Sunday, October 21, 2007

Centro Vinoteca

74 7th Ave South (Bleecker St)

A glance at, which is to dorky foodies as IMDb is to dorky film buffs (but much, much worse), reveals that Anne Burrell, Executive Chef of Centro Vinoteca, held the same position at The E.U. from 2005-2006. Having reviewed The E.U. under its current Executive Chef (the third since Burrell’s departure) back in May, I feel completely justified in stating that Burrell has traded up. Way up.

In another past life, Burrell was Mario Batali’s sous chef on Food Network’s Iron Chef America, and Batali’s way with hip music and staff in soothing surroundings seems to have osmosed its way into Burrell’s new digs. The sleek blacks and grays of Centro Vinoteca’s furniture ooze urban chic without being pretentious or uncomfortable. When we arrived at our table, a wine list and slim menu of piccolini (which my limited grasp of the Italian language and woodwind instruments tells me means “little stuff”) lay before us. I feared for a moment—needlessly—that these 17 mini-dishes were all the food the restaurant offered. If, however, the three we sampled were any indication of the quality of the rest, a piccolini-only meal would have been a delight, although a bit disjointed given the number of courses it would have comprised. We chose the truffled deviled eggs, cipolline fritte (fried cipollini onions) with aioli, and peperonata (stewed peppers) with goat cheese to munch on while we decided on the rest of our meal (the menu for which, our waiter assured us, existed and brought us on our request). Swoon. There were actual bits of truffle in the deviled yolk of the eggs, rendering them decadent and delicious. Truffle oil is a more economical substitute often used to impart truffle flavor, and Burrell and company could easily have taken that route, but elected instead to regale us with the real thing. The cipolline were perfect little whole onions in a tempura-type batter, and the aioli was so tasty that we dipped the parsley garnish from the deviled eggs in the extra. Simple and perfect. The goat cheese and peppers were lovely together and boasted a gorgeous red color when spread on the accompanying slices of crusty bread. As I said, a dozen tiny courses of this stuff wouldn’t be a bad way to spend an evening.

One of our first courses was Dancing Ewe Farm ricotta sformato with caponata and arugula pesto. Sformato means, literally, unmolded, and in practice is a sort of denser soufflé, often containing beaten eggs. This one looked like a shallow, scallop-edged volcano and was light and creamy. The caponata, which went beautifully with the ricotta, contained the usual eggplant and peppers, and the unexpected addition of raisins provided a well placed hint of sweetness. Next up was lamb bolognese with crispy gnocchi and fried onions. This is gnocchi as you’ve never seen it before, caramelized on the outside, hearty and flavorful. Combined with the ground lamb, this was, as one at my table put it, “the ultimate comfort food,” and as imaginative a preparation as you’re likely to encounter.

My main course was farrotto with lobster, peas, mint, and oregano. Farro is a grain that is a predecessor of modern-day wheat, and farrotto is a risotto-like dish made from it. The lobster included tender claw meat and the flavors were refreshing and delightful. Knowing that dessert would surely be a treat, I tried to stop eating the farrotto before it was all gone, but was unable to resist downing every last bit. I also had the opportunity to taste the pancetta- and rosemary-crusted baby chicken with parmigiano polenta and fagiolini (string beans). The “crust” was more of a thin, crispy layer, “bursting with flavor,” that lay atop the bird. Burrell and her team succeeded with chicken where so many other kitchens fail: the meat was juicy and perfectly cooked, and the dish as a whole delicious and just right.

At last, time for dessert. The hazelnut cake with Nutella mousse was nicely presented and had a deconstructed, almost sandwich-cookie look to it. For me, however, it was the weakest part of the meal. I think it suffered from its exceptional surroundings; at a lesser restaurant, it would have been a highlight. The goat cheese cheesecake with macerated blueberries, on the other hand, measured up in every way to what had preceded it. It was not overly sweet and had a smooth, pleasing texture and crunchy crust. The blueberries were not only an excellent flavor choice, but made for a stunning contrast against the white of the goat cheese.

Earlier on the day we dined at Centro Vinoteca, I had received an e-mail from my father, asking for a Manhattan restaurant recommendation for an upcoming trip to the city. Partway through the meal, I replied to him, saying: “We are halfway through dinner at Centro Vinoteca, and the food has been so yummy that I feel completely confident recommending it to you.” I offer you the same counsel. As the meal went on, my resolve was only strengthened, and I look forward to my next visit and the opportunity to sample more of the extraordinary fare Anne Burrell has created to tempt and excite our palates—no easy feat in this town.

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