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Tasting Room 2.0 - extremely disappointed review (long)

It used to be, when you heard about a new, under-50-seat restaurant opening in an outer borough or some forgotten corner of Manhattan, you might be reminded that you hadn't been to the Tasting Room in awhile. Because the Tasting Room, with its tiny number of seats, with its warm and convivial owners, who greeted you (and often, remembered you) when you walked in the door, with it its greenmarket-driven, thoughtful menu and all-American wine list, was the personification of the restaurant "gem." Yes, it was sometimes cramped, and yes, sometimes you had to wait for your table, even if you showed up with a reservation. But you always felt that dining there was a special experience, one that you would not forget.

Today, the Tasting Room sits at a larger, fancier new location in Nolita, on Elizabeth Street just south of Houston. It has a full-sized bar in the front, and a host stand and two dining areas in the back. It seats about 100 people in the dining room, maybe another 10-15 in the bar area.

And after a meal that I and five of my friends had there this past Sunday night, I am saddened to report that whatever the Tasting Room has gained in elbow room, it does not come close to compensating for what it has lost. The restaurant holding the name of that cute little place on 1st and 1st has lost, essentially, everything that ever made it a desirable restaurant. It is a given that, with the upsizing, it would lose a little bit of its charm, a little bit of the warmth and personal attention that made the old location special. Unfortunately, it has also suffered a dramatic decline in food quality and service quality, and what I believe is a noticeable increase in price.

I not only left this new restaurant disappointed. I left angry.

Dinner started off well. One of our party was very late (about 40 minutes), but they were kind enough to seat the rest of us and let us order both our food (she was stranded in a cab uptown and told us to go ahead) and our drinks. The restaurant was only about half full. The waiter provided good guidance on ordering for 6 (none of us had even been to the old one with more than a couple) and took cocktail orders, though he ignored the order for at least one of us. This was about about 7:45.

Then we waited. No cocktails, no bread.

After about 20 minutes, the bottle of wine we had ordered was brought. First, the waiter showed the bottle. I nodded, and he disappeared. Then, he returned again, poking me somewhat rudely in the back, and showed me the exact same bottle again. He then proceeded to "pour" the wine, which in this instance meant spilling several drops of it on the table and, had I not moved my arm, on me. He continued to spill at the place of every other person. No apology for his sloppy handiwork was offered. This would not be terribly unreasonable at a more relaxed bistro or neighborhood restaurant, but the Tasting Room is charging, on average, $30 for entrees and over $10 for almost every appetizer, including a $38 plate of mushrooms (not to mention, generally, around $50 and up for wine). If you price yourself in league with Gramercy Tavern or Craft, you should be held to the same standard.

The cocktails still had not arrived, but without warning, a waiter plopped down two bowls of chilled pear and whey soup that we had ordered. She did not bring spoons. About 60 seconds later, she inexplicably swooped back in and yanked the bowls away, muttering something about "not ready to serve these yet."

At some point after that, the cocktails arrived. Still no food. By about 8:30, we got bread. Our friend had long since arrived, and we had of course told them to proceed with the meal whether she had arrived or not. At 8:45--an hour after we got there--our appetizers came.

However, the Tasting Room had provided no plates. I asked for plates to be brought out. The person whose attention I could get brought, without apology, small bread plates and laid them in front of each of us. Of course, these bread plates were far too small to effectively use to share 5 separate dishes; in fact, one of the razor clams (huge, delicious) would hang off of both ends, dripping copious amounts of the savory coconut broth all over the table. I flagged the guy down again and asked for full-sized plates to be brought out.

And then, what I believe to be the single most absurd statement ever made to me in a New York restaurant was made.

He said, "We don't have plates."

The Tasting Room is supposed to be a "sharing" restaurant, which is pretty clearly indicated by offering items in sizes called "Taste" and "Share." It is extremely difficult to share dishes (or really, eat anything but bread) from a small bread plate. Further, the restaurant serves food, and therefore, serves it on plates. Having to spill food everywhere trying to eat off a bread plate, and being told something as asinine as that the restaurant did not have plates, quite frankly nearly made me blow my stack.

As for food quality-- not that it mattered, since I was furious, but some of the appetizers, like the stuffed chicken, were very good, as were the razor clams and the quail terrine. The salad, with tiny heirloom tomatoes, was fairly weak, and that pear and whey soup was only adequate.

After finishing the appetizers, we waited another 40 minutes or so for our entrees. Again, there was no apology for the delay. They cleared our microscopic bread plates and brought out new bread plates, along with our food.

We had six entrees in the "share" size, which was plenty of food. They priced around $30 each. In fact, the most peculiar item was the "vegetable plate," which, despite however it was advertised, consisted of roasted lettuce, potatoes, and onions, for $28. I am sad to say they were not particularly delicious lettuce, potatoes, and onions, but they were quite oily. I personally could have made about 15 pounds of this dish, properly oiled and seasoned, for $28.

We also had the Montauk skipjack, an excellent, though fishy, fish, with a great stuffing on the side. A less-memorable fish dish (I apologize, but do not recall which one-- menupages and TR website are both out of date) was also served, which arrived undercooked. We had a different take on chicken, this time a delicious breast, as well as a plate of large hen of the woods mushrooms that were slightly overcooked but still delicious. The fried blowfish tails, with a slightly spicy sauce, were underwhelming.

In general, all of the food seemed unusually oily and heavy. Whatever stunning ingredients were being used were largely eclipsed by poor execution, as well as the ever-present memory of how expensive it was and how frustrating it was to eat from a bread plate.

I would compare what Tasting Room 2.0 is trying to attempt to something more like Craft, which provides proper plates from which to eat, and pulls off the greenmarket driven menu much more effectively. In a similar vein would be a place like Hearth, which I think also offers superior food in a much friendlier and less-expensive setting. Our bill, with two bottles of wine ($45 and $57), one cocktail each, no dessert or coffee and leaving only a 15% tip, came out to $471, or about $90 each with the tip added in. If this had been a meal at Craft, or the old Tasting Room, I would consider that a pretty good deal.

One of the most interesting items on the menu was a mushroom dessert with honey and yogurt, but by then, we were all so fed up with the place, including the immense waits between courses, that we decided to skip dessert and head to Aroma, a small wine bar that, at least in warmth of spirit, is a lot more like what the old Tasting Room was.

What this new Tasting Room is, I am sad to say, is a place with amateurish, wildly inconsistent, incompetent service, mediocre food, and a bad attitude. It is more typical of the raft of bland, white-walled, overpriced SoHo and Nolita restaurants around it. Whereas the original gave you a sense of great personal attention and personal care, this place seems to go out of its way to let you know how little you are cared for. That's a particularly poor thing, too, in a half-empty restaurant.

Especially given what a lovable place it was before, Tasting Room 2.0 was a shocking disappointment. It is an embarassment to its owners, and the memory of what existed before.

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  1. That doesn't sound good. However, I am pretty sure I noticed that the menu no longer offers "tasting" or "sharing" options, just regular, plated appetizers and entrees. Perhaps that is why they were unprepared to provide plates to split the dishes. Which is no excuse, of course, for handling your request badly.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Wilfrid

      I was one of the original poster's dining companions and I can assure you that the menu still reads "tasting" and "sharing."

      1. re: Wilfrid

        They are clearly marked "TASTE" in one column and "share" in the other.

        1. Thank you for your review - very helpful. I have not been to the new location as of yet - and am becoming reluctant to go after reading your review and others like it. The price points are through the roof IMHO.

          The 1st and 1st experience was truly unique - maybe it's another case of bigger isn't always better.

          Adam Platt, grudgingly it would appear, gave 2 stars to The the new Tasting Room...

          1. Actually it reads "To Start", "To Continue", "To Finish"

            Are you sure you went to the right place?

            1 Reply
            1. re: Gargle

              The sections of the menu are labeled "To Start" "To Continue" and "To Finish" under which the dishes are listed. To the right of each dish name, where prices are listed, there are two columns. Column 1 is labeled "TASTE" and Column 2 is labeled "SHARE." "Share" costs approximately 2x what taste does.

              I might also add, that, notwithstanding the names of the columns, the restaurant is also called "The Tasting Room."

              But I assure you, I was in the right place.

            2. Sorry Gargle, but I was there last night and can guarantee you that the menu was as described above - "TASTE" and "SHARE". I didn't even like the old place, so you can rest assured that I was not imagining it.

              1. here is the confusion.

                the new Tasting Room (unlike the old one) offers appetizers and entrees. however, some of the appetizers are offered in two sizes.

                with that said, I dislike the new incarnation.

                1. I have been at the new Tasting Room at least three times since it opened, but not in the past few weeks. There was no share column on the menu at that stage, which was one of the things I liked about the old location. I do remember a footnote on the menu stating that small plates were available upon request. Maybe they're started serving small plates again as standard?

                  I found the service to be great, but not intimate. But I do agree with the orignal poster about the food. I've stopped going there because the food simply isn't of the same quality as the old location. Dishes are hit or miss, which isn't acceptable at such prices. I also missed the sharing option, so perhaps I should revisit.

                  1. Sounds like the Tasting Room is using the Microsoft approach to the release of their "new version." rofl

                    1. FYI... from Andrea Strong's review posted today. Apparently, they did at one point eliminate the "sharing" concept, only to restore it later.

                      "The first time I had dinner at the Tasting Room, with Julie and Kiri, the menu had been modified to conform to standard appetizers and entrees from the signature Share/Taste format. We were disappointed by that change, but on my last visit, the original format had been restored."

                      1. I paid $32 for two scallops, waited 40 min for dessert, and will not return.

                        1. I've been to the new Tasting Room three times since it reopened. They have, indeed, restored the taste/share element of the menu for most dishes, save for a couple of entrees the last time I was there. The food is still awesome. It is still expensive. I have eaten two of the best things I have ever had in my life at the Tasting Room: once it was amazing seared scallops, the other roasted porcini mushrooms. the flavors were completely unexpected and amazing. I'm still blown away. The service for us was great, but by observing some nearby tables, the service is definitely not quite up to the high standards of the old place. I have faith that they'll get there.

                          1. My wife and I had dinner at the Tasting Room last night. It was phenomenal.

                            The bar was area was small but really well decorated. At two different sections, there were stacks of fresh fruit, fresh ginger, salts, etc. I asked what they used the fresh ginger for and was made a Moscow Mule with muddled fresh ginger. My wife ordered a Salty Dog and the bartender began squeezing fresh grapefruit juice. The drinks were some of the best in Manhattan and were 2/3's the price most places charge for similar cocktails.

                            Service was excellent. When our water glasses were less than half full, they'd be refilled immediately. Same went for our wine. We never had to wait for anything.

                            The food was a highlight. My wife's loved her roasted daikon salad and my guinea hen terrine was top notch. We were even more impressed by our entrees. My pork saddle on collard greens really showed that the kitchen really cares about the quality of its ingredients and makes dishes made for foodies. Our desserts (well, I actually had the cheese plate) were also standouts.

                            Finally, the wine list is also impressive. They had a number of bottles for under $50 as well as Screaming Eagle for $2,800 with a lot of selections in between.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: mahalan

                              This is very amusing. I remember the original post like it was yesterday, and have since turned the phrase "We don't have plates" into a running joke.

                              Having said that, I have been there a few times since '06 and have not had a bad experience yet. It is not my favorite spot even in that area of the city, but it is far from the disaster the original poster had written about.

                            2. This is the only post on chowhound that I've ever read out loud to my husband. "We don't have plates" is mindboggling. (It's like when Kinkos actually told my friend that they'd run out of paper.)

                              Maybe when the new restaurant is open longer it will get its "groove" back.