Saturday, August 9, 2008

REVIEW: Trattoria Simpatico- *** / $$$

Oh little Jamestown. So small yet so packed with cool stuff. You'd be surprised with the density of gourmet offerings on Rhode Island's second biggest free-floating land mass. It has, now with Wickford Gourmet's closing, the only gourmet shop I know of for miles in Grapes & Gourmet, the delicious Tricia's Tropigrille, Chopmist Charlie's, and enough seafood to choke a horse. All this food and a killer view of the Newport bridge as you walk the pier make for a unique experience. But, while seafood bars and clam cakes are nice, what if you decide you want a fancier, dare I say it, nicer dining experience to compliment your summer evening in the Ferrari with Ms. Bambi?

And with that q-linary quandary, we come to Trattoria Simpatico. Around since the early 90's, TS has managed to build up a decent reputation among locals as the go-to spot for fine dining if one doesn't want to brave the no-locals-land of Newport. It's definitely the fanciest restaurant on Jamestown, and also the priciest. Is it worth it?

I lived on Jamestown for over a year and only managed to go just as I was leaving for new quarters, elsewhere. I had sort of built the place up in my mind, if for no other reason than the name sounds impressive. I came away rather disappointed. That was over two years ago and I figured to give the place a second shot.

Simpatico recently won a Rhode Island Monthly award for best al fresco dining, and boy howdy are they right. Last I ate, I ate inside, being winter. I can't remember when, specifically, but I kept leaving to check the Patriots' playoffs games in the bar. The outside area is wonderfully realized. Touches such as the water fountain come across as genuine and in their element as opposed to kitschy. The generous placing of flowers, plants, and well-trimmed foliage integrate very well with the structure and give the area an aged, European feel. And boy does TS know they've got the goods when it comes to dining area. The al fresco area not only makes up the bulk of their seating capacity, they even provide a jazzy-yet-boring band to do smarmy, elevator music versions of hit songs.

The canopies provide protection from the elements and allow eating outside even in inclement weather. In fact, I can think of nothing more romantic than dining in a light rain storm and assume it would be quite the experience. The canopies themselves are very nice. Attractive wood frames around each corner give a sense of permanence to the otherwise temporary structures that make them feel as though they're part of the building as opposed to the tents they actually are. As the sun goes down, the white Christmas lights draped throughout the area get better, but they never seem fully integrated into the overall design. Still, they're pretty.

The tables are well-dressed and attractive, with bright white table clothes and attractive tableware. Fresh flowers add flare and color to each table. And while many of the tables have nice, wrought metal chairs, the tables under the outlying tents are made of a cheap, Wal-Mart grade plastic. It's not much of a complaint, but it distracts from the otherwise well-composed aesthetic. And if you want the absolute ultimate in intimate dining, there is an utterly adorable wrought iron gazebo just big enough to fit a small table and two chairs. It's completely covered in ivy and flowers and seems to have been ripped straight from a French movie about drinking wine and speaking breathlessly about nothing.

But the food! Right, the food. Well a meal can't be started without starters, and here TS impressed. The crab cakes were very good. Firm and flavorful with large, heaping chunks of crab meat wedged into them. The potato salad nestled between the pair of cakes went well with the seafood. The light, crisp vegetables added some good contrast in texture and the sauce was flavorful and present in copious amounts. All around, a very good pair of crab cakes and a good value at $14. The bruschetta wasn't amazing, but it did nothing wrong and makes my list of bruschettas worth getting. A nice combination of crisp, fresh veggies, sauce, and good bread made me a fan. The bread was presented in the nicest fashion I've ever encountered. Two entire loaves were brought out warm, enrobed in a white cloth in what looked like a small picnic basket with a large bottle of olive oil. Again, this trendy olive oil nonsense is beginning to drive me mad. Give me butter! Nice touch, though.

The entrees were hit and miss now as they were then. The orrichiette was very good. Cooked al dente to just the right amount of firmness, the sauce, sun-dried tomatoes, chicken, and spicy sausage combined into an excellent whole. A strong, smokey flavor filled my tongue with every bite. If you go, I highly recommend you get this dish. The tortelloni was also very good. The filling was cheesy with just the right amount of nuttiness, and was cooked to perfect al dente degree. The cheese and greens piled on top went very well, but it wasn't enough to draw my eye away from my companion's orrichiette.

The pork is a serious problem. The last time I went to Simpatico I got the grilled pork loin. It wasn't very good. I'm not one to complain so I went home assuming that the chef was tired, or high, or in the middle of a mild seizure. Nope, they just can't cook pork. Both times, it was dry and bland. Is it really so hard to brine the pork? The potato and onion roesti was tasty, but it was very loose and difficult to get both it and some pork on the fork. If you wanted onion and pork to combine on your palate, you needed some of both, and that was an exercise in multiple utensils. The spicy corn salad and mango coulis were both served cold, which created a jarring temperature contrast with the hot pork, which also resulted in the meat losing its temperature very quickly. The small amount of mango coulis was a disappointment, since it was the only aspect that added any fire to the dish. They should have heated it and dumped a generous pile right on top. Steer clear of their pork.

The tenderloin was guilty of a similar infraction. It was ordered medium rare and delivered medium. Now tenderloin isn't the most flavorful cut of meat to begin with, but this meat reached new heights of bland, I don't know how. It was tender enough, but dry. It was saved by an adequate Bearnaise sauce, more of which was needed, and some tasty mashed potatoes. Still, for $37 I expect something better than a tenderloin I could cook poorly at home for a third the price. I'm seeing a pattern, steer clear of the meats in general.

The desserts weren't as scattershot in quality as the entrees. The creme brulee had good texture with a wonderfully delicate lime flavor that went surprising well. The fruit tasted fresh enough, but the melted sugar on top was very thick. I actually enjoyed it, but a companion of mine disliked it enough to dig the creme out from under the brulee. It would come down to a matter of personal taste, because the dessert as a whole was well-made. The touch of lime is something I've not seen elsewhere, and as such I would return specifically for it. The same cannot be said for the Mocha Toffee Chocolate Crunch Bars.

They are well-intentioned, but it is just four bars of utterly overpowering chocolate and espresso flavor, sweetened to the point of being cloying. There was toffee used as a "crust," which added no contrast in texture or flavor. What it really needed was something crispy to better interact with the softness of the mousse, be it meringue, cookies, or crackers, and a buttload more of the raspberry coulis. The Neopolitan was a big hit with everyone. Simple, tasty, reaaally unhealthy. A dense, fudgey brownie, piled high with house-made whipped cream, strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries, bathed in creme anglaise and raspberry coulis. I've had better creme anglaise, Al Forno comes to mind, but it's basically a brownie sundae, so who cares? It was good.

So, in the end, I was certainly disappointed with Tratoria Simpatico. It was good, but it was expensive with preparations that didn't match the price. Since it's the atmosphere that you really want, they, thankfuly, have a more affordable and reasonable way to experience it. Along with the dinner menu is a well-balanced and generally affordable wine list, so just meeting for desserts and wine sounds like a wonderful option for a night out. They also have a large, impressive, and better-priced lunch menu. The smaller "cafe menu" has some of the lunch menu's offerings and is available all day. Combined with an equally large and impressive list of thirty specialty drinks and a raw bar, Simpatico offers many ways to experience their excellent al fresco dining without paying too much for some middling entrees.

Trattoria Simpatico: ***
Price range for two: $50-80

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14 Narragansett Ave
Jamestown, RI 02835

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Omaha Steaks Sucks

Well, Omaha Steaks has opened a retail location in Cranston's newest temple of ridiculous, suburban consumption. I had heard of them, and I had a coupon from the newspaper for a rather stupid amount of meat for only $50, so I figured to give them a shot.

Frankly, it wasn't even worth the small amount of money I paid. I bought a bag of amazingly expensive beef jerky which was the toughest jerky I've ever had and peppered to such an extreme it cleared my neighbor's sinuses. The filets were comically small with weak flavor and had a strange, rubbery texture to them. I've never encountered meat that felt this way, before.

The hot dogs were decent, but Hebrew National or Boar's Head are both better. The texture was off, being softer and more mushy than I like. The chicken was chicken, it's really hard to fuck that up. The stuffed baked potatoes were dry as all get-out which overwhelmed any decent flavor they had.

The salmon was overpriced and had a watery flavor. The texture was rather poor and gummy, and it didn't compare at all to fresh salmon from a deli or seafood shop. Maybe this is acceptable if you live in the middle of Nebraska, but we don't. We live right by the freaking ocean.

The hamburgers were adequate. Probably because even crap meat can be turned into decent hamburger. I'd rather buy good, ground beef and make my own patties. Saves me money, and I can spice my own meat.

The best thing to come out of the purchase was a weird, car-care kit that had a flashlight, screwdriver, pliers, (very) small jumper cables, and other bizzare shit. What? I can only assume it's meant as some marketing ploy for me, because unless you like grilling on an engine block (you fucking redneck) the only connection I can see between meat and cars is men. Weird, just weird.

Woo ha!

I just got the best latte outside of Providence that I had yet to have in Rhode Island. I got it in the little ol' Main Street Cafe in East Greenwich. This was a REAL latte. The espresso was strong and rich, like I think latte espresso should be, it was perfectly pulled and the milk was poured with skill. I didn't get the barista's name, but she's about 5'5" and blonde, if she's at the counter, make sure to order a latte. She's got madd skillz yoh.