** – Two Stars (Out of Five)
Vibe: Industrial funk
Don’t Miss: Rabbit Cavatelli & Lobster Spacatelli
Don’t Bother: Striped Bass Tagine
Finish With: Wild Local Strawberries
Final Word: There are some definite hits & misses at this UWS newcomer, but if you stick with pasta & dessert, you’ll have a very good meal here.
Tessa had the unfortunate luck of opening with scaffolding over the entrance. I hate that for them. I mean, how do you have a fighting chance if no one even knows you’re there? That’s what I was thinking, anyway, as I headed toward the door on a recent summer night. Guess I was wrong (this time) because Tessa and its whopping, 75-seat dining room was packed, not a seat left in the house, except at the bar. So that’s where my husband and I ended up eating on a recent Tuesday night. Personally, I’m the table type (except when it comes to sushi), but I like the bar here a lot. It’s a long, sleek wood bar with plenty of seats to camp out at for the night, and have a cocktail & a bite. There are a few, high top communal tables just across from the bar with an exposed brick wall backdrop, uber dim lighting, and shiny wood floors.
But Tessa doesn’t look anything like your average Upper West Side eatery. The decor is what I’d call funky industrial with the clever recycling of iron security gates everywhere you look. They’re covering the ceiling, the base of the bar, and even used as wall accents. You can contemplate the owner’s gate fetish over a cocktail or a glass of wine. There’s a fine selection, nothing to swoon over, but admirable nonetheless. You will swoon over the plush sourdough bread they serve (compliments of the house) with a side of not butter or olive oil, but both together — a patty floating in olive oil, which works well. Though I wasn’t a fan of the Trio of Dips, served with Flatbread; a sad excuse for Hummus, a forgettable Ricotta, and a solid Smoked Eggplant, but it’s just not worth the 9 dollar ticket.
The menu here is broad, Mediterranean with a toe in many waters. Perhaps too many waters, which is why dinner here can be maddening because for each great dish to be had, there is a not great one. But it’s hard to find fault in Tessa’s Pasta Section, which is surprising, considering the chef, Cedric Tovar, isn’t exactly known for pasta. He’s an Alsatian-born chef who’s put in time at Daniel, Town, Peacock Alley and Bobo before heading to the Upper West Side with this venture.
Pastas are definitely where it’s at with this menu. Especially the Rabbit Cavatelli tossed with a to-die-for Pancetta-flecked Rabbit Ragu, Smoked Onion and Lovage Coulis – a brilliant combination that others should consider imitating — the kind of dish that would be equally comforting on a rainy summer night and a frigid winter one. I was just as taken with the Lobster Spaccatelli – perfectly al dente ribbons of homemade pasta tangled around Lobster & Chanterelles in an aromatic Tarragon Emulsion.
But let’s back up a minute: First things first, we started with a cold and vinegary Cauliflower Salad with Marcona Almonds, Pine Nuts, Pickled Red Onions, & Yellow Raisins with a vibrant melange of Purple, White and Green Cauliflower, all bathed in a zippy Coriander Vinaigrette – a fun and summery salad. It’s just too bad I hated the Steamed Striped Bass “Tajine” though the quotes around tajine should’ve been a warning sign. It was neither a tagine, nor was the fish actually cooked through, partly raw and flavored with way too much fennel to taste anything but. But the Strip Steak Frites was tasty, anointed with a Barolo Green Peppercorn Sauce, braised shallots and Grilled Romaine. Although, the fries that came with it were forgettable. And skip the Razor Clam Escabeche altogether. (It’s too vinegary.)
Dessert, however, is not forgettable. Tessa’s Wild Local Strawberries is a blissful composition of sweet, ripe strawberries, a Pink Peppercorn Bavarois (gelatin & whipped cream), a pedestal of Citrus Shortbread, and Lemon Basil Sorbet – a perfectly summery, crunchy and sweet ending. Then came a refreshing trio of Yellow Watermelon, Apricot Riesling, and Cucumber Sorbet, which all tasted like the produce itself. The pastry chef is Karys Logue, who started at the CIA, went on to Daniel, Sepia, Cafe Boulud, and now Tessa. Who knows where we’ll find her in five years, but I’d wager she’ll have a James Beard nomination by then.
Tessa’s a tricky one, because there’s a miss for every hit, but if you stick with the pasta and dessert section, you’re bound to have a very good meal here. Besides, the Rabbit Cavatelli and the Wild Local Strawberries are worth the trip alone.