“With our thoughts, we make the world,” said Buddha, who sought spiritual enlightenment through the denial of worldly pleasures.
That quote is printed on the menu of Tao Downtown in Manhattan, which sells bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue for $800.
Yes, this is where children of all ages dress up to drink $15 mango martinis. And this is where two giant Buddha statues, one at repose, the other with 24 arms, overlook the revelry, as Top 40 hits play from the DJ booth.
Imagine what these guys could do with a Kosher joint? Until then, I’m happy to say Tao is one of New York’s most important new restaurants. Not for the food, rather for finding taxis.
Located underneath the Maritime Hotel on Ninth Avenue, Tao employs 250 staff members, serves a menu of more than 140 items, and can feed more than 1,100 patrons in a single day. Many of those folks take cabs to get here, and as a result, I’ve never waited more than seconds before hitching a ride outside. It’s awesome.
Now why so many people spend their money here is a more complicated question. The salmon rolls, chilled into a chokehold, taste as if they were freshly delivered from a local bodega. And raw tuna, paired with stiff shards of parmesan, is littered with so much sinus-clearing wasabi it could qualify as a frat-pledge dare at Binghamton University.
“Looks like a graveyard,” my friend remarked, when the “snapper in the sand” appeared, a preparation wherein patrons hunt for chunks of crispy fish buried in a tomb of garlic crumbs. The flavor is akin to that of overcooked McDonald’s chicken nuggets. The cost is $42.
So while much of New York itches to learn more about the myriad regional cuisines of the Global East, filling fine spots like Pok Pok, Cafe China and Xi’an Famous Foods, Tao provides the opposite, trafficking in the pedestrian Pan-Asian luxuries of business district hotels of Shanghai, Mumbai, or Dubai. Tao is the type of restaurant designed for those who refuse to eat from street vendors when traveling abroad, and for those who suddenly become vegetarian in foreign countries.
So enjoy your pumpkin and bamboo dumpling, whose skin mimics the texture of wet napkin.
Tao’s first location, on 58th Street, opened in 2000 and would come to rank as one of America’s highest grossing independent restaurants. The 10,000-square-foot venue is so popular I’ve witnessed patrons lining up for tables at 10:45 p.m. on a Monday.
That spawned a Vegas sequel in 2005, which earns more each year than some small Hollywood films. It also boasts a nightclub famous for its semi-naked female models in rose petal bathtubs.
So now we have the brand new Tao Downtown, sprawling over 22,000 square feet -- the foyer itself is so long it can take about 20 seconds to walk from the front door to the host stand.
Want a reservation? OpenTable shows availability for two on Friday at 5:45pm and 11:45 p.m. Good thing there are walk-in tables on Tao’s giant staircase, where every waiter I saw was female.
Those waiters wear high heels, short skirts and sleeveless tops with a missing piece of cloth around the bosom.
You avert your eyes to avoid any suspicion of impropriety when they squat down to take an order, when they bend at the waist to serve out-of-season asparagus, when they ascend the stairs, when they descend the stairs, or when they do anything they that they do, the way they do it.
Then there are the male waiters. They wear pants, long-sleeve shirts and flat shoes. They primarily work in the non-terraced section of the dining room. L’chaim.
These are the things you notice while eating $15 lo mein, no different from the stuff you get from a takeout joint, or fatty, $18 pork ribs, doused in enough sugary sauce to pass for dessert. Most restaurants fry kale to mimic the texture of potato chips. Not Tao, which coats the greens in tempura batter and drenches them in enough oil to give your car a lube job.
You pair this all with a Tao-tini, a mix of Stoli Ohranj, Stoli Razberi and Malibu coconut rum. It tastes precisely like its component ingredients, which is why you send it back.
To be fair, many of the dishes are serviceable enough, and some are quite good. Spicy eggplant packs a soft, soybean chili punch. Shrimp dumplings achieve the right balance of firm dough and delicate shellfish. And Peking duck ($76) boasts reasonably crispy skin and tender, musky meat.
Chilean sea bass has all the unctuous richness and delicate sweetness of Nobu’s famous miso cod. And pork belly red rice ($18), studded with cubes of silky fat and bitter long beans, wouldn’t be out of place at, say, the excellent Mission Chinese.
Thanks to my waiter who advised against ordering omakase ($49-$69) at the sushi bar. That’s typically a service where you’re served each piece of nigiri individually, to preserve the balance of barely warm rice and gently cool fish.
“It comes out all at once here,” warned the waiter, who suggested I try Ichimura in Tribeca. Smart guy. Indeed, my a la carte sushi arrived all at the same time, with mushy rice, and tuna so indistinct it was impossible to distinguish between the lean cuts ($6) and fatty cuts ($16).
And therein lies what is perhaps Tao’s biggest flaw. The restaurant fails with some of its most expensive items.
Lobster is dry-roasted, coated in muesli, and paired with a scallion soy butter. It’s delicious if you like paying $41 for what tastes like soy protein dressed with powdered onion soup mix.
And Wagyu beef, with “sophisticated dips and sauces,” has scant more tenderness or flavor than a $10 steak from Pathmark.
Here, you pay $88 for the privilege.
You finish things off with a warm chocolate cake or perhaps a giant $13 fortune cookie. The latter reminds you of the smaller ones they give out for free elsewhere.
Those sweets wouldn’t be out of place at any shopping mall food court, and they affirm that Tao isn’t about showing off Asia for all its culinary and cultural diversity.
Tao is about Asia as a pasteurized, PG-13 everywhere, manufacturing the same vaguely sexualized hedonism found in any Western nightclub, selling overpriced vodka wherever there’s a market for it ($400 for a bottle of Grey Goose), and employing bathroom attendants wherever people find it convenient to have someone else turn on the faucet for a buck.
So gentlemen, enjoy the drawings of bikini-clad, powder-faced anime girls in the washroom and make use of the complimentary Axe Body spray. And let me thank you, because your mass pilgrimage to Tao is helping me get a cab.
Rating: 1/2 *.
The Bloomberg Questions:
Price: Dishes range from $4-$88.
Sound Level: Actually rather tolerable for such a venue.
Date Place: For some. Expect canoodle-friendly banquettes.
Inside Tip: Decent chicken skewers, tofu noodles.
Special Feature: Lots of walk-in tables available.
Back On My Own Dime? No.
Tao Downtown is at 92 Ninth Avenue. Information: +1-212-888-2724 or http://taorestaurant.com/downtown/
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
(Ryan Sutton reviews restaurants for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)