It used to be, when you heard about a new, under-50-seat restaurant opening in an outer borough or some forgotten corner of Manhattan, you might be reminded that you hadn't been to the Tasting Room in awhile. Because the Tasting Room, with its tiny number of seats, with its warm and convivial owners, who greeted you (and often, remembered you) when you walked in the door, with it its greenmarket-driven, thoughtful menu and all-American wine list, was the personification of the restaurant "gem." Yes, it was sometimes cramped, and yes, sometimes you had to wait for your table, even if you showed up with a reservation. But you always felt that dining there was a special experience, one that you would not forget.
Today, the Tasting Room sits at a larger, fancier new location in Nolita, on Elizabeth Street just south of Houston. It has a full-sized bar in the front, and a host stand and two dining areas in the back. It seats about 100 people in the dining room, maybe another 10-15 in the bar area.
And after a meal that I and five of my friends had there this past Sunday night, I am saddened to report that whatever the Tasting Room has gained in elbow room, it does not come close to compensating for what it has lost. The restaurant holding the name of that cute little place on 1st and 1st has lost, essentially, everything that ever made it a desirable restaurant. It is a given that, with the upsizing, it would lose a little bit of its charm, a little bit of the warmth and personal attention that made the old location special. Unfortunately, it has also suffered a dramatic decline in food quality and service quality, and what I believe is a noticeable increase in price.
I not only left this new restaurant disappointed. I left angry.
Dinner started off well. One of our party was very late (about 40 minutes), but they were kind enough to seat the rest of us and let us order both our food (she was stranded in a cab uptown and told us to go ahead) and our drinks. The restaurant was only about half full. The waiter provided good guidance on ordering for 6 (none of us had even been to the old one with more than a couple) and took cocktail orders, though he ignored the order for at least one of us. This was about about 7:45.
Then we waited. No cocktails, no bread.
After about 20 minutes, the bottle of wine we had ordered was brought. First, the waiter showed the bottle. I nodded, and he disappeared. Then, he returned again, poking me somewhat rudely in the back, and showed me the exact same bottle again. He then proceeded to "pour" the wine, which in this instance meant spilling several drops of it on the table and, had I not moved my arm, on me. He continued to spill at the place of every other person. No apology for his sloppy handiwork was offered. This would not be terribly unreasonable at a more relaxed bistro or neighborhood restaurant, but the Tasting Room is charging, on average, $30 for entrees and over $10 for almost every appetizer, including a $38 plate of mushrooms (not to mention, generally, around $50 and up for wine). If you price yourself in league with Gramercy Tavern or Craft, you should be held to the same standard.
The cocktails still had not arrived, but without warning, a waiter plopped down two bowls of chilled pear and whey soup that we had ordered. She did not bring spoons. About 60 seconds later, she inexplicably swooped back in and yanked the bowls away, muttering something about "not ready to serve these yet."
At some point after that, the cocktails arrived. Still no food. By about 8:30, we got bread. Our friend had long since arrived, and we had of course told them to proceed with the meal whether she had arrived or not. At 8:45--an hour after we got there--our appetizers came.
However, the Tasting Room had provided no plates. I asked for plates to be brought out. The person whose attention I could get brought, without apology, small bread plates and laid them in front of each of us. Of course, these bread plates were far too small to effectively use to share 5 separate dishes; in fact, one of the razor clams (huge, delicious) would hang off of both ends, dripping copious amounts of the savory coconut broth all over the table. I flagged the guy down again and asked for full-sized plates to be brought out.
And then, what I believe to be the single most absurd statement ever made to me in a New York restaurant was made.
He said, "We don't have plates."
The Tasting Room is supposed to be a "sharing" restaurant, which is pretty clearly indicated by offering items in sizes called "Taste" and "Share." It is extremely difficult to share dishes (or really, eat anything but bread) from a small bread plate. Further, the restaurant serves food, and therefore, serves it on plates. Having to spill food everywhere trying to eat off a bread plate, and being told something as asinine as that the restaurant did not have plates, quite frankly nearly made me blow my stack.
As for food quality-- not that it mattered, since I was furious, but some of the appetizers, like the stuffed chicken, were very good, as were the razor clams and the quail terrine. The salad, with tiny heirloom tomatoes, was fairly weak, and that pear and whey soup was only adequate.
After finishing the appetizers, we waited another 40 minutes or so for our entrees. Again, there was no apology for the delay. They cleared our microscopic bread plates and brought out new bread plates, along with our food.
We had six entrees in the "share" size, which was plenty of food. They priced around $30 each. In fact, the most peculiar item was the "vegetable plate," which, despite however it was advertised, consisted of roasted lettuce, potatoes, and onions, for $28. I am sad to say they were not particularly delicious lettuce, potatoes, and onions, but they were quite oily. I personally could have made about 15 pounds of this dish, properly oiled and seasoned, for $28.
We also had the Montauk skipjack, an excellent, though fishy, fish, with a great stuffing on the side. A less-memorable fish dish (I apologize, but do not recall which one-- menupages and TR website are both out of date) was also served, which arrived undercooked. We had a different take on chicken, this time a delicious breast, as well as a plate of large hen of the woods mushrooms that were slightly overcooked but still delicious. The fried blowfish tails, with a slightly spicy sauce, were underwhelming.
In general, all of the food seemed unusually oily and heavy. Whatever stunning ingredients were being used were largely eclipsed by poor execution, as well as the ever-present memory of how expensive it was and how frustrating it was to eat from a bread plate.
I would compare what Tasting Room 2.0 is trying to attempt to something more like Craft, which provides proper plates from which to eat, and pulls off the greenmarket driven menu much more effectively. In a similar vein would be a place like Hearth, which I think also offers superior food in a much friendlier and less-expensive setting. Our bill, with two bottles of wine ($45 and $57), one cocktail each, no dessert or coffee and leaving only a 15% tip, came out to $471, or about $90 each with the tip added in. If this had been a meal at Craft, or the old Tasting Room, I would consider that a pretty good deal.
One of the most interesting items on the menu was a mushroom dessert with honey and yogurt, but by then, we were all so fed up with the place, including the immense waits between courses, that we decided to skip dessert and head to Aroma, a small wine bar that, at least in warmth of spirit, is a lot more like what the old Tasting Room was.
What this new Tasting Room is, I am sad to say, is a place with amateurish, wildly inconsistent, incompetent service, mediocre food, and a bad attitude. It is more typical of the raft of bland, white-walled, overpriced SoHo and Nolita restaurants around it. Whereas the original gave you a sense of great personal attention and personal care, this place seems to go out of its way to let you know how little you are cared for. That's a particularly poor thing, too, in a half-empty restaurant.
Especially given what a lovable place it was before, Tasting Room 2.0 was a shocking disappointment. It is an embarassment to its owners, and the memory of what existed before.