I went to Andrew Carmellini’s new restaurant A Voce last night and I am sorry to say I did not like it at all. I don’t say this meaning that you won’t like it, you may, but as far as my experience last night goes, they managed to do enough things exactly the opposite of how I believe they should be done that I would suggest not going.
A Voce is a new place so it may be said, being new they have a stride to hit and that I may be throwing in the towel a little early. Usually I would consider this a fair assessment. In this case, however, I can say that the experience was smooth enough that I believe they are running exactly as they wish to be. The service was extremely professional and efficient, the room was moving at or near capacity without any of the mayhem that can happen when a staff hasn’t figured out how to control a space in the early running. A Voce is a tight ship if nothing else.
The most egregious and, to be honest, offensive path A Voce walks is its decisions insofar as the wine program. To begin with, the layout of its list makes little sense for an Italian restaurant or any restaurant, though it might make sense for a high-end stereo catalogue. It is set up as featured specialty items with sections running from least to ghastly and inappropriately expensive.
The list starts with sparkling wine, proceeds to half bottles, then large format. White wine comes next, starting with choices from the USA, followed by Italy, then France. Red follows white, putting the same American foot forward. The wines chosen have little to do with the food being served; this wine list could only make sense to a sales guy out with a client that thinks it is subtle to point to the expensive bottom of the list and say “let’s have one of those” depending that the client will understand he is valued by a person who knows absolutely nothing about wine enjoyment or value.
The pricing of this list borders on the criminal, I honestly hope they have a non-gouging, fake version made up in case Elliot Spitzer pops in to try the place or he may decide to drop chasing Richard Grasso and go after them. I was so astonished at some of the more glaringly bad examples I randomly documented the pages so I could do a reality check at home.
A Voce, an Italian restaurant offers 1990 Ornellaia for $1250. At D. Sokolkin, a famously expensive wine store in the New York wine loving comunity, it can be had for $299. Obviously it is not fair to compare retail (be it expensive retail or not) to restaurants so here’s a reality check: at Cru this bottle costs $412; at Charlie Trotter’s, considered one of the greatest restaurants in the world, it is $580; and although Babbo doesn’t have it, they expect to soon and when I asked them to guess where they would be pricing it and their ball-park was $500-$600.
This ridiculousness is not confined to Italy or to red. In the American white section, Helen Turley’s 1997 Marcassin Gauer Ranch Upper Barn that is currently bid on wine commune for $150 can be had at A Voce for $770. I will let this go here, but the list is rife with attempts to take advantage of people’s ignorance as far as fine wine is regarded. Forgetting that simple Italian food goes best with good Italian wine, nothing could be farther from the simple Italian ethos than famous name wine deviously priced with blatant and unconscionable contempt for the patron.
The room A Voce inhabits is on the street side of an avenue building, just one door past a fine china shop. The space looks like it was intended as a lighting or automobile showroom. Large, square, and hard, it is a sound nightmare. Interestingly 3 little alcoves that could probably accommodate a couple of tables or some large sound-damping construct hold hanging sculpture. Maybe these will move and tables will slide from the center, allowing a partition to break it up. This kind of thing happens at new restaurants, when Otto opened you couldn’t hear the person next to you; this can be worked out and may soon be so it’s not worth dwelling on. Otherwise it is a simple, boxy room with hard wood floors, interesting green hide-covered tables, and leather swivel chairs.
Andrew is discussed as one of the best chefs around and none of the food I ate is cause to refute that. Food is all about how a chef chooses to balance sweet, salty, bitter, and acidic. The choices here all favor sweet far more then I do. This does not make it in anyway bad; it does however put it way down the list of food I would like to pay for.
Three of us (Bubby, Wife and I) ate in two courses of four dishes:
Seafood Salad Cranberry beans, chili. More a version of a cevice that would be served in a martini glass at a fusion place than an Italian cured seafood salad. It had fresh bell pepper, crunchy celery and a lightly sweet vinegar dressing.
Carne Cruda walnuts, celery, truffles. It was suggested to me when traveling in Piemonte that no matter what I should try carne cruda at every place I ate. The reason this is so interesting is it is never the same twice, recipes don’t vary regionally they vary at adjacent restaurants. The only thing it is safe to assume is that raw meat will be involved. Most often it is hand chopped, usually rough, sometimes fine, it can also be sliced very thinly like carpaccio, or ground. It is usually veal but I have also been served beef. It typically involves truffles; sometimes white sometimes black and sometimes shaved hard cheese on top takes the place of any tubers at all. Carne cruda is an awesome way to get an indicator of the type of restaurant you are in.
At A Voce, the meat is rough chopped and formed into a canelle. The role of truffle I have to assume is largely played by truffle oil because the whole dish has an overwhelming slickness that pushes whatever flavor the meat was bringing to the party to the back.
Grilled Octopus peperonata, lemon, chorizo. The octopus had a nice soft texture and seemed from the black bitts on the edges to have been well grilled. However it’s taste was totally blown out by the peperonata (a true version of the accompaniment in that the roasted peppers were agridolce, the sweetness of which added to the natural sweetness of the pepper to overwhelm any notes the octopus once had).
Duck Meatball Antipasto dried cherry mostarda. The meatballs themselves were ground very fine, a theme that would recur, but the sauce tasted as if the sweetness of the cherries had been fortified by something like confectioners sugar and butter.
Smoked Duck Sausage lentils, arugala, vin coto. The grind of the sausage filling was so fine it seemed more like a duck hot dog or brat than what was expected, which may have been interesting had the sweetness of the vin coto not so overpowered all the other components of this dish.
Roasted Veal Sweetbreads porcini, walnuts. The only dish with sweet in the name, this seemed a savory choice. There was a rather thick sauce on the sweetbreads I am guessing was largely Madeira, Sherry, or even Marsala, being an Italian place, but all it ended up being was sweet.
Spaghetti alla Chitarra lamb bolognese, mint, sheepsmilk ricotta. This they were out of, a totally understandable situation in a restaurant’s second week of existence, especially with fresh pasta, so we asked the waiter for a recommendation and he chose, Braised Veal Soffritto creamy polenta, gremolata, orange. Again sweet, as if the orange was Grand Marnier rather then zest. It is amazing when a chef brings the wonderful flavor of something like veal cheeks to the front of the basic stringy, fatty components of its nature. That being said, simply braising it so long it turns to mush and then losing it in a sweetened oso buco sauce is not what I look for in braised dishes. The polenta may have served to temper some of the sweetness but there would to have to have been far more than this scant portion to make it count.
My Grandmother’s Meat Ravioli tomato, parmigiano. Again the stuffing was ground so fine as to not resemble meat any longer, I am starting to suspect what was inherited from Grandma was a meat grinder with only the smallest die remaining. The sauce was simple, as was the stuffing and the pasta was very good. This dish was a high point.
Not needing any more sweetness, we decided to skip desert in favor of single espresso. I will simply say that the espresso was unacceptable, there was no crema, it was served in a glass cup guaranteeing it would cool before it hit the table, and it really was just strong coffee. Again a new place thing that will hopefully be worked out.
After telling our back waiter just the three coffees would do, he did the “you sure” thing and I bought the up sell in the form of three cheeses. When these hit the table about 45 seconds after the espressi Bubby almost flipped the table over. Once we talked him down and explained that we had already decided the coffees were not worth drinking anyway, we got to see that the gorgonzola cremefocata was actually gorgonzola dolce and that for some reason enough sweet preserved fig to accompany most of the aged manchego at Murray’s was offered as a pairing, we ate it all with the accompanying walnuts, waited 20 minutes for the check, and headed home.
Most of my criticisms of A Voce concern their choices. Carmellini of former Boulud and magazine award fame has decided to open a “beauty of the simplicity of Italian cuisine” place with appetizers priced in the $10-$18 range, pasta in the $17-$22 dollar range, and entrees priced from $23 to $30, putting himself squarely in the ranks of Lupa, Peasant, Beppe, I Trulli, Hearth and Gusto, just to name my favorite 6 in a pretty well represented market.
If there is an unfilled niche in NY’s Italian restaurant landscape it is those trying to elevate Italian-based food to the ethereal levels of haute cuisine, a job Mr. Carmellini would seem well suited to with a such a fine dining background. With 7 nights in a week, even if I was committed to Italian every night and was willing to forgo the American Italian at Angelo’s and Rao’s and the finer Italian at Alto and Del Posto, I still have 6 fantastic places to go to in the real Italian school and I have neither mentioned Babbo, nor opened Zagats. For A Voce to win a place in my heart it would either have to be an amazing value over its competition because of its rather awkward neighborhood, or the food would have to be at least a little better then any of the already wonderful places within 20 blocks of it, and it ain’t even close.