"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Maialino - October 30, 2010

Roasted Rabbit
Hotel restaurants are one of the things I avoid when I travel for two reasons: 1) Those restaurants are rarely any good, I suspect, because they can just rely on the flow and the laziness of the hotel patronage, and therefore, there is much less pressure to draw in a regular customer base (the good old days where hotel dining stood for the ultimate luxury, I am afraid, is gone); and 2) I want to squeeze out maximum experience out of my trip, so if I dine and sleep in the same building, I have to wonder how much I am missing outside. An auberge is doubly risky because any mishap in dining can easily kill off the joy in the sleeping arrangement, or vice versa, and if both turn out to be bad...then the result is simply unthinkable - i.e. my stay at Le Moulin de Mougins.
However, I became curious about the restaurant in the Gramercy Park Hotel when it was still the Chinese/Japanese restaurant called Wakiya because I missed the fine Chinese cuisine in Japan and Wakiya seemed to be the answer. Seriously, why aren't there fancy Chinese restaurants in New York? All that there are are the awful Chin Chin with the despicable Grand Marnier Shrimp and not-even-worth-to mention Mr. K's. While daily distraction kept me away, Wakiya had become Maialino. Meyer-ino so Maialino? Very cute, indeed... Since I am not a big fan of the famous Union Square Cafe or even less a fan of the Gramercy Tavern and an opponent of Eleven Madison Park and the enemy of the Modern, I was not too keen on visiting Maialino. Nevertheless, upon my vegetarian friend's recommendation that the food was good and the roasted suckling pig very good - yes, you read correctly, my vegetarian friend with much credibility since I was introduced to the best samgyetang in New York (or anywhere) by her, I decided to give it a try.

Carciofini Fritti - Fried Artichokes & Anchovy Bread Sauce
Since we were too engrossed in and tired from debating the pros and cons of ordering the famous maialino al forno v. the special of the day, we had not given the appetizers much thought when our waiter had returned to take our orders. Our waiter seemed competent and affectionate about the food he served for a change (there are too many who have never even tasted the food...), and we accepted his recommendation for the fried artichokes.

Artichokes, again, are one of my favorite vegetables. So far, the best artichoke dish is the artichoke salad at CelesteNow, I need to revise that:  The best artichoke dishes are the artichoke salad at Celeste and the fried artichokes at Maialino minus one tablespoon of frying oil.  The artichokes, fried as is without any batter, were crispened on the edges to seal in fully the herbal juice inside; although a stronger shake, or two or three, with the colander to cut out the excess oil would have been more desirable, instead of mere relying on the absorbency of the overworked paper underneath the artichokes.  The anchovy bread sauce was mysteriously missing both the anchovies and the bread:  All that could be discerned in the slightly creamy sauce was the possibility of egg and oil based on the emulsified state.  Therefore, since the artichokes themselves had been lightly salted (so that the artichokes alone would have been good already) I treated the sauce as a more liquid kind of mayonnaise.  Let's hope that the next time the chef will give the artichokes a stronger snap of the wrist action when they emerge from the pot.

Agnolotti di Zucca - Pumpkin, Balsamic &; Ricotta Salata
This recipe comes in all shapes and sizes and filled with anything from butternut squash to pumpkin (or kabocha if I can have my way).  Celeste's devilishly sweet version resembles in shape some jumbo Chinese dumplings and is densely filled with butternut squash something that Don Carmine proclaims that it takes three days to make.  On the other hand, Scalini Fedeli's, this being one of the handful of dishes that they excel in, are rectangular ravioli with lighter consistency which will melt in your mouth.  And, Maialino's?  While it is admirable that Maialino aimed for a different tone - lighter with balsamic vinegar and ricotta salata in lieu of the mainstream sage butter or Celeste's amaretto (sometimes I wonder whether I should have Celeste's dumplings for dessert, that is, after having had them for the first course), it failed to bring out the best of the agnolotti.  The ravioli dough was stretched to approximately 1mm in thinness, so disconcertingly thin and frail that I was afraid to bite down too hard: Boiling these thin-skinned ravioli to al dente, for there was the al dente bite in the dough, must require an Olympic-quality stopwatch and a pair of quick hands.  But the filling is what ravioli are all about, is it not, and yet here Maialino had let me down as well as the skin. The surprisingly unsweet and yellow mush did not speak to me of autumn but of water.  The problem might be due to the very choice in using a pumpkin over a kabocha (denser and dryer with solid flavor) or butternut squash.  Listen to Don Carmine:  It takes three days to make the filling.  I suspect, much of the time is spent condensing the squash on stovetop.  In any case, had the filling been sweet, the balsamic and ricotta salata might have actually worked well to play off the sweetness:  Now, that is a thought that will soon be transformed into a pasta dish on my own table.

So, did we order the famous Maialino al forno? No...Because we were enticed to order the special of the day after a very long and intense debate:  Specials do not come around everyday, but the maialino will be here when we return, if.

Roasted Rabbit
This is the reason that Maialino has not seen the last of me:  OK, you can roast. The lean meat was cooked tender and served in a reduction infused with pungent rosemary and black lives.  The best part was undoubtedly the fact that the rabbit came with its parts - gizzard and liver, but what happened to the rest? Was this rabbit heartless?  The answer was simply that the rabbit, advertised as to be shared by two people, was portioned out to probably three couples; and as one of the three, we were given the ribs, while the other couples would devour the legs - Yes, life is unfair; we all know it - and the rest of it.  I put the emphasis on two people for a reason - 2 people x 3 couples = 6 people per rabbit:  The three thin ribs on our plate, meant to be shared, could have fed only one moderately capacious stomach.  This is a rare complaint coming from me as I generally do not have the common problem people have with their portion sizes; those must be the people who bring Tupperwares to all-you-can-eat buffets.  Quality is not equal to quantity; however, the "not" is too often left out from the equation by the Tupperware crowds.  Partially, this misunderstanding stems from the general low quality of food, as I have said before:
If 100 means satisfaction and is a formula of intensity and quantity, then 100 power of intense flavor x 1 quantity = 100 satisfaction; but if the flavor is only 1, then you need 100 quantities to make the 100.
Not a hard math, is it? However, in this case, the portion size was problematic in the very basic sense that it was simply not enough for two, unless two meant a couple of four-year olds.  In my long history of dining in restaurants, I must say this was the first time that it had happened.  It was like "The Emperor's New Clothes;" I was too incredulous to even ask the waiter whether he had meant to be nice and had divided the rabbit into two plates for us, and had accidently forgot the other plate in the kitchen.  It was that insufficient.

Braised Brussels Sprouts with Pecorino

Brussels sprouts require fat to balance out the bitter and grassy flavor, or you will end up with another kid who would grow up to be a brussels sprouts hater.  Maialino made sure that there was enough oil and stock to cook the sprouts to a point to keep the crunch of the concentrated leaves.  Dusted by a free hand with grated pecorino, the sprouts were at their best.

Torta della Nonna - Pine Nut Tart & Lemon Caramel
A classic Tuscan dessert and topped with one of my favorite nuts - the pine nuts, the flavor was just light and subtle while the tart crust gave a satisfying bite.  The lemon caramel was more delicious that I imagined - the tangy condensed lemon flavor working within the sticky caramel.  The elegant pine nuts lingered in my mouth long after I left the restaurant.

Sformato di Ricotta - Ricotta Custard & Honeyed Fig Compote
The custard itself was a delight - creamy, springy (as in it wobbles on your spoon) and light while the fig compote was overly sweet: Why not add some of this into the agnolotti? Doesn't it sound good, pumpkin and fig agnolotti with balsamic vinegar?  However, sugar was the lesser problem.  The problem was that the compote had the unpleasant taste of chemicals. Now, how could that have happened?  I ate and thought and ate and though and yes, I knew what it was:  It must have been caused by the amaretto they used for the compote - fake almond flavor.  Don't go cheap when buying amaretto the next time, all right?

Address:  2 Lexington Ave. New York, NY 10010
Phone:  (212) 777-2410

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