Saturday, August 9, 2008

Sweet wine and sweeter desserts: An Aroma rereview

Reader warning: I will state up front that this post is far from impartial. After my first review of Aroma Kitchen and Wine Bar, in which I expressed my displeasure at the dessert offerings, the proprietors contacted me to let me know that they had recently hired a pastry chef and would have a new and improved dessert menu shortly. They invited me to come back and check out the desserts, and so this past weekend, the faithful dining triumvirate made its way back to Aroma for some wine, food, and--yes--desserts.

When we arrived, we were greeted warmly by the staff and owners and showed to our table. We sat right in the front of the restaurant at a high table in the corner, up against the windows open to the cool and blissfully un-humid breezes. Since my back was resting against a protruding metal bar and my feet were dangling approximately 24 inches away from touching the ground, I wished for either a back cushion or a bar to rest my feet on... or both... but the lovely cross-breezes made up for any discomfort.

We looked at the wine list, which was as amusing as ever, and debated between an off-menu dry gewurtzraminer recommended by Vito, one of the owners, and a sweeter moscato giallo on the menu. Wine rubes that we are, we ultimately chose the moscato, which was delightful, fruity, and sweet.

After hearing the specials, we placed our orders. Bread arrived shortly after: the same good bread, with a chewy crust and stretchy interior, accompanied by a dish of olives doused in olive oil. The complimentary olives were a really nice touch, and the bread course was one of the highlights of the meal.

Crusty and rustic

J and the bro had ordered an appetizer of arancini to start. The fried risotto balls came with scallops in the middle, all on top of a swish of pesto coating the plate. The order was a little small, and the bro said they were good but he wouldn't necessarily order them again. J said he'd love it if there were a Bagel Bite version of this dish. I'm not even really sure what that means. I tried the pesto, which was really good, and sopped up a little bit with some of the bread.

Spheres of cheesey, scallopy, risottoey goodness

After the arancini were gone, the entrees made their appearance. The bro had ordered the bolognese, which usually comes with green fettuccini but this time came with standard linguine upon request. This dish, again a moderate portion, was consumed with gusto and approval and looked fresh and homemade.

Simple but delicious pasta

J had chosen one of the specials, artichoke and cheese ravioli with asparagus in a butter sauce. Apparently, this is one of their frequent specials, and it was quite a delicious dish. J thoroughly enjoyed it, and I snuck a couple bites. The pasta was silken and the filling was mild but flavorful. The tiny pieces of asparagus garnishing the pasta were a nice touch as well.

Truly spring-like and delicious

I ordered the mesclun salad, dressing on the side. The salad is really standard-- mesclun lettuce, a few radish coins, and a couple of chunks of beets all crowned with a shaving or two of ricotta salata. The beets were very sweet and well-cooked-- I only wished there were more. The dressing, also, seemed to be entirely oil-- I'm not sure what spices were in there. I wish Aroma had more of a salad selection, or at least an interesting, hearty salad for a primarily salad-eater like me. But one positive of our collective entree courses was that it left room for the true test this time around: the desserts.

The ricotta salata is a good idea and a nice touch

We looked at the dessert menu, which is short but well-chosen. A couple desserts remained from last time-- the gianduja panna cotta and the bread pudding-- and a few new ones had appeared. We chose three different desserts, steering clear of the bread pudding (so awful last time), and waited eagerly.

Soon, they arrived. My brother had ordered the gianduja panna cotta, which is what I had had last time. The plating had changed; it was much more creative and graceful this time. And while this dessert was certainly the best of the bunch the last time around, it still had been improved. The panna cotta was silken and well-flavored; the hazelnut gelato was delicious; and the bro especially liked the pirouette cookie garnish.

Artful and hazelnutty

J had ordered the molten chocolate cake, which came with a scoop of vanilla gelato on top. This was a powerful, very chocolately chocolate cake. It was thoroughly delicious, and I couldn't resist scooping up the remaining chocolate sauce J left on his plate.

It looks like something that belongs in MoMA

I had the citrus shortcake with chocolate canolli cream and frutti di bosco. The cake part of this was really good-- sort of like a sugar-encrusted puff pastry, although I didn't sense much citrus (which was fine with me). The frutti di bosco, which was sweetened stewed berries, was also delicious. The chocolate canolli cream was definitely a minor player in this dessert, but it contributed a bit of heartiness and creaminess, which was nice. Overall, the dessert was good if not spectacular.

Garnished with a stripe of mintiness

But even as we were digging into the much improved desserts, we were surprised by a new entrant into the mix. A waiter arrived with a dish of their new bread pudding, on the house. I was a bit ambivalent, because it had been so unpalatable last time...but I took a bite, and boy, had this dish done a 180. The cinnamon raisin bread pudding was light but still creamy and filling, the scoop of straciatella gelato on top was the perfect complement, and the cinnamon creme anglaise put the dessert over the top. Congrats to the new pastry chef for transforming the Aroma bread pudding from the worst on their list to the best dessert in the house.

Crowned with candied citrus garnishes

We were treated very, very well at Aroma, and while there was certainly an element of special treatment in the mix, I'll stress the fact that friendly, attentive, caring service is the norm there. Even if they don't know you, they'll great you as though they do, and they'll treat you like an honored guest even if you're just there for a glass of wine at the bar. Much improved desserts aside, that's really why I like Aroma. It's clearly a place where the owners truly care-- about food, which shows careful construction and thoughtful preparation; about wine, which clearly brings them delight that they are happy to share with all diners; and about the customers themselves--and that's something that's missing from the vast majority of restaurants in this city. It makes every meal there a special and heartwarming event. I would encourage all of you to stop by Aroma, for food, for wine, or (now I can say with no hesitation) for dessert. It's a little place that will bring a big smile to your face. For that, I reaffirm my earlier rating of four enthusiastic Offset Spatulas.

36 E. 4th Street, between Lafayette and Bowery

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