An Open Letter to a Boring Downtown Restaurant
Dear Pagani (289 Bleecker Street, 212-488-5800),
I was really excited to visit you the other day.
And I was still excited after my night started off on the wrong foot: I didn't realize that your Bleecker Street location was actually on the corner of Seventh Avenue -- I thought you were the restaurant that took the place of a DIFFERENT superfluous guitar shop, the one down the street closer to MacDougal.
That mishap is on me. But the rest is on you. Or, perhaps, it's on downtown and the people who live there and what they must be begging you to do. Because it's not just you -- it's many of the restaurants I've been to in the West Village lately.
I get it. The thousands of square feet of space on your corner cannot be cheap. And at a $75/person price point, all-in, you've got to turn a lot of tables to make love stay, if we're going to make a Tom Robbins metaphor of it, which feels apt enough.
But you've made a few ugly faux pas here, and one was evident with a cursory glance at the menu. Call me a snob, but I'll be damned if it's December and I'm going to suffer through grape tomato anything (unless it's from a can, I suppose, and then it best be a great can). If you're striving for "authenticity" here, you'd better keep the veggies closer to home. And furthermore, you're not in the business of red sauce, now are you? Because I didn't see a speck of it. Not at our table or at the ones beside us, of which I enjoyed a fine view since they were six inches away. But again, the high price of West Village real estate demands you pack 'em in -- I get it.
Besides, it was creepy fun watching couple after couple cycle through the tables around us -- he in a pastel checked button-down, 27 years old, and three weeks overdue for a haircut, and she in a blouse and Coach bag, her hair blown out into a perfect curl, and her cheeks blushed with Sephora and red wine. Three turns and they were all exactly the same -- young, white, blending in. They're all over your #PaganiNYC photo gallery too, smiling and happy in selfie after selfie.
You are the mid-range date place for 20-somethings who don't know any better. It's written all over your wine list, which is value-priced and fine enough. I'd be OK with that -- we had a decent enough bottle of Pinot Noir (wait, have you seen Sideways?! OMG, so funny!) -- but, silly me, I came for the food.
Of all we ate, your linguine-white-clam ($19) was about what you'd hope for -- salty with brine, simple, adequately al dente (it couldn't be house made -- and if it is, all the worse!), with a clatter of Manila clams -- mostly shells, though, as my lawyer friend noted, judiciously picking through them and finding far fewer bodies than she did casings. Also, your little clammies had to be barely legal (not unlike the diners around us) -- teensy-weensy little things that fit in a teaspoon, their bodies the size of a dime.
And your polenta-fries ($6), stacked tic-tac-toe like Lincoln Logs beside a petit pot of spicy aioli -- these were fried a deep yellow, crisp out and creamy in. They were tasty -- if unremarkable -- when hot, but they turned to starchy boards once their heat escaped them.
A poached farm egg ($10), resting on a bed of sauteed spinach (again, woefully out of season, unless coaxed from a greenhouse, which I doubt) was decent but bland, while a core of unnamed winter squash was creative in its presentation, but encircling a lackluster tangle of frisee that was neither properly bitter nor seared to its sweet potential, and seared sea-scallops that were somehow not salty or browned enough to satisfy -- how is that possible?! Photos of the dish look beautiful and on the menu it sounds delicious, so I can't understand how it all came together so lackluster.
In a word, unmemorable, but for its unmemorableness. And that's the shame in it all. It all sounds tasty and fun, and it's not that the food is BAD, it's just blah, which to me, at least, feels even worse than if it was just terrible.
But again, it's not just you -- this is what you get from the Village these days.
Oh, there were bright spots. I'm friends with your cocktail consultant, and he is talented and hard-working, and his drinks were just as pleasurable as ever. Your owner Mauro Lusardi -- who opened UES standby Uva in 2005 -- is just so kind and charming and soulful. He walks the floor, delivering checks, bussing tables, leaning in with palpable kindness -- the embodiment of Old-World hospitality, truly. Lusardi seemed pleased to be surrounded by youthful energy, his restaurant full on a Friday and running smoothly.
But Lusardi aside, your service is fine but not committed -- the short waiter (actor, isn't he?) who served us was happy to help but not terribly knowledgeable, and he was clearly counting the minutes until the shift was over and he could head to Christopher Street for some drinks.
I know a lot of waiters like that -- but the difference here is the ones I know care about food, and they're still learning. They know the name of the squash and the clams and they tell you these things and have real opinions on what they're serving -- when you ask for a recommendation, they won't just advise you to order the most expensive thing.
But they don't work in the West Village -- not anymore, at least. And who can blame them? They didn't come to New York to be on the forefront of mediocrity.
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