519 6th Ave.
(betw. 13th & 14th Sts.), 212-242-5800
Some restaurants take a subtle approach when introducing organic items on their menus, highlighting the local sourcing of their vegetables, perhaps, or the unprocessed flour used in their chocolate cake. Gusto Organics’ philosophy slaps you across the face like a wet slab of free-range chicken.
“Based on your support, we are the first USDA Certified Restaurant in New York and the nation’s first restaurant to use 100 percent USDA Certified Organic ingredients,” screamed the placemats on our table when a friend and I arrived on a recent Monday evening. In case you have any doubts, it goes on to highlight the myriad ways the restaurant is “certified green”—from energy-efficient kitchen equipment and biodegradable takeout containers to the use of “green cleaning products and practices.”
Unquestionably a noble endeavor, but the sell is so brazen that it’s tempting to be nitpicky. Even if the menu is printed on recycled paper, shouldn’t it be double sided?
In any event, as a marketing strategy, it appears to be working. The restaurant serves an eclectic menu of Argentine and Italian fare (all chemical-free, hormone-free, antibiotic-free…), and on the night we arrived the place was nearly full.
The success of the restaurant’s design is mixed. A large patio for outdoor dining is available. While inside, the space is dim and candle-lit in the evenings, and diners’ faces are imbued with a dewy glow. (During a pause in conversation—we were discussing apartment renovations—my friend asked why I was crying.) Other aspects of the design are less successful. The oversized benches and chairs—made from recycled materials, of course—are uncomfortable. And other touches—a blackboard above the bar, the simple, unadorned tables—make the space seem too informal, like a high-end snack bar.
As for the food itself, you can taste the authenticity and freshness of certain ingredients, like the crisp mesclun leaves in a starter salad. A side of mashed potatoes was also good; they were exceptionally thick and buttery.
But other dishes—the turkey meatballs; the fusilli pasta—were disappointingly bland, and the service didn’t help. My friend ordered his salad with mozzarella cheese, but it arrived with chicken instead. Back from the kitchen, the salad still had pieces of chicken hiding under the leaves. Flash-forward to the main course: A pasta dish that had been ordered with chicken came without it, and the accompanying pesto sauce was too grainy—as if the pasta had been mixed with fresh grass and divots.
By the end of the evening, my companion was so annoyed that he complained to the waiter. After a sidebar with the owner, our check arrived, and we were told that our meal was on the house. The gesture was surprisingly munificent, and evidence that with respect to their organic mission and otherwise, management has good intentions. They have plenty of kinks to work out, however, before the place can be recognized not only as an organic novelty but also as a good restaurant, period.
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