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I love Frank Bruni – NYT Dining

For the fun of it.  This is one of his best since he did his (original review 7/12/06) of Craftsteak.  Thank you Frank for your honest review and thank god for your sarcastic wit!  You provide me with the best laughs and the most fun after a really long hard day at the office.  Whoever hired you should get a raise – you are a superstar in my food world. 

RESTAURANT REVIEW | HARRY CIPRIANI, The Gloss of Opulence By FRANK BRUNI, NYT Dining, Published: November 14, 2007

OVER the years the Cipriani restaurant family and its employees have faced charges of sexual harassment, insurance fraud and tax evasion, the last leading to guilty pleas by two family members in July.

Harry Cipriani – No Stars (Poor)

But the crime that comes to mind first when I think of the Ciprianis is highway robbery. Based on my recent experience, that’s what happens almost any time Harry Cipriani on Fifth Avenue serves lunch or dinner.

In this gleaming room in the Sherry-Netherland hotel, the Ciprianis charge $22.95 for asparagus vinaigrette — 12 medium-size spears, neither white, truffle-flecked nor even Parmesan-bedecked — and $34.95 for an appetizer of fried calamari. That’s at dinnertime, I should clarify. At lunch there’s a whopping $1 discount per dish.

A dinner entree of fritto misto costs $48.95, even though it amounted to an extra-large portion of fried calamari with a few decorative shrimp and token scallops strewn, to negligible effect, among the generic calamari rings.

I assure you of the accuracy of those numbers, and of these: $66.95 for a sirloin, $36.95 for lasagna, $18.95 for minestrone. It’s tempting to devote the rest of this review to a price list. Nothing else I can present is nearly as compelling.

Besides, prices are the point of Harry Cipriani, which exists to affirm its patrons’ ability to throw away money.

It’s the epitome of a restaurant whose steep tariffs justify themselves, subbing for membership dues and assuring that the spouse, in-law, client or canine psychic being treated to a $16.95 piece of chocolate cake will be impressed.

Regulars accept and revel in this, or have bit by bit deluded themselves into believing that the $36.95 spaghetti with tomato and basil has something special to recommend it. (Trust me: it doesn’t.)

But what of the uninitiated New Yorker or innocent tourist who sees the Cipriani name, with its connotations of extravagant banquets and extraordinary privilege, and waltzes through the doors expecting something magnificent in return for a king’s ransom?

These victims in the offing deserve a heads-up on what they’re likely to find, which is service so confused and food so undistinguished it wouldn’t pass muster at half the cost.

During one of my dinners, servers first tried to deliver another table’s veal chop to ours, then began to deliver our entrees before they had cleared our appetizers.

Another night servers gave me rabbit although I had asked for duck, and then, after a profuse apology, neglected to bring my companions and me one of our desserts.

But what I remember most vividly about that particular night is the potatoes. And I hasten to add that I’m taking it on faith that they were potatoes.

That’s what they visually suggested, those desiccated yellow-beige coins that had somehow acquired the texture of Brillo and could almost have been used to scrub whatever pan they had emerged from.

They weren’t, in fairness, representative of the restaurant’s other vegetables, like the assortment in a transcendently vapid risotto alla primavera, cooked to a state of depressing flaccidity.

But while the veggies can be mush, the empire seems to be solid: bigger than ever and growing all the time. This past summer the family opened the restaurant Club 55, which joined its many other gilded dining establishments in Manhattan.

Outside New York the Ciprianis have restaurants in London and Hong Kong, and they’re establishing resort hotels in Miami Beach and Beverly Hills.

Of course it all goes back to the 1930’s and to Harry’s Bar in Venice, where the bellini and beef carpaccio were reputedly born.

But on this side of the Atlantic, the progenitor and lodestar is the Fifth Avenue clubhouse, which opened in 1985 and was last reviewed in The Times in 1991, when Bryan Miller raised it to two stars from one.

It’s a different restaurant now, literally. In June 2005 it closed for renovations, and when it reopened last May, the visible changes included more than fresh coats of lacquer on the lustrouus wood-paneled walls.

The bar had been moved to the northern side of the restaurant, a rearrangement that helped make way for about 30 additional seats. The hosts can now cram about 130 people in.

And cram they do. At times they place the Frisbee-size tables for four so tightly together that Harry Cipriani seems to be doing an haute impersonation of Prune or the Spotted Pig.

It’s a bizarre mix of indulgence and deprivation, the crisp white jackets on the servers communicating an ostentation that’s contradicted by plenty else, including the brusque manner in which those servers sometimes hustle diners through a meal.

Even in an enclave this expensive, there are things seemingly done on the cheap. I can’t think of a credible motive other than cost saving for serving an appetizer of turkey tonnato in place of veal tonnato. That’s for $27.95.

Although steak Rossini typically involves foie gras, what Harry Cipriani puts on top of a gigantic (and, it should be noted, juicy) filet mignon are chicken livers, chalky when I had them. That’s for $55.95.

Among the scores of straightforward dishes, some had appeal. Calf’s liver was flavorful, veal sweetbreads tender and roasted branzino moist. I liked the oil-glossed octopus carpaccio, and cakes were dependably fluffy.

But the kitchen’s blunders outnumbered its successes, which were modest in any case. The wan tomatoes beside buffalo milk mozzarella didn’t have a drop of sweetness. Main courses of lamb and salmon were overcooked, as were the meats in several pasta sauces, including an oily veal ragù over green tagliardi.

Pasta sauces by and large were washouts, seldom registering much presence or any nuance. An amatriciana had no zest, no zip, and the meat in it looked and tasted not like guanciale or pancetta but like ordinary cubed ham.

The selection of wines by the glass — a small carafe, really — is pathetic, and that fabled bellini is $19.95 for a restrained ration of white peach juice and prosecco.

But the people-watching is nonpareil. You rarely see blondness this improbable, cosmetology this transparent, wealth this flamboyantly misspent.

And while that isn’t cause enough to visit Harry Cipriani, it’s consolation if you must.

Harry Cipriani


In the Sherry-Netherland hotel, 781 Fifth Avenue, (60th Street); (212) 753-5566.

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