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Top Chef has made everyone a food critic. Each week, viewers judge Richard for amping his ice cream with foie gras or Marcel for getting trigger-happy with liquid nitrogen—all without sampling a morsel of their creations. We think we know them, but do the cheftestants actually have cooking chops, or are they just telegenic twits? Only when they launch restaurants do we really find out.
Some have opened shop and proven their mettle (you betcha, Harold). Others not so much (sorry, Nikki). And now Sam Talbot is at the real-life chopping block, this time without Padma’s monotone ringing out the judgment.
Talbot has migrated from Montauk to run Imperial No. Nine, an expansive “sustainable” seafood restaurant in the new Mondrian Soho Hotel. Nab a seat in the swanky atrium, an airy space festooned with potted ferns, oversize chandeliers, and a gorgeous centerpiece (an homage to Jean Cocteau) of glass urns and vases from sculptor Beth Lipman. It resembles a winter garden designed by a Miami Beach decorator for whom Alice in Wonderland is gospel. Yet this sumptuous restaurant has its less sexy side, too—a gold-hued but depressing interior dining room adjacent to a larger bar. Or is that area dreary because the homelier folk are herded there, by an unnaturally beautiful waitstaff?
No matter which room (caste?) you find yourself in, you’ll encounter the same voguish menu of shareable plates that emerge from the kitchen “as they are ready”—awkward if you’re the sole vegetarian and the roasted beets and stewed black chickpeas hit the table dead last. And beyond this sucky setup, your meal is a crapshoot.
Blame some of it on the kitchen’s inconsistency. One evening, mustard oil raped hunks of raw tuna and grapefruit segments ($22), leaving my nasal passages burning like the time I snorted Pixy Stix at camp (don’t judge, you’ve done it, too). Yet the following week, those pink cubes of fish were bland and slightly mushy, as if Long John Silver’s had gone Asian. Slow-cooked and succulent octopus legs ($21) that basked in a punchy, soy-based reverie on my first visit became a one-note letdown on my last.
Some dishes fail completely, like the Iberico lardo and sea-urchin mishmash topping four puny slices of bread for a whopping $29, the flavors all muddied. The roasted squash ($12) proves equally disappointing—the vegetable undercooked and accompanying apples tasting like they drowned in a vat of vinegar. Or was it Windex?
But other plates showcase Talbot’s talents. His shrimp and grits ($15) may resemble lumpy blueberry yogurt, but this bowl surpasses the brunch of your dreams, thanks to a whisper of coffee oil and a perfect sous-vide egg sinking into periwinkle-hued cornmeal. You’ll find another starchy success in the toasted couscous ($14), a creamy delight socked with pecorino and tickled with lemon. King crab à la plancha ($30) justifies its royal title—the tasty tangle of legs sops up sweet-and-sour butter and are pre-cut to avoid messy hands. And given the restaurant’s focus on fish, black garlic-marinated chicken thighs ($24) both surprise and charm, with the mushroom-bread salad a fitting finale.
Come dessert, forgo the $10 salted caramel ice cream with a dusting of pulverized popcorn unless a mouthful of buttery talcum powder sounds enticing. Instead, find summer solace in “frozen lemonade” ($10)—actually three petite citrusy tarts crowned with a nebula of foam and adorned with tiny edible flowers. If I’m ever invited to a royal wedding, I want my fascinator to resemble this stylish pouf of a pastry. But coming from a restaurant that has “Imperial” in the name, I wouldn’t expect anything less.