A Voce's new chef holds her own, and then some.
Wed Nov 12 2008
Photograph: Roxana Marroquin
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
Keeping up with New York’s musical-chairs Italian chefs—Conant out at L’Impero, White to Alto, Trabocchi swapped in at Fiamma—has become more challenging than following a Fellini flick. Andrew Carmellini, the latest to go AWOL from the restaurant he founded, left a void so hard to fill, the owners imported a chef from Chicago—Spiaggia’s Missy Robbins.
Though the Windy City’s loss is clearly our gain, I’m not sure the restaurant’s core clientele has even noticed the change. The sprawling space, on the ground floor of a bank building off Madison Square Park, is such an after-work madhouse—its overwrought bar scene causes a bottleneck near the entrance—fighting your way in for dinner can be an ordeal.
Italian-food fiends willing to push through the mob will be amply rewarded. Robbins, no second-string draft pick, is as bold and elegant a cook as the man she replaced. She’s stacked the deck with a midautumn menu rich in simple, lusty fare—warm, cozy dishes delivered with drama in cast-iron crocks and big copper pots.
From her traditional palette, more high-end Italy than New York Italian, comes a luxurious roasted porcini starter—featuring an enormous meaty mushroom, rich fontina fonduta and a few aromatic black truffle shavings—that could easily be served at a fine restaurant in Piedmont. A vessel of lush, creamy Sardinian ricotta is simply adorned, just as it might be on the island, with green olive oil, crumbled oregano and a dash of hot pepper. And you may have to jet down to Puglia to find a decent facsimile of the octopus terrine I sampled at lunch, a lemony mosaic of paper-thin slices topped with celery leaves and bright olive slivers.
Of course, you’re not actually going to find a menu like this anywhere in Italy, their restaurants being loath to muddy the regional waters. Robbins, who has no such compunction, offers a delicious tour of the country. From the North comes toothsome fresh quadrati pasta, pinched ricotta-filled packets tossed with savoy cabbage, butter and bacon batons. Veering south toward Bologna: crimped tagliatelle tangled around a fine meaty oxtail ragù.
It’s a testament to the new chef’s talents how much I’m willing to forgive A Voce’s shortcomings. The optimally lit, high-ceilinged dining room, with its potted trees and swiveling chairs, looks like the lobby of a very fashionable office—which might explain why the after-work crowds seem so at-home.
By 9pm on a recent weeknight—when the thunderous din had died down and the happy-hour crew had finally thinned—we waited and waited for our entrées to come. Glacial service is the restaurant’s real Achilles’ heel. Even over a quiet late lunch at the bar, it took a good 20 minutes for a pasta course to arrive.
I’m happy to report the dishes, all generously served, were well worth the wait. Sirloin slices, tender and pink under a crispy char, were layered with mellow caramelized endives and a drizzle of marrow-laced jus—a gratin of soupy polenta, like the world’s most decadent porridge, served on the side. Thick, sweet-as-lobster monkfish medallions—starring in a delicate dish that would be at home in seaside Palermo—were surrounded by a beautiful bouquet of Sicilian olives, baby fennel and mini artichoke quarters.
Desserts—moist, buttery walnut cake topped with caramelized apple; dense-as-fudge chocolate semifreddo, its sweetness offset by chopped pistachios and a sea salt sprinkle—were as restrained and classically Italian as the rest of the menu. One night while working the room—and doing his best impression of the Four Seasons’ Julian Niccolini—the dapper maître d’ sought to compensate for the chaotic service by sending out a couple of complimentary scoops of sorbet. The move won me over—with a little help from Robbins’s cooking, of course.