|The amuse bouche from Meson 923, which opened in 2010 as a highly ambitious restaurant.|
Meson 923 began a few years back as one of the most exciting new haute cuisine restaurants in the city, with a sleek modern look and a menu to match. I dined there maybe a half-dozen over their existence and was duly impressed by the effort of the chef each time. Sadly, though, those days are gone, those chefs have moved on and the issues behind the scenes over there are now well documented. Meson 923 had its run, but now it's over.
Or so we thought. It appears as though the building's owner has decided to take the reins and run the restaurant on his own. I've seen that movie before and it never has a happy ending My wife and I went on the suggestion and invitation of some friends, with a warning of what we might be facing. Experienced diners all, we said "What the hell, what's the worst that can happen?"
We walked into the still tony dining room, still with its sparse minimalist tables, sharply designed chairs, and noticeable lack of wall coverings (we did not, however, fail to notice the addition of a brilliantly lit pair of neon signs in the window, one reading "Open" the other, "Steaks").
It still looked like Meson 923, until we realized there was no one to greet us, other than a pair of people at the bar who looked more like they had gotten lost on their way to the Corporation Bar on the opposite corner than they looked like they worked in this (or any) restaurant. Confusion on this staff's part ensued when one of them tried to sit us in the dining room, the other insisted instead on separate tables in the bar area. The brief tete-a-tete thankfully had swift and happy ending when we were finally sat all together at the same table. Unfortunately, it was the last moral victory of the night.
Some places have servers with bling, others have service with a smile. Understandably, not every restaurant has the happiest of servers, some places even pride themselves on the rudeness of their staff. This place however, eerily had none of the above. A third staff member emerged after we were sat and approached our table. When we asked if he was our waiter he said in his best Steven Wright deadpan "I can be."
Immediately came the question "What kind of dressing would you like on your salads?" We asked about things like, say, menus and a drink list, he brushed that off by saying they don't have a menu and the chef is going to cook whatever he wants to anyway. He then followed up his question again a little more brusquely "What KIND of DRESSING would you like on your salads?!"
That night, Thousand Island, Blue Cheese, Ranch and Oil/Vinegar (at right) were the institutionalized choices you got on a bowl of very roughly cut, sub-par Romaine lettuce that looked like it was purchased from the ill-fated Suda Salvage Discount Grocery Store and chopped with a pocket knife by Cub Scout Troop 1923. I nibbled on a sad, flavorless tomato and wept inwardly thinking about the succulent Barrileux Farms creoles I had picked up that morning at the farmer's market. It may have crossed my mind to ask if the restaurant had a corkage policy for tomatoes.
The salads are not your only pre-entrée choices. Immediately upon us sitting down we were bombarded with a plate of thickly buttered and grilled hamburger bun bottoms that looked like they were buttered by Paula Deen having a biggest dick contest with the American Heart Association. (above) It was explained to us that this amuse-bouche was on the house.
Thankfully we were well stocked with wine in tow, and as luck would have it someone suggested we bring our own glasses, since the place didn't seem to have any of those either.
Now it was time to order. The roadie crew from the Molly Hatchet '83 World Tour that sat us was gone, as was our original server. A fourth staff member emerged to inform us the menu choices were three cuts of steak and two types of fish. The steaks were to be grilled with salt and pepper, the fish only with lemon and salt. No sauce, no alternative preparations. Nothing. When asked if my redfish would be grilled the answer was "I'll tell the chef, but he's going to cook it however he wants to cook it." She repeated that same answer when one of our party ordered their Rib-Eye cooked medium.
We asked about sides and the answer was "we'll send out what we have", which turned out to be black-eyed peas (undoubtedly stirred with a salt-lick), plain baked potatoes, and a bowl of spinach and mushrooms. If the array of sides weren't all canned then whoever thought to present these items as fresh needs to be beaten with a rolled up copy of Gourmet magazine and have his nose shoved in that insipid bowl of salty mush parading as black-eyed peas.
Entrées arrive and unfortunately my fish was poached, but then again, fortunately it wasn't redfish. I thought about inquiring further about what happened to the redfish but backed down when I saw the chef appear to be yelling at someone in the kitchen. To the kitchen's credit the fish was fresh, and a dining companion said the NY Strip was well cooked, but so what? I can grill a steak and boil a piece of fish with lemon and salt at home.
As we trudged on, we began to discuss the thorough lack of anything that resembled a structured staff combined with such a rudimentary menu. We pondered that maybe the "secret" menu was an attempt to duplicate a Charlie's Steak House. This was when I when I started questioning what makes a restaurant.
By this point we were all deep in the glass and the effort to suppress our giggle reflex became increasingly moot. The suggestion by the server that they were washing some more silverware so we could eat drew snickers, the serving of side dishes on tea plates drew slight chuckles, after asking for a napkin and seeing the arrival of a roll of paper towels a full guffaw ensued.
Thinking we were on the finish line of paying and getting out of there alive three very large pieces of pie showed up. Apple, something else, I'm not certain. To be frank, I did not eat the pie. It could have been the best pie ever made by the hand of man, but I sure as hell wasn't touching it. The claim was the pie was made in house. Actually that's unfair, it could have been made by mom, if mom works at Sysco.
By this point I was so bewildered and so beside myself that I was going to have to pay money for this train wreck of a meal, to pay for such an unmitigated disjointed experience that was so disproportionate in its ineptitude to the beauty of the room in which it happened, to pay money to someone that so obviously could not care less about the experience he provided that I began to question I put forth earlier.
The experience of art is unique and singular. Maybe the experience I had last Saturday night at the former Meson 923 is a grand joke, an artistic statement against the mores of fine dining, a voice behind the curtain telling us that we're full of shit by taking restaurants too seriously. If that were the case it would be the finest example of performance art I've ever seen. Unfortunately there was obviously no intent for it to be. Whether this new owner is trying to create the next Crescent City Steakhouse or just trying to keep the doors open until he can offload the place to the next wide-eyed entrepreneur remains to be seen. Either way it was a miserable failure, intended or not.