Marfa101 E 2nd St, 212-673-8908 Price range: $20-35 Rating: 1L
Marfa, a Texas town that brings so many images to mind (barren scrub on windswept plains; minimalist sculptors dressed in black, laughing in French and German at the simple folk who call the Hill Country home; Brooklyn expats trying to craft Texas into Williamsburg), few of them good, has been reinvented as an LES bar and restaurant.
This less than promising concept is brought to us by the people behind Lucky Cheng’s, a restaurant noted for sassy trannies and horrific Chinese cuisine. And their take on Texas grub — which is decidedly not inspired by micro-green and chai latte-loving Marfa — is expectedly tragic. Lucky Cheng’s popularity is unrelated to its food, but to atmosphere and a floorshow. At Marfa, a dingy, depressing room with corporate-Rothko adobe walls notable for their lack of adornment as they overshadow an inviting bar, the vibe is controlled by the music. And that music was Crystal Water’s droning, eye-stabbing house classic “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless).” Three times in two hours. I was told later that the staff didn’t know how to change the music. I pity them. And not just because of the depressing, repetitive music, but because they’re so kind and capable while the kitchen, owners and designers are so inept.
Most of our meal came from a Texas-sized platter of bites ($18), showcasing the best of their Texas Tapas concept. A grapefruit-infused tequila shot was by far the best element, though that came from the bar. The biggest atrocity was the ribs. Real Texas Barbecue, I was told. To me that means beef, but no, these were dry-rubbed baby back pork ribs. And dry is the right word. Coated in a thick layer of musty spices, they must have been reheated a dozen times before they saw our plate. Not smoked or even low-cooked, it’s a disgrace to call such wasted flesh barbecue, but this is exactly the sort of culinary abortion Marfa specializes in. Was it a post-ironic statement on our base, wanton desire for deliciousness, or cynical corporate ineptitude?
Nearly as bad were two types of chilis, one meat, one veggie. The red veggie chili tasted of tomatoes and little else, while the beef chili was leathery with an unpleasant mole undertone. Grilled shrimp were stringy and overcooked, while mini corn-dogs on maxi-sticks were cute yet soggy. Pulled pork was again overcooked on expectedly soggy tostadas. At every step on that abominable $36 platter, textures were wrong, technique was amateur, seasonings were off. Except for chips and guacamole, which were a fine accompaniment to boring Lone Star beer. (And, showing how out of touch Marfa is, that was the most interesting beer on their list, and it’s two steps away from Bud.)
Amazingly, their mac and cheese ($7), flecked with green chili, ranks among the city’s best — which only highlighted how poor the rest of the menu was. I’m sure Ms. Cheng, or whoever owns this place, has a picture in her head of Marfa, a magical town where real Texas and ivory tower minimalism commingle gracefully. But I bet it’s more complicated than that. Thoroughly uncomplicated? Marfa the restaurant. Unrepentantly, insultingly, memorably awful. And that’s no easy feat.