review: of the place…
I was assured that Mark Ladner, Executive Chef of Del Posto, was cooking for us when the server came to our table to apologize that he had no clue what the chef was preparing. Apparently, Ladner had remained “tight-lipped” about our dinner. The courses would be revealed to our servers as the meal progressed.
I was reassured that Mark Ladner was cooking for us when he personally came out of the kitchen after the first course to introduce the second. He appeared two more times; the last time to say goodnight just before coffee and petits fours were presented – a gesture not surprising given his affable personality.
That “Del Posto” means “of the place” in Italian hits squarely upon that for which I most appreciate about the restaurant. I can understand how less-informed (or, uninformed) diners might walk away from Del Posto being terribly deflated, or unimpressed – especially given the prices. (Although I did not see the regular menu, I have heard from many trusted sources that that prices exceed the value. I would tend to believe them given our $175 p/person dinner tab.).
I don’t mean to suggest (at all) that I’m an especially “informed” diner. What I am saying is that our servers (and Chef Ladner) – no doubt because our party’s dinner had been specially-arranged – took extra care to explain the provenance of each course, each ingredient, each concept, each combination to us. It was like being read excerpted digests from the Oxford Companion to Italian Food for each composition they presented. This was great. I don’t know whether this sort of care is taken with the regular clientele. From what I have heard, it is not. And, if true, that is unfortunate.
So, a tomato-based minestrone rife with perfectly-cooked beans and a confetti of fresh vegetables was teleported to us from Abruzzo. Apparently, this dish is served in that region on May 1st (just a few days before we ate at Del Posto), their “Labor Day,” to celebrate the beginning of the growing season.
The server explained that the Zupetta Le Virtu alla Machiagiana is traditionally made by cooking each vegetable separately. Each is added to the tomato broth, along with the meat items and finished off with a drizzle of olive oil.
There were small meatballs, made from beef and pork shoulder and tiny pieces of tripe. There were also bits of pig’s ear in the soup, which offered crunchy contrasts to the creamy beans and the soft, tender meatballs. (The pig’s ear’s was in the sofrito used for the soup, which was made from the restaurant’s testa.). It was a wonderful soup.
The spaghetti, we were told, was the only pasta that they bothered to import from Italy – from an artisanal pasta maker in I-forget-which-village. And, I’m sure there was also a story to go along with a beautifully plated dish involving a scallop on a half shell and a razor clam. It was called frutti di mare di piastra. Piastra is an old Italian currency. But, I missed the explanation on that one.
Of course, it takes more than a good story to make a meal successful. And, for the most part, Del Posto delivered that, too. Given that Ladner was personally overseeing our dinner, I wasn’t surprised that there weren’t any objectionable pitfalls.
Here was our menu (you can click on each item for the picture):
Insalata Primavera, Ricotta Glassata & Perilla
Horseradish Panna Cotta with Insalata d’Astice & Sclopit
Vitello Tonnato Crudo with Mustards & Mache
Abalone Carpaccio, White Asparagus, & Charred Ramps
Frutti di Mare alla Piastra with Spring Lillies, Roots & Tubors
Celery sorbet with 25-year-aged Modena balsamic vinegar
All of the dishes, except the contorni, are on the restaurant’s regular menu. I’m also obliged to note the bread service at Del Posto. It is very fine. The basket of ciabatta, foccacia, and baguettes were inhaled by our table within minutes. That there was lardo (!!!) and butter served alongside the buns didn’t hurt either.
I recently re-read Frank Bruni’s review of Del Posto, which published in March, 2006. I realized, after-the-fact, that we were served many of the dishes he mentioned. I don’t take the The New York Time’s restaurant critic’s word as gospel, but judging by my meal, I largely agreed with his assessment of Del Posto’s food.
I too found the the pasta to be a highlight. We were served two of the many pastas that Bruni mentioned; I’m sorry pici wasn’t one of them.
Of the two we saw, I preferred the agnolotti, which were filled with a mix of veal, hen, mortadella, and pancetta and coated in ramp puree. One couldn’t really taste the mortadella or pancetta; surprisingly, the veal and, to a lesser extent, the hen drove the flavor and texture. Of course, the ramps prevailed über alles. I didn’t find the agnolotti so much as “crunchy,” as Bruni described them, as I did cold – they were oddly scattered about a large platter – as Bruni said, as if they were meant to be “to be plucked and eaten with your fingers.” Wouldn’t they be better (and kept more warm) in a bowl? Maybe they’re traditionally served scattered on a plate. I might have missed that excerpt from the encyclopedia.
The spaghetti – that specially imported kind from the I-forgot-which-village – with crab and jalapeño (which even now, I’m not sure is indigenous to Italian cuisine) seemed less interesting, although it was still very good. Compared with my lunch at Esca the day before, where the pastas were such bold successes, this pasta was subtle by comparison. The best part of that spaghetti was the way the scallions and the jalapeño gave this rather predictable combination of ingredients a piquant twist.
Everyone at the table agreed that the Cacciucco was the most successful and memorable dish. This involved a very spicy tomato-based broth poured over an assortment of crustacea and shellfish: scallop, mussel, prawn (which, pleasantly, had its head split in half so I could scoop out the innards), and squid. The soup was “finished” with a drizzle of mantecato (which, I was only vaguely familiar with, conceptually, from reading about it in Giorgio Locatelli’s cookbook) – this version was a baccalao-infused cream. To my understanding, mantecato is the process by which cream/butter is “mounted” into a recipe, be it risotto or ice cream. This was not so much beat into the soup (as mantacatos usually are) as just drizzled over the soup.
The soup was warm and comforting. The seafood was perfectly-cooked. The spiciness was the most rewarding part of the rich and complex broth.
The contorni, served with the last meat course, was also highlight. It involved a sampling of assorted offal and vegetables. I asked Chef Ladner whether veal brains were on the menu regularly; he said he never offers them, but prepared it especially for us. It was simply dusted and fried. The same was true of the (vinegary) four bean salad with beef tendon, and the warm arugula salad with kidneys, which was fantastic (although I’m not sure I understand why (Frank) Bruni thought the arugula was so good that it would make others’ look like “iceberg in drag”).
I’ve realized that my overall lack of excitement for the meal was symptomatic of a restaurant’s over-reaching aim to please. They sent out a number of tiny portions, and for two courses, served us different dishes at each course. While I appreciated the gesture and the attempt, sometimes, flawless execution and preparation is compromised by portion sizes; it’s hard to cook small things perfectly. For example, that veal brain was but a morsel. While creamy at the very center, the majority of the little nugget was just a tad over-cooked. So was the veal chop alla Milanese, which might have been more tender done in a larger, chop form, rather than as a cut of the chop. The amazing part was, the flavor of the veal was great – it’s a shame that the meat was tough. I would have rather had a thinly-pounded wienerschnitzel.
And, I have always found serving each diner with a different dish at each course distracting; it leads, inevitably, to “course envy,” which I first discussed four years ago in my review of Daniel. Our second and third courses each presented our table with two different dishes. Half of us were served one thing, the other half another.
Of COURSE I want to taste what my neighbor is having, and of course s/he wants to taste mine. But, how do you split a cube of tuna the size of a small dice?
For this reason, I can’t really give much of an analysis of those four early dishes. The vitella tonnata crudo was probably the most memorable. The tiny cubes of raw veal and tuna were swathed in a wonderfully grainy mustard sauce. Had I been served the abalone carpaccio or the horseradish panna cotta with lobster, I might have preferred those two more. But, by the time my friend got through with them, all I got was a nib of the horseradish panna cotta (loved it), and a sliver of king oyster mushroom carpaccio, which I think was supposed to be a clever, if not cheaper filler, for the abalone carpaccio, which, if there was any on that dish, was cleared by my friend. Thankfully, this nonesense ended after the third course.
The wine pairings were very lackluster. The sommelier seemed particularly enthusiastic about the wines he was pairing – prattling off extensive knowledge about the terroir and tasting notes. To be sure, there were some very interesting wines. All of them were amiable by themselves. But, they did next to nothing for/with the food. To me, there are three ideal wine pairing affects – from greatest to least: (a) the wine and food together create a perfect storm not otherwise produced, (b) the wine compliments the food (that is, the food tastes better because of the wine), and (c) the food compliments the wine (that is, the food makes the wine taste better).
For the most part, our wine pairings seemed to have a canceling affect. I would have been just as well-off (in fact, $150 p/person more well-off) had I just drank water. We had five (very) nominal half-pours. Two wines stood out: the Winkle Sauvignon, 2006 paired with the primi. it slightly enhanced the flavor of the angolotti by bringing out the inherent sweetness in the pasta, and the veal-hen filling.
The La Togata Brunello di Montalcino 2000 was probably my favorite wine of the evening. It certainly out-shined the tough veal chop alla Milanese, it was served with. As an interesting side note, a friend, who was not at this dinner. looked up all of the retail prices of the wines we had. According to him, the total price for one bottle of each of the five wines we drank was *exactly* $150.
Bruni noted that Del Posto needed more blockbuster desserts. Two years later, I’d say they’re still working on that one. Our dolci were unexciting and forgettable. In fact, I thought the pre-dessert, a small dollop of celery sorbet annointed with just a few drops of 25 year-old balsamico, was better than any of the four desserts we were served. It was light and refreshing; the meal could have ended happily then and there.
We were served an assortment of the restaurant’s regular desserts in tasting portions; each of us took a bite and passed it down. The butterscotch semifreddo with butterscotch sauce was my favorite of the four.
The dolci were so uninteresting that I toyed with the idea of supplementing formaggio. But, the night was getting long in the tooth and I was (and I suspect my friends were) coming down with a serious case of food fatigue. (I had steamed buns, smoked duck salad, beef tongue, an oyster and pickled vegetables at momofuku noodle bar just three hours earlier, and a full lunch at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon before that.)
Embarrassingly, my food fatigue did not deter me from grabbing a seat, post-dinner, in the enoteca – a more casual dining section next to the bar. (It’s akin to what the Tavern Room is at Gramercy Tavern, or what the Bar Room is at The Modern. The menu there looked just as good as, if not better than, the one in Del Posto’s dining room. It’s got a lower price point as well.)
A sucker for gelati, I convinced my party to share a sampling with me. As the kitchen had officially shut down, they were very kind to have accommodated us. There was some confusion among the staff as to what flavors were offered. We ordered, and they ended up bringing out what they had: hazelnut gelato, vin santo gelato, pineapple-prosecco sorbetti, and apricot-tea gelato. The vin santo gelati, everyone agreed, was the best. I was pleasantly surprised by the pronounced prosecco and the tea in the sorbetti, respectively.
They also sent out a (beautifully folded napkin) basket of freshly-fried bomboloni filled with an orange-vanilla curd. These were very good – especially straight from the fryer.
Service was a little awkward. I couldn’t tell whether our servers were sycophantic, clueless, or despised us. Or, maybe, all three? That being said, on face value, everyone was hospitable. The only service issue of note was that at one point, they did pour tap water into our sparkling water. As we were on dolci, we didn’t say anything. The last time this happened to me was at The French Laundry. When I mentioned it, all of our water was replaced.
Chef Ladner was, without question, truly humble and very gracious. The New York Observer recently ran an extensive profile on Ladner, who has been aptly likened to Clark Kent in the Kitchen. He is quiet, and unassuming. He does wear those squarish black-framed glasses. And, he really does seem every bit as tall as he actually is. Now knowing that he cooks one day out of the week at Lupa, whence he came, I plan to make Lupa a stop in the future.
I won’t bother you with a description of the restaurant’s interior. Suffice it to say, it is large and in charge. I’m not sure I’d characterize it as a “hotel lobby,” as Bruni did. In fact, it looked like what it is: a very expensive restaurant that wants to look like an refurbished Tuscan villa x 2. I’d call it “Las Vegas.” But, Bruni did get it right by saying that Del Posto is the “anti-Babbo, the un-Lupa.” Instead of getting Nirvana piped from Batali’s iPod at volume 24, as I did once leaving Babbo at 11pm, Nora Jones serenaded us as we left Del Posto near midnight.
The china at Del Posto is interesting: all frilly and frumpy (i.e. floral paterns, ruffled edges); very much in contrast to the otherwise masculine aesthetic of the restaurant. It’s the kind of flowery and somewhat mismatched dishes that grandma uses.
I know of many who have voiced disappointment with Del Posto. Bruni acknowledged such sentiments of others in his review. Considering that my meal was specially-arranged, I’m surprised that it wasn’t more memorable. I think it had a lot of potential; a better wine pairing would have helped move the dinner toward realizing something greater.
Again, what I appreciated most about the the restaurant is its dedication to history and development of Italian food. You will find at Del Posto, probably some of the more well-researched, esoteric, and regional Italian cuisine in the United States. It’s sort of an anthropological exercise in Italian cookery. The menu offers an eclectic assortment of different sensibilities – all Italian in some way. Perhaps this is too ambitious or unfocused – I can’t imagine a Chinese restaurant covering more than two regions on one menu with much success. But, for the most part, at least the food is well-executed.
I leave you with this self-description from Del Posto’s website for your consideration. I think it captures the theoretical (practicality being something totally different) purpose and spirit of Del Posto quite well:
“Del Posto is the ultimate expression of what an Italian restaurant should be. Joe Bastianich, Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali represent a convergence of different styles and experiences. The restaurant concept generated at Del Posto can best be described as trans-generational: an expression of the evolution of cuisines, menus, service and ambiance that have characterized the history of the Italian dining experience in this country.”
Perhaps this European sensibility and authenticity, with a few creative detours, is why the folks at Michelin Guide Rouge awarded Del Posto 2 stars. For the same reasons I loved Del Posto, Bruni thought that the restaurant deserved 3 stars. I think both ratings are a little generous. But, I have only been to Del Posto once, whereas Bruni, and hopefully the Michelin Guide, based his opinion on three or more visits.
I don’t know that I’d run back to Del Posto. Certainly, I would entertain re-visiting the enoteca, if I’m ever in the neighborhood again. But, of the Batali-Bastianich empire, I’d much more likely find myself at Babbo, Esca, and Lupa, where I hopefully get to experience Chef Ladner’s cooking on Thursday nights.
Executive Chef Mark Ladner
85 10th Avenue
New York, New York 10011