I was recently at Del Posto for a specially-arranged dinner. You can read a (much) more extensive review of that dinner (and see the pictures) at the ulterior epicure.
"I was assured that Mark Ladner, Executive Chef of Del Posto, was cooking for us when the server came to our table to apologize that he had no clue what the chef was preparing. Apparently, Ladner had remained “tight-lipped” about our dinner. The courses would be revealed to our servers as the meal progressed.
That “Del Posto” means “of the place” in Italian hits squarely upon that for which I most appreciate about the restaurant. I can understand how less-informed (or, uninformed) diners might walk away from Del Posto being terribly deflated, or unimpressed - especially given the prices. (Although I did not see the regular menu, I have heard from many trusted sources that that prices exceed the value. I would tend to believe them given our $175 p/person dinner tab.).
I don’t mean to suggest (at all) that I’m a naturally “informed” diner. What I am saying is that our servers (and Chef Ladner) - no doubt because our party’s dinner had been specially-arranged - took extra care to explain the provenance of each course, each ingredient, each concept, each combination to us. It was like being read excerpted digests from the Oxford Companion to Italian Food for each composition they presented. This was great. I don’t know whether this sort of care is taken with the regular clientele. From what I have heard, it is not.
So, a tomato-based minestrone rife with perfectly-cooked beans and a confetti of fresh vegetables was teleported to us from Abruzzo. Apparently, this dish is served in that region on May 1st (just a few days before we ate at Del Posto), their “Labor Day,” to celebrate the beginning of the growing season.
The server explained that the Zupetta Le Virtu alla Machiagiana is traditionally made by cooking each vegetable separately. Each is added to the tomato broth, along with the meat items and finished off with a drizzle of olive oil.
There were small meatballs, made from beef and pork shoulder and tiny pieces of tripe. There were also bits of pig’s ear in the soup, which offered crunchy contrasts to the creamy beans and the soft, tender meatballs. (The pig’s ear’s was in the sofrito used for the soup, which was made from the restaurant’s testa.). It was a wonderful soup.
The spaghetti, we were told, was the only pasta that they bothered to import from Italy - from an artisanal pasta maker in I-forget-which-village. I’m sure there was a story behind a beautifully plated dish involving a scallop on a half shell and a razor clam. It was called frutti di mare di piastra. Piastra is an old Italian currency. But, I missed the explanation on that one.
Of course, it takes more than a good story to make a meal successful. And, for the most part, Del Posto delivered that, too. Given that Ladner was personally overseeing our dinner, I wasn’t surprised that there weren’t any objectionable pitfalls.
Here was our menu:
Sunchoke Chips with Truffled Dip
Caviar and Boiled Egg Tart
Whole wheat Soup
Insalata Primavera, Ricotta Glassata & Perilla
Horseradish Panna Cotta with Insalata d’Astice & Sclopit
Vitello Tonnato Crudo with Mustards & Mache
Abalone Carpaccio, White Asparagus, & Charred Ramps
Frutti di Mare alla Piastra with Spring Lillies, Roots & Tubors
Spaghetti with Dungeness Crab, Sliced Jalepeno & Scallion
Del Posto Agnolotti dal Plin with Golden Butter & Ramp Puree
Zuppetta Le Virtur all Marchigiana
Cacciucco with Baccala Mantecato & Zuppetta di Pannada
Veal Chop alla Milenese, Asparagus & Truffled Tongue Salad
Fried veal brains, arugula salad with kidneys, marinated maitake mushroom
Four bean salad with beef tendon
Celery sorbet with 25-year-aged Modena balsamic vinegar
Del Posto Dolci Misti:
Crostata di Limone
Crespelle di Polenta
Chocolate Ricotta Tortino
All of the dishes, except the contorni, are on the restaurant’s regular menu. I’m also obliged to note the bread service at Del Posto. It is very fine. The basket of ciabatta, foccacia, and baguettes were inhaled by out table within minutes. That there was lardo (!!!) and butter served alongside the buns didn’t hurt either.
I recently re-read Frank Bruni’s review of Del Posto, which published in March, 2006. I realized, after-the-fact, that we were served many of the dishes he mentioned. I don’t take the The New York Time’s restaurant critic’s word as gospel, but judging by my meal, I largely agreed with his assessment of Del Posto’s food.
Everyone at the table agreed that the Cacciucco was the most successful and memorable dish. This involved a very spicy tomato-based broth poured over an assortment of crustacea and shellfish: scallop, mussel, prawn (which, pleasantly, had its head split in half so I could scoop out the innards), and squid. The soup was “finished” with a drizzle of mantecato (which, I was only vaguely familiar with, conceptually, from reading about it in Giorgio Locatelli’s cookbook) - this version was a baccalao-infused cream. To my understanding, mantecato is the process by which cream/butter is “mounted” into a recipe, be it risotto or ice cream. This was not so much beat into the soup (as mantacatos usually are) as just drizzled over the soup.
The soup was warm and comforting. The seafood was perfectly-cooked. The spiciness was the most rewarding part of the rich and complex broth.
The wine pairings were very lackluster. The sommelier seemed particularly enthusiastic about the wines he was pairing - prattling off extensive knowledge about the terroir and tasting notes. To be sure, there were some very interesting wines. All of them were amiable by themselves. But, they did next to nothing for/with the food.
Bruni noted that Del Posto needed more blockbuster desserts. Two years later, I’d say they’re still working on that one. Our dolci were unexciting and forgettable. In fact, I thought the pre-dessert, a small dollop of celery sorbet annointed with just a few drops of 25 year-old balsamico, was better than any of the four desserts we were served. It was light and refreshing; the meal could have ended happily then and there.
We were served an assortment of the restaurant’s regular desserts in tasting portions; each of us took a bite and passed it down. The butterscotch semifreddo with butterscotch sauce was my favorite of the four.
Service was a little awkward. I couldn’t tell whether our servers were sycophantic, clueless, or despised us. Or, maybe, all three? That being said, on face value, everyone was hospitable. The only service issue of note was that at one point, they did pour tap water into our sparkling water. As we were on dolci, we didn’t say anything. The last time this happened to me was at The French Laundry. When I mentioned it, all of our water was replaced.
Chef Ladner was, without question, truly humble and very gracious. The New York Observer recently ran an extensive profile on Ladner, who has been aptly likened to Clark Kent in the Kitchen. He is quiet, and unassuming. He does wear those squarish black-framed glasses. And, he really does seem every bit as tall as he actually is. Now knowing that he cooks one day out of the week at Lupa, whence he came. I plan to make Lupa a stop in the future.
Again, what I appreciated most about the the restaurant is its dedication to history and development of Italian food. You will find at Del Posto, probably some of the more well-researched, esoteric, and regional Italian cuisine in the United States. It’s sort of an anthropological exercise in Italian cookery. The menu offers an eclectic assortment of different sensibilities - all Italian in some way. Perhaps this is too ambitious or unfocused - I can’t imagine a Chinese restaurant covering more than two regions on one menu with much success. But, for the most part, at least the food is well-executed.
I leave you with this self-description from Del Posto’s website for your consideration. I think it captures the theoretical (practicality being something totally different) purpose and spirit of Del Posto quite well:
“Del Posto is the ultimate expression of what an Italian restaurant should be. Joe Bastianich, Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali represent a convergence of different styles and experiences. The restaurant concept generated at Del Posto can best be described as trans-generational: an expression of the evolution of cuisines, menus, service and ambiance that have characterized the history of the Italian dining experience in this country.”
Perhaps this European sensibility and authenticity, with a few creative detours, is why the folks at Michelin Guide Rouge awarded Del Posto 2 of their coveted stars. For the same reasons I loved Del Posto, Bruni thought that the restaurant deserved 3 stars. I think both ratings are a little generous. But, I have only been once, whereas Bruni, and hopefully the Michelin Guide, based his opinion on three or more.
I don’t know that I’d run back to Del Posto. Certainly, I would entertain re-visiting the enoteca, if I’m ever in the neighborhood again. But, of the Batali-Bastianich empire, I’d much more likely find myself at Babbo, Esca, and hopefully Lupa, where I might get to experience Chef Ladner in his more familiar elements.
Again, you can read a more extensive review (if you can imagine such a thing) at (http://ulteriorepicure.wordpress.com/...). You can see all of the photos on my Flickr account: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ulterior...)