The Barneys flagship on Madison Avenue finally shut its doors for good on Sunday. But its Freds restaurant is still open for business on the ninth floor — and it needs help.
On a recent Thursday evening, the once-sizzling Midtown power lunch spot was cold and empty, with just four tables filled with diners. The service was still good, but the empty room lacked energy — and the food was disappointing, to say the least.
The calamari, which had always been a great starter, was a rubbery, oversalted mess. The mushroom and arugula salad — seemingly difficult to mess up — lacked flavor.
Earlier in the week, high-powered regulars had similar things to say. The salmon was overcooked, and the fries — once delightfully thin and crispy — were too salty and cut too thick, resulting in a mushy, unappetizing texture. And a once-juicy, perfectly cooked medium-rare burger was reduced to a hockey puck whose center was dismally dry.
Still, the die-hard regulars — CEOs and financiers in the fashion, real estate and banking niches — love the place so much that they say they are willing to tolerate a hopefully temporary dip in standards.
“We need them to stay open — there is nowhere else to go,” said one regular. “That place was always buzzy and happening, but when I went there last week, there were only people at five tables. They need to let people know they are still open.”
“The main problem wasn’t the food. It was that the place was empty — people don’t know it’s open,” a CEO and Freds regular told Side Dish. “The food was slightly different, but not awful.”
Most blame the “schlockfest” that Barneys had become in its last, dying months. To get to the elevator to Freds, diners were forced to dodge throngs of bargain hunters as signs hawking chopped prices hung over chaotic bins filled with scarves, bags and sweaters.
Beginning Monday, the elevator will run express to the ninth floor as the once-iconic department store gets transformed into a showroom for Authentic Brands Group, a licensing firm that scooped Barneys out of bankruptcy for $271 million last fall.
Authentic Brands hasn’t elaborated much on its plans, but its other labels, which include Nine West, Nautica, Juicy Couture and Aeropostale, are decidedly downmarket compared to Barneys. Last week, Authentic Brands scooped up Forever 21.
Asked about diners’ recent disappointments at Freds, Authentic Brands senior exec Natasha Fishman said the restaurant’s suppliers haven’t changed. Beginning Monday, management of the eatery will be taken over by Chicago-based Infuse Hospitality, she said.
“Infuse is working closely with the current management to restore Freds to its former glory and to ensure that the standards are the same and restored to the customers’ high expectations,” Fishman said. “The menu will be the same. The great food and drink that the community has come to know and love — what Freds is known for — will stay the same.”
Those words are enough to encourage Mark Strausman, the chef who founded Freds in 1996 and built it into a key lunch spot — only to get fired by Barneys’ former owner, hedge fund manager Richard Perry, after trash-talking his management style.
“Even with all the mismanagement, even with Richard Perry running the business into the ground, they couldn’t kill Freds. That made me happy,” said Strausman, who is opening Mark’s Off Madison this May.
At Freds, Infuse will keep in place executive chef Alfredo Escobar and general manager Loraine Ng.
“I love that they will take it over,” said Strausman, who trained the pair years ago. “Someone trained me years ago. It’s tradition.”
While Infuse considers “tweaks” to the menu, it will remain the same because “it works,” a staffer said. But to get Freds back to where it was, they will need some new hires, regulars say.
“There was a tremendous amount of brain drain. They [ABG] bought the brand for its name, and then they turned it into a bargain basement for months. Did they not expect a negative impact from that?” Strausman said. “They just need to hire people who can cook a burger medium-rare.”
For now, the menu will remain the same and still has dishes named after Strausman. Mark’s Madison Avenue Salad, at $29, is still on the menu, as are his sauteed chicken livers, for $19, which he had fought to reinstate on the menu after Perry’s team took them off.
“We hear they will give it a year before deciding whether to keep it open or permanently shutter it,” a source said.
WE HEAR … that New Jersey-born “Top Chef” Tom Colicchio is partnering with The Jersey Tomato Co. to be the face of their signature 25-ounce tomato sauce jars and their new 10-ounce tomato sauce pouches. Colicchio will be an equity partner, serving as a brand ambassador and culinary consultant. The low-sodium, gluten-free tomato sauce line, part of Keen Growth Capital, is in more than 1,400 retail stores nationwide. Colicchio, head judge and executive producer of “Top Chef,” is the author of three cookbooks and the winner of eight James Beard Awards.
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