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April 13, 2008

Cinghiale

Dominic Armato
Having a little fella has its upsides and downsides. Upside? 24 hour cute machine. Downside? Nine months into our stint in Baltimore, my ladylove and I haven't had a single chance to check out any of the city's finer dining establishments. So with grandma and grandpa visiting for the weekend and looking for some quality grandkid time, we jumped at the chance to grab some upscale Italian at a place I've been eyeing since walking by back in September. Not that I can claim it as a discovery, exactly. With the reputations of co-owners Tony Foreman and Cindy Wolf, Cinghiale was arguably the city's highest-profile opening of the past year. And the fact that the Harbor East location thumbs its passive-aggressive nose at Baltimore's Little Italy, just three blocks north, means that it's exempt from my self-imposed moratorium on writing about my neighbors' restaurants. Bottom line, easy decision for a rare opportunity.

Dominic Armato
Cinghiale is an ambitious little operation, mostly because there's nothing little about it. It's a cavernous, bustling space done in green and blue tile and dark woods, and it's divided into two sections -- the enoteca and the osteria. And while there's a great deal of crossover, they're entirely separate menus. The enoteca is a little more casual, with an extensive menu focusing on salumi, antipasti, cheeses, tramezzini and other small fare, while the osteria is more upscale and focuses on the standard antipasto / primo / secondo format. Though you can order a la carte, the menu is designed around a three course fixed price format for $49. Reading around the web, portion size seems to be a common complaint here, and unfortunately I think that's a risk you take when you stick to the many-courses-smaller-portions Italian tradition rather than Ameri-sizing everything for people who expect to order a plate of pasta and be stuffed. Not that there's anything wrong with carbo loading, but the place for that is three blocks to the north. Don't misunderstand, this isn't value dining by any stretch of the imagination. But when the prices climb, I look for tastier food, not more of it. Thankfully, Cinghiale satisfied almost across the board.

Dominic Armato
For her antipasto, my ladylove thumbed her nose at our beloved Chicago (not to mention the crowd of dedicated folks who gathered in our neighborhood last month, laboring under the puzzling assumption that the magical formula to evoke sympathy for their cause is self-righteousness times volume), and treated herself to some long overdue foie gras. This particular preparation was seared and served with a sweet walnut pesto, poached apple, thin apple crisp, a salty and intense reduction of some nature and some fried sage. I only had a taste, but this was a concentrated flavor bomb, sweet, salty, nutty and rich. Not a thing about it was subtle, and she inhaled it -- perhaps fearing I might insist on another bite (I very nearly did). I went a little more low-key with my starter. Figuring that spring mushrooms should be in full swing and wanting to see how they'd handle a basic antipasto, I chose the caramelized forest mushrooms with preserved truffle, "crostini" and thyme. I'm not sure that caramelization is the right word for what's going on here, but the chaotic mushroom mélange was beautifully textured, with large, tender, moist chunks interspersed with tiny frills and fronds that had been skillfully crisped, making for a great contrast. When you have a simple high-quality ingredient, don't screw them up is the rule, and they didn't. The mushrooms were set atop a lemony, herbed sauce that I'd have been more careful about identifying if I wasn't enjoying the dish as much as I was, and they were accompanied by a couple slices of very heavily salted and toasted ciabatta. I thought the salting of the bread was a particularly smart touch, getting the salt into the dish without adding it to the mushrooms where it would draw out the moisture and ruin their texture. It was a subtle little touch that shows they're thinking.

Dominic Armato
My ladylove once again made a great selection for her primo, choosing the risotto with pears, grappa and parmigiano. Pears and parmigiano are a natural combination, and I've seen (though not tasted) them in risotto before, but the grappa was an interesting touch. Once again, my miniscule taste was just enough to tease. It may have been my favorite of the evening. Which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy my pasta quite a bit. I went with the rabbit confit tortellini with preserved Umbrian truffle. They were beautifully formed from perfect fresh pasta, with all the little curls and nubs of a lovingly handmade product, and the filling inside actually kept the focus on the rabbit -- a rarity for a meat that is frequently treated as a blank slate. They were dressed simply with some heavily salted high-quality butter and the aforementioned truffle, which would be my only complaint, though it's a minor one. They didn't provide the level of earthy oomph that could have put the dish over the top. I realize this isn't exactly the best time of year for it, but this dish cried out for fresh truffles. Still, a lovely pasta.

Dominic Armato
My ladylove once again outpicked me on the secondi, but that was as much a function of my dish as it was of hers. She chose the pan-roasted duck breast with crema fritta, rhubarb compote and red wine sauce. There was no shortage of sweet in this meal, which often makes me suspicious (buying culinary love with sugar can be a shortcut), but I could find no room to complain. Crema fritta is another item I'd heard about but never tried, and I found it rather fascinating. Sweetened cream and eggs are lightly bound with flour and breadcrumbs and pan fried. The result is almost like a sweet cream sauce of exceptional intensity and a lack of plate gloopiness. Another great dish. And again, where I chose fairly subtle and restrained, my ladylove picked the flavor bomb. Both have their merits of course, but in this case, she won.

Dominic Armato
My secondo was, sadly, the lone disappointment of the evening, and not in a small way. I chose the spit roasted lamb with spring vegetables and smoked garlic sauce. It's the kind of dish I usually avoid because I'm too often disappointed, and I was quickly reminded why. The accompaniments were exceedingly basic -- some cipollini, baby carrots and roasted fennel tossed together with a garlicky jus that was actually a rather nice complement to lamb. And I'm a staunch supporter of basic meats and vegetables, but the meat needs to be REALLY GOOD, and it just wasn't at all. For starters, the chef and I both, according to my server, prefer medium rare, but what I received was quite rare, bordering on cold. I could have looked past this, however, if it had been a beautiful piece of spit-roasted meat. When I think of the spit roasted meats I've had in Northern Italy, I think of meat that's continually basted in its own juices and fat (which is the whole point of spit roasting, after all), and that has developed a crispy, glistening fire-kissed crust that protects the moist, succulent meat within. At the risk of being unkind, it was barely seasoned, tough, as lean as lean can be and seemed more like it had been unceremoniously tossed in the oven for a while and less like it had been gently rotating over a fire and building flavor. The fire was completely absent in the meat, and the result was totally unsatisfying. If I'd been observant, I suppose the smoked garlic sauce might've warned me away. A smoked sauce would be totally redundant when paired with a piece of meat that's absorbed the essence of fire. But still, my secondo, disappointing as it was, was the grand exception for the evening. With five excellent dishes out of six, we considered the evening a rousing success, even if it did lend credibility to the rumors that there are a few clunkers strewn about the menu.

We'd love to return. And we'll be in Baltimore for another 15 months, so who knows, we might even have the chance (I'm looking at you, grandmas and grandpas).

Cinghiale
www.cinghiale-osteria.com
822 Lancaster St.
Baltimore, MD 21202
410-547-8282
Mon - Thu5:30 PM - 10:00 PM
Fri - Sat5:30 PM - 11:00 PM
Sun5:00 PM (single seating)

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