Sometimes you get so caught up in going to the newest, hippest, most happening restaurants in town — What’s got great buzz? What’s been reviewed recently? What’s the newest trend? — that you forget that there are plenty of restaurants that have been around for a while. It takes a visit to a real veteran restaurant to make you realize what it takes to run a successful restaurant in New York City. At a recent dinner at Po (after a few drinks at Vol de Nuit) with my friends Jeff & Eva, we had just such a revelation.
Po shot to fame way back in 1993 with Mario Batali as one of the founders. Although Batali no longer has anything to do with Po, the restaurant has continued to thrive — and it’s not hard to understand why. At first glance I was surprised at just how small the restaurant was, but they use the space amazingly well. The room is simply painted white, with mirrors on the walls to help add the illusion of space. And although the tables are packed in together, they don’t feel cramped. We never once felt like we were too close to our neighbors, or had to shout to be heard. The use of space alone is a remarkable achievement, and something that often takes restaurants a long time to get right. Even the lighting was just right. The service was quick and efficient without being overbearing.
And then there’s the food. I started with a salad of roasted beets and sliced baby artichokes, topped with a teleggio cheese covered crostino ($11). Although the flavors were good, something felt a little flat about the dish. That being said I loved the combination of salty and sweet, and it paired very well with the Valpolicella wine selected by Eva. She had the goat cheese tartufo to start — a ball of goat cheese rolled in herbs, paired with radicchio and roasted peppers ($10). This was good, but a little too rich. The best of our appetizers was Jeff’s roasted winter squash salad, smothered with fontina cheese ($12). Again the combination of salty and sweet played a role, here elevated to something ethereal by the mix of textures.
We all selected pastas for our main courses, and my white bean ravioli ($15) was amazing. The dense and creamy interior was a nice treat, and the brown butter and balsamic sauce was intriguing. I’m used to the acidity of wine cutting through the richness of a dish, but here the wine actually provided the richness, diluting the acidity of the sauce.
We also got a dish of fregula with pumpkin ($8) for the table. If you’ve never had fregula before (I had it at Babbo once) it’s a pasta similar to Israeli couscous, round little chewy spheres.
We probably could have called it a day right then and there, but we were having a good time and a great meal and it seemed wrong not to get dessert. Jeff and Eva shared an apple tart, but I had to get the panna cotta, paired with cranberries ($7). This was one of the best panna cottas I’ve ever eaten, and the rich creaminess went well with the tart cranberry jam.
As I mentioned above, it was nice being reminded that there is a reason that restaurants in NYC last as long as they do. It’s not just the food, although that is necessarily a big part of it. There are numerous other factors: the service, the decor, and that ever elusive “buzz” that keeps restaurants going. Po has all of that going for it; here’s hoping they’ll be around for a long time.
Chef: Lee McGrath Sous: Yair Pulido
Roasted Beets, sliced baby artichokes, watercress & taleggio crostino (11)
Goat Cheese & Black Olive Tartufo, endive & radicchio (10)
Roasted Winter Squash, toasted almonds & fontina fonduto (12)
White Bean Ravioli, balsamic brown butter sauce (15)
Spinach Tagliatelle, ragu bolognese (17)
Pappardelle, duck confit ragu (17)
Fregula, pumpkin & scallions (8)
Panna Cotta, with cranberries (7)
Valpolicella classico superiore solane (35)