Like a Fu Manchu movie crossed with a small upstate university’s art collection, Ruby Foo’s flaunts its Asian artifacts. Make your way up the sweeping stairway and you’ll
encounter snarling temple dogs, fur-trimmed skullcaps, serpentine bronze candlesticks, stands of plastic bamboo, and an alabaster Buddha, his head inclined heavenward in a cosmic belly laugh. He’s chortling because he gets his Chinese food down the street at Empire Szechuan.
The pan-Asian menu at this ecstatically reviewed Upper West Side showplace is as far-flung as the decor, racing between dim sum, sushi, and more-substantial entrees like Thai curries, Chinese stir fries, Japanese teriyaki, and Pacific Rim fusions. The catch is that much of the food is simply awful. Dim sum favorites such as shrimp and crab siu mai come five to a steamer and taste like they’ve been in the
freezer too long. Shanghai pork dumplings fare no better—instead of the celebrated soup dumplings, you get more misshapen siu mai plugged with gray meat. And compounding these culinary insults are the absurd prices: $6.50 and $5.50, respectively, for portions that barely make it once around the table.
Other dim sum disasters include a dish recently rotated off the menu intriguingly described as “sticky rice sui [sic] mai with Chinese sweet sausage” ($5.50) that turned out to be, not siu mai this time, but a shrunken and simplified rendition of the banana-leaf-wrapped meal that costs $1 in Chinatown. At least the Thai calamari and duck nachos (both $6.95) come in generous quantities, although the latter is horrendous—deep-fried wonton skins littered with duck and dribbled with red chile sauce and wasabi crème fraîche. It’s as if the chef read about Matsuhisa Nobu in Gourmet, dropped acid, and catered a Super Bowl party.
Sushi and sashimi are dispensed from bars on the first and second floors, behind which legions of glum sushi chefs stand. On my first
visit, they were the only Asians I saw in the place, although this failure of theme-restaurant logic was subsequently remedied by the hiring department. But contrary to expectations, the raw fish is some of the best on the Upper West Side, especially if you stick with the simple nigiri-zushi. Fluke, salmon, and tuna glisten with freshness, although the toro, or fatty belly tuna ($6), is sometimes not up to par. Also avoid the lobster maki roll ($7.95), which overwhelms the crustacean in cucumber and pickled-carrot filler.
The three floors bustle with waiters, servers, bussers, and headphoned floor managers scurrying every which way, not always effectively. Pacing is the biggest problem. Servers fling dim sum down in the middle of the sushi course, creating a dilemma: should you let the dumplings grow cold while finishing the fish? And the main courses often hide themselves till 45 minutes after the other stuff has disappeared. The best is a plate of miso-glazed black cod ($16.95), borrowing a dish that garnered raves at Bond St last year. The crisp-skinned duck ($19.95) is nicely cooked, but you’ll need a paper towel to wipe off the cloying plum sauce. Done medium rare, the spice-dusted beef ($19.95) distinguishes itself, though
it’s annoyingly tucked beneath an Everest of undressed watercress.
Too many selections vie for the title of Ruby Foo’s worst dish. My nominee is “Szechuan sweet & sour mahi mahi with gingered sweet potato hash.” The name should be warning enough.