Kevin asked me on Monday where I wanted to eat. I had to ponder this a bit. If I could go anywhere I wanted (within reason) where would I go. Leaving the Iron Forge Inn out of the question (too much of a drive on a Friday night), what were my choices?
The options aren't great if I wanted to stay local. Westchester doesn't have the greatest fine dining options. Le Provencal is one of my favorites, and it's right down the street, but I have done so many special occasions there and was a bit tired of it. Ditto for Lusardi's, which is the next town away. (I also seem to be the only foodie - or at least quasi-foodie - who still likes Lusardi's anyway.) The top rated restaurants in the area are all actually a bit of a shlep (either way north or south of us) and we never like driving anywhere after a long day at work or at the barn. White Plains is a NYC wannabe kind of city and tries its best to be a dining destination, but go to places like Zagats and Yelp and Chowhound and you see a bunch of disappointed diners. (42 is apparently not the answer to life, the universe, and everything). Besides, there is no free parking in White Plains anywhere. The meters are always on.
Since Friday is one of the days where I work in NYC, it simply made sense to choose a NYC restaurant. In New York though, I have the opposite problem. It's just too many choices. I thought of the places that everyone loves, or the ones with the big names. I had to carefully consider this.
Sometimes restaurants are all about who can get into them and not about how good the food is. Sometimes the food just won't be the diner's cup of tea. For example, I'll never want to eat at Le Bernadin no matter how divine other diners say it is because I don't like fish. I would also avoid dining at Per Se, even though I'm intrigued by it. How can you tell a chef, "You have to make a tasting menu where one diner doesn't eat fish and the other one doesn't eat red meat"? I think we would be thrown out.
For a long time I wanted to eat at Babbo, but I've read far too many blogs and forum posts saying the food is disappointing. Besides, you can't call on Monday for a reservation on Friday and expect to get a table.
I thought about Emily's experience at Daniel. I went to Open Table to see if I could get a reservation. Remember this was Monday and I was looking for a Friday reservation. Can a website laugh at you? I swear this one did.
I really wanted to try Butter. I like Alex Guarnaschelli's cooking style. She seems to enjoy food the way I do. Open Table showed an 8PM reservation open. It was a little later than I wanted. Kevin also said he would really prefer it if we didn't go far downtown. I considered saying, "It's MY BIRTHDAY and I'll go downtown if I want to." I had a pang of conscience though and realized I should be kind to the man who is buying me dinner. Let's stay above 14th street and also not have to go home too late.
So what was left? What was midtown (or close to midtown), with consistently good food, where I could get a reservation?
I little voice inside my head reminded me of how Claudia often talks of her love of Convivio. It seems like a well-loved restaurant all around with special enough food to be suitable for a landmark birthday. The reservation was mine for the taking. I had my restaurant.
Convivio is in a neighborhood so nice it makes me forget how much I hate NYC. It's one 1st Avenue by the UN and the East River. The building is a beautiful old building and right outside is the most wonderful open-air dining area. It's very old-world style.
Inside the decor changes dramatically and is much more modern. It's a bit too eclectic for my taste. The seats and tables look like they're from the early 80s. The far wall looks like a contemporary hipster restaurant. It seemed certain elements of the decor out of sync with each other. But that didn't matter much to me. If the food and service are good, the decor is insignificant.
I wish I had taken a photo of the wine list. It's a real "Select A Wine For Dummies" list. The wines (at least those by the glass) are listed with plenty of detail about their tastes. They are also color-coded to show how light or full-bodies they are. That was a huge help for us when it came to selecting one. I chose a pallagrello bianco, a white from Campania (my ancestral land) that I had never tried before. It had a little zip and an almost creamy texture.
Our waiter was awesome. He was friendly, engaging, and extremely knowledgable about the menu. He could talk at length about any dish you questioned him about.
You can order a la carte from the menu, but they recommend a four-course prix fixe for $64, which I feel was pretty reasonable. We went with that option.
I started with a simple tomato and mozzarella salad. This was not your standard caprese with underripe red tomato slices and slabs of mozzarella. This was a beautiful mix of local heirloom tomatoes served warm with just enough mozzarella to make the dish richer.
Kevin had a seafood salad. This was a very pretty dish, although he said the mussels weren't that good. I hoped he would like the future courses since I had insisted on this restaurant and wanted him to enjoy his meal.
Next up was the pasta course. I had the most brilliant pasta amatriciana ever. What do you think of when you think of amatriciana: onions, tomatoes, and pancetta/gunanciale with some cheese top? Well, imagine ravioli stuffed with tomatoes and guanciale and then placed in a pool of melted cheese. The only bad thing about this pasta dish was eventually I finished it and there wasn't any more left on the plate.
Kevin had a pasta with swordfish belly and preserved lemon. Our waiter was singing its praises. Kevin commented that, "The chef really likes butter." I said, "The good ones always do." He agreed with the waiter about the tastiness of the dish, so the meal was saved.
Then came the main course. I had cornish hen with fingerling potatoes and pancetta. This was an exceptionally well-made hunk of poultry. The skin was crispy and lightly sweet from the vin cotto sauce. Every bite I took I tasted something different. Sometimes it was almost vinegary. Sometimes it was sweet. Somtimes I would get the essenence of rosemary. A bite of the thick pancetta could vary the way the bite of hen tasted. It was very simple, but brilliantly executed.
Kevin's choice was sea bass. Once again, he was happy with it. Phew!
Dessert had to be chocolate. When it's my birthday there is just no other way. I chose a rich budino topped with hazelnut ice cream. Remember the disappointing lava cake I had in Jackson? This totally made up for that!
You can also see my after-dinner drink in this photo. It was a pistachio liquer. I am not going to rest until I can find a bottle of that stuff for myself. I must have it! It was was that good.
Kevin had Italian doughnuts filled with chocolate custard and an anise dipping sauce.
We were stuffed to the gills at this point, but the restaurant had a surprise in store - a complimentary panna cotta for my birthday. This was flavored with lemon and basil and topped with a strawberry compote. Brilliant.
The restaurant had just one flaw. It was a hot summer day and diners sit in close quarters. We were practically bumped up against the (occasionally noisy) folks at the next table. Despite the closeness and the heat, the air conditioner was completely insufficient. Kevin and I were sweating rather uncomfortably during the night. When we were eating, the food was good enough to make us forget, but between courses we were a little annoyed and considered asking someone to crank the AC up a bit.
It was a fantastic meal and I'm still stuffed from it. Thanks Convivio for giving me such a memorable (if a bit sweaty) birthday meal!