Incomprehensible Vision, Proper Technique, and Blind Ambition Intrigue at "?"
When the "ʁ" Maitre d' approaches wearing what he describes as "the untanned hides of four of the queerest wolves in the Southwestern United States," you might be inclined to flinch in fear. But that visceral reaction ups your chances that the wolves' kin, who have been partially tamed and trained as backwaiters at this restaurant, will rip you to shreds for an amuse for the next guest. Eating at "ʁ"(an inquiry into the pronunciation of the name will earn at best a frown from the staff, at worst a maniacal laugh) will leave some mystified, others mortified, and most mutilated.
Every diner here is forced to question the conceptual boundaries of a restaurant, and not in a rhetorical sense. The emaciated servers will plead with you to answer--"What are the conceptual boundaries of a restaurant?"--while a man in a fedora holds a live lobster next to the server's ear and begins to roll the rubber band off the claw while whispering to the guest, "First the crustacean feasts, then you do. Course 17."
I do my best to respond, but find myself distracted: Charred tree branches litter the floor, a few still smoldering, causing the wolves to change direction and clumsily navigate the dining room. Live moss lines the walls, the muted green interrupted only by gilded sconces with broken light bulbs. The restaurant is suspiciously dark: Fireflies in decorative mason jars are the only means used to illuminate the space.
The service at "ʁ" can be eerily--perhaps intendedly?--clumsy. While many of the courses are in no way fit to print, the fourth course of "DIY pasta" is a minimalistic presentation of plain flour; heirloom semolina; a fresh-laid, in-shell hen's egg; a block of salt with a small chisel; and four olives with a small juice press. As the server explains how important it is to let the fresh made pasta rest, he appears to purposefully spill a beaker of boiling water onto my dining companion.
"Sometimes we must let the products speak for themselves," he explains over the whimpering of the wolves and the understandable gasp of my companion. "That beaker of outside-foraged water was screaming to douse your face, neck, and breasts."
The pasta that does see some water has the terroir of the city and a yielding chew that pairs well with the accompanying hen's eggshell puree.
Such praise cannot be bestowed on the course titled "Heartbreak in [Sea] Minor." Three Atlantic coast oysters, still closed, are brought out on top of a tussle of smoked seaweed. A musty odor permeates the air, but I am far more focused on who is bringing me the oysters: I am surprised by the serendipity of having my first high school sweetheart Kim presenting me with the piece of driftwood on which the mollusks sit.
The serendipity fades, though, as she begins to systematically belittle me, hurling personal insults while violently shucking the oysters one-by-one.
"More! More! More!" the Maitre d' delightfully shouts as my once-love brings to light a shameful sexual experience we had years ago. My eyes well up; a few tears run off my chin and drip onto the oysters. "That's enough Kim," he says as he directs his attention to me. "This dish is customized to the specific diner, using the most sentimental excretions of emotional materialization. Please enjoy."
The plump oysters do little to bring my mind back in focus. The theatrical nature of dining interrupted a pleasurable experience, and I'm left with more questions than answers: Does Kim work here? Do they do this for all the diners?
Some questions are better left unanswered though, and I find it easy to get back on track when the seventeenth course is presented in an ornate, sheer chrome cask and nothing else. I find the seam to pry the cask open, and lo and behold, a lobster quite similar to the one at the beginning of the meal is alive and well inside.
A small mallet with a sandalwood handle is secured by an elastic band to the left of the mollusk. A server slowly grins at me and motions his finger back and forth from the lobster to the mallet.
The painful realization that I'll be disposing of the animal myself is easier to take than the oyster fiasco. The symbolism of being a part of the process as the animal goes from living to consumable does not lay lightly on me. But this is a pill that I, a meat eater, should be comfortable swallowing.
It becomes much easier to swallow when the crushed lobster is wrapped in a thin crepe-like layer of goat's milk skin along with fermented goat cracklings.
With the final course cleared, we are invited to enjoy our mignardises of fireflies. As we have a later reservation, the extinguishing of our light into our mouths causes near pitch blackness in the restaurant. The reflection of the wolves' eyes guides us to the door.
Eating at a place like "ʁ" is like walking a tightrope. Conceptual menus have the tendency to get showy, and while that's true here, sometimes novelty really does go well with supper. Besides, a memorable dining experience is one that appeals to my emotional side. Just leave me alone while I think about what I should text to Kim.
LOCATION Anywhere in New York.
ATMOSPHERE Wolves, moss and smoldering embers.
SERVICE At times befuddled and howling, but convincing and accommodating when it matters.
SOUND LEVEL Screeching.
RECOMMENDED Only a tasting menu is offered.
DRINKS AND WINE Artful cocktails are made and continually poured down the sink without explanation.
PRICES A dinner costs, according the Maitre d', "your soul."
HOURS Thursday from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.
RESERVATIONS Not accepted.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS May be difficult for those handicapped to wade the moat. Other than that, accessible.
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