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Dining supersized for fun and profit

October 18, 2006|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

New York — WHY are two women whose bikini days are behind them sitting down to dinner in the just-opened Hawaiian Tropic Zone in the American heartland zone of Times Square on a Friday night? We certainly haven't come for the two-story wall of plasma TV screens, or the waterfall, or, and especially, the unsettling experience of being waited on by taut young bodies covered in less fabric than our napkins. No, as a certain telegenic host would say, we're just here for the food.

The menu was developed by David Burke, the wild man of New York cuisine ever since his days at the River Cafe in Brooklyn when he sent petit fours to the table still baking on a miniature cast-iron stove. He has bounced around from the Park Avenue Cafe through the Smith & Wollensky steakhouse chain, but his cooking reached a pinnacle at davidburke & donatella, in one of the city's ritziest if stodgiest precincts on the East Side, and survived grafting onto a cafe in Bloomingdale's.

Whatever he attempts is always worth exploring, and especially right now, when the city is in a peculiar state, caught between the moon of Joel Robuchon and the earthbound reality of just how risky adventurousness can be with rents out of control.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 21, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
New York restaurants: An article on oversized restaurants in Wednesday's Food section misidentified the chef of Porter House in New York. He is Michael Lomonaco, not Michael Romano.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 25, 2006 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
New York restaurants: An Oct. 18 article on oversized restaurants identified the chef of Porter House in New York as Michael Romano. He is Michael Lomonaco.

Think small and you wind up in Brooklyn anymore, where daring restaurateurs can open idiosyncratic places for less than the $35,000-a-month lease burdening a small space even in the alleged culinary wasteland of the Upper West Side. But if you want a jazzy experience at the table that does not cost more than opening-night seats at the Metropolitan Opera, you might have to think in the box. Big box, to be specific.

Hawaiian Tropic Zone is just the latest in a series of outsized restaurants that have moved into Manhattan, where space is at a true premium but where entrepreneurs who are able to rent huge and sell theater along with food to make it work financially have caught on big time. In the Meatpacking District alone, cavernous, hyper-styled Morimoto and Buddakan are doing numbers that might even make Applebee's envious -- 900 on an average Saturday night for the latter.

Nearby, Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak seats 120 in a space so huge the waiter will walk you to the restroom rather than expecting you to leave a trail of crumbs, while uptown in the space-is-no-object Time Warner Center, Michael Romano has just opened another sprawling steakhouse, called Porter House, that can seat 250 in the dining room, bar and private room. And word is that the famed Russian Tea Room is about to be reincarnated, in a multi-floor space in Midtown that seemed ridiculously outsized and doomed to failure only a few years ago.

Everything about the trend should feel wrong, but somehow it connects in this changing city. With the stock market exploding and the rich getting richer, the mood echoes some aspects of the scene before the last crash, in the late '80s, when so many restaurants served the equivalent of a small-town population any night of the week. What makes the trend train worth boarding this time around is that it turns on the food rather than just the scene. There's a much higher level of expectation now, and both Buddakan and Morimoto are not only packed but taken seriously for their cooking. The chef at the latter is Masaharu Morimoto, the "Iron Chef" himself.


Demanding attention

SIZE is a big part of these restaurants' appeal in a city where apartments such as my Tropic Zone friend's do not even have conventional ovens, let alone full-size refrigerators. But they also offer the equivalent of dinner and a show. Morimoto has what it calls an "exposition kitchen," but even at places where the cooks are hidden far off, down long corridors, you can almost eat the scenery. Craftsteak is one of the smaller of the new culinary stadiums, but every decorative touch -- leather chairs, wall-size painting, shimmering glass curtains -- is transporting to a bigger, more expansive universe. Tropic Zone demands attention from the second you sit down, when butter is served on a slab of salt. (The table also comes outfitted with a little box containing pencils and ballots to judge the waitress pageant at 9 every night, but women who have learned the hard way that only the firm survive can be forgiven for finishing up dessert and fleeing before it begins.)

There could not have been a better moment for restaurateur Stephen Starr to take his brilliant show on the road from Philadelphia, where he has long dominated the food front with both a Buddakan and a Morimoto, as well as Striped Bass, Tangerine, Pod, Continental and half a dozen other dramatically designed places with food and service on the same theatrically high level. As he knows better than any restaurateur since Rich Melman at Lettuce Entertain You in Chicago, "bigger is not always bad."

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