Tuesday, January 19, 2010

locanda verde

In any big metropolitan area, like New York City, hype often gets in the way of truly enjoying a restaurant. High expectations (or any at all) almost always lead to disappointment. Which is, by the way, why I'm now trained to expect the worst in high stress situations (think prom, graduation, etc.) so that I can attempt to avoid any and all blunders. I realize this is terribly pessimistic. But heck, in many ways and in most situations, it works.

Locanda Verde opened in Robert DeNiro's old Ago space this past Spring under the helm of Chef Andrew Carmellini. Even before the restaurant doors opened, there was buzz surrounding the joint. There were high expectations before a single dish was served. But even with those high stakes, Carmellini delivered consistently delicious and seemingly impeccable food (via every single review I came across). And after reading account after delectable account of this place, I couldn't bear to wait any longer. I had to, had to, had to go.

And so this past Saturday, I went.

Getting reservations is still, a near impossible feat. "We're fully committed from 6:30pm to 10pm." And this was a solid two and a half weeks in advance, I was calling. So instead, we decided to stroll in late like "true New Yorkers." And I mean very late.

10:30ish we walked in to a still seriously bustling restaurant. We were told the wait would be twenty minutes so we pushed our way towards the similarly congested bar area. Five minutes later (if that), we were seated.

The look and feel of the restaurant was pretty much right up my alley. Sophisticated in a totally approachable way. Large windows line nearly all of the walls of the restaurant and the lighting is the perfect level of warm darkness (read: hello, flattering).

Sadly, almost immediately, our waitress began to rub us the wrong way. Not the least bit engaging or helpful, she hardly even made eye contact. We navigated ourselves through the menu regardless and decided to go splitsville on the following: the blue crab crostini with jalapeno and tomato, the stracchi with lamb ragu, ricotta, and mint, and the wood fired pork chop with gigante beans and caramelized pearl onions and a bottle of 2005 Sori Paitin Serra Barbaresco. And can I just say? This is the absolute best way to dine out. Splitting a couple of different plates allows you to try a much wider variety of dishes and the whole concept of sharing a meal, quite literally, is a rather charming gesture in and of itself.

The blue crab crostini was perfectly delightful. Charred bread was rubbed with tomato and garlic, then topped with a blue crab salad and garnished with slivers of jalapeno and shaved cucumber. The portion size was pretty humiliating given the price tag ($10 for one piece of crostini that they so kindly cut into two) but the soft, creamy, oceanic crab was appealingly cut by the hint of heat from the jalapeno and the bright freshness of cucumber. We all know I love crostini, bruschetta, any lovely little salad that's sitting atop a piece of bread, so needless to say, I could have made a meal out of this first course. But, I had many more goodies coming my way.

Next was the stracchi with lamb ragu and mint. This bad boy had winked at me while grazing the menu days prior and I had to give in. Lamb, mint, ricotta, and torn sheets of pasta? My knees were nearly buckled at the sound. The dish arrived at our table and we dove in. Delicious? Yes. But it was lacking a certain richness. I expected the lamb ragu to be thick and jewel toned, spiked with red wine and wrapped around the pasta, firmly making its presence known. Instead, it seemed a tad watered down to me and I wanted more flecks of the fresh mint to swirl around in the ricotta. Was it a fail? Absolutely not. But once again, my expectations were higher than what I was presented with.

Now this pork chop? This pork chop totally came out of left field for me. Not something I would typically ever gravitate towards on a menu, I was beyond pleasantly surprised when I took my steak knife to this gargantuan chop. A divine smokiness was immediately followed up with a burst of juiciness that comes from a perfectly cooked piece of meat. After adding a piece of a caramelized pearl onion and a gigante bean, every taste bud in my mouth was at peace. A gorgeously concocted, cohesive dish. Bravo.

It should be noted that our waitress/waiter switched a total of three times without warning. And by the end of the night, our initial waitress could be found at the bar, having a drink, chatting it up with friends and having a grand old time. Slightly problematic, no?

So why the whole introductory paragraph about hype? Well, see as good as the meal was, it just wasn't that impressive to me. After all I'd read and heard, I was expecting to be blown away by my meal. And perhaps that's an unfortunate thing because I fear that had I happened upon this restaurant, not knowing a darn thing, I might have had a little bit more of an enjoyable experience. There are plenty of other little rustic Italian restaurants (i.e. Supper on the LES, love that place) that deliver food just as good with prices slightly lower. And these days, value is where it's at.

Will I go back to Locanda Verde? Absolutely, should I be so lucky. There's always their much talked about (uh oh) fried chicken and we both agreed dining at the bar on a much quieter night would be a great option for the next go around. That said, let's take a look at the breakdown...

FOOD: 22
LOOK: 23
VIBE: 23


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