No more mushroom caramel on the menu at Varietal, kids. The menu has been significantly revamped for spring—and it looks like the reviews it’s gotten in the past few months have nudged the restaurant in a slightly different direction. If you loved it the way it was before, you’ll think Varietal has been “dumbed down.” Certainly, the approach now seems more muted and conventional than its reputation had suggested.
We went at a little past eight on a Saturday night and were the only other party in the restaurant. By the time we left at around 10 p.m., the dining room was only half-filled. The front, lounge area had only one group in it, its space-aged ice cream scoop chairs standing sadly empty and turned every which way as though they didn’t know which direction to face. This made me a little sad because there are redeeming things about this restaurant, including the exceptional service (helpful, friendly, and very likeable, but never intrusive), a few good wines by the glass that one would not be able to find elsewhere, and a few high points on the menu. I’m of the school that thinks it just needs a little more work and more communicable vision.
Appetizers and entrees were not as challenging as I’d hoped or expected. The appetizers were better than the entrees. The sea scallops ($14), a holdover from the old menu, were exceptional: meaty and tender, lightly crusted with hazelnuts, and served with a slightly sweet puree of roasted apple and teeny slices of baby turnips. The baby octopus ($13) were also very tasty, poached in olive oil according to the menu (though they were brown and glazed in something sweet a way that looked more barbecued) and served with sunchokes and something that was described as salsa verde, but tasted more to me like pureed bitter greens.
The less remarkable appetizers included the quail wrapped in prosciutto ($16), with black truffle grits, which come in the shape and size of small shumai dumplings. To my palate, they tasted take turkey meatballs wrapped in bacon. The only distinctive flavor was the prosciutto, but since it’d been taken through too many paces (a steamer? boiler?) with the quail, the prosciutto was soft and rubbery and texturally unpleasant. The quail stuffing was overcooked and tough, strongly reminiscent of deep frozen, microwaved shumai. I would love to see this dish come back roasted or broiled, with crisp prosciutto wrapping tender, lightly browned quail, with a stronger hint of truffles.
Wild arugula salad was unobjectionable, topped with good quality shaved parmesan and balsamic.
My dining companions and I ordered four entrees in all: the Tasmanian trout slow cooked with lentils and mustard seed; pork loin with fava beans, hedgehog mushrooms, and smoked belly; chicken pan roasted with fingerling potatoes, baby spinach and Meyer lemon; grilled strip steak with white beans, onion, and marrow butter.
The steak ($36) was my favorite though the dining companion who had ordered it was miffed that it hadn’t come out bleu (seared on the outside, bloody on the inside) as he’d requested, but medium well done. I was an unintended beneficiary since he gave me a generous chunk. It was still deeply tender, well-brined with just the right mixture of fat and lean, and a nice undercurrent of rosemary. I loved it.
My own entrée, the pork loin ($28), was unremarkable. It was also a little overcooked though perhaps this was my own fault since I wasn’t asked and didn’t ask for a level of doneness. It was also undersauced, the pork medallions not flavorful enough on their own to make the dish, even with the dry-sautéed mushrooms and flavorful fat pork belly. I could understand if this was an intentional move, designed to highlight the unadulterated flavors of each ingredient, but frankly, the pork just come out tasting plain and too dry. Perhaps they just forgot to sauce it on the way out of the kitchen. Fava beans were very fresh, but not enough vegetable to balance out the dish.
I had only a miniscule taste of the chicken ($24) since my SO was guarding it jealously. What I had of it tasted like everyday, weeknight chicken.
The Tasmanian trout ($27) was more pinkly and meatily salmon-like than your conventional trout, the mustard seed dressing popping entertainingly with every bite. Slow cooking is an interesting preparation for fish, and not in this case altogether successful. Though the results were still tender, I think some flavor is lost in the process.
We did, of course, save lots of room for dessert. Amongst us, we tackled the salted almond ice cream with brown butter financier, cherries and Pedro Ximenez; the chocolate marquis with red wine sorbet, crème fraiche and four spice; and the polenta cake with milk chocolate, cashew-bourbon praline, and buttermilk.
The chocolate marquis ($12) was brilliant, well matched with the lovely, tart, red-pink sorbet and four spice crème fraiche. It was aesthetically presented, a thick chocolate bar topped with an egg of sorbet on one end, plate drizzled with hot pink something.
My polenta cake ($12) was earthy and homey, evoking by design its humble farmhouse origins. The sweet corn cake remained both moist and pleasantly gritty, well matched to the rich cashews and generous dallop of yogurt-like buttermilk. The smooth milk chocolate was almost an afterthought, intended perhaps to add easy accessibility. It would have been nice on its own, but was sweeter and richer than the rest of the plate, here. Ultmately, it seemed a little overwhelming, and unnecessary.
The dining companion who ordered his steak bleu was comped a salted almond ice cream ($9) for his earlier trouble, but unfortunately he did not like this, either. It was, as described, salted ice cream that was a little jarring on its own, but worked well with the buttery financier, denser than the more commonly found light tea cakes. I helpfully ate a good part of the ice cream for him. It reminded me pleasantly of the roasted nuts one can buy at stands all over Manhattan in the autumn and winter months: sweet, salty, and fragrant. I liked it even if no one else at the table did.
I reluctantly passed up a number of interesting wines on the list in favor of a better value wine, a 2005 northern California pinot noir (a little over $50). It was fruity and fragrant, but had a slight tinge of unpleasant bitterness to it. This was, I thought, a good leitmotif for the dinner as a whole: often delicious and highly enjoyable, but with an undeniable off element, as well. I had to come at least once just to figure out what everyone else was talking about, and I think I’ll give it some time to iron out the kinds before I make a special trip back, again. But I do hope it stays around long enough for that.