March 17, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Olana Channels the Hudson Valley with Italian Detours      
The romantic party room at Olana absorbs the overflow. Photo: Steven Richter
The romantic party room at Olana absorbs the overflow. Photo: Steven Richter

        I went to Olana one evening last week because I couldn’t score a table between 8 and 9 at the first five new restaurants I called.  Like you, I got the usual 5:30 early bird or 9:30, even 10 louche latecomer. Can’t help wanting to ask…Are you guys faking this orgasm or are you really that booked?

        I went with no expectations.  I knew the original. We used to weekend in Woodstock and visit all the historic Hudson Valley sites including painter Frederic Edwin Church’s Olana, his stenciled and turreted faux Persian castle.  I immediately wanted to redo our own minimally turreted one-room church on the hill in Zena.

        Waiting our turn to be seated, I grab a few nuts at the bar – sweet and stale-tasting, hardly a good omen. I survey a dizzying panorama of overblown décor, enough backdrops for a three-act play. But coming fresh from a few overly sedate and inconclusive new dining spots, I find myself actually appreciating the ebullience: too-huge paintings, or possibly computer compositions, of Hudson Valleyesque landscapes in brashly illuminated light boxes and I’m-not-sure-what on canvases in front of me. I adore the gel-cast blobs of light in the romantically-shadowy back room, that otherwise might seem like Siberia – the private party annex with its own fireplace thrown open and crackling for Saturday’s full house.

The chef’s hamachi crudo is jeweled with chile ringlets. Photo: Steven Richter

        Our captain does not introduce himself - definitely a positive - though he looks familiar. (“You might know me from Le Cirque,” he responds when we ask). Hmm. So he probably knows I’m me. Is that why he is suspiciously eager to please when the four of us agree to try the $68 four course menu?  Though at first the menu seems boringly familiar - octopus salad, mache and beets, hamachi crudo, Berkshire pork loin - a closer look at the pastas and the frills and ruffles has got our quartet of professional mouths unusually excited.

        “Can it be four savory courses and no dessert?”  I ask.

        “No problem,” he assures us.  He’s a wily pro, playing the game, letting me feel anonymous if I like.

        “You mean an appetizer and two pastas or a pasta and two entrees…even the veal rib eye (it’s a special that evening at $41)?”

        He nods like a beneficient Macy’s Santa Claus.

        The slow cooked potato amuse with saffron and mountain greens is a pretty low key pitch.

        But then the roving bread jockey appears toting a tray of what look like dozens of donut holes in a myriad of flavors – “kale, onion, olive, whole wheat,” he gives his pitch.  Four bread-wantons work ourselves into a frenzy over these chewy little nubbins from Falai Paneterria on Clinton Street – another ex-pat from Le Cirque, one time patissier Iacopo Falai.

Gently cooked seafood is piled on al dente spaghetti alla chitarra. Photo: Steven Richter

        From that moment on we are pretty much putty in Chef Al Di Meglio’s hands. Unabashedly exclaiming and clucking over ricotta-stuffed chestnut crespelle with mushrooms in sage brown butter sauce, plump little veal and ricotta cappellacci with Sicilian pistachios in a roasted tomato sauce, fabulous spaghetti alla chitarra piled with sensitively cooked sea critters and splendid veal rib eye, rare, with potato gnocchi and a rainbow of cauliflower.  The shock of discovery makes everything even more delicious…like seeing Last Tango in Paris before a single review. (I have to interrupt…I forgot the name of the movie.  I just Googled “Marlon Brando butter” and there it was.  How marvelous to live in this moment of electronic brain boosts.)

        I often say that even after 40 years reviewing restaurants I still get up every morning full of hope that I will discover a glorious dish, a great new chef. And here he is. No high wire trapeze somersaults for Olana Chef Di Meglia: just wonderful food you’ll want to eat again and again. How many hamachi crudos have you been offered this year?  Well this cute little tuffet of lush sashimi on cucumber, jeweled with red ringlets of pickled Fresco peppers, with borage cress and cilantro aioli is Best in Show. Cheddar flan, spiced almonds and mushrooms add layers of zing to cauliflower soup, making the listless version at Adour seem even more pitiful. I can’t actually detect the briny perfume of sea urchin under a bruising of fresh black truffles on the king crab and uni risotto but I’m enjoying it anyway.

I’m not a chocolate fondue fan but this is fun.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Although everything comes in small tasting portions, our ritual passing of plates and the chef’s garnishes – rose infused apple puree, mushroom and onion confit – has exhausted our palates.  And we find ourselves canceling the final savory dishes – regretting that we’re missing licorice layered duck and black pepper papardelle with grilled and confit rabbit.  Indeed. I’ve given up my rabbit for brandied carrot cake with roasted pineapple and cream cheese ice cream.  And our shared gianduja banana Napoleon with banana crème brulée, Meyer lemon brulée with toasted almond ice cream, chocolate and Meyer lemon sorbets – and more. Dollhouse sized cast iron pots of melted chocolate for dunking marshmallow, pastry balls and targets-shaped cookies – not one but two tiny pots – sport a definite link to Sirio’s famed dessert seductions. (How generous this feels compared to the five little canapés on the mignardise plate offered to four of us at Eighty One.)

        Maybe you recognized DiMeglio right away. Only after that first dinner did I check him out.  He was “making” pizza with his grandmother on Staten Island at 2, according to his press release, but stints at Windows on the World, Cellar in the Sky, at Daniel and under Sootha Khunn at Le Cirque led to being tapped at the age of 24 as executive chef at Osteria del Circo.  Maccioni took him to Montecatini where he could absorb the cooking of Tuscany and Florence. Now he’s directing the kitchen at Olana for the brothers Resk, Patrick, one time sommelier and grape nut, and William - formerly at the Hudson River Club with Waldy Malouf, and later at Edward Moran’s Bar & Grill.

        I can’t wait to return.

72 Madison Avenue between 27th and 28th Streets 212-725-4900
Lunch: Monday - Saturday 11:45 to 2:30 pm. Dinner: Monday - Saturday 5:30 to 11:00pm. Closed Sunday.


Peeved: I do not ENJOY

        Last week in my newsletter Fork Play I complained about constant intrusions at dinner, waiters, maitre d’s, hosts wanting to know, “Are you enjoying everything?”  At South Gate the bread man sidles up, asking, “How are you tonight?”  The bread man?  Puleeze.  Make this guy the maitre d’.  He’s got too much personality for bread.  Has no one told him he just succinctly tells the choices, serves and fades into the background?  I asked readers to email me their pet peeves.

        Kirsten Nobman lists her three biggest pet peeves:
1. When servers refill your wine glass after you've only taken 2 sips!  I always tell the server I will pour my own wine.
2. When servers clear plates before the rest of the table is finished dining.  It's an American thing, but it's downright rude.
3. When you don't receive new flatware between courses.  I don't want my dirty fork back!!

        Penny Pollack, Dining Editor at Chicago Magazine responds:
        I hate flavored butters. Comes under my blueberry bagel rant. If I want blueberries baked in something, I eat a muffin. If I want butter on my bread, that's all I want: fabulous pure sweet creamy butter. Not herbed butter, not oil-infused butter, not butter rolled in kosher salt or flecked with Italian parsley. Please pass the butter means just that.

        Authors and wine columnists Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg sent a list:
1. Seeing TVs anyplace that's not a sports bar, but especially in otherwise upscale restaurants.
2. Being called "guys" (as in "Hi guys" or "How are you guys doing?") by an invariably 20-something waitperson we've never even met before
 3. The over-pouring of bottled water, especially in larger groups where the focus is on conversation so you might not even notice until you see how many bottles of unordered water end up on your check -- and see how many full glasses of water are left on the table.
 4. Bringing to the table an open bottle of wine that you'd ordered by the glass, and then not even bothering to let you taste it first before they pour.
 5. Wine served at the improper temperature
 6. Too-sweet desserts (more common in the 1990s) or too-salty desserts (more common today)
 7. Being brought 7 petit fours for your table of 8

        Zarela Martinez writes:
I hate overpouring of wine and I resent that they always serve the man more.  We've stopped that by telling the server that we'll pour our own wine and it works.

      Jamie Gillis, her companion adds, Just thought I'd expound a bit on why I no longer let servers pour my wine:         I want to feel more as if I am home with my own servants. I don't want to be infantilized by them telling me to "enjoy" or asking me "Is everything ok?" And I don't want them running over to pour wine--I find it intrusive even when done by the best of them. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson: "That server is best who serves least."

        Maurizio de Rosa, Italian Wine Specialist at Southern Wine & Spirits emails:
When I go to a restaurant with a confirmed reservation, but am not allowed to sit unless every member of my party has arrived.

And when I am waiting for a reserved table and such table is evidently not ready, I should be offered a drink as a gesture of apology. That seldom happens.

        Restaurant publicist Steven Hall:
Hates when runners give lengthy descriptions of the food as they place it on the table, and you have to wait to start eating as they go through the dishes ordered person by person.

        Susan Toepfer, editor of Quick & Simple:
Hates waiters who take away one plate before others have finished.

        I might add…How about grabbing the bottle out of your hand so they can pour after they’ve neglected your table for a course or two? Or taking your glass away when there’s still an ounce or two of icy diluted cocktail you’re having such fun sipping?

        Email me your pet peeves. It never hurts to have restaurateurs who might care know what their serving crews are up to.