Friday, August 31, 2007

Antonello Ristorante

We've all seen it in movies: politicians, successful businessmen, doctors, and heads of crime syndicates dining together in a lavish restaurant cutting deals, establishing connections, and plotting their next move. You know where to this scene in Orange County? I do. Antonello Ristorante is where the power plays happen in the O.C. ...according to some article from the Time's.

The restaurant's parking lot, though large, was mostly reserved for valet parking. The valet walked over as I rolled up to Antonello. No thanks, I know how to park myself. Apparently the drivers and owners of Rolls Royces, Bentlys, Porsches, BMWs, Maseratis, and Mercedes, etc do not. Heh.

I arrived at roughly 1:06pm to watch the tail end of the greeter's dress disappear around a corner towards the bar. In her rush, I caught a whiff of her perfume. The young woman, though rude, had good taste. Still didn't change how pissed off I was, though.

Out of thin air, the Maitre d' appeared and though well knowing the answer, inquired if I had been helped yet. Nice cover. After his seemingly sincere apology, he asked if I would like to first shoot the dining room while the staff sets up a larger table for my "Table Work". Jeez I wonder how much he thought I was going to order!

I regret not bringing a full tripod into the restaurant. The dining room was gorgeous! Upon entry, one would feel as though he were transported to the patio of a restaurant in Italy. Antonello's interior designers had created the scene of a street corner in a rustic Italian town. The tables were elegant and each graced with a single long stemmed rose. Napkins were folded and pushed into wine glasses to form vague shapes of swans. Also, Antonello's intricately carved chairs are voluptuous and inviting. Picture perfect.

Bread was brought out as my server handed me a menu. I typically do not get excited over pre-appetizer carbs, but Antonello's bread was out of this world:

Most restaurants serve their bread warm. Antonelllo, however, serves theirs just-out-of-the -oven-hot. The exterior was crispy and lightly buttered, causing a first degree burn on my fingers upon contact. Olive oil and balsamic vinegar were available at each table, but the bread is enjoyable by itself. In fact, one could easily make a satisfying meal out of the bread.

The olive oil Chef Barone places at each table is top notch. The restaurant opted for the nutty/bitter variety, which is definitely my preferred dipping oil.

My first course was Mozzarella in Carrozza:

Original Italian Bufala Mozzarella cheese lightly fried and topped with Barone's marinara sauce.

Think of this dish as essentially a refined grilled cheese sandwich briefly fried and paired with fresh marinara. I expected the bread to be soaked in oil, but surprisingly it wasn't. Barone had applied a layer of batter to prevent the bread from soaking up too much oil. But of course, the extremely hot temperature of the oil helps to reduce frying time (aka oil soaking time).

Bufala Mozzarella is not your normal Mozzarella, which is made from cow's milk. As its name suggests, it is made from the milk of water buffalo. The result is a moist, and extremely flavorful cheese tasting strongly of Buffalo milk.

Of course, mozzarella must be served with some tomato. The marinara was the best I've ever had. Chef Barone struck the perfect balance of acidity and sweetness in his sauce. I think you can buy it at select supermarkets. I gotta find out which ones...

Camera shake occurred due to the fact that I was unable to set up the mini tripod on the table. The plate was white hot. I could not move it without burning off my fingerprints. No wonder the server let out a breath of relief when he set the plate down.

Up next was Burrata con Fagiolini, a new item on the menu:

Bufala Mozzarella Cheese served over Green Beans and drizzled with Extra Virgin Olive Oil & White Balsamic Vinegar sprinkled with Dried Oregano.

The previous dish of Bufala cheese was so enjoyable, I decided to order another in a salad. Unheated, the cheese is significantly more difficult to cut with a fork, but the taste remains consistent--buttery and thick. As a dairy lover, I loved this salad.

Vegetables will always be vegetables. If they're fresh, they're pretty much the same wherever you go. The success in a salad thus comes from the dressing. Extra virgin olive oil and white balsamic vinegar is a classic combination that never fails. Quality ingredients made a quality salad.

By this time, the manager was notified that I was taking lots of pictures with my SLR. Don't know why, but from this point on, the manager (Roberto) began stopping by frequently to check that my server was attentive to my needs, and talked to me about the restaurant. He even took the time to explain to me the ingredients used in subsequent dishes. What a nice fella to take me seriously even though he's like...30 years my senior.

The main course Saltinbocca alla Romana arrived shortly:

Veal Scaloppine wrapped with Caciocavallo Cheese, imported Parma Prosciutto & cooked in a White Wine & Veal Reduction.

As with any dish, I sampled the ingredients individually before eating them together. The veal was well-done, but still tender. The flavor of the meat was slightly overpowered by the white wine & veal reduction, but this is acceptable because the reduction had a very meaty taste. The cheese and prosciutto were stuck together, but I was still able to distinguish the two. The cheese was nice and thick, but not as good as the bufala mozzarella from earlier (nothing will ever beat it). The prosciutto was well aged and salted. Well, what did I expect? Shitty ingredients? But as always, it is nice to double-check.

Eaten together, the wrap is a little too salty for my taste. Most of the sodium is delivered through the prosciutto and reduction. If salt was not added to the white wine and veal reduction, I think I would have enjoyed this dish a lot more. Any true food connoisseur will tell you that he/she prefers to taste the actual ingredients instead of being assaulted with sodium or hot sauce.

Sage in the wraps bring a refreshing tone to each bite. It is a crucial ingredient. Without it, the wraps would taste too greasy and too salty. Sage achieves the same effect as adding mint leaves or basil in their appropriate dishes.

The roasted potatoes were awful, laden with olive oil and cooked for too long. The texture was a horrendous mix of dry, tough, soggy, and rubbery. There was no consistency among the pieces for each failed in its own way. A restaurant of Antonello's caliber should never make this amateur mistake. It goes without saying that I let the manager know.

Apology accepted.

A dessert cart was wheeled over to tempt me with its offerings. The Torta di Formaggio beckoned me to taste her:

The Pastry Chef's own vision of individual Cheesecake served with Fresh Seasonal Raspberries, Blackberries, and Raspberry sauce.

The berries were naturally sweet, the cheesecake thick and creamy, and the crust satisfyingly crunchy. I'm unsure of the pastry chef's method and recipe for this creation, but it is lighter and fluffier than a typical cheesecake without sacrificing flavor. In fact, there is even more cheesy goodness. But wait! It gets better. The top and bottom of the crust were coated with lightly sweetened dark chocolate. Thank you, Chef. It's as if this dessert were created with my tastes in mind, for it contained all of my favorite dessert ingredients.

To top it all off, the Raspberry sauce also came with a delightful passion-fruit reduction. I was in heaven.

It's funny. Despite having ordered and tucked away four courses, Roberto insisted I order one of their signature pastas. As tempted as I was, I politely declined. Take-out was an option, but like hell I'm going to eat it re-heated.

After conversing with the maitre d' at the end of my meal, I learned that the restaurant had expected me to order at least five courses and do some epic photoshoots like Cpt. Jack. Well NOW I understand why I was offered a table made to seat four.

Disregarding the pitiful greeting I initially received, service at Antonello Ristorante was stellar. Antonello has the art of reading customers down pat. Pacing was very good! I found it astonishing that whenever I felt like taking a break, the serving of the next course would be delayed until I was just about ready again.

Watching the other patrons that day was quite amusing. Many of them were regulars, thus forcing Roberto to constantly circle the dining room and greet each table. I was quite under-dressed sitting amongst the regulars. Now don't get me wrong...I was pretty well dressed, but these guys and their trophy Their conversation reflected their opulent clothing and I was able to discern pretty serious business dealt across each table (no wives present at these tables). I will never understand why people bring stress and conflict into a restaurant to ruin the food.

Birth of a Food Blog.

For centuries, Man has been stuffing his face with food and drink. As the availability of food increased, so did his appetite. The Romans ate for pleasure, often regurgitating a meal in order to prolong a feast. Fast forward to the Middle Ages, then hop over to the Renaissance where Aristocrats, gentry, and the well-to-do overate themselves simply because they could afford it. Thin wasn't quite yet in. Flash to the 21st century and look around. Clearly, Man has not lost his voracious appetite. In fact, he is hungrier (and fatter) than ever!

With such an abundance and wide variety of available food, we are now more prepared than ever to commit the Fifth Deadly Sin--Gluttony--correctly. Gluttony isn't about having a penchant for food. Nuh uh. Far from it. In "The Screwtape Letters," C.S. Lewis suggests that gluttony is also wanting something EXACTLY our way and in EXACTLY the right amount. A glutton is quick to note imperfections and demands to be pampered.

All too often I hear people around me declare their love for food, but it saddens me to watch them gorge on McTrash, frequent the same (crappy) restaurants, and worst of all be too lazy to find and/or commute to better dining establishments. With my blogging counterparts Sarah, Kirk, The Captain, and Elmo I shall help direct readers towards The Light!

Enough talk.
Let's eat.