Sfoglia - May 4, 2011
A restaurant should serve good bread, solid bread and decent bread as long as they are serving it because it is, after all, food and not a cloth to wipe the dish with. Regrettably, however, not many establishments seem to agree with this sentiment and continue to serve pale, dry, starchy specimens, perhaps in aid to curb carbo overload.
Sfoglia had exactly the opposite idea and went to the extreme: its bread is divine. As a matter of fact, the bread is of such monumental magnificence, utterly delectable but absolutely disastrous for the guests would simply gorge themselves on the bread alone. If it were an Italian bar with antipasti and affettati, excellent bread may not have been a hindrance, but an attraction; however, not so at a ristorante, and most certainly not at one named “a sheet of uncut pasta.”
Innocuously rustic (or shabby-chic) as the rest of the décor in the restaurant, three hunks of brown bread sauntered over most casually on a plain white plate. The top and bottom crusts of the bread were hard upon touch. Satisfactory. The Patellar Reflex Test, with a spoon not a rubber mallet, produced a deep, hollow sound. Satisfactory, again. However, the testing had to take a premature break at this stage because of the smell of the warm bread was just too irresistible - as mesmerizing as the song of Siren which lured the sailors into the ocean.
So, I bit the bread and I immediately capsized under its spell, and I was lost in oblivion for a few minutes. On the one side of the spectrum, the crust was crunchy as it was brushed with olive oil – the sheen could still be seen as it gently reflected the demure lighting – whose effect was to produce a pleasurable and messy shatter and deliver a savory fragrance of toasted wheat. On the other side of the spectrum, however, the interior was subtly gaseous as if still alive, delicate and impossibly pillowy with large air holes, which released a marvelously yeasty and malty sourness and then seemed to miraculously melt away - the effect of which was like a chewy chiffon cake. The magical experience - from the crispy top and crunchy bottom to the airy and soft inside, and from the savory saltiness to the malty sweetness - had so bewitched me throughout the rest of the meal that I had to keep fighting a tug of war with the bread plate.
The clear and characterless olive oil, served along with the bread, was thus redundant and shameful in front of such magnificence. Even the otherwise fresh and grassy cured olives were pushed aside to make room for the bread. A more disservice a restaurant cannot do to itself: The bread had not only set a dizzyingly high hurdle for the meal, but also diverted the diners’ attention away from the food even before the food had arrived.
Pici - Crab, spring onion, black pepper
The decadently creamy sauce was full of exquisitely fresh crab meat, and thus, not fishy in the least. The surprising use of raw, crunchy spring onions – more common among Asian cuisines – was refreshing, which cut through the thickness of the cream like a spring breeze. The homemade pici were much thinner than the customary hand-rolled, udon-like ropes of the famed Sienese pasta; as a matter of fact, Sfoglia’s pici were simply cut from a sfoglia so that they were more like fettucini. The technicality of the pici notwithstanding, every crimpy strand still withstood the heavy sauce more than adequately, accompanying it all the way without losing out the chewy texture.
Trenne - Ragu di capra, oregano, pine nuts
Despite the boldness of the ragu, a whiff of fruity aroma seeped through, which enlivened the gaminess of the minced goat - reminiscent of the use of lemon in tagine. Browned and crispy bread crumbs – is it that bread? – added a nice textual contrast, while also providing a wholesomeness to the pasta. I had never had goat in pasta, but the real surprise was the shape of the trenne: trenne were penne but shaped like hollowed-out triangular prism, thus tr-enne, not penne. Although several stray trenne were hiding rawness in their corners, the rest of their brothers were cooked al dente; the jutted corners of which were interesting orally as one could feel them as one chewed.
Pappardelle alla Bolognese
This was the richest pasta I had ever had. Bolognese is usually tomato-based; however, at Sfoglia, it was panna-based. The micro-minced chicken livers, pork, veal, lamb and sausages created a true peasant sauce with serious depth. Sfoglia’s recipe of Bolognese, as it originally started, called for a dash of cream before serving. However, in our dish, the dash turned into one-third of the sauce, which made the ragu heavenly for the first three bites, but then the extra fat started to clog the pasta and the artery as it cooled. So did our enthusiasm. I hope it was not because of the late dining hour so that the chef was trying to use up the quota of heavy cream. The Bolognese would have left a more pleasant impression, instead of a sinking heaviness in the stomach, had the chef allowed more tomato for acidity and clarity in the sauce.
The pappardelle itself was perfection, nevertheless.
Chicken al Mattone
Sfoglia had so far managed to have scored many “firsts” – in both favorable and not so favorable ways – but it had added another to the list: This was the juiciest chicken I had ever had in, not only New York, but the star-spangled United States of America. Simply cooked and simply adorned, the fiery chili peppers and the squeeze of lemon were minimalistically elegant. The respectably crispened skin was lovely, giving a nice contrast to the tender thigh. However, minimal seasoning depends on the quality of the meat; in this case, the American chicken itself let the preparation down by being utterly, uncooperatively bland.
Address: 1402 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10128
Phone: (212) 831-1402