Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tasca Wine Bar: A pleasurable, but imperfect evening

I knew what was coming before it came. In fact, I can actually pinpoint the exact moment when I knew that my meal at Tasca was not going to be the perfect experience I hoped it to be -- the perfect experience that many have had when dining at the West 3rd Street wine bar/small plates restaurant.

I'd been wanting to eat there for some time. I'd salivated over the descriptions of the fried Arancini, the braised short rib over spinach and goat cheese agnolotti with a brown butter sage sauce (swoon!), and the risotto verde. I'd poured over the positive blog reports about the restaurant's stellar wine list and charming ambiance, and had prepped myself for a future meal there by gorging on as many Yelp reviews as possible (141 to be exact -- minus the really long ones that seemed rather useless).

I was more than primed for a wonderful dining experience at Tasca, and when it was announced as one of the restaurants participating in Yelp's first restaurant week, I immediately reached out to four lovely Yelper ladies and secured a reservation for last Wednesday night.

My hopes were high. My stomach was growling with anticipation (or maybe just hunger?). And my excitement level was a solid 8 out of 10. Or at least it was until I read the $30 three-course tasting menu Tasca would be offering us.

1st Course
Boston lettuce, heirloom cherry tomatoes, Stilton cheese, pistachios
Beef carpaccio, shaved fennel, Parmigiano cheese

2nd Course
Halibut en papillote, olives, champignon mushrooms, fresh herbs salad
Pan roasted hanger steak a jus, tomatoes Provencal, roasted potatoes

3rd Course
Chocolate pot de creme, cardamom cream
Panna Cotta, fresh berries coulis

Not only were the Arancini no where to be found, but most of the items selected were vastly different from the real dinner menu. I'd expected short ribs, croquettes, perhaps some sort of delicious cheese plate brimming with stinky bites to be wrapped up in paper thin slices of prosciutto, and I was more than a little disappointed with the seemingly lackluster options. I felt as though they didn't reflect nor showcase the highlights on Tasca's regular menu, and as such, would not afford my party a true representation of the best the restaurant has to offer.

Despite my concerns, I was still excited to see my friends and knew that I would have a great time regardless of the food. Because sometimes it's not just about what I'm shoveling into my pie hole, right? It's about the experience. The time spent with real live people instead of the faceless "Tweeps" on Twitter. And really, for $30, could I really complain? I was still going to be eating steak! And chocolate pots of cream! And there would be wine -- fancy wine that isn't available at my local Whole Foods, Trader Joe's or Cost Plus World Market for $9.99 a bottle. A fine glass of wine can solve many a problem.

But not all of them.

Our party of five arrived at the cavernesque wine bar prior to our reservation to take advantage of their Happy Hour. From 5 to 7:30 pm the work-weary can absolve their daily battle wounds with $3 glasses of Sangria and $5 glasses of robust red wines like the Nero d’Avola, DiGiovanna that we all enjoyed. (Perhaps a little too much.) The wine quickly wore down our resolve to make the evening an economical one, lowering our inhibitions to a level where we deemed it completely appropriate to stray from the tasting menu for a couple orders of the famed Arancini balls.

Twenty dollars later, we came to the conclusion that the balls, delicately constructed with a nutty wild mushroom risotto, are good. (Because fried food generally does error on the right side of deliciousness.) We were equally enamored by the accompanying truffle sauce which also proved to be a fine companion for the complimentary warm slices of bread that were served with a respectable eggplant spread and a tapenade that was fine for those who do not loathe the olive with the heated passion of a thousand suns.

By this juncture in the evening (ie. a glass and a half of wine and three slices of bread in), we were all ready to get started with the tasting menu. After a moment's hesitation, I opted to stick to the Yelp offerings rather than foraging the menu for a few tasty small plates, and selected the butter lettuce salad, the hangar steak and the pot de creme for my three courses. The salad arrived first (because that's typically how these things work unless one is dining in a hoity toity place that serves it as the "refresher" course prior to dessert), and it look exactly how I pictured it would in my head.

Like lettuce. With a few sliced tomatoes, a restrained sprinkle of Stilton cheese crumbles, and what I suspect were almonds -- not pistachios as previously indicated. The salad was the type of salad that comes free with an entree at many a generic restaurant. It's the kind that registers as a 2.5 on the Richter scale of salad deliciousness (Fraiche's beet salad/Nancy's chopped salad at P. Mozza registering at 10), and the kind that I could easily throw together at home with minimal effort and expense.

My two friends who ordered the beef carpaccio seemed happier with their selection, but I gamely ate my healthy greens, comforted by the knowledge that at least my heart was grateful for the roughage. It helped some that I knew my stomach would soon be rewarded with animal flesh.

My much-anticipated hangar steak arrived at the table in beautiful, perfectly pink, lean strips. I was pleased. Tickled pink, really. Though less so when my nostrils caught wind of the fishy odor that permeated our nook of the ambiant space from the halibut that three of my companions selected. While they insisted that the fish itself was not fishy, they all agreed that they were jealous of the potatoes served alongside the steak. I had no real qualms with the delicately fried wedges of taters, though did find them a tad tired compared to the flavorful pieces of meat that I eagerly massaged with the sea of au jus underneath. My friend who also ordered the steak found the sauce too salty for her palate, but since I am fairly attached to my sea salt shaker when I cook at home, I was pleased with its composition. I like my meat to be well-seasoned and was glad that I didn't need to track down our courteous server for a salt shaker.
The night came to a conclusion with a third pour of wine for each of us vino-loving ladies, four orders of the chocolate pot de creme with cardamom cream, and one lowly order of the panna cotta with fresh berries. I was more or less happy with the light chocolate mousse and its abundant chocolate shaving topping, but the experience of inhaling my dessert before my mind could register its caloric content was somewhat hindered by the sounds of displeasure coming from my right. My poor friend who'd opted for the panna cotta found her choice to be less than compelling and I couldn't help but feel self conscious as we all devoured our desserts.

As we strode out of the now bustling restaurant, each $58 lighter, I felt a distinct sense of regret. Regret that aside from the wine, Arancini and steak that I enjoyed, I didn't have the noteworthy Tasca experience that many have marvelled over. In fact, the most noteworthy aspect of the evening was the fun I had with my friends. The stories that were shared about dates gone wrong, the juicy gossip about so and so and their so and so, and an in depth discussion about all the other restaurants we want to try. (Because that's what foodies do when they get together.) My fond memories of the evening will be reserved for those moments.

And maybe for the Arancini and truffle sauce too.


Steve said...

Tasca sadly is not that good. While the concept is great, the room is lifeless, the food expensive, and the execution underwhelming. I'd rather go to nearby AOC, though it, too, struggles with consistency.

The Duo Dishes said...

Well that's not so fun. Guess it does happen from time to time though. The price was pretty great for the array of food. If only it had been tastier....

Jenn said...

That's too bad. I guess it was an "off" night for them. At least you had a great night with friends.

Esi said...

That's unfortunate, but at least you had a nice evening.

Heather said...

tasting menus generally bum me out. i feel like they're almost always a pre-prepared let down. but i'm glad you had a nice night, at least! it's always fun to get out!

Alessandra said...

I had the same experience during Chicago restaurant week. I went to three restaurants with great reputations, but I was extremely underwhelmed with the items on the tasting menu. I thought the point of these events was to attract diners -- not disappoint them with boring dishes!

Pearl said...

i'm sorry to hear that the food wasn't as fantastic as hoped, but i'm glad you had a nice evening with your friends!

Reeni♥ said...

What a letdown, especially after reading all of the reviews. But all was not lost - you had a great night out with friends. The steak and arancini look great. I have been wanting to make my own arancini, my idea of heaven.