Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Team bonding at Aroma Kitchen & Wine Bar

Last night my team at work went out for a celebratory, blowing-off-steam dinner at Aroma Kitchen and Wine Bar in the East Village. Aroma is one of my "list" restaurants-- I read about it when it was opening years ago, well before I moved to New York, and I've wanted to go ever since. Well, last night my wish was fulfilled in the form of a lovely and memorable dinner.

One thing to note about Aroma is that it is tiny. The bar takes up almost all of the dining room-- you have to squeeze past it to get to the two or three tables (or the bathroom) in the back, and the handful of tables in front are dwarfed by the presence of the bar. That said, the space is endearing-- rustically decorated, with wine bottles lining the walls. Our table, in the front, was near enough to the open front door that we had a pleasant breeze with us the entire evening. Speaking as a person who is cold all the time, it was an incredibly welcome break from the over-chilled restaurants crowding this city.

My teammate M and I arrived first, so we had the privilege of ordering the wine. The Aroma wine list is hilarious, chock full of descriptions like "barnyard, wet forest, prunes" and "cassis, blackberry, bacon...happily feminine."

The wine list, with character

M and I ordered a gewurtztraminer ("citrus, sweet peaches, sharp acidity, long and perfectly balanced, superb with aperitivo or white meats"), and after we tasted it (delicious, with a beautiful color and a particularly interesting smell), one of the owners came by to chat a little bit about the bottle's winemakers-- a nice touch.

Gewurtz in good glassware

I asked for a bread basket, and while they brought it the rest of our party arrived. While they settled in, I gobbled down a piece of of the white loaf. It had a great stretchy crumb with large air bubbles and a crackly crust. There was a small dish of olives in olive oil to accompany the bread; the olives were fairly generic and the olive oil was serviceable but not mind-blowing. The bread itself, though, carried this course through-- I only wish there were some salt on the table to add to the olive oil. When we finished this small dish, they brought more bread without us asking-- well done.

The olives and olive oil tasted faintly of bacon. Is that weird?

We placed our orders, opting to begin with a mixture of personal appetizers and apps for the table. We drank our wine and nibbled on bread, and after a bit of a wait the appetizers emerged. Two members of our party went with the special soup of the day (part of a VERY lengthy recitation of specials for the evening), a mixture of pureed cauliflower and turnip. I think it was turnip-- it might have been parsnip; for some reason those two veggies are stored in the same part of my brain. Either way, the soup's orderers pronounced it delicious.

Some sort of garnish was in there. I don't remember what it was...

My manager, A, ordered gnocchi. It looked like baked mac & cheese and came in a delightful shallow ramekin. It contained sausage, white truffle oil, and a few cheeses, and the crispy crust looked especially good.

Gnocchi gratin

Of the two apps for the table, the one I sampled was the warm beets. It was a stack of beets with bits of spread sandwiched in between the layers surrounded by a drizzle of warm beet dressing and a few little fried spheres. From the menu description, I surmise that the spread was gorgonzola and fig jam, but I didn't detect any of the pungent bite I typically associate with gorgonzola (I really don't like bleu cheese, so I tend to detect it when it's there). Overall, that turned out to be a good thing, because I found this appetizer delicious. Strikingly sweet, but delicious. Although I am still puzzled by the little fried balls-- I ate one and it was empty, like a fried little ball of air.

The leaning tower of BEETS-a. Get it?

The final appetizer was the calamari. It's described on the menu as "baked stuffed calamari, almond, shrimp, capers, fennel, parsley," and sure, maybe that's what was in it. It looked like calamari egg rolls, and there were two particularly graphic garnishes with tentacles. I steered clear, but the others seemed to like it.

Pretty, but-- eew.

We finished the appetizers, and our genial waiter cleared the table. The wine kept flowing, and we waited-- for a while-- for our entrees to appear. But finally, there they were, all swooping down to our table at once after being lined up on the shelf along the wall. My colleague L ordered the black linguine, which was a striking dish dotted with halved cherry tomatoes, shrimp, and small circles of squid. This dish seemed bizarre, but L seemed to like it. I was faintly curious about what the black linguine tasted like, but let's be clear: not curious enough.

Verrrrrry interesting.

B, the final member of our party, ordered the ravioli. I believe it was termed pink ravioli-- and to be entirely honest, I have no recollection of what was in this dish, although it's clear there was a touch of melted cheese on top. This is why I usually try to bring a little notebook along-- the ol' memory, especially with recited specials, sometimes fails me.

The pink ravioli will forever be mysterious.

Both A and M ordered the chicken involtini. It was stuffed with pesto, mozzarella, and proscuitto, and it came with a yummy little cake of potatoes and what tasted like leeks. This was a large portion of chicken, and it came with an attractively browned exterior. The potato cake was delicious; I had a small bite of it. Both A and M seemed to enjoy this dish.

Chicken 'n' potatoes

As for me, well, I ordered a salad (obviously). On the menu, it's "Satur Farms organic mesclun, beets, radishes, ricotta salata, basil, mint," but I ordered it without radishes (not my favorite). A requested on my behalf to replace the radishes with "extra everything else," and our waiter agreed to "supersize" my salad. All in good fun, except the salad was pretty small when it arrived. It was basically some mixed greens with a few shavings of ricotta salata on top. I didn't detect much basil, and only at the very end did I get a bite of mint-- a good thing, because too much mint in a salad is a weird thing.

If this is supersized, I'm not sure what the regular portion looks like...

We all gobbled up our entrees, and the overall consensus was that the food at Aroma was very good. But, of course, we weren't finished-- the most important course of any dinner remained ahead. Once the entree dishes were cleared, we waited another fairly long time for the dessert menus to come. The dessert options were sparse, but all except M found something appealing. We placed our order and commenced another slightly-too-long wait for the desserts to come.

L got the pistachio creme brulee. It looked good; he said it was fine, not extraordinary but not average. It had the nice crackly crust that's key to all good creme brulees, though, definitely a positive sign. It also came with a small thin cookie sticking rakishly out of the creme.

Creme brulee, the most fun dessert to make EVER

A ordered the ice cream and sorbet sampler. We tried to decipher what the flavors were; I nailed down the sorbets (raspberry and cantaloupe) but couldn't figure out the last flavor was. The waiter claimed it was vanilla but it most certainly wasn't-- of that, at least, I am sure. The scoops came perched on top of the same type of thin florentine cookies, which were good but would have been tastier if they were thicker.

Raspberry, cantaloupe, and miscellaneous frozen treats

B ordered the vanilla bread pudding. It looked good enough, and he ate about half of it. While I wisely remembered that eating an entire order of heavy and rich bread pudding is generally not a good idea for me, I did try a bite of this after he was finished. The best way I can describe this dessert is... gross. It tasted moldy. Truly. It tasted as though the bread were moldy. Eesh. Mind you, I don't think the bread actually WAS moldy, but it tasted... off.

How do you make a dessert taste BAD?

As for me, I ordered the gianduja panna cotta, with homemade nocciola gelato. This dessert was beautifully plated on a long, thin rectangular plate, with the two main players at either end and two hazelnuts in the middle. The panna cotta itself had a good nutella flavor and a jiggly texture. The gelato was also delicious, and I happily polished it off. This dessert was clearly the winner among the bunch, but it definitely wasn't one of the best desserts I've ever had (see my post on Finale for that). From the small list of desserts to the solidly average execution, I'd say that it's clear the dessert course isn't Aroma's focus. It would be nice if they could step up their game here-- it could bring the whole experience up a subtle but all-important notch.

Three forms of delicious hazelnut flavor

We had a great team dinner at Aroma. The restaurant is clearly a labor of love of its owners, and all the staff there greeted everyone as old friends (it was plain that this was a neighborhood restaurant with a faithful group of highly appreciated "regulars"). Only a few factors prevented Aroma from becoming a genuine five-spatula place, the dessert course being one. Another, which, granted, was in keeping with the authentic Italian atmosphere, was that they don't have Diet Coke (M's dessert of choice). All right, but in NYC, you've gotta have DC. Finally, we tried to pay with an Amex card at the end and they didn't accept it-- irking, certainly, but something that showed Aroma was more in the small-time business than in the game for a huge audience (something they couldn't handle capacity-wise anyway). All in all, though, Aroma had delicious food, a truly friendly and accommodating staff, and a great atmosphere. It would be the perfect place for a date or just a low-key, tasty meal. And for that, I give Aroma Kitchen & Wine Bar four out of five Offset Spatulas.

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