Restaurant Review: Otarian

947 8th Ave
(at 56th Street)
Midtown, Manhattan

Vegiboys Rating (1.5/4)

There are a lot of reasons for us to like Otarian; this newcomer to the NYC vegetarian scene arrived from London last summer, bringing a sustainable fast food menu to Manhattan. Their restaurants strive for carbon neutrality; their kitchen tries to emphasize local ingredients (and has a no airfreight policy for any ingredients from further afield). Their waste stream eliminates any landfill-bound materials: everything is either recycled, reused, or destined for commercial composting (including all of their packaging and serving-ware), and even their restaurant’s furnishings and décor are from completely recycled materials. They’re incredibly transparent; everything from their carbon footprint to their social responsibility efforts are carefully documented (and in many cases publicly available through their website). Any organization would be proud to have achieved such a proven commitment to environmental and social sustainability.

However, good imaging and a love of Mother Earth only carries a restaurant so far: in the end, the food speaks for a venue, and for Otarian, unfortunately the food seems an afterthought.

Our first experience with Otarian was during a preview tasting last summer, right before the formal opening of their Bleecker Street location (since indefinitely closed for “water” issues). At the time we found the food disappointing, but we gave them the benefit of the doubt, and figured feedback after the preview would motivate their kitchen into stepping up their game as they opened and expanded. Instead, for our recent meal at their 8th Avenue branch, we encountered the same lack of quality.

My burrito had no flavor; the interior contained a yellow rice, cheese, and a blur of bland vegetables (tomato was the only flavor of note, and the rice had the only texture to be found – everything else, including the cheese, was flat in taste and mushy to consume). An avocado-tomato-mozzarella side salad had those ingredients (all exactly what one would expect from those vegetables) sitting atop a bed of wilted lettuce. The pesto dressing was used to render the burrito palatable.

Brian’s Indian Chutney burger went beyond tasteless, and instead entered the realm of inedible. The bun was stale, the patty was dry; we made the most of the dish by opening it up and eating the toppings with a fork. The side of thin fries we actually found bearable; they had a very appropriately McDonald’s style to them.

To drink with all of this, we had a sweetened Nestea (surprisingly, they only offer fountain sodas from the usual corporate suspects). Brian, not able to tolerate the syrupy sweetness of any of those options, went with a bottled water (another surprising beverage offering for a sustainability-focused venue).

Still hungry after attempting this meal, we gave Otarian a shot at hitting a home run with dessert, and requested an apple crumble. Apple crumble is a pretty basic dish to create; it doesn’t require much in terms of special ingredients or techniques – I made my first apple crumble in Home Economics class in 7th Grade. We waited close to 5 minutes for the crumble, and yet the time spent in production still couldn’t save it. The apple was mealy, the spicing was weak, the “crumble” topping was bland and insubstantial. I would sooner recommend a dessert from any Chalk Hill Middle School alumnus than the Otarian kitchen.

It’s no surprise that despite a great space and wonderful staff (everyone we’ve encountered working there has been friendly and helpful), Otarian was unoccupied during the height of a weeknight dinner service save for a small band of tourists. The food would perhaps be tolerable if served on a trans-Atlantic flight as the vegetarian alternative, but for a NYC restaurant, it’s inexcusably bad. With venues like Blossom Du Jour doing vegetarian fast food exquisitely (and seeking to broaden their presence throughout the city), Otarian really needs to invest more into their menu if they intend on lasting much longer. At $15 each, we found the meal totally unsatisfactory, and until the chain has recognized and addressed the quality of their food, we have to recommend that readers bring their appetites and their wallets elsewhere.

Food (.5/4)

Atmosphere & Service

Value (1.5/4)