Visiting Vetri

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In 2005 in Bon Appetit magazine,
Philadelphia area native, critic Alan Richman called Vetri “probably
the best Italian restaurant in America.” Having secured a coveted
9PM Saturday evening reservation for four for The Chef's Grand
Tasting Menu, which is only offered on Friday and Saturday evenings,
I was finally able to form my own opinion.

The premise of The Chef's Grand Tasting
Menu, considered by the restaurant to be the epitome of the Vetri
experience, is to create “customized multi-course tasting menus for
each table…a seamless succession of dishes and wines personalized
to each individual's taste.” Each diner is presented a menu,
hand-painted by Chef Marc Vetri, based on available seasonal
ingredients for that particular evening's dinner. From this menu,
with the consultation of the server and the wine staff, the table's
meal would be constructed. At the end of the meal, the signed menu
was ours to keep. Ours contained a total of 11 savory items and 4
desserts. Amongst the 4 of us, we were served 10 of the savory
courses and all 4 desserts, with the specific placement of dishes
determined in several instances by preferences cited at the beginning
of the meal. The lone savory course omitted was “”red mullet with
pepperonata and saffron mayonaisse,” the only fish on the menu.

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Vetri, located in a town house in
Central Philadelphia, is small, intimate and quite romantic. The
dining room is warm and elegant, lending a feeling of being in a
stately private home. The service is assured and efficient, friendly,
but not overly familiar. With warm earth tones and low light
predominating, the restaurant was pretty, but not particularly camera
friendly, thus only photos of a few of the dishes came out well
enough to present here.

For each course with the exception of
dessert and the initial three pronged amuse, which we each received,
two different preparations were presented with one served to one
member of a couple and the other to the other member of a couple. It
amounted to everyone receiving a 15 course meal as my wife and I
tasted each other's savory courses and all four of us tasted each of
the desserts. Serving the meal this way, saved on dinnerware, saved
on plating, saved on wine and saved on time, but it scrimped on
elegance, since it is never as elegant to eat from a plate that has
already been sampled from. Of course, we didn't have to share plates,
but that would have only been half the experience.

The amuse, separated on a long narrow
plate into three sections was mostly forgettable, though I enjoyed
the bit of pork belly more than the other components, one of which
contained foie gras. We were served a glass of prosecco with the
amuse.

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Sliced Pork Butt with Horseradish and Radish Salad

The first platings from the menu
followed a bit after. I received the “Sweet Onion Crepe” over
white truffle fondue with Parmesan while my wife received
house-brined “Sliced Pork Butt with Horseradish and Radish Salad.”
My friend, David and I were the only ones indulging in the wine
pairings, so his dishes tended to mirror my wife's, to enable the
restaurant to present different wines to each of us. Of the first two
dishes, the sweet onion crepe was the more elegant and the more
delicious, a conclusion that would have surprised me, had I done the
ordering for myself. The pork butt was truly nothing special. Had the
pork packed more flavor or nuance, it may have justified its
relatively inelegant presentation, but alas, it did not. I was served
a glass of Domaine de La Patine, 2008 Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire
Valley to accompany the decidedly French feeling crepe.

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Snails with Watercress Crema and
Crème Fraiche

For the next progression I received
“Eggplant Terrine with Salsa Rossa and Marcona Almonds”, while my
wife received a Vetri signature, “Snails with Watercress Crema and
Crème Fraiche.” Although it was highly processed, I could buy the
association of the eggplant dish, which happened to be quite
delicious, with Italy, however, not so on the snails, which once
again felt more French than Italian. Of course, Italy is a large
country with a varied cuisine, so there is plenty of leeway, but
still…. Though considered one of Vetri's classics and a signature,
I failed to find the magic in the dish outside of its pretty
presentation. Flavor-wise, it was surprisingly drab. The Librandi
Ciro Rosato 2008 from Calabria, Italy worked well with the eggplant
as did the remainder of the pairings, even if none truly stood out as
particularly memorable.


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Spinach Gnocchi with Brown Butter and Shaved Ricotta
Salata


Another signature was up next for me,
Vetri's “Spinach Gnocchi with Brown Butter and Shaved Ricotta
Salata.” Finally, here was a dish that clearly had Italian origins.
To me, what separates the best gnocchi from lesser ones is their
ethereal lightness. While delicious, these were anything but light.
My wife was served “Cavatelli with Fava and Truffle Pecorino.” A
subtle dish, it was lighter than the gnocchi, but unfortunately that
additional lightness seemed to come at the expense of flavor.

The level of the food took a
significant turn for the better with the next course. The “Porcini
Ravioli with langoustines” was full flavored, delicious, Italian
and original. I grudgingly gave up half the dish to my wife, but my
hesitation soon turned to joy when I tasted the remains of her
“Rosemary Pappardelle with Lamb Bolognese.” One of my two
favorite dishes of the evening, I now started to get a glimpse of
what all the fuss has been about with this restaurant. The pasta was
ethereal and the bolognese sublime.

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My other favorite dish came with the
next and final savory course. A large double grilled veal chop was
brought to the table for display before returning to the kitchen for
plating and service. I was the beneficiary of Vetri's “Grilled Veal
with Chantarelles,” while my wife, who is not crazy about veal
received “Baby Goat with Soft Polenta.” I got to eat my entire
plating of juicy, flavor-packed veal chop and lovely, earthy
chantarelles and still taste the kid. The kid was tasty, but I
definitely won with the veal. Vetri's charms were becoming clearer
yet.

Unfortunately, my growing sense of
appreciation was knocked back with a lackluster pre-dessert of
strawberry sorbet with black raspberries. This wasn't bad, it just
wasn't anything special. Wonderful things can be done with
strawberries and raspberries, but this was far from wonderful.

I've noticed a trend with some finer
restaurants when trying to show off their dessert capabilities during
degustations. Rather than drawing out the dinner and serving each
diner a taste of each dessert, they take the easy and lazy way out,
by serving each diner a different dessert and having them share by
passing the desserts around the table. That is not so bothersome when
the dining partners are lovers or at the least very close friends,
but what does one do if with casual acquaintances? Fortunately for
us, we were all close friends, so hygiene was not a huge issue, but
still it lacks elegance.

Vetri

Usually, in these situations I wind up
lusting after someone else's dessert, discovering one I liked better
than my own during the pass around. On this occasion, however, that
was not the case. Amongst the “Chocolate Polenta Souffle,” the
“Cherries with Pistachio Zabaione,” the “Blackberry Zuppa
Inglese” and the “Strawberry Zeppole,” my Cherries with
Pistachio Zabaione was the clear winner. Out of the others, the only
real competition came from the souffle. The zeppole was acceptable,
but the Blackberry Zuppa Inglese was boring and totally forgettable.

Make no mistake, Vetri is a fine
restaurant. It is warm, romantic and has fine food, lovely wine and
good, professional service. They also emphasize some of the little
things that help to make a dining experience special, such as the
signed menu, take away muffins and detailed descriptions of the
wines. With all due respect to Alan Richman, though, I do not agree
that Vetri is “probably the best Italian restaurant in America.”
Not even close. While our meal had some notable highs, it had some
distinct lows and far too many simply good dishes to justify that
sort of accolade or even its steep $135/person price tag (add $90pp
for the wine pairing). Overall, I liked my meal, but I can't say that
I loved it.


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