Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pulino's Doesn't Need You

The most recent venture of Keith McNally will be as popular as all of his ever are, with scant exception. It will be a Balthazar, a Pastis. He somehow knows how to open that kind of restaurant there, and the food needn't even keep up with the buzz. Which exactly what appears to be happening at Pulino's, despite the laudable resume and indubitable talent of it's San Fransisco celebri-chef, Nate Appleman.
Now, I have it on good word that Nate can cook; this I don't doubt. But it seems with the volume that he's forced to put out (and quite possibly the unfamiliar genre, the restaurant being Italian, and this being New York), none of his talent is showing through. A few dishes are serviceable. By far the best thing I've found thus far has been a simple wood grilled asparagus appetizer,
languidly strewn across a white porcelain plate, melted silky leeks nestled within. A gently truffled ricotta cushioned the vegetables and added an air of luxury. A salad of woodsy escarole with sugar snap peas and hen of the woods mushrooms was a little rough; the greens were just a tad beyond tender, the mushrooms slightly too tough, and the garlic pangrattato atop just little scratchy, which combined made the salad a laborious chew, although not entirely untasty.

Moving on to entrees, the pizza (supposedly the restaurant's purpose) needed to sampled. That was too bad. We went for simple: the margherita. The crust had a nice flavor and chew, but that's pretty much all the pie had going for it. The mozzarella atop had become rubbery puddles of not particularly flavorful cheese, and the tomato sauce was either: a) past it's prime, b) an insipid, unseasoned afterthough, or c) both. A few basil leaves couldn't salvage the pie. Roasted scallops were even less successful. The shellfish themselves were fresh, but again a little chewy (Dinner at Pulino's! Free Mandibular Yoga included!), and they had absolutely nothing to do with copious amounts of very juicy grapefruit and smattering of radicchio leaves, which had no business pairing with the truckload of generic, green olive slices dumped on top. There was nothing to tie it together or meld the ingredients into a dish. They just happened to find themselves together on the plate.
And if you venture here, you'll find yourself together with the hoards of the everyone elses that have also ventured here, and will inevitably continue to do so. The room is bustling and convivial. Servers finagle their way between tables, countless waiting diners and a simply mad bar scene, from which arises a cacophonous level of noise. And even with the forgettable food, the place has pizzazz. You kind of want to come back, just to watch the hot chefs in the hot kitchen, that hot guy waiting for his Negroni, and that nod from the maitre d' that you've finally procured that hot-ticket table. And you'll find something to eat. It's just that that won't be the reason you're there.
Which is why dessert got bypassed. My restaurant radar clicked into full gear and pointed us towards The Village Tart a few blocks south and west. It's Lesly Bernard's quaint little sweet and savory bistro, in collaboration with Pichet Ong. Quite the opposite from the scene at Pulino's, the Tart was relatively empty but for us and a chic table of four by the window. That allowed for admiring the lovely collection of eclectic mirrors and a more intimate rapport with our undistracted waiter. Just one dessert to share would suffice, and finally fill the lingering dissatisfaction from dinner. Coupled with excellent coffee from Intelligentsia, we dove into the Strawberries and Cream Tart, a parfait-style coupe of custardy cream and chantilly with lots of sliced strawberries, buttery chunks of pate frisee and roasty, caramelized pistachios. Perhaps the late hour (now approaching midnight) accounted for the sparsity of clientele, but it was noticeable contrast to the chaotic scene not a half an hour earlier. So unlike Pulino's that verges on a stampede, The Village Tart DOES need you.

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