All ambitious restaurateurs are obsessed with style and décor, especially those unfortunate souls who must peddle to the hordes of fickle, fashion-conscious eaters downtown. At Bobo, in the West Village, the proprietors have gone to obsessive lengths to capture the “Faux Speakeasy” style, which first began in bars on the Lower East Side and quickly spread to trendy restaurants like Freemans and the Waverly Inn. The basement entrance of the townhouse restaurant is conspicuously unmarked. To get to the dining room, you must duck into a candlelit lounge area and climb up a rickety flight of stairs. The dining-room tables are set with guttering candles, too, and the room is fitted with tastefully rummaged knickknacks (glass-bead chandeliers, an hourglass, carefully arranged old-master knockoffs on the walls), along with a bookshelf casually stocked, like a summer rental in the Hamptons, with random volumes by Escoffier and Alan Dershowitz.
This look has been a hit from the beginning (for the record, Mrs. Platt is a fan), but thus far, the food at Bobo has been a disaster. The kitchen is now on its third chef, Patrick Connolly, who comes from Boston, where he won a James Beard award this spring for his work at a posh restaurant called Radius. At Bobo, however, he’s operating under a different set of constraints. The food at fashionable downtown joints isn’t designed to win awards; it’s designed to facilitate the party while containing costs. Which may be why my ahi-tuna appetizer was barely large enough to feed a flea. The $16 seared-quail starter was similarly minimalist and also slightly overcooked, and the thick potato-leek soup could have used a touch of vichyssoise lightness. My braised-pork-belly appetizer was weirdly delicious, however (it’s served with tiny clams in a lemongrass broth), and so was the cool little wheel of fresh Maine crab, which the chef spreads with cashew butter and sprinkles with frizzled capers.
You get the sense from some of these first courses that Connolly is a chef bursting with inventive notions. But when the entrées roll around, that ingenuity only occasionally breaks through. Sea trout is served with Thai long beans on the side and a refined soft-cooked egg topped with caviar. Connolly’s housemade potato gnocchi are velvet-smooth (they’re folded with freshly cooked tomatoes and Parmesan), and his version of country chicken consists of a single crackly-skinned, well-cooked breast sliced over sautéed artichokes and matsutake mushrooms. The “slow roasted” rib eye is just as well executed, although its matchbox size caused my beefeating friends to recoil. Ditto the tiny bits of monkfish and the single pork chop, which is served over a sweet mass of figs and caramelized fennel and was overcooked both times I ordered it.
Connolly has put in a new downstairs bar menu (which is scrawled, ridiculously, on old LPs), and the two things I sampled on it, lamb ribs and a tasty-sounding Vietnamese pork sandwich, were badly cooked (the lamb was blubbery, the sandwich made with a stale baguette). If you have a choice, eat upstairs, where there is a second, more elegant, pocket-size bar and a stylish alfresco area, which is open during temperate weather. The small, semi-artful desserts served there include a demitasse of chocolate pudding, a citrus cheesecake that tastes curiously like an elegant, New Age version of crème brûlée, and an icy granita, dressed with currants and a hint of sugary orange peel. The plum-blackberry crisp is okay as premade fruit crisps go, and so is the chocolate cake with salted toffee, which is presented on a blue-and-white china plate. Is this enough to satisfy the serious eater? Probably not. But if you go to Bobo for the party, you won’t be disappointed. Despite the lofty culinary aspirations, this frenetically voguish restaurant remains true to its roots. It’s a triumph of style over substance.
The new Upper West Side restaurant Bloomingdale Road has an ancient, folksy name (it’s the old British name for the road that became Broadway), but the room and menu feel like a cockeyed jumble of formerly fashionable dining conceits. The space on Broadway at 88th Street has had many incarnations (it was last an upmarket brasserie called Aix), but I’m not quite sure what theme the new owners are attempting. The menu is a grab bag of overworked comfort items like “grass fed” hamburger sliders, Manhattan-clam-chowder shooters, and salty-sweet shreds of country ham glazed in Coca-Cola. There’s a café zone on the sidewalk and a neighborly bar area with a flat-screen TV. The wait staff are dressed in eighties-era blue-and-khaki Gap uniforms, and if you squint your eyes, the aqua-colored banquettes in the back look like they’ve been lifted from an Automat in Atlantic City circa 1962.
Bloomingdale Road’s kitchen is run by Ed Witt, a talented chef whose cooking I admired when he labored briefly at a doomed restaurant in Chelsea called Varietal. But his efforts here are foiled by a combination of bizarro conception and spotty technique. The burger sliders were hard as vulcanized rubber, the “country fried” quail was seized in a greasy batter, and the macaroni and cheese lacked cheesiness. I did not have the courage to order the spaghetti-squash-and-grilled-tofu entrée, but I can report that the funky-tasting lamb “julep” (a pairing of leg and ribs) did not benefit from its scattering of stale popcorn. The kitchen produces a decent deviled egg, however, and a nice Cheddar-rich baked potato, and if you make it to dessert, you will find an excellent tart-style homage to the most durable comfort recipe of all: peanut butter and jelly.