Otarian restaurant review: ‘Environmentally friendly’ fast food from a Porsche-driving billionaire’s wife

Ruth Graham Contributor
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Radhika Oswal is an Indian-Australian socialite whose billionaire husband operates one of the largest liquid ammonia factories in the world. She drives a Porsche, loves high fashion, and fought her neighbors over the right to build a $70 million, 70,000-square-foot home with a dozen sky-high domes and turrets and parking for 17 cars.

Now she wants you to pay $20 for an environmentally friendly fast-food meal.

Oswal’s new restaurant, Otarian, which just opened in New York and is slated to expand to London soon, intends to save the world by reducing its diners’ carbon footprint.

After all, life is hard when you’re environmentally obsessed. You sit down to eat your locally grown, sustainably harvested, vegan bulgur pilaf created by hand by your Marxist personal chef whose uniform was woven by a local handicraft co-op whose members are provided with full medical and dental coverage. Your conscience has never been clearer — but something’s missing. Sure, you’re deriving no sensory pleasure from your meal, which is a good sign you’re doing something right. (Flavor is oppression!) But, still, you think to yourself: I sure wish there were a way to actually put a *number* on how good a person I am.

Otarian to the rescue! The restaurant claims to provide “the first ever comprehensive CO2e footprint for every item on our menu.” That means that for every dish, the restaurants lists the amount of carbon emitted to produce the meal, and then the amount of carbon that would have been used to make an equivalent “meat comparison” item. Otarian’s roasted vegetable lasagna, for example, gets compared to a hypothetical beef lasagna: The former takes 2.58 kg of carbon to produce, compared to the delicious imaginary beefy version’s 5.21 kg.

It also lists the difference between those two numbers as the “carbon saving” for each Otarian item — in this case, you save the world 2.63 kilograms of carbon. Unfortunately, the amount of smugness you pour back into the atmosphere will take this country decades to recover from.

Last week, I had dinner at Otarian’s first branch on Bleecker Street in New York City, which opened in April. The restaurant was nearly empty when my boyfriend and I arrived a little after 7 pm. A Miley Cyrus song was playing on the stereo. We ordered at the counter, where our total for two combo meals came to $43.71, but then was reduced to $31.24 because of a mysterious unlisted discount. (And no, they didn’t know I was going to write about this experience.) I asked the woman at the cash register if she could tell me a bit more about the discount, and she said it was just something they do with combo meals because “we know it’s expensive.” I asked her if the policy was listed anywhere, and she said no — “it’s almost like a surprise!”

I ordered the Carbon-Saving Combo Meal that the menu said would save the planet the most possible carbon: 4.0 kg. Here is a totally unrelated piece of information: a single flight between Radhika Oswal’s hometown of Perth, Australia, and New York City produces 1,975 kg of carbon.

Along with saving the most carbon, my meal was the menu’s heaviest meal by far: Tomato soup, pasta with red sauce and cheese and a cup of chocolate mousse. My boyfriend ordered Carbon-Saving Combo Meal #6, which featured a Tex-Mex “burger” (made with beans), a beet and feta-cheese salad, and an apple crumble for dessert. He saved the world only 3.3 kg of carbon, which means he cares about the world 0.7 kg less than I do. I win!

Though we had told the woman at the counter our meal was “to stay,” everything arrived individually and elaborately wrapped. I counted 19 separate pieces of packaging for our two meals, not including disposable utensils, napkins that read “FOREST AREA EQUIVALENT TO THE SIZE OF GREATER NEW YORK CITY IS LOST EVERY TWO DAYS DUE TO LIVESTOCK PRODUCTION,” and tiny stickers that announced “THIS STICKER IS 100% COMPOSTABLE.” Shut up, sticker.

The food itself ranged from unremarkable to bad. My soup was bland and heavy, the mousse was chalky, and and the pasta was truly awful: It arrived lukewarm and tasted like it had been topped with a jar of Ragu and a shredded $20 bill, which in a way it had. Mike’s “burger” tasted fresh and spicy, but he barely touched the dry apple crumble and the salad was nothing you couldn’t find at a thousand other restaurants in the city.

Bucking the “green” trend to fawn over the individual farmers who produce each ingredient, Otarian provides surprisingly — even suspiciously — little information about its sources. After tasting some of these dishes, however, I’d hypothesize that perhaps the farmers requested their names be removed from the restaurant: an Alan Smithee menu.

Still, it is odd. Ms. Oswal has said in interviews that her menu items employ “as local as possible ingredients,” but the Bleecker Street menu in May featured tomatoes, apples, avocados and many other out-of-season and/or out-of-region items. Since the menu doesn’t explain origin, only the supposed carbon count, it’s impossible to know how the restaurant came up with the ingredients for, say, coconut curry with lime rice in New York City in springtime.

In the end, just as there are a million ways to do good, there are a million ways to eat well: Among other things, you could consume less meat, patronize a local grocer or simply put food on the table with enough money left over to send your kids to college. There’s at least one way not to eat well: By choking down terrible, expensive food served by a billionaire dilettante who wants you to save the world on her behalf.

If you do make a holy pilgrimage to Otarian, let me make one recommendation for dessert. If you walk northwest for about 15 minutes you’ll find a restaurant called Corner Bistro, which serves one of the best hamburgers in New York City. Ask for it with bacon on top.