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'Eat' leaves out some key ingredients

Maybe you've heard the sobering statistics that preface "Eat This New York," but let's review them anyway: There are 18,000 restaurants in New York City. Every year more than 1,000 new ones open; four out of five won't last five years.As pocket-guide publisher Tim Zagat reminds us early in this documentary, restaurants supposedly have the highest failure rate of any business in America. To understand why, all you have to do is watch "Eat This." Directors Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack have chosen to make a film about two buddies from St. Paul, Minn., who endeavor to open a stylish New York cafe despite having almost no resources. The filmmakers, like their primary subjects, aren't so great with details (read: there are enough holes in this chronicle to sell it as Swiss cheese), but what we do know of the two men's backgrounds is that neither has sufficient restaurant experience, culinary expertise, or basic business sense to run a falafel cart.

Cruising Brooklyn's ethnically diverse Williamsburg neighborhood on his motorbike, would-be restaurateur John McCormick spots the location of his dreams amid a triangle of traffic that any feng shui master would run from. He and business partner Billy Phelps sign a lease without settling on a chef or even securing financing; forget the looming reality of permits and loans, the friends have pure motives and a determination to succeed.

Rossi and Novack turn to experts to offer grounding counterpoints and pie-in-the-sky testimonials, aiming their camera at culinary empire builders such as Drew Nieporent and Sirio Maccioni, famous chefs, including Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl. Even kitchen pinup Rocco DiSpirito (TV's "The Restaurant") steps away from his AmEx commercials long enough to concoct a disingenuous message about how hype and marketing mean nothing if your food's not good.

The problem isn't just the choppy cinematic mix that results from bouncing back and forth between the two clumsy restaurateurs and New York's culinary upper shelf, it's that the comparison is one of crab apples and blood oranges. You have to ask: Why even put them on the same plate?

The filmmakers' desire to pay tribute to stripped-down values and genuine visionaries in the New York food world would've been more compelling if they'd focused on a brilliant unknown chef, or a savvy but struggling pair of creative entrepreneurs, or even two average Joes with a less fuzzy idea of what they hoped to achieve. McCormick and Phelps, in contrast, seem to think that opening a restaurant is about embedding decorative objects in the concrete front stoop.

None of which means that "Eat This" lacks interest or falls entirely flat. Though much is misguided and sloppily chronicled, there's entertainment in the friends' saga and sizzle in behind-the-scenes glimpses of some of the nation's most renowned dining rooms.

Ultimately, it takes McCormick and Phelps 15 months to open their cafe Moto, but they do get it up and running. It even looks like a fabulous place -- reminiscent of 1920s Paris, just as the owners had hoped.

So, how's the food? The camera never even goes up close. That's the kind of restaurant documentary this is.

("Eat This New York": **)

Janice Page can be reached at

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