A Tale Of Two Restaurants

The iamnotachef juggernaut hopped nimbly out of its restaurant rut and into a fun little place in the Flatiron District of Manhattan called Punch. True to its name, it has some interesting posters from the old, and now defunct, British humor magazine. And although the food isn’t “funny,” it is certainly fun, which is more than I can say for Blue Smoke, Danny Meyer’s very successful barbecue and jazz joint a few blocks north and east. By every objective measure, I should have been happier with Blue Smoke. The service was, as is the case in all of Meyer’s restaurants, impeccable. The hostess was efficient, the bartenders were professional, everything was appropriate to the theme of the restaurant, and the overall feeling was of a well-run, serious place. But the food, except for an absolutely spectacular burger (don’t believe me?), was nothing special. Oh, it was correctly cooked, nicely portioned, served correctly, but I didn’t like it all that much. And let’s face it, most of us go to restaurants to eat well, not to be seen. So I was left with an experience that although technically and objectively fine according to most measures, didn’t thrill me. Ah, you say, he will never go back. And you would be wrong. I may be stupid, but I will never turn my back on a burger of Blue Smoke’s quality. I will simply sit at their very inviting bar, order a sazerac and a cheeseburger with bacon, and contemplate the world.

So what made Punch a better experience? It wasn’t the hostess, who was competent but didn’t have much to do because the restaurant wasn’t full. It wasn’t the waitress, who was earnest and helpful and got a very big tip because she was fun, but wasn’t any better than the professionals at Blue Smoke. Was it the bar? No, the bartender made a very good Manhattan, but I expect that in a city restaurant. Do you give up? Obviously, it was the food, but it’s not that Punch has an incredible kitchen with some genius chef that no one has ever heard of, cooking incredible dishes for his unsuspecting guests. The food was good, but it was more than just good. It was interesting and, well, fun. We started with Truffled Blue Crab Fritters that came with a nice, tart aioli. They were tiny little balls of crab that were probably too small, and too well done, but for some reason, they were fun to eat and not bad at all. I would make them bigger and more lightly fried, but there is a reason I am a blogger and not a chef. Anyway, we also had a really nice dish of piquillo peppers stuffed with short ribs (not the ribs; just the meat). They were sitting in an intense red wine reduction that was very rich, but the spiciness of the peppers balanced it well. The third appetizer was my wife’s favorite and so good that we ordered another plate instead of our original choice of a burger (yes, I am currently obsessed . . . so what?). They call it Maine Crab and Avocado Rolls, with a slice of tuna sashimi sitting on top. Great idea, nicely executed and good to eat, too! One of the specials piqued our interest, and while I am glad we ordered it, I don’t think I would get it again. Steak Tartare (actually, they called it Beef Tartare — I wonder why?) is a great dish, and as long as it is seasoned correctly, it can be wonderful. But this version was curried almost beyond recognition; whether by design or mistake, I have no idea. It was good, but I couldn’t get past the trip my taste buds were taking across the sub-continent. On second thought, anything that is served with a lightly poached egg has limitless possibilities, so maybe I’ll give it another shot. But what about the fries, you ask? Excellent, served with a nice garlic mayonnaise and some ketchup (boring).

So what is my point?  We had a great time at Punch, in part because the food was clearly part of the concept of the restaurant — fun, interesting, not too serious, and above all, good to eat. Not all of it was succesful, but as part of the experience, it worked well. Blue Smoke is clearly the better-run, more professional business, with a pedigree and management team that is hard to beat. But I would rather spend my time at Punch!

Addendum (March, 2009): We returned a few days ago and unfortunately Punch has changed their menu and their quality. A thoroughly mediocre meal, saved only by the company.

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