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A new circle of hell has been prepared, and Tao is its name. A bright red marquee blazes outside, and the interior—whittled from a former movie theater, the Plaza—is attained through a pair of adamantine doors. Just inside the gates sits Cerberus in a very short skirt, checking reservations. Soon you will be sent with a vibrating beeper into the bar, where lost souls in leather pants sit chain-smoking in pools of harsh light. Through a stand of bamboo a giant Buddha rears up, his 16-foot stone eminence floating above a pool of water. Oddly, his left nipple is erect, as if someone had been twiddling it just prior to your arrival. Wall niches hold ancillary deities, and a stairway leads down to a men’s room, where the chief attraction is communal urination onto a backlit sheet of green glass. Beware the inevitable splash. The massive main floor seats 200, and there are additional mezzanine tables. Highest of all, the old projection booth is set up for Lucifer’s very special friends. Looking down at midnight one evening afforded a Brueghelian vision of hell: The large table in front of Buddha squirmed with inebriated louts shouting themselves red-faced over the throbbing bass of an unrecognizable dance tune.
Better not ask what Buddha is doing in a joint named Tao. This fundamental confusion extends to the menu, which was conceived to offer a cook’s tour of Asian cuisines, or at least Asian neighborhood restaurants. Chinese is represented by hoisin explosion chicken ($18), a salty stir-fry of boneless white meat and bell pepper that’s considerably improved by its handful of crunchy almonds. Nonetheless, the quality is a step below what you can get from a good carryout, and you’ll look in vain for any actual hoisin sauce. Even less appealing are the Shanghai soup dumplings ($8 for five), which are predictably soupless, and ensconced in a thick wrapper that packs all the charm of unbaked bread dough. The crisply fried lobster-and-shrimp dumplings are much better, but—though the handsome plate is dramatically garnished with lobster shell—the inside tastes only like shrimp.
Making the reasonable assumption that there must be some good dishes on the menu of this wildly popular hot spot, if only by the law of averages, this downtown pilgrim made a good-faith effort to seek them out. Thai fish hot pot ($20) arrived with a pleasant lemongrass tang and a generous assortment of seafood. A side dish of Chinese long beans ($6) boasted a Hong Kong-style XO sauce that, while not among the great ones, was entirely adequate. Among appetizers, the fried oysters were crisply cooked, while the spare ribs one evening were skanky and torturously sweet. Though it showcased nine good-sized shrimp, the braised prawns with chive flowers had been steamed instead of braised, and the underlying chives overcooked in a brackish sauce. At the tiny-but-pricey sushi bar, the commerce is mainly in premade maki rolls, of which my favorite is yellowtail and jalapeño ($8).
Then again, maybe this isn’t a new realm of hell. Maybe the experts mapped it long ago. Dante’s third circle is reserved for gluttons, whose unnatural appetites in life stuck them there. They are still given plenty to eat. Only now, instead of gourmet fare, they’re force-fed muck.