…after the nearly six hour experience that was Per Se I could have certainly gone without dinner, but after a long afternoon of walking, shopping, browsing galleries, and basking in the glow of such a great time I’d surprisingly worked up an appetite. Having predicted the length of the Per Se meal and therefore leaving the night open and without reservations I debated the long list of placed I’d been, places I’d not been, and places I could likely get into without a reservation on a Friday before a comment from earlier that day popped back into my mind; specifically that one of the young chef’s currently completing his stage at Torrisi had just finished a stage at Per Se and that according to our server at Per Se I should “definitely go” (though I’m pretty sure he did not mean I should go that night.)
Having originally pegged Torrisi for a lunch the following day but later cancelling that reservation when the weekly menu was published and did not appeal to my dining partners I questioned my chances of getting into Torrisi but called anyhow, was greeted by a pleasant young receptionist, and after a bit of negotiating found myself a single seat at the “Chef’s counter” for 9:45pm. Happily confirming that the time would work and subsequently busying myself with more shopping and wandering Chelsea and Soho until most of the stores had closed their doors my arrival was timely – 9:30 – and told that my seat was not quite ready I stood outside chatting with a few other diners while watching the line at Parm next door slowly progress.
With the time now 9:44, almost like clockwork, the door opened and the hostess stepped out to welcome me in – the space small, tight, dim, and loud but oddly comfortable and welcoming – like the old world Italian deli it is modeled after. With my coat taken to an undisclosed area downstairs and my chair pulled out at the bar I took my seat and was shortly thereafter welcomed by the very man Chris had mentioned at Per Se who just so happened to be working the prep station upstairs and would provide me with not only a lot of notes about the plates being served but also about the many places he had staged, the oddities of some well known chefs, and his own personal thoughts on any number of things while never missing a step in preparing a seemingly endless flow of small plates to the dining room.
With the menu format well known and cheesy pop music playing overhead the only real decisions of the night were whether I wanted wine (no, else I’d have fallen asleep en route back to Brooklyn) and which main course I would prefer, and with those two decisions made the evening would begin quickly as my plate of Warm Mozzarella with Olive Oil and Grilled Garlic Bread landed in front of me no more than 10 minutes after I sat down – a whole portion, the same amount served to the two people sitting next to me, a situation that at first seemed daunting but proved quite suitable the moment I took a bite because while I realize many consider the hype over Torrisi a bit excessive I’d have paid $15 for this dish alone at any of the Batali restaurants and probably come away less satisfied…warm, creamy, just a touch of salt and the light grassiness of the olive oil – perfect.
With the couple next to me speaking way too loud about ‘Baby Mamas,’ and all sorts of things I’d generally consider inappropriate for dinner conversation (particularly at such volume and in public) while I continued to chat with my server/chef the second of the small plates that night at Torrisi would arrive as a cup of Parsnip consommé with apple cider froth and cinnamon stick – a light concoction made in the style of cappuccino with the peppery parsnip juice only lightly sweetened beneath a layer of cinnamon cider and a stick of sliced parsnip coated in cinnamon and baked added as a stir stick. Clever, tasty, and light – a nice follow-up to the cheese and a good palate cleanser, as well.
The third dish would be the weakest of the evening in my opinion, and a damned shame as John Dory tends to be one of my very favorite fishes. Presented as John Dory Ceviche with lemon lobster butter and cayenne pepper I really could not fault the portion size or the quality of the fish, both were admirable as the thinly sliced Australian coast caught fish was delicate, lean, and smooth on the tongue – where this dish faltered for me was in the flavor, the lemon juice vastly overwhelming both the fish and any semblance of ‘lobster butter’ while the heavy handed cayenne rendered the type of fish a moot point; it could have been horse mackerel and it would have been difficult to tell.
Commenting to the chef that I did not really fancy the ceviche when he asked but admitting I generally don’t like that degree of spice or lemon in general he offered me another shot of the Parsnip consommé to cleanse my palate and thanking him for the offer but not wanting to trouble them as it seemed the group next to me had really enjoyed the dish I instead opted for another slice of warm garlic bread while I waited for my next dish to arrive – a far more successful plate of “Rabbit terrine – hunter style,” served with pickled mushrooms, market greens, carrot marmalade, and grilled bread. Again served in a rather sizable portion beneath a bed of mixed greens topped with foie gras vinaigrette and a multitude of spices this terrine would prove to be quite complex with the lean meat nicely juxtaposed against gamy components rendered from the offal plus hints of smokiness. Tasty on its own but even better on bread with a bit of the sweet carrot marmalade this was the sort of upscaled rustic cuisine I expected from Torrisi and like the Mozzarella, a great value considering the menu price of game terrines elsewhere in Manhattan.
With a slight delay in the evening as the pastas being prepared were behind schedule thanks to Torrisi 2.0 menu I visited the restroom to wash up (it turns out that foie gras vinaigrette does indeed leave a stain) and on my return it would be perhaps ten minutes before Spicy Shells with Seafood would arrive. Clearly not made in house but instead using dried pasta “you can buy at Eataly,” this plate would feature nearly as much shrimp, razor clam, sepia, and mussel as it did pasta and with the former all fresh and snappy while the later was prepared just past al dente the thin but aromatic sauce actually led to an experience somewhere between pasta and stew – a sort of Cioppino with the mussel shells replaced by pasta shells and hefty notes of white wine, basil, oregano, and Calabrian chilies highlighting rather than overwhelming the seafood.
At this point happily not yet full despite the long day of eating, the main course of the evening would arrive and as hoped it would prove to be the best of the evening and exactly what I’d hoped of a dish named to Food and Wine’s top 10 of 2010. Listed simply as “Mulberry Duck” and featuring locally sourced Long Island fowl lacquered in mulberry-mustard oil glaze before being seared to a rosy pink with crackling skin and sesame seeds the duck itself was flawless – the sort of preparation one would expect from the kitchen of Per Se or Daniel. Moving past the duck and nearly as impressive, the plate was completed with Swiss chard in a pork and onion reduction and confit duck heart, a texturally complex combination that brought a bit of pungency, a bit of funk, and a bit of brine to the party acting to balance the sweetness of the mulberry glaze. As good as the duck are Eleven Madison Park? Perhaps not – but not too far off, either.
Knowing that dessert at Torrisi is a bit of an afterthought it was no surprise to me when the Lemon Ice arrived and although a respectable palate cleanser after the meal it was no better and no worse than the lemon ice you can get at any amusement park or zoo – a cute bit of tongue-in-cheek, I guess. Moving next to the tray of cookies, however, I have to say I got more than I expected – much more in fact as I had expected some sort of generic mignardise plate but instead received some very tasty seasonal reinterpretations of classical flavors including an intense Celery Cake with Concord Grape Jam and Peanuts, a creamy square of Butternut Squash gelee atop a Gingersnap Cookie, a Tricolor Marzipan Cookie, a wintergreen Canolli, and a ‘Rum Ball’ instead made with Grappa – all unique, all tasty, and like the terrine a reinvented take on the classics that worked well.
With the upstairs prep kitchen now breaking down and cleaning up as the cookie plates for both Torrisi 1.0 and 2.0 were rolling out I spent a bit more time chatting with the two chefs behind the counter about Torrisi as a restaurant, Torrisi as a concept, and its owners in general and while it is always hard to separate genuine praise from lip service for your employer my feeling is that although the work is hard and the hype is substantial everyone at Torrisi really believes in what they are doing – that it is not just a restaurant about hipsters tweeting their meals and marketing savvy, but a restaurant that wants to make its guests happy – something it definitely achieved for me, and at a very reasonable price point given the portions and quality of the food.
With a cup of coffee now breathing a bit of wind into my sails as I made my way from the still bustling space I emerged onto Mulberry just after 11:30pm and with the weather now a bit chilly I started towards the subway when I realized that the line at Parm had now dissipated but the lights remained on – “should I” I thought…and moments later I was seated at the bar, another cup of bright and balanced coffee that I’m rather certain was Illy in hand, with an order placed for a slice of their oft raved Ice Cream cake.
With the restaurant mostly empty at this point save for a group of 6 in the back plus customers stopping in intermittently to order up items to go I was once again treated to the conversation of my server as I waited and telling her I’d just come from next door she commended my appetite but told me I’d made a wise choice stopping in because the cake was one of her “favorite things in the whole city” – a comment I assumed to be hyperbolic despite the substantial praise from others and after perhaps ten minutes of chat and another cup of coffee it was time to find out as the nearly half-foot tall cake arrived in front of me glowing in the neon lights.
With two styles available but opting for the original with layers of chocolate, strawberry, and pistachio divided by layers of ganache and completed with an chocolate cookie crust, whipped cream frosting, sprinkles, and a cherry all I could do was smile as the cake sat there before me – it looked ridiculous, like something from a child’s birthday that should be delivered by a clown or a giant robotic mouse – and yet at the same time it also looked delicious, and on taking a bite it proved to be just that.
Beginning first with the “ice cream,” what really sets this cake apart is the fact that there is no ice cream involved at all but rather gelato, the combination of lower fat and air allowing for a softer consistency that was perfectly offset by the crunchy cookie and rich ganache. With flavors on point – the strawberry fruity but restrained, the pistachio rich and savory, and the chocolate milky to contrast the bitter-sweet crust the frosting itself really could have been an afterthought but instead it too was well conceived, a sort of meringue meets cool-whip concoction thinly spread over the surface and yet another texture rounding out a dessert far more complex than I would have ever assumed.
Enjoying the cake slowly along with my coffee as the stereo played an odd mix of Motown and Jazz classics I tried to gauge exactly what it is about Torrisi and Parm that worked so well for me when many other “foodies” or “gourmands” seem underwhelmed or at least put off by the hype and as The Four Tops sang ‘Sugar Pie Honey Bunch’ I think I figured it out – it was good food (sometimes great food) that made me happy and food that triggered memories of fun times with fun people, the sort of food I’d have ordered as a youth when dining out with my red sauce loving family but made with better technique and better ingredients. For me, that is enough to justify the hype and at the end of such a wonderful day I really couldn’t think of anything more appropriate than to literally finish with that cherry on top.