The Del Posto Post-O

Fans and lovers of Mario Batali, his shows, cookbooks and cuisine, I come to you with sad news: believe not the glistening, glowing three-star review Frank Bruni bestowed upon Mario’s newest restaurant, Del Posto, in The New York Times just last week. I am here to bravely declare that Del Posto merits not three stars, not even two: our experience there last night was minimal at best. I am here to report back with firsthand notes, pictures, anecdotes–even video!–from a meal best left forgotten. I may not have the clout of a New York Times food critic, but I have the stamina and chutzpah of a first-rate food blogger. Would a professional photographer take a picture like this?

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I rest my case.

Now let us study that photo above for a moment, so I may set the stage. We are on 10th Ave., mere feet away from the chilly Hudson River. We are north of the meatpacking district and south of Chelsea proper. Across the street from where we stand is Morimoto, the other restaurantasaurus receiving much fanfare in the food media. Notice the bridges connecting the two: my brother and I imagined that cows were led across these bridges before being slaughtered, though we have no evidence that these buildings were used for the slaughter of cattle in their former (less scrutinized) lives. If they were we’d like to call one of these bridges, after the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, the Bridge of Moos. Otherwise, we suspect that these bridges are now used for shoveling money back and forth between the restaurants into rooms of jolly men laughing at the idiocy of upscale diners, who would spend (as we did) $30 on a single dessert. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

You may be getting the impression, and it is a wrong one, that I went into Del Posto with a chip on my shoulder. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ask anyone I know, anyone who knows my tastes well what my favorite restaurant is in New York and they will instantly answer: “Babbo.” I worship at the shrine of Mario Batali, now that I have a Tivo I am blessed with recordings of “Molto Mario” which I watch religiously when I come home from school every day. The recipes of his that I attempted lately–the scallops, the short ribs–have all yielded fantastic results. The man is my god, my idol, the Madonna to my Brittney Spears. I wanted nothing more than to love our meal at Del Posto.

Even more than that, I wanted my family to love their meal at Del Posto. Here they are: mom, dad and brother Michael, with their bellinis aloft.

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Believe it or not–and you may not believe it–those bellinis (normally a mixture of peach juice and Prosecco, but here instead of peach juice they used passion fruit juice and blood orange juice) were the highlight of our entire evening. Here is mom (in a very dark video) testifying to the Del Posto bellini’s magnificence:

We are at a corner of the bar waiting for our table and as we wait, mom spies a woman who looks like Natalie Portman. “Is that Natalie Portman?” she asks. Michael looks: “That is her,” he says. I look too and it’s very convincing. Dad is starstruck. “V for Vendetta’s #1 at the box office,” he tells us.

Yet her voice, as it echoes around the room, sounds a little too screechy and un-selfaware to be Natalie’s. “That’s NN,” I say, “For Not Natalie.”

We are having fun. “This place is beautiful,” says mom, admiring the marble floors and the columns and the balconies. “Those women are beautiful,” think Michael and dad as they stare at chesty blondes walking through the front door.

And then it happens. The rupture. The bubble of our evening popped by a gesture that infuriates my mom, saddens me and leaves my dad and brother mostly indifferent.

You see, only one thing matters to my mother when we go out to eat: that we get a good table. By a good table, she means a table at the heart of the action, a table that lets you feel like you’re a part of things, at the center of it all. Originally, when my mom made the reservation, they told her “we only have a table in a private room.” She said she didn’t want a table unless it was in the main room. They called the next day (Friday) to tell her that she’d been in luck: there was a table in the main room. “We’re eating in the main room,” she informed us, the day before our dinner there.

When the hostess came to retrieve us from the bar, she swept us away from the main seating area at the right of the restaurant (where Joe and Lydia Bastiniach–(and I love Lydia Bastiniach)–greeted guests as they sat down) to a dismal, dreary room next to the bathrooms at the very back, all the way to the left, separated from everything else. Not only that, she led us to a table that was in a far, gloomy, dusty corner where bad diners go to die.

“Excuse me,” said my mom, “But I specifically asked for a table in the main room.”

“I’m sorry ma’am,” said the hostess, “all those tables are full.”

There was a struggle. I felt bad for the hostess but I understood my mom’s position. I intervened and asked the hostess how long it would be for a table in the main dining room.

“About 30 minutes,” she said.

“Let’s just wait,” I say. I didn’t want my mom to be miserable for the whole meal.

Our reservation was for 9:15 and we returned to the bar area hungry and anxious to get some food in us. “I’m starving,” I say, receiving very little sympathy.

Surprisingly, only ten minutes later the hostess returns and says she has a table. She leads us to the right–where the action is–and up a tiny staircase. The table she gives us is perfect, facing Lydia and Joe and the main artery of the restaurant. We are happy again. “This is much better,” says mom.

I could spend time here describing the table, the linen, the waitress, the sommelier, how we ordered wine, how they filled our water glasses with bottled water without asking us first and then how they accidentally refilled them with sparkling water with us saying, “Excuse me, there was non-sparkling water in here first.” But let’s get to the food: that’s why you’re here. They presented us with these, fried chanterelles, at the meal’s start:

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At Babbo they present you with chickpea bruschetta, a marvelous marriage of flavors and textures–olive paste, garlic, red pepper flakes–it’s a taste memory I savor frequently. I bring that up because these fried chanterelles, while tasty on a superficial level, reminded me–for whatever reason–of funnel cake. They were too salty. And too doughy.

The menu at Del Posto is unnecessarily complicated. There’s antipasti, primi, risotti, secondi, per il tavolo, and two tasting menus. We asked the waitress for help and she gave the impression that she knew what she was doing.

“Could we share two antipasti?” asked my mom.

“Yes,” said the waitress. “That’s a good idea.”

Actually, though, it wasn’t. Four people should never attempt to share this singular veal sweetbread that cost $16:

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Nor should they try to share this root vegetable salad, which–incidentally–was my favorite course of the evening:

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Our plates looked paltry when we divided these up, a situation that does not represent what I understand of Italian culture and the purpose of antipasti. When I think of antipasti I think of platters of roasted red pepper, salads of mozzarella and tomato, and steaming bowls of fried calamari. I understand that Del Posto is going for French refinement, but French refinement doesn’t require that guests feel unsatisfied and ripped off by the first course alone. The menu doesn’t say “for sharing,” true, but it was the waitress’s job to tell us to each order our own. She didn’t do that and we were unhappy.

Then there was the matter of the pasta. By all accounts (NYT, New York Magazine, Andrea Strong), the pasta at Del Posto was supposed to be wonderful. The two that I came in knowing the most about were the “spaghetti with crab, scallions and jalapeno” and the “ravioli that are filled with a chestnut and Parmesan purée and paired with pigeon and myrtle.” [That description comes from Bruni’s review.] Since my entire family ordered the spaghetti, I went with the pigeon:

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I liked this very much: it was sweet, it was buttery, it was mysteriously flavored. A comforting combination that left me smiling.

The spaghetti, on the other hand, left my mom wincing.

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“This is so hot,” she said, fanning herself, tears running down her cheeks. Then she started hacking.

“Is everything ok?” asked the waitress. She saw my mom in agony.

“This is so spicy,” said my mom. “My mouth is on fire.”

“Would you like another pasta?” offered the waitress.

“No, I’ll be ok,” said mom, “Thank you.”

But moments later she was hacking again. (Dad and Michael ate theirs quietly.) When the waitress came by again, my mom took her up on her offer and ordered what I had instead.

“It’ll just be a few minutes,” said the waitress.

By the time it came, dad, Michael and I were all done. The food runner who placed the pasta down shook his hand off afterwards, the plate was so hot. I point this out because the night before we went to Jean-Georges (I know, I know, poor me) and you would never see that there. Jean-Georges is a four star restaurant that deserves every single one of its four stars. Every moment of your meal is perfectly choreographed, every taste you experience is perfectly rendered. Del Posto comes nowhere close.

Now then, for the entrees. The waitress suggested we order either the ribeye for two or the turbot for two. Since dad eats too much meat, I offered to share the turbot with him. Michael and mom shared the ribeye.

Prepare to be dazzled by this presentation, then. Here is the turbot as it was first brought out to us, my dad glaring at me, his expression broadcasting: “What did you order!?”

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Mom and Michael’s ribeye was similarly presented:

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Very dramatic, very exciting. At this point in the meal, it all could’ve tipped either way: if the entrees were spectacular, I’d forgive the table situation at the start, I’d forgive the bad advice about the antipasti and my mom’s hacking over the jalapenos. But once they brought the fileted turbot and placed it in front of me:

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The balance started to swing against Del Posto. The first bite was bland–fresh, no question–but bland and watery. The next bite was the same.

“It doesn’t taste like anything,” commented dad.

Mom said her steak was tough and fatty.

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I tried a piece and I spent a long while chewing. Nothing I tasted at this point in the meal left me dazzled. Mostly, it left me depressed.

Mom switched with dad, cause he didn’t like the fish, and the piece that she ate of his was filled with bones. As she’d pull a bone from her mouth, she’d place it on her bread dish.

“Look at all these bones,” she said, when she finished. There were six bones on her plate. “That really isn’t right.”

Let’s cut to dessert, then. The Bruni review and the special on Food TV that I watched about Del Posto made a big fuss about the strudel. Here’s the strudel, as it was presented with gelato on the side:

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And here it is served to us on our individual plates (mom and I shared it):

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Indeed, the filling–pears, I think, on this night–was wonderful, as was the crust: flaky and flavored with almond. But how on this planet we call earth can they justify charging $30 for this? Do they exorcise the soul of a healthy Italian baker and inject it into each and every strudel leaving his family with an empty shell of a human to enhance the flavor and justify the lofty price tag? I doubt it. $30 for this is inexcusable.

Much of what happens at Del Posto is inexcusable, except–maybe–the cookie and candy cart that arrives at the end. Here is a horrible video of the cookie/candy man serving up a plate:

And here is the plate he prepared:

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Everything on it was wonderful, but so what? As the woman said to her poorly endowed husband when he told her he wanted a child after she had her tubes tied: “Too little, too late.”

Here’s a video of us leaving, you can see the hostess giving my mom a gift bag:

In that gift bag? Breadcrumbs. That’s the quirky treat they leave you with and I plan to cook with them this week.

So what to make of Del Posto? A giant museum of a restaurant, that resonates with a needy hum. Here it is on my way out:

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The rumors are true, I’m afraid. This place isn’t a temple of food, it’s a palace of greed. I can’t believe that Mario’s mission with this place is to inspire us, to excite us, or to baptize us with food. That’s what he does with Babbo. With Del Posto, he turns us on our heads and shakes us violently as our money clangs to the ground. Don’t believe me? Study that menu. $60 for risotto? $240 for rack of veal? Have you no shame, Mr. Batali?

It’s ok, I still love you. I’ll still eat your food, watch your show, cook your recipes. Recently, I reread the article Bill Buford wrote about you in The New Yorker when I purchased the New Yorker DVD set. It makes me really admire you–I love that you know so much about the food you cook, the culture it comes from and why it’s important. I wish you’d infused some of that into your new restaurant. As it stands, though, this highly devoted fan is Del Disappointed.

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