Monday, November 8, 2010
Osteria Morini: Automatic for the People
I dare you to name me a chef who's had a more successful year than Michael White. 2010 has been kind to "Chef Bianco," seeing him not only walk away with a James Beard Award, but also collecting his fifth Michelin Star when Marea was awarded two stars. It was no surprise that Alto (two stars) and Convivio (one star) retained theirs. Additionally, Chef White is preparing to launch his upcoming project with the Setai, Ai Fiori, and revealed plans to expand into Hong Kong. Almost forgotten amidst all this hullabaloo was the opening of his latest restaurant, Osteria Morini, located in Soho.
Already having covered Northern Italian (Alto), Southern Italian (Convivio) and Coastal Italian (Marea) cusine, Morini focuses on the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. Known for its pasta dishes, this region plays directly to White's strengths. Described as an Osteria, a less formal version of a trattoria or ristorante, Morini is White's most casual restaurant to date. Although far from being "cheap," a prudent diner could easily escape Morini without breaking the bank, a task easier said than actually done given all the tempting menu options.
When we arrived for our dinner reservations, the entire space was filled with a kind of energy you look for in a buzzworthy restaurant. Patrons lined the sprawling bar nibbling on plates of cured meats while drinking wine. Escorted to the dimly lit dining room we were seated as loud rock music played overhead (remind anyone else of Babbo?) Unlike the elegant dining rooms and table linens customarily associated with White's other restaurants, Morini embraces the laid back vibe of an osteria. Here, tablecloths are replaced with paper placemats and wine is served in stemless glassware. But having experienced both extremes, we were anything but put off. Instead, Morini seemed the perfect place to grab a bite at the bar to satisfy that nagging carbohydrate craving.
Thanks to the advice of a friend, we asked to speak to Carolyn, who helped us select a bottle of Fattoria Paradiso "Vigna delle Lepri" Sangiovese Riserva Emilia-Romagna, Italy (2007). Bold enough to stand up to the robust flavors featured throughout the menu, the wine complimented our meal nicely.
Bread service consisted of Olive Rolls served with Olive Oil. The warm olive rolls had a crusty exterior but chewy middle.
The Mare, an Adriatic Style Seafood Salad (Scallops, Shrimp, Squid and Cuttlefish) with Olives, Lemon and Capers was outstanding. After already having experienced White's skill with seafood first hand at Marea, it came as no surprise that the seafood was expertly cooked. Brightened with a liberal dose of lemon, combined with the brininess of the olives and capers, the Mare was the perfect starter.
Despite rave reviews, we found the Fritto Bolognese merely OK. While the Bechamel Crochettes, Polento and Lardo and Mortadella Skewers were properly fried, overall the dish suffered by being served at room temperature. Both the rounds of polenta smeared with a dab of lardo and the croquettes filled with bechemel tasted good, but had the potential to be something special had they been served hot. Likewise, the mortadella was dense and cold in the center, proving once again that people will shamelessly hype anything deep fried, deserving or not.
But the primary reason for visiting Morini, or any of White's restaurant for that matter, is for the pastas. Previously, I've swooned over the chef's outrageous fusilli and orecchiette at Marea and tonight was no different, albeit with different pastas. The Stracci Pasta, "Rags" with Braised Wild Mushrooms and Rosemary Oil, was easily the most memorable dish of the evening, reminding me just how good White's pastas are. An earthy sauce of mushrooms and rosemary coating al dente ribbons of pasta was magnificent.
Good, but not transcendent, was the Tagliatelle with Ragu Antica and Parmigiano. The ragu was rich but not heavy, a testament of White's ability, and contained an extra dimension of flvor from the light dusting of parmigiano. Together, these two dishes alone were reason enough to warrant visiting Morini and further solidifying White's status as the "Prince of Pasta."
Our eyes must have been bigger than our stomachs because by the time our secondi arrived we were both comfortably full. The Stracotto, a Sangiovese Braised Beef Short Rib with Potato Puree and Caramelized Root Vegetables was delicious. Having been slowly braised, this once tough cut of meat was transformed into an unctuous rectangle of intense beefy goodness. Served alongside a pile of silky potatoes and sweet root vegetables, we may have not been able to finish the dish had we still been hungry, let alone after all we had already eaten.
The Petroniana, a Crispy Veal Cutlet with Prosciutto Cotto, Parmigiano and Truffle Cream with Buttered Spinach was also no slouch. The veal cutlet, pounded thin, reminded me of an Italian version of weinersnitchel, only topped with salty prosciutto and a heavy truffle cream sauce. The fragrant truffle sauce sounded great in theory but overwhelmed all other flavors of the dish, including the subtle sweetness of the veal.
Somehow we managed the courage to order dessert, choosing to split the Panna Cotta with Strawberry Marmalade and Poached Orange Segments. Compared to other versions, the panna cotta at Morini was far creamier than others, which can verge on the gelatinous side. With its strong vanilla flavor, the silky panna cotta was the perfect ending, especially topped with sweet preserves and refreshing orange supremes.
Only a few weeks into service, we were impressed by how few problems we encountered and felt as a whole, service was both helpful and friendly. As a fellow Italian chef with a similarly impressive restaurant empire, the comparisons to Mario Batali seem inevitable. Yet there is one key difference, White is actually in his kitchens cooking. Not meant as a knock against Batali, this statement is more an indictment of White's hands on approach in all his ventures. True to form, White was on full display, either in the kitchen or floating throughout the dining room stopping by tables to say hi, or answer any questions. Containing the same high caliber food sans the formality its sister restaurants, Morini figures to be White's most accessible, and may, ultimately become his most successful restaurant yet.
218 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10012
To see all our pics click our flickr link.