Thursday, August 6, 2009
Convivio has been on my radar from the moment it opened. It was highly anticipated, as it opened in the space that had previously housed L'Impero, and with renowned Italian Chef Michael White at the helm. The reviews it garnered soon after opening made it clear that this anticipation was warranted. Frank Bruni, the soon to be ex-restaurant critic of the New York Times, bestowed upon Convivio three stars, a rare "Excellent" amidst a sea of "goods."
It was only until recently that I had the good fortune of dining at Convivio. It's a bit out of the way for a weekend dinner, since I tend to dine before going out and don't often (read: ever) find myself out and about on a Friday night on the bumping streets of Midtown East. It's also expensive, and I've had little reason for celebratory meals lately. However, Restaurant Week solved both of these problems. Convivio is much closer to my office than to my apartment, and its restaurant week lunch special, at $24.07, was not going to break the bank.
We had 1:30 reservations, and the late afternoon sunshine flowed into the restaurant through the street-level windows. The light, however, didn't really do the space many favors. The décor was stark and the sun's rays did nothing but draw attention to the sharp edges and unadorned whiteness of much of the space. I would imagine the space does not seem as severe in the evening, as I feel the restaurant would benefit from a softer light and the glow of candlelight.
We ordered from the restaurant week menu, but decided to supplement our meals with a few items from the reasonably-priced sfizi menu. The sfizi are small snack-sized portions that are meant for sharing among the table. We went with the Carciofi (artichokes flavored with mint and pecorino), the Cozze (mediterranean mussels with chile, scallion, capers and topped with bread crumps) and the Funghi (grilled mushrooms cooked in vin cotto).
Of the three, the funghi were the clear favorite of the table. Even avowed mushroom-haters could not resist their amazing depth of flavor and the beguiling spice lent by unexpected red pepper. The wine provided a richness that made it seem as if we were eating something far more sinful than mushrooms.
The artichokes were flawlessly executed, though the taste of mint was not as pronounced as I was hoping. The nutty pecorino that draped the artichokes lent a salty complexity to the earthy artichokes.
The mussels were delicious as well. It was spicy, but the flavor of the chile was felt more than its heat, which did not overwhelm any other element of the dish, as if bringing your taste buds to attention in order to best enjoy the other flavors going on. The bread crumbs provided a wonderful textural element, countering the squishiness of the crustacean with a good deal of crunch. This sfizi was very generously portioned, particularly considering the price.
The entire table ordered the same appetizer, the stracciatella - creamy burrata cheese with zucchini and basil pesto. It was a good thing we all ordered the same dish, since any person who had made the mistake of ordering another dish would have been forced to listen to the rest of us repeat, about seven hundred and thirty two times before the dishes were removed from the table, that this was among the greatest things we'd ever eaten. And no, I don't think any of us would have shared. I should preface this by saying that I am borderline obsessive when it comes to burrata. I must be restrained, oftentimes physically, from ordering it every single time I see it on a menu. Not that there's anything wrong with ordering it every single time I see it on a menu, but I am seeing it more and more these days and such a habit is good for neither my wallet nor my waistline. If you're unfamiliar with burrata, it is essentially a thin skin of fresh mozzarella cheese that houses a bevy of rich, salty, thick, gooey, curdy deliciousness that toes the line between cream and cheese more delicately than anything else I've encountered. It has an incredibly short shelf life, since it takes only a day or so before the insides turn, and is therefore difficult to track down. Suffice it to say that if mozzarella is a Honda Civic Coupe, burrata is an Aston Martin V12 Vantage.
Convivio's rendition was no different. To this point, the best burrata I had encountered was at A16 in San Francisco, where it was topped with a wonderfully fruity olive oil and just enough sea salt to cut through the richness of the cheese. Convivio's version may just top that one. The basil pesto provided a fragrant, floral brightness, while the delicate strands of zucchini lent some more textrure and freshness to the dish. The crostini, an olive-oil soaked little number neatly perched alongside the glorious pool of milkfat, could have not done its job of transporting cheese to mouth any better.
For the mains, most of us ordered the grouper, which was served with a sweet pepper caponata and a roasted pepper crema. The grouper was perfectly cooked, but I found the flavors to be a bit lacking. The caponata was fresh and wonderful, and the roasted pepper crema had the smoky undertones of roasted peppers. It needed perhaps just a bit more acid, since the flavors felt a bit muted, and a touch more lemon might have allowed the rest of the elements to perk up.
I also had the chance to taste the orecchiette, which was handmade and served with crushed pomini tomatoes, basil and capped with a generous dollop of ricotta ala olio. The orrechiette were flawless - the little ears toothsome, but not gummy, cooked to a perfect al dente so that they retained the perfect amount of bite. The tomatoes were fresh and bright, and the cheese, oh that cheese, cut the acidity of the tomatoes with a salty, creamy richness that elevated the dish from pasta into pasta that dreams are made of. This is clearly Michael White's wheelhouse - the simplicity of the dish belied the obvious skill, care and talent that went into making it. It was seriously delicious.
For dessert, I had the affogato, which is essentially a grown-up ice cream float. Freshly brewed espresso, strong and delicious, is poured atop zabaglione gelato and topped with a vanilla bean whipped cream. It tastes exactly how it should, which is to say, rich, complex and delicious. And strong, of course.
The other dessert option was the cioccolato e caramelle, a valhrona chocolate ganache on a bed of salted caramel, both neatly contained in a perfect little pastry shell and accompanied by vanilla gelato. The girls who ordered this were both excessively pleased. It was a bit too rich for my tastes, but the caramel was wonderfully gooey, the chocolate expectedly sinful.
Restaurant week menus are not always indicative of a restaurant's quality, since many tend to take shortcuts or cut corners in an effort to make up in volume for what is lost in revenue. I was more than pleased with my restaurant week lunch at Convivio, and would return in a heartbeat for some more of the excellent sfizi or appetizers, and especially to try out some more of the pastas (the malloreddus - saffron-scented gnochetti with crab and sea urchin in particular is calling my name…). I consider a restaurant week menu successful if it makes me want to return to the restaurant to find out more, and to try some more dishes from the menu, to see what the chef can do. To this end, this was a remarkably successful restaurant week menu, as I am already looking for a reason to come back for the (admittedly not that expensive) $69 prix fixe dinner menu. And considering that this was the first meal after my half a loaf of challah incident, after which the mere thought of food was enough to make me want to hurl, I think that says a lot.
This meal took place a few weeks ago already, and I feared my tardiness would make much of this entirely irrelevant as Restaurant Week was slated to end on July 31. BUT now that Restaurant Week has been extended through Labor Day, you can still take advantage of some great deals!
45 Tudor City Place (b/w 42nd and 43rd)
Participating in Restaurant Week for lunch and Sunday dinner