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Look, I want to like Restaurant Week; I do.
In theory, anyway, I love the idea that beginning on Monday, more than 100 restaurants in the city will once again be offering up special prix fixe menusthree courses for $20.04 at lunch, $30.04 for dinner. For food lovers of limited means, it’s meant as a chance to sample some interesting cooking at pretty minimal pain to the pocketbook. And for restaurants, the biannual event, held in late July and early January, is meant to keep dining rooms full and buzzing during traditionally slow times.
A win-win, as the PR people say.
So why won’t I be patronizing the city’s top restaurants next week? Having eaten out at six different participating restaurants during the last go-round, I’ve decided to sit this Restaurant Week out, on principle. There was no single, explicit moment that I can point toabusive service, egregiously awful food; rather, it was a steady accumulation of disappointments that drove me to declare myself a conscientious objector.
The thing is, I thought I had girded myself against such disillusion. I was not the naif I’d been several years earlier, when, the memory of chef Morou Ouattara’s lively, inventive cooking for a special send-off dinner for a couple of friends still fresh in my mind, I made my reservation at Red Sageonly to find that the restaurant had devised a separate, scaled-back menu for Restaurant Week. Last summer, as the event loomed, I decided that I would target only those places that would do it justice. Red pen in hand, I went through the city’s list of participating restaurants and either called or checked their Web sites, comparing Restaurant Week menus vs. regular menus with the sort of narrow-eyed scrutiny I had never, ever given my schoolwork.
I eliminated any restaurant that was straitjacketing its customers by offering only a salad for the first course, unless the chef happened to be evangelical in his or her zeal for using fresh, local ingredients; a plate of mixed greens straight off the Sysco truck was the last thing I wanted to see. Next to be crossed off were those places whose offerings did not square at all with their regular menu. It was startling, and a little depressing, too, to see salmon turning up with such frequency around town. Not wild salmon, mind you, which is delicious and full of character and remains a treat, but the farm-raised variety that has become ubiquitous, ridiculously inexpensive, and virtually tasteless. A number of chefs I talked to told me that I wouldn’t see any salmon on their menus, but this wasn’t the declaration of independence I hoped I was hearing; it was only because there had been such a run on the fish that they’d been shut out.
Ristorante Tosca topped my list of places left to hit. I was heartened to see that it gave its customers the full run of the regular menuall the apps, entrees, and desserts were there for the choosing. But almost from the moment my wife and I sat down for lunch, I couldn’t help feeling that we’d been outed as Restaurant Week customers and, as a result, pegged for a different brand of service from the regular expense-account crowd. Our waiter went about his appointed rounds with the chilly efficiency of an undertaker. The single glass of pinot grigio I ordered was to be my only glassI was never offered a second. And why should I have been? I was young, casually dressed, and obviously there only because I was a
bargain-hunter. Nor were we alone in being thus profiled. The table of youngish women seated next to us was given the same aloof, obligatory treatment. It was hard not to think that the entire staff was counting the hours until this infernal week of philistines was over. The food had its momentschef Cesare Lanfranconi’s tomato tart with basil gelato was a delicate expression of summerbut the vast majority of what I ate felt tossed-off, hardly the work of a chef who was clearly capable of subtlety and refinement.
Lanfranconi was once an understudy of Roberto Donna’s in the kitchen at Galileo, and, in a neat twist, Donna, after years of griping from Restaurant Week customers about his flintiness when it came to his menu choices, seemed to have taken a page from his protégé last July: He widened the number of choices, though he did not go so far as Lanfranconi by making available the entire menu. Still, this was encouraging, and I jumped to make a reservation, eager to see if the lusty Tuscan, who of late had devoted much of his energy to making Laboratorio del Galileo a national-level foodie temple, was as committed to pleasing his guests at the quietly aging Galileo as his new policy seemed to suggest.
A note inside the menu invited us to partake of “some Italian hospitality”a greeting at odds with the demeanor of the staff, which seemed to have raised its customary hauteur to new levels of iciness. It was not just the 20-minute wait, even with our reservation. Nor even the fact that I had to ask, twice, for a wine list. No, it was the greater indignity of being made to feel as though I had flourished a coupon for $10 off when our waiter arrived to take our order.
“Would you recommend the halibut or the tuna?” my wife asked the grim-faced server.
“Tuna,” he barked, and, having thus dispatched with one order, turned toward me. “You?”
My notes tell me we dined on good but undistinguished ravioli and slightly overdone tuna in a Ligurian tomato sauce. My notes, not my memoryand that’s the point: There was nothing about our meal that lingered. These dishes bore little trace of the passion and craftsmanship that Donna routinely pours into his work at Laboratorio. I’ve sensed more commitment from the humbly sourced, inelegantly furnished joint down the street from me.
It was much the same at the middling but pricey Butterfield 9, though service was comparatively doting. The place was packed on a sweltering midweek night; it had the air of having been rented out for a huge, happening private party. I was impressed that then-chef Martin Saylor had gone ahead and included a dish of wild boar on his menu, less so with the executionsavory and tender at the start, the meat seemed to grow considerably tougher, and duller, with each bite.
To be fair, the week was not a total wash. At Charlie Palmer Steak, I had a very good carrot-ginger soup, the flavors clean and pure, and a crusty, salty hanger steak that managed to convey all the nutty, gamy qualities of the cut without too much of the accompanying chewiness. Circle Bistro’s rendition of this long-overlooked but suddenly rediscovered cut was also good, if less refined, and I got a kick out of the cappuccino semifreddo for dessert. Given that both restaurants had only recently made their debuts, however, it’s possible to chalk these successes up to the fact that they were still striving to make a good first impression.
I’m curious to see how both places will hold up under increased scrutiny. I’m also tempted by the prospect of good food and drink at good prices, an inveterate keeper of the faith despite persistent disappointment.
Which is why, this time around, I’m embarking on my own, private version of Restaurant Week as antidote: Seven days, six of my favorite little holes in the wallthe kinds of bighearted, committed places that deserve my support all the more for not shamelessly courting it. Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.