Missing Component

Why don’t prominent food critics write about the entire experience, graphics and all?

As a rule, restaurant critics focus on cuisine, service, and décor, while graphics—type and image—are usually dismissed as promotion or marketing. But I’d argue that ­inferior graphic design speaks volumes about an overall commitment to quality. A restaurant’s logo, sign, menu, business card, matches, and even check holder—especially the check holder—should be as appetizing as everything on the table. So I am astounded that many restaurateurs aren’t as demanding about their typogra­phic standards as they are about their napkins. Design is often such an afterthought that the receptionist does it on her PC.

Perhaps there would be more reason to stress graphic design if critics paid attention to it. But they never mention graphics and, truth be told, barely assess the architecture (even when designed by Pritzker Prize winners). And while I savor the tasty prose of gifted food writers, if I were a critic, my readers would be treated to a regular menu of cuisine and design in an attempt to right the imbalance. So I’m offering some alternative reviews based on recent experiences, just in case food editors are looking for a fresh voice.

Let’s start with the extraordinary look, feel, and taste of Spice Market. Now, in my parallel universe I’d write: If the interior and graphic design didn’t impeccably complement the gustatory experience, this restaurant ­specializing in Far Eastern food in the heart of Manhattan’s Meat­packing District would be just another eatery. But, as decorated by Parisian designer Jacques Garcia in a Southeast Asian style with carved dark teakwood, sublime yellow and red lighting, and comfy white couches and chairs exuding an aura of intimacy despite its palatial enormity, it is extraordinary. The cuisine is a delightful melody of spicy vernacular flavors and delightfully presented preparations. But most delight­­ful are the ­frozen desserts, tightly packed into small white take-out containers with the Spice Market logo sealing the top—smart packaging design and very appealing to the senses.

I’d say that captures the flavor. But where is any of this design thinking even suggested in Amanda Hesser’s New York Times review? “As you approach Spice Market, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new restaurant on West 13th Street, the stench of blood and offal from the surrounding meatpacking district intensifies. It’s hardly an olfactory amuse-bouche.” OK, that’s a pretty enticing lead (even if you don’t speak French), but the only reference to design in her lengthy review is a description of the space, which reads as a backhanded compliment. And even here she doesn’t cite the interior designer, much less throw a rice noodle to the graphic designer.

But Spice Market is as much about graphic motifs (designed by Number Seventeen) as it is about Thai chilies and Sichuan peppercorns. Why was it so difficult for Hesser to acknowledge that teak brown and white is the primary graphic-design­ palette and that the logo resembles a nineteenth-century engraved cartouche with florid decorative fili­gree? That only took a few words. And it would be just as easy to add: the name, Spice Market, set in an outlined sans serif typeface, overprints a white sunburst in the middle of the logo. While the design doesn’t attempt to mimic a particular Asian graphic style, it does represent a subtle fusion of European and Eastern sensibilities—very tasty branding indeed.

I learned from Hesser that “[m]any dishes are street food as invented by Spice Market. If this seems to be taking too much liberty, you must remind yourself. …This isn’t a precise cultural tour. This is a Vongerichten fantasy.” But somewhere she could have tipped her hat to graphic design and observed how the emblematic color palette is further echoed in the coarse brown fabric covering the hefty lunch/dinner menu while a similar orange fabric on the dessert menu contrasts nicely with the logo’s brown. The only problem with the orange is it retains dirt like cat hair on an old couch, which is less than appetizing. But since the waitstaff, in their orange pajamas (particularly the waitresses’ backless outfits), are so graphically color-coded that they add to the total immersion—and certainly took my mind off the grimy dessert menu. Didn’t Hesser see the soot?

The marriage of graphic and interior design with food is an indispensable element, so it’s curious that in the many reviews of Morimoto NYC, there’s no mention of graphics (although a lot about the space itself, largely because a world-renowned architect designed it). But in Frank Bruni’s New York Times review even the interior was a mere parenthetical: “The designer David Rockwell passes the group as he leaves. He didn’t contrive the cool, clean, white-on-white look of Morimoto (an architect named Tadao Ando did), but he probably feels compelled to check it out.”

Granted, Bruni had only 2,000 words to write about the best appetizer he tried, a “tuna pizza” with raw bluefin tuna, jalapeño, and red olive. But as mouthwatering as this is, couldn’t he have at least thrown a bone to logo connoisseurs? The design by Pentagram is a rebuke of Spice Market’s historicist underpinnings, rejecting what is commonly recognized as Japanese. Unless I missed it, only once on its loony Web site is there even the slightest hint of Japanese characters. On the menu and business card, the light-line lowercase geometric logo is reminiscent of Herbert Bayer’s “universal alphabet” and the word Morimoto is printed against a blurrily muted pattern, suggesting a wall-hanging of some kind.

I love reading Bruni when he draws blood, as he did when he wrote that the “limp ribbons of beef in a soy and mirin broth tasted as if they had been adrift in hot water three times longer than they should have been.” But am I wrong to insist that there should also be room in his column to reflect on the restaurant’s economical typography? A de-cidedly delightful graphic ingredient, a small Japanese-derived trade character—a round red face wearing glasses with a ponytail shooting upward like a flame—bears a striking resemblance to the chef himself. This trademark is apparently exclusive to the Web site, which, with its excessive flash-­generated collages, is zanier than one might expect given that Morimoto’s cool presentation is elegantly applied to everything from menu to matches.

Matches may not be on Hesser’s or Bruni’s radar. But why, when reviewing Michael Schlow’s Via Matta (meaning “crazy way”) in Boston, was the wild fusion of graphic motifs that establishes this restaurant’s identity so stubbornly ignored in the local paper? There was certainly a valid way of approaching Via Matta’s logo: designed by Daren Bascomb of Proverb, it is constructed from five stacked diamonds in the shape of an M, which upon closer inspection also reinterprets the highway signs of Italy, forming a V and an M. The harmonious combo of burnt sienna and chocolate brown separates the V from the M but also binds them together. It could also be noted that the large surrealist wall canvases by Alexander Gorenstein, a Broadway set designer, play illusionist games with diners. Moreover, the waiters, who strike a pose of informal formality—black vests over white casual shirts, with Puma sneakers—fit appropriately into a space that is at once elegant yet homespun. Now how hard was that?

To convey the total dining experience it’s essential to include details that add to a restaurant’s overall personality. Granted, graphic design can never be the paramount reason for a diner investing time, money, and calories, but when viewed as a whole it should be worthy enough to be noted and occasionally celebrated.

Find out more facts about this story on the Reference Page: April 2008

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