Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Three Duck Weekend - Centro Vinoteca

The executive chef of Centro Vinoteca is Anne Burrell, perhaps best known as Mario Batali's sous chef on Iron Chef America. I love watching her make fresh pasta on that show - she works so hard and she is really a big part of Mario's ICA successes. When I heard she had opened a restaurant with Sasha Muniak of Gusto and Mangia, one that serves small plates called piccolini, I knew I had to try it. Even though here in boring Baltimore they are calling the small plates craze "dead," "over," and "so 2005," NY has yet to hear that news. Not only are there lots of tapas joints in the Big Apple, there are also other ethnicities trotting out their own versions for those of us who like to experience lots of flavors at one meal.

Small plates are perfect for nibbling with a glass or two of wine, and Centro Vinoteca offers several varieties by the quarto. We tried two, a Dolcetto d'Alba with a deep fruity flavor but a surprisingly light body; and a montepulciano that had an earthy mushroomy quality that became woodsy later (and reminded me of a wine version of Shisheido Feminite de Bois, a plummy, woodsy perfume).

Although several of the piccolini were tempting, we tried only two, the polpettini (tiny meatballs with a crisp crust arranged in a bowl of rich beef jus) and the fried cauliflower wedges with parmigiano crust and agliata. The polpettini very much reminded me of my grandmother's itty bitty meatballs, but much herb-ier, and I wanted to use all of the basket of good bread to soak up the sauce. The cauliflower was tender, undoubtedly pre-steamed, coated in batter and deep fried. The agliata tasted more of olives than garlic, and there was a bit too much cheese in the dish.

The titular duck of the evening comes in the salad course. As soon as I spotted the warm duck salad with caramelized onions, belgian endive & pears, I knew I had to have it. It was plated as a pile of warm shreds of duck alongside a small salad. The caramelized onions added even more richness to the already rich duck, and the crisp matchsticks of pear were a welcome contrast of crunch, as were the lightly dressed greens. I only wish there were more duck (not that it was a measly portion, but it was so good).

Mr. Minx opted for the braised oxtail cakes, as he had never tried oxtail and was naturally curious about how it might be presented in a cake form. It resembled a small hamburger, with a crispy outside and meltingly tender inside, due to a nice meat-to-fat ratio. It was accompanied by a generous portion of shaved celery salad, the tartness of which nicely balanced the rich meat. In addition, there was a crispy round of parmesan frico for another level of flavor and texture.

We could have stopped there and been happy, but we also ordered entrees. Sadly, Mr. Minx's lamb bolognese with crispy gnocchi and fried onions was marred by too little sauce with far too much salty cheese flavor that obscured the flavor of the lamb completely. The gnocci weren't quite "crispy" but had a harder outside texture than the very soft insides. They were well-made gnocchi, tender and not of the rib-sticking, overly-glutinous variety, and might have worked better with a wetter, less-cheesy sauce with more lamb flavor.

My crispy skate in "acquapazza" with bay scallops, calamari and rock shrimp with raw fennel salad was also a miss. Although the skate was nicely cooked, crispy on the outside and possessing a fresh, scallop-y flavor, the "crazy water" broth was far too acidic for my taste, rendering the tiny scallops, shrimp, and tender calamari rings into merely textures. Only the fennel salad was assertive enough to cut through the acid. The sauce would have been better balanced with the addition of some fish stock and perhaps a nice knob of butter for richness.

As I noticed the wine menu included a Brachetto d'Acqui, I knew we had to get dessert. At the recommendation of our server, I chose the goat cheesecake with figs because I thought that a tangy goat cheese would work especially well with the lightly fizzy sweet wine (as it did at Babbo). The cake was disappointingly neither tart nor noticeably goaty, although it was otherwise a good, soft-textured cheesecake. My husband's cappuccino "panna cotta" appeared to have been missing the gelatin ordinarily used to set the dessert, as it was the soft texture of mousse. The generous portion was well-flavored with strong coffee and was accompanied by lovely cinnamon shortbread cookies topped with a pinch of salt and chocolate covered espresso beans.

The highlights of this meal were pretty high, and the lowlights weren't unforgiveable, so I definitely would be willing to go back and give Centro Vinoteca another try. Especially that duck salad.

Watch Anne Burrell discuss her restaurant:

Centro Vinoteca on Urbanspoon