Most of the posts on this blog in recent months have been of the recipe variety (with a few exceptions). However, a recent press/media invitation for a complimentary meal for two in exchange for a review was an offer I couldn’t refuse (let’s see how many Godfather references I can make). The restaurant is called Bar Basque which is located in a very new Kimpton Hotel called the Eventi Hotel. Ten years ago you could receive an invitation like this and unless you spoke to someone before you, the entire meal and experience would be a surprise. However, in digital age, you can poke around the internet and read reviews about what you can expect, what the restaurant is like and much more. Part of me wishes I had gone in without any information, but sadly I didn’t have enough will power not to read reviews before our dinner. Despite what I read, good and bad, I wanted to keep an open mind and see for myself.
When the Vegetarian and I approached the hotel I noticed a separate entrance for Bar Basque. In front of the sign stood several bouncers dressed to the nines and donning earpieces along with some velvet ropes (okay, they weren’t literally velvet) to provide a more orderly entrance to the lounge. “Nothing good has ever come of a velvet rope,” I whispered to the Vegetarian, but through the door we went. After the first entrance we were briefly stopped by a bouncer asking if we had a reservation, after a quick nod, we walked up the staircase and into the heart of the Bar Basque lounge section. Being hungry I just asked where the dining area was located. After a bit of confusion with our reservation, we were seated in a wonderful deck which was covered with a glass roof providing a view of the sky and the surrounding buildings. The dining area was like another world in comparison to the lounge.
That was behind us though, we were in a lovely dining area with actually decent music playing (the Rollings Stones at that point in time). Our waitress was quick to ask what drinks we might like to start. Throughout the entire night the service was actually impeccable. Our small plates used to taste the tapas in front of us were changed with regularity and the water glasses always filled. There was never a moment where I wondered what happened to the waitress. The cocktail list featured a number of specialty gin and tonics, however, I opted for an Old Fashioned. The cocktails were acceptable, though for the $12-14 price tag, they could have been a little better. The wine list appeared to be quite extensive and the glasses we had later were both very reasonable and refreshing.
The menu available for us to try was a special summer menu that featured dishes of the main menu – mostly the tapas options. The regular menu features a number of seafood, meat and vegetable tapas, along with cured meats, small bites and then a long list of ‘simply grilled’ meats and fish. To start we were served cheese croquettes and yellow tail tuna tartare push-pops. The latter were great, though too gimmicky for my taste. The small pepper, anchovy and red wine caviar on top of the tuna was a great compliment.
The second course was all fish all the time. Four fish dishes were served including a grilled octopus with tomato confit, Spanish mackerel escabeche style, yellow fin tuna crudo and sea scallop crudo. Of these four, the tuna and scallop were the definite winners. The scallop was thinly sliced and topped a lemon and olive salsa of sorts, but delicate enough that the scallop was not lost. The tuna was paired with a light pesto and cream, which I can forgive because it was so good. The octopus was forgettable and a tad chewy, while the mackerel was good but a bit on the oily side. Simple fish preparations with refined techniques and accompaniments appeared to be the chef’s specialty.
The third course started off with a simple heirloom tomato salad with sherry vinegar. Some of the tomatoes were the best I’ve had — they were fresh, juicy and delectable. The pork belly braised in white wine and served with clams was next and was only okay. If you have ready my blog before, you know my love for pork belly, but this dish featured a soft braised version, not crispy like I prefer. The smoked trout that came next was my favorite dish of the night. Not overly smoked and topped with a spicy salsa and ham butter, it was just a great ending. The tomato salad and trout were winners.
The only thing that ruined the above third course was the music transformation that the restaurant had undergone. The Rollings Stones were replaced with loud repetitive music that you would expect to hear in the SNL sketch of “Night at the Roxbury.” Chris Kattan and Will Farrell might have been prepping their hair in the futuristic bathrooms.
For dessert we were served fried milk with passion fruit and chocolate dipping sauces as well as a pina colada flan with pineapples. The fried milk was like heaven on a plate, tasting like a custard wrapped in a sugar crust. I finished everything off with an espresso, though it wasn’t as strong as I like and I would suggest a double for coffee drinkers.
My overall impression of the food itself was that is was nearly all great. The cheese croquettes, tuna and scallop crudos, tomato salad, smoked trout and fried milk were all great dishes. Some of the less successful dishes, like the octopus, were not bad, they just really aren’t something I’d recommend, especially if you love octopus like I do. The service, like I mentioned before was excellent and very attentive, which is all that I ask for. The waitress was knowledgeable about the wine list, which is helpful as well.
So, you must be wondering when I’m going to tell you what’s wrong with this place…so you can now stop waiting. The problem is the ambiance, decor, and location inside this lounge that is trying too hard to be hip. The beautiful outdoor deck was slightly ruined when club music started blaring from the speakers midway through the meal. The clientele in the restaurant were mostly people with 20 years on me who all seemed so out of place at this restaurant. Now that I think about it, the restaurant seemed out of place at this restaurant. The chef, Yushi Fushinaga, who hails from Hawaii, brings wonderful food to a not so wonderful environment, but you cannot blame him for that. If this restaurant popped up on the Upper East Side or in the West Village, in a more minimalist or rustic space, it would be wonderful. Speaking strictly from a food standpoint, the cuisine is worthy of a couple stars, but the environment really makes it hard to tolerate. If you are willing to take that gamble, you will be impressed by the food and underwhelmed by the locale.