Eataly and the NY Food Hall Craze

I admit it. I have restaurant fatigue. All that work scouring Yelp, Zagat’s and Chowhound and then trying to score an impossible reservation has worn me down, especially when the fruits of my labor seem, more often than not, way too mediocre given the price and effort. For a while I just want really good food that doesn’t cost me a fortune or make me wait forever to be served by some smarmy 20 something who’s been convinced by management that the customer is just damn lucky to be there. In New York this past weekend that fatigue boiled down to “bring on the food halls”.

Ok, I hear you, these are just tourist traps. But I don’t live in the City so that makes me, in fact, a tourist. I may know a lot more about New York than many of my friends but I don’t come close to having the local knowledge that true New Yorkers have. So let’s be real about what I’m bringing to the table.

Anyway, it’s 7:30 PM Friday night, no reservation, I’m tired and hungry and I just want something good to eat. I start the deadly search and then realize my hotel is four blocks from Eataly. That’s right, Eataly, the godfather of the food halls in NY (at least until Anthony Bourdain’s new place opens and maybe provides some real competition).

This is not my first time to Eataly and, as usual, Eataly definitely makes me want to eat, but even more it makes me want to cook. I’m always disappointed that I just can’t grab some of that fresh pasta, meat or fish and go home to my kitchen and have at it. But for tonight we’ll be eating here, starting with some burrata – seemingly the current most popular menu item in the world – a little salami, and a glass of wine at a stand up table. It’s good. Really good. And so easy. You go figure out if there’s a tiny place hidden in Brooklyn with the BEST burrata in the world. I’m happy. Quick service, fast check, now for a walk with my glass of wine.

I love that I can walk around Eataly with my wine and figure out what I want next, or just check out the spring pea ravioli, fresh branzino, and beautiful osso bucco. Tonight the second course is a soft shelled crab, a salad, and a cold beer at the seafood bar. If I’m still hungry I can get up and try something else, or I can just walk out. Ahhh freedom.

Eataly was so good and so liberating that we decided to check out two other food halls over the course of the weekend. Next stop was The Gaansvoort Market in the Meatpacking District. We stopped there early on a Saturday evening when the party was just starting to ramp up. Limos were arriving from the suburbs packed with people ready for a big night. Full disclosure, we didn’t eat anything here. Just went for a look. It’s a lot smaller than Eataly and where Eataly is a complete package tied with a big ribbon, Gaansvoort is more a mix of shops trying not to look too much like a food court at the mall. Anyway, we opted for a sit down meal at the nearby Bakehouse Bistro and Bar. It scratched the itch for someplace easy to get into but with great reviews and did not disappoint. Check my separate review.

Last food hall stop was part of a Sunday morning walk downtown, ending at the granddaddy of food halls, Hudson Eats at Brookfield Place. Adjacent to the World Trade Center Memorial site, Hudson Eats is big, clean and pretty much lacking in character. If Gaansvoort Market is trying not to look like the food court in the mall, Hudson Eats is the food court. The views of the river are great but the space is just sort of a flavorless, office building/mall. Not much appeal. I wanted convenience but I have my limits. At least for now don’t waste your time unless you are right in the area and want a quick look. Hey, burrata is on the menu! But keep an open mind as they begin to roll out Le District, the French answer to Eataly. Currently only small portions are open so we’ll wait to see the finished product.

So as I sing the praises of Eataly, I feel your pity New York. But as I walked back to my hotel to head home I made one last dash inside for a plate of prosciutto and cheese, some truly delicious razor clams, with chilies and garlic, and a half dozen fresh oysters. No waiting and no fuss. My kind of fast food.

The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm

Lovettsville, VA

The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm has garnered a lot of praise for its approach to local, organic and seasonal ingredients in its cooking, and Chef Tarver King has been recognized by no less than the James Beard Foundation as the vision behind the menu. Although difficult to get a table and somewhat out of the way, we had a chance to try the restaurant recently and came away with decidedly mixed feelings.

Many reviewers note the beauty of the setting and the view. We agree that this is a lovely rural setting and the principal view of the bridge at Point of Rocks is peaceful and serene in the early evening. The restaurant’s website has a nice picture of what you can expect. We were a little less thrilled with rest of the view which included the parking lot and the outside eating area which was not open and looked pretty disheveled and abandoned. In fact, the outside area in general wasn’t too appealing at this time of year. Not the same thing you probably see later in the season when the plantings are in but we’re reviewing the restaurant we saw – not the one that appears later in the growing season. This lack of attention to detail, ambiance and design is one of the restaurant’s principal failings.

The dining area has been generally described as a greenhouse. Accurate yes, but from the inside a little more of the feeling of a temporary structure – like a special event tent – surrounding a partial greenhouse. The glass generally gives a nice open feeling but, honestly, the first impression of the dining area is that it’s bare, diner-like and somewhat unappealing. At the far end of the dining area is a sort of hodge-podge of Haitian art, hung with no discernable pattern and no apparent rhyme or reason as to how it ended up in a Virginia farm inn. The floors are brick pavers and the tables are a simple wood design without table cloths. Surrounding the room is an odd collection of mismatched portable heating and cooling devices like free standing air conditioners and electric fireplaces. Decidedly odd.

Other reviewers have commented on this problem, including the Washington Post who said simply “the greenhouse could use some design help.” A vast understatement. We get that the owners treasure their art collection and the contribution their purchases made to the relief effort in Haiti. That’s fine, but you either need to incorporate the artwork into some sort of overall design concept or hang them in your own home. In the current restaurant they look disorganized and out of place.

Restaurant at Potowmack Farm

We’ve looked at YouTube videos and online photos of the dining area and what we saw on our recent visit was not the restaurant Patowmack Farm seems to promote. We could not find an online picture or video which did not have white table cloths on the tables, including the restaurant’s own promotional videos. I’m not saying table cloths are essential, but given the rest of the décor the lack of table cloths does make for a somewhat cold feel. The management has already responded to this criticism by saying it prefers the natural look of the English oak tables. Fair enough, but then why do all the promotional photos and videos include table cloths? Table cloths or no the dining space needs a major makeover. There is a reason that even James Beard gives awards for restaurant design. Design of the space is an important part of the dining experience and Patowmack Farm needs to step up to the plate on this one.

The second weak link is, I’m sorry to say, the service. Other reviewers have commented on the restaurant’s service problems but management does not seem to be taking these comments to heart. We arrived 15 minutes early for our reservation, were seated immediately and ordered a glass of wine. We could see other guests outside enjoying the view, and had seen them leaving their table to do that. But when we told our server that we were going to enjoy our wine outside he set us straight. We were told the restaurant was very busy that evening and that it was imperative that we order. As in now. Really. I think we can agree that no server should ever have made that comment to a guest and when I got home and watched the restaurant’s promotional video in which the owner recounts the story of a group that arrived late and amid profuse apologies were assured by management that, “when you have a table here, it’s your table for the evening”, I had to smile. This message needs to get to the staff.

The servers are young and clearly inexperienced. This is not a sin in itself but based on other reviews they seem to lack the guidance required to improve. They appear unfamiliar with the menu except for the course they are in the process of serving, and even on that score they often struggle to describe it. Keep in mind there are only three possible menus. Even so, our server got confused about which menu we had each ordered and continued to serve us the wrong dish throughout the meal. So while we were there for the food, the service is an important part of the experience and the restaurant needs to begin to take comments about service to heart and work with their servers to provide a more enjoyable dining experience.

On to the food. At first glance the choices appear fairly straightforward. There are three tasting menus: Found, Grown and Raised. Each has four or five dishes. But the simplicity is deceiving. This is cooking as an art form. The dishes are complex and many of the ingredients and dishes will be unfamiliar to the average diner: hickory bark syrup, smoked grapes, cashew cheese and chicken skin quiche to name a few. This meal is not about an interesting twist on a familiar dish, it’s about the Chef immersing you in his world and dazzling you with his creations. Sometimes this works, sometimes not. I can give you an idea of what we had but since the menu is constantly changing you’re not likely to have any of the same dishes.

The Razor Clam preparation suffered because the clam itself was flavorless or could not be tasted through the sauce. I’m not sure how Razor Clam makes it onto the Found menu in rural Virginia but given all the choices of going off the Farm for ingredients when necessary, this was not a winner in my book. The Gnocchi Nero was delicious, especially the garlic mousse. The Pork Shoulder was great with a deep, rich pork flavor that you won’t get buying pork at your local supermarket. Here the chef’s attention to sourcing shines through. But although extremely flavorful, the dish was visually bland. Taste is key and the taste did not disappoint but where you are elevating cooking to this level visual appeal is important and was lacking. I will say that the pork shoulder looked and tasted exactly like pork belly. This is probably my inexperience with pork shoulder but it sure looked like pork belly. The Cedar Needle Bubble Tea was sort of off the wall and very, very sweet. But again a chance for something new and different. The Sassafras Cream with Crunchy Choux was one of the best things on the menu.

My wife had the Grown menu and here we ran into a problem. As I said, these are complicated dishes and ingredients, so we appreciated the chance to review the menus in advance online. What we did not realize in our rush to order was that a key ingredient in the Grown menu had changed from the previous day’s online posting which described the dish as “grilled” Mackerel. For our meal this had changed to Mackerel Bao, or essentially mackerel in a steamed bun. These two preparations could not be more different and our mistake led us to a main course that we never would have ordered. Don’t get me wrong, the menu clearly said Mackerel Bao. If our server had pointed out the menu change it would have been helpful. If he hadn’t been insistent on prompt ordering we might have caught the change. In any case, if you are reviewing the online menu, which is new every week, ask about changes from the online version when ordering.

That said, the White Gazpacho was surprising with ingredients like smoked grapes and uni battarga, another good example of the chef’s skills with the unexpected and unusual. Very flavorful and very good. The Carrots Baked in Honey suffered a similar fate to the Razor Clam, an ingredient that was over-shadowed by the sauce to the degree that it was lost. Simply too sweet for us. The Mackerel Bao was a mistake in ordering so in fairness we won’t review that.

A quick word about the wine list. It’s nice to see a restaurant that can find good wine at reasonable prices. Patowmack Farm manages a wine list with prices that end where other restaurants of this caliber begin, with many bottles in the $40 to $60 dollar range and I don’t think a single bottle over $100.

Dinner at The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm is like a performance piece with the Chef at center stage. You are meant to understand his skills and his devotion to use of local and fresh ingredients. How else to explain Cedar Needle Bubble Tea as an entire course on the tasting menu? As I’ve said, the preparations are complex and will be unfamiliar to most. In our opinion some succeed, others do not. But like any performance, the supporting characters also play an important role in a truly great experience, and it’s here that Patowmack Farm falls flat. We’re not the first to say it but service and ambiance need improvement.

While the foodie in us often appreciated the Chef’s efforts, I’m not sure we wanted to work quite so hard to figure out where this story was going. Maybe it was just the luck of the draw on the menu. Perhaps it was simply too early in the season for the farm to have produced the ingredients for which its dishes receive such praise. In any event, not the experience we had hoped for.