Wisconsin Dells is a place of amusement in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. It is a place people go to have fun, a place for mini-vacations. Things are a little overdone, somehow grand in their kitschy-ness. While it is always clear that you are going to a place to spend more money than you would on an average day out, you can usually convince yourself that the time and cost have translated to more fun for you and your company.
This week I had dinner at the NY Dels: Del Frisco and Del Posto. Strangely enough, my dinner at both was a rib chop, but the similarities do not end there. Both places have very grand rooms, ceilings that go on forever, and cantilevered dining areas. Both have wine lists filled with names of wines you know if you read wine publications, and both put their best foot forward when it comes to service. Both are places you go to feel like you've spent money.
I typically eat at places that are renowned for their food rather than their service. As a rule, I am suspicious of any place where I hear people praise the room and the servers well before they mention the food, however there are places you must go. Del Frisco's I had heard about a million times but had never been, and Del Posto, well Del Posto is Mario's new place and I hadn't been since it opened.
Del Frisco's is in Midtown. Only in midtown Manhattan can you have a restaurant with glass on three sides looking at a 6-lane avenue and call it a beautiful view, but Del Frisco's does. The awesome glass wall does succeed in giving the room a real sense of space and grandness.
Sitting in the balcony, I asked our server what the specialty of the house was. As he could not really specify a particular cut (not a good sign for a steakhouse), I decided to go with the special bone-in rib chop for $54.95. This choice was based on the rib chop at Strip House (my favorite steak in Manhattan, and $42, by the way.) Except for the bone not being frenched, it looked a lot like a normal rib chop. As far as preparation, I assume that Del Frisco's just isn't capable of the heat some of the other steak houses in town are. A rib chop is a very fatty cut. Perfectly prepared, the outside is charred and the fat is melted while still keeping a red center. This is a feat that requires nerves of steel and one hell of a heat source. Sadly Del Fisco's lacks one or both of these. The steak was perfectly rare but the outside, although blackish, was not all the way there, and the fat was warmed but not melting. Either the grill man that evening moved it a couple too many times, or the grill was just not up to the work.
The service was top notch, as it should be since there is a big speech about it on the menu. In fact, once I dragged my camera out at least three managers took the time to stop by my table to make sure everything was ok, though to be fair they were just following up on what was otherwise already very attentive service. The restaurant served a good steak, well prepared. It was not, however, worth the premium unless you calculated in what the staff and space must cost (not my favorite way to way to evaluate a restaurant).
Del Posto is in Chelsea. Forget all the buzz words and everything else you have ever been told -- the southwest corner of 16th St and 10th Ave plants the restaurant firmly in Chelsea. With nothing as gorgeous as 6th Avenue to look at, the large windows at Del Posto are curtained. You can still sense that they are huge though.
Inhabiting a grand space, Del Posto seems to be a walk away from the Mario of old. Mario used to say the joy of Italian food was a communal feeling and thus we should all cram into as many seats as possible at Otto, Lupa, and Babbo and appreciate the restaurants' authenticity. We used to be told that, as much as we would like things like Parmigiano on our vongole, we weren't going to get it because the cheese would overpower the clams and the integrity of the dish would be compromised. At Del Posto, there's enough room to walk two table carts by each other between the tables and your every whim will be catered to.
Service is definitely at its best at Del Posto. The other good news is that food is also at its best here. I had an artichoke appetizer that was literally perfect, three optimal pastas, a pumpkin risotto in which every single piece of pumpkin was an identical dice, and a rib chop to be split by two that was again great.
There is a paradox to Del Posto in that the opulence of the room highlights the simplicity of the food. Where Mario's food somehow seemed grand in its previous, more humble surroundings, its basic humility stands in stark contrast to Del Posto's audacious room. This is wonderfully simple food, expertly prepared, that comes in the fanciest of wrappers and the wrapper is drawing attention to elements the Empire endearingly used to claim it never cared about.
Mario has obviously decided there is merit to critical acclaim. Critics said things like, "Babbo has great food, if the tables weren't so close and the rock and roll wasn't on the sound system and the service had every possible utensil, the restaurant would be definitely deserving of the highest accolades." So Mario went out and put his worthy food in the greatest of surroundings. The dilemma here is that the food was as good as it could be in the old rooms so now you sit there saying this is something like the artichokes at Otto, except at Otto there are more on the plate and it costs less than half the price, and you are forced again to put a value on fine service.
These places are always full of customers: Wisconsin Dells with pink Midwesterners looking for a fun day on the waterslides, Del Frisco's with people who love feeling like they are doing something expensive, and Del Posto with folks looking to be part of the next great thing from Mario. Everything in the world has its price -- the price at which what the payer will pay matches what the seller will accept. Of course there are always people who will pay more for something deemed a "unique" experience and countless businesses that survive on their patronage (how else could Versace stay afloat)?
So please keep in mind that when the guy responsible for everyone's favorite upscale Italian place opens a more upscale restaurant, the most drastic differences will be in the setting and that, when your friends who love Luger's and Strip House tell you a place has a great room you should see, your hard-earned dollars may not necessarily be going into the food you'll eat there. If you feel cheated don't go back, if you feel you were treated fairly make another reservation on the way out. Either way stop bitching that the food is great but the room is overdone or, even worse, that the food is so so but the room is great. No one complains that The Wisconsin Dells is more expensive than the traveling carnival, even though the funnel cakes taste exactly the same. It costs a certain amount to rent opulent spaces and to launder fine linen. If you want those things, pay for them. If you don't, get your artichokes at Otto and deal with the loudmouth at the end of the bar, it's usually me.