Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Restaurant Review: One Weird Night at Frog Club

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Even if I wanted to go back to Frog Club, I might not be allowed to. The mysterious restaurant, which opened a few months ago behind an unmarked door in the West Village, maintains a somewhat tongue-in-cheek code of conduct, codified by a ten-item list of ways to get “eighty-sixed,” restaurant parlance for “kicked out.” Some rules are easy enough to follow: don’t be rude, don’t steal or vandalize, don’t kiss the chef without her consent. Other forbidden activities are more surprising. No. 2: “Taking photos inside, this includes bathroom selfies.” When you arrive outside the restaurant, a doorman in a beret and amphibian-green ascot will check your name against his iPad and then, with disarming charm, ask you to present your phone for stickering: one over the device’s front-facing camera, one over the back. No. 5: “Touching the memorabilia, thinking about touching the memorabilia.” The restaurant’s ceilings are crisscrossed, somewhat medievally, with metal chains, to which are wired hundreds of ceramic plates bearing the Frog Club logo, and the occasional frog. One such specimen, suspended near the bar, looks to be sculpturally constructed from pieces of scrap metal. He seems like he would feel cool and heavy against your fingers, smooth and matte, a little sharp at the welded seams. Clearly, I’ve thought a lot about touching him. Now you have, too.

Frog Club is the creation of the thirty-three-year-old chef Liz Johnson. Nearly a decade ago, in New York, she knocked everyone’s socks off with indulgent French fare at Mimi’s. More recently, in Los Angeles, she and her then husband, Will Aghajanian (also a chef; he and Johnson met while working together at Noma), operated Horses, a restaurant so scintillatingly cool that not even the tabloidy dissolution of their marriage—complete with stomach-churning allegations regarding Aghajanian’s treatment of their cats—could stem demand for its tables. (Aghajanian denied any wrongdoing.) Johnson seems to have a flair for cultivating desirability: Frog Club is inscrutable, inaccessible, a knowing architect of its own absurdity. Instead of sharing glossy P.R. photos showing off the food and interiors, the restaurant distributes things like a twelve-minute lo-fi clip show, edited to mimic the nineteen-nineties PBS show “Great Chefs” (“Liz Johnson’s interest in preparing green food began at a young age, when she was introduced to Heinz green ketchup”), or an Instagram clip of Johnson giving a deadpan sidewalk interview to a faux reporter, in the manner of an ESPN postgame debrief. The scant photographs of food that have appeared seem almost hostile in their ugliness. The only way in was to plead for a table via e-mail; I sent inquiries under various names (including my real one), each time receiving a polite rejection, and an encouraging note to try again later.

In certain medium-insufferable New York City circles, the only thing better than a spectacle is a secret; Frog Club, with exquisite narrative finesse, has managed to be both at once. Firsthand accounts, all the more alluring for being photo-free, came trickling out over the restaurant’s début weeks, delicious tales of a glittering celebrity clientele marvelling at the windowless dining room’s over-the-top frog-themed décor, and picking at what was, by many accounts, oddly mediocre food, given Johnson’s track record. A well-connected friend who made it in warned me away from the spinach soufflé (“a sad frittata”); another advised against the buffalo-style wings, which he described as O.K., but freakishly small. Still, he said, the burger was worth suffering nearly any indignity.

Frog Club is situated in what was, for more than a century, the home of Chumley’s, an infamous West Village literary haunt and speakeasy whose address—86 Bedford Street—provides the origin story for “eighty-six” as a synonym for “scram.” (One legend goes that, during Prohibition, paid-off cops would conduct raids via the side entrance on Pamela Court, allowing patrons to flee through the Bedford door.) With its wood panelling, gilt-edged portraits, and library-like display of books alleged to have been written in its Cognac-leather booths, Chumley’s offered a space of patrician gravitas. As Frog Club, the layout remains the same—a trim front room anchored by a working fireplace, a large bar and a handful of tables in the back—but Johnson has overseen a dramatic aesthetic transformation. There are those ceiling chains and their knickknacks, plush burgundy carpeting, and most of all the walls: now painted blood red, they bear enormous murals of Prohibition-era frogs gambling and fighting and quaffing bathtub gin. A froggy madam glares out from a painting over the bar, an insouciant flapper frog just behind her, hair bobbed modishly, anatomically improbable tits out.

There aren’t that many seats at Frog Club—half a dozen tables in the front room and three in the back, plus room for a handful of people at the bar—and, on my visit, at least two chairs were occupied by huge green plush frogs, seated alongside guests seemingly without explanation. The frogs wear white deerstalker hats, like baseball caps with brims facing both ways, tied under their bulbous chins and embroidered with Frog Club’s name and address. (The hats are available to purchase for, if I recall correctly, without the aide-mémoire of a phone camera, either forty-five or sixty-five dollars.) At other tables, I noticed that certain diners were wearing paper chef’s toques. “I think you get them if you order the soufflé,” a bartender said, when I asked. I pointed out that we’d been told the soufflé wasn’t available that evening. He returned a moment later with a revised answer: “You get them if it’s your birthday.” Don’t even think about it: No. 6 on the list of ways to get kicked out of Frog Club forever is “Lying about it being your birthday.”

The burger, it turns out, actually is pretty great. Inspired by the one served at Chumley’s, it involves a tender, juicy patty nearly an inch thick, placed with geometric precision atop the bottom half of a similarly lofty English muffin of precisely the same diameter. Before popping on the top of the crumpet, you’ll be advised to liberally slather its face with salty cultured butter, which comes on the side in a ramekin, and to shake on a few lashes of Frog Sauce, a piquant, brick-red, celery-seed-y substance—quite delicious—that is essentially a very tart steak sauce. The effect is mostly butter, with a hint of beef and a zingy edge of vinegar.

The menu’s other offerings are, like the restaurant itself, by turns self-consciously classic and self-awarely bizarre. An appetizer of lobster pierogi was impressively briny, even without the hundred-and-eleven-dollar supplement of what a server described as “a big smear of caviar on top”; a lovely piece of crisp-skinned Montauk fluke dusted with black pepper and paprika rested atop a terrifically rich plop of sweet, soft-cooked spaghetti squash. Johnson, who is in the kitchen most nights, tends toward comfort food and New England nostalgia—oyster shooters, a cheesy pasta bake, an oxtail pot pie—but little is explained, on the menu or by servers. This admittedly contributes to that seductively clubby vibe, but it can, at times, leave behind a sour taste of having been suckered. Some menu items seem like jokes we diners are intended to be in on, like the Dirty Kermit, a green-tomato cocktail so popular that, by the time I asked for one, the bar had run out, or all the obvious photo-bait flourishes in the no-photo zone: dinner napkins folded onto forks like long-stemmed roses, a trompe-l’oeil “spaghetti sundae” of extruded orange sherbet doused in marinara-red sauce made from strawberries and guava. But others seem like jokes made at the diners’ expense, like those microscopic chicken wings (a friend hypothesizes that they might actually be from Cornish hens); or the curlicue “sidewinder fries” that come with the burger, which seem straight from the Sysco truck; or the frankly horrible walnut-and-green-pepper dip, which was bitter and grainy. It was served with store-bought baby carrots and golden saltines briefly crisped in the deep fryer, plus chunks of raw sunchoke—a vegetable that, when eaten uncooked, is notorious for causing uncontrollable flatulence.

Helen, Help Me!
E-mail your questions about dining, eating, and anything food-related, and Helen may respond in a future newsletter.

I wish I could tell you that I finally got into Frog Club by disguising myself as a porter and slipping in the kitchen door between shifts, or that I befriended an A-lister and sweet-talked them into inviting me to dinner, or that I finally received the healing validation of an affirmative reply to my e-mails. The truth is more anticlimactic: I noticed, by chance, that Frog Club is on Resy now, and that there were a lot of openings. I clicked, I booked. I will not lie: such ease of access makes the whole Frog Club proposition—already somewhat tenuous—fall almost completely to pieces. The appeal was never the silliness of the animal theme, nor the weird rules, nor, certainly, the food. It was the draw of the locked door, the inherent value of the unattainable. The men at the bar next to me were complaining about mid-level media salaries; the guests at a table near the front door were animatedly discussing market volatility. We got our celebrity sighting—a famous artist, eating green salad and what looked like escargot casserole in the company of a human friend and one of those behatted stuffed frogs—but he seemed a little indifferent, a little bored. What made Frog Club great is what made it awful is what made it irresistibly fascinating: its exclusivity, its gleeful snobbishness, its ostentatious secrecy. What’s the point of bragging about your impassable moat if you always keep the drawbridge down? I thought about rule No. 2, and the stickers over my phone cameras. The hell with it. I took a selfie in the bathroom. I sent it to everyone I know. ♦



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