Sunday, April 29, 2012

Trattoria Monti, April 26, 2012

 It saddens me to have to write my first negative review here on Homie Sapiens. Normally I gloss over the less than perfect eating experiences because I would rather write delicious reviews than disappointed ones. However, Trattoria Monti was well recommended to me, so I am suffering from frustrated disillusionment. Expecting a reasonably priced, casually elegant meal, instead I received a moderately bad meal in a casually pretentious setting. At forty euro a head for two pastas, two secondi (one vegetarian) and a bottle of wine, I expect better. Let me clarify: I know I can get stellar cuisine for that price, so why settle for less?
On a Wednesday at 10 pm, the restaurant was filled with a well heeled, relatively mature crowd. Since we hadn’t made reservations, we took a ten minute walk around the neighborhood. The service was friendly enough, although the amount of discussion between the waiters before putting our name down seemed more suited to an exclusive club than a neighborhood restaurant. For our first course, we ordered ravioli stuffed with a white fish in a fresh tomato sauce and tagliolini with anchovies, pecorino and golden raisins. My dining companion felt that the filling of his ravioli was a little dry, too compressed and crumbly compared to other versions (including his mother’s, but that is to be expected). I felt my pasta was mediocre in quality and that the flavor of the raisins was completely lost unless you actually had one in your mouth.
We were both hoping the secondi would be better. We were both disappointed. The radicchio torte my friend ordered was one of the most unappetizing sights I have ever seen served in a restaurant. It was a perfectly rounded, uniformly matte brown scoop in the middle of a pale yellow puree, with a crowning sprig of parsley that did nothing to redeem it. It didn’t taste as bad as it looked, but I have to admit to a moment of embarrassment that anyone would serve something so ugly. The texture was bizarrely mushy, and it didn’t really taste like radicchio so much as like hazelnuts, mushrooms and earth. Not terrible, but definitely not great.
My baccala (salt cured cod) with tomatoes and onions should have been easy to execute. I didn’t expect it to be as good as my mother’s, but I am still struggling to understand how the chef could have gone so wrong with a relatively simple combination of flavors. The fish was overcooked to a slightly rubbery texture and the sauce was too sweet and strangely gelatinous. It was also devoid of any chunks of tomato or visible onions, which underscored the unfortunate departure from the rustic, saucy and vibrant baccala I know and love.
Then, though we still had a quarter bottle left of the delicious Sylvaner we were drinking, the waiter pressured us into ordering dessert or coffee. He was obviously trying to rush us out so they could close, which I always find rude but which was especially so considering the three other tables still finishing their meals. To make matters worse, he brought the coffees long before we were done with our wine! This may seem like a petty detail, but drinking the coffee would have completely ruined our palates for the lovely (white) wine we had left. As a consequence, our coffee was stone cold by the time we could drink it. At a restaurant that considers itself as highly as this one does, I expect service to be polite and alert enough to gauge these details.
The only thing I truly enjoyed was the Kuen Hof 2010 Sylvaner from the Sudtirol. It was crisp, with a faint aroma of lemongrass and a lively balance of Asian pear and Alpine minerals. Imagine drinking mountain spring water out of cupped hands after a grueling trek, savoring the traces of stone and lingering winter on your palate. In general the wine list was quite good and reasonable, with a wide selection of bottles for 25 euro or less as well as more expensive options.
Trattoria Monti reminded me that it might be better to avoid things your parents make wonderfully at home. Unfortunately for my friend and me, that would rule out dishes ranging across cuisines from Mexico to Japan. Instead, I will say I am eternally grateful for my mother’s wonderful culinary skills and for the discerning palate she fostered in me. The art of cooking (and eating) is a legacy to be passed on as thoroughly and carefully as any more material inheritance. As one of the next generation of cooks and epicureans in my family, I can only be thankful.

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