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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

L'Artusi (New York, NY)

Asparagus a la Plancha

I'm the first to admit it. I'm a bigot. I'm a bigot against Italian food as a category, though there are a lot of dishes I like on an individual level (i.e. Ligurian farinata!). I just have it in my head that I hate the cuisine -- probably a result of having eaten too much of the horrid, red sauced slop served at Olive Gardens in the Midwest, as a child, and sampling only tourist slop on trips to Italy as a poor college student. That's my excuse for why I'd never bothered to try L'Artusi, anyway, despite living only a hop and a skip away.

What finally inspired a visit was stumbling across an interview with my celebrity chef crush, Anita Lo, where she mentioned L'Artusi as one of her favorite restaurants. I've also been walking by the restaurant every morning to skirt the seemingly never-ending drilling beneath Charles St., on the way to the West Side Highway, and examining the menu... as motivation for my morning run, of course. I took Chef Lo's recommendation as a sign: We had to pay this place a visit.

So it was that on a recent weeknight, Justin and I wandered in without reservations and were able to sit at the chef's bar in the far back of the restaurant, next to the open kitchen, without a wait. The ground floor of the two-level restaurant feels as though it's below ground, since it has no windows at all, and the only natural light source is from the front door. The dark, blue-gray walls (a very pretty color, just heavy in this context) only emphasize the sense of being underground and shut in.

The food, though, was anything but heavy or oppressive. There are five categories of dishes: crudo, verdura, pasta, pesce and carne. Plates are on the small side, but we found that three courses / person were more than adequate. Pasta courses seem to be much larger than others.

We started with a most exquisite, delicate crudo of dayboat scallops with sea salt, olive oil, lemon and espelette. The thin slices of scallops were remarkably fresh and as sweet as candy, accented with just a touch of fragrant lemon (probably an essence rather than juice). Espelette peppers came in the form of roughly ground flakes and their subtle heat never threatened to overwhelm the other delicate flavors on the plate. Fine sea salt added a barely there crunch.

Scallop Crudo

Roasted beets with watercress, yogurt and pistachio were also made with flawless ingredients. The watercress was crisp and peppery and tender. Yogurt, in the form of a thick, yogurt cheese sauce the consistency of hummus and similar in flavor to creme fraiche, was a more logical accompaniment to mild beets than the strong goat and blue cheeses more commonly served in restaurants. Finely chopped pistachio looked lovely on the plate and added a nice textural contrast.

Roasted Beet Salad

Asparagus spears in the asparagus a la plancha with yogurt and fried egg (pictured at the top of this post) showed signs of a perfect sear from the plancha griddle with brown spotting all over, and they had a good soft-firm texture. The yolk on the fried egg was a little bit too well cooked -- this dish is perfect, in my book, when the yolk runs all over the asparagus -- but all the other details were just right: the ratios of ingredients were well calibrated (the dish wasn't drowned in cheese); the yogurt, again in the form of a decadent creme fraiche-like sauce, added a gentle acidity to offset the richness of the yolk and soft, white cheese grated over top.

I didn't try the pasta course of bucatini with tomato, pacetta and pecorino. Justin said it was pleasantly spicy and well flavored, generally. The pasta was not oversauced.

Bucatini

I liked the intelligent combination of ingredients in a "pesce" course of charred octopus with potatoes, chilies, olives and pancetta. Hot red chili peppers were sliced very thin and sparsely distributed throughout the dish, but they added just the right amount of heat. Olives were large, green ones, sliced vertically to avoid the pit, not whole, which I thought was a smart touch. The salinity and strong flavor of whole olives would've been too overwhelming, eaten with other ingredients on the plate, but sliced, they worked in complement with the other ingredients. Fingerling potatoes were sliced into disks and cooked firm. The octopus itself was a fairly good rendition. There were three medium sized arms on the plate and the thicker parts were very juicy. The ends were charred and dry, but their crunch was actually pretty enjoyable, especially in contrast to all the soft components of the dish. There was only a small amount of pancetta and interestingly, this usually strongly-flavored ingredient didn't add much to the flavor profile, overall.

Charred Octopus

Roasted quail with cucumber, bread crumbs, romesco sauce was simply flavored -- the quail with just salt and pepper , I think -- but again expertly executed. The quail may have been pan roasted, flattened to maximize the surface area of crispy skin. Cucumber was sliced very thin and lightly pickled with red onions. Romesco sauce was the star of the dish: smoky, rich and full-flavored, with just a wee bit of heat.

Roasted Quail

We sat before the pastry chef's station, where we watched Chef Katherine Thompson put together some mouthwatering desserts. Unfortunately, even though our savory courses were not large, the pleasantly slow pacing left us time to realize our stomachs were too full to contemplate the desserts on the menu. Now that we know what's in store, though, we plan on saving room next time.

Wine pairings:
  • Lambrusco Bianco "Labrusca," Lini NV (Emilia-Romagna), a crisp, acidic sparkling white, went with crudo, vegetables and octopus. The acidity was a nice contrast to the creamy, sweet and salty components of these dishes. But the wine had a hint of unpleasant bitterness that became more pronounced as it warmed to room temperature, which didn't work well with our food, except possibly the beet and watercress salad. 
  • Nebbiolo "Larmes du Paradis," Caves de Donnas 2008 (Valle D'Aosta), a medium to full bodied rosé, went with octopus and quail. This rosé was more substantial than some reds and very dry. It paired very nicely with the quail and romesco sauce. It was probably a bit too brawny for this octopus preparation. 

228 West 10th Street
New York, NY 10014-6405
(212) 255-5757
lartusi.com/

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