From the outside, Bar Americain looks like the storefront of an abandoned Sibley's department store, and from the inside, like every winner of the Miss America pageant over the past twenty years: pretty, but only generically and broadly so, calculated to be satisfying to the largest possible swath of the population without being particularly memorable at all. As a restaurant, it is both more and less offensive than other Bobby Flay products. It's certainly less offensive than any of his TV shows, because you don't actually have to see him being Bobby-Flay-the-character or watch him do terrible things to otherwise harmless ingredients or even hear his voice. It's less offensive than his cookbooks, because the food described on the menu bears some final resemblance to the food that arrives at the table. And though, over the years, I've given Señor Flay a dump truck's worth of shit for his soi-disant and occasionally just plain scary take on American barbecue and Southwestern cuisine, I've backed off that stance recently because the more famous he's gotten, the better he's gotten — as a chef, anyway.
Weird, I know. But because of this, I'd been excited to see what he — by which I mean his cooks — was capable of doing with what was supposed to be a menu of straight American regional/comfort cuisine. In particular, I was interested in one cook: Rebecca Weitzman, who last fall left her post as exec at Denver's Cafe Star (where she won every praise and award I could reasonably give her) to go back to New York and to Bobby, who gave her her start many years ago.
Did I go to New York just to check on Weitzman? No. I wish I had the budget for that kind of thing. But I was in Manhattan on business first, to see my buddy East Coast Dave second, and to snoop on Weitzman third. In the interest of efficiency, I combined all of that into one meal at Americain. I wish I could say it was one great meal, but it wasn't. And here's why.
First, the staff at the hostess stand seemed completely flummoxed by the necessary interaction among host, guest, computer, menus and seating chart. I don't know what kind of brain-lock they got stuck in, but Laura and I were left standing at the door, being repeatedly pestered to give up our coats, while three women and one man consulted this, debated that, poked impotently at a computer touchscreen and generally looked like a bunch of monkeys trying to work a vending machine. It's something I could've forgiven in a new restaurant, but Bar Americain ain't exactly spanking. Once that complication worked itself out, we were shown to our table — a nice banquette against the wall — were dealt menus and wine lists, and had our drink orders taken. I'd forgotten how rare a bottle of Corona is in New York, so I ended up drinking IPA, which I hate. Fortunately, East Coast Dave soon arrived, and we got down to the serious business of eating.
Bar Americain's menu includes an artisanal-ham tasting appetizer that I, as a devotee of the pork, immediately ordered — expecting, at the very least, a nice fanned spread of prosciutto, maybe a little lomo, some serrano. What I expected was something similar to the butcher's plates at Osteria Marco (see review, page 37). But as it turned out, I should've ordered six of the tasting plates, because what came from the kitchen was this tiny embarrassment of an amuse: three twists of pig, each mounted on something, topped with something, sauced with something else, every one of them forgettable even though the waiter mumbled some kind of description for each. I remember that cilantro was involved somehow, maybe basil oil. The plate was gone in less time than it took to listen to it described.
There was a smoked chicken pot pie that, in both concept and composition, reminded me of the lobster pot pie Weitzman used to cook at Cafe Star: smooth and rich, elegant and rustic at the same time. There was a butterfish, glazed in sour orange and sided by Brussels sprouts, hazelnuts and pomegranate, that was lovely in its simplicity and the purity of its flavors. And then there was the plate of shrimp and grits, one of my favorite things in the world when done well — and here it was done extraordinarily well. The grits were creamy, with just a touch of stiffness, the shrimp poached deliciously and redolent of garlic, the whole dish speckled with lardons so perfectly cooked they were almost candied.
This Americain menu has a decidedly American regional slant — a reaching toward the gentrification of soul food and roadhouse food that could come off as admirable in the hands of a good chef or horrifying if twisted by the brain of a bad one. Credit to Flay for pulling off the former (provided you ignore the high prices and raw-bar menu) and credit to Weitzman for bringing all of the soul and passion to 52nd Street that she once displayed on Colfax Avenue. And ultimately, the best thing I can say about our meal at Bar Americain is that it reminded me of the meals I can no longer get at Cafe Star.
At Americain, however, the floor and the staff do everything in their power to wreck the good works of the kitchen. From the confusion at the front to a strangely staggered schedule of delivery of courses to Mumbles the Waitron and the fact that the check was delivered before we were done eating, silver and glassware cleared the minute it became apparent that we were lingering, and the way the servers, bussers and hostesses stared daggers at us and did everything short of pulling the tablecloth until we got the hint that, once my credit card had cleared, we were no longer welcome on the premises, it was an awful service experience. Very New York, sure, but a shitty way to do business nonetheless.
And okay, yeah. Laura and I were tourists. Apparently we had that out-of-town stink on us, and thus could be rousted like the couple of square-state rubes we are. But East Coast Dave works just a couple of blocks from Bar Americain and has eaten there several times. He's a local, a neighbor — the kind of customer that Bar Americain, its staff and Bobby Flay ought to be courting on a Tuesday. Because in addition to all the other reasons I'd chosen Bar Americain for our lunch, the most important reason was that it was the only place where I could get reservations. It seemed to be the only restaurant of note in Manhattan that wasn't fully committed all the way out to January 5.
Maybe there's a reason for that.
Leftovers: While I was on my way home from New York, Chris Douglas called to let me know that he was closing Tula after one last New Year's Eve party. "We're shutting it down," he said. "It's the rent. And the Wednesday nights where we get ten people."
Tula's space at 250 Josephine has been the bane of many restaurateurs in this town. It's a location that looks perfect — big floor, big kitchen, beautiful space, parking lot next door, Cherry Creek North address — but one that hasn't succeeded as anything since Papillon closed during my first days in Denver. Douglas managed something like two years and three days before he went under, and I don't think there's a chef in the city who could honestly say he's shocked that he finally threw in the towel.
Saddened, yes. Douglas is a good chef, a great guy and a scrambler in the kitchen. He worked his ass off. But it wasn't enough. "I learned a lot," he told me. "I think we accomplished a little. Cherry Creek is rough. But you know, I'm a young chef, and I thought I could prove everyone wrong."
When I asked Douglas what he might do next, he let fly with a ton of plans. "We're looking at other spaces," he said. "We're looking in the mountains. We're looking at moving to Chile."
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"The skiing and the surfing are good there. I don't know if it would be best for my cooking, but it would be a good place to recharge. I don't know. Maybe I should be looking to find myself as a chef."
He also mentioned San Francisco, New Zealand, Mexico, Argentina and possibly just finding a smaller location in a neighborhood where the rents are easier. He mentioned going back to the line with a great chef. But the one thing he was sure of was, come January 1, Tula will be dark.
Oh, and just in case anyone is interested, he's looking for someone to take over the lease...