Mario Batali’s Lupa, a “Roman-style osteria,” focuses on traditional Italian dishes (both primi, pasta dishes, and secondi, proteins), done with top-quality ingredients and many elements produced in-house. In Italy, you’d typically have a primo and a secondo at a high-end restaurant, but the portions at Lupa were too large for us to order that way, so we each went with a starter, a primo, and dessert.
Everything I had was strong, but there were minor execution issues with both the appetizer and the dessert that didn’t match the memorable primo. That pasta dish was a special that night, house-made pappardelle with a soffrito-based duck ragout, meaning it had no tomatoes in it. The ragout was hearty and rich but not heavy and was correctly seasoned, while the pappardelle were cooked perfectly al dente, of course. The starter, a salad of arugula, radish, fennel, and radicchio, comprised top-quality vegetables but was slightly overdressed – not enough to have it pooling on the bottom of the dish, but enough that the vinegar overpowered the peppery/spicy produce underneath it, which was slightly disappointing. For dessert, the zuppa inglese – an Italian spin on an English trifle, with the sponge cake soaked in espresso – was marred by a crunchy powder on top that was too hard to chew; I’m assuming the powder was there for texture contrast with the soft trifle (custard and soft sponge cake) but ended up detracting from the dish as a whole. My wife’s fresh mozzarella di bufala appetizer came with a strongly-flavored herb/olive oil mixture, with the fresh oregano taking over the dish a little, a combination I really liked but she didn’t. Her main course was asparagus agnolotti in a light butter sauce, tasting, as it should, strongly of fresh asparagus (in the agnolotti and shaved over the top). Her favorite dish of the night was the hazelnut tartufo, which I didn’t try.
I’m nitpicking here because of where I was – these are minor execution issues, not problems with concepts or ingredients. But I expected a 70, and paid like the restaurant was a 70, but what I got was more 60 or strong 55, recommended, but not a place I’m racing to visit again.
At Citi Field on Saturday night I had my first experience with the cult favorite burger joint Shake Shack; locations in stadiums, like airports, aren’t always the best way to judge a food outlet, so this may be low, but I’d grade the meal as a 60 shake, a 55 burger, and 50 fries. The caramel shake lived up to the name, smooth and strongly flavored (although it’s weird to have any caramel ice cream product without salt), with perfect mouthfeel – no iciness, no graininess. Shake Shack’s burgers are made from a proprietary blend of beef, which their site says is antibiotic-free Angus beef, “vegetarian fed, humanely raised and source verified,” and the burger does taste very strongly of good quality beef – salty, and a little greasy from the grill (albeit in a good way, not like Smashburger’s). As fast food burgers go, it’s better than In-n-Out’s, but In-n-Out destroys Shake Shack in the fries department, as this Shake Shack’s weren’t freshly cut (I don’t know about regular locations) and I could very easily have skipped them. They also have, or at least say they have, a strong commitment to sustainability and limiting their footprint, which doesn’t make the food taste any better but is always nice to hear. If their regular locations are better than the stadium stand – their menus are more extensive, and the food is probably even fresher – I couldn’t see choosing In-n-Out or Five Guys over this.
‘wichcraft, Tom Colicchio’s mini-chain of high-end sandwich shops mostly around New York City, is a small marvel – charging marginally more than national sandwich stores like Panera that peddle massively inferior food. I’m not sure how widely you can expand this concept, but it’s great that it even exists and shows that it is possible to run a business with responsibly-sourced, high-quality ingredients, like pole-caught tuna or organic arugula, made on some of the best bread you will ever find at a sandwich place. My only criticism of that tuna sandwich, made with shaved fennel, diced green olives, and a very light touch of fresh mayonnaise, was that it was hard to keep the sandwich together, but the flavors worked well together. It’s a $9 sandwich, but a far better value than a $6, mayo-drenched tuna salad at a national chain.
On my last trip to Georgia, I did manage to run over to Flip Burger, Richard Blais’ high-end burger “boutique” that now has two locations in Atlanta and one in Birmingham, and features several different types of burgers as well as milkshakes made with liquid nitrogen, which sounds cool but does have the benefit of producing a smoother finished product. The shake was an even bigger star than the burger, just like at Shake Shack but better on both counts – I couldn’t pull the trigger on the foie gras milkshake, and the Krispy Kreme one just sounded too sweet, so I went for the caramel turtle shake, which was surprisingly balanced, sweet but also salty and even a little savory. For the burger, I went with the rbq, a 5.5-ounce patty of hanger steak, brisket, and short rib, topped with pulled smoked brisket, coleslaw, barbeque sauce, and “smoked” mayo; it was something of an umami explosion, rich and very meaty – if you like the flavor of really high-quality beef, this is your burger. I wouldn’t have deleted a thing. The fries are cooked in beef tallow, which I respect tremendously, but this batch was too greasy for me to enjoy, probably a sign that the fat wasn’t hot enough. Needless to say, I was still full about six hours later. Flip does offer non-beef options, including a “fauxlafel” burger, as well as salads and a full bar.