Sam Talbot isn’t a very reliable chef.
That’s the impression I got after several meals at the disaster that is Imperial No. Nine, a pretty restaurant filled with pretty people eating pretty lousy seafood.
Also true: This hip hangout at the SoHo Mondrian doesn’t hire very good help.
The host politely asks if you’d like to see a menu -- when you’re already seated. Was I supposed to have memorized the offerings?
Pick your perch wisely; if a table has four chairs, two will have padding, the others will not. They’re orthopedically mismatched.
Imperial specializes in gin and tonics; it offers 5 varieties. Watch in amazement as the bartender dumps a half-empty bottle of flat tonic into your Hendricks gin.
Order a glass of bright Taittinger champagne ($31); the beverage might arrive after you’ve started on a plate of oysters. The bivalves are garnished, unintendedly, I hope, with tiny pieces of shell.
This hipster-slacker approach to the hospitality industry was the running joke at Talbot’s Surf Lodge, where they might run out of ketchup on a given night.
The ominously-named Imperial is a continuation of the bloopers reel. Talbot, a North Carolina native, is best known for competing on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef,” and for his active membership in the country’s pantheon of “hottest” chefs.
His cooking feels more part-time.
I tried Imperial’s raw tuna on two visits. The flesh should be firm; Talbot’s catch is spongy, mushy, as if fetched from the same back corner of a refrigerator where the dodgy milk sits. Bands of sinew thread the fish, causing you to chew and chew. Promised flavors of mustard oil are overwhelmed by an ocean’s worth of salt.
Poached shrimp ($4 each), buried in a pile of ice, were rubbery, the heads soggy. Have the crustaceans turned brown? Hard to tell in the artfully dim light. Fried oysters, in a stunning feat of molecular gastronomy, lacked any salinity.
A slab of bone marrow is fine. Problem is, it obliterates the flavor of the accompanying mussels. Chicken isn’t fine. The bird tastes like cardboard. It’s paired with panzanella, a humble Italian dish that involves softening day old bread with tomatoes or vinegar. Talbot instead places two stale croutons on your plate and calls it cuisine.
For its steak offering, Talbot phones in a few slices of beef culotte. The meat sports not the mineral finish of a dry-aged cut, but rather the tang of liver or kidneys gone bad. I told my companions to stop eating.
Beware the rhubarb pie. It contains no pie. The menu doesn’t fully warn diners of the deconstructed plating, whereby the fruit sits next to room temperature crumbs.
A mug of root beer was supposed to be paired with cocoa nib ice cream; we couldn’t find much evidence of the frozen treat.
Imperial is nice to look at. The garden room is accented with decorative glassware -- glued down to avoid breakage. Chandeliers hang here and there. And it’s possible, if a challenge, to work up a fine meal out of Talbot’s fare.
Ask for the cauliflower fritters, little bar bites that balance creamy ricotta against a gentle vegetal chew. Raw fluke gets coconut for aroma, chili water for heat. Crisped branzino, lovely on its own, sits in a pool of dashi, with clear flavors of salt and umami. Halibut practically flakes itself into a pile of bulgur wheat and tart tomatoes.
One warning to the hungry: Carbohydrates are in limited quantity at this model-friendly pit stop. Avoid the lumpy shrimp and grits; order Israeli couscous instead, if only for the accompanying mushroom salad.
Better yet, ask for bread to sate your grumbling stomach. At the moment, it carries a $4 fee. Or sometimes you get lucky.
“The tuna comes with bread, so I won’t charge you,” said a bartender. How generous. I ate it -- and pushed away the fish.
Rating: 1/2 *
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Most dishes under $30.
Sound Level: 75-80 decibels. Could be worse.
Date place: No.
Inside Tip: Avoid the $14-$15 gin and tonic selection.
Special Feature: Caramel corn ice cream for dessert.
Will I be back? No.
Imperial No. Nine is at the Mondrian SoHo at 9 Crosby St. Information: +1-212-389-0000; http://www.mondriansoho.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: Quiet enough to converse sotto voce. 56 to 60: Speak up, please. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: Heads turn because you’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)