August 25, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Summer Entitlement at Morandi

Roberto is the master diplomat of the Universe at Morandi. Photo: Steven Richter
Roberto is the master diplomat of the Universe at Morandi. Photo: Steven Richter

         Uptown streets are deserted these August evenings.  That lulls us into thinking we might find a spot for the three of us at Jody Williams’ tiny wine bar, Gottino.  But no, the bar has only a snaggletooth vacancy or two. Seeing a half hour wait or more, I suggest we wander around the corner to Morandi, Keith McNally’s Italian effort, where Williams suddenly abandoned the kitchen several weeks ago for reasons neither she nor McNally want to discuss.

More than mere calamari. Photo: Steven Richter
    Now why do I expect we’ll find a haven at Morandi with no reservation?  I haven’t been back since the intense demand in the early days by the crowd that reeks of entitlement.  Isn’t that the population on summer exodus?  Wrong. Anxious clotlettes of people are waiting outside as taxis drop off titled, untitled and entitled women chirping Italian, kiss-kissing the animated god at the maitre d’stand.

        “Roberto, I’m Bob Grimes,” ventures our companion tonight. “What are chances for a table for three?”  They eye each other. I imagine I see Roberto’s brain doing a Google search… Who is this man? Do I know him?  Will I give him a table?  How long can I let him wait? Roberto darts off to check the pulse of the back room, returns, whirls and parries, studying the candidates for dinner.  I hear the silent click click click and then, he smiles at our friend. “Tables are clearing now. Can you wait ten minutes?”

        Well, one is still dubious. Some keepers of the reservation list are rude, some are diplomats. You never know where you really stand till you get that table, how long it takes, the depth of humiliation. And even the table – where it is, how cramped – can be some power-drugged cretin’s judgment of your Page Sixiness.  I study the moves of confident foursomes, surging in, grabbing Roberto’s arm, still home in August, no apologies, crushing unfettered bozooms against his sleeve.

        “Ai, Roberto, ciao Roberto!” Scribbles on the reservation list.  He is ten minuting us all. And then it is true. Less than ten minutes.  I cannot quite believe it. We are headed toward a roomy four top and a banquette I’ve sat in before. How quickly I’ve recaptured my posture of entitlement too.

Lamb ragu and peas with properly firm cavatelli. Photo: Steven Richter.

        Our pal is sending the waiter for a carafe of wine and bruscetti now…before we order, before we faint.  Just grilled country bread rubbed with garlic and oil with a fluff of ricotta and a red pepper tag, but perfect.  I recall liking Morandi, loving the food on a first visit, confronting some flubs on the next and thinking it too frantic to venture back anytime soon.

The smokiness, the chew, how rare it is…nice flank steak.  Photo: Steven Richter

         Grilled squid with peppers, capers and olives…how simple, how predictable, yes, but something in the seasoning, the marinating, the fabulous olives (more on the table) has the three of us remarking.  We got into a restaurant that was hotter than we expected.  And now we’re loving it.  We three share an order of bucatini cacio e pepe  (pecorino and black pepper) and cavatelli with lamb ragu and peas – both properly al dente, good enough, though I’m remembering a baked whole wheat pasta with cabbage, speck and Bitto cheese  – so fiercely rich I kept waving my arms at friends across the room just to keep the blood flowing. Of course that’s a winter dish so I shouldn’t be craving it in August.  I am not sure what makes the flank steak we’re dividing so marvelous: the smokiness, how rare it is, bold seasoning, a happy cow, or all of the above? And I can’t promise the next flank steak will emerge from Morandi’s kitchen in an exalted state. But we’ll be back with loved ones needing to be impressed and Chai Baby, kiss kiss, I’m hoping Roberto remembers.

15 Charles Street off 7th Avenue at Waverly Place . 212 627 7575 Breakfast, Lunch, Brunch and Dinner.


Amanda Freitag’s Summer: Glaze It, Confit It, Marinate in Anchovies

Amanda Freitag makes the most of summer in The Harrison’s kitchen. Photo: Steven Richter

        Our host is a Californian, from Marin County.  Alice Waters is his God and Chez Panisse Cafe his temple.  Eating in New York is all foreign food to him. “No one here cooks with that California style.”

        I want to say: “What about Jonathan Waxman?” Then I think, Waxman does Low Country southern at Madaleine Mae, rustic Italian at Barbuto.  So I don’t say, what about Jonathan? “Everyone is talking local now,” I mutter. “And green is the new mantra.”

        “Obviously, you don’t have fruit and vegetables all year round,” he grants.

        “But it’s summer now,” I remind him.  “I bought a gorgeous ripe melon at Fairway this week.” (I don’t mention the 20 green ones I rejected.) “Presumably, if you make the effort, you could have exquisite greens and ripe plums and heirloom tomatoes.” (I am not going to mention that I have swooned over heirloom tomatoes at Eighty One and puzzled over barely exhilarating ‘looms tonight.)

The room is easy going with old world fixtures and a lemony glow. Photo: Steven Richter

        We are at The Harrison because our West Coast pal heard owner Jimmy Bradley’s new chef Amanda Freitag is making a point of “local,” and I’ve read the raves and wanted to come since she arrived in January. With all the sidewalk tables full, it’s almost serene indoors, where cloths pad the tables and tavern chandeliers cast a lemony glow. Does the waiter ask everyone how they like the food every five minutes?  Or is he just imposing on me, thinking that’s proper service?

        Except for some mushy tomatoes I think she should have tasted and tossed, I am loving Freitag’s food, wishing Harrison were my local. A lush starter of lobster and crawfish raviolini in Creole butter is counterpoint to our farmstand appetizers. Julienne of beet salad on robiolina cheese with a pistachio dressing. Radish salad in an anchovy vinaigrette that needs to be more powerful, looking like a still-life and served in the French tradition with buttered bread. Firm black mission figs with blue cheese, prosciutto and that meaty green sprig, purslane.

This English cut of lamb is hard to slice but marvelous to eat. Photo: Steven Richter

        Truth be told, I’d make the long swing downtown just for the chef’s crusty, crispy duck fat fries with a dipping ambrosia of malt-vinegar mayonnaise. Those addictive potatoes and Freitag’s welcoming cool melon soup with pumpkin seeds, my juicy “heirloom” chicken with roasted lemon slices on delicate mashed potatoes,
Parsley root green and horseradish jazz up grilled trout. Photo: Steven Richter
and a thick, anchovy-marinated-rosemary-scented lamb chop with garden carrots and fennel are tonight’s thrills. Though it’s wondrously rare, texture perfect, full of flavor – even our resident carnivore finds it a challenge to slice the meat off this English cut formed from both sides of the back bone. “You need to pick it up and chew,” he says, “but it’s too big and messy for that.”  Not that he isn’t willing to come back and try again, he informs me.

        When I see celery sorbet on a dessert list, I want to run out to the nearest Pinkberry.  Chocolate pretzel tart is more appealing, but I’d get rid of the sea salt potato chips on top. Raspberry rhubarb crostata dulce de leche with burnt orange anglaise is more like it.

        The bicoastal commuter is clearly not convinced local will have serious clout in our town especially when winter closes in. “If it’s no more than six hours away,” he says, “Is that six hours by bicycle or car or plane or jet?”

        I think of the big carbon footprint it takes us to taxi this far downtown.  I vow to change another light bulb from the stash of economizers that are standing by looking virtuous.

        And for the record, local or not, with calf’s liver just $20 and $24 for a pork chop, a $10 or $11 appetizer and desserts $8 or $9, count on spending at least $55 to $75 for three courses, tax and tip, plus whatever you drink.

355 Greenwich. Entrance on Harrison Street. 212 274 9310 


Patina Restaurant Group