Accustomed to casual dining the likes of Chaco Canyon and Araya's--indispensable, beloved eateries in their own right--we vegetarians sometimes crave an elevated dining experience: not just a well-prepared meal, but one that's delivered in a refined atmosphere, by an attentive staff, offset by an exceptional wine list. Times like these certainly don't mean suspending one's values for the sake of a fancy dinner, but vegetarians--or at least this vegetarian--sometimes visit meat-heavy restaurants to escape bad lighting, dig into a lengthy wine list, and fraternize with omnivorous friends.
The staff, while sometimes aloof, are well-trained and articulate, and when I arrived with a group of friends on a recent Sunday night, this was true of our server who was additionally quite cheery. A few hiccups in the sequence of service, though--mainly the contorni (sides) arriving after we had nearly finished our meal, a minor annoyance but one we were charged full price for--and some undersized portions had the table second-guessing my restaurant pick.
Hopefully the spirit of Beet Street will override the journalistic creed to "trust, but verify" as I took some of my companions at their word when describing their meat-based dishes. According to a friend (a credible source and the private chef for this guy), the prosciutto antipasti, priced at $21, was "idiot proof." But the large size of the primi he ordered to share with his wife--roasted cauliflower and anchovy ravioli--was a paltry three piece portion, which they liked, but found overpriced at $16, and the sparse presentation had me sending the pair vibes of sympathy.
The selections I shared with the rest of the table, on the other hand, stood up solidly enough. We split a few beet salads, a rustic preparation of red beets dotted with a subtle meyer lemon ricotta. I passed around the tajarin, which everyone agreed was amazing, and the winter greens and walnut ravioli ($23) was quite hearty if a bit bland. But since we were stopping at the pasta course, the delivery of our contorni was crucial--for a vegetarian, a meal of pasta without greenery is a major offense (and one that invites the dreaded "pasta-tarian" reference).
When the sides finally arrived--with profuse apologies, our waiter said he forgot to order them--the braised beet greens were simple and tender, and the pine nut sprinkled brussel sprouts were sublime, but the roasted cauliflower was sauced with a buttery bagna cauda (anchovy glaze). I'm not the kind of vegetarian to balk if a bit of briny fish seeps into my food, but with anchovy liberally listed elsewhere on the menu, I assumed the cauliflower dish would be free of the ingredient.
And so, by the end of the meal, we were full, but not satisfied. Sure, communication works both ways. Maybe if I had mentioned there were some vegetarians present, the kitchen would have modified a few dishes for us--maybe even made us something special. Maybe if I took issue with the contorni debacle, I would have resolved an important concern. Maybe if I sent back the cauliflower, etc, etc, etc.
But who has the time to strike up that conversation when there's barely time, these days, to keep one going with friends? When diners go out for a nice meal, they expect something special--and they should. Even if those expectations are vague and half-formed, a $23 pasta dinner calls for it, and the experience should be one that anticipates a guest's needs with hospitality and graciousness, especially for high-minded houses like Spinasse that will charge your credit card if you cancel your reservation short of 48 hours, and tacks on the steepest automatic gratuity--20%--in the business.
In the end, the wine was good, our service was acceptable, the food was OK, and the prices were steep. It was an experience for sure, but not an elevated one.