Sunday, April 27, 2008

Nizza-- or, like, NOTza

I pass Nizza, a new French/Italian/Mediterranean-ish restaurant on 9th Avenue, every day on my way to work. I've been psyched to go there ever since it opened not too long ago. There was a short write-up in the Times about the place, and it was mostly positive. What could go wrong? Ahh, funny you should ask.

My brother's girlfriend's mother was in town, and she was kind enough to get the four of us tickets to Young Frankenstein for Saturday night. All we needed was a quick pre-theater meal nearby, and I figured Nizza would fit the bill. I called early in the afternoon to try to make reservations, but they only take them for parties of five or larger. The hostess suggested we arrive close to 6, at which point the wait for a table would probably be about 10-15 minutes. Sounds reasonable.

We showed up at 6 on the dot and put our names in with the host. Now, I live in New York City and have seen my share of apathy, but this man was by FAR the most apathetic person I have ever met. He just BARELY cared enough to take our names-- quite a burden, I know. Once we got past that hurdle, we moved our party outside and stood by the telephone pole on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, watching the crowded restaurant. It was approximately 60 degrees out, but Nizza had the entire front of the restaurant open to the elements and its sidewalk tables out in full force. Now, call me crazy, but that's a LITTLE ambitious in my farmer's almanac.

About twenty minutes later, a hostess came out to offer us an outside table. Um, no thanks, but if I'd like to eat outside in the freezing cold I could buy a slice of pizza and eat it while walking home. We declined the table, and I went inside to ask how much longer it would be for a table inside. Mr. Apathetic Host gestured vaguely to the room and said that there were "a couple of tables" about to finish up. Right.

We waited another fifteen minutes, at which point I went to the host and told him we needed either to be seated or to leave-- we were reaching the point of no return, as it were, in terms of fitting in a good dinner before the show. I wasn't rude, mind you, I just told him, hey man, it's time to fish or cut bait. Fortunately, he pointed to a booth in the corner and told us they were busing the table now. We watched the table be bussed and set up, and since nobody came over to seat us, we sort of walked over to where the host was standing near the free table and loitered nearby. He made some sort of gesture indicating we could be seated. We obliged.

We sat there in the booth, which was wedged in the far corner right next to the entrance to the kitchen, watching servers and busboys buzzing back and forth around us, for several minutes. Nobody came to take our order; hell, we didn't even have menus. Finally, we stopped one of the hosts/hostesses (this restaurant seemed to have several, an excess that seemed actually to diminish the level of service rather than increase it). We asked politely for some menus or a waiter, at which point the hostess said snippily, "The menus COME with the waiter." Wow! Great news! Or it WOULD be great news if a waiter would actually show up with these fabled menus. Needless to say, the hostess disappeared, and a few minutes later she reappeared with some menus. Still no waiter.

We quickly decided what we wanted and waited for another few moments, at which point-- joy!-- a waiter appeared. Now, I'm no expert, but I've been to at least a handful of restaurants in my time, and I've deduced that the usual protocol in these types of situations is for the waiter to introduce himself in some way. There's not necessarily a need for the pseudo-ridiculous "Hi, I'm Megan, I'll be taking care of you tonight," but at least a perfunctory "Good evening" or "Welcome" is usually in order. This waiter, on the other hand, shattered the paradigm. He showed up at our table and said, "We also have [insert specials here]." Seriously. That's all. In Homeric poetry we call this "in medias res"-- that is, "in the middle of things," or starting a conversation as though one had already been going on. Apparently our waiter and we had been talking extensively, likely about what was already on the menu, before he arrived and announced what they also had. Cue my mind exploding.

We did manage to place our order, though, and requested a plate of bread (for those of us in the quest of end-of-passover leavened carbs). We sat and chatted for a while; about ten minutes later, the plate of bread showed up (mediocre-to-decent foccacia with dipping oil). Then about two minutes later the rest of our food showed up, all at once. Well, sort of-- one dish was missing, which we requested and they brought out a few minutes later.

What did we get? My dining companions ordered the butternut and leek soup, the bibb lettuce salad, the focaccette (fried ravioli filled with crescenza cheese), the margherita pizza, and the chicken involtini. I ordered an arugula salad, which had parmesan cheese and pickled onions. The salad was good, if simple. I tried a bit of the pizza, and it was decent, flatbread-style, with a chewy crust and a light hand with the tomato sauce. My companions really enjoyed the rest of the food-- as my brother put it, "everything else sucks, but the food is great." The only sort-of-dud in the group was the one dish that showed up late, the broccoli bruschetta with avocado and walnuts. It showed up as one bruschetta (bruschetto? I don't speak Italian...), with a somewhat unappealing pile of greenish crap on top of it. The bread was grilled but spongy and soggy on top under the pile of... stuff. I ended up putting most of the topping onto my salad and eating it as a salad condiment, if you will, but quite frankly I'm not sure what was in it. It seemed chock-full of leeks, not broccoli, and I was stunned when I checked the menu while writing this post and learned that there was supposed to be avocado in the dish. I think I found one walnut sitting on the side of the plate. Let's just say that if I had been a judge in Top Chef, I would have called the cheftestant out on soggy bread, lackluster plating, and lack of flavor. But then again, I'd also be an asshole and say things like, "Let's just say it's not just his gnocchi that was dense" or, "Please pack your knives and go" while sporting a fakely concerned expression on my face. But I digress.

Overall, the food was okay, but certainly nothing I'd come back for, even if the service had been stellar. Frankly, the restaurant was a pretty unpleasant place to be-- it was noisy and harried, with the servers rushing around the packed tables. Nobody seemed to care much about anything that was happening. Our server brought us the bill as soon as we were done with our meals--no inquiries about whether we wanted dessert or coffee, which we didn't, but it seemed somewhat self-defeating not even to ASK. And while we were in the midst of the payment process, two servers rounding the corner into the kitchen collided, causing one of them to slosh a large dish of soup all over the floor. As she cried, "Shit!" inappropriately loudly, the other one pointed to her and said, "You've got some white bean on you!" Wow. Caring is sharing, people.

It's rare that a dining experience in New York pisses me off, but I left Nizza in a bad mood, and not just because I got a work request on my blackberry in the middle of dinner. Is it too difficult just to PRETEND to care? Apparently so. Nizza, you disappointed me.

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