After reading Pete Wells' marvelously entertaining New York Times review of Guy Fieri's Times Square restaurant, the eponymously named Guy's American Kitchen and Bar, I wanted to experience the place myself, simply to judge whether Wells was too harsh, or whether this dining experience was truly as poor as Wells claimed.
So I launched a campaign early this week to convince my five-person team at work to join me at Guy's for a Friday lunch to remember. Much like my pre-Sandy obliviousness to the practice of folks who traffic in disaster porn, I was ignorant that ironic dining was already a hipster pastime. But an ironic dining outing, much like wearing tight pants when cycling long distances, is a hipster concession that we all must make for the good of mankind.
Our motley, open-minded crew (all dudes, as it happens) made the three-block trip to Manhattan's armpit, better known as Times Square. Mind you, when I worked for MTV in Times Square, I had daily panic attacks that I'd die by terror or tourist trampling on my route between the subway and the office, yet neither situation came to fruition, and this was just my neurotic self at work. Typically, I painstakingly try to avoid going from my Bryant Park office those couple of northwestern blocks, unless there's a Tony Award-winning Broadway show being performed, or if there is no other possible way for me to get to some Hell's Kitchen destination. Also of note: Other than a trip to the Olive Garden 10 years ago when I was in high school, I have proudly avoided all Times Square restaurants. (Restaurant Row on 46th is as close as I'll get to the area, or Shake Shack on 8th Avenue when some lowbrow accomplishment must be celebrated.)
Unfortunately, as in wine tasting, the nose goes a long way when delivering initial impressions. And the foyer to Guy's smelled pungently like some type of food-based staleness. This wasn't a false sense for those looking to criticize. It was very real. As real as the pigeon shit that nailed me last week. All of us prayed that it wouldn't be our individual choice of food that would give off this odor. With that, we ignored the kitschy gift shop (trying to use the word kitsch only once in this article is an accomplishment!), and 30 seconds after our 11:45 a.m. arrival, we were promptly seated.
Choosing iced tea to drink put me in a bit of a quandary. This was because it was served neat (without ice), though there was a lemon. That said, the drink, which would more appropriately be recognized as "room temperature tea," was served unsweetened, which was a pleasant surprise from a restaurateur whose sole purpose in life appears to be to make me die younger. (Tasting note: Interestingly, the tap water did come with ice.)
For starters, I tried the $14.50 sashimi tacos with raw ahi tuna, mango jicama salsa, wasabi, and sweet soy. What the four mini tacos lacked in size, they made up for in crispiness. That said, their insides were heavy on the salsa, ultra-light on the tuna, and heavy on sweet soy (which might as well be known as teriyaki or hoisin!).
Faring better were the nachos that Wells skewered (no pun intended) by writing, "How did nachos, one of the hardest dishes in the American canon to mess up, turn out so deeply unlovable? Why augment tortilla chips with fried lasagna noodles that taste like nothing except oil?" In fact, our group shared and universally loved these nachos. My only criticism was that the meat on them tasted a little funky, perhaps like the "cold gray clots of ground turkey" that Wells recalled. However, as a most-of-the-time pescetarian, I'm not in the best position to judge.
Regarding the calamari, Wells wrote, "How, for example, did Rhode Island’s supremely unhealthy and awesomely good fried calamari — dressed with garlic butter and pickled hot peppers — end up in your restaurant as a plate of pale, unsalted squid rings next to a dish of sweet mayonnaise with a distant rumor of spice?"
My colleagues described the squid, in Zagatarian terms, as "OK," and "it's hard to mess up fried food" but it "didn't really have any flavor." So perhaps, again, Wells' critique was warranted.
Onward to the entrees! While there isn't much diet-friendly fare on the menu, I ordered the shrimp, with caramelized red onions, bell peppers, green apples, and crispy noodles topped with "Guy's signature sangria glaze." Yes, the shrimp were sweet. Yes, the jumbo shrimp were set atop a mound of rice (which was, oddly enough never mentioned in the food's description). But perhaps these shrimp were too sweet. And it's not worth $24.95, when a similar dish could be purchased at a run-of-the-mill Mexican or Chinese restaurant for half the price. But again, this seems to be the de facto Times Square tourist tax at work.
Our group's vegetarian-in-chief went for the whole grain penne with fresh mozzerella, cremini mushrooms, onions, and a garlic cream sauce. Though he's too polite to grumble publicly, he told me upon return to the office that he "feels sick," citing that the entree, awash in its cream sauce, was horrid.
The pulled pork trio (three sliders, with bacon and coleslaw on top), paired with fries and fried onions didn't fair much better. Our tester, a notable Bushwickian with a sophisticated palate, found them unmemorably mediocre. The same went for the "Big Dipper," a steak sandwich, that is meant to be dipped in a watery "beef jus" gravy.
Now, when my hungriest colleague ordered the $31.50 steak diane, I knew he would have high expectations, as this is the most expensive menu item. Though it was served medium-rare as promised, the steak was smothered in the "brandy pan sauce" intended to accompany it. The sauce to steak ratio was approximately 3:1, making for a calorie-laden experience that was quite off-putting to my somewhat-health-conscious colleague.
We didn't stick around for dessert.
While Wells discusses some ignorance, for us, the staff was nothing other than incredibly kind and helpful throughout. (A close friend of mine is the GM of another Times Square restaurant, and he always complains about how difficult it is to attract and retain decent staff ... most of whom are actor types who are running off to auditions before, after, and occasionally during shifts.)
Regardless of how Fieri tries to position it, Guy's is certainly a member of the TGI Fridays-Chili's-Applebees-Ruby Tuesday casual dining family, and one shouldn't be expecting Le Bernadin when walking into a place that has plastic American flags of the Betsy Ross variety, cans of cheap beer, and cast-iron moose heads lining the walls. But was Wells' review over the top? In some ways he was fair, yet in other ways he was brutal. But it appears that Guy's is already making changes: A well-dressed restaurant-consultant type did ask us some questions about our meal after we finished (and then took it upon himself to refill our untended-to empty beverages).
At the end of the meal, perhaps because of the five pounds I put on, I forgot my bag under the table. But I scarcely made it to the door before a kind busboy returned it to me, avoiding a potential disaster. Tat kind of attention to detail is appreciated, and once the chefs get their acts together, Guy's will become the middle-grade American restaurant it is destined to be.