A Good Chef Is Hard to Find

It's election season: Stephen Asprinio needs your vote

There isn't space here to detail all the food I've eaten beneath the pink lighting and diaphanous curtains at Forté. I've never had a perfect meal from start to finish — inevitably there's the elderflower gimlet missing the nasturtium advertised on the menu, or a bit of rabbit that's been cooked until it dissolves, or a glass of spoiled wine, or a slightly tough bite of meat. But given the highs — an ultra-condensed spoonful of heirloom tomato soup as an amuse bouche, for example — I'm always willing to forgive an occasional gaffe. Because it was a slow night on our most recent visit the chef agreed to serve the five-course tasting menu to just me while my partner ordered from the regular menu — usually the whole table has to order the tasting together. My date was wowed by her appetizer of artisanal spaghetti with lamb meatballs, amatriciana — a spicy pancetta-based tomato sauce — and hot chilies ($16, the entrée portion is $21). The lamb was silky, the pasta dense and textured, the tomato sauce deep and piquant. She followed this extravagant app with an "osso bucco" veal burger ($18), an extra thick sandwich of chopped veal topped with salsa verde, melted fontina cheese, a slice of heirloom tomato and crisp, shoestring "potate fritti" served in a cone. She probably out-ate my five courses with those two generous plates.

The last tasting I sampled was at Mario Batali's Esca in Manhattan. It left me feeling gypped and unfulfilled, primarily because the courses were too similar. Once you fork over your big bucks, a tasting menu ought to delight you with a progression of flavors. There should be unexpected twists and satisfying conclusions — even a bit of humor or whimsy. Asprinio and Liberman's autumn tasting menu is just such an animal, with a clear beginning, middle, and end, in harmony with the season and locale. It begins with that pumpkin soup, followed by butter-poached lobster alongside roasted cauliflower with capers and currants, a silky transition that picked up on the previous soup's vanilla in the cauliflower-vanilla scented foam. There was another effortless transition to the gorgeous sweet onion crespelle, an Italian version of a crepe that combined carmelized onions with red cabbage and gorgonzola, another savory autumnal showstopper. The celery root served with the roasted cap of a beef rib eye that followed, dressed with black truffle vinaigrette, carried this decadent, earthy theme to its conclusion. For dessert: a long slab of chocolate-hazelnut torta with dulce de leche ice cream. But even this heavenly sweet paled next to an incomparable fig and ricotta tart with a dollop of Chianti gelato.

I'd ordered wine pairings with my five-course tasting (an extra $45 and pretty reasonable for five pours), and I was sipping Greek moscato in an empty restaurant on Wednesday night. Forté generally fills up on weekends, but no restaurant can survive too many nights as slow as this one without eventually compromising quality. We need to use it or lose it — if we don't make him a success here, Asprinio is going to take his gaudy ties and his big talent to Vegas or L.A. This election season, let's vote with our feet and keep the current Governor of Clematis Street in place.

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