Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Mediocre Meal

We've made our last trip to Vespaio for a while, I'm sad to relate.

We went out last night for the first time in a long time, and as a choice destination from the past Vespaio would have been on the list even if it hadn't been convenience rather than the food that brought us there. I had to get some night photos of the Mighty Cone for Texas Monthly and as it's directly across the street from Vespaio, it was thus a 'no brainer'.

Ah, I'll remember to use the noggin next time, for the experience was not something I will look forward to repeating any time soon. The problem is what affects almost every restaurant that lasts more than a few years; a loss of energy, purpose and most of all, flavor.

I don't know where the flavor actually goes. Sometimes, it goes away in the form of ingredients, like butter being replaced by margarine or fresh baked bread by store bought. Most of the time these are cost saving measures designed to save the profit, but in the end, customers do notice and the result is still less profit for the restaurant because the customers go away.

Sometimes however, flavor leaves the food in a restaurant because no one really cares about it. The original chef has departed and the new(est) one is merely carrying out standing orders, the owner(s)are less involved (if at all) and the service is reduced to food delivery rather than actual concern for the customer. And the customers? Well if they aren't State legislators spending the lobbyists' dime or bleary-eyed SWSX attendees from out of town, state and the country, they are going to notice the decline and will not return.

It's not like we were regulars at Vespaio, or that we go there in preference to any other restaurant, but I have in fact recommended it frequently to guests at H______ asking where they can get a good meal in town. Now, after last night, I am more likely to recommend they try out Parkside.

Our starter last night was spicy, broth-based tomato soup with a swirl of herbed creme fraiche. It was spicy alright, but excessively so, and the tomato flavor was far too acidic to be pleasant, even with the creme fraiche, which merely teased the palette with some round relief from the sharp bite of the tomato.

I had the Beef Short Rib Ravioli with garlic spinach, fava beans and parmesan bread crumbs on top. Recommended by our waitress, this would have been my choice anyway, and it wasn't all that bad. Now, this damning with faint praise is no actual criticism of the dish, for it was very rich and dark, if I may use that word to describe a taste. It lacked thus any sort of contrast; a conflict for the mouth similar to that proposed by the soup, but one that--unlike the starter--would be resolved in my favor. Alas no.

Valery's seafood platter was not much better. Certainly edible and even enjoyable--I tasted the crabcakes--it lacked any imagination in presentation and the flavor echoed the arrangement in boringness, if that also may be used as a food descriptor. Again, my accusation is not that the food was awful, but for what we paid (120+tip), and, even worse, for the difference between the anticipation and the realization of this meal was sufficient to keep us from returning.

After all, as someone recently told me at H_______: "At these prices, you only get one chance."


valhere001 said...

and even the dessert of orange sorbet was nondescript - quite a disappointment

d2 said...

That is so funny... I would make exactly the same comment on where we ate for our 24th on Saturday - the famed Le Cirque in NYC.

The anticipation (especially as I had kept it a secret from David) was high. After all, who hasn't heard of this restaurant? (Except most of my friends and David's, too!)

On walking in, the atmosphere was well, only average. I guess I'm mentally comparing it to every other restaurant I've ever been to, but the front was just... tired. And they seemed to reluctantly lead us to our table, choosing apparently at random where we were to sit (conveniently out of the main room, I'll add, since we were nobodies).

The main room is interesting, if a bit dated with a cream carpet, highly polished dark wood walls and a soaring, gold-toned faux cone of drapery disappearing into the high ceiling. Oh, I get it, it's a circus... right. I should have known with the stylized clowns and monkeys on every surface.

They've been around for 35 years, and to celebrate they've trotted out an old menu, mostly of rabbit and duck, though not bad sounding - if it were still 1974. We go for the prix fixe three-courser at $98. Salad, halibut and chocolate pie for me, parmesan consomme, mushroom risotto and chocolate/peppermint parfait for David.

Here is where your "where has the flavor gone?" comment resonates superbly. While everything was OK and well presented, that was it's problem, too. It was just OK. The salad, dressed with cutesy mini-beet slices and shavings of parmesan, was over dressed and oily, too salty. The halibut, resting on a bed of puree and whole peas, speared by two bay leaves was bland, and vaguely gelatinous. Dessert was by far the best of the night. David's soup was again just marginally good, with a meaty broth overwhelming any subtlety in the pasta, while the slices of prosciutto just added to the impression of a protein bath. The mushroom risotto was good by contrast (but it's hard to mess up such a simple dish), while the dessert was over minty.

Howard Stern was at the next table and he soaked up the attention of not only the wait staff (can I get MY check now?) but also the owner, the executive chef and every other staff person around. I don't begrudge him the attention, I just wish a little of it had rubbed off on us...

Not worth it, but now we know.