Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Palio, Leesburg

Woot! Ann's birthday finally coincided with a day off for me and we planned to go out to dinner, not just a casual dinner, but a really nice celebratory dinner. My day off is Monday and that is a terrible night to go out as many restaurants, like mine, are closed on a very slow night. Winchester on a Monday night is slim pickings for a birthday dinner and so we started to look farther afield. We finally decided on Palio in Leesburg because we had not been there and they have a reasonable reputation, a reasonable wine list, and some friends have said that it was good.

Before making the drive over, I had a peek at their wine list on line. Wine is a big deal for us, if you hadn't already guessed that. After looking at the list, I started to get a bit nervous about the choice. There were so many typos in the names of the wines that I wondered if they might show that lack of focus and detail orientation in their food. The meal would tell.

We arrived not too long after they opened on a dark, dreary, cold, drizzling evening looking for warmth and a good meal. The downstairs room in which we were seated was really well decorated and a beautiful space, but it was frigid and I could see when the server approached the table, she was cold too. On her own initiative, she got something done about the temperature without us having to ask, always a plus.

She seemed to be well trained and spoke at least reasonably knowledgeably about the long list of dinner specials, almost as many secondi specials as there were secondi on the menu. Six or seven specials is just too many for most diners to get their arms around.

I didn't see anyone who might have had any familiarity with the wine list and I didn't feel like our server was the one to help me pick the right bottle, something a little off the beaten track. Certainly, anyone can go in and order a Barolo, Brunello, Super Tuscan, or Amarone on price and get a pretty good wine. Me, I'm always looking for something different, that obscure bottle that somebody fell in love with enough to give it a (long) shot on the list. I never got the feeling from looking at the bare bones wine list (no descriptions at all) that anybody fell in love with anything. It just seemed to be an impersonal list of wines. And the markups were pretty aggressive. Several of the wines are also on my list, so I know what they paid for them. I'm not knocking the markups, but if you're going to do it, the money ought in part to be going to pay for someone to manage the list, correct the typos, and be available to assist customers in choosing a wine. And it ought to go to purchasing good stemware, more about which later.

I chose a Rosso Piceno from the Santa Barbara winery (in the Marche), the "Maschio da Monte" from 2007. I had no way of knowing from the wine list that this wine was awarded Tre Bicchieri by Gambero Rosso magazine, their highest award. I tend to trust this magazine a lot more than most American wine rags. I was expecting more Sangiovese and less Montepulciano but this bottling was deep purple and 100% Montepulciano. I didn't realize that DOC Rosso Piceno could be all Montepulciano. I liked the funky nose followed by a very intensely plummy wine with some acidity and pleasant tannins. I made a great choice!

While I was plowing through the wine list, we had a glass of so-so house-pour Prosecco which Ann noted right off is not the quality of what we are used to drinking. In all fairness, it was only $8 a glass and wasn't offensive. What was offensive was drinking our Rosso from clunkers of glasses, quoting Ann, "I feel like I'm drinking out of a tankard." Details matter and if you're charging top dollar for your wine and I'm drinking a good bottle, I want a good glass. It doesn't have to be expensive, just good. Good glasses start at $3.50 each wholesale. Show me a restaurant that cannot make the $100 investment in a case of good glasses. It says to me that details don't matter.

Starving, Ann ordered two antipasti while I was deciding between the Rosso Piceno and a Langhe Rosso. She ordered a bowl of mussels (with a couple of clams) and speck-wrapped scallops on parsnip purée. Underwhelming is pretty much the word on the appetizers. The mussels, styled Cozze e Vongole alla Napolitana, were tiny and the broth was OK but nothing memorable. Tiny mussels are not the restaurant's fault, but serving them is. I'm having problems right now with mussel quality at my own restaurant. My choice is not to serve them. Palio chose differently.

On the other hand, the scallops were memorable for being pretty much terrible; we ate one of them and let the busser take the other away. The whole scallop dish was a wreck. The parsnip purée was so gritty and crudely executed as to be off-putting. The scallops were way overdone and my sense is that they were cooked before service and held hot. The garnish was a lemon slice and a sprinkling of paprika. Really? Thank you for bringing back terrible memories from the '60s of frozen fish cutlets topped with lemon slices and paprika. Barf! How about some micro-mustard greens for a sharp contrast? Or a couple of sautéed chanterelles for an earthy contrast to the sweet parsnips and sweet scallops?

Let's talk about details. A runner brought us bread long after our antipasti were on the table. I'm OK with the timing miscue; I don't expect the A-Team to be working on Monday night. But the bread was cold. That's not what I expect of a top-level restaurant. And the grissini were tough as though they were overworked. Not sure if the grissini were made in house or bought in; in either case, the quality isn't there. It's the details such as this that separate the good from the great.

After the antipasti debacle, we tried a couple of pasta primi, mainly because the secondi just did not sound worth ordering. I couldn't feel any creativity in the standard secondi at all and hearing the server's spiel of four different secondi specials served with roasted potatoes didn't speak to me of a creative kitchen. Ann wanted to try the lobster ravioli special, but I resisted and she relented without me having to say out loud that after the kitchen butchered the two seafood antipasti, I wasn't going to tempt fate yet again.

We ordered tagliatelle and cavatelli and I have got to say that our pasta was really well made and well cooked. Bravo! I especially loved the cavatelli, a labor-intensive cut that is not to be found on very many menus. The Cavatelli alla Pugliese was listed on the menu as ricotta cavatelli, lightly spicy lamb sausage, rapini, and shaved Parmesan cheese. While the pasta itself was remarkably good, I wasn't expecting a mild red meat sauce and given the ingredient list, I was expecting more excitement from this sauce. It was good and workmanlike and I enjoyed it, but I wasn't thrilled by it.

The Bolognese sauce on the tagliatelle caused me pause though: it was just a glorified ground meat and tomato sauce that any red sauce Italian joint could have done. As Ann said a bit dispiritedly, "It isn't your pork ragù." Bolognese sauce is one of the great culinary contributions of northern Italy: shredded meat with a touch of cream cooked so long that the sauce caramelizes and becomes something so much larger than the sum of its ingredients. There was nothing wrong with the sauce really; it was tasty, but my objection is to calling it a Bolognese. My expectations were set by the name and those expectations were not met.

The pasta portions were very large, much more generous than I expected and slightly oversauced to my taste. I would have preferred a smaller portion with less sauce as a primo to leave me room for another primo or a secondo or even dessert.

Without any heart for dessert, we decided to pack it in and head home for a nightcap.

I so want to love this beautiful place and the deft touch on the pasta gives me hope. But the devil is in the details and the details are currently tripping up this restaurant. Lest you think we spent our whole evening nit-picking the restaurant, we did not. We had a wonderful time celebrating Ann's birthday, enjoying an adult evening out, and spent the majority of our time talking about our Christmas menu when we are going to do the Seven Fishes.

Pros: beautiful place, professional and unobtrusive service, excellent hand-made pasta.

Cons: lack of focus on details, horrid stemware, middle of the road food.

Note: I am being much harder on Palio than I might be on other restaurants that we have visited. If they want to play at a price point that is higher than that of my restaurant, they have to play by the tough standards that I hold for my own restaurant.

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