YA GOTTA GET A GIMMICK
When launching a restaurant in the thick of New York's crowded fall opening season, it can help to have a memorable gimmick. The problem with Bloomingdale Road, which opened last week on the corner of 88th and Broadway, is that it has too many gimmicks to choose from. There's the historical name. Taken from the pre-Civil War moniker for the stretch of Broadway running from the Flatiron up to Morningside Heights, it evokes the patrician elegance of the farms and country residences that used to dot the Upper West Side. But paradoxically, Bloomingdale Road is fitted out with a flamboyant modern décor scheme. Designer Lincoln Clark re-imagined the space (which once held Boulevard, then Aix and most recently the more casual Aix Brasserie) with a garish palette of red upholstered chairs, pea green banquettes and sky blue table tops, complemented by an art program memorable for a surrealist portrait of a clown. The restaurant's newly enlarged front bar tells another story. Featuring a graffiti mural and sports on a large flat screen television, it seems aimed at siphoning off some of the Brother Jimmy's crowd. But unlike the neighborhood's college-grad hangouts, Bloomingdale Road also boasts a culinary pedigree. Executive chef Ed Witt is a veteran of Il Buco and Varietal, and is no stranger to sophisticated, at times trendy, cuisine. Nostalgic, modern, casual, culinary...which does Bloomingdale Road want to be? "We wanted to mix the old with the new. A little bit of elegance, a little bit of the old time," explains Phil Ballatore, one of the restaurant's co-owners. "There's nothing like this here. It's non-traditional, and we're going to cater to the Upper West Side crowd." Bloomingdale Road is the latest project from Phil Ballatore and Jeremy Wladis' Restaurant Group, which already operates Campo, Nonna and Firehouse, three mid-priced casual dining restaurants within blocks of their new venture. Ballatore says that, eager to try a concept based around small plates and sharing, they jumped on the space at 88th and Broadway when it became available four months ago. The menu at Bloomingdale Road is organized into snacks mostly in the $4 to $9 range, then small plates priced between $7 and $16. Pastas and main courses top out at $24, making it the priciest of Restaurant Group's New York ventures. Witt's cuisine is oriented around what Ballatore describes as "eclectic, modern comfort food," homey American favorites such as macaroni and cheese, fries, grilled cheese and sliders. A handful of more refined, contemporary dishes-such as a fig and arugula salad, striped bass tartar and duck confit-are the exception on the menu rather than the rule. The concept's wholesome conventionality is a surprising direction from Witt. Most recently at Varietal, his cooking bordered on the effete, serving a menu studded with the likes of sake-poached lotus root, white chocolate and parsnip purée, soy roasted quince and a licorice grilled lamb dish. Meatballs and deviled eggs are a big departure. And rest assured that while conceptual takes on humble dishes might be pervasive in this city, none of these American classics are meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Bloomingdale Road serves an iceberg salad, not an "iceberg salad." Hold the irony. On its first Friday night in business, the restaurant was packed and struggling noticeably with the standard spate of opening week issues. The staff was harried. One diner had to stop a bus boy four times from refilling his vodka cocktail with ice water; another had accumulated three napkins on his lap by the time entrees rolled around, as entire new place settings had been deposited each time a round of plates was cleared. Small plates are logistically difficult, and throughout our meal none of the dishes we ordered came out properly hot; plus, the timing of their arrival was inconsistent. Presentation was also lacking. The food was heaped hastily onto plain white plates, making the simple preparations seem a bit too home-cooked for their own good. [caption id="" align="alignright" width="267" caption="Chef Ed Witt, right, with managing partners Jeremy Wladis, left and Phil Ballatore, standing. Photo By: Andrew Schwartz"][/caption] "This looks like something I could have made," said a diner of his suckling pig meatballs; in his early 20s, his culinary oeuvre probably did not extend much beyond toast. The presentation is an easy fix and service snafus are sure to correct themselves in time. But the food itself was also problematic, in vision as well as execution. The deviled eggs and country-fried quail with biscuits were under-seasoned and overwhelmingly rich. Ham and cheddar cheese ravioli could have been material for a kid's menu, lacking in any subtlety or complexity of flavor. The so-called coca cola roasted country ham, another promisingly playful dish, turned out to be nothing more than salty and slightly dry slices of baked ham. Suckling pig meatballs and pulled chicken barbeque sliders were serviceable but unremarkable. Bloomingdale Road did manage some successes, such as brioche baked in a soup can as a creative alternative to the standard breadbasket. One of the best dishes I tried was the tuna ribs, prepared with a chili and honey glaze imparting a burst of flavor that would have been a welcome addition to many of the other dishes. Among the entrees, the lamb leg and ribs were perfectly cooked and refreshingly finished with mint-though at $24, pricey for what they were. When the bill came, it was stuck bookmark-style into a worn old paperback of Emily Dickinson poems. It's touches like this that were the restaurant's downfall-they set up Bloomingdale Road as a higher concept place than the food delivered. If you decide to dine at Bloomingdale Road, you'll be happiest if you ignore flourishes like the surrealist clown picture and a newly installed chef's table: just go in expecting better-than-average bar food. There's a difference between eclectic and unfocused; and by trying to be all things to all people, Bloomingdale Road might otherwise end up a universal disappointment.
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