Monday, February 20, 2012

The New Three Star Is The Old Two Star

I'm not sure what it means these days, the vaunted three star rating handed down to a restaurant from the powers that be at The New York Times (most recently, those "powers" are the provenance of one man, Pete Wells). Three star used to signify a certain dining dignity, a certain excellence not only of food but also of service. It used to connote white tablecloths and, on a good night, crystal. Not these days. I wasn't disappointed by the actual food at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, the most recent recipient of a fine three star review, but I was disappointed about what such a review means for the future of restaurants. The plate of in-house cured meats that arrived at our table was subtle, nuanced, slick with soft fat, and quite possibly the best plate of such that I have ever enjoyed outside of Europe. My agrodolce cocktail lived up to its namesake, both sour and sweet. The chewy, dense, full-flavored bread that came--only after we asked for it, of course--was rich with raisin and whole grain and ten times better than the best of the saltless Tuscan varieties.

But a server who delivered our charcuterie could not name the meats on our plate and it took an inordinately long time for said cocktails to arrive at said table. We asked for share plates twice and finally they arrived, but by then we were mostly done eating the things we had so carefully ordered. A server kept asking, "are you still working on that?" even when there was still visible food on our plates. She might as well have told us that she had been cut and wanted to go home.

For me, baccalao missed the mark. I got nothing but flaky fish beneath the flaky exterior, as opposed to the milk/cream/salt cod mixture I was expecting. And baked eggs, taken a minute too far in the oven, were overrun by shavings of bottarga that turned the dish into a fishy mess. Not so with the slick spaghetti with bottarga, though, which was a complete marriage of texture and taste. Also perfect was the porchetta sandwich--roast pork, crisp skin, chewy bread, salsa verde, and a side of pickled carrots. And desserts, generally not the highlight of any Italian meal, were surprisingly impressive. A bitter orange polenta cake kept its moisture from a nearby scoop of amaretto gelato and a roasted pear tasted better with a scoop of creme fraiche gelato. I was happy, too, that I had splurged and ordered a separate cup of salted caramel gelato, as creamy and unctuous as it is on the streets of Umbria.

The food is delicious; about that I have no question. But does the elevation of peasant food to three star cuisine do anything for New York restaurants that David Chang hasn't already? To that I offer a resounding no.

Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria
53 Great Jones Street
New York, NY 10012

No comments: