RESTAURANT REVIEW: The Upstairs Bistro at New York Wine & Culinary Center

Pan-seared Montauk scallops served atop beet and pea risotto, from Upstairs Bistro at the New York Wine & Culinary Center. PHOTO BY MIKE HANLON

BY JAMES LEACH

The Upstairs Bistro

at New York Wine & Culinary Center

800 S. Main St., Canandaigua

394-7070, nywcc.com

Daily 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.

Tiny catastrophes can put a restaurant off its stride: a new menu, new management, a late delivery or a shortage in the kitchen, the sudden and unexpected departure of the chef. Any of these could throw a wrench into the works of even the most seasoned of places. But when all of this happens at the same time, confusion is almost certain to follow. And that, unfortunately, is where the restaurant at the New York Wine & Culinary Center in Canandaigua finds itself at the moment.

Originally opened as the Taste of New York Lounge in 2006, the restaurant on the second floor of the NYWCC was something of a foodie destination. It was, as NYWCC Executive Director Alexa Gifford told me, a “special occasion spot” — the place where locavores celebrated anniversaries, graduations, rehearsal dinners, and (in this reviewer’s case) milestone birthdays. It was, however, a victim of its own success, popular as a destination particularly during the summer and fall, but without enough of a crowd of regulars to sustain it through the long, fallow winter. Earlier this year, the Taste of New York Lounge closed down, and reopened in May as the Upstairs Bistro.

The new menu at Upstairs runs more toward appetizers, pizzas, and sandwiches than its predecessor, throwing in a handful of reliable-looking entrees to satisfy those looking for the restaurant that they had grown to love in the virtually unchanged dining room. In accord with the menu, the beer list now runs more toward the pedestrian Genny rather than the more rarified Ommegang. The wine list is a bit more approachable than it was in the past. The standard of service has become more casual — formal service replaced with jeans, long aprons, and a chattier style.

Despite the restaurant’s attempt to go a bit more down-market, the price point on the menu has remained almost exactly the same, creating a sticker-shock-like disconnect between the food on the plate and the price on the bill. Even before the abrupt departure of chef Carlo Peretti in May, Upstairs Bistro was already struggling with its growing pains, trying to reinvent itself without visibly changing much of anything. The chef’s exit added insult to injury.

My first visit to Upstairs Bistro started out inauspiciously: the hostess delivered us to our table, slammed water glasses in front of us (one I could understand as misjudging the weight of the glass or the height of the table, but five in a row seemed like a fit of pique) and then left us without menus. Our server, an affable young woman, did finally arrive with the menus, and then gave us about 20 seconds to think about drinks. When she finally returned with a bottle of cider and a flight of wine, we were long past ready to order appetizers, and were very disappointed to discover that our first choice of mussels steamed in wheat beer was already sold out — at about 6 p.m. on the Saturday of a holiday weekend. We settled on duck tacos ($9), a pizza with asparagus, spinach, and goat cheese ($12), and a cheese plate ($14).

The duck tacos were fine if a bit confused. The taco “shell” was a thick buckwheat pancake; springy, but a bit strong tasting for the mild-flavored meat it surrounded. The duck itself was scanty, heavily sauced with hoisin, and scattered with a bit of shredded cucumber and scallion. The pizza sat on a thin, crunchy, flavorful crust, but there was not a single asparagus tip on the pie. Most disappointing, though, was the cheese plate. At $14 you expect a bit of polish to the presentation, but what came out was indifferently, even sloppily, plated – a meager assortment of goat cheese, cheddar, and bits of blue cheese served with a tiny ramekin full of what looked and tasted like jarred chow-chow, and a similar-sized cup of what may have been a rhubarb-ginger marmalade (the only redeeming item on the plate). I say may have been because our server didn’t know what it was and didn’t bother to ask the kitchen for us.

For my entrée I ordered the New York strip steak and frites on the assumption that it would be a lay-up. What came out probably wasn’t a strip steak — based on the grain of the meat and the thick veins of fat and gristle running through it, I would guess that it was the fatty bit at the end of a rib eye. As ordered, one end of the steak was in fact medium rare. The other was nearly incinerated. Garnished with a bare handful of “house-cut fries,” at $27 this was among the most disappointing steaks I’ve had anywhere.

The true crime, however, was the $26 plate containing three pan-seared Montauk scallops atop a beet and pea risotto. The scallops managed to be overcooked, rubbery, fishy, over-salted, and gritty all at the same time. And the risotto, despite its vivid pink hue, was completely flavorless and studded with hard, undercooked peas. If there was any asparagus on the plate, none of us saw it. We did, however, order some on the side for $5. What arrived were five limp, woefully overcooked spears drowned in butter.

It is infinitely sad to realize that what was once a true destination restaurant in our area has fallen on hard times. I fervently hope that Gifford’s assurances about the arrival of a new chef and some serious changes in both menu and management come true sooner rather than later to a restaurant that was once one of the most exciting spots in the region.

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16 comments

  1. Joanne · · Reply

    So sorry to hear this……something must be done……after all, it’s the New York Wine & Culinary Center and should reflect that!

  2. We went to this place and it was all fantastic! Not sure what the critic is talking about. Chef walking out doesn’t help either. We will be back! Food was fantastic!

  3. Went here yesterday and have to say the results were the same…as an appetizer they now have duck ‘crepes’ which sounded exactly like the duck tacos. Unfortunately the buckwheat crepe was fairly dry and thick. I had a cobb salad which was supposed to have smoked chicken. The salad was fine if a bit underwhelming. The romaine was already dressed so no dressing came with it. On top was bacon, egg, bleu cheese, tomato, and chicken with the chicken very bland, tasteless, and dry. If there had been some more dressing it might have been salvageable. For $14 I was expecting more. Someone else got the chicken sandwich and had to cut pieces of fat and cartilage off the chicken.

  4. Anonymous · · Reply

    Upstairs Bistro is amazing!!!

  5. Who is James Leach and where was he a chef at before he started writing reviews?

  6. Anonymous · · Reply

    I live in Canandaigua, and the “Bistro” always disappoints. The food has NEVER been good, and the new signature cocktails are missing one ingredient: booze!
    The servers run around like chickens when the place is almost nearly empty all the time.
    The not-for-profit model for a restaurant and bar just isn’t working here. It’s a shame because the facility is wonderful.

  7. Stephanie · · Reply

    My husband and I frequent this place during the summer and we love it! Yes it is going to be a little rough when the menu changes or the chef leaves. But over all the food is good (love the new flank steak salad and hummus trio!), the relaxed atmosphere is perfect for being by the lake and the staff is friendly, especially the bartenders. This is not a restaurant chain where you are hurried out the door, this is an upscale place to relax and enjoy your meal. People need to stop criticizing everything little detail and just sit back and enjoy an evening out.

  8. Anonymous · · Reply

    The Upstairs Bistro is a failure, poorly managed with bad food. What a shame.

  9. Okay, so as an NYWCC veteran visitor here’s the skinny: the Bistro, as well as the rest of the establishment, has done and is now continuing to do poorly because the organization has no real morivation to succeed as a business. As a non-for-profit, its purpose is to exist for idealism’s sake, not to make profit, which is a severe limitation of any 501c3 business model. But that’s not why it’s failing. I’ve been a visitor there since the beginning and spoken with dozens of employees (the nywcc employee retention rate is terrible), and all of them agree the issue is an aweful administration and management team that only survives because its propped up with a massively large financial crutch from RIT, Wegmans, Constellation Brands, and its other sponsors who rely on the NYWCC’s tax-free, 365-day marketing campaign to promote their good business image. With all that help to bail out the sinking boat that is the bottom-line, who WOULD make good service and a healthy business model top priorities? But fear not! Soon the founding sponsors will be halting their financial donations (by no means due to a fear of the non-for profit’s failure I’m sure). This will force the New York Wine and Culinary Center to pull its weight and rise to become innovative and sustainable…or if they refuse to change, go the way of Kodak and other icons if history.

    1. Joanne · · Reply

      This explains a great deal. Thank you for your honesty. Joanne Marvin

      1. Of course, Joanne. It was my pleasure. Being a voice for those that can’t for fear of losing their jobs and so forth is a noble cause as any.

  10. Kristina · · Reply

    The Upstairs Bistro has only been ‘Upstairs Bistro’ for about six weeks now….I think that is a direct reflection of the Wine and Culinary Center’s “rise to become innovative and sustainable.” If they were “refusing to change” then there would not have been an UPGRADE in management, executive chef and staff. The changes that the NYWCC’s “massively large financial crutch” have made includes passionate hires who care deeply for, not only the historical establishment, but the side of the hospitality industry that ensures guests to have a positive experience EVERY time they enter through their doors.
    A small insight into the hospitality and food service industry: everyone is in transition. It is rare to find ‘career servers/ bartenders’ so I would strongly suggest not to judge an establishment based on their “retention rate.” I can guarantee you will miss out on the best experiences (food, beverage and service wise) if you choose to dismiss a restaurant simply based on that.
    I would recommend trying the Upstairs Bistro with an OPEN MIND.
    Ralph, you have obviously not tried Loochie’s Lemonade- it is simply perfection in a glass.
    ‘The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.’

    1. The Upstairs Bistro, yes. And before that, The Taste of New York Restaurant. And before that, The Taste of New York Lounge. And before that, The Sunbelt Bar. Yet the prices, fare, and quality of service continue to be unpredictable on an hourly basis. Food runs out, reservations are lost, customers are turned away for lack of chairs to seat them. And all the while the same overworked staff serves the food, the same communications block assaults the kitchen, and yet the same executives and board members make decisions. These are all issues that are not solved by a rebranding campaign and a change of venue. A wolf in sheep’s clothing is still a wolf, after all.

      But perhaps I’ve been too encompassing of the situation. The problems I’ve described here are more to do with the entire organization’s flaws than those strictly associated with the Bistro. The many issues associated with the restaurant–staff retention, food shortages, poor customer service, etc.–are a symptom, not the cause, of a declining, inefficient business model. The “upgrades” to staff and management are half-hearted patches that have the benefit of looking progressive without actually having to TAKE any real action. Consider that as a business, all decisions at the NYWCC are made by the executive employees, not the management. Therefore any changes in management do nothing to effect the bottom-line, i.e. business policies and so forth. Rather it allows for the removal of current front-line staff, who are well-versed (and very frustrated, no doubt) over the lackadaisical nature of their superiors in favor of new, unknowing persons who lack the awareness of their predecessors. And through it all, the top executive directors REMAIN THE SAME. Even taking into account that fresh ideas can be a boon to a business, how fresh can they be when they’re filtered by those who have proven for over six years that they CANNOT lead the NYWCC to success?

      To use your insights into the hospitality industry as an example, I agree with you; hospitality works best when the customer is the main focus. Therefore it is unfortunate that this is not the case at the NYWCC. Or put another way, the customer is the main focus until he or she walks through the door for the first time. Once inside the walls, you’re on your own. In my experience (and that of over thirty friends, family members, and several current and former employees) that a bad experience at the NYWCC will merit a profuse apology, assurances that it will never happen again, and directions to the nearest gift shop or wine tasting area. A terrible experience may trigger the appearance of a manager, who again gives an apology and assurances, and perhaps small a glass of wine. And an incredibly HORRIFIC experience results in the possibility of a free dessert, much apologizing by a manager, and perhaps an email of consolidation from an administrator. To operate with the goal that every visit/experience will be pleasurable is foolish, but doing so and not having any protocol for true compensation is astounding.

      However, as a token of acknowledgement, there are plenty of positive experiences that take place every day at the New York Wine and Culinary Center. Customers arrive, are greeted vigorously, enjoy themselves immensely. But what then? When everything has been done, from the wine and the food and the classes, what is there left to do? Only repeat the experience of course. More wine, more food…at the same place. At the same price. Again and again….until the prices go up. And then the customer starts to think, and realizes that the novelty has worn off. “I’ve been loyal for years, supported and spread the word, but the service I’m getting is the same as when I started. AND it costs more…” Happiness at the NYWCC comes at a hollow price, it seems: “Now that I’ve had all the NYWCC has to offer…why should I come back?”

      Customer rewards, of course. It is a basic and extremely lucrative business principle that facilitates repeat business and customer loyalty, all at little or no cost to the business itself. “If I shop somewhere a lot, they give me points and coupons and free gifts and so forth, so I’ll keep shopping there!” A staple of innovative success, one might say. And thus, it is not surprising when one learns that the NYWCC does not support this. One employee revealed that he/she had in fact proposed this idea several times to the executive director and other administrators within the first year of the NYWCC’s founding with no results, and several times after. Customers and other employees alike have voiced similar thoughts and ideas, all equally frustrated that nothing had been done. Some may ask, “Why not?” The answer is that the NYWCC lacks fundamental business leadership. Retaining existing customers is and always will be less expensive than spending countless dollars to acquire new ones. Business Education 101. And yet the NYWCC has pursued this. Is this, then, “innovative and sustainable” thinking?

      For some, my thoughts here might suggest that I am somehow against the New York Wine and Culinary Center. I will state for the record that I am far from it. The idea is a wonderful premise! All of New York’s food and wine and beer able to be sampled in one place? Marvelous! But one bad apple, or two or three, certainly spoils the bunch. As it stands, the NYWCC’s administrative management and strategy is a case-study for a debacle. No customer rewards programs, a predictable history of poor customer service, and the failure to innovate are inescapable black marks. Everyone in hospitality is in transition, you say? In a way, putting on new clothes every day could be considered a “transition.” EVERY business is in transition, but not every business is failing. One can dress up the NYWCC in any number of new guises, but the fact remains that the business model is fundamentally flawed, and the current administrators have done all they can to keep it that way.

      That lemonade may be tasty Kristina, but I just want to have an unspilled glass of water.

      1. Anonymous · ·

        Check out the reviews for the upstairs bistro on the open table website. They seem to be from people who don’t write for this newspaper or work at the nywcc.

  11. bagadeez04 · · Reply

    When I walk into a restaraunt, ultimately all I want is good service and good food. I’m not quite sure where “customer rewards” come into creating a great dining experience, but I know from personal experience, that all it takes to turn a joint around is a humble chef who has mastered his/her craft.

    The NYWCC has at last brought in just that…and for those who are willing to give him a try, they will see that all of the above is just chicken scratch.

  12. CathyD · · Reply

    My husband and I came in for lunch on July 5 on a recommendation from friends in the area. The place is very nice and our server was delightful. Although my burger came out well done when I ordered it medium rare I was not too happy. The “manager” came out to address the issue. This man was rude and condescending. The piece of dead cow laying on my plate had more personality than this guy. Instead of just apologizing and fixing the problem he made it seem like it was my fault that the kitchen cooked it wrong. He showed no urgency and no remorse and his people skills were horrible. The only person that seemed to be genuinely sorry for the mistake was our server and she tried very hard to make sure we were happy. After waiting fifteen more minutes for my replacement burger, it was dry and tasteless. I knew it was useless to try to talk to the manager but our server was very nice and offered us complimentary dessert. After reading the posts on this website I see where the problem is. Whoever is in charge needs to get a manager that has a personality and is well versed in customer service. Maybe they should promote our server since she seemed to actually care about her customers.

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