By Anna Roth
By Pete Kane
By Molly Gore
By Molly Gore
By Pete Kane
By Lou Bustamante
By Pete Kane
By Ashley Goldsmith
Our next course comprised both a pasta and a risotto. The porcini pasta with exotic mushrooms ($12.50) were thickish 2-inch cylinders of dusky house-made noodles, lightly but richly dressed with a wonderful array of fungi, in which each species maintained its distinct character: There were porcini, morels, chanterelles, fetal cepes, and at least a couple more whose species I'm not sure about. All tasted like they were picked that day. The risotto ($16) was even more remarkable: The succulent short grains were mingled with savory goose stock, red wine, and bite-size nips of goose. It's rare to find goose on any menu in summertime, but on a cold foggy night it was completely apropos. "This is the best risotto I ever had in a restaurant," Mary Ann exclaimed. Laghi was inspiring us all with far-out ideas for home cooking, and she began to contemplate preparing goose for Christmas.
Much as I'd like to be invited for it, I had to warn her that roasting goose is even more labor-intensive than stirring risotto, what with the boiling water showers every 20 minutes to melt the fat. "Excuse my language," I said, "but goose is a real pain in the ass!"
The menu offered four main courses, so we tried 'em all. Grilled range-fed veal chop with garlic and herbs ($16.75) was a giant, top-quality chop, medium-rare to order, simple and perfect. By "top-quality," I mean flavorful pink-red meat (the kind Nancy Oakes serves at Boulevard), not the icky calves-in-bondage Provimi white-out. Prawns sauteed with tomato, garlic, and parsley ($16) were also cooked precisely right, with a slightly sweet, fresh-flavored tomato sauce topped with a thin layer of cream -- another dish you wish you could make as well at home. The other two entrees were somewhat disappointing. Rosemary-strewn sauteed rabbit ($16) had a pleasantly earthy accompaniment of artichoke slices and mushrooms, but the bunny was dryish (especially the bony rib pieces, which are hardly worth serving). The boneless lamb sirloin in a pastry crust ($16.75) was an ambitious dish, similar to beef Wellington, and like most Wellingtons it was all wet. The trouble with dishes like this is that if the crust is cooked, the meat is overcooked; if the meat is rare, the crust is doughy. Here, the lamb was leathery, the crust (a plain dough shell, rather than multilayered puff pastry) was gluey on the inside, and the eggplant mush that was evidently supposed to keep the meat moist had not only failed in its mission, but none of us liked its flavor. (Oh, well, every good chef is ineffably tempted to try a Wellington riff every few years. It never works, never.) All the main courses came with more yummy polenta and a handful of overcooked wax beans.
Against our wills, our overfed bodies now had to essay a few desserts. Antoinette chose the best: Ice cream ($4) consisted of three scoops, with a choice of a dozen house-made flavors (mixing allowed). Her choices were hazelnut ice cream and coconut sorbet. Both carried a full intensity of flavor. (The nearest place I know of to get coconut ice that good is the island of Trinidad, where coconuts grow on trees.) Puffi ($5.50) had blueberries and blackberries surrounding a blueberry sorbet with a whiff of mascarpone cream on top -- a highly sophisticated version of berries and sour cream. The sorbet was barely sweetened, with an intense berry flavor. "It's like a high-wire act," said TJ, "a perfect balance between tart and sweet." Our least favorite was a revisionist tiramisu ($5.50), served in a sundae glass. To reach the soaked ladyfingers you had to excavate through a lot of cream, and en route there were too many useless bittersweet chocolate chips interfering with the texture and overpowering the other flavors. TJ also disliked the quality of the powdered espresso on the topping; I was at the time sipping the same espresso, brewed, and indeed found it rather heavy-flavored.
Meanwhile, as the room emptied and quieted to a dull roar, operatic arias played quietly on the sound system, and chef Laghi emerged from the kitchen to greet the diners. He looked tired but happy. We felt tired but happy, too; the meal had set us back nearly $50 each, but it was more satisfying than many a $75-a-person outing we've had in this town. And Antoinette had eaten a meal of San Francisco's new Italian food that she swears she'll tell her friends about when she gets back to New Orleans -- "especially those snails.