On Saturday night, it was frigid. Very, very frigid. But due to my insane early morning Opentabling on New Year's Day, we had managed to snag a much-coveted reservation at Maialino, Danny Meyer's newest gem, and so we left the comfort of the indoors, ventured out into the world, and rushed toward the subway to head downtown.
As we sprinted down 21st street towards Lex, we passed a wall of brightly lit, inviting windows on our left. "Is that it?" AV asked. "I think so," I replied. "Those people look so warm and happy," he added. We agreed: We wanted to be one of them.
Fortunately, as we turned the corner onto Lexington Ave, we confirmed that we WOULD be one of them! We entered the bright, friendly, airy dining room, decorated in a rustic trattoria style, and were afforded the standard gracious Union Square Hospitality Group welcome. A hostess led us through the bar area, past the bread station on the left, past the antipasto station on the right, into the main dining room in the back. We were seated at a large, comfortable two-top, and I sank into the banquette with the intention of never leaving.
The first thing keeping us there: the bread basket. With four kinds of carbolicious bounty for the two of us, we both went straight for the focaccia at first grab. It had a pliant crust that merged seamlessly into the flaky innards, with a hint of shatter at the furthest edges. Dredged in the pool of herbal olive oil, I actually said out loud: "That was a good piece of bread." There were also tiny cheese breadsticks that tasted just like Cheez-its (or, according to AV, Goldfish), two slices of sesame seed studded white bread, and two rustic peasant slices. It was all good.
There was a bit of a wait for our main courses, but fortunately the couple sitting next to us provided us with all the dinner entertainment we could have wanted. Finally, the food arrived, and it looked and smelled spectacular. AV had chosen the Bucatini all'Amatriciana, billed as adorned with "spicy tomato and guanciale." Immediately, he noted that the pasta was very al dente-- so much so that it wouldn't even hold a curl around his fork. But fortunately he likes his pasta that way, and he was impressed by the overall dish.
My choice was one of the contorni, the cavolini e pecorino. When presented with the menu, a bit of judicious blackberry googling revealed that cavolini are brussels sprouts; I was sold. These sprouts were in what I consider to beir the most delicious format, their leaves separated so they're almost like a leafy green. Add a bit of oil, the nutty crunch of chestnuts, and the salty bite of pecorino, and I swear these little pops of delight tasted just like potato chips. I didn't want the dish to end.
But end it did, and we were presented with the dessert menu, at which point I had a minor breakdown. I was still hungry and wanted dessert, but WHICH? Which, indeed. AV gamely ran interference with the servers as his mildly mentally unstable girlfriend had an existential crisis. Finally, I chose, and what I chose was the tartufo: chocolate ice cream surrounding brandied cherries, rolled in chocolate shavings and accompanied by a puddle of whipped cream. I'm not the hugest fan of chocolate ice cream, but as AV put it, "if you're going to try chocolate ice cream, you do it at a Danny Meyer establishment," and he was right. Dear readers, it was good: densely, richly chocolatey, almost like eating a frozen brownie. The chocolate shavings provided welcome textural contrast, and when I hacked into the center, I found a treasure trove of cherries that provided a nose-clearing hit of brandy with each bite. Oh, and the whipped cream was heavenly.
As AV finished his coffee (note: superlative), we contemplated whether if we asked nicely the staff would let us just never leave. We could put sleeping bags in the corner and be really inconspicuous. Instead of putting our plan in action, however, we paid the bill and moved on to A Night Out with Danny Meyer (Figuratively), Part II. I'm so, so glad we made it out to Maialino-- the food, service, and overall experience were just so thoroughly enjoyable. While it still hasn't unseated Eleven Madison Park as #1 in my heart, it's about as good a four Offset Spatula restaurant as you'll find in this town.
2 Lexington Avenue at 21st Street