Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wrest; Twist

“Modern art had no pivot, no heart, no core of inspired dignity, no clear racial definition. The trivial, the outlandish, the prosaic were being brazenly proposed as the subject matter for art, and the hubris of an unstructured and undisciplined modernity had resulted in a hysterical search for the novel, for the bizarre, for the shocking.”
- p. XXVI, Grosshans, H.

A Modern Italian Master

GREAT restaurants may start out that way. But an extraordinary restaurant generally develops only over time, the product of prolonged artistic risk and managerial attention. An extraordinary restaurant uses the threat of failure first as a spur to improvement, then as a vision of unimaginable calamity. An extraordinary restaurant can transcend the identity of its owners or chef or concept.

And of course an extraordinary restaurant serves food that leads to gasps and laughter, to serious discussion and demands for more of that, please, now. The point of fine dining is intense pleasure. For the customer, at any rate, an extraordinary restaurant should never be work.

Consider Del Posto, which opened in 2005 on a wind-swept corner of that grim Manhattan neighborhood that is neither Chelsea nor the meatpacking district, in the shadows below what is now the High Line park. The restaurant’s owners, Joseph Bastianich, Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali, and its chef, Mark Ladner, envisioned a temple to Italian cooking to match any ever built to honor a European cuisine in New York, a 24,000-square-foot palazzo of mahogany and marble devoted entirely to the pleasures of Italian food and customer satisfaction.

Five years later Del Posto is that and more, a place to sit in luxury and drink Barolo, while eating food that bewilders and thrills — an abalone carpaccio to start your meal, perhaps, and absolutely a celery sorbetto to end it, as well-played Gershwin and Kern tinkle in the background.

Del Posto’s is a pleasure that lasts, offering memories of flavors that may return later in a dream: a tiny cup of spiced gazpacho, say, rimmed with a salty dust of dried capers; or a plate of the square-cut whole-wheat pasta known as tonarelli, with fiery little chickpeas, fried rosemary and bonito flakes in place of the more-traditional bottarga; perhaps a nectarine cooked into slow and amazing submission, with a savory grilled lemon cake and intense basil gelato. And, oh, that wine!

The road to the restaurant’s success was bumpy. It was not short. There was no precedent for Del Posto in Manhattan, no polished-brass, soft-carpeted Italian restaurant that dared to out-French the French in service, formalizing a simple cuisine, while at the same time urging casual excess on its customers. (Del Posto translates, literally, to “of the place.” You will not find its like in Venice or Berlin, Los Angeles or Miami.)

Early on, however, the restaurant’s service seemed strained, almost theatrical. (Now it is warm and practiced: French-trained and Italian-accented, which is to say American.) Some disliked the room, with its central staircase leading to undulating balconies, its lobbyish feel. (Some still feel this way.) Others loathed the piano, thought it suburban and twee. (The playing improved, the repertory deepened.)

Meanwhile, fine dining of the sort exemplified by Del Posto began to suffer in the marketplace, as the food-obsessed turned their attention from white tablecloths to wooden tabletops, from toques to full-sleeve tattoos, from ties and cocktail dresses to T-shirts and A.P.C. jeans.

There have never been complaints about Del Posto’s huge and deeply comprehensive wine collection, with its whale-bait Piedmontese nebbiolos and surprising values from up and down the peninsula. But there was a period there when the desserts were lame. The service in the dining room improved then faltered. In 2009, the faceless inspectors of the Michelin guide stripped the restaurant of a star.

For roughly the last year, however, under the close guidance of Mr. Ladner, who was the Puckish brain behind Lupa, a trattoria in the West Village also owned in part by Mr. Batali and Mr. Bastianich, Del Posto’s kitchen has been operating at the very highest level. The restaurant’s less expensive cafe section, near the bar, was removed, along with a number of tables on the balcony. With the help of a brilliant new pastry chef, Brooks Headley, and a revitalized and enthusiastic service staff of Italian nationals and veterans of the Batali-Bastianich empire, Del Posto is now among the very best restaurants in New York City.

What was designated a three-star restaurant by Frank Bruni in this newspaper in 2006 has become a four-star one. It is the first Italian restaurant to receive a four-star ranking in The Times since Parioli Romanissimo, reviewed by John Canaday in 1974.

Dinner is served in three formats, all of which highlight Mr. Ladner’s careful interpretation of Italian cuisine, in which brilliant technique renders incredible ingredients as art. Diners may simply order off the menu, as at the corner bistro. There is a five-course option for $95, in which each diner picks an antipasto, a main course and a dessert, and the table shares two pasta preparations in the middle. And there is a seven-course menu tradizionale for $125, in which the table is introduced to the length and breadth of Italian cuisine, from Sicily north to the Alto Adige.

All deliver pleasures, from a simple, elegant Kindai tuna belly simmered in olive oil on the menu tradizionale to a regular-menu order of lamb cooked in the Roman style, salty and rich, with a tangy lemon yogurt and cloud-light Swiss chard ragù. But among New Yorkers used to sharing their bounty, the deepest joy may reside in a fiddle to the five-course option, one that throws a third pasta preparation into the middle of the meal.

Mr. Ladner’s pastas are insanely good. After a wintry appetizer of warm, soft cotechino in a lentil vinaigrette, his spaghetti with Dungeness crab, sliced jalapeño and minced scallion arrives like the sun. It is a dish that speaks directly to Mr. Ladner’s genius, to a view of Italian cooking that allows for both jalapeño and Dungeness crab. His cooking is not about recreating Italy on a luxe scale so much as it is about recreating the Italian spirit on the grandest scale imaginable.

Spinach garganelli, for instance, might follow a sweet lobster salad with intense little tomatoes and a celery crunch, the pasta tubes glistening beneath a Bolognese sauce of incredible delicacy, the result of an all-day preparation that recalls more than anything else monkish devotion to flavor and beauty. It is the illuminated manuscript of cooking.

And a small bowl of anellini, robiola-stuffed pasta rounds the shape of World Series rings, comes with a black-truffle sauce that tastes of earned wealth and deep satisfaction. But you eat the dish with your fingers. It feels like skinny-dipping at the Lido, and is as enjoyable.
Main dishes are luxurious and well suited to occasion dining. For the celebration of business deals, for instance, there is an enormous rib-eye, cooked to rosy perfection beneath a dusting of salt and pepper, with a pile of fried potatoes, a tangle of Italian arugula and dots of tomato raisins that are worth almost literally their weight in gold. (The dish is $130 à la carte.)

Mr. Ladner offers a complicated plate of grilled pork and head cheese with peas and mint, with a light drizzle of the Neapolitan wine known as Lacryma Christi (the Tears of Christ), and a simple one of salmon beneath a wheat dressing made from simmering pasta not for minutes but (once more!) for hours, then reducing the result almost to syrup. He rolls veal loin in pulverized hardwood charcoal before slow-roasting it, then serves the result with luscious hand-ground polenta and a sticky, intense sauce made from osso buco. This last is wildly flavorful — a bass line for baby beef, an alimentary subwoofer.

Mr. Headley’s desserts follow dinner in the manner of a rondo that extends the pleasures of the meal far into the night — and often dangerously deep into the restaurant’s superb list of amari and grappi.

Mr. Headley was a punk-rock drummer who came to professional cooking late, and who bears precisely none of the marks of a new-century New York pastry chef. There is no architecture to his work, no foam. There is instead deep respect for, among other things, vegetable sugars, and for the accidents of art. (For birthdays and other celebrations, he creates a dessert tree by pouring molten chocolate into an ice bath. The result is three-dimensional Pollack.)

And so there are sfera di caprino, little goat-cheesecake balls rolled in salty olive oil and bread crumbs, accompanied by celery and fig agrodolce, with celery sorbetto. There is butterscotch semifreddo, not at all sweet, and a sour orange sauce made with rehydrated dried cantaloupe and cookie crumbs. And, to finish: a cheese-grating box filled with candies high in acid, dusted in salt, as amazing and wonderful as inspiration itself.

All that is missing from Del Posto at the moment are the New Yorkers who came early and then stayed away. The room fills late now with business travelers and visiting rock bands. But all are welcome. It is time to get a reservation and tell everyone you knew this would happen all along.

Del Posto
85 10th Avenue at West 16th Street
New York, NY 10011
212 497 8090

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