Thursday, August 11, 2005

Restaurant Remix 4: Otto

LOCATION: 1 Fifth Avenue
DATE: July 30, 2005
FOOD: Split the following – Vegetables: Summer Squash & Pecorino; Summer Corn & Fregula; Meat: Coppa; Fish: King Fish "In Soar"; Cheese: Coach Triple Cream, Goat, NY; Parmigiano Reggiano, Cow, EMI; Ricotta, Cow, CT; Salad: Heirloom Caprese; Pasta: PENNE ALLA NORMA (TOMATO, ROASTED EGGPLANT, BASIL, BUFALA RICOTTA); LINGUINE SICILIANI (ZUCCHINI, FRESH CHILES, MINT, BOTTARGA); Pizza: QUATTRO STAGIONI (TOMATO, ASPARAGUS, MUSHROOMS, COTTO, PEPPERS);
BEVERAGE: Glass of Proseco (complimentary for a long wait); Split a bottle of white wine
PRICE: My treat

The Tasteland's first review of Otto, from April 24, 2005.

Unfortunately, there are no pictures for this meal.

It was my final night. A year in New York filled with more unforgettable experiences than anyone person should hope to have in a lifetime, and just one night left. With melancholy already setting in and my appetite retreating like the Yankees’ chances of a pennant, it was hard to muster the desire to leave the apartment let alone gear up for one last revelatory meal.

So just as the year had passed with an incomprehensible speed, so too did the hours of July 30th. It was nine pm before we were ready to eat. After enough discussion to make the Yale debate team seriously consider giving up rhetoric permanently, Bennett, Wayne, Libby and I decided to meet my former roommate Jordan at an old standby.

Otto. Mario Batali may have the Midas touch, but Otto suggests that the man cares more about the food than bilking customers or pandering to food critics. Otto, in its essence, proves that Batali is a simply a man who likes to eat and a chef who has never forgotten that meals are a first and foremost a social activity. With a wine bar that creates a festive atmosphere, Otto is a perfect meeting place.

But wine and uplifted spirits can’t outshine the food. Even though we had to wait until 10:30, the vibe in Otto was still electric. At 10:30, every table was filled and the hostess apologized numerous times for not being able to seat us on time. When we were finally seated 20 minutes later, she gave a round of Proseco to the entire table as a way of apology, which makes sense, because who isn’t a bit friendlier when they’re drinking free alcohol?

Trying to please five fairly diverse diners was a difficult, but our waiter (who was very likely inebriated himself) did a commendable job of guiding us through the menu. Eventually, we opted to let him select for us, and he brought us dishes from each of the menu’s categories. The two vegetable and king fish Italian-style tapas offerings came together, and ranged from refined simplicity, to more daring and varyingly successful combinations. The pecorino and squash was as straight forward as its two ingredients would imply, though how Otto’s kitchen makes squash so tender remains a mystery. The salty pecorino complimented the earthy texture of the root vegetable well. Equally pleasing was the corn and fregula. There’s something distinctly summer about fresh corn and the dish captured that feel marvelously. The king fish “in soar” was the only sub par of the three initial samplings. Tasting vaguely of canned tuna and exuding the color of the gray English afternoons under which D.H. Lawrence tarried, the king fish was a surprising misstep from a restaurant that otherwise is very reliable.

However, the king fish was soon forgotten. The cheese tasting was marvelous, especially the creaminess of the goat cheese. Every cheese plate at Otto comes with saucers of honey and fermented cherries, and the sweetness of these sides enhances Otto’s marvelous dairy selection in a way other restaurants should take note of. After all, success lies in the details.

The heirloom caprese showcased the seasonal tomatoes. Aged to the degree of ripeness eliciting sexual comparisons of suppleness and firmness, the salad disappeared quickly. The pasta courses followed suit. While the linguini scilliani had the spice of Babbo’s black spaghetti, its zucchini base was too mushy and similar in texture to the noodles to be truly outstanding. Fortunately, the penne more than made up for its semolina sister. Large roasted chunks of eggplant and artistically appealing clouds of mozzarella jostled with the noodles for plate space, but were the very example of cohesion when tasted. The mozzarella made the pasta and it’s amazing that a restaurant with Otto’s reasonable prices can serve products of such high quality.

Finally, there was the pizza. The Quattro Stagioni was Otto’s take on the classic quartered pie and offered something for everyone. The same coppa, an Italian ham similar to proscuitto, which had helped open our meal on an up note, concluded it in the same manner as a topping on the pizza.

Though lasting nearly two hours, our meal seemed as compressed and fleeting as my stay in New York. As Jordan and I reminisced over a friendship stretching into its fourth year, I couldn’t help thanking him for being the reason I came to New York in the first place. As I said goodbye to him and the city I love, I felt an unexpected burst of emotion puncturing my normal (and preferred) near catatonic state. Perhaps my mood wasn’t assisted by the fact that we had forgotten to order Otto’s otherworldly gelato, but by the time we said goodbye on Fifth Avenue, I knew my departure from Jordan, as well as New York would have to be temporary rather than permanent. Otto brought to the close a year of eating, unique experiences, and life-altering moments that like New York, are without equal. Only time will tell, but I have a feeling this isn’t the last New York has heard of me or I of it.

RATING: 8.0/10

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