Last week, Ian Schrager finally opened a restaurant, Wakiya, in his fortress-like Gramercy Park Hotel. It surprised no one that reservations were a bitch; in fact, on Tuesday, opening day, a reservationist seemed mildly annoyed that we’d even bothered to try. The door policies at Mr. Schrager’s hotel more closely approximate those of Studio 54 than any of his ventures since, what with the permanent army of clipboard-wielding blondes in the lobby, and Wakiya appeared to follow suit—at least when we waltzed in at 10:30 that night, reservation be damned, to inquire about an open seat at the bar. The maitre d’, unmoved by our black dress, seemed near panic when we sauntered past him to “take a peek.” But why? Though in previews, the restaurant—ornate, dark, tapestried—was open for business.
The food is billed as “a new style” of Chinese, courtesy of Japanese chef Yuji Wakiya, a close personal friend of Nobu Matsuhisa, who was instrumental in bringing him to New York. This after the derailing of Schrager’s first two ideas—Lever House’s John McDonald and star London chef Alan Yau, respectively. The Nobu group, with the notable exception of affable partner, Drew Nieporent, who chose not to be involved (according to a source within the group), was thus brought on board to manage Wakiya. De Niro, Nobu, high-end Asian cuisine: The undesirables would no doubt want in on this, and the hotel steeled itself in preparation.
On Thursday, several phone calls and one obsequious e-mail later, we arrived at the embarrassing hour of 6:30, armed with an honest-to-God reservation, and oh, how Wakiya’s defenses crumbled. The place was pretty sleepy (though by 8:30, it began to populate), and it had become friendly and deferential, kind of like the Rose Bar’s shy, eager little sister. The crowd was well-dressed, blond and female, but relatively low-octane.
We sipped a fabulously inventive Spicy Passion Fruit Margarita ($14), and then another, as jovial-sounding dishes such as Bang Bang Chicken ($15) and Fiery Pepper Hunt ($23)—the latter a chicken-and-lobster dish smothered in Sichuan peppers, which we were warned by nearly every staffer in the restaurant not to eat, as they’re “one of the hottest peppers in China”—arrived at our table. If anything can be said about Wakiya’s service, it’s that there is too much of it. “If one other person offers to take my plate,” commented our dinner companion, “I’m going to throw the Sichuan peppers at him.” The food was mostly delicious, unpretentious and generously portioned, exactly what you’d want in the lobby of a hotel when you’re heading back, drunk, to your room. We hear they’ll soon be introducing a more populist dim sum Sunday brunch. But was it worth the personal loss of dignity getting the reservation?
We sat beside a lithe teenage model in a Yankees cap and what looked to be her older, shorter, dorkier boyfriend. He wore a self-satisfied grin. They drank bubbly, munched on steamed dumplings and looked around plaintively, perhaps wondering who, if anyone, was watching them.