Lavo, a Midtown Manhattan nightclub that calls itself a restaurant, serves spaghetti with Kobe beef meatballs. It costs $34.
It tastes precisely like spaghetti with meatballs at any Old World grandma’s house, anywhere in New York. Typical cost: One hug, one kiss.
And yet Lavo is as improbably packed as its closest culinary peer, the Times Square Olive Garden.
In a year when excellent Italian in myriad regional forms dominated New York’s food scene, this popular newbie hawks marinara sauce (supermarket quality), garlic bread (even worse), big portions (18-inch pizzas) and fried Oreos (these are gooey and great with a malted shake).
If for nothing else, credit Lavo with zeroing in on a segment of the city’s big spenders who couldn’t care less about all the local, seasonal, organic spots crafting dishes from micro-seasonal weeds and exotic organ meats. Just give ‘em the darned meatballs.
If Facebook is to be believed, 10,291 people “like” Lavo, where $34 also gets you buttery Chilean sea bass with summery heirloom tomatoes -- in late December.
Compare that with the 818 people who “like” Craft, a chain of haute-greenmarket joints run by brand-name chef Tom Colicchio.
Lavo’s forte isn’t making food. It’s making money. The owners run Tao in Las Vegas, reported as the country’s highest grossing restaurant ($59 million in revenue), a few spots ahead of their New York Tao ($20.7 million) and the original Lavo in Sin City ($22 million). The latter serves pizzas six-inches longer than the ones in New York.
I could only score a midnight reservation last Thursday at New York’s Lavo. So it seems this 180-seat arena will do just as fine, even as it sells $31 shrimp scampi that taste fresh from the freezer, and veal parmesan with all the depth of flavor of a Hungry Man microwave meal.
Ask for a walk-in table and you’re given a beeper. Lavo is so loud and crowded that vibration is the preferred method of communication. Managers wear Secret Service-style ear sets.
Feel like a mix of gin, Aperol and grapefruit? The $14 concoction is bracing, bitter, beautiful. But the bar is eight deep. Just securing a napkin is a five-minute affair. Moving across the room is a game of chess.
How packed is it? On one visit, a woman briefly laid her pocketbook on our oysters at a lounge table. Our waitress ordered a man to remove his jacket from our buttery lobster arrabiata. Before we left, our table was a stand for someone’s half-finished drink.
Those with reservations are dispatched to a space in the rear full of hustle and bustle, with gorgeous white-tile walls and brown booths, a casual environment belied by men in suits and women in furs.
Order spicy lobster bisque, tender calamari or baked clams. Much of the pricey grub here is serviceable, without being overcooked or undercooked and if anything is underseasoned, coarse salt is ferried to your table with haste.
It’s all quite efficient and ordinary. Waiters announce the cost of specials, so no one is surprised to pay $32 for ho-hum burrata or $28 for cavatelli, its raw flour taste covered up by a reasonably tasty lobster sauce.
A porterhouse for two ($90) arrives medium rare as requested but lacks the nutty, grassy, concentrated flavors of beef with character.
Chicken marsala, a pounded breast in a sweet wine sauce, does little to offend or enlighten. A request for veal marsala, a replacement as complicated as making Cheerios float, couldn’t be accommodated. “We’re too busy.”
Those Kobe meatballs, served with sausage ragu as an $18 starter, turn out to be a bland slab of beef loaf in a murky marinara. Kobe rice balls, $17, taste no different from the ones in corner pizzerias. Kobe carpaccio? Zero flavor of its promised black truffle vinaigrette ($24). Fries, on the other hand, reek of truffle oil.
During a $500 meal for four, I asked our waitress, why, food aside, Lavo is so popular. “We have really good PR,” she replied. Perfect.
Rating: 1/2 star.
The Bloomberg Questions
Prices: About $100 per person.
Sound Level: Loud, around 80 decibels.
Date Place: Too many single dudes looking to swoop in.
Inside tip: Crumbly strawberry shortcake packed with summer fruit. A tasty, if anti-seasonal, anachronism.
Special Feature: Nightclub upstairs, baby.
Will I be back: LOL.
Lavo is at 39 E. 58th St. Information: +1-212-750-5588 or http://lavony.com
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)