Oyster Barred

I wound up reviewing Guadalajara (see review) after a couple of meals went completely to pieces. Both were at Corridor 44, the six-month-old champagne bar in Larimer Square, and they were so awful and uncomfortable and mind-bogglingly bad that, after the second disastrous visit, I realized I couldn't review the place until I figured out what the hell had gone wrong there.

Several things, it turned out, including a change in ownership that left the galley crew adrift without a chef and stuck with a poorly tested menu that was nothing more than a copycat rendition of every other second menu out there, put in place by a kitchen that had failed in its first attempt at originality and was now desperately trying to make up for it. The first menu was the creation of Eric Laslow -- the vaunted chef who'd moved here from Oregon, opened the place, trained the kitchen and instituted the initial mix of champagne and crudo (raw or mostly raw fish and meats, done in the style of Italian small plates). This second menu was also Laslow's work, and he'd (ostensibly) trained his crew in the preparation of it before bailing out of the kitchen altogether.

In its original incarnation, Corridor 44 was not a bad restaurant. The crudo style matched well with the image of a champagne bar -- small plates and sips of bubbly, clean flavors and all that jazz -- and while it might not have been the best menu I'd ever tasted, it was at least interesting. But the space was (and still is) oddly shaped, with a front bar with banquet seating tied to a room in back by a long corridor (hence the name). It looked like a French revivalist house with a series of interconnected living rooms -- which, all things considered, was not a bad thing to look like. And when Corridor 44 was drawing a crowd, it had a nice flow despite the barbell-ish design.

But now? Well, first, it's tough to have any kind of flow when there are only six people in a restaurant -- unless all of them agree to take their dinner walking, moving constantly from room to room like children lost in an airport, juggling flutes of champagne and artful cones of gourmet french fries. And second, those fries were the only thing on the menu I found to be edible other than the cheese plate -- which was more to the credit of the cows and sheep and cheesemakers than the cooks who only had to worry about cutting and plating.

When I had my first awful dinner there a couple of weeks ago, I made the mistake of ordering the macaroni and cheese. I had to know why a champagne bar -- which, by definition, should be a bastion of refinement and tasty nibbles -- would even think of serving mac-and-cheese, that most overwrought, overthunk and overdone New American gimmick, particularly since even the most hoity-toity version would never pair well with champagne. Cheeseburgers and champagne? Sure. Chocolate pudding and champagne? Absolutely. Mac-and-cheese, though, does nothing but coat the mouth with gobs of melted cheese and pasta starch, which -- when put in contact with French bubbly -- just turns to mud in the most unappetizing way. Even something monstrous like the Perrier Jouët brut I was drinking didn't have the muscle to cut through.

To make matters worse, this mac-and-cheese was not just heavy, but bad. Done in a creamy white sauce weighted with parmesan and studded with chunks of crabmeat, it tasted very good on the first bite, less good on the second, hauntingly nasty on the third and, after that, was like eating macaroni and crabmeat off a foot. If the kitchen had tested this plate (really tested it, checking how the flavor profile held up after the initial shock, how it tasted as the dish cooled, how the first bite compared with the last), the mac-and-cheese would never have made the menu. When I got Laslow on the phone last week, he admitted that by the time this second menu was being rolled out, his heart wasn't in it. In fact, he was still pissed about how the first menu had diverged from his initial concept. "It was a whitewashed, diminished version of what I wanted to do," he said. "I never felt like it was what I wanted to do. I've never cooked by committee before." And this second menu was rushed. "Sometimes new concepts need time to grow," he added. "This seemed to me like a reaction to just one bad month. And I don't know, I just feel like you've got to stick with the horse that brung you, you know?"

I didn't know all that when I returned to Corridor 44, but even so, I decided to stick with something the kitchen couldn't ruin: oysters. An order of four came served on the half-shell (one butchered by whoever was shucking them, then clumsily reassembled in the shell), with a lovely frozen lemon mignonette. No, the kitchen couldn't ruin these oysters -- because nature had already done a job on them, and one poisoned me.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan