Friday, September 4, 2009

Appetizer: Domenica

Posted By on Fri, Sep 4, 2009 at 7:59 PM

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Quick-shot impressions of an impromptu prix fixe at Domenica’s bar last night:

The Roosevelt Hotel has fashioned a sleek space for this “rural” food — everywhere dark wood, clean lines, Chihulyesque blown-glass light sculptures and cool surfaces like metal, glass and marble. The open floor plan is something to see. (The iPhone's flashless circa-2002 camera does not do it justice.)

As it turns out, the whole "rustic" tag is something of a ruse. Chef Alon Shaya’s cuisine, while prepared with old-world methods and ingredients, is every bit as eye-catching as the setting in which it’s served. Before we even sat down a butcher was handing over translucent, transcendent sheets of prosciutto straight off his "Ferrari of slicers." Chilled heirloom tomato soup bore a gorgeous lattice of micro parsley atop chunky lumps of Gulf crabmeat. Squares of fazzoletti pasta, similar to ravioli sans filling, arrived with crisped slices of guanciale, heirloom cherry tomatoes roasted rare and fried basil leaves — a BLT primi piatti. One thin-crust pizza boasts chanterelle mushrooms, fontina and a yard egg. There's nothing Creole about this Italian. (More food porn after the jump.)
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The rectangular paper menu borrows John Besh’s Lüke design, and does for northern Italian cooking what Lüke’s does for French bistro fare. A nice touch: pasta and antipasti are offered in small and full portions, typically $6 to $15, making sampling a little of everything easy and relatively affordable. We enjoyed seven plates — the tomato soup, fried mini squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese, bresaola and arugula salad, spinach ricotta gnocchi with brown butter and almonds, the fazzoletti, chocolate hazelnut pudding and heavenly fig fritters with a honeyed-foam zabaione — all for less than $100 with tax and tip. (Separate visits, we decided early on, would be required for pizzas and entrees.)

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The dishes, by and large, were delicious. Small details like the bread service delighted: bricks of briochelike focaccia flavored with sticky caramelized onion. Surprisingly, the house-made pasta was probably the weakest part of the meal, the gnocchi slightly gummy and the fazzoletti more chewy than al dente. But it was a minor offense considering their toothsome accoutrements. The wine list offers an impressive and reasonably priced selection of Italian vintners, both by the bottle and glass. But best of all were the large, colorful glass vats perched atop the bar stock. Toward the end of our meal the youthful and affably shaggy Shaya, who at 30 resembles a New York City art student more than a Besh-kitchen wunderkind, was busy making the glad-hand rounds. He stopped and spent several minutes describing the still-steeping liqueurs, each of which contained a different floating flavoring: traditional limoncello but also peach, orange, strawberry and almond, as well as several savory offerings like rosemary, tomato (soon to be a wonderful bloody Mary base, he explained) and his favorite, a savory-sweet one called cento herba, or “hundred herbs,” of which he spilled out a slug for us to try. Grassy-hued and redolent of an aromatic garden, it was like an eminently more drinkable Chartreuse. Our favorite, too.

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After assuring our satisfaction, Shaya turned his attention to another family — either his own or one he treated as such. “This is the brains behind the operation,” he said, pouring four shots of Passione Brachetto d’Acqui dessert wine and looking at Will, the youngest of the bunch, who nodded confidently. Besh's wunderkinds, it seems, may never cease.

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