ça va?

What happened to Todd English? Once considered the boy wonder of Boston, he was heralded a generation ago for his modest take on rustic Mediterranean cuisine at the 50-seat restaurant, Olives.  In the ensuing decades, however, Chef English has seemed more concerned with cementing his reputation as the King of Hotel Dining:  Olives New York at the W Union Square, Bonfire at Boston’s Park Plaza, Olives Las Vegas inside the Bellagio, Fish Club at the Seattle Marriott, Olives Aspen at the St. Regis, Todd English’s Tuscany at Mohegan Sun, Disney World’s Blue Zoo, Riche in the New Orleans Harrah’s, The Plaza Food Hall by Todd English, and most recently, Olives Biloxi at Beau Rivage Resort and Casino.  You’ve got to give the man credit for branding, even if in the process his food has suffered.

Case in point: Ça Va by Todd English at the new Intercontinental Hotel in Manhattan’s theater district seems designed for tourists who want a New York-style dining experience yet are afraid to leave their hotel.  (Not as safe as it sounds given the grisly corkscrew murder that recently took place upstairs.) Connected to the hotel’s lobby, the main room feels less like the advertised brasserie and more like an Outback Steakhouse with the lights dimmed low.  Now, I’m personally very much a fan of flattering lighting, but what’s a diner to do when it’s too dark to read the menu?  Luckily the bright screen on my companion’s iPhone did double-duty as a flashlight, otherwise, I’m afraid, I was either going to have to ask for the menu in braille or task the server with a dramatic recitation.  Even with the glare the menu looked promising, however, stacked with modernized classics tweaked just enough to seem exciting without being necessarily adventurous: crispy oysters ‘escargot style,’ shaved asparagus salad with asian pear in a mushroom vinaigrette, braised short ribs and sunchoke-lobster fricasse, lobster ‘profiterole.’ If only the execution was as meticulous as the copy-writing. Crispy oysters are indeed, crispy. And tasty, too. Yet it’s evident that what the chef means by ‘escargot style’ is an avalanche of garlic and butter so extreme as to mask the mollusks. This dish would work just as well with any absorbent material.  Bread, for example; or kitchen sponge.  Mealy disks of Marcona almond panna cotta aside, a shaved asparagus salad fares much better.  Fatty short ribs are a passable plat du jour with sides of garlic spinach and a hash of sunchokes, so what’s the point in scattering chunks of flavorless lobster on the side?  And since we’re mentioning flavorless lobster, I bet you can guess how well the disappointingly cold profiterole turned out.

It takes an amazing amount of drive (and talent) to get to the point where you can call yourself a Celebrity Chef with a straight face.  Todd English has more than earned the right to do so, but at what price his culinary soul?  Ça ne pas.

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