sifton lauded Marc Forgione for its honest, brash American food—for Marc’s adherence to the Forgione family name.
Larry Forgione, Marc’s father, was a celebrity chef before the term existed. Embracing the farmer’s market, Larry Forgione focused on sourcing his ingredients from regional producers and fostering a distinctively American culinary aesthetic. Working during what Tom Colicchio called the “golden age of American cooking” (see David Kamp’s book The United States of Arugula for more historical detail), Forgione still runs a restaurant called An American Place. Located in my hometown, St. Louis, An American Place serves as a temple to American cooking of the ’80s. While Marc Forgione has made a name for himself as Food Network’s “Next Iron Chef,” he started out in An American Place’s kitchen as a 16 year old kid following in dad’s footsteps. Today, Marc Forgione has developed his own culinary style, a blend of the elder Forgione’s commitment to American culinary traditions and his own rock ‘n roll aesthetic.
Previously known as “Forge,” the restaurant opened in 2008 and changed names following a lawsuit. The original name makes more sense—the interior feels like a village tavern or hunting lodge, all roughened wood and crudely illuminated glass. Knicknacks, books, and odd photos line the wall—as sundown turns into night, the space transforms into a rustic respite from the industrial cityscape.
From its design to its menu, Marc Forgione’s aesthetic feels purposefully fake—a “real” fake, an imitation meant to look like an imitation, not the authentic item. But there is nothing hipster about this simulacrum of an American place. Instead, the restaurant acknowledges its own artifice and nods with a half-way smile. Marc Forgione is not about America, but rather about Americana: a collection of simulations, parodies, and otherwise distorted curiosities, brought together to illuminate the hopelessly disfigured landscape of contemporary American cooking.
Even before an amuse arrives, potato rolls hit the table, steaming hot with some onion-speckled butter. Slicked over with that butter and gulped down while still warm, the roll is unbearably wonderful—this is bread to serve a starving man, to grace an Ozark dinner table after days spent farming gravel and dust. Two tiny bites follow the rolls: “chip and dip” and a muddled mixture of sriracha with some sort of jam. Unimpressed, we order more bread.
The “Sunday Supper” deal offers three courses for $44—a few dishes cost extra dough, but almost everything is available at the discount rate. That discount amounts to around 20%, making Sunday nights a good excuse to hitchhike downtown.
Like Café Boulud’s menu, Marc Forgione’s tends towards the overly eclectic. Nevertheless, an “American cooking ethos” guides Forgione’s kitchen, whereas Café Boulud embraces diversity without an obvious, underlying structural principle. At Marc Forgione, the menu privileges eclecticism over coherence, but that heterogeneous (and sometimes confusion) amalgamation of cuisines defines a new order: a structuring of the eclectic into “American food,” a wild but controlled celebration of difference. This schematic makes Marc Forgione’s menu more accessible (to a certain demographic) than Café Boulud’s.
Tortellini de avanzi, stuffed with a meaty melange—don’t worry, it’s beef, not mystery meat—smells of black truffle and tastes of mama’s meatballs. Meaning the remains, scraps, or leftovers, avanzi describes the pasta’s filling—a kind of Italian meatloaf, albeit elevated far above Lunch Lady Land.
Despite a decent dose of bottarga (cured fish roe), the dry chunks of tuna confit scattered throughout a knotted mass of spaghetti taste perversely beige—if it tastes like overcooked chicken, and isn’t chicken, then it might actually come from a middle school cafeteria. Forgione’s spaghetti alla bottarga doesn’t necessarily disappoint, but a smattering of shriveled currants and a conspicuous uni absence do provoke confusion.
In an overt nod to Americana, Forgione serves “Duck Elvis Presley,” a mimetic representation of Elvis’ favorite sandwich. Plastered with greasy bacon bits and resting on pine nut butter, the duck arrives just over medium rare. With a squiggle of banana something (A gooey paste? A crude reduction? It’s brown and sweet.) the duck tastes like Graceland on LSD. Imagine running around the Jungle Room with a giant bacon banana monster hot on your heels. Then add a fatty foie gras ravioli (which my brother nearly spit out in revulsion) dancing in the background. Needless to say, the “Duck Elvis Presley” recreates a peanut butter, banana, and bacon sandwich in technicolor. The effect is not unpleasant per se.
Charred on the outside and velveteen on the inside, skirt steak comes with a load of mushrooms a la Greque and exactly three fries. Poking out of an empty marrow bone, the fries taste fine, but the precisely calculated (and quite meager) quantity make this either a steak frites satire or a dish for the Atkins diet. Fry counting aside, this dish reminds me of mosquito-ridden summer evenings in soupy St. Louis, eating steaks on the back porch. With a dab of St. Louis style barbecue sauce, this dish would bring me back to Tribeca for seconds.
If copious quantities of butter and beef fat fail to satiate, Marc Forgione’s generously portioned desserts will. Pecan bread puddin’ rises from a ramekin like a balloon of pure sugar ecstasy. Better yet, a Meyer lemon “pie” sundae occupies an entire soda fountain glass. Saccharine meringue, lemon ice cream, pie crust pieces, and a sour, custardy jam: strata of citrus bliss.
Queasy and saturated with enough simple carbohydrates to last till summer, we staggered out of Marc Forgione into the New York night. Transitioning from Forgione’s faux lodge to the industrially chic Tribeca streets shocks the senses. Inundated with the best (and worst) of American food, we felt dazed: eating at Marc Forgione leaves one dazzled with flashbulb flavors, hyperintense configurations of fat, salt, and sugar that reduce humans to frenzied eating machines.
Comparing Café Boulud and Marc Forgione seems like a futile project. The two restaurants serve highly divergent cuisines and cater to distinct demographics. Instead of wearing the “youngest diners in the restaurant” dunce cap, we were typical patrons at Marc Forgione. There, a classic rock soundtrack loops through The Beach Boys and waiters chat about Billy Joel.
Gavin Kaysen competed on (and lost) season one of Next Iron Chef (2007), far before Marc Forgione’s 2010 victory. And however unfair it might be to juxtapose Café Boulud and Marc Forgione, Marc Forgione wins my vote. I will readily recognize my personal biases—including my preference for relaxed, congenial service. In fact, I usually hate restaurants like Marc Forgione—the whole contemporary American conceit repulses me, and I especially detest hyperreal conjurations of food genres and typologies. Marc Forgione, however, engages in no deception: it is fake, but it is a “real” fake, an imitation or simulation with an independent status and identity. Marc Forgione manages to make silly and stupid gestures genuine and endearing—the food, the music, the milieu bring a (lemon meringue smeared) smile to my face.
Ultimately, Marc Forgione achieves what it sets out to accomplish more effectively than Café Boulud. Therein, Marc Forgione proves a more enjoyable dining experience on the whole, at least for the young, the brokenhearted, the Midwestern heroes left out on the avenues searching for home. Twenty-somethings and baby boomers toast to the kitschy and the cool; Marc Forgione is Graceland for the new era of celebrity chefs. By contrast, Café Boulud is like Schloss Charlottenburg, a sometimes beautiful relic that collects within its walls a fragmented selection of bad art. As a Midwestern boy and an Americana aficionado, I’ll take Marc Forgione and its potato rolls, please.
134 Reade Street, New York, NY 10013