The Tasting Room

I've been hearing about the Tasting Room for years now, usually in conversations with "foodies." You know the general line of questioning: "Just went to X. Have you been?" "Oh yeah. The meatballs are out of this world. Almost as good as Y's." "But not as good as the Tasting Room." "The Tasting Room!" "Love the Tasting Room!" "Love!" At which point I usually fall silent. Since I've never been to Tasting Room, the once-tiny, now relocated restaurant that cooks with the freshest Greenmarket ingredients, I am unable to step up to this gourmet throwdown.

Basta, I decide. Now that the Tasting Room has moved to a roomier location, it is time to give it a try. I enlist several friends for the task.

Though the space may be bigger, the door policy at the Tasting Room can still be a pain. When one of our party is unavoidably detained, three of us have to wait at the bar until the fourth arrives, despite our entreaties that she is definitely on her way. Making everyone wait would be understandable if it were a busy weekend night with multiple seatings, but it is 8:30 on a Thursday, and later we see that the place pretty much clears out after 10, with no one waiting for our table. I know that which of I speak is controversial, but still... I tend to side with the customer on this one.

At least the delay affords us time to have one of the excellent cocktails at the bar - an old fashioned, in my case. The bar area is a pleasing hybrid of sexy and welcoming, when you can get a seat. If you can't get a seat in this small front area, you will feel that you are always in every server's way.

My friend arrives; we are finally taken to our table in the back room.

"What is this place?"
"It looks like a conference room."
"No - a wedding tent. A cross between a conference room and a wedding tent."
"There are actual poles with weird dried leaves on them."
"Are these paintings done by mental patients?"
"What's up with those FedEx packages on the ledge? Is that supposed to be decoration? Hey! There's the package I never got at work the other day!"

Did I mention we can be snarky at times? Nevertheless, our waiter is nice and generally attentive. We start ordering - not always an easy task with this crew. There is something for everyone on the varied menu, though we do have some difficulty distinguishing between a "taste" and a whole dish, since most of the entrees and appetizers are listed at both price points. The waiter explains that a "taste" consists of just a couple bites, and therefore is not recommended for sharing, while ordering the larger-size portion would be good for the whole table. Thus, we make those of us who order unpopular dishes keep it to a taste.

The food starts coming in waves. N.B. that the menu changes daily, but some of our favorite dishes appeared in other incarnations in other reviews, so the selections I mention here may very well resurface. We have the late summer salad, which is more interesting than expected, with crisp new greens and a generous sprinkling of fresh soft feta. Rarely have I tasted fish as good as the butterfish escabeche, my (initially unpopular) small "taste" portion that arrives on a swirl of cannelini bean puree. The appetizer-size portion of kingfish on a bed of arugula isn't anything to write home about. We place the kingfish and the butterfish next to each other.

"It's the same size on a bigger plate."
"It's the same, but eight dollars more."

The beef short rib stew is our favorite of the appetizers, delicious and lively. We identify the distinguishing herb as mint, which gives it an interesting Vietnamese twist.

During the lull between courses, I notice that everyone in the room looks terrible. Fortunately, there are no mirrors, so I can't see how horrible I myself look. Only now does the lighting register - it's extremely unflattering, which would make me avoid this place as a potential date locale, unless you're absolutely sure your beloved wouldn't leave you at your ugliest.

The entrees arrive. Two of these are amazing: the meatballs, made with grass-fed beef, are melt-in-your-mouth good. I sense myself losing control and devouring them at a rapid pace before I remember to share. No one notices, because they are all attacking the fabulous eggy bread pudding with hen-o-woods mushrooms. I elbow my way in before that disappears as well.

Waiting for the check as things quiet down and the dining room begins to empty, we are feeling fat and content. The quality of the ingredients really shows through in each dish at the Tasting Room, and I get the sense that no expense was spared in sourcing them out. This feeling is reinforced by the number at the foot of the bill, which is much more than those of our usual casual dinners out. (OK, so we had some wine. But it was the cheap wine.) No one is all that happy anymore.

"Eighty-five dollars!"
"I guess that's the last meal I eat for the week."

I am satisfied, though I don't know if I would do it again. Not a great date place because of the decor, but not a great casual friend place because of the expense. Who would go here with me? Only a gastronome who cares about food, food, and more food. Only somebody who brags about meatballs.

In short, only somebody just like me. I make my apologies and slink out the door.

The Tasting Room
264 Elizabeth Street, between Houston and Prince Streets


Anonymous said...

$85 a person? Ouch, for a casual night out.