Haute Style, Enthusiasm Not So Hot
717 Fifth Ave, 3rd fl
New York, NY 10022
The mere mention of Armani conjures images of haute couture, elegant, beautiful lines and impeccable attention to details. And for the most part Armani Ristorante/Fifth Avenue tows the same line as the legendary house of fashion it aims to emulate.
Located on the third floor of Armani’s flagship store at the corner of East 56th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York, the restaurant is easily identifiable in the evenings by the fanciful long strings of large lights that dangle over the interior of the glass façade. A bit unusual for the city perhaps except during the holiday season, but the bright lights provide needed privacy from street viewers. For diners, the effect is a stunning background that serves as a contrast to the white, black and neutral minimalist décor of the dining room.
To get to the restaurant one can either use a side street accessible elevator or ascend a geometric staircase connecting the store and the restaurant. We’ve always preferred to skip the store promenade, perhaps defeating the intended dual purpose of the restaurant: to extend the brand of Armani to the culinary field while promoting the store in the process.
Unlike many other reviewers, we have always been made to feel welcome here. When we’ve dropped by at a moment’s notice for cocktails or dinner, the hosts and servers have always been accommodating. That’s something you’d expect, but most often not receive, in boutique dining.
The restaurant design and finish is quintessentially Armani. The lines are crisp throughout. An underlit bar and interspersed black and white chair and lounge seating appear comfortable and sensual. I suppose if we compare it to the golden days of cinema, this is the modern furnishings version of Marilyn Monroe on a white dress. It is both accessible and appealing.
Although wine and champagne are perhaps more appropriate, there is a bit of sultriness that cries out for cocktails. And if you want our advice, we suggest starting with that. Juicy bubblies in flutes and brightly colored mixes in cold martini glasses just seem to fit here.
For antipasti, we’ve toyed with trying different specials they offer and always deciding on some type of carpaccio. We suppose it’s futile to say that the Caprese Di Bufala is good. After all, they didn’t really do anything to it. But for what it’s worth, it’s always fresh and nicely plated.
Plating is key here because there is continuity and consistency in this area. They are cleanly and impeccably presented. Unfortunately, that’s probably the most we are able to say about the food.
Please don’t misunderstand. It isn’t because the food isn’t good, it is. It is technically well executed. Textures, temperatures and flavors are well controlled--almost too controlled.
The puzzling thing about Armani Ristorante/Fifth Avenue is that we’re almost guaranteed to enjoy whatever we order. But two or three days later, we could never remember what we had. There isn’t anything wrong with it. It always delivers positive marks in qualities we look for. Thus it earns a feature in the magazine. What it doesn’t have is character.
If we were just restaurant critics, we probably would dissect the food flavors further in preparation for publication. But we’re not. We measure quality by the overall experience and anything that stands the test of time is a good thing.
Our readers dine out for business, when dining with friends, when going to the theater, visiting New York, etc. They are busy people doing several different things at once. What we wish for them is an experience that snaps them out of that busy place, even for just a split second, to relish something really good. Armani Ristorante/Fifth Avenue under delivers in this regard.
Imagine this. You’re sitting in a loungy, soft black leather booth seat. A smooth, slick, laminated white round table separates you from your guest. She is sitting across you, a backdrop of giant colorful icicles behind her. Perhaps it looks more like floating supernovae in galactic, celestial hues. Or perhaps it’s the set of Victor, Victoria. Your guest is Dame Julie Andrews. You’re excited and you ask her how dinner was. She smiles politely, and kindly says in that melodic sweet tone that is signature Julie Andrews, “Oh, it was lovely.” We didn’t really dine with Julie Andrews, but you get the point.
The carpaccio is lovely. The pasta is lovely. The risotto is lovely. The branzino is lovely. Everything is lovely. It’s the culinary equivalent of the classic black Armani suit. You can’t go wrong. It’s elegant and sophisticated, but predictable.
Like the black suit, perhaps it serves its purpose. The restaurant industry may very well not be a business in which Armani would seriously like to invest. The restaurant website has a dead link, and they seem content to send people to “menupages.com” as an alternative. And there’s something terribly wrong when roasted celery is the one stand out in one’s meal.
It is almost as if Armani is too busy making things perfect that it has created something that another reviewer has called “sterile.” For whatever reason, while it is perfectly in tune with delivering satisfaction overall, it is indifferent to wanting the experience to be memorable. And while Classiques Modernes admires meticulousness and technical merits, we are saddened by Armani Ristorante’s seeming lack of enthusiasm to evolve or even to please.
This division of Armani seems to fear getting things wrong. It perhaps fears that any failure could have unnecessary negative impact on its main businesses. But just like in fashion (or any industry for that matter) when one plays it safe, one eventually loses. Success is never won by the timid. Pushing the envelope doesn’t have to be crazy. It’s not like Armani needs to start working with (as Frank Eggelhoffer says in Father of the Bride) “polyaster”. But the fashion house has already taken its own leap; Tom Cruise has already worn blue Armani tuxedos a few times.
We’re hoping that the Ristorante will take that cue, step up and come up with something surprising soon. Then maybe someday we would no longer deem dining here simply “lovely.” Perhaps we may even find it as stunning as a one button, wool and cashmere peak lapel, midnight blue tuxedo worn at the Academy Awards. Then it might actually give us something simply unforgettable.