I’d almost given up on “haute Italian” before my May trip to New York. After less-than-amazing experience for excessive prices at Valentino, La Botte, and Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles/Santa Monica and vastly better quantity/quality experiences at “mid-range” Italian places in multiple cities I’d begun to think that perhaps “fine dining” should be reserved to French, American, and Mediterranean cuisine – thankfully my trip to New York brought me back to my love of Italian with sublime meals at Scarpetta and Alto. Having had a great experience at Café Spiaggia on my previous trip to Chicago and traveling with my family who loves Italian I decided that our one group splurge meal for the trip would be at the main house overlooking North Michigan Avenue.
Speaking with dining room manager Chad Bertelsman before our arrival I was provided a copy of the updated menu and although I’d heard comment from others that Spiaggia’s price vastly outstripped the quantity and quality of its food the dishes on the menu and the reputation of sublime service sold me that it would be worth the expense…unfortunately I was wrong…while the food was wonderful and the view sublime, the service was bad and actually offensive.
First off, while Chad himself suggested he would be looking forward to greeting us the experience and service I received was anything but "welcoming." Chad never presented as he was called to manage the café that evening – and clearly his guidance was missed as the entire staff seemed to have their nose in the air from the moment we arrived - the hostess actually "greeted" us with her back to us before sauntering off to see if our table was ready. Seated eventually at a beautiful window seat our server Erin literally stood there almost GLARING at my family after stopping by the fourth time (in less than 10 minutes) to see if we were ready to place orders. After orders were placed she never once returned other than when casually walking by once and saying "is everything good?"
Additional service issues marring the evening seemed to occur from the moment we stated we weren't wine drinkers – from there on it was as thought our $400 bill didn't matter. Most notably, while we're on the subject of price, my aunt ordered the crab salad as an appetizer and the lobster spaghetti. Without explanation Erin simply stated "I'll make that your main" and increased the price by $15 without indicating that would be the case. Next up on the hit list, the incessant reaching across people to fill water (once, lifting the glass and actually managing to spill ~1/8 to 1/4oz of water onto my uovo ravioli.) Finally, the largest offense was when the waiter behind me elbowed me hard in the back of the head while assisting the other table. I saw stars, literally, and received and ancillary "oh, sorry about that" as condolences. While "mistakes" do happen, it certainly is not like the tables were jammed together.
Service issues aside and the fact that communicating this to the restaurant and Chad himself has led to not even an apology – but rather denial, I will state that the food was impressive, albeit pricey. Beginning first with a presentation of breads including Ricotta Rosemary, Ciabatta, Cheese Sticks, and Whole Wheat served with a wonderfully creamy butter and an amuse of Tuna Crudo with summer Radish, Mani Olive Oil, and fresh Microgreens each subsequent dish displayed a degree of expert craft, great presentation, and top quality ingredients.
Arriving first, our selection of antipasti and pastas –
#1) GAMBE DI GRANCHIO CON FINOCCHIO, CIPOLLA DOLCE E FAGIOLINI Warm Dungeness crab with baby fennel, sweet onions, green beans and 2008 Manni Per Mio Figlio extra virgin olive oil. Ordered by my aunt this dish was well prepared with delicate and flaky crab perched atop a buttery toast, crisp green beans, and an amalgam of fennel and onions – adding a wonderful degree of texture and nuance was a dab of Per Mio Figlio Olive Oil from Manni – incredible.
#2) RISOTTO NERO CON POLIPO E PESTO GENOVESE Organic Acquerello risotto with octopus terrine and bone marrow finished with squid ink and Genovese pesto. Ordered by my sister this dish was certainly not plentiful, but the flavors and presentation were certainly attractive. Flawlessly prepared risotto, but no better than that at Alana’s in Columbus and served with less than 1/2 ounce of octopus, 1/2 ounce of creamy marrow, and accented by the salty ink and tangy pesto I can’t say there was much to share, but what I did taste was pleasant.
#3) RAVIOLETTO DI CRESCENZA E TARTUFI NERI CON FAVE Crescenza cheese and Umbrian black truffle filled pasta with fava beans. Ordered by my mother this single long noodle was well prepared al dente and stuffed with an admixture of truffle and creamy cheese. Adding a degree of texture were the fava beans which were very well prepared and added a meatiness to the dish without overwhelming the delicate flavors inside the pasta shell.
#4) UOVO IN RAVIOLO CON GUANCIALE E PISELLI Organic Yuppie Hill Farm egg filled pasta with guanciale, Pecorino Romano and fresh peas. Having tasted a similar dish at Osteria Mozza I expected a lot from this dish but was unfortunately underwhelmed. While certainly good I simply found the flavors to be lacking compared to Batali’s version and the Farm Egg was nowhere near as creamy (or plentiful) as the duck egg at Mozza. Additionally, clearly annoyed by the water splash, this version was more expensive than that at Mozza.
#5) Ostensibly the reason for my visit, GNOCCHI DI PATATE IN SALSA DI RICOTTA E TARTUFI NERI Hand rolled potato gnocchi with ricotta sauce with Umbrian black truffles was actually worth the price of admission. Having tasted and been wowed by Café Spiaggia’s gnocchi in the past these pillows of potato were of a similar texture – literally melting in the mouth. The gravy, additionally, was absolutely transcendent with the creamy and smooth ricotta accenting the sexy essence of the truffles – a truly beautiful dish that is rivaled only by Keller’s gnocchi preps at TFL and Bouchon for best all time.
#6) Moving onto our main courses, three of us opted for secondi while my aunt got the previously mentioned up-charged pasta. Entitled SPAGHETTI NERI ALLA CHITARRA CON ARAGOSTA, AGLIO NUOVO, PEPERONCINI DI CALABRIA E MENTA Hand crafted squid ink spaghetti with lobster, spring garlic, dried Calabrian chilis and mint the dish reminded me somewhat of the incredible lobster spaghetti at Scarpetta and somewhat of the lobster risotto at Valentino – but smaller in portion and less tasty than either. Salty and savory with just a hint of heat tempered by the mint – but certainly not $42.
#7) My sister’s main for the evening, SALMONE IN CROSTA DI ZUCCHINE CON POMODORI GIALLI Olive oil poached Neah Bay king salmon with baby zucchini, Italian yellow tomato and basil was a relatively standard fish preparation utilizing clearly fresh and invariably unfrozen salmon lightly poached on the outside and nearly raw on the inside – paired with sweet zucchini and sweeter tomatoes heavily accented with fresh chopped olive oil both my sister and I thought this amongst the best Salmon we’d ever tasted.
#8) A selection off the tasting menu, LONZA E PIEDINI DI MAIALE CON LENTICCHIE DI CASTELLUCCIO E MOSTARDA DI CIPOLLE Wood grilled Becker Lane Berkshire pork loin and crispy trotters with Castelluccian lentils and onion mostarda was my mother’s selection – and a good selection at that. While not as delectable as the pork options at either Batali’s East or West coast flagships this perfectly prepared loin was well complimented by the creamy onion compote and al dente lentils. As my mother does not enjoy trotters I was able to eat this item in whole and can only say that it was by far and away the best pork I’ve had outside the pig’s head dish at The French Laundry. Creamy, smokey, fatty – glorious.
#9) The final savory and the most expensive item on the menu was selected by myself - GAMBERI ROSSI E POLENTA AL FORNO CON ERBE CIPOLLINA RICCIO DI MARE E CAVAILE Wood-roasted Santa Barbara spot prawns with yellow polenta, sea urchin, Italian Osetra caviar and chives. While not exactly what I expected from the description this dish was absolutely fantastic – albeit quite petite. Six medium prawns and three cubes of polenta – polenta blended with creamed uni and fan fried crispy then topped with approximately 30-40 eggs of caviar – once again, flawless execution from a clearly intelligent and ambitious chef.
Having been elbowed in the head mid-mains I have to say I was rather surly when our waitress finally returned to offer dessert. Clearly oblivious and myself not wanting to make a scene I accepted the dessert menu and left it up to my family to decide whether to stay or go. Browsing the menu they each found an item that sounded appealing and thus we stayed. Dish #10, therefore, was TORTA AL MASCARPONE IN SALSA DI CAFFE ILLY with Chilled Mascarpone cheese torte with espresso sauce and it was ordered by my sister – a tiramisu addict. Attractive and well presented this dish was nearly a panna cotta in texture and was topped with a glorious chocolate gelato and lying atop a puddle of espresso cream sauce. Good, not great, but my sister liked it.
#11) PANNA COTTA DI LIMONE CON BISCOTTO DI POLENTA with Lemon panna cotta with polenta cookie and Meyer lemon vodka. Ordered by my mother this dish was the most intriguing of the desserts and the combination of tart/bitter alcohol flavors worked beautifully with the superbly sweet panna cotta. While the polenta cookie didn’t add much, its lemon tones were quite well paired with the rest of the dish.
#12) SEMIFREDDO DI CIOCCOLATO CON CREMA D’ARANCIA E ZAFFERANO Semi-frozen Valhrona chocolate mousse with orange and saffron was ordered by my aunt and while good was largely unmemorable. Like a haute-chocolate-orange with an element of savory, I much preferred the chocolate-orange dessert at Scarpetta.
#13) BABA AFFOGATO CON PANNA Rum syrup soaked brioche with Mick Klug Farms blueberries and apricots topped with whipped cream. My selection for the evening – after stellar Baba au Rum presentations at both MiX and The Modern perhaps I expected too much, but this dish was relatively underwhelming with the Brioche over-baked and rum largely understated. The highlight of the dish for me was actually the delicate interplay between the sweet and fresh berries and the incredibly fresh and velvety cream.
Served along with the desserts was a plate of largely forgettable cookies – the only which was truly notable being the ball of pistachio cream.
All the above combined with a generalized "stuck up" staff who acted as though it was a privilege to eat at Spiaggia left a very poor taste in my mouth - especially when compared to the genuine and truly gracious, friendly, and refined yet (dare I say) casual service at places like Charlie Trotter's and TRU in the past. This isn't even to mention the following night when I dined at Alinea - a place where it truly is a "privilege" to eat and received refined and attentive, yet down to earth service for 4+ hours.
All told, Spiaggia has great food and a great view - for some that may be enough. For myself, I like the service to match the chef's vision and I certainly don't appreciate nickel and dime up charges, snooty pretense, or a stiff elbow. I also don’t like excuses – whether it be from the dining room manager or from customers who act as though somehow Spiaggia’s location justifies their prices – I’ve had better Italian in finer setting for less.