Restaurant Week 2006 – Part I
Restaurant Week was started in 1992, when the Democratic convention was in town, as a way to showcase New York's top restaurants to visiting delegates and journalists. The price of a prix-fixe lunch was $19.92, pegged to the year, and I believe dinner was $30. The experiment was such a success that it became an annual tradition, with the lunch price going up a penny every year. I'm not sure when they changed the lunch pricing, but this year it's $24.07. How the fuck they came up with that number I'll never know. Dinner is $35.
Restaurant Week has always been problematic. Some restaurateurs treat it as a showcase for diners who might not otherwise visit the restaurant or are looking for an affordable sample first meal. Unfortunately, others seem to view it as a burden, treating Restaurant Week diners as second-class citizens, offering very limited choice, and serving small portions of their least interesting menu items. With Restaurant Week the early bird catches the worm, a number of the most coveted places getting booked up as soon as the list is announced. Some restaurants offer the special menu for lunch only, not wanting to cut into their lucrative dinner business.
I can only remember four prior Restaurant Week meals, all lunches, all in the nineties. Only one of them was an unqualified success, a spectacular three courses at Douglas Rodriquez's Patria, now defunct. The worst of the bunch was at the thankfully defunct Palio, a midtown Italian place. The staff were condescending, Restaurant Week diners were segregated in a separate section of the restaurant, and they offered a horrible selection, with the only entrées being grilled salmon and an orecchiete in pink sauce that was served lukewarm and tasted like school cafeteria food. My Restaurant Week lunch at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Thai-French fusion restaurant Vong was one of my first tastes of the Emperor's New Clothes trend in Eurasian fusion cuisine and convinced me not to return, so it served a heuristic purpose. The other place was an Indo-French fusion place that was utterly forgettable, and now defunct. For some reason Vong is not defunct.
Restaurant Week now runs two weeks, but I didn't even remember it was coming until the last minute, so available reservations were limited. I ended up doing four meals, one lunch and three dinners. I ruled any restaurant that extended the special through Labor Day, figuring I'd have other opportunities. I was sorry I couldn't get into Union Square Cafe for lunch, as their menu was particularly inviting, and seemed to take the showcase nature of Restaurant Week quite seriously:
Pappa al Pomodoro – Tuscan Tomato & Bread Soup with Basil and Extra Virgin Olive Oil
“Corn Ricotta” & Prosciutto Bruschetta with Stone Fruit, Arugula and Sycamore Farm Sweet Corn
Grilled Portabello Mushroom, Baby Spinach & Shaved Fennel Salad with Grana Padano and Aged Balsamic Vinaigrette
Frascatelli Genovese – Handmade Durum Wheat Dumplings with Green Beans, Potatoes and Pesto Cream
Grilled Swordfish with Eggplant Mashed Potatoes and Sicilian-Style Tomato, Orange & Olive Salad
Yogurt-Marinated Grilled Chicken Skewers with Lemon-Basmati Rice and Greenmarket Radish Raita
Summer Fried Fish Basket with “Tartar Slaw” and Pickled Vegetables
Berkshire Pork Shoulder Confit with Grilled Vidalia Onions, Rosemary Roasted Potatoes and Peach Chutney
Mississippi Mudd Pie with Kahlúa Whipped Cream
Strawberry-Crème Fraîche Panna Cotta with Basil Syrup and Greenmarket Strawberries
Chocolate Fudge Cake with Black Mint Crème Anglaise
Blueberry Tart with Lemon Curd and Blueberry Syrup
Much to my surprise, I was able to get a same day lunch reservation at Daniel Boulud's DB Bistro Moderne, close to my midtown office. I can't complain about the meal, but neither was I bowled over. My starter was the baby Bibb lettuce Nicoise with tuna confit, green beans and cherry tomatoes–pretty good, but I don't turn cartwheels for salads. My main course was the beef short ribs raviole (I believe the plural in French should have been ravioles) with baby spinach, fava beans, button mushrooms and Parmesan. The dish was pleasing enough, but nothing kvellworthy. The perfectly prepared vegetables did make a nice ensemble with the ravioli, which, by the way, reminded me of upscale kreplach. The dessert, lemon-rasberry cake with raspberry coulis and vanilla chantilly was rather pedestrian. When you consider the fact that it's normally impossible to get three courses at lunch for under $50 at this restaurant I suppose it was, overall, a nice opportunity, but I have no intention of returning.
I'm truly pissed at i Trulli. I've enjoyed sampling wines and eating cured meats, appetizers and pastas at this Pugliese restaurant's next-door enoteca, but I'd never dined in the main room. I saw Restaurant Week as an opportunity and was gravely disappointed. I Trulli's approach was to offer a decidedly second-class selection for the prix-fixe. In the appetizer department they really missed the boat. I have no idea why they didn't offer one of their house specialties, the typically Apulian panzerotti (small, fried calzones stuffed with mozzarella and tomato). The appetizer I ordered was a charred lamb salad with cucumbers, black olives and fried chick peas. It was good, and while it might be a preparation from Puglia it was much more Middle Eastern than Italian in taste. The main course was a disaster. First of all, one of the selections was a fish of the day over a tomato-bread salad. I asked what the fish was and was told it was cod. I hate cod. Is there a more tasteless fish with a less appealing texture? But cod was the fish of the day in steerage only; the first-class passengers (i.e. the a la carte diners) were offered branzino, the delicious Mediterranean sea bass, that night. Another entree was skirt steak over a faro salad. Now I have nothing against skirt steak, but it's not what you serve your special guests (as I was walking down Park Avenue toward the subway I noticed that Barbounia, the newish Mediterranean restaurant in the old Patria space, also had skirt steak on the R.W. menu). The dish I ended up ordering was a cut below mediocre. It was cavatelli, the typical Pugliese pasta dumpling, with a Sicialian pesto (a tomato-almond sauce) and "sauteed shrimp." The shrimp were tiny, dry and tasteless, more appropriate as fish bait than a dinner ingredient. They really should have offered their excellent cavatelli with broccoli rabe and almonds instead, which also would have made the menu more vegetarian-friendly. On a happier note, the torta di mandorle (almond cake with balsamic strawberries and strawberry sorbet) I had for dessert was wonderful. Despite the sweet dessert the dinner left a sour taste in my mouth, and to the owners of i Trulli I say fuck you and your codfish and fishbait shrimp.
I'll tell you about my two Restaurant Week Indian meals next time.
Restaurant Week experiences can range from wonderful introductions to some of New York's most esteemed restaurants to infuriatingly (and seemingly intentionally) second-rate meals. Unfortunately, in my experience, the latter scenario is the more common one. One wonders why some restaurants bother to participate when they seem so put out. Perhaps there should be an ombudsman to oversee and insure the quality of the meals. I'm available.