Review Rewind (and Chef-O-Rama): Restaurant One

Restaurant reviewers hear the same thing, again and again and again. Spotting our name in a supermarket checkout, a disturbed (and frankly accusing) reader will accost us, and demand to know why s/he had a very different experience at Restaurant Shmo than the one represented in our review. In fact—and here’s where their eyes narrow — this reader’s experience was so (pick one, great/ghastly), that Restaurant Shmo seemed like an entirely different establishment from the one discussed in the article. “Why”, demands the reader, as s/he presses into our personal space, “Why? Why? Why?” And we, defensively clutching a jumbo pack of toilet paper, will have to figure out the problem. It usually turns out that the reader visited the restaurant months—or even years—after the review was published.

We’d like to point out that we fall into this trap, too.

As we’ve mentioned before, new restaurant reviews are usually published while the restaurant opening is still newsworthy. According to Dianne Jacob’s Will Write for Food, reviews begin appearing about two months the restaurant opens, although the Association of Food Journalist claims it’s ethical for reviewers to visit a restaurants after it’s only been open a month. We personally prefer to wait three. Anyway, however long the reviewer waits, once the review is published (already weeks or months after the visits), the clock is ticking on its accuracy. If a reader’s interest is piqued by a review, but he or she doesn’t visit the restaurant until several months later, the reviewer can’t be held responsible for the accuracy of the review. A restaurant at two or three months old is markedly different from the same restaurant nine months later.

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Here’s a case in point. Restaurant One in Irvington opened to rave reviews, getting a rare “Excellent” from the New York Times (on December 31, 2006) and winning Westchester Magazine’s “Best New Restaurant of the Year” award in 2007. In her Times review, M.H. Reed lavishes Chef Dan Magill with praise, saying, “This artist can dip into molecular gastronomy and send out a lagniappe in a shot glass, the layered liquids once solids, perhaps porcini or cranberry, amusing and intensely flavorful. Or he might pipe a bit of foie gras mousse onto puff pastry the size of a nickel and top the mouthful with a tissue-thin slice of grape.”

Further, the august Ms. Reed asserts that Magill’s “…tastes and textures are beautifully balanced and echo the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang in contrasting tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, piquant, crunchy, crisp, soft, smooth. For example, fatty almonds and poached green apple matched sweet caramelized onion in a tangy goat cheese tart. Mango, lemongrass vinaigrette and lotus chips enhanced grilled Thai shrimp. Still molten within, seared foie gras had the perfect partner in sweet-sour onion marmalade. Exciting as well were sweet roasted beet and warm goat cheese salad; thin rings of calamari mingled with wild arugula, olives, lemon and chorizo (a lovely blend of citrus, salt and smoke); and organic mixed greens with toasted pecans, stilton, pear and flowery Acacia honey and herb vinaigrette.”

Our colleague Marge Perry was more reserved in her praise, and actually only gave Restaurant One three out of four stars in her Westchester Magazine review appearing on March 18, 2007). Still, she echoed M. H. Reed’s enthusiasm for Chef Magill’s skill. “…The nearly smooth eggs are flavored with tiny rich chunks of lobster meat, served in the eggshell topped with vodka-whipped cream and an impressive dollop of Osetra caviar. Weeks later, we were still thinking about how each little spoonful slid down our throats like the personification of passion.” And, “…Chef Daniel Magill showed equal finesse with organ meats in a dish of tender sweetbreads topped with miniature black-truffle gnocchi. Other appetizers were also tasty; a pleasant yellowtail tartare dressed with just enough soy-yuzu emulsion to enhance the sweet flavor of the fish; kabocha pumpkin bisque delighted those with a proclivity for sweet flavors; and a salad of mixed greens, stilton cheese, pecans, and pear with a honey vinaigrette made a lovely light starter.” And, “…tender, richly flavorful roasted Maine lobster… was served partially in its shell over wonderfully creative “hand-cut potato risotto”—rice-size pieces of creamy potato that looked and felt like risotto and tasted like potato. Smoked bacon and Brussels sprouts gave the plate a perfect punch of flavor. “

We remember reading these reviews and thinking, ‘We’ve GOT to get over there.’ But somehow, in the flurry of everyday life, we never did.

In fact, given a schedule as stacked as Jayne Mansfield, we’re ashamed to admit that didn’t get to Restaurant One until last week – a full year and nine months after the Times rave appeared. In the interim, Chef Dan Magill had moved on, and then, in July ‘08, subsequent chef Jeff Raider vacated to head up the Patina Restaurant Group in Lincoln Center. When we visited, Raider’s sous chef, Chef Justin Rowe, had been Chef de Cuisine for a month, though Chef Raider still consults, reportedly until mid-September. To add a frisson of intrigue to the general chef-o-rama, someone on One’s payroll told a member of our staff that Chef Dan Magill would return to replace Chef Raider. This tantalizing factoid was later denied by a different restaurant staffer. (Who knows what’s really going on? It could be that they’re in negotiation – restaurants are crazy that way.)

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Since we actually only visited One once, and feel that not enough to support a full review, we’ll refrain from saying whether it was a good or bad experience (though FYI — it was good). We will say that One today is a very different restaurant from the One M.H. Reed and Marge Perry reviewed.

Oh, the prices are still high, and the décor is still stylish, though the intervening 21 months have left the banquettes a little worn. (But, to be honest, restaurant upholstery rarely bares close scrutiny). The big difference was in One’s menu: gone was any evocation of molecular gastronomy. Gone was the farm egg with lobster and Osetra (that I had my heart set on), gone was the “lagniappe” of intriguing layered liquids (or even just an amuse bouche), gone was foie gras, black-truffle gnocchi, sweetbreads or hand-cut potato risotto. Gone was tamarind, farro, or any evocation of Thai cuisine. Gone was a menu that reached for the stars, and sometimes even achieved them

Instead, what was left was a flawlessly competent execution of a much more earthbound menu. One’s raw bar was still certainly present, and we enjoyed some particularly heavenly Kumamoto oysters, well-shucked and brimming with precious liquid, which we highlighted by a drop of One’s carefully acidic, subtly herbal mignonette. Also good, a tuna ceviche — which was tasty, if slightly confusing. (It was essentially un-acidulated, with un-denatured ruby tuna.) While we spotted a couple of dishes left over from Dan Magill’s days, like deep fried Maryland crab fritters served with a trio of sauces, ordering these felt like a betrayal of One’s current administration, which deserves a shot on its own.

In mains, the menu favored fish, as was always the case at One. But — instead of sweetbreads, foie gras and meticulously hand-cut potatoes that mimic rice — we found a satisfying (but workmanlike) list that featured usual array of one chicken, one pork, one veggie and one beef. Our scallops a la plancha were not particularly trend-setting, but perfectly cooked and tasty nevertheless, while a steak with deep fried potato rounds and Maytag blue was (again) perfectly executed, but no molecular gastronomy. We left One feeling well fed (and lighter of wallet), but a little like the rug was pulled out from under us. We wanted a lagniappe, whatever the hell that is. We wanted a farm egg with lobster, whipped cream and Osetra.

Yet in our vexed state, we realize that it’s rare for restaurants to maintain the same character, menu and tone for the endless span of 21 months. Like children, restaurants evolve. At two or three months old, during the time of highest critical scrutiny, a restaurant may be an audacious toddler – shouting, screaming, and banging its toys around. With time and staff changes, that same restaurant might morph into a withdrawn teenager, and eventually (one hopes), into a confident adult. Sometimes that arc is reversed, with a shaky start rewarded with a sure footing that eventually gives way with age. Though it’s easy to thumbs up (or down) a developing restaurant, it’s not merely a matter of quality: it’s a matter of evolution. And One is moving toward the next stage.

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