Magazine article Artforum International

Fancy Feast: Ken Okiishi on the Leopard at Des Artistes

Magazine article Artforum International

Fancy Feast: Ken Okiishi on the Leopard at Des Artistes

Article excerpt

PART OF THE AESTHETIC SINGULARITY of dining uptown, until very recently, included zebras prancing on bright red wallpaper, drop ceilings with weird stains, dirty pink carpets and matching tablecloths, fake flowers mixed with real ones, that weird moldy smell, bartenders who were probably actually vampires, a very large display of fresh but unremarkable supermarket vegetables in a basically empty restaurant, and extraordinary prices for terrible food. All of this seemed like it would soon be over when New York's Cafe des Artistes (located, since it opened in 1917, at One West Sixty-Seventh Street) closed m 2009, followed by Gino (2010), Blame's (2011), and, the most macabre of them all, Bravo Gianni (2011). For those of us from a generation that thinks it is a culinary revolution to track the itinerary of produce, these realms of freaky food and forgotten decor were as riveting as they were revolting, and the perverse glee felt when entering the private realm of our wealthy, geriatric style icons--of the unknowingly antihip--made us feel alive.

These places offered opportunities to digest our cinematic nostalgia with distaste and delicious laughter, so the news that Cafe des Artistes was going to be resurrected piqued interest in a way similar to catching wind that a forgotten artist is about to have a big comeback (Gasp! Really?). Would it be awful, wonderful, or, even better, a marvelous disaster?

Would it be everyday Italian? was not the first thought to come to mind, and the current renovation does much to erase middling aesthetic questions. This glistening new restaurant, the Leopard at des .Artistes, adheres dutifully to contemporary notions of "modern" good taste: The churchiness of the dark, wood-paneled room has been painstakingly lightened; most of the original Tudor-style detailing has been surgically excised and the rest covered with either white paint, drywall, or touches of unadorned walnut paneling. The floor is now terrazzo, with classic modernist circular metal inlays, and the old seating has been replaced with Thonet Era Round Armchairs (available at your nearest Design Within Reach). At first I find this blahmbiance charming, like stepping into a virtual, seminostalgic rendering of a possible future New York--one where we don't cling to our secret spots so vehemently and where we are open to general pleasantness. And then our food arrives.

Dinner starts off nicely enough, with a primo piatto of pasta prepared as perfectly as the beloved Howard Chandler Christy murals have been restored. Crisp, clean, flawlessly buffed kitsch. But with the main course, the renovation's weaknesses grow more palpable. My dining partner receives an acceptable though unremarkable grilled chicken, served with a vaguely creative corn relish; my porchetta, on the other hand, is shockingly dry and has the kind of gravy T have grown accustomed to in old-school restaurants worldwide--the kind of gravy that almost instantly develops a gloppy, gelatinous crust. (Whether the persistence of this phenomenon is attributable to mistiming in the kitchen or some sort of weird wasp thing, I've never been able to figure out.) This dip into the more arcane eating habits of those ossified by pretense immediately brings the Leopard at des Artistes into competition with the late grandes dames of spooky cuisine. Granted, the restaurant's name is eccentric enough to warrant some praise. But, as my distressed taste buds prompted my eyes to register gruesome detail everywhere, my dining partner, also unhappy with our banal experience so far, said, "You could also say the place looks a bit like a pizza parlor trying to be fancy."

Strangely, the Leopard's souped-up bland chic makes the Christy murals (1934 and 1942) look out of place; strange, indeed, since we know that the restaurant was painstakingly renovated around them. The overwhelming design nonidentity of the new interior surrounding the murals stages a disjunction in eras that wobbles between novelty and lifelessness--it is utterly unclear which set of nostalgic frameworks you are to bring to this place and which fantasies you are supposed to leave behind. …

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