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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Across the river, in Brooklyn, is Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare: “Brooklyn’s only three Michelin-starred restaurant.” It is attached to a supermarket, also called Brooklyn Fare, which has homilies painted on its windows: feeling bittersweet? no need to push! The buzz surrounding this restaurant comes at least in part from the neighborhood at the edge of Downtown Brooklyn. Here, the novelty is the relative poverty of other people and their odd ways: emerge from Chef’s Table and fall over a homeless person. This is Brooklyn as theme park.

Chef’s Table is, as food journalists — or marketing people posing as food journalists, or food journalists in thrall to marketing people, of whom there are too many — will tell you, hell to get into. I never really believe it when restaurants say this; there is always a table. But it is the first move in the game: create a yearning for that which others cannot have and you can sell it at any price.

00077__SteinmanandTear-Harpers-1509-630. -1Each Monday morning, at ten-thirty, you — or a person representing you — are invited to telephone for a table six weeks later. “All reservations,” says the website, which is the most explicitly controlling — okay, rude — I have yet encountered, “for the sixth week out are booked at that time.” You then receive an email that may have been written by a lawyer. It says the kinds of things lawyers say, in the language that lawyers use. It is comprehensive and sadistic, and it does not tell you to have a nice day, not ever. For instance: “We welcome you to enjoy your food free of distractions. We request no pictures or notes be taken.” Payment must be made in advance. No sneakers. No vegetarians. No flip-flops. No joy. (I invented the last one.) Because none of this is for us. It is for them. It would have been kinder to say, “We are narcissistic paranoiacs who love tiny little fish and will share them with you for money. We request no pictures or notes be taken.”

We are offered a table for ten o’clock on Thursday night. We take it, but the day before the meal, we are told to come at six. The customer is servile to the product. Thus is the power of marketing!

We are seated in an industrial-style, anti-décor room; that is, a kitchen. Kitchens are interesting to people who rarely go in them, riveting even. You enter the restaurant through a series of incomprehensible plastic flaps. Maybe they are homeless-person repellents? You sit down in the kitchen. It has a bright buffed bar and eighteen stools with backs. The emails and marketing literature are effective. The room seethes with angry anticipation; this better be good, after the emails and the trip to Downtown Brooklyn!

There are five chefs and three waiters: one to serve the food, one to arrange the cutlery, one to serve the drinks. We all eat the same food at the same time, but there is no camaraderie between the diners; in fact, we avoid one another, which is preposterous in a room this size. For, at these prices, who would risk marring their experience with an uncontrolled — and uncontrollable — interaction with a stranger who was not in the business of serving you? I quickly realize that to attempt a noncurated social encounter here would be equivalent to asking a fellow diner for some deviant form of sexual intercourse, or a bite of his squid.

I ask the waiter why I can’t take notes or pictures. Can I can sketch something? Doodle? Write a play? You cannot separate me from my notebook; if I cannot bear witness to raw fish, what am I? He, a tidy young man in the inevitable suit, says they are afraid of “leaks.” These people are mad; why can’t I have an international scoop relating to fish and how it looks and what it does and what sauce is doused upon its lifeless flesh? He looks solemn — there are no grins here — but his mouth curls up. He gave me that.

The word “leak” offends us investigative journalists. You cannot leak the details of a piece of fish, you can only report them. But not here. Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare has insulted whistle-blowers everywhere; see how the luxury-goods industry steals the language of victimhood and dismembers it for its own ends, rendering it worthless! We decide we hate Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare and we behave badly; in this restaurant, anything other than gormless supplication to the fish is behaving badly. Please tell me just a little more about the salmon? Did it swim on the left- or the right-hand side of the river? Was it educated? Did it have any dreams left? We snigger. We complain that other customers are texting and taking photographs of the fish — they are “leaking” — but not us, you can depend on us. We would never threaten the national security of this kitchen and let the Islamic State in to attack your wasabi. We run through the homeless-person-repellent flaps and smoke cigarettes when we should have waited, like girls for Communion with open mouths and pinkish tongues, for the next beatified lump.

Between these transgressions, we eat a series of tiny pieces of food, each delivered with its companion essay spoken in an extraordinary monotone, none of which I can relate to you because I am not allowed to take notes. (I am too ashamed to hide in the bathroom to take notes between courses, as Service Included tells us the New York Times critic did.) It is fish. It is very good fish delivered with a self-importance that feels very close to aggression, and it is not worth the journey.

As I leave I am partially flayed. A tiny girl has pushed her stool a few feet out from the bar, for reasons I do not understand. Her tiny legs sway in the void. Perhaps she is admiring them, or trying to eat them? (Still stuck to her, they are fresh enough.) In any case, she does not know how to sit on a stool, which is a basic skill. I try to squeeze past — I am English, after all — and cut myself on a piece of metal sticking out of the wall; maybe it’s a thermostat, or a fire alarm. I don’t know. I scream; after an evening in this kitchen, it comes naturally. Seventeen faces — fourteen customers and three waiters — turn to me neutrally, perplexed. What is this noise that has disturbed our three-star Michelin kitchen experience (and in Brooklyn too)? Is it a large piece of fish? (Is everybody food now, or if not food then potential food?) I ask the female waiter what maimed me. “I have to go!” she shouts. She cannot associate with the screamer. The male waiter opens the door with a big, fake, horrifying smile. “Goodbye!” he sings. We exit the flaps. We were not grateful enough, you see; we did not prostrate ourselves before the brand.

Chef’s Table wreaked revenge for my ingratitude. Restaurants are systems; systems have weapons. Outside I scribble down what I can remember of the menu. I lie, of course, I write it on my iPhone, because print is dead. And it scrubbed itself as the paper and pencil I was denied would never do, although I could conceivably have left them in a taxi. So I can only say I ate a procession of tiny and exquisite pieces of fish and seafood, including, I think, golden-eye snapper, scallop, lobster, and mackerel; plus something called, mysteriously, “the root” (these may be my words, I am not sure); and a wondrous, sweet green cake that shed green dust on the counter, like a fleeting dream; and that I was flayed, too, and there was blood on my piled-up clothes on the floor of the frightening hotel room in Midtown with the expanse of gray carpet; and that if you want an experience like the one on offer at Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, then put a dead fish on your kitchen table and punch yourself repeatedly in the face, then write yourself a bill for $425.29 (including wine). That should do it.

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