New York, New York
In the years that I tried desperately to be a screenwriter, I would avoid visiting restaurants in both New York and Los Angeles where I might run into someone who had actually sent me a rejection slip. I had this crazy thought that I might hear their name and want to spill something on them (or worse). While I realize this was a really stupid idea not to visit a decent restaurant, the fact is I really couldn’t afford to eat out that often anyway.
That said even after being in business for 20 years, I had never eaten at Tribeca Grill. When the restaurant first opened in Tribeca (hence the name) that part of New York City wasn’t trendy yet (it was actually kind of shady). Plus, I’ve found that sometimes “questionable” neighborhoods brought in a certain moneyed clientele with the theory that the more difficult a place is to get to, the appeal factor goes up a notch. Did I mention that the restaurant was co-founded by the scary character of Mister “Taxi Driver” himself (Robert De Niro) and a hot chef at the time, Drew Nieporent? It brought new meaning to “if you build it, they will come.” Although still co-owned by De Niro and Nieporent, Chef Nieporent now has his own mega restaurant group and is probably not actually cooking in this kitchen.
It was a Tuesday night at Tribeca Grill and the place was packed. It begged the question, was it packed because it was NYC Restaurant Week or was it crowded because even after all these years people still flock to eat here? We arrived nearly a half hour early for our reservation and the minute I walked into the restaurant I almost expected the front end staff to hand us a beeper that would vibrate when our table was ready. Somehow the size of the joint, coupled with the crowd made me think we were about to have dinner at an Applebee’s rather than the famous Tribeca Grill. Luckily, no beeper was handed to us but we were given a piece of paper with my name on it which we were instructed to give to the bartender. Said bartender laid the blue-colored slip in front of us, making me wonder whether the name on the piece of paper was to remind us who we were if we were in for a long wait at the bar and thus one too many drinks later.
After about 40 minutes and only one drink later, we were shown to a painfully small table next to a large family party. I immediately asked the host if we could move elsewhere but he seemed so flustered, I let it be. We sat down and I opened the menu. Since we were ordering off the NYC Restaurant Week menu that evening, I was surprised by the offerings — nearly four appetizers, four entrees and three desserts with neither a piece of salmon or chicken in sight. Hooray! Plus, this Restaurant Week menu was just so well, interesting. A chestnut soup, grilled lamb sausage and an octopus salad as starters? What about brook trout, black truffle cavatelli or venison as entrees?
There’s a lot of help at Tribeca Grill. Bread and water were brought out immediately and our waiter was hovering around anxious for us to order. Problem was I needed help with the wine list. Who knew that Bobby De Niro would have the biggest collection of Châteauneuf du Pape vintages this side of the pond? Not that I was drinking (or could afford) such a varietal but the heavy on the French wine list is extensive as well as expensive. I managed to narrow down my choices and was looking for the wine steward. Asking my waiter to bring the wine guy forth I was told “he went down to the basement to get a bottle .” Ok, I store my wine in my basement, too. Then I looked around at the size of the restaurant. If the downstairs was anything like the upstairs (think large barn size), it would be quite a while before we saw him again. In the meantime, we ate the bread and tried to have a conversation with each other above the chatter of the increasingly noisy dining room. There were a few couples having dinner but this restaurant seemed to cater to large groups with many of them well, tourists. We were also unfortunate enough to be seated next to a large family party that had a kid shrieking in his high chair who the parents unfortunately ignored while taking countless “grip and grins” of each other and everyone else at their table. Don’t get me wrong, I like kids (well some anyway) but I think most restaurants should be verboten to anyone under the age of five after say 8 pm. It just kind of kills the romance of the place and the meal.
The wine steward eventually emerged from the catacombs underneath Tribeca and was able to help me pick out a decent Bordeaux from Graves. We were now ready to order. To start Lynn had the grilled lamb sausage appetizer with a curried chick pea side dish seasoned with a cumin and chili tomato sauce. I had the octopus with slices of über-fresh celery, roasted peppers, baby yukon gold potatoes and a few black olives tossed with a lemon vinaigrette. I have to say, I was pretty impressed. Not only by the plating of the dishes that were coming out of the kitchen but that the food was so expertly cooked. Who would have thought that the kitchen was capable of handling these kinds of dishes with such a large crowd?
After our first course there was a delay. That gave me time to look around the room and pay well, close attention to the wait staff. There were alot of people on the floor who seemed to be constantly bickering with each other rather than discretely talking about who should be delivering the bread, pouring the water or actually taking the order. There was also a hostess who had the annoying habit of walking back and forth in front of our tiny table to gauge what tables near us were about to turn.
Our entrees finally arrived. Since it’s pretty rare to see venison on New York City menus these days (chefs seemingly preferring to cook (and hype) the more popular and less expensive short rib), Lynn and I both had to get the venison. Placed before us were at least six wonderful slices of perfectly cooked venison (medium rare, exactly to our liking) plated with a variety of winter root vegetables: acorn squash, brussel sprouts, parsnips and onions with a scattering of crispy cooked lardons. While the acorn squash was a tad undercooked to my liking, the rest of the dish was amazing. Given my hesitancy beforehand about the size of the room and if the chefs would be able to do justice to the food, I was singularly impressed.
We finished our bottle of wine and moved onto dessert. Three choices – cheese cake, chocolate mousse cake and an upside down pineapple cake. Lynn, who ultimately can forgo dessert preferring cheese (or nothing) to a sweet finale, when pressed will ultimately choose chocolate. This time, however, he went with the cheese cake. With a round shortbread bottom, the “cheese” part was molded to look like vanilla ice cream complete with a raspberry and whipped cream topping. I didn’t think it would taste as luscious as it did although the kitchen obviously made tons of the topping parts separately since when initially eaten, the entire top came off in one piece. My pineapple cake with creamy rum raisin gelato was a tad dry (the cake part) to my liking but ultimately I think the dessert worked. When all was said and done I guess my only disappointment for the evening was the noise level and the ultimate kind of touristy feel to the place.