Restaurant (Week) Review: I Trulli

100203-i-trulliRestaurant Week here in New York always brings with it a dilemma.  The dilemma is this:  Should the reduced price meals served during the Restaurant Week promotion be considered a fair representation of a restaurant’s offerings upon which to draw conclusions about it?  Or could the pricing restrictions be seen as too confining in terms of ingredients and staff attention to allow the restaurant a full expression of the breadth and depth of its capabilities and, instead, be understood as a sort of ‘bleacher seats’ experience for the diner to get enough of an idea of the restaurant to want to return for the full ‘retail’ experience?

My own answer to this would be ‘yes’.  To both.  I am sure that some chefs feel restricted by the $24.07 (lunch) and $35 (dinner) pricing that is the backbone to the Restaurant Week promotion.  They won’t be able to serve the foie gras torchon typically on the regular menu that they have become known for.  And it definitely rules out that monk fish liver dish that they have been developing.  But just because chefs are limited by the cost of ingredients should not mean that their attention to the Restaurant Week menu should therefore also be limited.  If a chef is as good as the reviews say they are should not the same creativity, care and attention to detail go into the cheapest of first courses as it does for the most expensive of main courses?  After all, consistency is one of the signs of a good chef.  I think it would be a disappointment to look up from the mediocre promotional course that was set in front of me and spy my neighbor’s ’uni seven ways’ from the regular menu that was being flambeed by the chef table side.  Well, I can understand a bit of discrepancy… but too much and I start wondering what’s up. 

Actually, I think chefs could consider the Restaurant Week price restriction to be a creative opportunity.  A good chef will be able to make the most lowly of ingredients sing as much as an expensive one.  Getting lobster to taste good is pretty easy.  Ox heart?  That’s another story.  But very achievable.

So when I approach a Restaurant Week meal I do so with high expectations.  I understand that I am entering the restaurant experience at a lower price point so I won’t be getting the veal or grouse.  But I do hope that each selection is something that would be just as at home on the regular menu.  If the dishes are not the highest expression of the chef’s capabilities, they should still be an expression.  Even if the portions are smaller.  I am o.k. with that. 

For these reasons, I think that a Restaurant Week meal is completely fair game to be judged at the same level as a typical meal there on any other night.  Just because it is a promotion is not an excuse for a chef to ‘phone it in’.  Unless that chef doesn’t care if the diners eating the Restaurant Week menu ever come back.  Which may be the case with some chefs… I am not certain.  To be sure, eating a Restaurant Week meal is fraught with uncertainty and pitfalls.  But a reasonably priced meal at a nice restaurant is an enticing possibility.  So we take our chances every time.

Last night the perennial Restaurant Week adventure added another chapter.  A friend called a week ago and said she wanted to introduce us to her ’significant’ who was in from out of town.  And she only had Monday free.  So after much review of the Restaurant Week website, checking for availability and negotiations with the boss and the friend (the guy didn’t like Thai food) we settled on i Trulli.  A selection that I was pleased with.  It had gotten good reviews and I had heard good things about it so I was happy to give it a try. 

Upon entering i Trulli we were immediately greeted by the owner, Nicola Marzovilla.  A very nice guy and gracious host.  We were then led from the bar area past an impressive wood burning oven station into one of the restaurant’s dining rooms.  The restaurant is mainly up-lit plaster walls with wood cabinetry for wine storage and service stations along with wooden chairs at each white linen table.  Clean without feeling austere.  Warm without feeling claustrophobic.  A rustic atmosphere that was comfortable while retaining a sense of seriousness.  I liked it.

We dove into i Trulli’s Restaurant Week menuand, unfortunately for me…, the food did not live up to my expectations.  To start off, the bread of house-made foccacia with ricotta butter that was brought to the table was great.  Pulling a piece out of the glass they were brought in made them all spill onto the table… but otherwise they were very nice.  In the ‘Primi’ category though, the ‘zuppa’ of fava bean, farro and dandelion was good but too ‘one note’ in taste.  It’s starchiness made it a little thick to be considered a soup.  Not to mention that the portion size was large which made it a heavy beginning to the meal.  I started with this but the wife had me swap with her ‘Cefalopodi’ of octopus, calamari, seppia, black chickpeas and roasted tomatoes in a clear broth.  This too, while relatively good, was a little monotone in flavor.  There was not much textural differentiation between the ingredients in each spoonful.  The only mouth distinction brought on by the diminutive black chickpeas.  An odd ingredient choice I must admit as I, momentarily forgetting the menu, thought they must have been grainy capers gone wrong.  The trio of cephalopodsin this dish, braised into homogeneity, I think lost their opportunity to assert their own individuality even within a common family.  Of course I suppose braising was chosen for ease of preparation.  But a technique that probably did not do each creature justice.

For the ‘Secondi’ the ‘Spada’ swordfish steak was pretty good.  But as is the danger with this type of fish, a bit overcooked.  Was it because the steaks were cut a little thinner than usual to control portion size?  Maybe they should have been left thick and cut in half across.  The braised kale in the dish unfortunately included a bunch of bitter stems.  Most of which did not make it off the plate.  The ‘Coniglio’ rabbit I ordered was also good.  But maybe could have been a little better.  Served in an earthenware bowl, the rabbit was not so much ‘braised’ as it was a bit… rare.  No matter.  I grabbed the bones and picked the meat off.  The included rabbit sausage, however, was a little grainy and without much flavor.  The ‘Cavatelli’ pasta with broccoli rabe and toasted almonds was maybe the best dish of the course.  But, really, the least complex of all of them.  Also odd to me in that it is the only pasta on the Restaurant Week menu.  I would have thought, after reviewing their full menu, that several other pasta dishes would have been included.

For the ‘Dolci’ course I ordered the ‘Zeppole’ but sampled the other two selections.  To me the zeppole were the biggest bummer of the evening.  The fried dough balls were at room temperature and had a chew as if they had been sitting for a while.  Serving the honey marmellata on the side did not work so well either.  The ‘Ricotta’ however, was a very nice dessert.  Light and refreshing yet sweet and satisfying.  The ‘Fichi d’India’ was pretty good too.

Overall I would have to say that i Trulli’s Restaurant Week menu was good.  But just barely so.  What made me question it even more was to glance at the next table and see what was evidently a course from the regular menu of several pasta dishes that looked lovely.  I couldn’t help but think that we had just had a different experience. 

Maybe some chefs and restaurateurs would argue that their restaurant should not be judged based on a Restaurant Week meal.  They look at Restaurant Week as just a PR event to get their name out there and some butts in seats.  And maybe they treat the Restaurant Week menu as such.  But, unless pre-warned, that will not stop people like me from coming to the restaurant during Restaurant Week expecting a true taste of what that restaurant can do.  Not an ‘understudy’ version.  Otherwise… why would I be interested in returning for another meal?
I Trulli on Urbanspoon

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