Monday, September 20, 2010

Il Matto Review

Il Matto, a fairly new restaurant in Tribeca, by all appearances could be the domain of a madman, which is one way to translate its name. You get this psychedelic feeling from any number of characteristics: the tracks of multicolored lights on the ceiling; the colorful teacup-shaped booths anchoring the corners of the restaurant; backward letters and rough sketches on the menu; the grenade salt and pepper shakers; terrariums serving as candle holders; or vinyl tablecloths. Not to mention some unfamiliar concoctions among the food and drinks.

But it adds up to more than just a schtick. There are things here to make mouths happy. Start with the crazy playground that is the cocktail list. It unites ingredients that will make you wonder how that could possibly taste good; several of them introduce alcohol to some savory components. We tried the Smilla (vodka, lemon juice, sugar, peach puree, celery, white pepper), the Rosso Tiziano (rum, lemon juice, sugar, raspberry and cherry tomato), and La Signoria (gin, lemon juice, sugar, lettuce, strawberry, balsamic  reduction). Who knew that peach and celery are, in fact, quite complementary, mellow flavors that embrace each other.

Though you may tread carefully, there is much to get excited about. For instance, the baby artichoke croquettes served with saffron sauce, burrata cheese and summer truffles. The crispy bites with a mound of creamy cheese and slivers of earthy mushroom have strong persuasive powers.

The meal seemed to settle down a bit with the main courses that we got. A saffron pappardelle with osso bucco ragout and bone marrow sabayon was a lovely pasta dish. A hearty serving of wide noodles intertwined with tenderly stewed meat were couched in a deep, sweeping bowl. 

The pork fillet came with a parmigiano fondue and a roasted peach and spinach salad. It was quite a simple dish, perhaps a respite from the madness. The pork was succulent and satisfying.

Dessert was a choice among traditional (tiramisu) or a step into the unknown, which was the route we chose. I was extremely wary of the millefoglie, which featured steamed eggplant. We compromised and chose a second dessert as a backup plan in case this didn't work. The backup wasn't necessary, but turned out to be a wonderful choice in its own right. The plate of sliced eggplant alternating with white chocolate mousse, surrounded by Sicilian nougat and covered with almond milk foam was a delightful surprise. The vegetable was recognizable only in its texture; the sweetness in the dish played well against it. And though the portion at first sight looked small, it turns out, this was just the right amount to impress.

The raspberry and blackberry creme brulee was covered with caramelized pecans. The smooth custard was encased in a light sugary crust, but none of it too sweet. The dish was accompanied by a vodka, ricotta cheese, mixed berry shot with a rim of honey and black sesame seeds. Separate parts might seem to complicate, but here, it just made us go "wow". It's amazing.

If the dining room and the food and cocktails aren't enough to boggle your mind, venture down into the bathrooms, which my dining companion referred to as a "f*^@#%! funhouse". The mirrors reinforce that quality. 

The service, though, is entirely normal and, thankfully, friendly and perfect. All together, somehow, it balances out for a great and fun meal, like magic.

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