February 16, 2007

Restaurant Week Wrap-Up: A Smack-down, Of Sorts

Restaurant Week is not a normal Center City dining experience. Twice a year it turns the local restaurant scene into a carnival-like atmosphere. As I’ve noted before, not all restaurants do the same act during the two Restaurant Weeks that they do the other 50 weeks of the year. Yet, much like the provocative posters for the Bearded Lady or the Dog-Faced Boy, the lure of a three-course meal at a posh restaurant for a mere $30 is hard to resist. And, indeed, the seats fill up quickly as diners scramble early for reservations. But as with all carnivals, soon after you emerge from the tent you often find yourself deliberating whether the show lived up to the hype. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.

Bistro Romano

Inspired by the likes of Barnum and his modern-day equivalents, I decided to take a different approach to Restaurant Week this time around. Instead of evaluating the restaurants in a vacuum, I though it would be fun to compare my experiences at two restaurants to see which one performed better under these carnival conditions—a sort of Restaurant Week smack-down, if you will.

Bruschetta - Creamy Dill; Basil and Tomato; and Artichoke, Onion, Garlic Minestrone

First up was Bistro Romano. One of the draws of this romantic, Italian eatery in Society Hill certainly has to be its dedication to filling your belly. For example, instead of serving the standard three courses during Restaurant Week, Bistro Romano served four—the first being three delicious and remarkably fresh Bruschetta. The hearty Minestrone, too, was large enough to be an entrée.

Veal Saltimbocca

Bistro Romano also emphasizes home-cooked style of preparation. Many restaurants in Center City masterfully execute a version of the home-style theme (e.g., Radicchio). However, Bistro Romano’s translation was not quite up to snuff. The Minestrone was uninteresting. The Veal Saltimbocca spent too much time in the broiler; the prosciutto appeared to have bonded with the veal on a molecular level, giving the dish a tough, jerky-like texture.

Tilapia and Shrimp in White Wine Sauce

Similarly, the white wine sauce accompanying the Tilapia with Shrimp tasted like it was thickened with flour or cornstarch, making it heavy and reminiscent of gravy (a simple reduction or beur blanc would have been welcomed). All of this may be nostalgic of how mom used to make it; however, a restaurant should deliver a little more refinement, even if it is taking a home-cooked approach.

Chocolate Torte with Raspberry Sauce White Chocolate Mousse

For dessert, we picked the Chocolate Torte with Raspberry Sauce and the White Chocolate Mousse. The torte was uncharacteristically sweet and the chocolate was less intense than the torte’s color and density would suggest. The mousse, though, was nicely balanced—not too rich or overly sweet.


The second restaurant was Mandoline, a contemporary cash-only BYO in Old City. It was refreshing to see that Mandoline’s Restaurant Week Menu appeared to be identical to their Winter Menu, which includes tempting starters such as Lobster Truffle Macaroni and Cheese and the Goat Cheese Pistachio Cake.

Venison Ragout with Papperdelle Pasta and Grana Padono

I opted to start with the Venison Ragout with Pappardelle Pasta and Grana Padano. The pappardelle was well-prepared and all of the all of its flavors were complementary. However, the ground venison was more subdued than expected. Although this makes the racy-sounding dish more accessible, it may be a little disappointing to those who are looking for the wild and gamey flavors often associated with venison. It may be a little too tame, in fact, to justify using something as exotic as venison.

Five-Spiced Smoked Duck Breast, Citrus Sweet Potato Mash and Sweet Soy

Mandoline’s Five-Spiced Smoked Duck Breast, Citrus Sweet Potato Mash and Sweet Soy packs an array of well-chosen flavors. The smoke and glaze used to prepare the medium-rare duck impart sweet notes of apples and molasses, and the citrus enlivens the wonderfully sweet and earthy mash. Some pieces of the duck, though, were tougher than they should have been and were difficult to carve with the standard butter knife they provided.

Chocolate Hazelnut Gelato Olive Oil Gelato

Mandoline does not prepare desserts of their own, but they do offer gelati from Capogiro. The Chocolate Hazelnut Gelato is a guaranteed winning flavor combination (one of my personal favorites), and the hard-to-resist Olive Oil Gelato delivers the delicate essence of this cooking staple while maintaining a rich, creamy and satisfying texture.

So, who won the smack-down? This dubious honor goes to Mandoline. Both restaurants had a few issues—Bistro Romano presented overcooked veal and seemingly starch-laden sauces; Mandoline’s duck was a little tough and its ragout, while well-prepared, was somewhat different than expected. But at the end of the day, the issues with Bistro Romano’s performance were more systemic and appeared to stem from their literal interpretation and execution of the home-cooked concept throughout. Plus, as I’ve emphasized before, flavor counts, and the flavors of Mandoline’s dishes were more impressive than Bistro Romano’s.

Thanks to those who posted their recent Restaurant Week experiences here in the comments section of my prior post. Do check them out. Also, thanks to the Center City District / Central Philadelphia Development Corp. for organizing Restaurant Week. The next installment will take place September 23-28, 2007.

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