Ghost Story

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking to the senior class at the Culinary Institute of America on the subject of what today’s diners want. Speaking to students is as daunting as trying to calculate how many points foie gras gets on the Duchess of York’s 1, 2, 3 diet plan. Near adults are not nearly as cynical or worldly as James Van Der Beek’s buddies and bedmates would have us believe. Hormones notwithstanding, they are as hungry for information about the “outside” world as would-be settlers in the days of the Homestead Act.

It doesn’t take too many paychecks for one to realize that dining out in New York is usually about confessing, interviewing, celebrating anniversaries, signing contracts, making amends, keeping Mom happy or Dad quiescent, saying you’re welcome, saying I love you, and sighing good-bye. In all of these instances, how often is the meal paramount? If it were otherwise, more people would be doing knockoffs of Le Bernardin than of Balthazar. Of course, good food matters. Pastis’s pork belly on lentils is as vital a puzzle part as its don’t-you-look-fabulous lighting. (Though which would you part with first?) But the desire for a culinary epiphany every night at the stroke of nine is a myth conjured by food magazines and critics. You and I know this.

But these kids sitting up there in Hyde Park in their crisp white toques don’t. They think success is only counted in home runs. Why? Our media tells them so. Variety counted more than 3,000 showbiz awards last year. Fashion tomes now bestow honors as though they mattered. Sportscasters ask silver medalists what they think “went wrong.” Big surprise that my young audience reads about four-star restaurants and three-star chefs and assumes that’s all diners look for to guide them through the night. So, after the third senior anxiously asked some variation on “How can I compete with Le Bernardin when I’m just starting my career?” my heart went out to them.

Then my heart rate went up. It’s these kinds of skewed standards that drive restaurants to squander their own resources by overreaching for what is often unnecessary. And it’s not impressionable young graduates who are miscarrying their dream projects – they’re not even there yet – it’s the generation in front of them, the ones who are finally in charge but are still spooked by their past experience. This is the formidable ghost that stalks the creaky floors of chef Morgen Jacobson’s first restaurant, Quince. You are bound to hear its name intoned religiously by staff several times a night. The specter of the Quilted Giraffe, Jacobson’s former employer, is never very far from his thoughts, either. This talented chef recently received two stars from the Times, and yet there he was, shortly afterward, openly bemoaning his plight in front of a nearby table of four.

Why? The same rating didn’t exactly decimate Balthazar, Payard Patisserie, Bolo, or BondSt. But the Quilted Giraffe, that ghost of restaurants past, got four. Never mind that it was one of the most arrogantly oppressive and gastronomically cloying restaurants ever to put one over on the feeding-frenzied of the eighties. Forgotten, too, are the $12 petri-dish portions of mashed potatoes with four black beans and the stainless-steel ambience radiating all the warmth of an emergency room, which, frankly, fit its owners like a surgical glove.

Because it got four. And so, woe to him who comes up with less. It’s unfortunate that Quince could serve as a textbook for CIA students on how trying to don someone else’s mantle just leaves you wearing a hand-me-down. Because Jacobson has an adventurous spirit. His menu is uncluttered by the otherwise ubiquitous foie gras, tuna tartare, skate, and rib-eye that have become staples of the gourmand’s Happy Meal. His shrimp’s curry sauce is brightly seasoned and just a bit unexpected. Slices of duck breast are framed in temptation: salty, succulent fat. His perfect duck confit has skin that crackles more loudly than if you scrunched the original Declaration of Independence. A turbot is surrounded by peppers, luscious as they are languid. And his rack of lamb has the outré guts to come with mint.

But the pear salad alongside the curry incites a shiver of disorientation. And serving winter wheat with the duck breast just makes things heavier. Pairing pasty quince pancakes with the fat-rich confit turns the plate monotonous halfway through. The turbot’s pale delicacy is capsized by a sauce too lush with black truffles and lobster, and a potato-and-celery-root gratin sends the lamb’s fragrant mint packing. If these choices are from Jacobson’s soul, so be it. But they’re also too reminiscent of the syrupy and saccharine taste of Barry Wine, the Giraffe’s master quilter. Wine’s presentation has been appropriated, too, with each element sharply separated as if the plate contained assets of a bitter divorce settlement. And it’s almost inevitable that desserts reflect the unbearable sweetness of being caught up in someone else’s sugar rush for too long. Odd how the dishes that seem most unconnected with Jacobson’s past – white bean, garlic, and sage soup; sashimi hamachi in lemon soy; scallops with wild mushrooms and salsify – clearly suggest the prospect of a more satisfying future.

Luckily, Quince doesn’t resurrect Wine’s twisted attitude toward staff. Waiters are pleasant, if theatrical. The sommelier is a wizard; if only he could conjure up a new room as readily as an undiscovered Pinot Noir. But the space’s partially redecorated gracelessness seems more the result of budgetary constraints than of bad taste. What’s more disturbing is witnessing a potentially original chef subjugate his own taste in pursuit of a cachet no longer worth cashing in on.

One uncertain student admitted to me that his mom advised him “once I get the chance, I should cook what I love. Isn’t that unrealistic?” Sure, but even Mr. Jacobson would probably agree that owning a restaurant is hardly the most pragmatic of career options. And if he’s willing to admit that, then he should stop counting stars and give his ghost the air. Because now he has the chance – to be himself.

Quince, 33 West 54th Street (212-582-8993). Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Closed Saturday and Sunday. Prix fixe menus only: lunch, $34 or $40; dinner, $58 to $100. All major credit cards.

“How many restaurants can one guy own?” asks a spirited young man in the back. It depends, I say. Maguy LeCoze of Le Bernardin refuses to go higher than two. David Bouley can’t get past two. Pino Luongo opens and closes them in bunches. But no man has the appetite for new stationery like Drew Nieporent. With eighteen restaurants uptown, downtown, and in Pittsburgh, and management teams of varying strengths, he matches his ceaseless enthusiasm only with his love of diversity. “How do you know when you have too many?” the young man shoots back.

Probably when you can’t keep the bathrooms clean. On my first visit to Nieporent’s new outpost, Icon, my stall is flooded and tissueless. On my second, another stall door has been ripped off one hinge so it won’t close. On my third, a girl is hoisted onto a sink getting felt up. “I hope you don’t mind,” she giggles, then asks if I would mind not using the urinal. I offer to pee in the sink. The mood broken, she and her momentary date leave.

Okay, it’s not Icon’s fault that it shares facilities with the Wet Bar, Rande Gerber’s lounge in the new W Court hotel. Actually, that’s where much of the raucous clientele comes over from. However, it is Icon’s disastrous flaw that its success by overflow has completely blurred the line between restaurant and bar. The similar dark décor and dank light levels encourage the continuity of attitude. But so does the ratcheted-up music, the needy table-hopping, and a steady seepage of standing drinkers into the dining room … ultimately, one is dining by hoverlight.

There’d be little reason to complain if the menu featured burgers and tacos. But Nieporent has never opened a room where he didn’t want the food to matter. And many of chef Paul Sale’s dishes – oysters in tomato-horseradish granité, pumpkin-seeded goat-cheese tart, braised oxtail in celery-root purée, pan-seared veal medallions, herb-crusted rack of lamb – are worth turning the lights up for. But under these conditions, Nieporent should find the guy another gig and start serving bar food.

CIA’s future mogul has one more question: “When you find a formula that works, how long can you milk it?” Until it runs dry. Icon is bustling, albeit with a crowd about as classy as a boff on a basin. But in a few months, I’m coming back, because I refuse to believe the man who owns Nobu and Montrachet and has heartaches over Heartbeat deliberately devised this. If I’m wrong, fine. Then I’m drinking right from the bottle and ordering guacamole for everyone. And I’m bringin’ my own Charmin.

Icon, 130 East 39th Street (212-592-8888). Lunch, daily noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Wednesday 5:45 to 10:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday till 11:30 p.m. Appetizers, $6 to $15; entrées, $16 to $25. All major credit cards.

Ghost Story