Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Black Plague

Yesterday morning, right around get-up-and-get-your-coffee time, announced what most of us in the industry regarded as very big news.  Fiamma, the twice-incarnated B R Guest Italian Mecca in SoHo would be closing.  For good.  

Fiamma (originally known as Fiamma Osteria) was first reviewed in 2002 by William Grimes, the infamous New York Times restaurant critic who would eventually groom his protege, Frank Bruni, to take over the post.  Grimes awarded Fiamma and its chef, Michael White, three glistening stars o' Italian bliss.  

Bruni went back to Fiamma in the fall of 2007, once Michael White, setting sail for Scott Conant's L'Impero an Alto, was replaced by Washington D.C. import Fabio Trabocchi.  Bruni's review revealed a dazzling culinary performance by Trabocchi, plenty of organ meat and unexpected menu twists, an allegiance to Italy without a reliance upon traditional dishes that so often become public pleasers.  The little red monster, the Michelin Guide, also awarded Fiamma a coveted--and rare--single star during that same season.  

But in March of last year, Bruni followed up on his glowing three star review, offering pointed criticism to Fiamma, who had raised their prices in the wake of good press.  Once marketers of the $75 prix fixe meal, Fiamma boosted the dollar signs to a prohibitive $92 prix fixe meal, roughly the same price charged for a five course tasting menu at four star Jean Georges.  

They eventually dropped their prices again, and this fall Fiamma introduced a different kind of option, less expensive and more traditional "comfort" foods for American diners suffering from market collapse syndrome.  The bargain basement idea did not work and yesterday Steve Hanson, the restauranteur responsible for such monstrosities as Blue Water Grill and Ruby Foo's (the uptown branch of which was also a casualty in yesterday's Black Wednesday budget cuts) announced his plan to close what had always been regarded as B R Guest's star player. 

I've heard through the grapevine that the closings has some people down, most notably the company's wine director, Laura Maniec, who spent a great deal of time emphasizing quality Italian wine matched by superior wine service at Fiamma.  Certainly none of the group's other large/loud/lacquered restaurants live up to the sheer quality of Fiamma.  And in time, it's possible to expect more of those shiny hot spots to close as well. 

The board posited that what Fiamma's closing indicated was a possible sea of trouble for the City's three star restaurants, of which there are now about 40.  My prediction is probable closings for the following members of the triple S club: WD-50, Dovetail, Adour Alain Ducasse, Corton, Picholine, Town, and Perry St.  

Why the pessimism, you ask?  For one, the three star, as I've written before, belies a special experience, and one that is reserved for more economically fortunate times.  People save up to eat at three stars.  They make reservations for anniversaries and birthdays, but they don't dine in these tableclothed havens on the regular.  The three stars most likely to succeed are the New York institutions that do have followings from the locals.  Gramercy Tavern ain't going anywhere, and Momofuku Ssam Bar isn't, either.  Gotham Bar and Grill, Eleven Madison Park, and Union Square Cafe may cost a pretty penny, but don't expect them to fold anytime soon. 

The newer and more experimental restaurants face the most trouble.  Restaurants who once eschewed food cost so that they could "bring exciting food to the public" may eventually change their tune.  Think Momofuku Ko makes a killing with their $100 tasting menu?  With high end items like uni, caviar, and truffles on the menu, you can think again.  Expect either a reining in of unusual and special foodstuffs or an inevitable menu price hike, which is exactly what people don't need right now. 

All around the city prices are dropping.  For a foodie, it's wonderful news.  In order to survive, expensive spots will have to concede to the demand generated by rising unemployment rates.  That is to say, they're going to have to offer the dreaded "deal."  

This might be good news, it really might.  All of the Frank Brunis out there, who desired a level playing field, may get their final death rattle of a wish.  I won't be holding my breath for Per Se or Masa to drop the prices on their tastings (respectively $200 and $300 per person, before alcohol), but there may be other silver linings to look forward to in lean times.  We'll just have to wait and see.  

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