Thursday, January 22, 2009

Priya's birthday dinner #1: Convivio

For Priya's birthday, I got reservations at Convivio (at her suggestion), formerly L'Impero, which was recently the subject of a glowing Frank Bruni review. Because of the review, we didn't quite expect to get reservations for a Friday night, but somehow we did--at 8:30! Someone must've cancelled...

Convivio is located in Tudor City, which is a very weird part of Manhattan where I'd never been before. It's right near the UN, and is a little enclave of sorts--some of the cross streets travel underneath it, and you have to climb a bunch of stairs to get to the homes/buildings. Convivio had a tiny sign and was entered through the lobby of one of the posh apartment buildings in the enclave.

It was quite crowded when we entered--and nobody looked like us. Everyone was old and/or wealthy; the douchebag quotient was very high, with stockbroker types bellowing loudly about Israel four tables away.

We went with the prix fixe: four courses for $59. There was a ton of great stuff on the menu, so we both got antipasti, primi, and secondi; however, we decided to share one dessert and "trade in" our other dessert for two sfizi (little pre-appetizer dishes).

It was tough to decide what to get, but after some reconfiguring, we put together a pretty satisfactory meal.

For sfizi, we got the tentacoli (lemon marinated calamari tentacles) and grilled (then, seemingly, pickled) cauliflower. The pickled calamari had an interesting texture--not chewy or rubbery at all, but rather almost crunchy. Pretty good! The cauliflower was great--I had sort of dreaded that it might taste like the pickled cauliflower you get in those jars of mixed pickled vegetables everywhere (yuck), but in fact the grilled flavor came through pretty well. A nice taste before the meal, and well worth the loss of a dessert.

I was very excited about our antipasti choices. Priya ordered a skewer of grilled quail with mushrooms, pancetta, grilled frisee, and vin cotto. I had expected it to be exceedingly bony, but it wasn't, with lots of big pieces of meat, all with a great grilled-tasting crust. My choice, however, was one of the best parts of the meal: duck-heart salad. I thought I might get two or three hearts over some greens, but they gave me nine or ten. Priya was grossed out by the way they looked like little chopped-off penis tips (with the skewer hole in the middle resembling a urethra), but tried one and admitted it was not as bad as she had expected, and maybe even good. I thought they were fantastic. Hearts are not like an organ meat at all; they're basically just a muscle, so they were really dark, tasty poultry chunks with no bones. After the salad, I really looked forward to the rest of the meal, even as I was beginning to already get full.

Little did we know that our pasta dishes would turn out to include the highlight of the entire meal. I chose a simple dish of fusilli with a pork shoulder ragu, and it was excellent--it came with a squirt of melted white caciocavallo cheese drizzled over it, and knuckle-sized pieces of soft pork shoulder. I think I like ragus better when the meat is in big soft shreds, though. But Priya's... Priya's pasta choice was one of the best pasta dishes I've ever had. The tortelli di Amatrice was very simple: stuffed with guanciale and tomato and served on a bed of cacio e pepe sauce... but it all synergized into something outstanding.

My secondo was red snapper over chunks of cuttlefish; the snapper had a nice brown crust on one side and was very flavorful, and the cuttlefish was... kind of odd. It had a real snap to it, like biting a piece of crisp daikon or something, and I wasn't sure if I liked it, although I did appreciate the interesting texture. Priya had grilled lamb chops with escarole, white beans, tomatoes, and garlic. It was the first time she'd ever ordered lamb chops, and she said it may have been the best lamb she's ever had. I tended to agree with her--there was no gamy sheep-taste at all, just a faint nudge to let you know you're eating lamb instead of beef, and it was very tender....yum! Priya's favorite part was the crispy coating of golden breadcrumbs and salsa verde that encrusted one side of each chop and encouraged gnawing on the chop in a very unladylike fashion.

The dessert menu didn't captivate me, so I guess it was good we only had a single dessert choice. It was very nice, though--a perfectly formed stack of pineapple mousse, pineapple confit, and golden cake topped with a browned swish of meringue, served with coconut gelato and plated with a scattering of toasted cake crumbs (like breadcrumbs, but cake) that offered a nicely contrasting crunch. Subtle, but tasty indeed.

Great food, excellent pasta, and a good price (for four courses!)--I would definitely recommend Convivio.

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