Like many of the “celebrity chefs” I enjoy, my fondness for Mario Batali has roots in fond memories from days past – a meal at Babbo was our first in New York during a visit in 2008 and despite the tricky reservations the table was actually obtained last minute as we drove from Ohio to New York to “get away from things” after my father’s untimely passing in 2008. Loud and boisterous Babbo was my first taste of Batali and it would quickly be followed by Otto and subsequently by other Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York outposts with each at least good and often times great. Always fun and always championing excellent service it was really no surprise to me when Del Posto, the fine dining end of the Batali empire, landed its fourth NYT star under Sifton – a star that firmly placed the restaurant on my “must visit” list for my next trip to New York, and with a $29 3-course lunch the decision was a no brainer.
Arriving around 10:00am at LaGuardia and catching the shuttle to midtown I turned out to be approximately an hour early for my 12:30 reservation and opted to see if an early check-in would be allowed – to my surprise the restaurant was less than 1/3 full and after checking my coat and bag I was led to a lavish two top in the main dining room without delay. With a grand piano replacing the standard Batali soundtrack of Beatles, Stones, and the Who it took me mere moments to settle in and I was promptly greeted by my captain who, in conjunction with the ancillary staff, would orchestrate a flawless afternoon in terms of service – water refilled as if my an invisible hand, bread replenished without request, and all plates delivered with full description and cleared appropriately.
With the menu explained in great detail shortly after I selected ice water over bottled I inquired as to whether additional plates could be added to the $29 prix fixe and was told “of course – a $10 per course surcharge will apply for each dish beyond the third. Having already scouted the online menu extensively ordering would commence quickly - $39 for four proper courses plus amuses, mignardises, and candies.
Order placed it would be mere moments before the dining would begin – first a small troika of amuses bouche. Beginning with choux pastry stuffed with creamy mortadella, crispy “suppli” Roman rice balls with mozzarella and gold dust, and “stracciatella” – a roman eggdrop soup with celery salt around the rim each of the flavors was mild and distinct – a variety of textures, flavors, and ingredients opening the palate up to the possibilities ahead.
Browsing the posh interior and noticing that most (if not all) the other patrons were suited men engaged in conversation - some with laptops or papers – there was no doubt Del Posto has become quite the spot for a power lunch. Unsuited and unaccompanied I was next brought the oft raved bread basket – piping hot and featuring an airy baguette, buttery rosemary focaccia, and a crisp rustic Italian roll. With each bread excellent on its own, the accoutrements to the bread were a whole different story – one a creamy and sweet butter and the other a dollop of lardo – whipped pork fat with hefty notes of salt, nuts, and audacious umami. As I enjoyed the basket I was brought the most recent copies of Batali’s magazine to leaf through – a nice touch.
With the bread serving as an ample vehicle to pork-fat consumption my first course would arrive as – well, pork with fat. Titled Warm Cotechino with Umbrain Lentil Vinagrette & Dried Fruit Mostarda the dish itself was center-pieced by a thick pork sausage atop a bed of beautifully cooked lentils with hints of vinegar and mustard seed. Generous in portion and topped with candied cherry and apricot compote the flavor balance was excellent, though the texture of the sausage was a tad grainy for my palate.
My second course of the meal would arrive approximately 10 minutes and a piece of focaccia after the Cotechino – unfortunately it would be a major disappointment. Titled Gnocchi con Pomodoro the dish featured small potato dumplings that were decent in texture, but poorly drained and somewhat watery. Topping the pasta with chunky tomato sauce lacking both salinity and seasoning – as gnocchi is my favorite pasta this dish was a major let down in taste, texture, and even visual appeal – as a matter of fact it was bad enough that I sent half of the small portion back to the kitchen untouched.
Sipping my water and browsing the magazine while I waited for something that would hopefully cleanse my mind and palate of the pasta it would be a delay of nearly 20 minutes before the next course would arrive, but unlike the gnocchi it was worth the wait. Modest in portion but ample in flavor, Seared Duck Breast with Apician Spices, Savor alla Francescana & Lovage was the dish of the meal with the duck breast tender and the skin crisp. Alongside the breast, a dollop of thigh confit at one side and a quenelle of dried apricot and pumpkin with pumpkin seeds at the other – one sweet and one savory – and at the base of the dish a celery root puree that added an earthy base to the rich duck jus added tableside.
With mains finished and coffee ordered – a rather acidic blend from Lavazza served in a French Press and refilled for free – my dessert would be the Chocolate Ricotta Tortino with Toasted Sicilian Pistachios & Extra Virgin Olive Oil Gelato. Heavy in dark chocolate notes and nicely balanced by the savory ricotta the dish was essentially a designer Italian Ho-Ho. Not overly sweet and paired with Batali’s now-famous Olive Oil Gelato there was certainly nothing light about this dish and the glassy palate feel of the olive oil would have almost been “too much” were it not for the crunchy pistachios and cookie crumbles.
Working on my second round of coffee and finishing up the last pages of the magazine my final tastes of Del Posto would arrive in the form of a cheese grater full of petit fours – bombolini with vanilla and orange zest crema, chocoloate covered lollipops filled with olive oil gelato, crunchy candied grapefruit, apple raisin polenta tort, and a cocoa dusted Amedei chocolate truffle – each well crafted and tasty, particularly the bombolini and tort.
Settling the bill and collecting my bag I thanked my servers and made my way to the streets for an afternoon of wandering the Tribeca gallery scene – always one of my favorite activities in New York. Thinking back on the experience and the price I must admit I understand the appeal of Del Posto as a business lunch – for fine dining the place is a deal and the setting is lovely. With that noted, compared to other equally priced lunches in the city (both Italian and otherwise) Del Posto’s food just did not “wow” in the way I had expected – everything was simply too safe, too quiet, too un-Italian, and decidedly too un-Batali…like an “experience” more than a restaurant, an experience created to earn Sifton or Michelin’s stars…which it has.