I feel like the local curmudgeon lately b/c I keep going to restaurants and coming out underwhelmed and disappointed by the experience. Such, sadly, was my feeling last night after my first experience at L'Impero, where I went for my b-day.
I was unpleasantly surprised by the atmosphere of the restaurant. True, it was tucked into quiet Tudor City, but the interior of the restaurant was far from quiet and romantic, as other posters have suggested. The annoyingly bright blue light behind the bar area made me happy that we were running late and hadn't been able to stop for a drink at the bar before dinner, as I'd originally planned. The decor of the restaurant looked like a cheesy hotel lobby, with bland beige curtains lining the walls. And the tables were close together, with loud conversations all around. I really wouldn't call L'Impero romantic--perhaps fun and boisterous, but not quiet and romantic.
On to the food. Both my boyfriend and I opted for the $58 prix fixe--4 courses off the regular menu. I started with the mushroom fricasse over polenta. This dish was probably the stand out of the evening, but it didn't stand out that far. The mushrooms were rich and nicely sauced, and the polenta was a good balance to their buttery flavor. But, overall, I found the dish didn't raise to the stratospheric heights that other chowhounds have described in their posts. Perhaps I was expecting too much? My boyfriend had the marinated yellowtail susci, which came in a serving so small that I opted not to try it. He really enjoyed it, though, especially the texture of the sea salt w/the raw tuna.
Next up was the pasta course. I think I picked wrong on this one. I opted for the gnocchi, perhaps stupidly since none of the posts I read in doing my homework for dinner mentioned the gnocchi. The gnocchi (served w/fava beens, baby tomatoes, and percorino--the promised guanciale was absent from my dish) was entirely ordinary, and the serving size was tiny (literally about 10 very small gnocchi). My boyfriend's scialatielle with tiny clams, escarole, and basil puree, was somewhat better. The pasta itself was perfect texture, but the accompanying escarole was very bitter.
For mains, I opted for the "roasted black cod in porchetta." The fish was wonderfully tender, while the tiny piece of skin left on the underside was perfectly crisp. But, the fish was entirely bland. It's accompaniment--sundried tomatoes, fennel, and fregola--were just fine but ordinary. My boyfriend had the lamb, a dish that I have heard many raves about. I just had a tiny taste so don't really feel fair commenting, but he was underwhelmed.
Finally, dessert was olive oil cake w/goat's milk panacotta (him) and gianduia and banana tart w/pecan gelato (me). Both desserts were good but not overly impressive. The stand out was definitely the pecan gelato, which was full of flavor and nice and soft. The desserts were followed by a plate of little bites, all of which were surprisingly very good. There were 2 each of dark chocolate truffles, an apricot (I think) jelly, mini macaroons, mini chocolate chip cookies, and mini jelly-filled cookies.
Service was friendly and helpful throughout the night, except for one snafu. It was my birthday, but my boyfriend's dessert plate was decorated with the happy birthday message. When we told the waiter, he apologized and wrote happy b-day on the cookie plate that came at the end of the meal.
Altogether, dinner came out to $220 for the 2 of us, including a bottle of wine. This is certainly a good deal for a nice meal in a nice restaurant, but after all of the good things I had read about L'Impero, I guess I was expecting more of a palate-blowing experience than I received.
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