Gravy: A New Southern Spot Best Avoided
32 East 21st Street, New York NY 10010 (b/n Broadway and Park; map); 212-600-2105; gravyny.com
Service: Well-meaning, if bumbling
Setting: A cavernous, brightly colored lounge
Must-Haves: Duck and lobster salad were the better dishes, but not must-haves.
Cost: Apps $10-18, mains $19-28
Grade: Not recommended
I take no pleasure in writing bad reviews; but nor do I take pleasure in laying down $40/head (and that's before $12 cocktails) for a meal that ranks somewhere between poor and abysmal.
So this review is written in hope that you don't make the same mistakes we did at Gravy. Because there's really nothing to recommend... except that you avoid it.
Gravy's menu, the work of chef Michael Vignola, reads well—Southern-accented mains, grits three ways, King crab and cornflake-crusted chicken. Porky, indulgent, mirroring the fare of so many recent New York restaurant openings. But nearly every dish we tried went wrong at some critical point, from pasty grits to tough, chewy seafood to snapper that, we believe, had gone off, so offensive did it taste.
Nor did the atmosphere redeem the experience. We would've gone along with the space had the food been worthwhile, but it's not in itself a draw. Curved vinyl-y booths, brightly colored walls, and a flashy, towering bar, along with the soundtrack, recalled the lobby of a W Hotel, or an episode of Sex and the City ten years back. To the extent that it feels "modern," it does so in a very dated way.
Should you end up at Gravy, we'll start with the recommendations. (Your server may have a few of his or her own; ours talked through just about everything on the menu, pointing out which dishes were "awesome," which were "seriously tasty," which were "the chef's specialties.") Of all these, the Roasted Long Island Duck ($26) is probably your best bet. It's cooked past the recommended (and requested) medium rare, and the skin lacks any crisp, but the potato hash paired with it picks up a little duckiness, and the green tomato relish, while it didn't exhibit any clear flavor, had enough salt and acidity to be not unpleasant.
Of the appetizers, you're safest with the Lobster Salad & Crispy Mirliton ($17); it's over-mayonnaised, and the mirliton (or chayote) is undersalted and hard to identify, tasting like nothing at all, but it's got a decent crisp. The "arugula smear" on the side is lovely but useless, pairing with no element of the dish particularly well. But the fried elements were fine; same goes for the Louisiana Crawfish Gumbo Fritters ($14). Though the rice inside was a bit mushy, and the "tomato aioli" a strange, muddled-flavored accompaniment, the fritters themselves were well-fried with a decent amount of crawfish. Frying is pretty essential for a Southern restaurant to get down, so points for that.
And the rolls were quite good— yeasty and crusty and a little bit sweet, warm when they were brought to the table.
But unfortunately, that's about as far as it goes.
The Charcuterie Plate ($15) was brought down by a "brown butter mustard" that tasted strangely sweet and burnt, and by a confusing and cold wedge of Fontina in the center that had no logical place on the plate. The succotash under Blackened King Crab Legs ($15) was passable in flavor, but the corn had an unpleasant stiffness—but it was beat out in that department by the overcooked crab legs; their chewy texture was the dish's biggest problem.
But neither could contest the Raw Cajun Red Snapper ($12) for the worst dish of the evening. Thin slices of raw fish are covered in mounds of chili pepper, such that you think you won't be able to taste anything else—except no, there's the snapper, so pungent and fishy and frankly rotten-tasting that even the chilis couldn't cover it up. We took one bite and wished we hadn't.
Our server had so much to say about the merits of each dish, as we ordered, that he could've written the review... were all his recommendations not pretty far off. Though friendly and chatty enough, he didn't quite have the basics down (a request for Lillet was met with Billay? What's that?) and had to check back with the bar quite a few times before he finished taking our drink order. (It's also a little surprising that a bar as big and flashy as Gravy's didn't have Campari.)
We're down with the idea of Grits Three Ways ($18)—introduced proudly as Honey, Cheesy, and Porky, like characters in a children's book. Flavorwise, no complaints; they were well-seasoned and each tasted precisely of its featured ingredient, well-balanced with the grits themselves; but texturally, all three were somewhat pasty, an unpleasant texture on the tongue. Crackling Creamed Corn ($9) was similarly well-flavored but improperly cooked, with tough, chew-resistant kernels that didn't recall sweet, fresh corn in the slightest.
As for the other entrees? Scallops & Honey Grits ($24) were called their "signature dish," which is a shame. Though the scallops themselves were fine, with a good sear and a tender, not chewy interior, they were drowned in an intensely sweet, intensely savory "Lobster Barbeque Jus" that tasted like thickened Worcestershire, or Japanese katsu—hyper-concentrated and so overpowering that you couldn't have tasted that rotten red snapper through it—let alone something as delicate as a scallop. The Corn Flake Crusted Chicken ($21), on the other hand, went wrong at the start: dry breast meat, a crust that flaked and fell off and contributed nothing, and an overcooked, improperly bound stuffing (of Andouille and Cheddar) that ended up mushy and pulpy, unidentifiable in flavor and incredibly unappealing in texture.
It's fair to say that not every element of every dish was poorly executed; but when several are inedible, most of the remainder unpleasant in some way, and all priced at that Flatiron, lounge-y space markup, there's just no reason to return.
Gravy's presentations are for the most part lovely, if showy, and much of the food frankly sounds good; with the exception of, say, "lobster barbecue jus," one can imagine any dish on the menu tasting just fine if done well. But to say the menu is poorly executed is an understatement. We're always rooting for chefs trying their hand at something new; when a city restaurant has something to offer, everyone wins. But to execute an entire menu poorly, and charge handsomely in the process, isn't something we can condone. Whether or not Southern-style cuisine can make it in New York isn't the issue. Whether this kitchen can properly cook chicken or whether it serves rotten seafood is.