I’m starting to think the American cult of chef worship may really be on the way out. At the very least, it has paused to catch its breath.
Since the seven-story food court in Hudson Yards was unveiled last month, the public reaction has been somewhere between shrug and ugh. Attitudes may improve as visitors eat their way to the top floor. So far, though, the response hasn’t come close to matching the greeting bestowed on the restaurants at Time Warner Center in 2004, even though the project represents the same basic idea executed by the same developer with at least one of the same chefs, Thomas Keller.
Even more striking has been the low-key reception to Rocco DiSpirito’s return. Late last year Mr. DiSpirito took over the kitchen at Standard Grill in the meatpacking district. At one point, when he was the chef at both Union Pacific and Rocco’s on 22nd while starring in a television show, he was arguably the most famous chef in the country. Then both places closed, and the show was canceled.
Mr. DiSpirito has not been in charge of a restaurant since George W. Bush was in the White House. For that matter, it has been some years since Standard Grill itself has done anything noteworthy. In 2009, when it was new and Dan Silverman was the chef, I reviewed it, gave it one star and then lost track of it.
In other words, the selection of Mr. DiSpirito did not just come out of left field. It came from the weeds across the street from the parking lot behind left field. For surprise value alone, it should have been one of the year’s most buzzed-about news items. But the trumpets have been muted, and the back handsprings seem to lack a certain bounce.
The last time Rocco DiSpirito led a restaurant kitchen, George W. Bush was the president.CreditJohn Kernick for The New York Times
This, at least, is the view from outside the restaurant. Once you’re sitting at one of the tables — newly topped with leather pads in a major retrofitting that has made the dining room look like an expensive cabaret, blue velvet and all — you will hear quite a lot of talk about Mr. DiSpirito, or as they call him here, Chef Rocco.
Chef Rocco, you learn, conceived each dish on the menu so that it can be eaten by one person or shared with others. No, I didn’t believe it at first, either, but apparently it’s true: Rocco DiSpirito invented food.
There is also something that servers call Chef Rocco’s Game Changing Toast, although sometimes they shorten it to Rocco’s Game Changing or simply Game Changing, as in “Here’s a little more Game Changing for you.” The item in question is a toasted, cracker-thin slice of bread made of nuts, oats, seeds and psyllium-seed husks held together without benefit of wheat flour. Like nearly everything on the menu, it is free of gluten.
Being mostly made of browned nuts, it is also delicious. Whether it is truly Rocco’s is up for debate. It seems to strongly resemble the Life-Changing Loaf of Bread recipe that Sarah Britton published on her blog, “My New Roots,” in 2013, and that appeared on another blog two years later, with minor changes, as Game Changing Nut & Seed Bread. It’s one of the items that reflect Mr. DiSpirito’s recent obsession with nutrient-dense dietary supplements, although the way it keeps coming up in the servers’ patter makes you wonder if Mr. DiSpirito spent too much time as a QVC pitchman.
Anyway, somebody-or-other’s toast sits under the smoked gravlax, red with beet juice and very silky on its bed of coconut crème fraîche, that Mr. DiSpirito sends out as an amuse. A plate of the toast will also appear if you order the platter of acorn-fed, hand-sliced Ibérico ham or the chilled Maine sea urchins served on the spiky half-shell. Either one will convince you that Mr. DiSpirito knows how to get his hands on raw materials that can stun with almost no assistance.
The best things at Standard Grill, and there are quite a lot of them, depend on very good ingredients touched as little as possible. Back in the Union Pacific days, Mr. DiSpirito’s interest in East Asian cuisines came out in the form of complex preparations, arcane ingredients and out-of-nowhere juxtapositions. Now he seems to have moved on to the luxury minimalism of an omakase sushi chef, a style that was foreshadowed by the only Union Pacific dish he’s brought back, bay scallops and sea urchin with a few throat-searing drops of mustard oil. Standard Grill’s ice-cold cubes of bluefin chu-toro stirred with golden osetra caviar, meanwhile, could have come straight out of Masa, while the yellowfin tartare, barely dressed with crushed macadamias and freshly grated wasabi, is like one of the better items at Tetsu.
Each night there are half a dozen or so skewers cooked over Japanese charcoal and wheeled to the table on a mini-grill the size of a toaster oven. Speared on a stick might be fantastic small scallops out of Peconic Bay; a feathery mop of maitake mushrooms; buttery chicken livers with barely a hint of bitterness; or firefly squid, a little bigger than a fava bean and grilled whole so they can be swallowed guts and all. Again, the ingredients are exceptional. The skewers look simple enough, but they are all, you learn, brushed with “a little sauce Chef Rocco came up with to complement the charcoal.” The sauce for seafood involves coconut nectar and lemongrass, and what it actually does is put you, vaguely and pleasantly, in mind of Thailand.
While I am one of those increasingly stooped and wizened diners who remembers, in detail, Mr. DiSpirito’s cooking at Union Pacific, far more people recall him as the meatball-pushing antihero of “The Restaurant,” an NBC series about Rocco’s on 22nd, an actual (and doomed, it turned out) Italian-American restaurant. The show, which debuted in 2003, was a pioneer in the genre of cooking-focused reality television, although when everybody started suing everybody else, it became clear it was a pioneer in the way the members of the Donner Party were pioneers.
The handful of Italian dishes at Standard Grill may be meant for “Restaurant” fans. Neither of the two pastas showed Mr. DiSpirito at his best, but a chewy risotto with red shrimp and what seemed like half a dozen forms of black truffles may make you understand why Ruth Reichl started her 1998 Times review of Union Pacific with a woman moaning at the next table.
Standard Grill’s Norwegian salmon on an ivory puddle of vegan cashew sauce won’t inspire the same reaction, but the steaks might; they are dry-aged until ripe, and earn their deep-brown crust over extremely hot Japanese charcoal. Given what Mr. DiSpirito is capable of doing with a piece of halibut and some goose fat, I can’t quite believe that I’m recommending the rib-eye over the seafood, but I am.
It may be that Mr. DiSpirito knows exactly what he is doing. Simplicity is the whole point of a grill, which is first cousin to the steakhouse. He has also designed a menu so straightforward that if, after a respectable period of time, he is no longer in the kitchen, the food quality can stay roughly the same as long as the hotel doesn’t argue about ingredient costs.
The Standard has not left the restaurant’s fate entirely in his hands, either; besides redecorating, it hired a maitre d’hotel, Michael Cecchi-Azzolini, away from Le Coucou; he is hard at work building an audience every night, handing out old-school business cards to old-school producers, chefs and publishers, sitting down to chat with Brooke Shields and Ms. Reichl.
Standard Grill is so much better than it used to be, and so much better than almost any restaurant serving a comparable menu of grilled meats and chilled seafood, that it’s foolish to wish for the return of the same Mr. DiSpirito who gave us Union Pacific. It’s a little bit as if Barbra Streisand had returned to Broadway, and then sang all her songs in a whisper sitting on the edge of the stage. It might not be what you had been waiting for, but you’d watch.
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