Monday, November 19, 2007

TEMPO - A Park Slope All Star

In late 2004, residents of Park Slope were disappointed to hear that their posh neighborhood restaurant spot, and 5th Avenue renaissance original, Cucina, was to close down. A few months later, to much excitement, owner Michael Fiore threw open the doors of the space Cucina once inhabited and introduced his new restaurant to the district. The new incarnation, Tempo, offers relaxed, neutral-toned candle-lit spaces, consisting of a splendid dark wood bar and two dining rooms. The décor says down-to-earth, and this approach is realized in the food too. Fiore and partners Robert Amato and Michael Elliott learned their trade in the Batali/Bastianich fold in various restaurants in Manhattan, so it should come as no surprise that the food is essentially rustic Italian. But Tempo’s food has some extra inspiration from other Mediterranean shores, borrowing flavors from Morocco, Spain and Greece.

After spending a few minutes at their well stocked bar, my dining companions arrived and we were seated promptly. Being seated promptly is an especially good thing as, if you’re like me, you’ll look at the menu, mutter “Wow!” and want to order it all. Or, at least you’ll have trouble discerning which dishes you want most from a multitude of mouthwatering options and this will of course take some time. Thankfully, our waiter took matters into his own hands and said he might persuade Chef to knock up a tasting menu of four starters, four main dishes, and if we have room, an assiette of desserts. He’d even pair up the dishes with wines from their impressive and well priced cellar. We’d have been mad not to take him up on that.

An erect duck pastilla (duck confit wrapped in crisp bric pastry) was matched brilliantly with some Moroccan-spiced barbecue glaze and cinnamon sugar, and I was surprised how well the sugar worked with the cumin in the glaze. A Tuscan farro salad with caciocavallo was deliciously light, and the accompanying cucumber, parsley and olives hit bright summery notes, whereas a dense polenta dish, rich with parmesan and creamy assiago and studded with meaty wild mushrooms demonstrated that the kitchen can master the sort of appetizer you need on a cold November night too. The next assault began with a luxurious pappardelle smothered in wild boar ragu, mint and pecorino, followed by a sublime primo of garganelli with pumpkin, prosciutto and toasted Amaretti breadcrumbs. I secretly wanted a wheelbarrow full of that garganelli, to take home and hoard. We were presented with a rich Riesling to accompany our starters, and a pleasingly dry Orvieto Classico, a solid Trebbiano blend from the beautiful rolling Umbrian countryside.

Into our entrees, a whole sea bream was shown to the table, and was then whisked away for a deft filleting. It was served with bright sauce of cherry tomatoes, white wine and Meyer lemon oil. We tried a lusciously moist pink lozenge of salmon and a moist, perfectly seasoned organic chicken, which came as leg and breast embellished with a delicious jus made with preserved lemons, ginger, saffron and coriander leaves. The accompanying chick pea fries were executed perfectly, with a crisp jacket and fluffy interior. The final entrée presented was an exuberant dish of braised short ribs, truffled taro root mash and taro root chips The meat literally dissolved on contact with the tongue, and then washed over it with a soft beefiness, its flavor spiked with musky truffle and lubricated with that rich mash, loaded with butter. Our food was paired up nicely with a delicious pinot noir and a magnificent ‘Shardana’, a 2000 red from Sardinia, which stood up to the beef without overpowering it.

Did we have room for desserts after that? Well, honestly not really, but our waiter did a great job of persuading us otherwise and whisked out a selection of homemade gelati, a decadent Valrhona chocolate tart moistened with coffee ice cream and, the best dessert of all, a toffee and date pudding with caramel sauce. I expected the date pudding to be leaden, but a massive spoonful proved it was light and airy and packed with date flavor. We missed out on the hot cinnamon apple beignets, but that’s a great excuse for me to go back very soon. Our meal completed with a final flourish - a glass of lightly sparkling Piemonte Moscato.

The service was very efficient and seamless, with each course seemingly melting into the next one. If you’re lucky enough to have the energetic Jay wait your table, as we were that night, you’re in for a treat. Not only is he damn good at what he does, he possesses a wealth of information about ingredients, cooking techniques and wines, and we delighted in picking his brains.

Tempo has everything spot on - the food, the prices, the ambiance, the service. The chaps in the kitchen clearly have a love of ingredients and food that’s not easy to find. It’s very evident in whatever they cook. It’s these factors that make Tempo a 5th Ave favorite and landmark. I imagine one could eat there a couple of times a week and never get fed up. In fact, I think I’ll put that to the test.

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