Juiciest Beef in Town

Swords hang from the ceiling of the Kobe Club, a swanky steakhouse that aspires to top-tier status in Manhattan.
Swords hang from the ceiling of the Kobe Club, a swanky steakhouse that aspires to top-tier status in Manhattan. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 11, 2007

NEW YORK -- Everyone at the Kobe Club knew the drill: When the New York Times critic comes for dinner, the whole place goes on high alert.

Whoever recognizes him raises the alarm. The chef prepares two of every dish the reviewer orders, so he can taste-test a duplicate of the entire meal before sending it out to the table. Waiters are attentive but not overbearing. And the owner, Jeffrey Chodorow, keeps a respectful distance.

When the moment of destiny finally arrived in the form of Frank Bruni, the Times restaurant critic since April 2004, every procedure was followed to the letter, according to staffers and Chodorow. After Bruni departed, the Kobe Club's general manager called Chodorow at 2 a.m. and made a bold prediction: We're getting three stars.

Wrong. On Feb. 7, Bruni awarded zero stars, which for a dining establishment aspiring to top-tier status in this town, the restaurant capital of the USA, is a failing grade with a side order of crow. He found a "rubbery" pork chop, "limp" iceberg lettuce, "gluey" mashed potatoes and a clam with a "metallic tang."

"We ate his meal in the kitchen," recalled Chodorow, who was livid. "We would know if something was off." Chodorow then shelled out $40,000 to take out a full-page ad in the Dining Out section of the Times two weeks later.

In his broadside, which took the form of an open letter to Bruni's boss, Chodorow said Bruni had launched "personal attacks." He questioned the reviewer's credentials, citing his previous job in Rome, covering politics, the pope and other general news subjects. He promised to start a blog with a section called "Following Frank," in which he would review the critic's reviews.

"There had been previous times I wanted to write a letter," said Chodorow, adding that everybody around him had persuaded him not to. But this time the review was "so off-base," it was offensive, said Chodorow, who has since banned Bruni from his restaurants and offered $1,000 to the first staff member to spot him on the premises.

In a phone interview, Bruni, 42, seemed unperturbed. "I go into every restaurant with an open mind. I have no animus," he said. "If he wants to have a rebuttal, and he's willing to pay the ad rate to get that space, it seems fair that he get it."

Bruni says he has long loved food but underwent no formal training. After he was named restaurant critic, he read books on cuisine and did a quick tour of New York, Paris and Hong Kong to "have some fresh memories on the palate."

Like him, Chodorow, 57, did not always make food his work. He was formerly a real estate investor, then an airline owner. Then he helped pioneer the idea of status restaurant as theater, creating 20-odd restaurants known for their size and drama. New York's Asia de Cuba has a 50-foot alabaster communal dining table and a 25-foot hologram of a flowing waterfall. At Red Square in Atlantic City, gilded doors open onto an anachronistic fantasy of Russia, including red velvet seating and paintings depicting political propaganda.

Kobe Club's specialty is, of course, Kobe beef, from Japan's Wagyu cattle, animals fed beer and given massages to tenderize their flesh. The $2.5 million decor includes a bar shaped like a samurai sword and covered in black stingray skin; 2,000 samurai swords affixed to the ceiling and dangling point-down; leather, fur, mirrors and chains on most every surface; and a video of a fireplace flickering on one wall.

But that's style. Then there's the substance: the food. Bruni called Chodorow a "gimmick maestro" and brought up the debacle of a reality television show about his restaurant Rocco's, "where Mama's meatballs were sauced with acrimony and eventual litigation."

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