Step into The Fat Radish, a new restaurant in New York's Chinatown, and you may feel as if you've left Manhattan firmly outside the door.
British accents envelop you the moment you enter the sliver of a bar area; the menu is packed with a tantalizing looking blue cheese pork pie and the burger comes with "chips" not fries — thank you very much.
Chef Ben Towill (of the Australian Kingswood in the West Village) describes his new endeavor as "modern British" and its studied shabby chic decor certainly telegraphs as much. The walls are exposed brick, coated with a thin veneer of white, a motley collection of stiff backless stools or benches are your chairs of the evening, homey pots of rosemary and thyme line a divider in this former Chinese sausage factory — which bears the Chinese graffiti marking it as such. (Although, it's unclear as to why workers in a sausage factory would have needed the Chinese characters branded on a wall to remind them of where they were.)
Even the name conjures up thoughts of a certain U.K. restaurant that continues to captivate: Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck.
It's lovely to see so much thought and care go into weaving the story, the ambience of a new restaurant. Now, if only this much attention had been paid to the food…
Walk into The Fat Radish and a long bar is the first thing that greets you. Even though the restaurant has barely been open two weeks on the night that we're there, it's incredibly packed.
After some consultation with the waiter, we're ready to go.
The first thing that catches our eye on the menu is an appetizer called a brown rice kedgree ($14) — after a short debate over whether it's British or Australian, a quick iPhone search shows that it's actually both. After clucking a little at us for consulting our iPhone and not him first, the waiter tells us it's a classic "British blue-collar dish," a lightly curried risotto made with shrimp or cured fish, all tossed together.
"So, kind of like a British bibimbap," Mike says. And this turns out to be true — sort of.
At The Fat Radish, the kedgree comes with smoked cod, rock shrimp and parsley. It sounds promising — but turns out to be incredibly bland, nothing like any bibimbap or any basic solid risotto. Immediately, we reach for the salt.
The cured fluke with pumpkin seed pesto and dandelion ($14; below) is nice and fresh — good but nothing truly unusual. And so is the romanesco cauliflower with curried yoghurt dressing ($12).
The beet crumble with goat cheese, aged cheddar, hazelnuts and oats ($12), which had intrigued us from the start, arrives — a warm brick swaddled in a towel.
After a little unwrapping, we discover a block that resembles a fruit crumble …
… but is filled with beets.
The concept is intriguing but there are many problems here. The crust is a little too dry — powdery in parts, almost. And the beets have none of the textural appeal of a mushy fruit crumble filling — here' they're a little undercooked, a little tough. And with most pieces hovering at about two inches long, they're sliced way too large — bite-sized chunks might have made this a little more pleasant to eat.
Just when we're wondering whether there is anything among the starters that we would actually like to experience again, we take our first bite of the blue cheese pork pie ($7). And it is divine — chunks of pork entwined with bits of blue baked into a tiny pie. It's the perfect bar snack, appetizer, you name it.
There's just one issue — as amazing as it was, it would have been so, so much better if it had been served warm. Instead, our delectable slab still bore a whiff of a chill. All it would have taken was a minute in the microwave or under a heat lamp.
What happened next was a little inexcusable. Once our appetizer plates were cleared, the minutes ticked by. And kept on ticking.
After about 20 minutes of waiting, we looked at our phones — it was 10:06 p.m. We had been seated just before 8:30. More than 90 minutes later, we were still waiting for our entrees?
About 10 minutes later, just as we were contemplating simply asking for the bill, our entrees showed up. Would they be worth the wait?
Let's start with the cheeseburger ($16), which was about as bland as several of the appetizers, with a dry patty to boot. The chips, however, an inch wide and several inches long, were absolutely delicious. (It's worth noting you can get these on their own as a side for $7.)
The day boat scallops with golden beet and sweet potato mash ($22) had been highly recommended by our waiter and were very nicely done.
As was the honey-glazed duck — very tender and flavorful — with kombucha squash (which was sweet and just delicious) and wheat berries ($23).
When it came to the monkfish vindaloo with wild rice and bean chutney ($21), however, we were squarely back in mediocrity. The vindaloo was neither spicy enough to be authentic nor possessing of any other distinguishing flavors to be considered unusual or avant garde. Instead, it mostly tasted like a lightly spiced mush, dusted with cumin.
The true devil in this dish was the Indian flatbread it came with, however. Cardboard doesn't even begin to describe it — around the table, the three of us who had ordered this dish found ourselves having to madly gnaw at the bread simply to get it to break apart into bite-sized chunks.
"This bread is like a shingle on a roof," my dear friend Jesse said in between bouts of laboriously wrestling with his bread. "If you had a hole in your shoe, this would come in handy."
(We did like the bean chutney, however.)
At this point, dinner had taken so long we had been there well over two hours and dessert seemed like a tiring endeavor.
The dark chocolate and beetroot cake ($8) called to us, however — it was a decent version of a chocolate cake. We had been told it was flavored and moistened with beet juice but that wasn't really detectable. And a caramelized banana and clotted cream pavlova ($8) was also fairly decent — if a little too much on the sweet side.
I'm not sure we'll be back — it's just a little too crowded, the chairs a little too uncomfortable, the food just a little too blah. If this was meant to be modern British, we wondered where the modern bit had gone.
Which is a pity — The Fat Radish has an attractive space and the vibe is lovely.
But you know those studs you meet who just don't end up having much between their ears? After one date, you can just tell: Why bother?
The Fat Radish, 17 Orchard Street, 212.300.4053, http://thefatradishnyc.com/