One sentence was uttered frequently at my table last week while dining at A Voce, chef Andrew Carmellini’s flawless post-Café Boulud debut: “I want to eat here every day.” It was a sentence that first greeted our conversation after we demolished a shallow oblong platter of duck meatballs ($13)—the most miraculous expressions of ball-shaped meat ever created. Served with a dried cherry mustarda fashioned from soaked cherries, red wine vinegar, and mustard seed, they are smoky, sweet, and soft (pork and foie gras gives them that rich creaminess). They just melt in your mouth, while your heart slows and your eyes to roll back in your head. I have never had such a reaction to a meatball. Julie uttered the sentence next, after we shared two pastas: a bowl of spaghetti with first ramps and slivers of American speck ($14/$25) and a plate of cloud-like potato gnocchi ($22)—whispers of potato rather than strong statements—with firm sweet spring peas and prosciutto in puddle a verdant pea sauce. Kathy said it after slicing into a fried egg perched on top of a collection of fat grilled asparagus, topped with shaved Parmesan and duck bresaola ($15). She let the yolk run down over the spears and mix with the frisee and the slightly salty cured meat, and exclaimed: “We have to eat here every day.” Diana said it when she started in on her bowl of homemade pappardelle—wide ruffled ribbons of pasta in a rich lamb Bolognese spiced up with mint and given a jolt of cool creaminess from a generous dollop of fresh ricotta ($24). (I finished every last bit of Bolognese in that bowl. I was possessed.)
When we moved onto the entrees, the conversation didn’t get much more exciting. It pretty much went like this: “This is so good. Wow. Wait, did you try this? Oh, this is unbelievable.” Calls out to the divine were not infrequent. Grilled octopus ($17) is rubbed with radish, a trick that tenderizes the gnarly beast, then marinated overnight and grilled to order so it has a nice charred crust. It is plated up with pepperonata, lemon and chorizo. It’s pretty spectacular. We also loved the thick-cut grilled pork chop—juicy and ratcheted up with flavor—that had fancy French bones (think rack of lamb) and was set in an earthy sauce buoyed with braised greens and cannelloni beans. Did I mention the fennel-glazed duck ($28)? No I don’t think so. So let me be the first to tell you, this breast was gloriously glazed and incredibly plump (not the least bit dry) and came with an olive sauce and a generous spray of super snappy snap peas tossed with homemade duck sausage. That peas and sausage “risi bisi” should be a side dish. But nothing will compare to the braised veal soffrito ($26), a Tuscan dish that is served in a terra cotta casserole filled with soft polenta, gremolata, and orange zest. Honestly, this meat was so beautifully flavored and so tender and moist, it was like sitting down to a bowl of edible cashmere. You don’t need teeth for this meat. Gums will do. You can bring relatives with dentures.
I asked AC (chef Carmellini) later on about how he managed to get the veal so soft. That AC is a funny one. “It’s easy,” he said. “Just put it in the microwave, and hit the Express Veal setting.” “Oh, right! The ‘Express Veal’ Setting, I should have known,” I replied. Truthfully, people, it takes hours of braising to get the veal that soft (a process you can do at home, but it just takes time), but you can experience it anytime at A Voce, and I encourage you to go as soon as you can. This sort of pleasure should not be delayed. (And yes, I am officially breathing heavily now, for all you Pete Wells fans out there who are kind enough to continue to read THE STRONG BUZZ.) I don’t know what Andrew and his crew are doing in that kitchen, but let me just ask them officially to please keep doing it. Actually, truth be told, I do know what they are doing, because I wrote a story for my Sunday column in the NY Post about Carmellini’s kitchen line: sous chef Luke Ostrom, and tournants Matt Greco, Ron Rosselli, and Rich Torrisi, all veterans of Café Boulud. With the assistance of their ample talent, Carmellini turns out plate after plate of food that that is technically perfect—meats are cooked to just-right temperatures, fish is succulent, pastas don’t even flirt with being over-cooked, vegetables are bright and firm, sauces are glossy and everything is brilliantly seasoned—chile flake, salt, pepper, and acid are all in attendance in the right amounts and at the right times.
But the thing that makes this food even more intriguing is that while it tastes professionally prepared, it also very much seems homemade, like Carmellini has a crew of old wrinkly Nonnas in the kitchen in headscarves and aprons, rolling pasta, stirring gravy, curing salami, braising meats, and yelling in Italian at eachother and everyone around them. But no, there are no Nonnas in the back. As I said, I have looked. But taste Carmellini’s plump and lovely Meat Ravioli ($23), in a simple sweet pulpy tomato sauce, a recipe based on a dish from his dearly departed grandmother, and you may start to weep. And to think we almost didn’t try them!
Indeed, we hadn’t ordered the ravioli, but my friend Scott Feldman, who was in the dining room and seated nearby, had. When I walked over to say hello, he and his girlfriend Jodi Sue had barely touched them. I asked them why they weren’t eating. They said they were full, that they had just come from a benefit, but they said the ravioli were great. I think I may have started to drool because in seconds Jodi Sue offered me her leftovers. I hesitated for a moment, wondering if I could really walk away from a table with someone else’s leftovers and then I realized, of course I can, I have no shame. And I wanted those ravioli. And so I took them. Yes, I walked (well, jogged) away from their table with their half-eaten bowl of ravioli. The waiters were staring. Scott shouted after me: “She stole our ravioli! Stop her!” Julie, Kathy and Helen were a little confused watching me run back to our table carrying a bowl of someone else’s ravioli, while being screamed at by Scott Feldman, but when I sat down and presented the prized pasta, they were very pleased with the loot. And thanks to Scott and Jodi Sue’s generosity, we had a chance to experience the ravioli love of Carmellini’s grandmother. Over-stuffed with tender braised beef, pork, and veal, they were like kreplach from the gates of heaven. Take a bite and you may just feel the presence of your own grandmother (Nonna or Bubbe) standing over you, with her hand on around your shoulder saying, “Eat darling, eat.”
Desserts by pastry chef April Robinson are refreshing and light, a generous gift after such a nice big meal. Her citrus coppa ($11) made from juicy tangerine and grapefruit segments and sweet vermouth zabaglione tasted like warm sunshine in one spoonful and a refreshing breeze in another. Her chocolate panna cotta ($11) was a chocolate addict’s crack pipe. (Scott and Jodie Sue shared this dessert with us as well. It was hilarious at this point, getting donations from around the restaurant.) The panna cotta was more like pudding, but it was a crazy good pudding at that. She also makes a light and frosty almond granita ($8) and her own creamy gelato ($8)—the mint was my favorite—which she will peddle outside the restaurant as the weather warms, giving Shake Shack a little competition.
For me, there was only one discordant note about A Voce, and it may be of little consequence because the food is flawless and you are going to want to eat here regularly. (I will be stopping in at least once a week for a bowl of pasta, a glass of wine, and that citrus coppa). But nonetheless, it is something that struck me and I wanted to point it out.
I believe that the food and the design of a restaurant should speak the same language. And at A Voce, they are speaking in totally different tongues. While the food is warm, homey, and intensely satisfying, the dining room design is the complete opposite. A Voce is neither warm nor comforting. It is sleek and contemporary and not all together an unattractive room, but it feels like a boardroom. It actually reminded me of the LDR (aka the Lawyer’s Dining Room) at the law firm I used to work at, Shearman and Sterling. It’s feels way too corporate to be a restaurant, with its cool swivel Eames chairs, hard wood floors, glass windows, and high gloss walls. You feel like someone is about to give a Power Point on the way to make Carmellini’s Grandma’s Meat Ravioli. (Now that is one presentation I would stay awake for.)
Also, there are too many hard, cold surfaces in the restaurant, none of which absorb any sound, which makes the act of conversation at A Voce an Olympic sport. I was hoarse from screaming and my ears were worn out from straining to hear what was being said at my table. A dry erase board (which would fit in with the boardroom décor) should be given to every table for ease of communication. Now, to be sure, those cool Eames swivel chairs are quite comfy and do come in handy while dining because the place is like a foodie’s edition of Us Weekly. I mean it’s a connect-the-dots game of who’s who. The night I was in, I swiveled one way to say hello to Arthur Schwartz and Rosanne Gold, swiveled around the other way, and got to chat with Marc Murphy and the entire crew from Landmarc, and round all the way to catch up with Chris Cannon (L’Impero, Alto) and Alan Tardi (Follonico, Del Posto). Without the swivel chair you might get whiplash. But the rotating wheelbase takes a load off the neck muscles.
Then again there’s really no need to swivel at all at A Voce. If you keep your eye on the prize—the plate under your nose—you wont be sorry. You’ll just want to eat at A Voce everyday.
Review By: Andrea Strong