I had originally planned to write about Fiamma Osteria. Okay it wasn't much of a plan. I was looking for a last minute dinner reservation and I clicked onto Grub Street to see if I could find someplace interesting to eat in their Openings & Buzz section. It was there that I noticed an announcement that Fabio Trabocchi had begun his rein at Fiammia. I knew Fabio from his work at his prior restaurant, Maestro, which was located in the Northern Virginia suburbs of D.C. The guy is a serious chef, and snagging a reseravtion to the restaurant on short notice that would have been perfect.
So I pick up the phone and dial the restaurant. A reservationist answers the phone. She is female and from the way she sounded, she couldn't have been more than 23 years old. I introduce myself (a neat trick as it seems to help in getting a reservation) and I ask for a table for two at around 8:00ish. She responds by saying, "can you give me your phone number please?" Phone number I say to myself, what the hell does she want that for? So I I ask, "why do you need my phone number? That usually happens after you give me the reservation." She goes on to explain that she can't check to see if they have a table available at that time I requested until after she puts my phone number in the computer. Hearing this makes me a bit ticked off but that choice do I have?
So reluctantly, I comply with her request. She proceeds to tell me that I can have a table at 9:45. It is clear to me the restaurant must have earlier reservations available, but they are holding them back for VIPs. Otherwise why would they ask for the phone number other than to vet you? And while it occurs to me that I can probably get to speak to a manager, or even to Fabbio, whereby I can whip out my own VIP credentials, I find the entire experience so off putting that I told her to forget it and I let the meal slip away into the darkness of the night.
Of course, throwing Fiamma under a bus (or maybe they threw me under the bus,) was problematic on two fronts. First, I was bound to get hungry over the course of the evening. And as much as I would like to, you can't eat pride. But secondly, I wanted to exact a mild form of revenge against the restaurant. I thought about it for a few minutes and I decided on this format. Not only would I tell the story of what happened on the phone, but I would allocate the slot that would normally go to Fiammia to a group of smaller restaurants that I would visit in its place. And while it might be a very small protest, it is now resounding around the Internet for all to hear.
The plan was to pick up my dinner companion at 6:30. "Where are we going" she asked as she got in the car. I replied that we were going to Al Di La. "In Brooklyn" she half-screeched? Yes in Brooklyn I said. I had never been there but over the years many people told me it was great. And though I'm not the biggest fan of Italian food (which is another reason my companion was surprised,) choosing Italian was in keeping with my sticking it to Fiammia.
The revenge gods must have been smiling down on me because we got a table without waiting (they don't take reservations and there is usually a line,) and the food was delicious. We started with an assortment of chichetti including some superb whipped bacala (the last time I had a version this good was at Le Calandre,) octopus salad, grilled polenta triangles and smoked swordfish. Quite tasty and to be honest, not all that much different than what you would get in an osteria in Venice. Then a buttery platter of squid ink risotto. It's a dish I love and it's quite hard to find a good version. This was excellent. We finished with a slowly braised pork belly that was caramelized on the outside which gave it a distinct citrus flavor. The only disappointment was a dish of veal saltimboca that was rather dry.
Resto follows in the footsteps of other casual NYC restaurants like Momofuku and Tia Pol, who have reengineered an ethnic cuisine based on the sensibilities of the American palate and the flavor profile of domestic ingredients. While the restaurant advertises itself as a Belgian brasserie serving dishes like bitter ballen and pots of mussels that come in 11 different flavors, the star is chef Ryan Skeen's simple market-based cuisine.. I've had a half dozen meals at the restaurant since they opened back in April enjoying Skeen's Liege salad of frisee lettuce, wax beans, lardons, crispy potatoes and a soft egg, and a seasonal heirloom tomato salad that he pairs with bacon, spiced walnuts and a bit of watercress. His boudin blanc appetizer is superb and it's a shame he only offers it as a starter and not as a main. But the piece de resistance on Skeen's menu is the Cote de Boeuf for two that he sources from Four Story Hill Farm which has a great aged flavor, and which comes with double cooked frittes and a silky bearnaise sauce.
La Boqueria is jammed everytime I go there. Offly enough, when I want a table for four I get seated immediately but the wait for parties of two are horrendous. The cuisine is best described as modern tapas, but not of the molecular kind that they serve in places like San Sebastion's Bar Bergara and Alona Berri. If I had to compare it to a tapas restaurant in Spain it would be Barcelona's Santa Maria which specializes in small plates using market ingredients. We always start our meals at Boqueria with platters of ham, sausages and cheese, but I find that chef Seamus Mullen's cooked foods holds more of an attraction for me.
Dates that are grilled after being stuffed with Spanish blue cheese and wrapped in bacon are as delicious as they sound. Especially with the bacon slightly burnt which results in that magical culinary trio of smoky, salty and sweet. A stew of chickpeas dotted with small pieces of morcilla (blood sausage) and topped with a soft boiled egg and pine nuts was just a beauty of a dish. Then a dish called Mountain Plate, featuring an atypical combination of lamb loin, pok belly, grilled head on shrimp , mushrooms and shallots, transported us to the Catalan countryside. But my favorite dish is their paella with its crunchy bottom and slightly burned top surrounding creamy rice and dotted with shellfish, perfectly finished with aioli which is pread over the crust. It's the perfect meal for an old Rioja and in fact we drank 1962 and 1968 Cune Vina Real with our meal.
So maybe Fiamma Osteria did us all a favor. From my perspective, I would never had gone to Al Di La that evening had they not made getting a reservation at a reasonable time so difficult. And from your perspective, you got to read about three restaurants that I enjoy very much, which I wouldn't normally be inclined to write about given the editorial leanings of this site. It's win, win for everyone. Except for Fiammia Osteria that is. I think.
Al Dia La - Recommended
Resto - Recommended
La Boqueria - Recommended
* I am changing the rating system on this site so that it conforms with the rating system I am using on the Opinionated About Dining Surveys. While the three restaurants in this article do not appear on the current survey, they will appear in our Moderate and Inexpensive Dining Survey which will launch next year. Here is an explanation of our ratings:
Fine Dining Restaurants
Must Go - A restaurant worth planning a trip around
Recommended +++ - Important restaurants to dine at when visiting a region
Recommended ++ - Top local choices
Recommended + - Recommended in its location
Acceptable - The best of the rest
Moderate & Inexpensive Dining
Unique - Unique in its category and worth going out of your way for.
Recommended - Recommended over other restaurants in the category
Acceptable - The best of the rest
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