One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen was the chef and television star Masaharu Morimoto take his knife to a whole fish. The man is a master of his craft, but he’s also a celebrity, and his new restaurant, Tribeca Canvas, is like some greasy name dropper at a party with none of his famous friends’ substance or style.
If human civilization had been destroyed and the earth was a cultural wasteland, if all a young cook had to go on was a recipe collection preserved by T.G.I. Friday’s, then he might come up with this flabby mash-up of a menu, on which every overwrought dish is an amalgam of international fast-casual concepts.
Ranch dressing, a respectable condiment that was many years ago degraded and bottled by the Clorox company, is an essential part of the Tribeca Canvas experience. It appears in several dishes here, including a platter of nachos ($13). The tortilla chips are layered with lumps of battered and fried shrimp, sliced black olives and jalapeños, polka dots of guacamole, and zigzags of ranch. In an effort to align itself with the compelling but poorly nicknamed trend of Asian hipster cuisine, the dish also includes some aioli spiked with gochujang, the fermented Korean chile paste. Your server will cheerfully suggest you use lemon wedges to “enhance the flavors of the dish,” as if these nachos needed a little something extra.
The kitchen’s wacky descent into lowbrow comfort food might be worth celebrating if the dishes were made with care, but they’re not. Thick, watery gyoza ($9.50) are like a school of sickly fish, their bloated bellies wreathed in garlands of overcooked carrots. Weenies in too-big, spongy fat-suits of batter pass as corn dogs ($9.50), sitting in a mess of gochujang-flavored ketchup. You’ve had finer corn dogs from a box. The rice sticks ($6) are too sweet and dense, though it’s a nice touch that they’re served with little squares of nori.
The restaurant’s website promises the “seamless integration” of Western technique and Asian ingredients, but turns out that just means a mediocre rendition of mac-and-cheese topped with a chiffonade of basil ($13). The macaroni has a crisp, salty gravel on top, then it’s wrecked by the addition of a poached egg. Slick, raw yolk encased in a wobbly white can be a wonderfully extravagant garnish, but plopped here on pasta, already bound with a cheesy, fatty béchamel, it’s just tedious.
A slider should be a haiku of bun and meat. The sandwich format is not particularly well suited to tiramisu, which requires the interplay of many layers, the soaking of biscuits. These syrupy tiramisu sliders seem left over from last night’s bachelorette party (of course, they’re the wrong shape, even for that). All desserts at Tribeca Canvas magnify the kitchen’s flaws, but none is as lousy as the brownie sundae, contained in a spring-roll-wrapper bowl that’s only technically edible. The artificial-tasting brownie balances an artificial-tasting rum ice cream, impaled with two tasteless rolls of white chocolate—long and thin and sinister as cigarettes marketed to women.
The place is packed, of course. There are dressed-up Tribeca couples and small groups of friends pre-gaming with cocktails and mashed potatoes. Reservations are necessary, even early on weeknights (without one, you’ll end up sitting in the windowless black-and-red lounge downstairs, where the service is good and the full menu is available, but the tables are low, too awkward for fork-and-knife eating).
What the restaurant does have is shadow-casting lightbulb cages fashioned from Indonesian vines, a vodka cocktail called the Casual Encounter, and jet-black toilets. Tribeca Canvas has a truly nice staff, too, one that’s been trained to greet diners warmly and share brief but carefully memorized explanations of dishes and ingredients. It’s almost as if they don’t notice the problems with the food. One server offered to wrap up the mostly untouched brownie sundae so we could take it home and finish it off. And a sweet teenage busboy in squeaky sneakers, the one who’d kept our water glasses full all evening, suggested we come back again soon. No, thanks.