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Restaurant Letdowns: Pagani & Villard

paganiIf you’re a foodie, there’s nothing more exciting than discovering a great, new restaurant.  And there’s nothing worse than wasting an evening at a mediocre or awful new eatery, especially if you’ve dragged a group of friends along with you.  Something about it being “new” makes it all the more depressing when hopes of a potentially fantastic find are dashed and calories wasted.

But the truth is it happens all the time.  As often as food writers discover somewhere terrific, they encounter two or three sadly subpar spots. Case in point: This fall, I loved Piora in all its uniquely Korean-Italian glory (as did the New York Times, awarding it two stars a few weeks ago).  I loved Piora’s Pan-Seared Duck with jujubes, and the Scallops with crumbled Chicken Skin & Corn.  I also liked Ken Oringer’s Manhattan outpost of Toro and its Squid & Farm Egg a la plancha and Pan Con Tomate.   While I wasn’t a fan of everything on the menu (particularly a $22 spoonful of sea urchin, quail egg & caviar), the food and scene at Toro were fun and often very good.

But I chose not to rehash an all too forgettable dinner at East 12th Osteria (with lapses between courses that were longer than most meals), as well as the hokey menu at Villard Michel Richard, tucked inside the New York Palace Hotel where Gilt once stood.   What a waste of an opulent dining room, set in a mansion on Madison Avenue nonetheless with a glass wine cellar at the center of it all?  It’s not the kind of setting you’d aspire to eat a burger, unless of course, it was a mind blowing burger.   rabbitpapparelleUnfortunately, there are not one, but three burgers — tuna, lobster and beef — on the menu at Villard and the only good thing about them is the homemade brioche bun they sit on.  I probably should’ve known better than to order a Lobster Burger at all, but this was even odder than I anticipated.  Imagine lobster meat, mangled and molded into a puffy, greasy patty, and slathered with ginger mayonnaise.  The only redeeming quality about this $34 riff on a lobster roll cum hamburger were some crisps of potato thrown in for good measure.  Now that I think about it I probably should’ve known better than to order a dish called a  “Faux Gras” Terrine & Country Pate, too, but the server justified the cheeky label by explaining that the terrine was made not with goose, but chicken livers, so how bad could it be, right?  It was downright funky and not in a good way. Not to mention that the country pate that accompanied the terrine was a gelatinous, gamy slab that reminded one of my tablemates of SPAM, which honestly was a pretty good analogy.  An appetizer of Burrata & Tomatoes was flavorless, the Cod Basquaise  dry, and the chicken super salty.   Really, the only thing worth ordering at Villard is dessert.   If I were you, I’d have dinner elsewhere and pop into the New York Palace Hotel for an after dinner cocktail and the Celebration Cake, which arrives at the table with a lit Sparkler.  Crack the fresh berry-topped chocolate shell and you’ll uncover a delicious layering of mousse, sponge cake and ice cream.  Or sample Richard’s fancy take on a Kit Kat Bar, a delectable and uber crunchy chocolate bar, layered with whipped chocolate ganache on a pool of hazelnut caramel.

Then, there was Pagani, which I dragged a fleet of women to on a recent Monday night.  I had high hopes for this newly minted, downtown Italian, located on a trafficked corner of Seventh Avenue and Bleecker.  Afterall, Taavo Somer outfitted the joint with fashionable tile and wood floors, distressed mirrors and pretty blue banquettes, and Mark Barrett, who worked at both Tabla & Babbo, had taken over the kitchen here.  And you can taste Barrett’s talents in the homemade Pappardelle mingled with a delicious tangle of rabbit, carrot, peas, olives and onions… but not much else sadly.   An entree of Seared Scallops came a measly three to an order, each subsumed by a potent dose of guanciale and sunchoke puree, and all I could taste on a Wild Striped Bass Crudo were the toppings of rock salt and jalapeno.  Did I mention the not-so-fresh Market Catch, which had to have been caught days earlier?  Oh, and then there were greasy Polenta Fries with a muck of aioli for dipping.  Desserts were too horrible for words (bread pudding sticks & sponge cake that tasted, well, like sponges), so let’s just leave it at that.

Ever since I stopped reviewing for the New York Daily News I decided to keep most bad meals to myself.  But I wish someone had saved me from a few meals this fall, so maybe I can save you from a few.


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