Criticism — From the September 2015 issue

A Goose in a Dress

In which our intrepid restaurant critic submits to the dreams and excesses of New York’s most fashionable eateries

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If the restaurant is a cult, what then is the diner? A goose in a dress of course, a hostage to be force-fed a nine-course tasting menu by Chef Keller and his acolytes. Here the chef is in control. The client, meanwhile, is a masochist waiting to be beaten with a breadstick, spoiled with minute and sumptuous portions that satisfy, and yet incite, one’s greed. The restaurant seethes with psychological undercurrents and tiny pricks of warfare. It is not relaxing.

The dining room: sixteen tables on two levels, with views of Columbus Circle and Central Park. The walls are beige, with hangings that look like oars that could not row a boat; the carpet is brown, with cream squiggles. It is gloomy and quiet, the only sound a murmur. My companion thinks it looks like an Ibis hotel, with a chair for your handbag, or an airport lounge in Dubai.

The menu is oddly punctuated and capitalized: “Oysters and Pearls”; “Tsar Imperial Ossetra Caviar”; “Salad of Delta Green Asparagus”; “Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras ‘Pastrami’ ”; “Charcoal Grilled Pacific Hamachi”; “Maine Sea Scallop ‘Poêlée’ ”; “Champignons de Paris Farcis au Cervelas Truffé”; “Elysian Fields Farm’s ‘Selle d’Agneau’ ”; “Jasper Hill Farm’s ‘Harbison’ ”; “Assortment of Desserts.”

Eleven Madison Park

Eleven Madison Park

How does the food taste? To ask that is to miss the point of Through Itself. This food is not designed to be eaten, an incidental process. It is designed to make your business rival claw his eyes out. It could be a yacht, a house, or a valuable, rare, and miniature dog. But I can tell you that the cornet of salmon — world famous in canapé circles — is crisp and light and I enjoyed it; that there are six kinds of table salt and two exquisite lumps of butter, one shaped like a miniature beehive and another shaped like a quenelle; that a salad of fruits and nuts has such a discordant splice of flavors it is almost revolting; that the lamb is good; and that, generally, the food is so overtended and overdressed I am amazed it has not developed the ability to scream in your face, walk off by itself, and sulk in its room.

It rolls out with precise, relentless expertise. The waiters are dehumanized, reduced to multiple efficient arms. “The Cappuccino of Forest Mushrooms,” Damrosch writes,

called for one person to hold the soup terrine on a tray, one to hold mushroom biscotti, the mushroom foam, and the mushroom dusting powder (à la cinnamon) on a tray, and one to serve the soup. If a maître d’ stepped in to help, he made four. If the sommelier happened to be around pouring wine, he became a fifth. The backserver pouring water and serving bread made six.

I don’t think they like the customers. Perhaps they are annoyed that Through Itself charges a 20 percent “service fee” for private dining — Service Not Included? — and does not pass it on to them. (As this essay went to press, New York State concluded that Through Itself had violated state labor law and would pay $500,000 in reparations to the affected employees.) Or perhaps the clients are too greedy? In Service Included, Damrosch rages against a customer who seeks extra canapés: “Extra canapés are a gift from the chef and to ask for them, even if you are willing to pay, would be like calling a dinner guest and telling them that instead of a bottle of wine or some flowers, you would like them to weave you a new tablecloth.” Surely this would be comparable only if your theoretical dinner guest owned a tablecloth factory? The waiter, a man with huge arms, presumably from carrying a city of plates, asks: “How is your drink?” “Watery,” I say, since he asked. Another is brought and he is here again, prodding: “How is your fauxjito?” It’s hard to be afraid of someone who says “fauxjito” with such emphasis, but I think I have hurt his feelings; things are not the same after that. During the cheese course, when I do not understand whether the cheese is an alcoholic or a recovering cheese, he asks me, very slowly: “Do you understand what I am saying?” Each word is followed by a full stop. I have never found servility quite so threatening.

The provenance of the cheese is part of the cult. Through Itself has commissioned a book about its suppliers, who are, gaily, trapped inside some of the maddest copywriting I have ever read. For instance: “In the rolling hills of Sonoma, perched atop a fog-covered ridge, a conductor orchestrates the transformation of humble milk into some of the finest cheeses in America.” This, on Animal Farm in Orwell, Vermont, is self-pitying, as well as being a very self-conscious and buttery critique of Communism: “To make butter, one must be willing to sacrifice a measure of free will and live according to the needs of animals.” If all farmers were this credulous, the world would starve.

Animal Farm has a cow named Keller — as in Major, Snowball, Napoleon, and Keller — and, now that I think of it, why shouldn’t a butter farm criticize Communism, give George Orwell a kick, and then, one day, execute its cow/chef? I am certain that Wendy’s has something to say about Alexis de Tocqueville, and maybe McDonald’s does, too, but about Jean-Jacques Rousseau? Some passages are merely odd; for instance, this, from Devil’s Gulch Ranch, in Nicasio, California: “Rabbits are important.” Do they rustle rabbits at Devil’s Gulch, or just keep them in pens? This is the countryside idealized, trivialized, and made ridiculous; this is Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon in a mall.

Animal Farm may be a metaphor for the anxieties of those who dine at Through Itself: they are hungry, but only for status; loveless, for what love could there be when a waiter must stand with his feet exactly six inches apart, as related in Service Included? Through Itself is such a preposterous restaurant, I wonder if a whole civilization has gone mad and it has been sent as an omen to tell us of the end of the world — not in word, as is usual, but in salad.

Nor am I sure that the human body is meant to digest, at one sitting, many kinds of over-laundered fish and meat. Perhaps this is a dining experience designed for a yet-to-be-evolved species of human? Because later, in my hotel room, a frightening expanse of gray carpet in Midtown near the Empire State Building, I put aside the souvenirs of Through Itself — menu, pastries, chocolates — and vomit half of $798.06. That is my review: a writer may scribble her fantasies but a stomach never lies. It could have been jet lag, I suppose, but I think it was disgust. Those poor little nuts. They deserved better.

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