Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Convivio: Divorce is Messy, but So is Red Sauce...

All good things must eventually come to an end, or so they say. This adage was proven true, when, after months of speculation, the Altamarea Group released an official statement last week confirming that Chef Michael White and longtime partner, Chris Cannon were officially cutting ties. Then again, Cannon is no stranger to divorces from high-profile chefs, as one need only look back to 2007's messy split with Scott Conant. In fact, the news was a bit ironic, considering it was Cannon who selected White to replace the departing Conant at the former L'Impero restaurant, which was later reincarnated as Convivio. As per the details of the breakup, it was reported that White and new business partner, Ahmass Fakahany, will take Marea, Osteria Morini and the newly-opened, Ai Fiori, while Cannon will retain Alto and Convivio. As with any divorce, there are the children to consider, and in this case, White will bring aboard Alto's chef de cuisine, Gordon Finn, as well as Convivio's current chef de cuisine, Matt Adler, while pastry chef, Heather Bertinetti will continue to work with Cannon. So it seemed perfectly natural at the time of our reservation (pre-announcement), to wonder whether any of the speculated turmoil would compromise our experience at Convivio in the slightest.

Overlooking the East River from Tudor City, just across the street from the United Nations headquarters, Convivio pays homage to the rustic cuisine of Southern Italy. Convivio's dining room is split between two floors and is decked out in a sea of red, gray and white, reminding me more of a hotel lobby, than a Michelin-starred restaurant. The hostess squeezed us into our tiny two-top, recalling memories of Má Pêche's tight dining room. While our waiter arrived shortly to explain the menu, I hardly needed any assistance deciding from what is certainly one of the city's best four-course values. The only assistance we did need was help navigating the restaurant's extensive list of Italian wines, ultimately choosing a 2008 Etna Bianco Tenuta Delle Terre Nere (Italy, Sicily) that worked well with our meal.

Another server arrived shortly with the bread basket. Bread service consisted of three choices: a Sourdough, Olive and an Italian bread served with a fruity olive oil. Our favorite was the olive, with briny chunks of whole green olives studded throughout.

MW's antipasti was the Insalata di Mare, a Warm Seafood Salad with Caper Berries and Lemon. The salad was loaded with an assortment of shrimp, mussels, clams, squid and cuttlefish with a thick piece of toasted bread to sop up any remaining juices. While the salad was well-seasoned, and we both enjoyed the capers and lemon, the seafood was slightly overcooked, leaving us craving the properly executed version of a similar dish we had enjoyed at Osteria Morini.

On the other hand, my Quaglia, a Pancetta wrapped Quail with Figs and Vin Cotto was extraordinary. The salty pancetta helped keep the quail moist which was beautifully accented by the sweet figs and vin cotto that adorned a pile of bitter greens. This combination of salty, sweet, bitter and savory was an excellent starter and helped set the tone for the rest of our meal.

Given Chef White's affinity towards pastas, we were most excited for this course, and neither selection let us down. MW's Malloreddus, a Sardinian Saffron Gnocchetti with Crab and Sea Urchin was incredible. Instead of a fluffy gnocchi, made from potato, the malloreddus were crafted from flour and water and were wonderfully al dente, and contrary to some complaints, neither of us found the urchin nor the crab flavor lacking. The dish utilized uni in two forms, it was incorporated into a rich sauce as well as in whole tongues topping the pasta. Together, the uni combined with the sweet crab meat to form another signature White pasta.

After having my mind blown by the fusili at Marea, I wanted to see how Convivio's version compared. Instead of being paired with luscious bone marrow and octopus, here, the restaurant served their Fusili with a Neopolitan Pork Shoulder Ragu and Caciocavallo Fonduta. Bathed in a bright tomato sauce, the chewy spirals of pasta were flawless with the hearty pork ragu and creamy caciocavallo fonduta. Same pasta, different preparations-- both equally amazing in their own way.

After pasta that good, our secondi were almost sure to let us down. MW's Capesante, Diver Scallops with Piquillos, Fennel and a Pine Nut Pesto was good, but nothing special. Four wonderfully seared scallops were topped with a pine nut pesto, surrounding a pile of braised fennel and dollops of piquillo purée. While there were no real technical flaws with the dish, all of the components tended to overwhelm the delicate flavor of the scallops which unfortunately became an afterthought.

In contrast, my Costoletta di Vitello, a Parmigiano Crusted Veal Chop with Guanciale Brussels Sprouts and Honey just felt like it was missing something. The massive veal chop was cooked a perfect medium rare, allowing the natural sweetness from the meat to shine. However, the rich parmigiano crust and heavy guanciale brussels sprouts would have benefited from some acid to help cut all the fat, which was starting to get to us by this point.

Adding insult to injury, was our decision to order a side of Patate Pecorino, Potatoes with Sheep's Milk Cheese. Not quite fried, but not quite smashed, these potatoes appeared to be a combination of the two, resulting in a crunchy, but thick potato redolent with nutty pecorino romano. While good, we could have easily passed on these, or better yet, opted for a doggy bag.

By this point into our meal, we were both so full that I began to forget most of the details. However, we rallied once we saw the dessert menu. MW had been on a massive panna cotta kick, so it was no surprise when she ordered the Panna Cotta Cioccolato with Blood Orange, Marshmallow Cream and Vanilla Gelato. Not nearly as rich as the one we had at Osteria Morini, the chocolate panna cotta was silky smooth, and paired nicely with the cubes of blood orange.

Despite how full I was feeling, order was restored once I took a bite of the Affogato al Caffé with Ramazzotti Gelato and Freshly-Brewed Espresso. Poured table side, the contrasting temperatures of the creamy gelato and assertive espresso was the perfect remedy for my self-inflicted food coma.

Reflecting upon our meal, I only regret enjoying but a single experience at Convivio before the White-Cannon breakup, and the imminent departure of Chef Adler. If history has taught us anything, it's that Cannon has a sure eye for talent, and will undoubtedly recruit another able chef that will surely guide Convivio to even loftier heights... which will likely result in another messy divorce only a few years later.

45 Tudor City Place
New York, NY 10017
(212) 599-5045


To see all the pictures from this meal click HERE.

Convivio on Urbanspoon

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