Yesterday was a gorgeous afternoon, albeit a tad bit humid. I had spent about an hour at the soon-to-be-open new Oceana restaurant tasting oysters. My friend Mehdi is starting in the kitchen there this Monday, so yesterday was a day spent educating both the back and front of the house on oysters: where they come from (both originally and in today’s crustacean business), how they are raised, mixed with dash of New York’s history involving these mollusks, and finishing up with an oyster sampling. I felt so lucky to be invited along, not only to see the near completed, gorgeously accented dining room, but to learn a little information about the tasty bivalves that I normally suck down non-contemplatively. Now I will suck them down at least with some knowledge of the who’s, what’s, where’s and why’s behind the half shell.
So that was the start to my food filled day, and I have to say, starting with oysters is not a shabby way to commence. I decided to walk from midtown down to Canal, where I had plans to meet up with some friends for dinner. In all honesty though, I wasn’t looking forward to the food part. Which is insane, you can be sure. Me? Not looking forward to the food part of the evening?? I wasn’t even sick (not like that would stop me either though…). But I had been to the chosen locale already on Monday and didn’t have the most delicious experience.
We had met at Locanda Verde at 1pm for a lazy afternoon of consumption. A bunch of cook friends and myself were all eager to see each other and eat at Andrew Carmellini’s newest restaurant. I have never eaten at any of his other spots, but I have sampled many a tasting at food-centric events. In my mind, if you can pull off a tasty bite at an event, your food is probably worth paying for in the establishment. I’ve always enjoyed his tiny tastings, so I was optimistic. I walked in and met my friends, sipping meager 12 oz. beers at the bar. First note-to-self was ‘why were they pouring such scrimpy pours?’ No matter. I’m not such a big beer drinker anyway, so they could pour an 8 oz. for all I cared! We eyed the dessert counter, layered with beautiful glass cake displays, and decided upon a pre-meal Nutella cookie to ease the hunger pangs while we waited for the rest of our party. Mehhh. We all agreed that the cookie was unspectacular. And how in the world is it possible to make Nutella unspectacular?? Now I was concerned.
We were shown to our table where we plopped down in our booth and immediately ordered off the condensed lunch menu. To be honest, it was so condensed I wondered what we were missing out on from the dinner menu. But we chose a few items to share for the table and each a main entree. The lamb sliders came out first and were a great beginning to the meal. Intensely lamb-y meatballs sandwiched between mini soft buns, topped with thinly sliced pickles and a tangy tomato sauce. At lunch, the portions is three sliders with an accompaniment of arugula salad. At dinner however, it’s more pricey, the dish only comes with two lamb burgers and there is no salad. Locanda Verde, I’m not quite sure if I get where you’re coming from, with your 12 oz. beers and wimpy slider size.
At lunch, from there on out, the meal went downhill. Quickly and steeply. I ordered trout that was completely unseasoned, had flabby skin that kind of just drooped aside when I cut it (as opposed to a nice, crisp seared skin), and the yellow sauce pooled underneath was bland, under salted and only hinted at the presence of acidity. We went around the table, passing dishes across and amidst one another. And each bite I took from a plate was a bite I was willing to put back. Three out of the six of us had ordered ‘Grandmother’s Ravioli.’ Our rationale was that if Carmellini was willing to stake his grandmother’s name on a dish, it had better be good. He wasn’t going to make his lil’ old lady look bad, would he?
He would. And he did. I would prefer Chef Boyardee’s ravioli any day. Seriously. Either grandma had a bad recipe or it was poorly executed in the kitchen. And the gigantone…a pasta so big in texture and bold in appearance was completely lackluster in flavor. Even the porchetta–and it’s kinda hard to make any pork product taste plebeian–was hohum. There wasn’t one dish that we ordered that made me want to bogart the plate, let alone trade half my dish for anyone else’s. Hell, I would have given away my entree easily if only I felt I had eaten $19 worth of food! The dishes were boring and the prices were expensive.
So…we decided to continue ordering in hopes that we’d strike upon something sensational. We scanned the dessert menu hoping that something sweet would salvage the lunch. We all ordered gelato (they’re unwilling to mix scoops of ice cream at lunch…but at dinner you can mix to your heart’s content. ?? okay.). My friend and I decided that we were in need of multiple gelati tastings, so split an order of the rice custard and the malted chocolate. Four others fell whimsy to the rice custard as well.
The desserts were dropped on the table…and unfortunately the one that was set before us was icy and frost-bitten. We had been served the remnants of some long forgotten gelato that had been chipped into a pretty silver cup and garnished with shortbread cookies. But the cookies couldn’t mask the gelato from the Ice Age, which crackled and sent ice spurs when we tapped it with our spoons. I guess at least I should have been happy that our friends had bowls of creamy, delicious, and most importantly freshly churned gelati set before them. We looked on jealously as they spooned lusciousness into their mouths…
I was done. I was riled up and ready to come home and write about the letdown of Locanda Merde!!
But last night changed my mind. Good thing I believe in second chances. Sometimes…
I arrived at the restaurant bar at 5:30, ‘glistening’ profusely from my long walk from midtown to Tribeca. I gave my cheek kisses and promptly ordered an icy glass of Sangria. Maybe the tasty starter drink made the ensuing meal more pleasant…or maybe there was a whole new kitchen staff instated last night? Either way, last night was a completely different experience and a much, much more delicious one at that.
We were seated in the exact same booth (I hoped it wasn’t an unlucky booth) and we ordered. Big. We started with the lamb meatballs again. Still delicious. And then they quickly and fervently brought out every single one of our starters at once. We were at first overwhelmed with the speed at which everything arrived, but then tucked right in and enjoyed the bounty that was before us. Everything was good. Seasoned well–and when it wasn’t, we asked for salt. The octopus yielded to a spoon, the watermelon and tomato salad was sweet and refreshing, and the head cheese tasted exactly like a head cheese. The dishes are a refined rustic; small portions and more thoughtfully plated than at a down home, rrrrustic style Italian.
But the bit of refinement also meant teeny portions. For a plate of pasta at $17, I can’t help but feel I’m overpaying. I don’t always need quantity when I go out to eat. But there’s always that thought of ‘am I getting good value?’ And if it’s so delicious that I want to wipe my plate clean with my face, then I’m willing to pay for the quality. Carmellini’s dishes aren’t fully at that level, so then I start questioning quantity value…
However, the pastas were much more appealing last night than they had been on Monday. The gigantone was bold and chewy with a delicious lamb ragu. The pesto was vibrant and silky. And the two pitchers of Sangria washed everything down nicely! The desserts too tied up the meal on a pleasant note. A perfectly pleasing panna cotta with stewed figs and an almandine tarte with pistachio ice cream made me concede that this restaurant was better than bad. It was good. I don’t think I need to go back for a round three, but I’m glad to say it wasn’t an unsatisfactory experience. I hope that our Monday meal was a fluke and that last night’s meal is the real deal. I still think it’s overpriced for unexceptional dishes…but it’s nice. Nothing more. For amazing Italian, I think for now I’ll just stick with Lupa.