Monday, March 29, 2010

Small plates and big wine at L'Artusi

Usually those miserably rainy, truly soaking days like the ones we had last week encourage me to stay inside, even if there are tempting things to do out in the world. But even last Monday's Noah's-ark-style deluge couldn't keep me from venturing down to the West Village to meet my former employers, M and W, for a long-overdue celebratory dinner at L'Artusi.

My soggy self found them sitting at the bar (at really comfortable chairs, mind you, extra points there) having a drink; we were soon shown to our table right opposite the bar to get the food started. We didn't get to venture very far into the deceptively large space-- there were more tables on the main level opposite the open kitchen, as well as a whole upper level packed with diners. The decor was modern but unobtrusive, and the place was buzzing but not deafening. Truly comfortable overall.

After a relatively involved ordering process, we began to taste the fruits of our labor, beginning with the bread. We had already started on the wine, a delicious crisp and full white from J. Hofstatter in the Alto Adige region of Italy, so I needed at least something to start sopping it up in my empty stomach. The bread, a relatively unobtrusive flour-dusted white loaf, did nicely, primarily as a vehicle for the intensely herbal and spicy olive oil.

Bread to begin

And then a round of small plates began to land. The crudo started things off-- I believe M and W had gone with the scallops. I abstained, but they devoured the delicate slices of fish.

Almost translucent

Then we were on to some vegetables. First up: sweet, rustic beets with a surprisingly rich and creamy yogurt sauce, all offset by peppery watercress.

Buried beets

Then, my main attraction: butter lettuce with an assertive dressing, accompanied by hazelnuts and bits of olives. This was truly, truly delicious and about as hearty as a plate of mostly lettuce can get.

Usually topped with gorgonzola, but I declined-- it was plenty rich anyway!

On to the pastas. M and W shared the delectable pici, a tangle of thick noodles bound with a lamb ragu and showered with pecorino.

This portion was actually smaller than it looks here

They also dove into the grilled octopus, which came German-potato-salad-style with potatoes, olives, and pancetta. When the runner placed the dish on our table, he stated that "the chef recommends you squeeze the lemon on top." Oh really? Then we shall! (Ahem.)

Tentacles 'n' taters

We then attached the dutiful green veggie, a side of vibrant broccoli rabe flavored with garlic and chiles.


And finally, perhaps the sleeper hit of the evening: the unassumingly titled "Mushroom Ragu." This was an almost stew-like concoction of creamy polenta topped with lovingly caramelized mushrooms, which themselves bore a jaunty dollop of robiolina cheese. Take a scoop of polenta and mushrooms, swirl in the cheese, and you have yourself a bite of the most decadent, stomach-filling Cream of Wheat possible. If you're a vegetarian in search of comfort food, you've found your holy grail.


Phew. You'd think by this point we would have been slumped over, clutching our stomachs, but no! We were ready for dessert. (Note: This go-get-'em attitude was aided by a second bottle of wine, a robust ruby-colored red that I completely forget the name of.) M chose the olive oil cake with raisin marmaletta, vin santo, and creme fraiche mousse. I stole a tiny bite when he was distracted, and the cake was incredibly delicate and tightly-crumbed in the manner only olive oil cakes truly achieve. The wine-soaked raisins were a boozy treat.

A generous wedge

W and I went straight for the caramelized pineapple sundae, anchored with coconut gelato, topped with coconut mousse, and studded with chunks of almond cake and a piece of almond brittle. This was a hot (cold?) mess in the best way possible. I love coconut sorbet or ice cream, and this coconut gelato was mild and silky-smooth. The coconut mousse sat like a marshmallow beret on top of the ice cream, pierced with a triangle of almond brittle. The chunks of stewed pineapple and the pieces of delectable almond cake provided necessary textural contrast. And needless to say the whole thing was gone in under 2 minutes.

Went down like water

Phew. By the time we had finished and stepped out into the world, it was pouring in earnest, but I didn't quite feel the drenching rain as I walked to and from the subway-- I was too absorbed in my food and wine coma. I had been meaning to go to L'Artusi for quite a while, and golly I'm glad I finally went. The food and wine are incredibly thoughtful, and the ingredients are impeccably fresh. The space is appealing, and the service is solicitous if a bordering on a bit pretentious. However, it's worth noting that a blowout meal at L'Artusi can get quite expensive-- for the most part the portions are truly small, and that's coming from someone who eats tiny portions as a matter of course. If you're a hearty eater or you're coming with a group, ordering a number of small plates will cause the bill to add up rather quickly. Even with that caveat, though, L'Artusi is a solid four Offset Spatula restaurant and a fantastic destination for any lover of Italian food and wine.

228 W. 10th Street, between Bleecker and Hudson

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