August 16, 2005 12:19 PM | By Adam Roberts | 6 Comments

If I had a hammer, I'd hammer Cafe Gray from 2 stars to 3

Some people have it in for Frank Bruni. Like Jules at The Bruni Digest. She has it in for Frank Bruni. Her masthead says: "This blog is predicated on the suggestion that every Wednesday, in the Times Dining Out section, Frank lays a huge faberge egg of hilarity." Her blog is really funny and I like her use of pictures. I am going to bookmark it now. (Adam bookmarks "The Bruni Digest.")

Here's the thing, though. I don't really have it in for Frank Bruni. I don't love him, I don't hate him. I don't really know him. As far as his reviews go, they get the job done. From many accounts, it's not a fun job, really. Sure you get to eat out all the time and write about it but according to accounts by William Grimes, Ruth Reichl and Amanda Hesser it's pretty exhausting. Constantly scrutinizing and getting scrutinized, it's a bitch. Just ask Paula Abdul.

So my one bone to pick with Bruni concerns his review of Cafe Gray, where I ate with my mom on Thursday night. In the review he acknowledges the greatness of the food: "the best of the food here is fabulous, and the menu as a whole is a pleasure-packed testament to Mr. Kunz's nimbleness of imagination and execution. Producing an unclassifiable cuisine, he does sly, multifaceted dishes and straightforward uncomplicated ones. He nuzzles up to Italy and to France, flirting all the while with India and Thailand. His principal compass — maybe his only one — is the most valid and valuable of all: what tastes great."

Yet Cafe Gray gets marked down because of the design. "But there's something off-kilter about Café Gray, something disorienting, and that layout is a big part of it. I can't think of another restaurant in this city that so wantonly wastes such a potentially pleasant panorama. The open kitchen forms a broad, taunting moat between the dining room and the windows, one that brims with enough hardware and human activity to block specific portions of those windows and, at least at night, blot out any general sense of the cityscape beyond them. Café Gray has minted the passive-aggressive restaurant design."

I agree with this to a point. It is kind of nutty that they blocked the windows with the kitchen. If you're unlucky enough to be seated far away from the kitchen, as we were when they first sat us, you feel like you could be in any crowded, loud, overpacked restaurant. Of course mom had us moved (Mizz Heidi rarely accepts the first table she's given, especially if it's a shitty one) and we were sat right next to the kitchen so we could see the view.


I loved our seat: I got to watch everyone cook. And there was Gray Kunz weaving in and out of all the chefs, keeping tabs on everything. Gray Kunz, for those not in the know, was the chef at Lespinasse, the four star restaurant in the St. Regis hotel that Ruth Reichl waxes poetic about in "Garlic and Sapphires." He's not a big guy and he has a friendly jolly way about him. But he also has a serious expression that he employs while he's in the kitchen. And in the context of shows like "Hell's Kitchen" and books like "Kitchen Confidential" (which I temporarily put down to read more of Calvin Trillin's "Tummy Trilogy") it's remarkable to see a kitchen so efficient, with everyone getting along so well. Of course all the chefs are on stage: they know everyone's watching them. But still, the kitchen seemed to be a happy place.


And now for the food. Here's the thesis of my review: the food at Cafe Gray is 3-star food, not 2-star food. Let's start with the bread:


I can't tell you what made this bread great. Was it the individual basket and paper it came served in? Was it the way it was hand-sliced by a man working right over my shoulder? Or was it because it was hot and nutty and delicious? I think it was all of these things.

Now forgive me, I don't remember what was in this amuse:


I know there was mango and a parmesan crisp. I don't remember what else but I do remember thinking it was delicious and refreshing. Have I lost credibility?

Thank God for Menupages. Mom and I shared two appetizers. I ordered the Crisped Lobster Tail with cold pearl noodles, ginger and lemongrass.


This was terrific though, I must admit, not terribly memorable. If you asked me what appetizer I had at Cafe Gray, I would have forgotten but for the picture and the menupages menu.

Not so with mom's appetizer: Pasta Fiori with tomato concasse, thyme & rosemary.


This is one of the dishes Bruni highlights in his review. It's really beautiful, even in the picture. Bruni writes: "But I also had more subtle, intellectualized creations, including a pasta appetizer in which two broad, thin noodles lay under and over a much fatter tomato concassé, the ratio of starch to sauce turned on its head." It's true: once you cut into that, a rich and bright tomato concoction pours out. It was terrific.

My entree rocked hardcore:


That's the famous Braised Short Rib of Beef with soft grits & meaux mustard sauce. The beef was so tender not only could you cut it with a fork, you could breath over it and it would fall apart. Mom had some fish that I didn't take a picture of. It was also very good.

And then there was dessert: this must have been new, because it's not on the menupages menu. It's like a parfait of chocolate and espresso, I think, and bits of candied orange. Does it matter what's in it, really? Just look at it:


So the food at Cafe Gray is pretty terrific. It's familiar and yet wildly exotic. It's a perfect place for mom and I to go and love a meal: mom loved the decor and the scene and the food and I mostly just loved the food. Maybe the star system is whack because at the end of the day the only question a reader wants to know is "should I go there or not?" If you're looking for a ritzy gourmet dinner that'll cost a pretty penny but excite your palate, I say go Gray. Ask for a table near the kitchen and keep your eyes peeled for this guy:


He's pretty talented.


That's your Mom? How old was she when she had you? 10?

Wow. That dessert looks amazing. All your restaurant reviews make me really excited that my sister is moving to New York and I get to visit!

Wow. That dessert looks amazing. All your restaurant reviews make me really excited that my sister is moving to New York and I get to visit!

I agree, Cafe Gray is a 3 star place, big time. The layout may be kooky, but the food is sump'n else.

Also, for the record, I like to think of my ribbing as affectionate: I couldn't be happier to have a very silly writer at the helm of such a serious post.

I dream about tasting those soft grits with the meaux mustard sauce again the way that starving Victorian chimneysweep orphans dream about shelter and sugar plums.

That looks quite fun, quite LA to me and I'm a New Yorker who is a big fan of LA so that is a compliment to this restaurant.

I have to say though, I've noticed that most of your restaurant reviews are Manhattan based. Perhaps you are too busy with school to break out into the outer boroughs?

I enjoyed Cafe Gray as well; I thought the food was definitely 3-star quality but the atmosphere of the restaurant sucked. Plus, I thought everything was so overpriced...

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