Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Dinner @ Cotogna

Cotogna is a gem. I totally and completely understand why it is as popular as it is.

Ok, let me back up.  A month or so ago, we went to Quince, and had one of my top meals of the year.  The pastas dishes in particular were standouts.  After that experience, I pretty much immediately wanted to check out Cotogna - same James Beard winning executive chef, same Food & Wine winning pastry chef - but a far more casual restaurant, with pasta as the focus.  I mistakenly assumed that "casual" would mean easier to get reservations for, so I was pretty shocked to see that they were fully booked up (except for ridiculous time slots), for as far as their reservation system went.  So, I tried for a a few days, and was finally able to get a reservation - for a month in the future, for a maximum of three people!  I thought this was ridiculous, but again, after going, I totally understand why!

Walking into Cotogna immediately put me at ease.  It was open and airy, with a huge wall of windows.  It was modern, yet rustic at the same time.  There were lovely aromas permeating the air, including a wondrous smokey scent coming from the huge wood burning fire in the center of the open kitchen.  There was a big pizza oven off to the side, a lot of counter seating overlooking the kitchen, and a bunch of regular tables.  I would have loved to sit overlooking the kitchen, but we were led to a table off on the side.  It was a table that probably was meant for two, but as the place is packed, always, it seems like they are using it for three.  It was a tiny bit small for three people, but it was actually a nice table since it was on the end, and we didn't have other diners on top of us.

Service matched the feel of the restaurant, friendly and comfortable.  Our needs were always met, but it wasn't overly attentive.  Our waitress was really pleasant and informative.  I had asked for a wine recommendation, and when she gave me a taste of the one we had selected and I didn't like it, she happily asked what about it I didn't like, and proceeded to steer me in another direction to pick something else.  She brought me a fresh glass and the new wine without any qualms.  Speaking of the wine, they had a really simple system: all bottles were $40 and all glasses were $10.  So easy!

I've been doing a lot of family style dining, and a lot of places don't handle it very well - they often don't bring out share plates or serving-wear, or if they do, they don't switch them out between courses, resulting in old sauces and whatnot remaining on the plate.  Cotogna did family style perfectly.  Looking around the restaurant, it seemed like most people did family style, so I think they are pretty used to it.  (How could you NOT do family style here, when everything sounds so amazing that you have to try it all!!!)

The food was all good.  It reminded me of my overall feeling after leaving Quince too - there wasn't any dish that seriously wowed me that I'd say you need to go there for, but the quality level and consistency of the execution were very high, leading to a pretty fantastic overall meal.  Plating was really simple and again, matched the restaurant, with a simple, rustic feel.  No fancy embellishments here at all.

The prices were insanely reasonable, particularly for the quality level.  Although we didn't do it, they also offer a daily $24 3 course prix fixe, which seemed like an absolutely incredible value.

So what happens when you add up good food, great charm, and amazingly moderate prices?  You wind up with a gem.  If only it were closer to my house or that you could get in without making reservations so far in advance.  Seriously, I'd be there once a week!
Green garlic sformato with mint and parmigiano reggiano fonduta.  $12.
I finally had my first sformato!  I've seen it on a bunch of menus lately, and I've been really wanting to try it, as I love custard dishes (both sweet and savory).

Just a brief aside on savory custards ...  I'm seriously loving these things lately!  When it was a little colder, they were really satisfying me as a warm comfort food.  Some highlights include the warm egg custard topped with uni at Commonwealth, the uni and crab crème brûlée at Quince, the uni and crab flan at The Fifth Floor, and the chawanmushi from Kiss Seafood.

More recently, they have moved towards cold preparations that just bursting with spring flavors!  At the Taste of the Nation event last week, I had an asparagus panna cotta with lemon crème fraîche from the Village Pub.  Creamy and totally highlighting the delicious flavor in spring asparagus.  Or at a cooking demo the week before, I had an even better version from the chef from Radius, a English pea and green garlic panna cotta, topped with crème fraîche, crispy pancetta, spring peas.  Again, amazing flavor from the spring vegetables, creamy, and then topped with delicious goodies.  I'm loving these things!

I read up on sformato recently, so I was expecting something sorta along these same lines, as I'd heard it described like a panna cotta.  However, this reminded me much more of a quiche or a soufflé than a panna cotta, as it was warm and eggy.  But it had no crust like quiche and wasn't fluffly like a soufflé.  I guess it really is its own thing!

It was definitely interesting to try, but I was disappointed by the flavor, as I didn't taste much, if any, green garlic.  It was mostly just eggy and cheesy, like the base of a quiche or soufflé, without the main ingredient added.  I've seen that Cotogna regularly has a sformato on the menu, but the variety switches out as the seasons change, so I'm very interested in trying one with a stronger flavor, like the ones I saw using leafy greens (spinach, etc) or heartier flavors like mushroom.

The fonduta was absolutely delicious.  Great complex cheesy flavor, good consistency.  When the waitstaff tried to clear away our plate with a little of it left on it, I demanded that it remain until our bread arrived so we could soak it all up.  Seriously tasty.  This would have been great as a fondue or even as a sauce on pasta, far better than most mac and cheese sauces.  I'd order again just for this sauce!

The fried mint leaves were a good compliment as well.

All antipasti are $12.  Totally reasonable price, and again, really easy pricing system!
Focaccia, dipped in oil.
At the bottom of the menu is the "Bread available upon request" line.  From reading reviews, I knew that this would be focaccia, topped with some herbs and spices, and already dipped in olive oil.  Yes, the entire bottom layer was soaked in oil.

Yelpers love this stuff.  "Crack bread"! they call it.  They all talk about how it is a must order!  Sigh, Yelpers.

Not that it was bad, but honestly, it was nothing to write home about.  Moist, spongy focaccia.  Decent seasonings on top.  Pretty flavorful olive oil on the bottom.  But we all agreed that we'd rather just get some focaccia (or even bread) with oil separate, so we could dip it as we wanted.  It was fairly thick, and so often bites would not include the oil, or be just a piece that was ridiculously soggy from oil.  It sorta seemed like it had been sitting in oil for a while, and had thus picked up a sogginess that wasn't all that appealing.  And it was served cold, I'd have preferred some warm bread.  I'd probably skip this in the future, although, it did serve as a conduit for remaining fonduta!
Pizza: ramps, guanciale, farm egg.  $16.
Even though pasta is what we were most excited for, we figured we needed to try out a pizza as well, since they also get pretty good reviews.  This one had no tomato sauce (I have no idea if any of the others do or not, as it wasn't specified one way or another on the menu, but we were a little surprised it didn't have any).  It was covered in cheese, sauteed ramps, little chunks of guanciale, with a single egg perched over on the side.  It was sliced rather awkwardly into a grid of 9 pieces, with some tiny little pieces that were mostly just crust on the corners and then a big piece in the middle with no crust.  I found this a little odd and would have preferred more traditional slicing - who wants the end pieces without much topping or cheese?

The crust was pretty good, nicely charred, with a really pleasant chewiness.  Just enough to really let you sink your teeth into it, but not so much that it was hard to eat.  It was a medium crust, not really thin nor thick.  The ramps were plentiful and flavorful.  The guanciale added a really nice saltiness and the chunks were small, so it added flavor without making it hard to eat.  I know it is funny to focus on the eating experience rather than the taste, but it really was a nice pizza to actually eat.

Flavor-wise however, it was falling kinda flat for me.  I wanted tomato sauce or some garlic or something to make it pop more.  I basically felt like it was well executed, but just incomplete.  The others seemed to agree.  Then we realized we'd all been polite and not taken the piece with the egg on it.  So, we broke open the egg, and spread it around on the next slices.  Wow!  What a difference the egg made.  It added so much richness and creaminess.  And suddenly, I had bites that were like the perfect breakfast - bacon, eggs, cheese, bread, and greens, all in one!  I was quickly dipping my remaining bites into the runny egg that had escaped onto the pizza pan.  One egg wasn't enough though, this pizza would have done much better with two eggs on it, as really one egg was only enough for two, perhaps three, slices and it really was what made the difference.

I probably wouldn't order this pizza again, but I'd try another one, as the execution was good, I just didn't love the ingredients on this one.  All pizzas were $16, a totally reasonable price!
Verrigni gold die spaghetti with sea urchin and lime.  $17.
Along with custards, I also have a thing for uni these days.  I was very excited to see this on the menu when we arrived, as the online menu had removed it a few days ago.

This was a thick spaghetti with two mediocre sized chunks of uni and one tiny chunk of uni.  I was a shocked to see how little uni was in the dish, as I looked over and saw that our neighbors, who received their dish at the same time as us, had huge full chunks of uni on top.  I was debating saying something about this, and our waitress just happened to walk by at that moment to ask how things were.  I couldn't resist saying something.  For $17 I wasn't really expecting much more uni, but compared to them, it really seemed like we were shafted!  She explained that they had actually requested, and paid for, additional uni to be added.  She said it wasn't something they normally did, but Quince had some extra uni, so they were able to do it for them.  I felt kinda silly for saying anything, but she handled it really well.

The presentation was kinda sloppy, showing the major difference from big sister Quince next door.  Just a plate of pasta with the uni kinda thrown on the side.  But honestly, who needs their pasta to look fancy anyway?

The pasta was nicely cooked al dente.  But, there wasn't really anything going on in this dish.  I have no idea what the sauce was, perhaps just a butter sauce?  I couldn't pick up on any particular spicing or anything.  I didn't pick up on lime at all.  There was no real uni flavor.  Even the chunk of uni I had was pretty flavorless.

I wouldn't order this again.  Like all pastas, it was $17.  Good price for the dish size.
Pappardelle with lamb sausage ragu.  $17.  
This was a classic, simple, rustic, plate of pasta.  Again, nothing fancy presentation-wise, just a plate of pasta.  It didn't need to look fancy.

The pasta was again perfectly cooked.  This is what I recall most from Quince too.  Just such amazing execution on the level of doneness of the pasta.  I loved the substantial wide noodles in this, they really gave you the sense that you were eating PASTA.  Mmmm, pasta.  With the perfect amount of chew to it.

The lamb sausage chunks were small but very flavorful.  I'm not a particular fan of lamb, so I was a little worried I wouldn't like this, but instead it really was just delicious sausage.

There were thick flakes of parmesan cheese on top, that complimented the ragu perfectly.

And some fava beans, which weren't really necessary, but did lighten the dish up a little.

I might have perhaps preferred a little more sauce on this dish, or some bigger chunks of sausage, but it was pretty good the way it was.  And again, for $17, a great portion size.  I'd happily eat this again.  And it went so well with a nice glass of red wine.
Tagliolini with dungeness crab & meyer lemon.  $17.
Dish of the evening!  We actually didn't order this originally, as the focaccia, sformato, two pasta dishes, and pizza seemed like more than enough for 3 people.  Plus I wanted dessert.  But one of my dining companions insisted we order another pasta dish.  I'm really glad he did, as this was amazing.

The pasta was cooked a little more than the previous two, slightly over al dente.  I'm not sure if it was intentional or not, I'm guessing not, but I thought it actually worked with this dish.  There was one big chunk of crab and then some shredded crab throughout the pasta.  Not a ton of crab, but the shredded pieces mixed in really well with the pasta.

The amazingness however was in the sauce.  So creamy.  So delicious.  I have no idea what the sauce was, except that it was just downright fantastic.  I was beyond stuffed at this point (focaccia!  pizza!  two other pastas!), but even I couldn't stop going back and having seconds of this.  And I was really planning to skip this and save room for dessert.

Amazing, I'd order again in a heartbeat.  And again, just $17 for a nice big plate of pasta.
Honey panna cotta with mandarine-prosecco granita.  $8.
Like savory custards, I've also been totally obsessed lately with sweet custard based desserts. I've ordered pretty much every crème brûlée, panna cotta, and pudding I encounter.  So clearly, I needed this dessert.

The panna cotta was topped with the mandarine-prosecco granita and a few slices of fresh mandarine.  On the side were some small chunks of shortbread cookies.  Again, nothing like Quince plating-wise, just a simple, well executed, dessert.

The panna cotta had a nice consistency, creamy yet firm at the same time.  I didn't necessarily pick up on the honey, but it had a good sweetness (too sweet of course for my sweet adverse dining companion).  The granita was refreshing and tart, and the non-sweet liker even had a few bites of this and said it was good!  I didn't particularly like having the cold, icy, chunky granita with the creamy panna cotta though.  I liked the whole "creamsicle" idea to it, pairing the citrus and the cream, but I didn't actually enjoy eating it that way, and felt that the texturess and temperatures competed with each other, rather than complimented.

The shortbreads were buttery and pretty good, and I enjoyed dipping one into the panna cotta, the rich butteriness going quite well with it.

I'd get this again, and at $8, this was again an awesome value, much better than similar desserts I've had in the $12 range.
Lemon torta with toasted vanilla meringue, blueberry sauce.  $8.
Yes, we were stuffed full of bread, pizza, and pasta.  We'd already ordered more food than I thought we could possibly stomach.  And only two of the three of us actually like desserts.  But, of course the menu featured the other dessert obsession I've had lately: meringue.  And although I don't really care for lemon desserts either, it didn't really take much convincing for me to give in and order a second dessert when the non-sweet eater suggested it.  If we could find a nice tart dessert that he'd like, that seemed great!

The torta had a thick crust, a lemon layer, and was topped with fluffy vanilla meringues.  There was some blueberry sauce on the side.

The crust was really buttery and delicious.  Tarts often leave a lot to be desired in the shell department, and this was a lot more like a shortbread than a traditional crust.  It was also on the softer side, so it was easy to cut into.

The lemon layer was fairly tart, but I didn't think the lemon flavor was all that pronounced.  I didn't particularly like this layer, but as I said before, I don't tend to really like lemony desserts.

The meringues were insanely sweet, and not particularly vanilla-y.  These were more like toasted marshmallows than meringues really.  Definitely not your classic meringue from lemon meringue pie, but I was happier with this style :) They were super soft, super sweet, and I loved them.  (Although, after eating almost all of them from this dessert, since the others didn't care for them, I did get pretty sick of them).  I didn't think they combined well with the lemon as they were just far too sweet, the contrast between the tart and sweet was actually just too large.

The blueberry sauce complimented the lemon nicely, but in particular, I really liked it with the meringue.

I'd share this dessert with others again, but wouldn't order it for myself.  I'd love to see this crust or meringue appear in another dessert though!  And again, $8 for a good dessert?  Awesome.
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