Monday, May 23, 2005

Restaurant 24: Po (Special Feature)

LOCATION: 31 Cornelia St.
DATE: May 19, 2005
FOOD: Tasting Menu – White Bean Brushetta; Mixed Green Salad with Asiago, Porcini Mushrooms, and Salami; Tortelloni with Ricotta and Ramps in a White Truffle Butter Sauce; Homemade Gnocchi with Smoked Mozzarella; Lamb served with White Beans and Cumin Yogurt; Cheese Plate; Chocolate Hazelnut Terrine and Strawberries in Balsamic Vinegar.
BEVERAGE: Half a bottle of white wine; Decaf coffee
PRICE: Danny’s Treat


In the movie Tampopo (Mario Battali’s favorite food film), director Juzo Itami illustrates the myriad needs food can fill or help to dissipate. Food is taste but also hinges significantly on emotion. It can act as substitute for that which is missing or augment what is already possessed. It is also a wonderful parallel to the sharing (of all kinds) involved in lasting friendships.

Danny had had a day fit for Charlie Brown. His computer died three days past the warranty expiration date (be wary of Dells), and his work caseload had reached a near maximum stress level. In such a situation, there was only one response – to eat well.

He chose Po (the restaurant Battali started at, yes, I know I use any excuse to mention him), a cozy West Village Italian that became our sanctuary for the night. Its Mediterranean whitewashed walls, pale lighting, and sedate atmosphere made conversation flow as easily as the river it is named for.

We ordered the tasting menu and what ensued were seven courses of adeptly prepared and sapid cuisine. The white bean bruschetta which began our meal contrasted the salty chewiness of the beans with the firm crunch of the bread delightfully. The salad course came next and I was surprised by how well the seemingly disparate ingredients of salami, Asiago cheese and Porcini mushrooms worked together. The mushrooms were warm and adequately firm (instead of many Italian’s places efforts ending in mush) with a resistance that mirrored the bite of the salami. I used two extra pieces of bread to make sure that even a signal drop of the slightly spicy vinegrette wasn’t left on the plate. It was hard not to relax at Po and forget about all the problems of the outside world.

The first of two pasta courses then arrived. In what was my favorite dish of the evening, the pungent flavor of ramps (a seasonal relative of the leek) mixed with the creamy buoyancy of ricotta cheese as the filling for a near perfect tortelloni. While I usually find butter sauces oily and so overbearing as to mask other flavors in a dish, Po’s white truffle butter sauce was as light as a Danielle Steel novel, but with all the substance of Italo Calvino. The white truffle was subtle but definitely present and when it came into contact with the ricotta, the combination was masterful.

Homemade gnocchi with smoked mozzarella followed. While the gnocchi was very good, weightless, but with enough potato taste to make it distinct from normal pasta, the smoked mozzarella was too strong, overmatching the red sauce and the gnocchi. The cheese tasted more like the rind of smoked Gouda than the type of buffalo mozzarella I covet, and the dish would have been better served by a less abrasive cheese. However, Po’s cuisine continued to elicit conversation from us both on itself but also about life in general. Po made me comfortable in the same way as going home for Thanksgiving or as was the case that night, being in the presence of a friend you know incredibly well and never get tired of.

Our main entrée was seared lamb with hints of mid-eastern spices. It came accompanied by cumin yogurt and white beans echoing the bruschetta that started the meal. I loved this legume self-reflection and the lamb was downright succulent. Overall, the dish’s various influences can be described best by one word: harmonious.

The cheese course was a sampling of three Italian cheeses. A mild and soft blue cheese appeared in another echo of an earlier dish, this time the ricotta of the tortelloni. A cacio cheese tasted remarkably similar to Romano or parmesan, wonderfully sharp and a bit tangy. To end the meal, a chocolate hazelnut terrine as rich and pliable as fudge, reminded me of my favorite candy, Bacio. Even more interesting though were the strawberries in balsamic vinegar. While working at the A-Bar-A ranch in Wyoming, I was fortunate enough to eat this slightly strange combination frequently, due to the ranch’s executive chef Kent Trebilcox. Danny had never had strawberries prepared in such a fashion and liked the commingling of sour and sweet. However, based on Kent’s recipe, I wanted more vinegar and black pepper on the strawberries (an absolutely amazing side I would recommend to anyone, adjusting the levels to individual preference), as instead of being able to taste the vinegar in each bite, it was only once we got to the bottom of the glass and the shallow pool of vinegar resting there that the acidity really became noticeable.

The servers at Po made everything seem effortless. I am a prodigious guzzler of water and though my glass was probably refilled more than ten times, it never went empty. The attentiveness just added to an already wonderful evening. By the time Danny asked for the check (somehow even though it was Danny’s bad day, he decided dinner was his treat), I had forgotten about the problems I didn’t have but was please to see Danny noticeably mellowed. Good food, like good friends, makes time inconsequential and life manageable. Danny had chosen well – Po was the perfect place to turn an awful day into one of laughter and cheer. Forgive my propensity for sappiness, but dinner at Po made ever more apparent that the secret to being happy in life is all in the choice of the company you keep.

RATING: 8.0/10

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