Just because you do one thing very well doesn’t mean you’ll be good at everything you try. Michael Jordan needs two hands for his NBA championship rings, but he struggled to get on-base against guys who were more interested in getting his autograph than striking him out. You might be nearly unbeatable at MarioKart, but you need a Xanax and two people acting like air traffic controllers to parallel park a car. Racines has one of the best wine programs in New York, but serves some of the worst food we’ve had in a long time.
Racines opened in Tribeca in 2014, with a great wine list and simple, enjoyable food that made it one of our favorite places in the neighborhood. Since then, it’s become an even better spot to drink wine, with a novella-length wine list served by a knowledgeable staff, including a sommelier who comes up with answers to questions you didn’t even know you had, like an IBM Watson of wine. The food at Racines has also changed a number of times, and most recently, they brought in a new chef and started serving a menu made up of seasonal small plates as well as a few entrees. Now, for how strongly we’d recommend everyone come to Racine’s for the wine, we’d even more strongly recommend nobody come here for the food.
Let’s start with the wine. Whether you use “learning about wine” as a responsible-sounding excuse for hangovers, or you nerd out about how latitude alone doesn’t ensure Oregon and Burgundy will produce similar pinot noir, you’ll enjoy drinking wine here. There are 2,500 mostly French and Italian bottles on the list, and while they offer a 1924 Vouvray in case you’re trying to spend all your money before the apocalypse, there are also a lot of double-digit options, at reasonable markups compared to other restaurants. Unlike almost anywhere else in the city with a comparable wine list, the staff here explains things casually and gets you excited without mentioning grippy tannins or residual sugar. Ask about a specific Italian red wine, and after the sommelier paints you a vivid picture of the family producing it at the foot of Mont Blanc, she’ll recommend three more great options, all at lower price points than the one you asked about.
But the food at Racines is so unenjoyable that you’ll find it difficult to focus on what’s in your glass. The French and American dishes here are prepared in ways that make them both taste and look highly unappealing. Most of the entrees are served rare to the point that you’ll worry the animal is wandering the hinterlands between the planes of the living and dead. The servers assure you that the $56 pork is meant to be this rare, and you’ll believe them once the duck arrives, similarly deep red and nearly impossible to chew through. Other dishes are served at more agreeable temperatures, but the way they taste will still make you ask if anyone in the kitchen has ever actually tried them. There’s skate wing doused in a very heavy and very bland cream sauce, and steak tartare that tastes like licorice-flavored jello. On the plus side, you may decide not to even try them once you watch the skate scraped off the bone like raclette, and see the steak tartare a color bordering on black. The most visually off putting dish here, though, is the roast chicken, which is redder than you’d ever want poultry, and comes in a pan with its gnarled feet sticking up, less like traditional whole chickens you’d find at French restaurants and more like an anesthetized alien from Independence Day.
This makes Racines highly unusual, maybe even unique, in that it’s a place where we’ve had some of the worst meals we can remember, and yet we’re eager to return. Not out of morbid curiosity or food-focused masochism, but out of a desire to sit at the bar and drink excellent, relatively affordable wines while listening to the staff give entertaining anecdotes about each one. That’s one thing they do very well, but it’s also the only thing.
The burrata is too liquidy, and with the citrusy pomelo, the texture ends up between a soup and salad. If you pile it onto the house bread, then at least you won’t be eating it with a spoon, but even the bread is room temperature and forgettable.
If the wine is going to your head and you really need to eat something, this is one of the two things you should order. The sepia (cuttlefish) tastes like a firmer, less rich version of octopus, and the pumpkin seeds provide some nice crunch.
If you can muster the courage to take a bite despite it looking like oxidized dog food, you’ll taste grainy, squishy meat that tastes overwhelmingly of licorice.
This is the best dish here, and while that’s kind of like being the least awkward person on the dancefloor at a bar mitzvah, it’s what you should get if you do order food. The sunchokes are covered in a slightly bitter coffee glaze that’s balanced out by the pieces of salty jamon on top.
Chicken is rarely noteworthy in a good way, but it’s also usually not memorably bad. This chicken is. It’s a struggle to cut the meat, which is both undercooked and overpriced ($36), and then you have to eat it while looking down at the bird’s little clenched feet and nails.
The skate and sauce being scraped off the bone tableside like a snake shedding its skin is really tough on the eyes, and it also creates a creamy mound of fish with no texture or discernible flavor besides the thick sauce.
Some people’s schtick is to tell servers that they prefer their meat “still mooing” or “bloody.” Even those people will agree that this duck goes too far. It’s closer to purple than red, and if you intend to eat it, you should cut it into tiny pieces because chewing through it is nearly impossible. Also, get a new schtick.
Pig is another animal you simply don’t want served toward the purple end of the color spectrum. Even if you send this back to the kitchen to bring the color closer to pink, you’ll end up with a $56 plate of overly salty pork.