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L'Impero


Orik
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Our dinner at L'Impero ended with an espresso that reminded me of a certain scene in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. Fortunately, my table manners are slightly better than those of the Castiglianie brothers.

It was an irritating meal in many ways. An otherwise perfect dish of soft polenta and mushrooms was compromised by grit. Squid ink pasta, promising to be served with sea urchin, shrimps, mussles and baby octopus contained approximately 1/24th of a sea urchin. The pasta itself needed a minute or two of cooking to be considered al-dente. Fennel crusted lamb was served on a bed of poorly handled eggplants (I would guess no attempt was made to remove their juices prior to cooking). The only dishes that were decent were ravioly of duck meat and (traces of) foie gras, roasted kid (which the kitchen fortunately did not manipulate much after roasting) and a trio of marinated fish and shellfish (scallops, shrimp, tuna).

Service suffered from moderate levels of incompetence, expressed in a very long delay before our order was taken (just over 30 minutes) and in dishes being nearly dropped by overloaded servers several times. The chef was observed hovering around a certain female diner's table for much of the evening and would only go back to the kitchen after being summoned for the third time (rather urgently) by a staff member.

L'Impero offers a fixed price dinner consisting of an appetizer, a pasta, an entree and dessert for $48 (with some dishes adding $4 and some unavailable as part of the menu). Dishes are also available at regular menu prices, which I estimate to be around 30% higher.

M
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  • 2 months later...

We dined at L'Impero Saturday night. It was a fabulous meal that exceeded even the high expectations set by the Times' 3-star salute last month. We all ordered the $49 4 course tasting menu (you select from the full a la carte menu). Here is what I had:

1. Fricasse of wild mushrooms with creamy polenta.

2. Farfalle with crispy sweetbreads.

3. Roast venison (can't recall the full description, but it had chestnust, juniper and cassis).

4. Pumpkin pannacotta.

I also tried my wife's short ribs and the goat. Of the wines we drank, I recall only a blend by the Ceretto brothers which was very good. A recommendation from the owner of a wine from Naples followed, but was not memorable at all.

The fricasse was the star of the evening, followed closely by the farfalle. The venison was also very good, but a notch below GT's.

I really liked the room, which is elegant and quite, despite being completely full. The service, which has been the subject of some criticism here, was flawless.

The restaurant feels very much like an upscale NY restaurant -- it could be anything, French, Italian, American etc. The food is also not quite Italian, but more Italian-influeneced than anything else. All in all a very memorable meal, and the best new restaurant I have tried in NY since Bid. We will be back.

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  • 1 month later...

Not Italian. Not Italo-American. A New York City restaurant with some Italian emphasis. One example: “Roasted Maine Lobster/puntarelle (chicory), manila clam and guanciale ragu.” A pleasing and well-prepared dish with a greater relationship to the American East Coast (Maine lobster), New York markets (manila clams), and New York trendy Italianizing via the lusty Batali (pork products in general, guanciale in this case) than anything really Italian.

The room has a vaguely 60’s Manhattan sleekchic nightclub feel about it, although personally, I dislike walls hung with fabric.

A fairly extensive list of Italian wines, with many titles the four of us did not recognize. We drank a Massavecchia Vermentino “Arrento” ‘98 in place of a Verdicchio on the list but not available, and a very nice Querciabella Chianti Classico ‘96. The otherwise helpful and friendly server tried to upsell us another bottle, some sort of “bastard amarone” at $69 with just a few bites of food left in a seven course tasting menu.

By ignoring it, the chef, Scott Conant declined our request for a meal designed by him that would be enjoyed by a table experienced to a certain degree with Italian food. At the end of the meal, he stopped just short of our table when making his rounds.

We sampled eleven or twelve dishes. All were professionally prepared and tasted good. Some, like “fricassee of seasonal mushrooms/creamy polenta, truffle reduction”, “yukon gold potato gnocchetti with eggplant/preserved tomato and crispy parmigiano”, and “moist roasted vermont capretto/baby artichoke and potato “groestle’ and natural reduction” were spot on, and had discernible Italian relations, if not a Nona or a Mama. At least one, “strigoli al nero di seppia/calamaretti, sea urchin, shrimp and mussels”, was a loser. The handmade pasta was poor, and a tasting portion offered insufficient participation of the seafood. Desserts were perfunctory and unmemorable.

More important, none of the Italian dishes evoked Italy, or comparable things eaten there. Instead, they left the impression of a succession of adaptations that had been devised through a process in order to match their market, in this case, repeat customers at the $100 - $200 per person price point (alcohol, tax and tip included) with no special interest in, nor certainly insistence upon, authenticity. Our friends opined, accurately, as it turned out, that the meal seemed to be the work of a CIA graduate. Batali succeeds so well at this because of his larger than life persona. Impero succeeds because it very carefully tunes its delivery system to the needs and wishes of its target market.

On the way out, one of our friends asked a man dressed in chef’s whites if he was responsible for our meal. “Only if you liked it”, he said. We liked it - the way we like fifty other restaurants in New York.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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The otherwise helpful and friendly server tried to upsell us another bottle, some sort of “bastard amarone” at $69 with just a few bites of food left in a seven course tasting menu.

By ignoring it, the chef, Scott Conant declined our request for a meal designed by him that would be enjoyed by a table experienced to a certain degree with Italian food. At the end of the meal, he stopped just short of our table when making his rounds.

Please clarify: By ignoring what? And what did the chef have against you (which is what you seem to be implying)?

It's fascinating how you can damn a restaurant with a good review. This is really the kiss of death:

On the way out, one of our friends asked a man dressed in chef’s whites if he was responsible for our meal. “Only if you liked it”, he said. We liked it - the way we like fifty other restaurants in New York.

What I get from your review is that you liked the food but had a viscerally negative reaction to the marketing and felt the place was too expensive to be a good value - or simply that at that price point, you will never be satisfied with the merely good and demand the special. Frankly, without prejudice to this restaurant (which I've never eaten at), I don't blame you one bit.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Because you deserve it for liking Italian food to the extent you do in the first place. :raz:

Seriously, what do you expect? The chef's name is Conant for pastas sake. And the ingredients he has access to are not up to par with what they get in Italy. Even Batalli, who tries to access as many "real" ingredients as possible, can't do it to the extent that his cuisine is "real" Italian food. As he says himself, it's some variation on Italian food that they created. So unless you are in a place that has those peaches you like so much hand-delivered every day, I'm afraid you are stuck with this type of place as "the best" example of Italian cuisine in the city.

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Please clarify: By ignoring what? And what did the chef have against you (which is what you seem to be implying)?

By ignoring our request. Please excuse my eccentric grammar. I don't mean to imply that the chef had anything against us. Not at all. He just declined an opportunity to rise to the occasion, which was disappointing. Or, he could have a prejudice against tall bearded men with no hair, even in the company of beautiful women.

We liked the food. It tasted good. So does a lot of food. Some of it was very good. So is a lot of food.

Edited by Robert Schonfeld (log)

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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By ignoring it, the chef, Scott Conant declined our request for a meal designed by him that would be enjoyed by a table experienced to a certain degree with Italian food. At the end of the meal, he stopped just short of our table when making his rounds.

That's interesting, because it speaks to prior discussions about the concept of asking a chef to "cook for you". This seems to be a case where the request was not just refused, but actually resented (unless the last observation was just a coincidence).

It would be interesting to list those restaurants which cater to "cook for us" requests, and then to categorize them, to discover what drives their attitude.

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My guess, from being at the table when all this happened, is that the restaurant serves too many people to be able to cook on a customized basis. It appeared to us that about 100 people were dining in what was a full house. That's a lot more than a lot of accomplished chefs like to have at any one time.

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I was even more disappointed with L'Impero. The issue is the lack of an authentic Italian sensibility, I think that the ingredients problem is secondary. The restaurant is commercial and soulless. The cooking is competent, but ultimately unsatisfying. We tried the fresh made spaghetti with the basil tomato sauce that was so highly recommended by Asimov and the spaghetti was overcooked and the sauce lacked any brightness or impact, overall poor. Other dishes were generally somewhat better. I don't believe that Grimes would have given it more than 2 stars. I have eaten a number of times at Conant's prior restaurant, City Eats which was located with the Astor bar. I had found it promising although ultimately lacking and did notice that the chef spent an awful lot of time visiting with friends in the dining room. L'Impero is no better, and since its more ambitious, the end result is less satisfying. In addition, we experienced a serious service error in the dining room with the end result that we didn't have any wine with the meal.

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What I am really surprised about, is that you guys all went there at all. This is a restaurant that was so far below my radar that when I heard from Shonfeld that he was going, I didn't even know what he was talking about. Now that I see what it is, it was destined to be nothing more, or better, then an Italiante version of the upper middle. I had this experience at RM last Saturday night. I was sucked in by the good Times review but it turned out to be as mediocre as mediocre it gets. Not even 2 stars in my opinion. But to be honest it's my fault. Moonen's cooking at Oceana wasn't ever anything special, why is it going to be special now? His name is on the lease? And why isn't Conant is the same category?

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Reasons I went:

1. Hope springs eternal.

2. I still haven't run out of ways to be disappointed with the New York City upper middle.

3. It was easy walking distance from our apartment.

But to be honest it's my fault.

Likewise; hence the subtitle of this thread.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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... I had this experience at RM last Saturday night. I was sucked in by the good Times review but it turned out to be as mediocre as mediocre it gets. ...

Steve, you should have read what I wrote about rm. Would have saved you the trouble. Here it is.

BTW: last night after the Orpheus concert at Carnegie Hall, we were at Trattoria dell' Arte, sitting at the antipasto bar (yeah, I know, but He Who Only Eats loves it), and Rick Moonen came in with a woman oviously very close to him. They were seated at a regular table; I couldn't see what they ordered. Only entrees, as far as I could tell.

Edited by Suzanne F (log)
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Pardon me for asking, but what more do you want from a restaurant. L'Impero is a very comfortable restaurant, has a very good and well-informed staff, serves very good food, and has an excellent and interesting wine list. I would eat there any day over Babbo, which was uniformly awful when I went (terrible service and several dishes that were poorly prepared).

L'Impero, by contrast to many restaurants in NY, generally hits the mark. Does it have great aspirations? No. Is it haute cuisine? No. Is it Italian? No.

L'Impero is simply good, and very reasonably priced for what you get.

BTW, it does not surprise me one bit that rm was a disappointment. Oceana, in my opinion, was always overrated in the same way Babbo is today -- the kitchen was just not capable of preparing its dishes correctly on a consistent basis. The fact that it, probably, hit some high notes now and then is no excuse. To use a baseball analogy -- a top professional kitchen should be a .400 doubles hitter, not a .250 hitter who gets 40 HRs or so a season.

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Pardon me for asking, but what more do you want from a restaurant.  L'Impero is a very comfortable restaurant, has a very good and well-informed staff, serves very good food, and has an excellent and interesting wine list.  I would eat there any day over Babbo, which was uniformly awful when I went (terrible service and several dishes that were poorly prepared).

L'Impero, by contrast to many restaurants in NY, generally hits the mark.  Does it have great aspirations?  No.  Is it haute cuisine?  No.  Is it Italian?  No.

L'Impero is simply good, and very reasonably priced for what you get.

BTW, it does not surprise me one bit that rm was a disappointment.  Oceana, in my opinion, was always overrated in the same way Babbo is today -- the kitchen was just not capable of preparing its dishes correctly on a consistent basis.  The fact that it, probably, hit some high notes now and then is no excuse.  To use a baseball analogy -- a top professional kitchen should be a .400 doubles hitter, not a .250 hitter who gets 40 HRs or so a season.

There is no need to ask to be pardoned. Your question is a fair one.

I believe I said everything about L'Impero that you have said. Nice room, nice staff, nice food, interesting wine list. Not Italian. I chose the tone I took because this clutch of attributes is weak and the restaurant has been presented, particularly by the New York Times, as strong. It isn't. The chef, both on the plate and in person, lacks passion. The strongest impression I received from L'Impero is one of a good business plan. There's nothing wrong with any of this for a great many people. It is not, however, to my taste.

I intentionally did not contrast it with Babbo specifically, but rather felt that certain mentions of Batali's style, which is evident in all his operations, would be instructive as a means for pointing out differences.

I believe too that I said I liked it, but that it is likable in an undistinguished way. It is likable like lots of likable places.

What's the problem? It has an institutional sheen. It coyly invites the belief that it is Italian when it is not. To paraphrase both of us at once, lots of New York restaurants generally hit the mark; lots of New York restaurants are unsatisfying. I want a lot more for my money, and if you think I'm asking for too much, then perhaps that is where we may differ.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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Robert,

Did you not like L'Impero primarily because you found the quality of the preparation of the food to be uninspiring and at the same level as so many other restaurants in NYC, or because it holds itself out to be an Italian restaurant yet you found it to be not authentic due to its use of so many "local" ingredients which one would not find in Italy?

These seem to be very different criticisms.

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Steve P. -- polenta w/ wild mushrooms is a must. Likely to become the chef's signature dish. I'm intersted to hear your thoughts on the wine list. It has been quite a while since I've seen a list like that -- I recognized a scant few bottles.

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Robert,

Did you not like L'Impero primarily because you found the quality of the preparation of the food to be uninspiring and at the same level as so many other restaurants in NYC, or because it holds itself out to be an Italian restaurant yet you found it to be not authentic due to its use of so many "local" ingredients which one would not find in Italy?

These seem to be very different criticisms.

Very much more the former than the latter, Ron. One doesn't expect a thoroughgoing Italian experience in New York, but one goes looking for good food from time to time just for the hell of it. Lupa has held its rewards. I avoid Babbo because I am impatient with the scene. I've never felt comfortable in the dining rooms at Feldia, but I've had some good things to eat there. I haven't been to San Domenico in a long time. I'm sure there are others where good things can be had.

I had hoped to be clear that my one meal at L'Impero was professional and that almost all the food tasted good, a characteristic shared by many "upper middle" restaurants in New York. But it was soulless. It had the feeling of a contrivance. It was The Blues Brothers, not Sam and Dave.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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What I am really surprised about, is that you guys all went there at all. This is a restaurant that was so far below my radar that when I heard from Shonfeld that he was going, I didn't even know what he was talking about.

Yes, you seemed confused when I mentioned it to you too :raz: .

I will be going shortly, so I'll let you know if Robert was right. :cool:

Robert, did you eat the kid (mysteriously referred to everywhere as "baby goat"). I have my sights set on eating that.

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Robert, did you eat the kid (mysteriously referred to everywhere as "baby goat").  I have my sights set on eating that.

Yes, Wilfrid. Quoted from the menu in my opening post as “moist roasted vermont capretto/baby artichoke and potato 'groestle’ and natural reduction”, with the comment that it was "spot on". I think if you have full portions of the polenta with wild mushrooms and the capretto, with maybe some of the spaghetti with tomato and basil, which we did not have, you will likely be happy. Or maybe I mean that I would have been happier.

Who said "There are no three star restaurants, only three star meals"?

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