Mercer Kitchen: representative Vongerichten?
But that was before we went to Mercer Kitchen.
This Soho restaurant is part of the Jean-Georges Vongerichten empire, which currently consists of 18 restaurants in New York, Vegas, London, Paris, French Polynesia, the Bahamas, Chicago and Minneapolis. Vongerichten's restaurants have earned acclaim from the New York Times and a scattering of Michelin stars.
And Mercer Kitchen is obviously a hip hang-out: all manner of people seemingly famous for something have posed for photos there.
So what was our problem?
Well, let's see. It went like this:
We arrived at Mercer Kitchen early on a Sunday evening and were shown to our table. The basement space was open but intimate, spacious but cozy, and relatively quiet, with only about half the tables occupied.
We sat for fifteen minutes while our waitress and a couple of busboys circulated around our area. Eventually, I caught the eye of a busboy, who poured water.
Five minutes later, our waitress came over. "Can I interest you in sparkling, still, or tap water?" she asked. We pointed out that we already had water. "Okay, then I'll bring your menus."
Five minutes later, she was back with menus. "Can I start you off with a cocktail?"
We explained we'd like a moment to look at the cocktail menu.
Twenty minutes later, she came back, by which time we'd decided on everything, almost. I asked which wine she'd recommend to go with my chosen entree. "Well, do you prefer something sweet?" I said I'd prefer something that matched my food, and she pointed me—interestingly—toward the cheapest thing on the list.
We ordered cocktails, apps and entrees.
The appetizers came first. I had a tender, melty sea bass carpaccio that would have been perfect if I could have tasted the fish through the overpowering lime juice. It came with herbed, salted foccacia breadsticks, for no apparent reason; they were probably the best thing about the dish.
The Boy ordered a shaved fennel salad that was topped an embarrassment of parmesan, more than he could handle—and when The Boy says there's too much cheese, you know it's serious.
Halfway throughour apps, the cocktails arrived. My glass was so full, our waitress couldn't help but spill it as she set it on the table, splashing it unapologetically onto my wrists and my food.
At least the cocktails were okay, if unremarkable; maybe I've become spoiled, but I'd expected something a little more creative than the cucumber-Hendrick's martini (so 2006! So summer menu!).
After a reasonable time, our entrees arrived. The Boy's duck was lovely, and came with wild rice and an intriguing salad of preserved lemon and pistachios. My skate was good, but the sides were tasteless, out-of-season asparagus and a too-too-sweet sesame sauce. I finished the fish, tried a little of everything else, and gave up.
And then our waitress brought the wine.
And it wasn't good. Sadly, I don't remember what I ordered, but I do remember that I didn't finish the glass. Yeah, that bad.
We sat for ten minutes with our dirty plates, and then managed to get our waitress to bring the check.
"Thanks, guys," she said, and added, by way of apology. "We were kinda backed up tonight."
Which was, of course, patently ridiculous: the place was hardly jumping. There were empty tables all around us and no large parties. And the back-up wasn't in the kitchen, because our food arrived on time.
So what to make of this? Is it a management issue; a problem with communication? Did we just get the particularly sketchy waitress? Should she perhaps have spent less time refilling water glasses (when there were already two other people assigned to that task) and more time monitoring her tables' progress?
Of course, our main takeaway is that we now have no interest in trying any of the other restos in the Vongerichten empire; if the service at Mercer Kitchen is any indication of business philosophy, and if the dishes elsewhere are equally as undistinguished, there's really no reason to waste our time.
(While writing this, I came across a New York Times review of Mercer Kitchen from 2006; I really wish we'd read it before we booked. Apparently nothing has changed.)