Blame it on Bruni New York City Entry #93 A Voce
A few weeks back we reserved a table for a Tuesday night at A Voce, Andrew Carmellini's sleek new Italian restaurant on Madison Park. We imagined a quiet evening at a restaurant that was gaining its bearings. Reservations were easily had, even if A Voce coolly required that diners (at least for our party of five) sign a contract, not just provide a credit card number. One must return a reservations form, scrawled in blood. What has happened to the gossamer trust between diner and restauranteur? When questioned, the reservationist asserted that ninety percent of New York restaurants have the same requirement. As a student of Italian geography, I can only respond "Bologna."
By the time our evening arrived, Frank Bruni had just revealed his quixotic three-star musings in the Times and the restaurant was overwhelmed. Perhaps a restaurant whose name translates as "word of mouth" expected a slowly gathering fame, not the shock of anointment.
In truth, the kitchen fared better than the floor. Service was as disorganized and as thoughtless as any I have experienced. A hostess neglected to provide claim checks. Our server attempted to push a $100 bottle of wine as a first choice without asking about our price preference. Appetizers and pasta were served simultaneously, leaving no room on the table (was this a hint to eat quickly? - perhaps, but we were ignored for long stretches). Both our shared dessert and shared contorno were served without separate plates. As a fellow klutz, I give a pass to the dropped salad. But if this night is an indication, this staff is not ready for prime time. One wonders if tranquility rules a week ago. The receipt of three stars by an affordable restaurant generates what in polite circles might be termed a feeding frenzy. With sixty-somethings holding court at the tables and thirty-somethings surrounding the bar, A Voce was juggling a generational divide, two clienteles in a single space.
Much has been made that A Voce does not look "Italian." One can not guess the cuisine from the decor, but the comfort and polish of the space - Eames swivel chairs, leather table tops, and a beautiful sculptural with orange back-lighting - provides a theatrical flair. If the cuisine shies away from slickness, it does not attempt Arthur Avenue authenticity. This is a chef's cuisine, not a nation's. A Voce has a culinary style, marrying hardy provincialism and the elegance of Café Boulud, Chef Carmellini's former employer. If the dishes do not always reach the happy rococo imaginings of Mr. Bruni, this was a most satisfying evening in culinary terms.
Our table began with a trio of appetizers. Order the Grilled Asparagus Parmigiana, served with Fried Farm Egg, Duck Bresaola (a dry-cured duck breast, borrowed from Babbo's bag of tricks), and white truffles. May is asparagus's moment. Despite the extravagance of the ingredients the dish was substantial, not fussy. The egg, cooked so it wiggled, combined eagerly with the grilled spears of spring. This plate was the star of the evening.
The Duck Meatball with Dried Cherry Mostarda (a mustard-based fruit glaze) provided a pleasant interlude. After five months in Uppsala, I am well-trained in Swedish meatballs and lingonberries, and this enjoyable taste didn't much surpass what I had been frequently served at lunch mess, but the mustard provided a kick. The duck wasn't much superior to well-ground beef, even if the meat was lighter and more complex in its gaminess.
Roasted Beet Salad with Hazelnuts, Gorgonzola Dolce, and Barolo Vinegar completed the starters. The beets were stellar, although the salad itself was a simple high-end beet salad, a rendition not so different from my own preparations.
We ordered two pasta dishes (the ones that mysteriously appeared with our appetizers). The better of the two was Homemade Pappardelle with Lamb Bolognese, Mint, and Sheep's Ricotta. The pasta was dense and rich, another dish removed from the stove at its moment of glory; the Ricotta was admirable as well. Chef Carmellini could have been more generous with his mint, a choice that would have provided an exotic flair.
Potato Gnocchi with Spring Peas and Prosciutto was composed of tiny pearls of spud and peas, lovely in its presentation. The taste was straightforward - gnocchi, ham, and peas in a cream sauce. No complaints, but not much memory.
Steamed Black Sea Bass with Shrimp Polpettini (petite shrimp balls), New Potatoes and Basil-Shellfish Broth was nearly seafood soup with the unadvertised but welcome addition of cockles and mussels. This was another precisely timed dish, and was most notable for its sublime herbal broth. The polpettini and potatoes didn't add much to the dish, but perhaps a potage of bass, bivalves, and broth might have seemed thin gruel to others; I would have been entranced.
As a side dish we ordered Funghi Trifolati: Spring Mushrooms with Garlic and Herbs, sauteed in Olive Oil (prepared in the truffle style). Chef Carmellini combined three mushroom species (Blewits, Trumpets, and Hen of the Woods, each available to dedicated ‘shroomers). (Our server assured us that morels were not included in this spring mix because of their prohibitive cost, but Blewits, autumn funghi, are rarer in the May wilds than morels). To say that I can cook up a mess of mushrooms equal in clarity is not to deny my dusky enjoyment.
Pastry Chef April Robinson's dessert list disappointed. The night we dined, most desserts (excepting the sorbet and a panna cotta) were made with chocolate or coffee, a caffeinated bias. The Vanilla-Yogurt Panna Cotta with Saba Vinegar (a sweet, thick vinegar, akin to balsamic) and Raspberries was passably smooth, but, even with the vinegar, was rather bland.
Italian cuisine rarely reveals the subtlety of the French. The robustness that diners cherish also poses a barrier to transcendence. And so Chef Carmellini suffers for his cuisine. As much as I enjoyed dinner, A Voce is not evocative in the way that Café Boulud is, but perhaps this is a company that Chef Carmellini prefers not to keep.
And, on this warm spring evening, A Voce crashed from the curse of the sated critic. The crush of humanity that resulted cracked service. Signore Bruni has recently passed time as a server; perhaps he could have shown penance for his good deed by lending an ink-stained hand.
41 Madison Avenue (at 26th Street)
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