I remember hearing about Laurent Tourondel’s culinary magic back when I was washing lettuce and slicing grapes into teeny, tiny little segments in a Boston kitchen. The cooks around me were unstinting in their adulation. And then I remember being disappointed to have moved to NYC after Cello’s untimely and much-lamented demise and not having the chance to taste Tourondel’s food. I was glad to see him resurface but had no intention of ever visiting the first of his BLT establishments, which was, of all things, a steakhouse. I’m wary of the whole restaurant-empire enterprise — especially one that would stake its first claim with a steakhouse, not to mention one that’s so baldly brand-focused. And it was fine: other BLTs opened up, I heard good and bad things about each, and I didn’t bother going to any of them.
But when BLT Market opened up, the reviews were pretty much all positive: two stars here, two stars there, five stars over there, and a pretty ridiculous example of how PR is running “journalism” these days here. And we were curious. I mean, this market concept is what I’m all about, right? I liked the idea of taking this trend of recognizing farmers and producers to the next level and plastering the dining room with photos of them proudly holding their wares. I liked that they made a point of highlighting what’s in season on the menu. But then we went.
And everything was wrong, wrong, wrong.
So much of BLT Market screams suburban mall restaurant, from the cheesy “BEET-yam-MUSHROOM” etc. printed all over the (paper) placemat and, even cheesier, writ large on the mirrors behind us. Okay, I GET that you’re about fresh, seasonal, local — hell, “market” is in your name — does it really need to be spelled out for me? Same with the menu. Something about actually seeing the way the in-season produce was listed on it provoked the gag reflex. And back to those paper placemats: I know that the dining scene is getting more casual all the time, but seriously, if I’m paying $30+ for an entree, I want to see some real linen somewhere. (And this is the restaurant they put in the Ritz-Carlton?) I guess the real linen went to the servers so they could sport proper market-inspired aprons. We got the long baguette-shaped (that’s no real baguette) bread slathered with pesto butter. It was okay bread (made better than not-so-great bread because it was warm and covered with garlicky butter, but it lacked a decent crumb and was fairly insipid in flavor), but reminded me of the refrigerated garlic bread we used to get at the supermarket in Chesterfield, Missouri, which we’d heat up in the oven to go with spaghetti-and-meatball dinners. Actually the supermarket bread might have been better, since there was more butter on it. All of these things weren’t so bad; the cheesiness was just a minor annoyance, and the bread at least was warm.
But then it got nasty.
My langoustines came. All three of their tails. And they were okay. Not stellar, not even particularly excellent — just okay. (But to be fair, they had to compete with my memory of St John’s langoustines, about a dozen of which came heaped on a plate, whole, with just a little cup of mayonnaise or aioli to dip them in. Perfectly, perfectly cooked langoustines they were.) And I looked over at Steven’s sizeable duck salad and was a little jealous. Until I tried it. Lovely fresh greens and ostensibly tasty duck, but it was drenched in such a cloyingly sweet dressing that we couldn’t even bring ourselves to finish it. My immediate thought after trying it was, should I downgrade my gnocchi order from entree to appetizer size? Maybe I don’t want a big portion if it’s going to suck. But Steven reassured me that he’d eat the leftovers, and I didn’t want to cause trouble, so I left it.
Only to wonder, once the pasta came, whether I had mistakenly ordered the appetizer portion to begin with. Especially when I compared it with Steven’s arctic char, which looked to be at least 8 ounces, maybe a good 10, of the fish. The char was okay — nothing special, and nothing, certainly, that would hold a candle to Aquavit’s treatment of the same. It could have been less cooked, but overall it was acceptable. Back to that gnocchi, though: the pasta came in a small bowl and filled it maybe a third of the way. I was so astounded by the portioning that I actually had to count how many gnocchi they gave me. 14 gnocchi. For $25. That’s TWENTY-FIVE DOLLARS. And this is gnocchi with lamb sausage (that they don’t even make in-house) and FENNEL, for god’s sake (both not particularly pricey ingredients, for those of you wondering). I was offended. I was pissed. I didn’t get it.
That might be one of the only meals I’ve had in this city where I felt like I’d been totally duped. And I take back the suburban mall restaurant qualifier; it’s more like a Disney approximation of what some advertising exec thinks a “market restaurant” should be, only instead of selling key chains and hats, you’ve got honey and Staub. I know the whole co-opting of local, seasonal, family farms, etc. has been going on for a while, but at this level, to this extent, and with so many people swallowing it wholesale, it really has me scratching my head (these last two reviews especially). Do I go back to see if I just missed something the first time? Dare I plunk down another $70 to give BLT Market the benefit of the doubt? I don’t know.
And I still don’t get it.