Sometimes food writers get invited to preview meals at restaurants that are about to open. These are called Friends and Family Meals, and they are often fascinating and frustrating experiences. Six weeks ago I was invited to one such meal at Dona, the new Southern European (whatever that means) restaurant opened by Donatella Arpaia (of David Burke and Donatella, a good restaurant, certainly, but not one of my favorites) and chef Michael Psilakis of Onera, one of the best restaurants on the Upper West Side of NY.
This meal was, frankly, a disappointment. Mike was trying way too hard to come up with a new approach. The result was overwrought, overthought dishes that sometimes had three too many components or ingredients.
There was one dish that consisted of a puddle of pea soup, a mound of shrimp risotto, a whole shrimp and some fried zucchini. It was two entire meals and four dishes on one plate.
So when a friend invited me back for a meal at Dona last night, let's just say I wasn't exactly looking forward to it. In fact, I was dreading it. The ameuse, or chef's welcoming bite, was interesting but didn't bode well for the rest of the meal. A spoon of perfectly delicious crabmeat was on a plate next to a shotglass of melon soup with some kind of liqueur in it. Our waiter said the chef wanted us to dip the spoonful of crab into the shotglass of soup. I demurred and just ate the crab and drank the cold soup separately. They were both very tasty, but I'm not sure if they belong together.
But to my surprise, the rest of meal was a series of triumphs large and small. My meze course consisted of Ahi Tuna with preserved orange and olives and Botan shrimp with blood orange, red onion & feta. Then I had a delicious sweetbread with some artichokes, amazing chitarra, pasta with eggplant and lamb Bolognese with Sicilian Caponata. Sounds a little overwrought, I know. But it was one satisfying bowl of pasta. Then I had a dry-aged strip steak served with homemade beef lardo (rendered beef fat) and lemon gremolata. The steak itself was perfectly cooked (for me that's medium rare toward rare) and came with delicious bechamel creamed spinach in a filo cup and a grilled onion and feta salad. The not very ripe tomato was the only problem.
My three friends had similarly delicious food: spiced almond-crusted shrimp, cloud-light gnudi (sheep's milk ricotta dumplings), veal canneloni with porcini mushrooms and a black truffle vinaigrette, grilled loin of lamb with baby dandelions and fava beans. There were muti-layered flavors in all these dishes, but for the most part they all added up to something greater than the sum of their parts.
The desserts are still a work in progress. Olive oil and blood orange panna cotta maybe, but not topped with chopped olives. Walnut Thyme gelato needed to have the thyme removed (thyme should be banned from desserts in my opinion).
The four of us all pronounced ourselves happy eaters. Somehow Mike and Donatella had transformed the overwrought food at the preview meal into something delicous and logical (for the most part) in a few short weeks. Dona is at 208 E. 52nd Street, 212-308-0830
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