A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Thursday, May 19, 2005

May 19.

Pó and a painting of Pó

Bruschetta and Tortelloni

Gnocchi and Lamb

Cheeses and Terrine

Dinner -

- 31 Cornelia St., West Village
Six-Course Tasting Menu (White Bean Bruschetta (amuse); Mixed Green Salad with Asiago, Porcini Mushrooms and Salami; Tortelloni with Ricotta and Ramps in a White Butter Truffle Sauce; Homemade Gnocchi with Smoked Mozzarella, Rosemary and Tomato; Lamb with Cumin Yogurt and White Beans; Strawberries in Balsamic Vinegar, Chocolate-Hazelnut Terrine with Espresso-Caramel Sauce), half a bottle of Falanghina

I was on the verge of breakdown. My laptop, whose warranty expired only three days earlier, went to heaven (where it remains). As it ascended up to the firmaments, it took with it many drafts and documents that I hadn’t backed up. My workload at the office was formidable enough to make Atlas look like a lightweight. I was operating on five hours of sleep a day. The pit of my stomach felt like a wrestling mat.

There was only one solution: Italian food. As much as I love the haute elegance of French and the stark minimalism of Japanese, the shores of Italy are where I turn when I need nurturing. So with the day’s troubles nudging against my brain like a battering ram, I made reservations at Pó, a restaurant in the West Village I’ve long wanted to check out. If their seasonal cuisine couldn’t soothe me, I thought, I was beyond help.

As soon as we arrived, Pó seemed more and more like a good idea, epitomizing the idea of neighborhood restaurant. In a narrow rectangle of a space, the seating is close but not cramped. The décor is plain, but the lighting is relaxingly dim and the servers are friendly and personable. Already, just by taking my seat, I could feel myself relaxing. Now it was up to chef Lee McGrath and his staff to do the rest.

I decided to treat Vince to the tasting menu, a seemingly excellent value at $45 for six courses. (Even more astonishing, it used to be $40 not long ago.) First came the chickpea bruschetta as an amuse, a simple and hearty starter of olive oil-splashed beans on bread that was quite enjoyable. It presaged what Pó’s cooking to follow would be like: creative and thoughtful food that's also basic and elemental.

The salad was another exercise in elegant simplicity. Our first proper course, it mixed ingredients that I would’ve otherwise thought mismatched. But the slices of Asiago, plump porcinis, salami and mixed greens were all tastily brought together by a flavorful vinaigrette. Like the bruschetta, the salad did the exact job it was supposed to, opening the meal lightly and inspiring the appetite toward the courses to come.

Thankfully, this included the tortelloni, Pó’s pasta selection for the tasting menu that night. It contained ricotta and pickled ramps, that winningly elusive cousin of the leek that only appears for two spring months. Just as happily, it came in a white truffle butter sauce. Every bite of the tortelloni was a wonder, every component terrific. It turned out to be my favorite course of the night, but as the meal unfolded, I realized just what a high barometer that would be.

Next came the gnocchi, which lifted my spirits yet higher. (For those joining us late in the game, a quick review: I am obsessed with gnocchi, risotto, mushrooms and ice cream, and every day, have to fight the urge to start blogging exclusively about gnocchi.) It came in a rosemary-tomato sauce with chunks of smoked mozzarella interspersed throughout the dish. As our second pasta, it was a pleasant and delicious continuation of the dinner, with the gnocchi prepared very well. Still, of all the courses, this was the only one I could criticize. I was disappointed by the lack of discernible rosemary flavor, an herb I love and was excited to taste. Also, visually, the gnocchi and mozzarella were nearly the same shade, making the presentation a little dull. (My suggestion: kill two birds by sprinkling more fresh rosemary on the dish.)

From here, we moved onto the main course, a tender cut of lamb that was made all the better by its seasonings. The meat itself was richly mild, but with swaths of a red pepper dip and cumin yogurt, it roared to full life. It was lively and exciting, not to mention a joy to eat. It was nice to see the white beans from the bruschetta reappear as well, underscoring an awareness of theme and thoughtfulness. I also appreciated that the most creative dish of the night, the lamb, was just as successful as the simplest selections.

Three diverse and well-selected cheeses came next as a respite, followed by two even more diverse desserts. The first, a hazelnut-chocolate terrine, was the more traditional, a crunchy treat and a welcome break from the monotony of cakes. It was joined by our second offering, a glass of strawberries marinated in balsamic vinegar. I liked the novelty of the dessert, and the contrast to the terrine. Vince, who knew this dish well, wanted more vinegar and some black pepper, which would’ve been even more intriguing, but I was happy just to be introduced to it. Finally, something I could make at home to impress my friends.

However, as impressive as all of this food was, I can’t conclude without mentioning the service. It was among the smoothest and best I’ve ever seen, the movements and gestures so expertly timed that they verged on balletic. Vince, who puts away water by the gallon, never had his glass go empty. Our courses were perfectly spaced. The retrieval and introduction of plates never interrupted the conversation or intruded on our space. The waiters explained every dish with care and attention. I kept waiting for someone to falter, to lag on a refill, to delay a course, but it never happened.

When we left Pó, my laptop remained broken and my workload for the next day seemed just as ominous a mountain. But for at least two hours, those facts were utterly irrelevant. Pó reminded me that what mattered throughout our dinner is what should always matter: excellent wine, excellent friendship, excellent conversation and of course, excellent food. 8/10


Blogger tara said...

Gnocchi is my achilles heel. If there is one pasta I can rarely turn down, it is this. Especially when bathed lovingly in a velvety butter sauce. Sigh. If ever you decide to go all gnocchi, all the time, I would be a happy subscriber.

1:49 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home