Kobe Club, reviewed by Frank Bruni 2007
IT’S a rare and less than propitious moment when dinner out begins with a server asking: “Are you scared?” But that eerie query set the stage for a recent meal at Kobe Club, and it was prompted by one of this bizarre steakhouse’s many design oddities. Hanging upside down from the ceiling in the nearly pitch-black dining room are sharp, gleaming samurai swords, about 2,000 of them. The server volunteered that number, appended with an assurance that the blades, firmly anchored, shouldn’t cause any concern. The food and the bill should. Although Kobe Club does right by the fabled flesh for which it’s named, it presents too many insipid or insulting dishes at prices that draw blood from anyone without a trust fund or an expense account. For the most part it feels like a cynical stab at exploiting the current mania for steakhouses in Manhattan by contriving one with an especially costly conceit and more gimmicks than all of the others combined. Unsurprisingly, it’s the work of the restaurateur and gimmick maestro Jeffrey Chodorow, who scored big in years past with China Grill and Asia de Cuba but hasn’t had as much local success of late. Kobe Club occupies the Midtown space once inhabited by Mix in New York, Mr. Chodorow’s cheeky, ill-fated collaboration with the French chef Alain Ducasse. Mix wasn’t even Mr. Chodorow’s flashiest recent failure. Who can forget Rocco’s on 22nd, scene of “The Restaurant,” where Mama’s meatballs were sauced with acrimony and eventual litigation? Or its short-lived successor in that location, Brasserio Caviar & Banana? Brasserio Caviar & Banana — the name really does bear repeating — tried a grill-from-Ipanema approach and foreshadowed Mr. Chodorow’s fascination with sharp objects. Meats came on disturbingly, dangerously long skewers.
At Kobe Club, strings of leather that look like fugitive shoelaces dangle here, there and everywhere, creating sinister-looking canopies and screens. Black-painted bricks in some areas and chains along one wall bring to mind a torture chamber. If Akira Kurosawa hired the Marquis de Sade as an interior decorator, he might end up with a gloomy rec room like this. Will the last samurai to leave please turn on the lights?Will someone else prune the tables of their crazy-making clutter? Oversize ornamental plates leave too little room for anything else, and although salt, pepper and steak sauce are already present, a gratuitous chemistry-set tableau of gray, pink and black specialty salts arrives with the steaks. The steaks themselves sprout toothpick flags identifying the country of the beef’s origin. The menu is as tricked-out as the presentations, detailing 13 available steak toppings (classic béarnaise, lobster béarnaise, wasabi-and-shiso béarnaise, ad infinitum) and four kinds of mashed potatoes. The potatoes appear among a predictable profusion of sides, many given a vacuously luxurious sprinkling of truffles or truffle oil, just to tip the restaurant’s slavishness to trendiness off the charts.
The appetizers, entrees and desserts alternate steakhouse stalwarts like Caesar salad, Dover sole and cheesecake with less predictable fare, some of which, like a starter of salmon cured in sake, reflects the restaurant’s quasi-Asian bearings. And there are winners, to be sure: you can’t throw this many swords without occasionally hitting the wagyu bull’s-eye.The wagyu and Kobe beef tartare, prepared tableside, had a lusciousness in sync with its $32 price. Fried Malpeque oysters benefited richly from a smothering of creamed spinach and lobster béarnaise. But more of the food was disappointing, sometimes even infuriating, be it a rubbery roasted pork chop, perhaps left too long in its brine; limp iceberg lettuce, propped up insufficiently by blue cheese; those mashed potatoes, gluey; or a crème brûlée in dire need of a crunchier hood. And some of the food was alarming. A clam in an underwhelming cold seafood platter had a metallic tang, while an American strip loin had a sourness that didn’t taste like aging or, for that matter, like anything anyone intended. On the night when the server assured me of my safety, as I put my coat back on and headed toward the door, I suddenly found that I couldn’t leave. Something was pulling me back, but what? A delayed appreciation for the restaurant’s triple-decker crab cake? A yearning to retrieve a toothpick flag? A need to make peace with the check, which had come pinned to a wooden board by a dagger? No, it was one of those leather strings, which had wrapped like a tentacle around me. Scary indeed.