Monday, April 03, 2006

Have It Our Way New York City Entry #82 Lupa

After reviewing Otto and Babbo, I recognize that multo Mario fans are sprinkled throughout cyberspace, while others lack that je ne sais quoi that would permit the proper appreciation of the Batali style.

To understand Lupa - as well as other Batali properties (I haven't tried Del Posto) - is to realize their goal: casual dining with flair. I haven't yet tasted a truly grand dish, but have eaten some good ones, all the time in the midst of booming rooms that magnified the ambient noise. If one prefers more subdued dining, off-off hours are the times to reserve.

Lupa, our server informed us, somewhat aggrieved, is not really a Mario restaurant. He is a partner, but the menu was designed by Mark Ladner. Ladner has since decamped for Del Posto, but the menu remains his, and the webpage has not been updated to announce the new chef. Perhaps the kitchen lacks direction.

Lupa fancies itself a trattoria, although one that edges towards pretentiousness, even while embracing its raucous charm. The ochres and oranges give bounce and pizzazz, but seem designed to create the illusion of informality. Despite - or because - of their appeal to Food Network refugees, much of the menu at Batali restaurants is in untranslated Italian: Sformato, Testa, Cece, Piccantino, Farrotto, Bavatte, Gaeta (The Lupa website has a glossary, but the menu does not; bring your laptop!). Granted these may be terms of the Roman street, but their presence on a Manhattan menu conveys a cultural elitism in the guise of creating authenticity, establishing Italy as an exotic Casbah.

My dining companion had a number of crucial allergies, wheat among others. Given that Lupa presumes itself a neighborhood trattoria, I was startled that our server insisted that Ladner's recipes were sacred text. My companion had hoped to order sweetbreads but discovered that they were dredged in flour. Surely the kitchen does not dredge their sweetbreads before an order comes in, and so skipping this step would have been easy, even if it altered the platonic conception of the dish. At a casual eatery, the customer, not the chef, should be king. Not at Lupa. We finally assembled a suitable menu, but with a struggle. And a warning for those who wish a simple glass of wine, Lupa does not offer wine by the glass, one must select a mini-carafe: a glass and a half.

We finally selected the Frutti Di Mare, a salad, two vegetables, a pasta and a fish and a dessert. The meal had its pleasures, both minor and substantial. Most enjoyable was the Crimini and Fennel Salad with Truffle Oil. The woodsy taste of the mushrooms (although crimini are cultivated and truffles are now in the process of being farmed) were well-suited to a marriage with the slightly bitter, herbal fennel. This simple, yet elegant treatment was the highpoint of the meal. Also enjoyable was an order of carrots coated with cumin and honey. If they were slightly sweet, the cumin prevented them from being cloying. A sweet and tangy Eggplant Caponata was very satisfactory as well, perhaps through a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. They lent a dulcet air to the meal. Several of the frutti di mare also passed muster. Particularly excellent were the Octopus with Black Cece (chickpeas with black squid ink, rosemary, and red chili) and a Bass Scabece with Arugula was made lovely by the tangy vinegar in which it was poached. The closing Panna Cotta with Honey and Laurel (and Dates?) was candied, pungent, and intense.

Other dishes proved disappointing, notably our two main courses. I looked forward to Bucatini All' Amatriciana (a dish known to Babbo diners). The thick spaghetti was properly al dente, but the tomato sauce was rather pasty, and while the salt pork (presumably guanciale or cured pig jowls) was passionate, the hot pepper overwhelmed the robust pork. Although Batali restaurants often excel at pasta, this dish was not transcendent. The trout was poorly conceived. The trout and herbs were baked in a paper bag, but in the course of cooking the bag became waterlogged, and we found ourselves eating chewing wads of paper along with a trout that was adequate but never stirring. The tuna piccantino was too peppery to reveal the taste of the fish and was harsh and chill. Other dishes - Sardines with Cracked Wheat, Salt Cod with Gaeta Olives, and Escarole - were modest creations, pleasant to consume, but neither delicate nor powerful.

Given its overall quality, Lupa's attitude seems unwarranted. One is made to feel that dining in this hectic room is an honor, but honor is not what it once was. Several dishes were flavorful and well-constructed, but why would one choose a restaurant that imagines itself a neighborhood joint when one can skip down the street to a joint that knows who it is.

170 Thompson Street (at Houston Street)
Manhattan (Greenwich Village)

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