The Bruni Digest

In which I sit on a dirt mound somewhere in Brooklyn with my ears pricked, waiting for New York Times head restaurant critic Frank Bruni, who I imagine to be a Venetian count in a huge ruffled collar, to dole out stars from the inside breast pocket of his brocaded chamber robe. This blog is predicated on the suggestion that every Wednesday, in the Times Dining Out section, Frank lays a huge faberge egg of hilarity.

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Location: New York, New York, U.S. Outlying Islands

I am fiscally irresponsible, which means I have weak bones and a dorsal fin. And a penchant for dining out, even though I am, in the words of many rich people, a "poor people". I make a different face when speaking each of the foreign languages in which I am shittily proficient.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

P.J. Clarke's on the Hudson: It's no T.G.I. Friday's on the Gowanus Canal!

Jules continues to flit about Provence, indulging in the traditional French lifestyle for which she's yearned all these years: riding a rusty Segue (TM) from her sleeping villa to the dairy shack for her morning glass of creme fraiche; vandalizing everything remotely symbolizing international trans-fat purveyor McDonald's, including clowns and mimes she runs into on dusty country roads; and relaxing with a daily bouillebaisse foot massage in the basement kitchen of the hotel maid's lean-to. Until she returns to her regular blogging duties next week, I, Mike "Turbo Dyke" Barry will once again carry on in her stead.

An artist's rendering of Jules in France, practicing her plainchant before a traditional dinner of the roasted limbs of disaffected bourgeoisie.

This week, the Count trundles downtown to take a gander at P.J. Clarke's on the Hudson, essentially a giant, 220-seat version of its uptown namesake. That is, it's the same P.J. Clarke's you would find on a jaunt in the East 50's, except it got a couple of shots of Human Growth Hormone in its ass cheeks after baseball practice.

The prototypical P.J. Clarke's on the Hudson customer. Note his wild red eyes and handsomely arched brows.

With the kind of deft sociopolitical touch that allows him to avoid being pantsed in liberal Alphabet City gastro-dives, even as he feels justified pissing in the mouths of designated "porter-potties" at the 21 Club during tea time, Frank puts forth two divergent viewpoints for how to perceive P.J. Clarke's on the Hudson, without ascribing fully to either one:

"You can look at the new P. J. Clarke's in downtown Manhattan as an unremarkable illustration of the laws of supply and demand, as an economics lesson writ boozy and caloric. It puts broad slabs of beef, tall mounds of carbohydrates, stiff drinks and an atavistically musky atmosphere in the paths of hungry financial types, who have been known to respond to such things."

I can think of other things "hungry financial types" respond to...

WAITER: And for you, madame?
FINANCIAL TYPE: I'll have the 48 oz. filet, hold the greens, but can I get a side of speedballs on the half shell?
WAITER: Very good, madame. And to drink?
FINANCIAL TYPE: Uhhhhhhhhhh...let's go with the blood of my competitors.

Yet the Count can also see something far more sinister in the new establishment:

"Or you can take a dimmer view and see a dark capitalist allegory, a validation of the idea that no rarity is safe from replication or protected from conversion into a kind of franchise divorced from any particular place and time."

We all know how sad and disgusting such entities can be:

The original "Prince of Payola," Dick Clark, top. Below, the HostTron 4000, aka Ryan Seacrest.

What Frank is getting at is that the intangible qualities of the original P.J. Clarke's are worth considering when evaluating the giganto, sanitized new version. As a patron of the former for one or two leisurely lunches, I must agree. The no-nonsense presentation (burgers served on small bread plates, ketchup in a bottle veruss a ramican, a waitstaff generously seasoned with experience and liver spots) juxtaposed nicely with the casually elegant clubbiness of the decor. Instead of wearing urine-soaked Sans-a-Belts and carting a grocery basket of Marxist literature like the geezers at the Carnegie Deli or Zabar's, the insufferable wheeze bags at P.J.'s wear seersucker and read the large print edition of the Financial Times.

Frank notes, "P. J.'s trafficked in its own singular history. Nat King Cole had a charge account there. Johnny Mercer supposedly wrote the hit song "One for My Baby" on a napkin at the bar. Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy had a favorite table and, of course, dibs on it."

He continued, "regulars still tell stories of when Nancy Reagan barfed all over the raw bar after one too many Perfect Rob Roys."

The secret basement piano lounge at the original P.J. Clarke's, where Carol Channing was said to participate in a gang bang with Sid Caesar, Robert Goulet, Ann Margaret and Henry Kissinger.

Frank is a purist, after all; he covered the Vatican, for chrissakes, and he cynically laments the possible bastardization of the P.J. Clarke's phenomenon in every hob-nobber-heavy white man's enclave from D.C. to Detroit:

"[The head of the new consortium of owners, Phillip Scotti]'s had thoughts about Washington, and he's had 10 copies of the original's famously oversize, winged porcelain urinals made, at a total cost of about $80,000. Ten was the minimum order that a special ceramics manufacturer in Ohio would accept, he said. Two of these urinals were installed in the new P. J.'s. Four pairs remain. P. J.'s could be the first restaurant chain with a destiny manifestly influenced by lavatory flourishes."

Not so fast, Bruni! You're forgetting about "The Bloke Boat," the venerable gay booze cruise chain with the popular see-through urinals and the weekly "Wide World of Watersports" night!

Wait, they serve food, right? Whatever.

With the remaining three-millionths of a column inch, the Count decides to focus on the food at P.J. Clarke's, and it's not nearly as shitty as those $8,000 urinals are gonna get when St. Patty's rolls around in a few days:

"In terms of food, the new P. J.'s, like the old P. J.'s, positions itself as an uncomplicated crowd pleaser. It's an American steakhouse (shrimp cocktail, iceberg wedge, T-bone for two, creamed spinach, cheesecake), a British pub (fish and chips, shepherd's pie), a brasserie (roasted chicken, steak tartare, oysters, other raw bar selections) and a diner (meatloaf, turkey club, corned beef Reuben) all wrapped into one. It's better than snobs would like to think and worse than contrarians would hasten to claim, which may be another way of saying that it's usually serviceable and sometimes respectable."

Hey, that sounds alright! I mean, I would also call the acting work of Harrison Ford "serviceable" and "respectable," and you didn't hear me complaining during Air Force One!

"I'm getting $20 million AND a cut of the back end to play this role, you DISGUSTING TERRORIST! NOW GET OFF MY PLANE!"

That isn't to say there aren't some problems with the fare; we're not talking about Christmas Dinner at the Keller compound here:

"[P.J. Clarke's on the Hudson's] baked macaroni and cheese, almost stiff enough to be hoisted from its bowl in one clump, should be called macaroni and an unconfirmed rumor of cheese, and even that might be overstating dairy's role in the affair.
For their part clams had seemingly minimized their involvement in a chowder named for them. Other dishes betrayed their pedigrees or purposes in other ways. A Caesar salad was insufficiently salty and excessively watery. French fries were stony, mashed potatoes pasty, lump crabmeat chalky."

Jeez Louise, if you ordered the french fries, mashed potatoes, and lump crabmeat, and threw in a box of crayons and some safety scissors, you could entertain a 5-year-old until his Bar Mitzvah.

This woman got her MFA working solely with P.J. Clarke's signature hummus.

The newness of this whole parrot routine on the old disquiets the Count:

"Light-filled, gleaming and so vast that the walk between the front tables and the bathrooms is almost a day's worth of cardio, this P. J.'s feels too polished, too mass-market, like an upbeat Beyoncé cover of a downbeat Billie Holiday classic."

Too true, wise Frank. Beyonce looked ridiculous singing "Strange Fruit" in that nude bodysuit at the Orange Bowl halftime show.

Here she is reciting the "I Have a Dream" speech on The Tonight Show.

Thus, P.J. Clarke's on the Hudson nests in its latest incarnation with no stars at all to adorn from its spankin' new rafters. Maybe bigger isn't better?

Check back next week, when Frank travels back in time to sample the eats on the fabulously, freakishly huge Titanic!


Blogger psnd1969 said...

Oh, you rule! I mean really, really, totally, and utterly rule! Can I add a link to your blog???

3:25 PM, March 19, 2006  

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