Something in the dude’s voice let me know I shouldn’t put too much stock in his opinions.
“You know the carbonara has a duck egg on it, right?” he asked.
“Okay…” As he walked away, he looked at me as if I’d made the mistake of my life.
But I wasn’t worried. As I said, I knew this server and I had different plans for the evening. He had recommended the hamachi; I chose the roasted chicken livers. He suggested the steak, I ordered the chicken. If my success rate was to be based on the carbonara (pictured) I ordered for my primi course, I would have been in good shape: It was easily the best dish of the night, the thick strands of bucatini dredged through a thick, peppery yolk-and-bacon sauce. But that wasn’t all I ate: There was the charred baby octopus and the halibut (“You know you’ll have to bone that, right?”). And it was all solid. Solid and unexciting.
This isn’t for lack of ideas—chef Todd Stein has a lot of ideas, some of which sound really good. Those rich chicken livers are paired with polenta and mushrooms, and the effect is earthy, salty and challenging in the best possible way. But more often he’s heavy handed with ingredients, overshadowing what could be complex flavor combinations with one big, clunky taste. His juicy chicken is allegedly flavored with pancetta, but the honey he slathers on at the end covers that flavors up. Fried zucchini blossoms are filled with ricotta, but the fistful of herbs makes the ricotta’s delicate flavor impossible to shine through. And in some dishes, a bold, singular flavor seems to be not just the result but the goal: The braised short rib was just beef and sauce, a well-cooked dish that can be found anywhere else in the world that short ribs are sold.
Luckily there are those pastas, which give this kitchen a much-needed trademark. Like the bucatini in my first meal, the flat, coinlike corzetti was the highlight of my second dinner. Topped with sweet corn and paired with a corn puree, it could have turned out as straightfoward as the other dishes. But thanks to some charred onion, it was a delicate and balanced plate.
Desserts brought the same kinds of successes and problems: Bombolone were paired with a coffee cream that annihilated the doughnut’s delicious lemon notes, and a slightly dry plum cake was saved by a deft berry sorbet. But as pleasant (or not) as these desserts were, they were unfortunately not given the opportunity to make the final impression. That duty was left to a shot brought over by the server as he dropped off the check.
“Limoncello, lemon sorbet, egg white and vodka,” he said, beaming. Ignoring my instincts not to trust his smile, I took a swig. It was chalky on the tongue and burned my throat as it went down. But I took it as a learning experience. A few nights later, when the same cocktail was offered again, I knew better than to assume everything at this place would be gold. So I did what I should have done the first time: I left the thing alone.