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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Mazed and Confused

Have you seen Inception, friend? It's downright dreamy: not all that coherent or thrilling, but nice enough to look at and mildly sleep-inducing. Audiences haven't been deterred, pushing the film to a $129.3 bonzillion opening weekend on the strength of an impenetrably slick advertising campaign and unspoken hope that this might, in fact, be “Future Batman 3.” Which suggests that, like it or not, the film is on to something.

Maybe it’s a sign of the times. In these mixed-up crazy days, the metaphor of life-as-labyrinth seems evermore appealing. This can't but help build anticipation for a film whose characters (equal parts Madmen and Matrix) spend 2 1/2 hours squinting and fretting and running into walls. But it's not a theme that translates well to the dining experience. Or so we were thinking after eating at MAZE by Gordon Ramsay.

Let me begin by saying that expectations for MAZE also ran high. I've never met Ramsay but find his “je m'en fou” attitude and exuberant disregard for Proper Conversational Etiquette charming. The London celebrity chef still has quite a bit of Lowlands pluck coursing through his veins, to wholly entertaining effect. And while MAZE is clearly not, by any stretch, his flagship eatery, it still bore his name and, we hoped, reflected the spirited standards he seems so keen to uphold on Hell's Kitchen.
On Location: Slab & Co. class it up at The London Hotel

Alas, the warning signs began with the décor itself, confusing to the point of distraction (pretentious diner? Reagan-Era Disco?) An indiscreet use of mirrors lent an 80s Dior furniture/Pacino Scarface Mansion feel which, unless you are heading to Chelsea with an eight ball to “pump it up,” grows old but fast. Nor did the weathered green faux-ostrich-skin booths and neo-Astoria Greek waitstaff uniforms set me at ease.

Not that people weren't trying. The hosts and all were extremely welcoming, but the food, like the atmosphere, told a darker tale. Consider the appetizer, Octopus Terrine with Kalamata Olives, Crisp Potatoes, Pickled Shallot and Sauce Vierge. At it's best, this ambitious dish – thinly sliced cephalopod littered with various shapes, textures and flavors – offered multiple “parties in the mouth.” But it still suffered from lack of focus and sub-par execution, most evident in the little limp cubes of “crisp” potato and side canteen of tart marinara lurking awkwardly in the wings.

The mood was thus set, good reader: hectic and sloppy, but not without potential. And so we optimistically awaited our Roasted Chicken Breast with Spring Morels, Pickled Ramps, New Potatoes, Fiddlehead Ferns and Thyme Jus. We ordered this for the mushrooms but they proved more advertising ploy than actual ingredient, two small slices sautéed to the point of lost flavor and hidden amongst a bright medley of sliced spring vegetables. This proved the high-end equivalent of one of those Big Mac ads, promising Plump Sizzle and delivering Salty Innuendo. The chicken itself was reasonably well-cooked, but the sauce – added ceremoniously (jus!!!) and without warning or explanation tableside – tasted like seawater harvested from a public swimming pool.
Dazed & Confused: Slab & Friends attempt to decipher the riddle of MAZE

At least we had Chocolate Pudding with Stout Ice Cream, Pretzel and Peanut Butter Powder in the wings. Pudding is the desert equivalent of a “fluffy kitten” YouTube video, something that brings warmth and smiles to even the most hardened of souls. But MAZE's rendition left me dazed: too sweet, too salty, too silly. Nor did the borderline “bro”-ish pairings – a glorified riff on the Reese's, and a long flat pretzel dipped in beer ice cream – clarify the target audience (undoubtedly fat and stoned, but also male and teenaged?) To make matters more confusing, or maybe just to accentuate the “high/low” tension, they added three dots of marshmallow fluff on the side.

Which left us thinking: mystery is well and good, but it has to arouse some measure of excitement or interest or clarity. Applied to a meal, it should also taste good. This is the sort of calculated wonder that chefs like Ferran and co. evoke with humor and flavor, but here fell flat in a puddle of befuddlement. MAZE is inception without exit strategy, the start of something that never earns its buzz. And that, my friend, is nothing worth experiencing.

MAZE by Gordon Ramsay
The London Hotel
151 West 54th Street, Manhattan 10019