In his smart, highly entertaining memoir "Yes, Chef," the internationally renowned Marcus Samuelsson–who, at the age of 24, earned three stars from the Times as Executive Chef at Aquavit, and then went on to open the acclaimed, packed-nightly Red Rooster in Harlem, a Glenwood favorite–does two things especially well. First, he brings to life his childhood in Sweden, and what it felt like to be an adopted, black, Ethiopian kid raised and surrounded by white Swedes. Second, he passionately, convincingly sets down his philosophy about cooking, one that boils down to, basically, food is love. What you create and serve should always be honest, true to its surroundings, and come from the heart. Which is maybe why we feel so betrayed this morning after eating a depressingly miserable meal last night at Samuelsson's American Table Cafe and Bar at Lincon Center's Alice Tully Hall.
Lincoln Center Restaurant Has All The Right Elements
Don't get us wrong: we love the concept of American Table Cafe and Bar by Marcus Samuelsson which, in theory, would bring Samuelsson's inventive, international take on New York City comfort-food classics to the beautiful, soaring space of Alice Tully Hall. Obviously, this would be great news for ticket holders to any Lincoln Center performance. When we first arrived last night, the place was mobbed. Then, it almost completely emptied out en masse as some curtain time or another approached. But even just as a neighborhood spot, a place to meet a friend or grab a quick a quick bite, or to linger over coffee and dessert, well… we would love another option for a restaurant in the Lincoln Center area. Perhaps it's just difficult to operate a restaurant near Lincoln Center since we couldn't find much good to write about in our Indie Food and Wine on 65th review a few months ago either.
Dissapointing Results for Opera Crowd
The challenge for Samuelsson's American Table Cafe and Bar day-to-day Chef Charlene Johnson-Hadley is obvious: how to ensure a quick turnaround without sacrificing quality. So far, on this night, they were nowhere close. We tried three items from Samuelsson's Alice Tully Hall menu, and it was all pretty bad, especially our two meat items. One was the Turkey Meatball Sandwich with slaw, cranberry sauce, and mushroom gravy. It's like Thanksgiving on a hero! Or, rather: it could be. The other was the Ethiopian-spiced Taco Doro Wat. Maybe it was "unsold inventory" from the weekend, but the meat in both cases had clearly been cooked many, many hours ago, and left in warmers to dry out to the consistency of, oh, sand and leather, respectively. Worse, this was food that reminded you all night and into the next day that it was in your body, NOT a situation you want to be in when heading over for, say, a four-hour opera!
Holding Out Hope for Chef Samuelsson's New Effort
So what's the opposite of "food is love"? "Food is money", perhaps? There is no way Samuelsson would have served these dishes as prepared that evening to anyone he cares about in his real life. Yes, the American Table Cafe and Bar just opened, and we can always forgive a few early jitters or mistakes. And we know Lincoln Center restaurants have a slew of challenges. Perhaps everyone was tired after the big celebrity-studded galas all weekend. But none of that makes us feel any better right about this new Lincoln Center restaurant. In "Yes, Chef," Samuelsson describes how he split with his former boss/partner at Aquavit and was forced to spend a small fortune, his life savings, to buy back usage of his name, which had become an internationally recognized and respected "brand." Obviously, a chef of Samuelsson's stature is not going be spending much if any time in the Alice Tully Hall lobby making sandwiches (though Hugue Dafour of M. Wells fame is right now doing just that at the MoMA PS1 Cafeteria, with superb results). But his name is right there on the door. Fingers crossed Samuelsson and company figure it out. We really want American Table Cafe and Bar to be good.
American Table Cafe and Bar by Marcus Samuelsson Details
Samuelsson's American Table Cafe and Bar is located in the lobby of Alice Tully Hall, on the corner of 65th Street and Broadway, and is open every day from 10:30 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. You order at the counter, you're handed a number on one of those a mini flagpoles, and your food is delivered to wherever you find a seat, whether communal table, regular two-top, new lounge-y areas, or even outside on the plaza. For more information and a look at the complete American Table Cafe menu, please see the restaurant's website, here.