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No reporter has investigated, tasted, and observed the new El Vez restaurant in Battery Park City more than I have. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I am the definitive expert on El Vez, and Stephen Starr for that matter. With some misguided reviews coming out in the papers, I felt that I should set the record straight.
The opening of El Vez has been a tremendously positive event for BPC. It has already become one of the busiest restaurants in the city, serving more than 1,000 people a day. The outdoor seating with stroller parking area has literally transformed Vesey Street into a vibrant community from what was once was a creepy strip of illegally parked livery cabs. On weekends, the brunch has the outdoor seating full, bringing life to the street where there was none.
Stephen Starr, the restaurateur who owns 30-some places throughout Philadelphia, New York, Miami, and Washington, DC, is putting all of his resources into the launch of this El Vez, including his own personal daily supervising of the staff. This is no North End Grill or Blue Smoke with an absentee owner who has cashed out. Starr has his signature all over this place and wants to make another splash in New York City (in addition to his decade-old Morimoto and Buddakan restaurants).
Fitting in with the Starr business model, El Vez is huge, giving the diner a Las Vegas level of fun. However, it is not a nightclub that happens to serve food as an afterthought, as are the Tao restaurants. El Vez is 100% restaurant with early closing times.
The quality of the ingredients used by the chefs at El Vez is impeccable. Nothing is frozen. The corn tortillas and salsa are handmade each day. The porkchops are marinated for two days. The chicken in the tacos is de-boned dark meat rather than the easier to use white meat. The ice cream and cookies are made in-house.
For the family with young kids, El Vez is like Disney World. With the huge population of young families Downtown, El Vez has been honored by having large numbers of parents entrusting their children to the staff of El Vez.
For the young business professional working at the nearby Goldman Sachs, American Express, Nomura, RBC, BNY Mellon, Oppenheimer, or numerous law firms, El Vez is a great place for after-work margaritas and appetizers. From Tuesday through Friday, El Vez is packed, with dozens of youngsters spilling out into the outdoor dining area.
The casual fare menu items succeed and are a big hit. The handcrafted nachos, baked on a flat pan to ensure that each chip is evenly topped, must sell by the thousands each day. They will soon become famous, no doubt. The tacos also are well designed, with large chunks of chicken, pork, or Mahi Mahi, although they are pricey at $16.
However, the serious authentic baked entrees are still a work in progress. The crab enchilada or mole sampler have good spice and flavor, and seem plenty authentic enough. The Executive Chef for the entire Starr restaurants is James Tracey. He and David LaForce have been the driving force for those.
But some of the other entrees miss the mark in a big way. The half-chicken platter seems to not even have salt and pepper added, much less any form of Mexican flavor. The plating is also all wrong, arriving as a bare hunk of chicken on a plate with not a single ounce of other food adjacent. The side dishes of rice and beans too lack spice, and the rice is covered up by the beans.
The tlayuda fails to please as well. It is a crisp corn tortilla and layer of fried beans, topped with lettuce and cold unmelted cheese, or essentially a taco salad. The tortilla is paper flat when it would be better as a thinner and wavier disc allowing it to be cut or crunched by a fork. The avocado slices and cold cheese simply lack any flavor. I kept thinking that they forgot to put it into the broiler.
There is also a genuine paranoia amongst El Vez staff of serving anything with gluten in it, and of being unable to offer vegetarian platters. It is so bad that the ceviche fish served atop small wafers of corn tortillas are advertised as gluten-free. Good grief. Who gives a rat’s ass. Also, a vegetarian or Vegan should not even walk into a Mexican restaurant. Why bother with entree items to please them, such as the cauliflower taco?
The chefs are not to blame for these failures. Stephen Starr himself, for unknown reasons, has decided to personally insert those gringo items into the menu. He does not do this with his other restaurants. His meddling has caused the menu to change so often that the waiters cannot keep up.
Once Stephen Starr is dragged away to attend to his newly opening Mediterranean restaurant on 26th and Madison, the problem of the helicopter-owner should be resolved. Once El Vez gets a dedicated Mexican chef, it should rise to the next level as a true gem for Mexican eating. In the meantime, the lack of authenticity falls upon deaf ears, and the diners are flocking nevertheless.