One thing that sets Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone apart from other very talented chefs is how happy they seem to be creating restaurants that are not about them, or even primarily about cooking. While their peers were putting their kitchen skill front and center, through tasting menus or through restaurants where decoration was minimal and amenities were pared back until there was almost nothing left but the plates, they went in the opposite direction.
From their first restaurant, Torrisi Italian Specialties, inside a fake Italian grocery store, their places have been highly distracting in ways that serious chefs tend to shun. The interiors are ornamental and over the top; the servers are dressed in uniforms that we might as well call costumes; the playlists are what your friend for whom entertaining is a life-or-death matter would put together for a highly specific theme party.
Other chefs would have worried that their precious food would be overshadowed by the rest of the production. Mr. Torrisi and Mr. Carbone always seemed confident that wasn’t going to happen. Before they opened their Japanese restaurant, the Lobster Club, they were right.
Now two months old, the Lobster Club is the third and final stage in the annexation of the Seagram Building’s dining spaces by the Major Food Group, run by the two chefs and Jeff Zalaznick. The first two stages were the Grill and the Pool, carved out of what used to be the Four Seasons.
The Lobster Club sits under the Pool in a space that was originally a 24-hour brasserie. Vintage East Siders such as Peter Marino, the architect who designed the Lobster Club, still talk about dropping into the Brasserie for onion soup after writhing the night away at Studio 54.
Mr. Marino apparently wanted to bring the party back. From the top of the stairs just inside the entrance, on East 53rd Street, a scene from Fellini seems to be playing out. A big square lounge in the middle of the room is bounded by zebra-striped panels of white ebony. Spurts and dribbles of paint cover the floor and the black trousers that some of the servers are wearing. It looks as if Jackson Pollock were called back for one last job.
On the walls are prints Mr. Marino made from paintings he owns. The originals were painted by Richard Prince, modeled on paintings by Picasso. The Prince Picasso-painting prints have themselves been painted, gone over by Mr. Marino with thick pigment in a completely different style.
Marvin Gaye is singing. He wants everybody to know that sexual healing is something that is good for him.
Round tables are surrounded by pink lounge chairs that look, from behind, like enormous cartoon lips. The booths are upholstered in a chartreuse camouflage pattern, a useful fabric if the Army ever needs to hide in a green neon jungle.
Blending in at the Lobster Club in winter means fur coats and designer sweaters. A man with silver hair, a double-breasted blazer and a pocket square is circling the perimeter, swiveling his head, an eager expression in his eyes, as if he had been told there would be a limbo pole. On the right, a big group is sitting around a skinny table that can be partitioned from the rest of the dining area by drawing a floor-to-ceiling curtain, as in an operating room. The curtain is made of black leather.
All the bartenders are dressed like leather daddies.
Isaac Hayes is singing now. He has some thoughts to share about a black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks.
What kind of Japanese restaurant is this?
It would need to be a sensational one to compete with the rest of the goings-on. It is not. In fact, the Lobster Club seems to be making an effort not to be sensational. The cooking, as a whole, suggests Japanese food as seen through American eyes at some point in the recent past.
There is no soup, no noodles, no tofu and few vegetables. But there is salmon teriyaki, made more meticulously than any I’ve ever seen, with a dark-pink medium-rare core and a translucent, unsyrupy glaze.
The core of the menu is steak and seafood cooked on a teppan, the steel grill introduced to the United States by the original Benihana, which by the way is still in business a few blocks away. Not that Lobster Club is an explicit homage. If its cooks are juggling spatulas and flipping shrimp into the air, they are doing it behind closed kitchen doors.
My Wagyu skirt steak was a far better product than anything I remember from Benihana. Ditto the teppanyaki king mushroom stems that accompanied it along with more shishito peppers than I needed and more sauces than I can name. The mustard miso was my favorite with steak; for grilled scallops, I would go with the yuzu chimichurri.
Tasuku Murakami, the executive chef, was highly regarded during his time behind the counter at Sushi Azabu, in TriBeCa. He has his seafood shipped in from Japan, including seasonal treats like black-throat sea perch and tiny white shrimp called shiro-ebi. He, or one of his followers, carves it with finesse and sets it over a wad of rice that I wished were a little warmer and more strongly vinegared.
The style is very traditional, except for the rolls that combine, say, fried oysters with Wagyu. The à la carte prices are on average slightly higher than at slightly better places such as 15 East. It would be silly not to try some sushi at the Lobster Club, and just as silly to travel there for it.
Two skewered appetizers were among my favorite things on the menu. One is the pork belly, lightly browned on the grill and then half-buried under a chopped pineapple sauce. The other is the tsukune, or chicken meatball, which is richer than you expect thanks to an unadvertised, invisible but very noticeable addition of foie gras.
Some of Mr. Murakami’s appetizers struck me as barely Japanese at all. Certain raw fish dishes could be served at any number of New York restaurants, like slices of sea bass showered with brittle strands of fried brussels sprouts, or raw cherry trout twirled around crunchy nests of fried potato threads. Both are fine things to eat, by the way. The one called wok lobster — battered and fried lobster tail pieces in a sweet-and-sour sauce — seems very Chinese. It is also very oily, like the fried rock shrimp and the teppanyaki garlic rice, which will ooze oil as you watch.
“I didn’t expect it to remind me of Ruby Foo’s,” said a stranger who stopped by my table on her way out. (This kind of thing is always happening at the Lobster Club.) I think I knew what she meant. If you order the wrong things the food can be surprisingly heavy, and no matter what you eat you can’t quite avoid a sense that this place doesn’t take its supposed inspiration as seriously as it could.
Then again, it is one of the only places in the city where you can end a meal with steamed black-sugar cakes, soft and homey and rarely seen outside their hometown, Okinawa. And it is among the few to serve kakigori, a mountain of shaved ice. Stephanie Prida, the pastry chef, soaks it with blood orange-syrup on one side and condensed milk on the other.
As soon as one table orders it, everybody else in the vicinity wants one. I’ve never seen anybody finish it.
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