Padma Lakshmi

Andrea Strong takes you inside Restaurant Wars.

on Aug 15, 2007

Other than the vanilla madness, I was also not very impressed with the choice of black as a tablecloth color. It's not really warm or inviting to dine on something that resembles Dracula's cape. In fact, it was unpleasant and a very unflattering shade for the room.

But restaurants are not judged by design alone (though good design can't hurt), and so I was interested to see if these kids could cook, even though I wouldn't trust them to decorate a high school locker. My first impression was very positive; their bread service was great. They offered a few slices of fresh French baguette with a housemade hummus, each dollop piped onto a bread plate and drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with lemon zest. It was delicious and also showed great attention to detail. Nicely done.

I also loved the first course -- a tuna tartar that I imagine was a riff on a pan bagnat, the sandwich of egg, tuna, olives, and anchovies on French bread. They presented a glossy mound of diced ruby red tuna with an egg vinaigrette, an olive tapenade, and blanched white asparagus cut on the bias, with a few lightly crisped homemade crackers. I liked the interplay of flavors and textures and thought the transformation of the hard-boiled egg into an egg vinaigrette was very clever. Again, I was impressed. The room seemed to open up and somehow grow prettier.

The next course, a Parmesan risotto with wild mushrooms accompanied by a truffle and foie grad nage (a sort of sauce) didn't fare as well. While the risotto was well-seasoned, it wasn't as much risotto as it was mac 'n cheese with rice standing in for elbow macaroni, and Parmesan making an appearance for cheddar. This dish was sticky and almost gummy, not delicate or elegant or slightly brothy as proper risotto should be.

But things really fell apart with the next course. While it read well--braised lamb shank with sunchoke puree, vegetables and natural jus--it was quite another matter to eat it. This lamb shank was more a lamb baseball bat, and could have been used for a base hit it was so tough. I could barely get my knife through it. Perhaps a power saw? A cleaver? And in terms of vegetables, I counted one onion and a few diced zucchini, which to me make the case for leaving them out completely rather than be so skimpy.