“Is the entire restaurant a very expensive piece of conceptual art?” says Peter Wells in the now infamous New York Times review of celeb chef Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen restaurant in New York’s biggest tourist trap, Times Square. It’s impossible to read a line like that and not wonder, “Could it really be that bad?” Or perhaps, “How does one make a marshmallow taste like fish?” “Which ingredient in the watermelon margarita holds the key to the formaldehyde essence?” “Do we really need our ice cream to live up to the boulder-sized claim? Aren’t we a cuddly enough country as it is?”
And when the man of the hour, Fieri himself, goes on national television to claim that Wells “had an agenda” when he walked through the heavy doors of the 44th Street establishment, the restaurant may as well have transformed into a giant magnet — we, the consumers of all things pop culture, were mere fragments of metal, unavoidably pulled in the direction of the shining beacon of fried goods. Hollywood.com sent me to the scene of the alleged crime against gastronomy to experience the supposed atrocity as your average restaurant-loving New Yorker. This is my story.
Nestled among some of Time Square’s most treasured theater district haunts, Sardi’s and Carmine’s, sits Guy’s American Kitchen. If you hadn’t witnessed the media explosion surrounding the popular restaurant, it would seem just like any other wallet-draining, waistline-expanding establishment in and around the city’s flashiest district. However, as celebrity editor Abbey Stone and I entered the house of Donkey Sauce, we both felt a sense of trepidation. Was this the worst meal we would ever eat? Why did the air smell so much like cayenne pepper and raw onions? Were my eyes stinging or was I just excited?
We sat in the restaurant’s bar, which is the section of the restaurant that feels most like the American Kitchen promised by the unostentatious name. Pots hang above the tables, and bar is stacked with cans upon cans of Rolling Rock and Pabst Blue Ribbon. If it wasn’t for the wall of “Welcome to Flavor Town!” shirts, plates, tumblers, and aprons by the door, it would appear to offer the promise of its low-key name — at least aesthetically. But despite its easygoing atmosphere, it was hard not to feel as if we’d entered the battleground. Was Fieri right? Was Wells just making a ruckus? Or was the menu an embarrassment of mayonnaise?
The tension was so high that when our waiter asked if we wanted to start off with a drink, we looked at each other in bewildered terror, wondering if the boozy elixirs would make us grip our throats in pain, or if they’d simply do what most alcohol does: make lunchtime a little more fun. After a failed attempt to order the suspiciously blue watermelon margarita, we learned that Wells’ claims had killed the item. It had been dramatically stricken from the menu. We settled on the jalapeño margarita, which for a drink decorated with fresh, sliced peppers around the edge and a few floating among the cilantro in the cup, was remarkably mild. Still, we were doing all right. Nothing seemed too out of the ordinary.
When it came time order some of this “inedible” grub, we made sure to get the full experience: the questionably Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders, the perplexing Guy-talian Nachos, the gobbledygook Unyawns Cajun Chicken Ciabatta, the Guy’s Big Bite Burger & Rojo Ring, and Guy’s signature Salted Whiskey Caramel Fool. And fear not, we made sure both sandwiches came with the legendary Donkey Sauce. Fun fact: it’s just saucy, less-bland mayonnaise!
But you’re dying to know, did the flavors make us want to crawl into the nearest TGI Fridays and beg for a plate of their fried green beans or lava posing as artichoke dip, just to rid ourselves of the taste? Did we curse the New York zoning commission for allowing this atrocity within Manhattan’s foodist borders? Were we about to regret our attempt to enjoy this gastrosplosion?
No. Not even slightly. While it’s true that slivers of pepperoni belong nowhere near any self-respecting plate of nachos, and the notion that pronouncing the word Italian with a first syllable resembling the pronunciation of Guy would make any New Yorker cringe, the food wasn’t life-endingly terrible. I won’t shudder when I walk past 44th, or jaunt across the street from Fieri’s flaming marquee to catch a matinee of Matilda on Broadway. The chicken tenders certainly didn’t need to replace your average batter with pretzels and almonds, but the choice of herbs wasn’t anything to balk at. They were tasty. We may have had to saw through the buns on our sandwiches as they’d clearly been working on their heat lamp tans in the kitchen, but Wells’ “long refrigerated tunnel” had clearly been shut down. Donkey Sauce isn’t exactly a revelation — and for that matter, neither is Fieri’s “super melty cheese,” which tasted like an unholy combination of real cheddar and the foodstuffs that comprise Kraft singles or Velveeta. Aside from the Rojo Ring, which may be the best onion ring I can remember eating, the meal was largely average: tasty, crispy, and a tad overpriced, just like every other touristy attraction. The wacky names and extra ingredients are clearly less for augmenting flavor, and more akin to the Rumble in the Jungle Turkey Wrap at your local Rainforest Café. Hint: it’s a gimmick.
And aside from a fork fumble here and there by our bus boy, the restaurant seemed to be running just as it always had, untouched by the media maelstrom surrounding it. Businessmen ate their lunches and chatted, tourists talked about what show they’d see that night or whether or not cough up the dough for Madame Toussads. A few construction workers leisurely sipped the surprisingly reasonably-priced PBR tallboys at the bar. A group of friends wondered if the man who’d just rushed out was a celebrity, or just some guy who looked like him. “It’s just like any other day,” one employee told me. Of course, the staff had been instructed that morning not to express any opinions regarding the review or Fieri’s Today interview, so perhaps not just like any other day, but as close as could be.
At the end of the day, the Times review was wildly entertaining, riotous, and unlike anything we’ve ever seen from the paper, however hyperbolic — but it was clearly a reaction to Fieri’s status as a “celebrity chef” at the head of a restaurant that takes beloved Southern American cooking and turns it into lip-smacking mass produced goodies instead of highbrow cuisine that could do the industry proud. One thing the review seems to forget as it gives a tour of Flavor Town is that this is the guy who says things like, “I could put this on a flip-flop and it would taste good,” and, “I wanna be the ambassador to Chimichanga Flavor Town.” If his restaurant wasn’t an amalgamation of over-the-top phrases drenched in ingredients so mismatched it’s likely your tongue might run away in fright, wouldn’t we be disappointed? Well, I would.
If Fieri’s New York mecca wasn’t a perplexing world of Corvette logos, plush leather booths, and desserts so full of whipped cream the crumbly pieces of pound cake have no place to reside, I’d probably be disappointed. If it was a revelatory mix of homestyle cooking and innovative recipes, wouldn’t we be ranting about how putting it in Times Square ruins it for the rest of us? It’s exactly what it needs to be, and the largely nonplussed clientele and wait staff are clear indications of that. The New York Times may have tried to take down Flavor Town, but its colors don’t run. It will top nachos with peperoncini. It will put the underwhelming Donkey Sauce on everything. It will hide the listless flavor of its chicken fingers with an preposterously strong honey-mustard concoction. And you’ll like it. Or you’ll take the first train out of Flavor Town.
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler
[Photo Credit: Abbey Stone]
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The story of the most dominant racehorse of all time does not easily fit into the standard inspirational sports flick mold. Such films typically require its protagonists to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles be they competitive (Hoosiers) personal (The Natural) societal (Ali) or some combination of all three (Remember the Titans). But by all accounts the greatest challenges to Secretariat capturing of the 1973 Triple Crown were not rival horses — indeed Secretariat had no true rival — but a pair of slow starts and an abscess. And abscesses — apologies to dermatologists — simply aren’t all that effective as dramatic devices.
Lacking most of the vital ingredients of the traditional underdog movie formula Disney’s Secretariat is forced to synthesize them. Its screenplay written by Mike Rich and based rather loosely on the book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by William Nack adopts a conventional save-the-farm framework: When her parents pass away within months of each other Denver housewife Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) is advised to sell off her family’s Virginia-based Meadow Stables a beautiful but unprofitable horse-breeding enterprise in order to pay the onerous inheritance taxes levied by the state. But Penny her deceased father’s hackneyed horse-inspired counsel fresh in her mind (“You’ve got to run your own race ” etc. etc.) is loath to depart with such a cherished heirloom. So she concocts a scheme just idiotic enough to work betting the farm — literally — that her new horse Big Red in whom she has an almost Messianic faith will win the Kentucky Derby Preakness and Belmont races in succession.
Of course Big Red under the stage name Secretariat goes on to do just that but only after the film subjects us to nearly two hours of manufactured melodrama. Lane grasping all-too conspicuously for awards consideration treats every line as if it were the St. Crispin’s Day speech. Her character Penny exhibits a hair-trigger sensitivity to the sounds of skeptics and naysayers bursting forth with a polite rebuke and a stern sermon for anyone who dares doubt her crusade from the trash-talking owner of a rival horse to her annoyingly pragmatic husband (Dylan Walsh).
Lane isn’t alone in her grandiosity. The entire production reeks of it as director Randall Wallace lines the story with fetid chunks of overwrought Oscar bait like so many droppings in an untended stable even using Old Testament quotations and gospel music to endow Penny’s quest with biblical significance. John Malkovich is kind enough to inject some mirth into the heavy-handed proceedings hamming it up as Secretariat’s trainer Lucien Laurin a French-Canadian curmudgeon with an odd sartorial palette. It’s not enough however to alleviate the discomfort of witnessing the film's quasi-Sambo depiction of Secretariat’s famed groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) which reaches its cringeworthy zenith when Sweat runs out to the track on the eve of the Belmont Stakes and exclaims to no one in particular that “Big Red done eat his breakfast this mornin’!!!” Bagger Vance would be proud. Whether or not Ellis’ portrayal of Sweat’s cadence and mannerisms is accurate (and for all I know it may well be) the character is too thinly drawn to register as anything more than an amiable simple-minded servant.
Animal lovers will be happy to know that the horses in Secretariat come off looking far better than their human counterparts and not just because they’re alloted the best dialogue. In the training and racing sequences Wallace effectively conveys the strength and majesty of the fearsome animals drawing us into the action and creating a strong element of suspense even though the final result is a fait accompli. It's too bad the rest of the film never makes it out of the gate.
Two of the most prestigious independent film communities have recently each given their stamp of approval on independent cinema both past and future. Nominees for the 2006 Independent Spirit Awards were announced as was the lineup for the independent feature film and world cinema competitions for next year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Although each organization acknowledge and reward independent filmmaking, the two fetes are quite different. The Spirit Awards are more of a conventional awards show, which will be handed out March 4 in Santa Monica, California [for full coverage on the Spirit Award nominations, click here].
The Sundance Awards are the culmination of the 10-day festival (Jan. 19-29 in Park City, Utah) that showcases the films in contention for awards. Next year’s Sundance Film Festival lineup marks a return of sorts to the fest’s roots, by giving way to more fresh faces. The total number of submissions increased, resulting in a different and exciting format--the expansion of the world competition to include more international films.
Below are the films to be shown in the four competition sections:
American Dramatic Competition A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (Director, screenwriter: Dito Montiel) Come Early Morning (Director, screenwriter: Joey Lauren Adams) Flannel Pajamas (Director, screenwriter: Jeff Lipsky) Forgiven (Director, screenwriter: Paul Fitzgerald) Half Nelson (Director: Ryan Fleck; screenwriters: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck) Hawk Is Dying (Director: Julian Goldberger; screenwriters: Harry Crews (novel), Julian Goldberger) In Between Days (Director: So Yong Kim; screenwriters: So Yong Kim, Bradley Rust Gray) Puccini for Beginners (Director, screenwriter: Maria Maggenti) Quinceanera (Director/screenwriters: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland) Right at Your Door (Director, screenwriter: Chris Gorak) Sherrybaby (Director, screenwriter: Laurie Collyer) Somebodies (Director, screenwriter: Hadjii) Stay (Director, screenwriter: Bob Goldthwait) Steel City (Director, screenwriter: Brian Jun) Stephanie Daley (Director, screenwriter: Hilary Brougher) Wristcutters: A Love Story (Director: Goran Dukic; screenwriters: Goran Dukic, Etgar Kerett)
American Documentary Competition:
A Lion in the House (Directors: Steven Bogner, Julia Reichert) American Blackout (Director: Ian Inaba) An Unreasonable Man (Directors: Henriette Mantel, Stephen Skrovan) Crossing Arizona (Director: Joseph Mathew) God Grew Tired of Us (Director: Christopher Quinn) Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends (Director: Patricia Foulkrod) Iraq in Fragments (Director: James Longley) Small Town Gay Bar (Director: Malcom Ingram) So Much So Fast (Directors: Steven Ascher, Jeanne Jordan) Thin (Director: Lauren Greenfield) 'Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris (Director: Raymond De Felitta) The Trials of Darryl Hunt (Directors: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg) TV Junkie (Director: Michael Cain) Wide Awake (Director: Alan Berliner) Wordplay (Director: Patrick Creadon) The World According to Sesame Street (Directors: Linda Goldstein Knowlton, Linda Hawkins Costigan)
World Cinema Dramatic Competition 13 Tzameti (Director, screenwriter: Gela Babluani), France Allegro (Director: Christoffer Boe; screenwriters: Christoffer Boe, Mikael Wulff), Denmark The Aura (Director, screenwriter: Fabian Bielinsky), Argentina The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (Director: Auraeus Solito; screenwriter: Michiko Yamamoto), Philippines Eve & The Fire Horse (Director, screenwriter: Julia Kwan), Canada Grbavica (Director, screenwriter: Jasmila Zbanic), Bosnia-Herzegovina The House of Sand (Director: Andrucha Waddington; screenwriter: Elena Soarez), Brazil Kiss Me Not on the Eyes (Director, screenwriter: Jocelyne Saab), Lebanon Little Red Flowers (Director: Zhang Yuan; Screenwriters: Ning Dai, Zhang Yuan), China Madeinusa (Director, screenwriter: Claudia Llosa), Peru No. 2 (Director, screenwriter: Toa Fraser), New Zealand One Last Dance (Director, screenwriter: Max Makowski), Singapore The Peter Pan Formula (Director, screenwriter: Cho Chan-Ho), South Korea Princesas (Director, screenwriter: Fernando Leon de Aranoa), Spain Solo Dios Sabe (Director: Carlos Bolado; screenwriters: Carlos Bolado, Diane Weipert), Brazil/Mexico Son of Man (Director: Mark Dornford-May; screenwriters: Mark Dornford-May, Andiswa Kedama, Pauline Malefane), South Africa
World Cinema Documentary Competition 5 Days (Director: Yoav Shamir), Israel Angry Monk--Reflections on Tibet (Director: Luc Schaedler), Switzerland Black Gold (Director: Marc Francis, Nick Francis), U.K. By the Ways, a Journey with William Eggleston (Directors: Cedric Laty, Vincent Gerard), France Dear Pyongyang (Director: Yang Yonghi), Japan The Giant Buddhas (Director: Christian Frei), Switzerland Glastonbury (Director: Julien Temple), U.K. I is for India (Director: Sandhya Suri), England/Germany/Italy In the Pit (Director: Juan Carlos Rulfo), Mexico Into Great Silence (Director: Philip Groening), Germany Kz (Director: Rex Bloomstein), U.K. No One (Director: Tin Dirdamal), Mexico The Short Life of Jose Antonio Gutierrez (Director: Heidi Specogna), Germany Songbirds (Director: Brian Hill), U.K. Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst (Director: Gillian Armstrong), Australia Viva Zapatero (Director: Sabina Guzzanti), Italy