Sunday, February 20, 2011

Osteria Morini and Cici-Cela, New York NY

Rustic Italian pastas and Emilia-Romagna region brunch foods from the kitchen of a man who’d produced some of my favorite all time Italian meals; I figured the last meal of my most recent trip to New York to be a slam dunk. First a stellar impromptu dinner at Alto, later a superlative lunch at Convivio, and last a slightly less than excellent experience at Marea – Osteria Morini by Michael White was on my dining radar before it even it opened its doors. With glowing reviews rolling in and nearly four hours at MoMA and Barney’s plus the long walk down to SoHo (with luggage in hand) my expectations were admittedly high…

Planning in advance and leaving a plentiful 4.5 hours between the start of my brunch and my plane’s departure from LGA I walked up to the small space expecting a crowd, but on entering the doors it was quite the opposite – perhaps 1/2 of the restaurant was full and the “deafening” noise I’d heard rumored was largely absent. Approaching to podium my reservation was confirmed by a young woman who asked whether I’d prefer a table or the “chef’s counter” – essentially the bar up front where salads, salumi, and cheese were being prepared. Opting for the counter given my proclivity for watching the kitchen I was seated quickly while my bag and coat were checked.

With two young ladies working the line in relative silence, my server Sarah P. would soon arrive with the daily menu and inquire as to whether I would prefer iced or bottled water. Opting for iced water I was additionally offered coffee – an offer I assented to before turning back to a menu I’d already studied online and comparing it to the daily specials, none of which sounded all that special. Returning with my water Sarah asked if I had any questions and when I asked unfortunately informed me that half-orders of pasta could not be accommodated, even though I’d planned to order three to taste. Disappointed but understanding I asked her which of the three she would suggest and went with her choice plus a secondi.

Waiting for approximately 15 minutes while listening to one of the line cooks gripe about her hours and her social life to other cook and the bartender my coffee would arrive first – a 20oz Bodum French Press that was dropped off by an ancillary server without a word. A bold and nutty blend I cannot say who the provider was, but I will note that had I known it came in a press that did not include refills I’d have held off till dessert as it didn’t particularly pair well with either my pasta or my secondi.

With another delay of perhaps 10 minutes I noted that every other table and every person at the bar had bread to pair with the bottle of house olive oil at the table save for myself. Inquiring with the line cook who continued to sulk she mentioned this to one of the ancillary servers who eventually returned with a basket of cool but tasty rustic Italian bread with a hearty crust and spongy crumb. With no plate to contain the Olive Oil I set my coffee cup on the bar and used my saucer to taste the oil – clean, grassy, but not as tasty as I recall from Alto or Marea.

Shortly after eating a first slice of bread my pasta would arrive with zero description and the ancillary server who delivered it would then proceed to pick up the still-full bread basket and waltz away. More than a little frustrated at this point but not wanting the food to suffer, I picked up my fork and took a bite of the tortellini a piaciere with duck liver panna – what I tasted, largely, was…nothing. Thinking the coffee may have blunted my taste buds a second bite would follow and offer a bit more – a hint of salt, the faint smack of duck, and an interior that was so benign that it could have been foie gras, I guess, but when paired with the tough parcels of pasta it was tough to tell. Compared to the foie gras pastas at Scarpetta and Babbo this was a letdown of the utmost proportions.

Disappointed, water glass empty, and French Press spent I still would not see Sarah – just the ancillary servers who I’m 90% certain spoke no English; they would collect the French Press, the coffee cup and its oil soaked dish, and my empty plate to return to the kitchen – thankfully they also thought it fit to refill my water. A short wait, some jotted notes, and my main course would arrive – thankfully it would prove vastly superior to the pasta. Titled “Musseto” with baked eggs, braised cockscombs, sweetbreads, trotters, and salsa verde this was the sort of flavor profile I expected at Osteria Morini – hefty, rustic, salty, and satisfying. With three poached eggs floating in a tomato and cinnamon stew laden with unctuous offal the flavors and textures were varied with the heat of chili driving each flavor home. While I cannot even fathom the caloric load of this course the golden buttered toast only upped the ante and was perfect for soaking up all the left over juices…at least until the same bread thief as prior appeared and literally grabbed the plate while I still had toast hand asking “are you finished.”

With Sarah finally returning after I was *actually* finished and offering a dessert menu I finally had the opportunity to do something I rarely do in restaurants – complain to a server. Explaining to her the bread issues, the overzealous plate collecting, and the frankly bad service I received the only thing I expected – a sincere apology without excuses – plus she offered to buy me dessert, an admittedly nice gesture since I was planning on the Budino di Noce the moment I spotted it on the menu. Vastly more traditional than that at Lincoln but certainly less so than others, this lovely little dish featured creamy walnut custard topped with Meyer lemon sorbetto, crisp caramelized apples, rum-soaked raisins, and a puff pastry hat – a tasty amalgam of parts I’d have never thought to mix the overall flavor profile was actually that of an early season apple pie.

Settling the bill and collecting my bags I was assured by Sarah that my complaints had not fallen on deaf ears and that she would pass the information on to management – certainly the best I could have hoped for, all things considering, but not enough that I would return any time soon – for my dollar there is better rustic Italian in New York, better Michael White in New York, and vastly better service.

-

Leaving Morini with more than 3 hours before my flight home the final stop of my visit to New York City would be to grab a couple of items for the road – specifically the much praised pastries of Cici-Cela – a shop so small and unsassuming that I’m sure many don’t even realize it is there in the heart of SoHo despite it’s nearly 15 years of existence.

Entering the shop it was merely a second before I was greeted – first by the clerk and moments later by owner Laurent Dupal himself – hands and apron covered with flour and in the process of delivering freshly baked goods from the bakery in back to the front of the shop. Taking a moment to browse the tartes, cakes, cookies, and confections I immediately spotted my first selection and then inquired of the chef what he would recommend – the answer was definitive and therefore the only choice. With my trip to LGA explained to the clerk everything was packaged nicely and I was back on the street in minutes.

Stopping first to snap a picture before taking the subway up to Harlem in order to catch the M60 I’m proud to admit I resisted the temptation to enjoy my pastries all the way through the security check-point – I assure you this took willpower. Taking a seat with over an hour to spare, however, nothing would make it onto the plane – not a single crumb. Beginning first with the standard by which I judge all French pastries, the almond croissant was superb – filled with frangipane and topped with powdered sugar and sliced almonds. Crisp on the exterior, fluffy and loaded with butter inside the almond filling struck a great balance between sweet and savory without ruining the structure – a feat only seen once before, at Francis Payard in Las Vegas.

Moving on to the chef’s suggestion I’m still not sure if he recommended it because it was his favorite or if it was because he had just baked it, but regardless I’m glad he did – it has given me yet another thing to obsess about for my upcoming trip to Paris; the Paris Brest. Apparently meant to be shaped like a bicycle tire – or a circle – this lovely puff of buttery pate à choux was essentially a sliced cream puff stuffed with thick and nutty praline cream and topped with toasted sliced almonds and as you would expect from a place using real butter and top grade flour it was sublime – not too sweet, not too heavy, crispier than an éclair but only barely – like the chef, I would recommend it. Actually, all things considering, I’d recommend Cici-Cela wholeheartedly and if France is making better pastry than this…well, call me excited for April.

3 comments:

huiray said...

http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/763030

:-)

Daniel said...

Hi
I was looking for your e-mail address, but I couldn’t find it. The reason I’m trying to contact you is because I am currently working on a project in Columbus, Ohio and I was looking for some restaurant suggestions. I am a native of Philadelphia and I thought your opinions on the Philadelphia food scene were inline with my tastes. I able to be reached at Levine82@gmail.com. I look forward to hearing from you.

Dan

uhockey said...

uhockey at yahoo dot com
If you look at this blog you're realize how often I eat out in Columbus.....IE, almost never. :-)